Ticket Re-Sellers and Scalpers

Trent Reznor wrote a post on his Nine Inch Nails (NIN) forum about re-sellers and scalpers of concert tickets.  In it, he discusses the motivations for TicketMaster to encourage the secondary market for tickets, which leads to scalpers poaching tickets and re-selling to customers at huge mark-ups and at huge inconvenience to them.

As I’m sure you’re familiar with, event ticket purchasing is a scam, the bigger the event is.  Smaller events use an online purchasing framework and charge a usage fee, which you’re somewhat willing to pay because event organizers don’t have the infrastructure to go around middlemen.  But as events get larger, the more likely they’re swept up into TicketMaster’s orbit.  TicketMaster is tightly coupled with the physical venues where events are held, and thus they can control all distribution, access, and promotion.

If someone were so inclined, this subject would probably make for an excellent muck-raking book.  I certainly don’t understand the business and economics behind it but I think most of us can intuit what’s going on behind the scenes.

So Reznor, who put his last album up on his web site for free under a Creative Commons license, and who put his album with Saul Williams up for $5, is pissed off with the music industry labels and monopolists.

And it’s fair to say that most of us are too.  I have not been to many concerts in my life.  The sort of ninja moves you need to obtain tickets are not in my repertoire.  People fight over a small pool of tickets released online at a known time, crushing servers in the process.  Tickets are sold out in minutes.  This certainly incentivizes certain people to game the system, knowing they can re-sell the tickets at a mark-up that companies like TicketMaster benefit from (especially since they apparently own re-sellers, according to Reznor’s post).

TicketMaster is pushing a future of auctions, but this is still a closed system, so essentially all it’s doing is creating more profit for them while letting us see just how much we’re getting screwed in a public arena.

So I just skip out on concerts.  Some bands just plain suck live, anyway.  So the variables required for me to find a concert I can get tickets to while also enjoying and making sure my friends can all go too are too much for me.  I just give up.

Right now with the advent of internet collaboration (through web 2.0/web 3.0 tools) and the success of the change.org movement, a bunch of people are looking to organize to solve systemic problems that have existed since before most of them were born.  A lot of problems were created in the 50’s and 60’s and were institutionalized in people like in my generation:  we grew up buying CDs from Columbia House and seeing a newspaper on our front lawn and watching junk food ads in between our Saturday morning cartoons.  The next generation won’t even know what I’m talking about.

It’s quite amazing to see the problem-solvers approach every entrenched, fucked-up problem out there.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I’m finally reading now, discusses our culture of corn and petroleum.  So people are trying to figure out how to wean our culture off the industrial food complex.

Electricity, oil, and cars go hand-in-hand.  They have promised us cheap solutions but those solutions are going to be far less palatable very quickly.  So people are now excited about solar energy, sustainable living, electric cars, the smart grid, and radically new forms of housing and energy usage to break away from the cartels.

American politics has become somewhat frozen — the Democrats and Republicans for a while became clients to Bush’s administration, both differing very little and unwilling to break too far from what the elite thought was.  So people voted in a candidate using web sites and community organization and grassroots initiatives.  That energy is now being put into transparency and collaboration tools for monitoring the government, and insurgents within Obama’s administration are now wanting to push government data out to the public, after Cheney’s attempt to classify everything.

Universities pay exhorbitant license fees for software and administration tools.  But MIT just decided to open up its scholarly articles for free while people like Kevin Donovan and CNDLS at Georgetown are pushing free tools and OpenCourseWare as alternatives.

Cellphones are notoriously tying together handsets, access providers, spectrum control, and software in the United States.  It’s a very restrictive model.  Google, while out to make a profit, is now testing the limits of the incumbent system with Android, its fairly open system that will work across devices.

Then there’s the busting of cable TV and the advent of online content streaming…  And new journalism models…  And more and more and more.  Information is being distributed faster than organizations can lock it down.  So what’s going on is a war.  And we’re winning.  All these shitty businesses that exist by locking people into a closet and abusing them are now being blown apart by the internet and by peoples’ sharing of ideas.  Facilitated by a brutal economic and financial crisis that no one can avoid.

Concerts are another battleground.  Why can’t music artists successfully organize against companies like TicketMaster?  If more of them worked like Reznor does, eschewing contracts and the desire to maximize profit without any of the negative effects of current ticket-selling schemes, then they could quickly tip the balance.  Wikipedia’s “Ticket resale” page lists alternatives.

Lottery…  Have a period of time where anyone can offer to purchase tickets.  But then winners are randomly selected.  This allows anyone a chance to get in.  Tie it to credit cards.

Authentication…  Print out names and photos on tickets, then verify at the gates.

Float prices…  Obviously some people will pay more.  Let them pay for the front seats, fine.  Float the front-row prices but make everything else lottery.

Distribution…  Must be combined with floating prices.  Bands should see concert tours as a way to promote their brand, not just make a shitload of money from each appearance.  That is, internet stream the concert to all those who couldn’t make it to the venue.  Bands may not want this kind of accountability though, to be judged by the same online viewers through each performance every other night.  But that drives up incentives to produce quality while maximizing potential future customers of your band’s music and product.

Venues…  Venues need the big acts to make revenue.  What if all these abandoned stores and buildings were turned into cheap venues themselves? (they’re already being filled with churches, libraries, and other public centers)  Then you don’t need the mid-size venues anymore.

It’s a war.  A war on the middlemen who begin to enjoy their cut a little too much and try to grow it.  A war on the people who act as gatekeepers between content and consumer.  It’s a war they are going to lose.

The Great Disruption is going to destroy the old infrastructure and build a sustainable infrastructure in its place, one that links value directly with those willing to pay for it.  In time, the middlemen will be back in new forms, but for now, the internet is giving us infinite tools to take control of our lives back.

Future of Web Apps, Miami, 2009

Back last semester, I decided to pony up the resources to travel to Miami to attend the Future of Web Apps conference run by Ryan Carson’s Carsonified.  The ticket cost $200 for just the conference day (the workshop day was on the prior day but cost quite a bit).  It ended up that I had to skip two classes in order to arrive on Monday, get settled in, and make it in time the next morning on Tuesday for the lectures to begin.

So I decided to book a night at South Beach hostel, having learned from my Australia trip never to stay in a hotel if I’m by myself or with a buddy.  It cost only $15/night in Miami Beach, which was across the causeway from where the conference venue was.

Took a shuttle from MIA airport (which is nowhere near as cool as Ft. Lauderdale).  I’m sure there’s a cheaper way to get into town but it sure is a pain in the ass.  Nothing like going to Reagan National from Georgetown…which is a shuttle and a metro ride away, very conveniently.

The hostel was awesome.  Reviews on online hostel sites complained about the recent construction but I didn’t think it was as bad by the time I got there.  I had an 8-person co-ed dorm room.  There were only like 5 of us in there though.

The great thing about hostels is that everyone’s there to hang out and they’re from all over.  One person I met is a forensic linguist in grad school.  His friend is a masseuse from up north.  Another roommate didn’t speak English and I can only assume she was shy and Scandinavian.

I ended up only checking the beach nearby out for a little bit since it was overcast and a little chilly.  Met up with a friend of mine and ate at a cool Cuban joint down the street called Puerto Sagua, a low-key, family-style place with great food that a Miamian at Georgetown recommended to me.  I got the bistec de Palomilla, also on her recommendation, to go with plantains.

After that, I went back to the hostel and ended up hanging out the rest of the night in the lounge/bar area that had a pool table and a great vibe.  My roommates and I played pool and shot the shit until late.

So much more value in a $15 hostel than in a $100+ hotel room, for sure.  If you don’t mind communal bathrooms and bunk beds.

The next morning I checked out and took the public bus across the causeway.  Checked in.

Jason Fried began the day.  He heads up 37signals, a cool company that sells project management web app services like Basecamp and Backpack.

This company is interesting because they keep a small staff and have varied ways of distributing and charging for their products.  Their book, “Getting Real”, is excellent and is available to read free online, but pay if you want a PDF or physical book.  Basecamp lets you run a small project off it but for more features and access, you subscribe.

Fried set the tone early in his talk by contradicting popular startup notions.  For one, he said startups should not see failure as something to be proud of, as many entrepreneurs do.  You should learn from all the small successes you make, not the big failure or big successes.  That is, how did you win these clients?  How did you identify this target base to go after, leading to increased sales?  The small things you learn through experience and not through books or blogs.

Fried said that the oil and lumber industries learned to turn their waste into more successful products.  Sawing wood produced sawdust and wood chips, that became marketable.  Oil by-products allowed for plastics.  So startups should find ways to use the by-products and waste of their main projects to see if they can turn in to products of their own.  I think Basecamp was a result of 37signals needed a project management suite to run their interior operations, for example.

Fried also said he doesn’t believe in giving your service away.  The relationship between a company and a paying customer is key — Fried noted examples of companies that got bought out and then ceased to operate, partially because they had no more responsibility for their users.  This contradicts the belief in advertising and radical freemiumism that is popular now among startups.  Fried believes people will pay for a product they love.

And finally Fried said that if you’re going to hire for a position, you need to know how to do that position in some capacity first.  Else, how would you know what to hire for and who to get?  Are you going to just let HR take over?  What does your business need?  How can you give orders to someone if you don’t know what he does?

So I really liked Fried’s lecture.  He tells you what you don’t want to hear:  charge for your product instead of try to build users first.  He questions assumptions.  He has a good product.

Ben Galbraith of Mozilla and Dion Almaer formerly of Google spoke about four changes coming down the pipe for browsers.  They likened the switch to when AJAX came out in terms of how our web site experience changed.

They talked about Web Workers, which is similar to Google Gears in that it takes scripts out of the browser, which can only really handle one script at a time, and can poll them when needed.  This allows for thread-like browser operation.

They also extolled the virtues of Canvas, which lets you (I assume) create in-browser Javascriptish 3D interfaces using the HTML standard.  So, think gaming. (what is Quake Live using?)

Then they talked about increased rendering capability in the browsers due to optimization, which will mean web apps will respond far faster and allow for things like Photoshop through the web.  And finally they brought up how something like Ubiquity can make browsing a more natural experience for you than “click to go to destination” and have content that doesn’t ever match you.   It’s somewhat like a command line for the web.  An implication of all this is that web apps will be readily converted into native apps as needed.  As Al3x of Twitter said, “They could rename the “Future of Web Apps” conference to “Past of Desktop Apps”. I still wouldn’t go, but they could.”

So our user experience with the web is going to fundamentally change yet again.

Joe Stump of Digg was interesting because he talked about keeping his developer teams small enough in essentially military-squad sizes of 5-6, even if there are far more developers than that.  It keeps them in the loop with each other.  Stump also advocated any project using a code repository and keeping a consistent documentation style, along with e-mail addresses to claim blocks of code.  Stump says developers are meant to be lazy…they know they can automate something with code so they don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Aza Raskin talked about Mozilla Weave — your “state” follows you from desktop to cellphone, as an example.  He calls for Tabs 2.0, a breakthrough in our still clunky tab management as many of us keep 10+ tabs open in our browsers now.

Dave Morin and Josh Elman promoted their company, Facebook, with Facebook Connect, which looks like Facebook is now allowing you to link any site to your vast (hopefully) Facebook friend network/social graph, thus immediately populating a new account with any of your friends also on the service.  This is a great change from the past where friend networks on each site take ages to develop.

The implications for what Facebook is doing are staggering.  They are creating a massive data feed of your social graph so you can employ your friends in participating in your life, your causes, etc.  At the same time, Facebook will eventually start letting you promote products to your friends (Beacon) across various networks, bringing in serious cash.  All this while we spend hours doing social grooming on Facebook with our friends, sharing more and more content with less and less concern about privacy.

It’s no wonder Facebook is taking over in countries all over the world, even against steadfast competition.

FOWA did this lameass panel on diversity on the speaker tour at one point.  It was good to see Chris Messina up there, a huge advocate for OpenID and also pushing for co-worker, providing shared spaces for people to be creative…  Kristina Halverson was also on the panel, after giving what was really a pretty boring speech on creating good copy.  Halverson was complaining about the lack of women at the conference and speaking on stage.  Wow, really?  You mean at a coder/developer conference, there aren’t many women?

I agree that there are awesome female coders and women working in Web 2.0.  Fine, great.  And to be honest some of them are more famous than most of the men…  So why aren’t they speaking?

Maybe specifically finding women to speak is something to keep in mind for the conference, but how about just finding entertaining, informative people?  It’s only a day of talks.

If you want to talk about gender equality and inclusivity, the conversation should be around earlier programs to get kids into engineering and math and science.  The rest of the fucking argument is moot.  Coders don’t disrespect women…they want to work with whomever can get the job done.

After a brief lunch there was a Phizzpop contest.  The first team of three guys created a Kiva-like funding site for space research.  It had a great Flash interface, funny video, good presentation.  These guys couldn’t have been very old.  The second team was made up of these old guys and their presentation was flat.  Wiry, blocky graphics, no coherent business strategy or model, trying to get astronauts and Twitterers to talk and share photos in space?  The presenter was horrible and said nothing of value.  The first team won, no contest!

One thing I think is interesting is how pro the web community is with slideshows.  If you’ve ever seen a military PPT or business PPT, you know how BORING they are.  300 slides of 100 words per slide.  Miserable…no fun.

But you get startup and web people, who are so used to pitching ideas and having fun, and you get these slick, fast-moving presentations that are engaging and interesting.  Something cool I noticed.

Joel Spoelsky gave a great talk on how he thinks attracting talent is the main aspect you should focus on.  Don’t skimp on the code or you’ll get a skimpy product.  To get great talent, pay up for it.  And buy good equipment for them, like adjustable desks and Herman Miller chairs.  Give the developers private offices around the business floor so they minimize distractions.  Developers die with every interruption; they need privacy to store lots of variables and thoughts in their short-term memory while coding.  Leave them be.  Only have meetings right after lunch to minimize distraction periods.  Coders only need to feed once a workday.  Closed door means no talkie.  Have a team lunch every day in the office’s kitchen at long tables to promote a good work atmosphere.

Alex Hunter from Virgin gave my favorite talk of the day about Brand 2.0.  You could tell he’s been talking with Gary Vaynerchuk a lot because both of them are always going on about going out there and ripping it and killing it when it comes to promoting your business and engaging your customers and fans.  They’re so animated when talking about ways to engage and interact.  How do you get a consumer to love you?  Then Hunter previewed the new Virgin web site that will affect all of Richard Branson’s properties.  The site has a sort of reputation system and virtual currency and rewards you for contributing to it.  Pretty cool!  I love to see that level of interaction with the customer…  He announced that Richard Branson and Ryan Carson and Gary Vaynerchuk would be blogging on the new Virgin site.  That’s a LOT of passion right there in those names.

Makes me desire even more to have my own web startup and spend much of my day engaging customers!  That was the goal of this conference, for myself:  to get myself totally psyched to work.  As if I weren’t enough already…

After Hunter finished his great talk, I had to leave.  I caught a cab to the airport and suffered a gate change and muzak.  MIA airport really is bad.  And I missed the launch of 280atlas (interface to quickly make web apps) and Gary Vaynerchuk, who’s always hyper and always awesome.  He finished off the day and judging by the FOWA tweets, everyone was loving what he had to say.  [edit:  here’s his video] But I had a great (but brief) time, even missing all that.

Bottom line, I learned a hell of a lot, and seeing these people in person made it more personal to me.  Seth Godin would call it seeking to be part of the tribe.  I can’t afford to go to any more of these things, and I am not friends with any of the people involved yet, but perhaps that will change.  For now, though, I felt it was an awesome, informative trip for a multi-disciplinarian who’s studying international affairs and international development.  It was invaluable to see where the future of things is going.

Idea for a Georgetown MSFS Start-Up Fund

Hi.  I am currently a second-year student in the Masters of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University.  The program is housed within the School of Foreign Service, one of the best international affairs programs and international development programs in the world.  A list of alumni is at Wikipedia.

I am considering an idea to develop a start-up fund or foundation or some other type of organization within the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown that picks people, not ideas.

Start-Up Competitions

I have a problem with the way start-up competitions are run right now.  Currently, the model is that the best ideas are supposed to win.

But what often ends up happening is that the most previously successful or most monetizable “ideas” win.

That is, some competitions choose a beauty contest format, in which those who make the best business plan win.  This model is flawed, because business plans for early-stage ideas are usually full of made-up vapor numbers, and plans for later-stage companies are usually already financially successful or well on their way.  So of course the latter ideas make it while the earlier ones do not.  Sometimes having the best business plan just means the founder took a class in how to write a sexy, cosmetically-appealing one.  Hence, “beauty pageant”.

What can also happen is that the “ideas” selected in a contest just aren’t that compelling.  This comes from the obvious fact that if an idea was so brilliant, no one else would have thought of it before and probably wouldn’t understand the impact of the idea itself until it was proven.  Renting movies by mail?  A free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit?  A street-level Indian organization that lets streetkids dial in with their problems?  These things aren’t sustainable, monetizable, or realistic, right?

Wrong.  Netflix, Wikipedia, Childline.

Many final-round selectees are incremental improvements on marginally interesting/useful products that were already successful.  So funding these grinder ideas is not really selecting a “great idea” at all.  The biggest ideas can sometimes be “ah hah, that’s so easy!” ideas, but I think more often than not, the ideas that really change things do not make sense to people until much later.

And in fact I would go a step further and say that these paradigm-shift ideas do not occur in a vacuum.  They are the products of great minds.  Much is made of the professor at Stanford who passed not only on Yahoo! but on Google as well.  They weren’t obvious winners initially, but Brin and Page and Yang and Filo went on to do great things like Google.org.  Omidyar at eBay took an idea that people thought would fail against Amazon and has gone on to do philanthropy work.

People still don’t understand Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook but he has the potential to completely control the online social world.

So it is these people who envision what the future is going to look like…  It is not that they happened on an idea by luck and never innovated again.

So why do start-up competitions vote on ideas and not people?

Start-Up Competitions Judged by Start-Ups

I felt as though TechCrunch 50 was a pretty successful start-up contest.  It achieved success through collaboration and openness.  If I recall correctly, the top 50 ideas were voted in by the TechCrunch reader base.  This introduces some serious problems such as bandwagoning and successful block voting campaigns, but it might help to reduce the chaff.  It also doesn’t get rid of the “understanding bias”; a truly large idea may be misconstrued or misunderstood, or a bad idea may hide a truly gifted entrepreneur.

The top 50 ideas pitched their products live at a conference to a panel of serial entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs, and people really knowledgeable in the start-up/web space.  All of this was beamed over the web, and the ideas had web pages put up with reviews of their products.  The feedback was given to them by the panels and through online comments.

Start-Up Literature

What’s funny is a lot of the start-up literature out there spends a lot of time talking about how good the founders of an idea are.  Are those people the type that it takes to be a start-up leader?  Do they have good breadth of knowledge?  Inventiveness?  Adaptability?  Charisma?  The desire to work one’s ass off for a few years before ramping their business up?

In some cases, the literature says that angels and VCs and whatnot will often fund something on the basis solely of its founder and on the idea secondarily if at all.  They know that a good founder will make just about anything work.

So why does it come back to ideas and not the people behind them?

Georgetown MSFS’s Role in the Ecosystem

I think Georgetown MSFS has a unique position; it is placed in DC (a massive swirl of politicians, interns, NGO do-gooders, lobbyists, start-ups, consultants, activists, city dwellers, culture-lovers), is built into a fantastic school with an undergraduate base, has a powerful Jesuit tradition of erudition and moral value system that values diversity, and pumps out graduates who end up doing some of the craziest, most innovative, bizarre, important things you’ve never imagined.

In terms of its competition, MSFS doesn’t have many peers in terms of having fascinating people doing politics.  Johns Hopkins SAIS is closer to downtown but seems to be more applied economics.  Where do SAIS grads show up?  I don’t know…I don’t read about them often except that Tim Geithner just got nominated for Treasury.  George Washington, American, and George Mason are also fine schools but don’t dominate politics quite the same way Georgetown does.  As a caveat I should add that I’m amazed that the calibre of people who move out of these schools — DC truly is a place where anyone you meet on the street ends up being just the most fascinating person.

Schools outside DC (Columbia, Harvard, Yale, etc.) are also extremely good — don’t think I’m taking anything away from them — but they’re not as positioned for what I propose.

A Start-Up Fund for People

So Georgetown, which has a long tradition of truly singular models of virtue, ingenuity, and innovation, could build into its School of Foreign Service an organization that identifies the future possible leaders and issues them a challenge:  start up a company or organization that has the potential to help lots of people.  Instead of funding an idea, you fund a person.  The scope could be limited to social entrepreneurship, and/or to a “social business” model which does not pay out to shareholders but instead reinvests profits into helping more people.  This may be optional; while ideas shouldn’t be limited, you don’t want some SNAFU like this one guy I listened to on a panel once who, in response to “What do you want to do with your life?” answered “I want to create a new financial derivative.”  That was back in 2007 before the financial crisis began.

The fund would support the person enough to live for a certain duration of time, with further money allotted for a company space and, depending, money to hire outside help (like a programmer or two) if it can’t be crowdcoded.

The person could of course recruit other people from the campus or partner with other people chosen by the fund.  People wouldn’t have to apply to be selected — they could be nominated by others.  Any barriers to entry such as long admission applications would be minimal, so that those who are discouraged by doing yet more stupid paperwork for something they may not even have a chance for won’t be discouraged.

Heck, encourage an online standardization:  use LinkedIn for online résumé collection.

A Commons

A further addition to this is providing these people with a commons, as I described in an “Internet Commons Business Idea” post on my reputation research blog.

This would be a common area with laptops, large meeting tables, whiteboards, projectors, office supplies, everyone you need to bring a team together and brainstorm and code and do business, fit with phones, business address, full facilities and services.  Any empty office space can be rented for this purpose.  It doesn’t have to be much — just a place where a founding team can work together in an open area…and even collaborate with other teams.

The Final Piece:  Leveraging Politics

In the same way that Stanford seems to be the nexus for new web start-ups and Harvard/MIT seem to be the braintrusts for a lot of new start-ups and academic projects and research, Georgetown could become the hotspot for political start-ups.  There’s been much talk of Government 2.0, or bringing the US government into the Web 2.0 world of online collaboration.  There’s no greater concentration of activists, lobbyists, NGOs, NFPs, etc. than DC (Geneva?).  Not only is there a massive network of inspired minds here in DC, but they are also somewhat idealistic, risk averse, and willing to do something bold in order to effect change.

Sounds like the perfect place for start-up culture to me.  Combine this with a vibrant Georgetown political life — not the cocktail-drinking elite as John McCain thumbed his nose down upon — but hard-working, innovative, entrepreneurial Georgetown figures and personalities.  You have tons of personalities to choose from to help found this new start-up fund.

What Do We Get?

The end result is a closer approximation to how great ideas actually are made successful.  Choose great people:  you know from your circles of people which ones are always thinking of solutions to problems.  They may be the kinds who just have the energy and risk adversity to go out and start a new company.  They may just be really efficient at small projects.  At any rate, I don’t think these people are that secret.  Some people are start-up people, others aren’t.  Give them time to develop a project and maybe they will come up with a better idea than pure beauty-contest-business-plan start-up competitions can.

Certainly other organizations do something similar to this:  Ashoka, Skoll Foundation, Omidyar.  But an MSFS fund could focus on its core strengths:

  • Utilizing the Georgetown campus, network, and Washington, DC political social sphere
  • Building a core around awesomely diverse, eccentric, and productive students, alumni, and faculty
  • Funding key people, not necessarily ideas
  • Focusing on solving social problems in keeping with Georgetown/Jesuit tradition
  • Incorporating Georgetown’s unparalleled insight into international affairs, policy issues, international development, and interdisciplinary research.

Who else can compete with us there?

I don’t know.  I just think this way makes a lot more sense to how humans innovate.  And I think Georgetown’s atmosphere is one of the few places where that energy could really be supported flourish as part of the community.

[Extra reading:  entrepreneur hotels]

My Tech Policy Memo to President-Elect Obama

For my excellent “What’s Shaping the Internet?” class with Professor Michael Nelson, we had to write a 6-page memorandum to either President-Elect Obama, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, or some other organization head, using three main policy points.

I chose to advocate for an innovation commons, a push for open-source government interfaces, and a national identity system.

I posted the memo online at Scribd, which hosts my other academic papers as well.  Scribd is awesome — it embeds papers within Flash so you can see the original format, and also export to PDF or crowdshare it. I would embed it here but WordPress.com doesn’t let you embed most content. =(

Again, READ THE MEMO HERE.

I know that my memo does not have a conclusion. =)  I opted to leave the explanation to the executive summary, so it’s not a proper structure…  Memorandums are sometimes the hardest papers to write, because they need to be very brief, concise, and appealing.  That’s why our program stresses it so much.  But I strayed from it here.  Hopefully the content carries the weak structure.

What the Memo Said

My logic in the memo was that the government should create an innovation- and business- enabling environment by ensuring universal broadband access, net neutrality, a hybrid public commons/privately auctioned spectrum, and increased R&D with clustering through universities and companies.

After we get more people online and collaborating, we can call upon them to help build and inspect open-source applications to allow everyone to interface with the government more efficiently as befitting a digital 21st century.

And finally I called for a national ID system to help unify all the databases, ensure personal privacy and access controls, and allow us to fix our own information and use it better within the government.

The national ID system would use a social reputation system, part of which I’m hoping to create through my start-up, Galapag.us — see the research blog if you haven’t already.

Inefficiencies: Everywhere

I have this running series of posts grouped into “Inefficiencies”, where I want to look at really poorly-run business sectors and figure out how to attack them if I were an entrepreneur in their space.  Thanks to the US’s infatuation with “free markets”, which really means protected corporatism these days, there’s a litany of examples of shitty practices that are deserving to be over-run:  cable TV (which my buddy MonkeyPope just got rid of now that there are just so many substitutes like Hulu and Netflix and free downloads from the content owners themselves), US government foreign language preparedness, and near and dear to our hearts these days:  cars.

I keep coming back to Clay Shirky’s amazing video on the “cognitive surplus”:

Shirky describes the “cognitive surplus” as all the hours of thought unlocked as people move from passively watching TV or listening to radio and now doing things like adding edits to Wikipedia or gaming online with other people.

He goes on to say that the internet is so much more enticing because it’s interactive, whereas before it was the content providers who determined what we were allowed to do.

And now that we have a taste for this level of interaction, we’re going to go out and “carve out” a bit of the cognitive surplus to look for interaction in all those areas we previously passively accepted what we were given.

So, where am I going with this?

Airports

Airports are the fucking worst.  They are like life’s black holes.  Thanks to the wonderfully competent TSA, we now spend a majority of our time at the airport circumnavigating various security roadblocks.  This is already after we paid quite a lot of money to get a flight we probably weren’t completely satisfied with, on an airline we know we hate but are willing to save bucks on to fly with.

We get through security eventually and then we’re stuck in a strip mall of shitty restaurants and tchotchke stores.  We couldn’t bring in liquids to drink, so we have to go buy those.  What’s the worst is that we can’t even use wifi for free to escape from the misery that is waiting for a flight!!  Crying babies, countless intercom messages, other passengers frazzled about their strained flights.

And we have to pay a fortune just to log on.  The airports in their wisdom have whored out to access providers who grant us very generously access to 24-hour accounts (because we plan on being there for 24 hours, right?) for a low price of $15.

Hope you brought a book or iPod or feel like using EVDO or 3G on your iPhone.

Government Offices

Need to renew your paperwork at the DMV or the election office or get a visa?  Get ready to wait in long lines with nothing to do.  The government always provides buildings with a nice sterile, fluorescent-lighted linoleum feel to it, as you’re helped by workers who are just so tired of dealing with your type.  The worst part is that you know exactly what you need to do and what needs to happen, but you have to wait for a gatekeeper to process you.  And probably enter typos in your information at that.

Restaurants

The whole routine and ritual of not being able to make reservations at a place, then waiting around for a table to open, if you didn’t go somewhere else instead, and then figuring out how to provide enough cash from ten different people to pay up is such a rigamarole.

It’s tough to fault waitstaff sometimes for not attending to your every need, but it would be nice to be able to pass along your requests electronically so that they can prioritize their tasks and respond to customers without actually being there.

Looking for the Mouse

Shirky calls the internetification of everything else a process of “looking for the mouse”, a metaphor he explains he got from his kid who saw a TV and tried to find the computer mouse to use it.  His kid wasn’t happy just watching the TV.

Well, I think it’s about time we found the fucking mouse in places like airports, government offices, and restaurants.

We should be able to use the internet in an airport and on the plane for free.  Allow advertising on individual monitors on the planes or something to help subsidize it.  I don’t know.  We should have a bill of rights for being passengers on planes.  We should be able to expect open, transparent ticket pricing.  Why do airports sit idle all night instead of running flights 24 hours a day?  I’d be willing to fly early in the morning if it meant less bullshit.

Why can we still not vote online?  Why can’t we request edits to our government-held information online instead of heading to the office to stand in line?  Why do we need visas to go to allied countries?  Why are most government actions still requiring laborious procedures in person conducted by overworked staff?  We’re sitting on the greatest social media tools to ever be available to a government to allow its many citizens to take action and make an online system that works, and we still insist that things be done the old way.

We should be able to order electronically from our tables, see how much our orders are, pay individually by selecting what we ate, and request special or extra things from the staff, including sending compliments to the chef.  If eating out is such a social ritual, why are we locked in to seeing a host and a waiter?  Why don’t more restaurants embrace online marketing, having better menu web sites and more engagement with the community?

Entrepreneurship

I think entrepreneurs should focus on these questions and figure out how to solve them and take advantage of them.  There’s just so many inefficiencies out there that it’s a massive opportunity but also just incredibly disappointing.  People have come to expect the worst when they have to interact with these gatekeepers, but really the gatekeepers could fully embrace the new stuff become darlings of their customers.

We’re in the midst of a financial crisis that is still not resolved, and it’s causing a lot of pain to large, bloated, anti-competitive sectors of the US economy that refuse to change.  Automotive, media, telecommunications, publishing, pharmaceutical, industrial…all the things that worked in the past, no longer work quite as well.

This is a condemnation of current American “competitiveness”.  We better get our fucking heads in the game and figure out that we need to massively revamp our innovative capacity and challenge all our old assumptions, because right now we’re a rotting mess of dying companies that are begging for bailouts from a government infiltrated by failed businessmen under Bush’s corporatist regime.

Have any more places of inefficient misery that need fixing?  Comment below!

Emergence of New Systems

Last week the National Intelligence Council released its 2025 Global Trends report and naturally our Georgetown MSFS program was pretty interested in looking at it.  The report considers what the major themes and trends will be of the next couple decades and assesses how they will affect different countries, power structures, and ideologies.

It must have sucked for the NIC because at first the report was issued at 33MB and didn’t seem to be uploaded correctly.  It wasn’t until this weekend that the report was fixed and was only 8MB to download.  Lost a lot of readership that way.

Some of the report’s assessments I didn’t exactly agree with.  I felt that it sold international institutions short, saying countries and regions would seek pragmatic concerns — a return to a “mercantilist” and realist perspective — over recommitting to international institutions.  At the very least I think it’s up in the air on that count; Obama’s presence alone (see his calm, thoughtful interview on 60 Minutes) might bring people back to the table, especially with Europe seeking to reassert itself in the midst of its own internal problems with population and economic stagnation and with filling a power vacuum from America’s absence the last 8 years.

Read More »

Enlarging the Playing Field

Tonight I was watching 60 Minutes and they were running a story on Obama’s advisors and how they managed the campaign.  Anita Dunn, the communications, research, and policy advisor, said of David Plouffe, the campaign manager:  “David’s mantra was that we were gonna enlarge the playing field.”

This struck me.  The idea was that the campaign was going to go everywhere it could in the United States to inspire a grassroots campaign of alienated voters who wanted someone to connect to.  It would go to states no one thought Obama could win in, just because there was a substantial number of people not previously involved in elections.  These people could be harnessed to campaign for Obama, become neighborhood captains, go door-to-door to get votes.  Morever, Obama recognized that these people WANTED to do so, whereas Obama’s adversaries just thought they were all politically lazy.  Obama was the example of a leader people wanted, and this brought out all these voters that the Clinton and McCain campaigns neglected.  Obama’s advisors, in fact, mention how well Obama responded as a leader, through calmness and thoughtfulness and consistency of purpose, and how that made all aspects of the rest of his campaign easier.

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How Bush and Obama Have Shaped My Last Eight Years

Thankfully, the eight years of Bush rule are almost over.  It has been a dark period for the American soul, spirit, and Dream.  Here is a synopsis of the Bush presidency years as seen through my life, documented through my web site and blog.

Pre-Dubya

In 2000, my mind certainly wasn’t thinking about international terrorism, financial crises, gas prices, or the like.  According to my site’s news archives from 2000, when I was 22, the most important topics in my life at that point were Napster and the dotcom bubble.  The bubble had not yet burst, although it started having some rough days.  Oil was hovering around $25-40/barrel.  I had just graduated from college and went to Italy with my dad, and France with my mom.  The dollar was strong and the Euro would continue to get weaker until about 2002, facilitating American travel abroad.  I would daytrade the market for another year and a half.

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The Digital Africa Surprise

For my African Development class, I was required to write a 15-page paper on some aspect of African economic development. I chose to write about converging factors, such as the east coast Africa backbone coming online, the cloud, and cheap online tools, contributing to a surprising boom in African digital connectedness to occur in the next decade. Will people be paying attention?

Read my INAF-450 Paper 1:  “The Digital Africa Surprise”.

[I’ve also converted the paper to Google Docs if you’d like to read it. (and here’s the .doc format).]

Ten Years of Soapbox Essays

A little while ago I made my Soapboxes available again. I had made them private and had removed some posts because my unit commander while we were deployed to Iraq did not approve of my posting information about my experiences in Iraq.

But I decided to make them public again (offending posts removed and operational security taken into account) because to be quite frank, it is an extensive history of where I’ve come from since I started writing regularly on my site in 1995.

I had been using the web a little earlier than that and had started posting some small news tidbits on my web page, but the Soapbox became a formalized weekly rant on different topics.

Once PHP and mySQL became standardized, I was able to convert my individual essays into a database and template format. This shift towards databases on the internet fundamentally changed the way we use the web. Data became easier to manipulate and to display. Tools such as blog software and stat trackers came out that let people with absolutely no design or coding skills start to write on their own within minutes, while allowing designers to perfect the design templates. This was huge.

So I had to hand-convert about 250 essays into a database format. I didn’t quite finish doing the same with all the Soapboxes, which ended up being 373 total. It was highly labor-intensive. It was one of several complete site upgrades I had to do, since web standards were changing so rapidly.

For the statistics I have on the 250ish posts, as displayed on the Soapbox homepage, I wrote over 360,000 words. I wrote about the early days of the web, about life in college, about the 2000 elections, about the dotcom bubble and its subsequent collapse, and about post-9/11 and eventually about deciding to enlist in the Army. I was very young. And in over my head. But the fact that kids were able to use such advanced (but crude) tech was pretty fucking hot.

I find it interesting that my very first post was about the Telecom Decency Act of 1995. Obviously I didn’t know how to dissect the policy issues the way I could now, but for a kid of the digital age, even then I was thinking about the future of the internet.  As it turned out, amidst all the controversy about this act, Section 230 was added, and still exists to this day, absolving content providers of liability for third-party user content.  That meant that ISPs couldn’t be sued because John Doe decides he wants to post something defamatory or illegal on his blog.  This in part led to the explosion of user-generated content and blogging, a large influence in my life online.

At the end of the first year, I wrote a Christmas wishlist for things I’d like to see on the internet. There were plenty of problems online back then, but no one had any clue that we’d see things like cloud computing, blogs, wifi (which is still a significant obstacle), advanced spam filtering, and social networking. It’s just awesome to see how far things have come since just 1995.

Anyway, check the Soapbox out. I spent a lot of my time writing instead of socializing during high school and college and it shows. But it’s a large corpus and one I’m rather proud of, even if it’s led to some pretty embarrassing moments of naivete and ignorance.