Monday, November 12, 2007

Hard questions

I few months ago I was at a Christian music festival, Spirit West Coast in Monterey. While out and about, we were collared by a roving pastor/organizer. They were sending bibles to the troops in Iraq and they wanted people to sign them to add a personalized touch and some encouragement. I might have blown them off but Angie wanted to do one together. So I took the first turn, opened up the front flap, readied my pen... and sat.

And sat.

I quickly realized that I never think about Iraq as anything other than a news item, safely Over There. Which is just how they want it, right?
Then I noticed that must surely be upper middle class because I could count on one hand the number of people I know from my high school class that have served there.

This bible could easily go to a combat soldier on the front lines, i.e. the entire country of Iraq. What could I possibly say to such a person?
I'm sorry you're there, fighting an unneeded war?
I admire your bravery and/or insanity in the face of danger and death?

I finally settled for 'May this book bring you some hope through the danger and darkness you face. I hope you return home safely and soon.'

Throughout it all, Todd Agnew was playing 'Peace on Earth', which was far too appropriate for comfort.

I was reminded of this all recently, when I head an NPR piece by a journalist who's father had been killed in Vietnam. She was continually bothered by people who would say 'what a waste' and completed her GI-funded education partially just to prove them wrong.
Seeing as how Iraq is our new Vietnam I hope we have learned how to treat our soldiers better this time around. From what I have heard pacifists during the last war treated them like crap, like it was their fault. This treatment sounds ironically combative, failing to refute the 'us vs them' mentality that enables conflict. Our political commanders ignored the historical lessons of Vietnam. Let's hope we civilians can react better.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Riches and Fame-ishness

I went to a mixer at Facebook a few weeks ago, (yes that Facebook). CEO Mark Zuckerberg was there in flip-flops and an Arm and Hammer t-shirt. It's funny how someone so close in age can be in such a different world.
I was so certain that he wouldn't be there I hadn't bothered to think of what I would say. I asked him a question about using Facebook as a platform for politics but I don't think he understood my full implications and I was too flustered to explain. In retrospect, I wish I had asked him one thing: How much has being rich and famous changed the way your friends treat you?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Names are just words, words, words

It's not an assumption I've really examined before, but why do we have names?

Names are just a string of characters that may or may not have a literal meaning in some language. Sure, names used to convey information such as personality attributes or occupation, but that time is long past. The only thing names seem to convey these days is a general indication of your ethnic heritage. Even their primary purpose as a unique identifier of a person is slowly losing effectiveness; I know of another person with my exact first and last name that lives within 100 miles of me, and both my names are uncommon to rare.

My primary conclusion is that we have names precisely because we cannot vocalize mental images of faces. However, computer networks are making it extraordinarily easy to broadcast images these days, and even live videos. Will this make our textual names less important?My guess is no. Rather, as the world reaches into 10s of billions of people, every opportunity to distinguish ourselves from eachother will be needed.

It seems certain that our individual identities, whether in a face or a name, will continue to shrink in importance next to abstract concepts and large organizations. Yet, it is through our relationships with other individuals that we build our identities and derive meaning.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Aim of "Web 3.0" - Capturing Human Context

Given that the aim of the Internet is to deliver information, or perhaps to deliver it with more ease than other sources, I have been wondering how it might be improved.

My conclusion is that the biggest informational challenge is no longer "What is the answer to my question?" but "What question should I ask to find something useful in [a given area]?"

This meta-question is not provided by traditional informational services (encyclopedias, search engines, etc.) because it contains a value judgment; information sources have no business telling you what to pursue or be interested in.
Instead by this role is traditionally filled by friends, family, communities, research tanks and even business competitors. Most of these entities now have varying degrees of presence online and yet many of my informational searches are first prompted by things I hear directly from other people.
Mostly want what we want is trusted expertise: deep knowledge, created through experience and backed by reputation. After all, if you knew one or more such people for a given topic, would you ever bother with an Internet search? Of course not!

We don’t really want a network of web pages, we want a network of people that have made their information available on web pages.

(The publishing of knowledge is key here because is makes the system scalable in a way that 1 to 1 conversations are not.)
Now consider the main problems of finding experts on the Internet: you don’t know who they are, you don’t know how deep their expertise is and you don’t know if you can trust them.
Each step has a cost of time and further reduces your final pool of experts that you will listen to. Each step also takes more time than the last, perhaps exponentially more, unless that meta-information about the search is shared with you by others. Trust is the most costly hurdle of all.
These steps are also true for off-line searches as well. In Economics they are called transaction costs: expenditures (usually of time) that must be made before any trade can be conducted. Since each trade by definition makes both parties better off, enabling more is better for everyone. The Internet is celebrated for reducing transaction costs, but I think it has a ways to go yet.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The purpose of government

This is not entirely my idea; call me silly but it's partially inspired by some Terry Pratchett novels. As I see it:

"The primary purpose of government is to prevent rapid change."

Examples: Protecting the citizenry, defending the nation, preventing civil wars, upholding property rights, disaster recovery, maintaing a stable currency, preventing severe market flucatations, providing due process...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

something silly

Phone conversations from the next room:

"Green! Green!"


"Hay, hot Orange-blue?"

"Gold. Gold."

"Gray, black's peat."

"Ochre, gold-brown."

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Zero-sum "games" and Critical Mass

In both my studies and recreation I have often come across a universal question of life: for any given situation where there is a declared 'winner', why did that person or group win? This becomes an especially crucial question because some "games" are played for all the beans; most notably war and politics.
History books are the common venue for learning about these subjects and yet they are often merely a showcase of winners. Historians generally start with the victorious conclusion and then research backwards to find its causes. However, in doing so they can critically misrepresent the rules of such zero-sum games, which appear pre-destined in retrospect but are usually not at all.
Rather, they are an exercise in building critical mass. From presidential campaigns to military ones, the race to critical mass is the story of humanity's most epic struggles. The pivots of history turn at the point when some outcome or string of events convince a sufficient plurality of people that one side is winning. From that point the greater majority will seek to gain benefit by aligning themselves to the perceived winner, which in turn reinforces their lead status.
Therefore the first question "Why do I want to play this game?" is closely followed by "What are the rules?" and "What are the possible strategies for reaching critical mass?"

Saturday, March 17, 2007

How the world works

Philosophies of Traffic and World Politics

The other day as I sat in traffic I Figured Out How the World Works.
It came to me as I lingered in another pocket of classic Silicon Valley congestion. I realized that I knew a better way. Pulling to the right, I rode an almost empty lane to next off-ramp and proceeded along various side streets until I had passed the majority of the slowdown. I came out with an extra ten minutes and an inflated sense of self-esteem.
However, the important thing is that I had become a long-term actor. By this I mean a few things:
  • I knew where to get current information and how long it would stay relevant. Before leaving work I had checked a traffic site, I knew where the slowdowns had been half an hour ago and could approximate from experience where they might be now. Also I had another backup source of information, a rival site
  • I knew what the options were. Having been traveling to the same location everyday for months now, I had investigated side streets around places where traffic backed up, using both maps and trial and error.
  • I had detailed knowledge of my options such as their risks, rewards and chances of success. I knew where the lanes often slowed down, which lights were long and what time the traffic got heavy.
  • I was able to synthesize the information rapidly by recognizing patterns I had observed before and remembering successful or failed responses. Taking into account the newest information, this allowed me to take an informed risk and change course.
Why does all this matter? Because people by nature are long-term actors.
This may seem obvious to those of you who are already long-term actors yourselves, but I think many young people do not yet understand it. Yet it is critically important because it determines how the majority of the decisions in the world are made.

The characteristics of long-term actors show up perhaps the most in the realm of politics. This makes sense because politics is, at its essence, the process of allocating resources.
Any organization, be it a nation, state or even a local club has a certain amount of resources at its disposal. (Time and money are the primary ones. We can ignore knowledge because we assume that long-term actors have it.) Furthermore, the larger an organization is, the more slowly its set of resources will change. A club might double in size overnight, but the same magnitude of change in an entire nation takes decades. Therefore politics has inherent potential for conflict because today's resources are finite and their uses are not.

The goal in politics, business and most other facets in life is generally to do a little better today than you did yesterday. More importantly, you want to be doing as well (or better) next week as you were today. Leaving aside discussion on whether or not this is a good goal, it is indeed how most people operate.

Coming back around, a fresh-faced youngster will not immediately understand the current state of things, i.e. how the world works today because they do not have knowledge of how things
used to be. All the people making decisions today view their choices through the lens of their own unique past. Experience forms opinion and opinion forms action. People seek to protect what they have. The only real incentive to change falls on those who have nothing and those who are losing what they do have. More than anything, this explains why young people are known for idealism and old people are known for conservatism.

So, next time you are baffled by how the world works just remember that everyone else has already done this before. Your job is to learn the rules of the game. Do that first, and then we can talk about how to change them.