Posted by: Ben | March 12, 2010

Sharing, Privacy, and Attention

It’s become a common occurrence in my daily conversations with people that I’m told, “You’re more trusting of social media than I am”.  This sentiment is meant to convey that people value their privacy and that they don’t think everyone should share information about themselves, most of which is considered irrelevant.  That I am “trusting” means that they don’t share in my beliefs about the potential for social media and social networking.

Far from being isolated to only my intelligence and security friends, this permeates itself into all my relationships.  Even with people I know who work with computers and who I know online are actually quite secretive and think sites are “stupid”.  “Stupid” and “pointless” are common descriptors.

I have close friends who make no bones about telling me how much they dislike seeing people using social networking.  However, telling me this is the equivalent of me saying, “I think the fact that you like playing baseball is stupid” or “I think this thing that you enjoy is pointless”.

Back when I was in high school, I had to write a poem for class.  While the poem (and all attempts I’ve made to write poetry) was horrible, the sentiment behind the poem sticks with me now, even though I’m almost twice the age.  Read it:  “Not Unlike Muhammad II’s”.

The idea was that even though there are physical barriers we’ve built throughout history, such as the Great Wall (which, as I learned later, isn’t actually visible from space really), the main barriers on our planet are those of the soft brain tissue.

Humans are quite adept at hating.  They are adept at ignoring that which doesn’t confirm their stereotypes.  They are good at victimizing, humiliating, and taking advantage of others.  They are, not paradoxically, extremely bad at handling being victimized, being humiliated, being hated, being taken advantage of.  Evelin Lindner’s “Making Enemies:  Humiliation and International Conflict” argues that our world’s on-going conflicts are based on mutual humiliations and loss of face.

We have constructed for ourselves prisons within which we live.  See Doris Lessing’s “Prisons We Choose to Live Inside”.

I was reading through my old Soapboxes which spanned basically from when I was just about to graduate high school in 1996 up to about 2005 before I went to Iraq.  Early on, the complaint about my writing online was that anytime you put something online, you must want everyone, the whole world, to read it.  In essence, it would be defined as an act of wanting attention.

By the end of the Soapboxes, in 2005, the internet had matured and cultural norms had changed enough that blogging was about to become huge (as a result of GeoCities maturing into platforms like Blogger).  But also in 2005, I deployed to Iraq in a Special Forces unit as an intelligence collector.  I intended to post my thoughts and experiences from Iraq, being mindful of operational security.  My commander found out about it and hung me out to dry.  This was when the military decided to re-write its rules to silence servicemember online activities.

I felt like I eventually redeemed myself in the unit by working my tail off in another capacity, even though the injuries still smarted.

Luckily I was able to go back to school afterwards, and reconnected with my family’s anthropological roots and studied international power structures.  And now I have a job where I work in the trenches of social media.

But still this resistance exists in the many communities I am a part of.  People go on total black out on Facebook, and delete their Twitter accounts, and stop responding to e-mails, and so on.  People will test the waters of sharing online, but will harshly recoil back and disappear again.

I did my final orals presentation in grad school on, my platform for reputation management and identity formulation.  My panelists had absolutely NO clue what I was talking about.  Seriously.  I could have been speaking another language to these people, who were quite erudite and knew much about their fields.

The internet is now past its adolescence, I would estimate, and now we are beginning to see the emergence of geolocation, massive data crunching, and always-on instant updates from the internet of things.  And what it has helped me to understand is that all those people while I was growing up were wrong.  It wasn’t that I wanted attention.  It was that I wanted to share and to find like-minded people outside the communities I lived in where no one had any clue how to interact with me on certain issues.

The internet has allowed for a massive cultural community readjustment, where we have been freed in many cases from the isolated, narrow communities we are born into.

I am myself a member of many different communities:  midwesterners, Texans, half-Asians, Army Iraq veterans, international affairs universities in DC, online nerds, gamers, tennis fans, avid readers, basketball junkies, anthropology ancestry, IRC users, Obama voters, pro gay rights, DC contractors, Arabic speakers, web developers, iPhone owners, people who had bad skin and braces as teens.  Those are just some of the “communities” that I can associate with comfortably.   They are all important to me in varying degrees, but they help to define who I am, for better or for worse.   Other people would have more difficulty infiltrating the same communities I am a part of.  Amin Maalouf, also someone of diverse descent, writes of having multiple identities and multiple communities which he feels a part of, in his book “In the Name of Identity:  Violence and the Need to Belong”:  “I am posed between two countries, two or three languages, and several cultural traditions.”

Those who were born into money and in urban cities always had an advantage over those born in small villages.  They had more access to different people, different ideas, different eventual mates, more diversity.  Not that there isn’t value within tightly-knit villages or communities, but the circumstances must align very closely with the individual’s personality and values in order for it to work.  Within tightly-knit physical communities, aberrations are often discouraged and punished.

Said Stephen Downes, reviewing Lessing:

It is as though the group mind cannot be resisted, writes Lessing. After all, we all live in groups, we obtain our livlihood, our meanings, our identities, from groups. And when we’re in a group we tend to think as the group does; we may even , she notes, have deliberately sought out a group of “like-minded” people. People know how hard it is to stand against the group, and they often recollect, to their shame, having said something simply because other members of the group said it.

And the mechanics of this are interesting. “This mechanism, of obedience to the group, does not only mean obedience or submission to a small group, or one that is sharply determined, like a religion or political party. It means, too, conforming to those large vague, ill-defined collections of people who may never think of themselves as having a collective mind…” (p. 51)

The thing is, political leaders – and guards at prison camps – know this. They know that, if they eliminate the leaders, the mass of people will follow like sheep, adhereing to what they believe is the group mind, or to whatever has been substituted in place of the group mind. If they are lulled into believing that the group expects this or that they are capable of the most heinous atrocities.

Wouldn’t we then want to teach children: “If you are in this or that type of situation, you will find yourself, if you are not careful, behaving like a brute and a savage if you are ordered to do it. Watch out for these situations. You must be on your guard against your own most primitive reactions and instincts.” (p. 58)

But Lessing is not hopeful. “I cannot imagine any nation – or not for long – teaching its citizens to become individuals able to resist group pressures. And no political party, either.” (p. 61) Political parties use propaganda and manipulation, and the people who say they are in support of democracy, liberty and freedom don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to know, and goodness, they don’t want to enable people to resist instruction – for then the people might be wrong.

We need, argues Lessing, to learn from this; we need especially to learn from the last two and a half centuries (since the French revolution) of “laboratories of social change.” We have to move beyond the picture of society as “insisting on orthodox, simple-minded slogan thinking” (p, 71) as we have seen in the communist world, the Islamic world and – dare I say? – today in the pro-war western world.

If it is society that oppresses us, writes Lessing, it is the individual who stands against it. “It is always the individual, in the long run, who will det the tone, provide the real development in a society.”

At some point, the nature of the internet will be fundamentally altered.  It may be sooner rather than later, because world governments seek to alter the internet’s protocols so as to make policing it more accurate, more structurally accessible to intelligence, more catered to individual countries’ pet interests.

There are two things that I’ve realized from people telling me they disagree with me:

  • People who don’t want to use social media are not the exception, still.  They are the rule.  I’m the exception.
  • It’s ironic because I’m the one who was in security and who probably manages his actual privacy (that is, IT security, discernment of what to share with others and what to keep secret, personal security and physical safety) better.  And yet I’m told that I’m the one being insecure.

The freedom of intellectual and creative space that the internet has given us is not assured forever.  Identity is always constructed, but it is not always constructed by oneself — mostly I think it is formed by your community, your family, and by your nation.

I can’t anticipate where the future will take us, but I do know that we need to develop tools to protect ourselves.  And “protecting” oneself has often just meant opting to share less, to disappear, to stay away from letting one’s data out into the wild.  This worked when our communities were disconnected, when the internet and eavesdropping did not make feasible attempts to connect all our dots.

Protecting ourselves in the future will mean using our reputations to defend ourselves against attacks.  Celebrities and public figures are the ones who are already dealing with these issues.  They have to ensure that their public reputations remain good enough to defend themselves against the “haters”, at a level that’s sufficient for their tolerance.   Most of us will not be able to hide.  We will want to, then, have a reputation that can be used to shield us from attacks and fraud, which can thus be used as currency to succeed.  If we were born into disadvantage and poverty, we can still opt to be a good, productive person, and build a good reputation to use as credit.

We need to insure ourselves against corrupt governments, against people who want to disappear us, against people who want to rip us off.  At the same time, our data is already being used against us.  If someone were to sue you, they could subpoena your electronic records.  They could interview your friends, get access to your credit card bills.  Companies are using your data already to establish your credit rating, your health insurance premiums, etc.  Your privacy has already been lost, right under your nose.

What most people mean when they are “private” is that they are not sharing their personal feelings, experiences, and time with people they don’t trust.  In other words, while their financial and professional rights have been raped whenever they got a job, applied for a loan, or charged to their Visa, they willingly withheld being open with the people around them.  And as someone who is about to be baptized as a Catholic, even Catholics can be pretty secretive (ask the Vatican) even though it is taught to us that being fully open with our communities and family and friends is the way to bring in the Holy Spirit.

In other words, we have been raised to bring war against those who are closest to us.  Our prisons are our own isolation from sharing and being with those around us.

Getting into the brighter side, about how sharing more of ourselves can lead to more creativity, more shared common information for us to re-mix with each other, to share our DNA and ideas to create better things, to find beauty.

So this is why I’m “into” social media.  This is why I like to share a lot.  I believe in it.  You may not, and that’s fine, but don’t hold it against me.  And, if you end up being right in the cynicism against sharing, then I hope you’re prepared to hack yourself off the internet, to have enough money to build your privatized secure world that protects you against governments, companies, and criminals.

I’m going to get back to work.  But I’m sorry if I’m tired of explaining things anymore.  I’ll see you on the other side.  I think things could be better, and I’m committed to working towards trying to improve them.

Posted by: Ben | January 27, 2010

Human Life Histories as Tree Rings

One visualization I’ve been thinking about is tree rings — children are taught pretty early on that you can look at a tree’s rings and see its entire life history in one visualization.  While this does not capture every facet of the tree’s life, it does represent one view.

I think if one’s life were properly quantified, you could look at his life’s “rings” and see how his development slowed or progressed relative to other people, based on the “size” and “health” of those rings.  Did this person gain weight more in this period relative to others in his neighborhood or demographic?  Did this person start losing income at this age in this profession while his peers advanced?  What would have caused that?  The implications are staggering, once your data set gets wide enough.

From the above, it seems like some of the key inputs are geolocation, health indicators, nationality, demographics, time.

Similar to what 23andMe does, which is record your genotype, and then interpret and analyze based on that, improving the analysis as new research comes out, the key for is to allow people to input their raw data in as many different areas as possible, so that as new links and causations are discovered, people can instantly start comparing their data to other people, nationalities, demographics, countries, etc.

I’d be fascinated to see how a whole company using in the US (say, Google) would differ in different factors like number of children, average education, average weight/height vs., say, a Japanese megabank.  How do their cultures affect the outcomes for their employees?  How does American-style capitalism (get rich or die tryin’) affect its citizens relative to a politically controlled Chinese capitalism?  Beyond GDP/capita, life expectancy, and the other very limited indicators we can get only through national censuses…

We need individual unit-based statistics sets to get to the next level.  These disparate units of measurement for human capital just don’t cut it anymore.  We need tree rings for people before we can get proper tree rings for races, nations, and cultures.

Posted by: Ben | January 25, 2010


For my birthday (Groundhog Day, Feb. 2)/Christmas gift, my family got me a complete 23andMe test!  Pretty cool since my family recognized I could use it to study more for quantification.  Anyway, once I mail in a saliva sample, 23andMe will give me a web interface to study my ancestry and my health.  I’ll be interested in my ancestry since I’m part Scottish/English and part Chinese.  And the health test finds if one has any inheritable disease markers, as well as what their disease risk and drug response are.

So once I have my results, I’ll be posting what information I can.  I’m pretty excited!

The age of quantifying across human activity/genetic/cultural/international datasets is coming…

Posted by: Ben | January 14, 2010

Trendsmap: Haiti, China, US

I like to revisit Trendsmap from time to time to see what different parts of the world are tweeting about.  Eventually the internet of things will pour tons of data online, and it will all be plotted in real-time, so you’ll really see how the world flows daily — right now we’re limited because the only tweets we get plotted on Trendsmap are probably going to be fairly literate English speakers who can afford to tweet on a cell phone and who care to geolocate accurately.  Eventually we’ll have sensors, appliances, robots, etc. automatically tweeting (or uploading to SOME system, at any rate).  The implications are awesome.

The US should be proud.  Clearly sending aid to Haiti after the earthquake is something Americans really care about.  Haiti attention isn’t prominent anywhere else in the world, at least according to Trendsmap.  You can see Vancouver is beginning to spool up for the Olympics.

Here’s a map of the tweets from Haiti.  Hard to say if they’re from the ground or just from people who changed their location on Twitter to Haiti.  The numbers are numbers you can text message to to send aid to Haiti recovery organizations.

The UK and Europe hardly mention Haiti, and seem to be mixed up in their own daily news flow.  Justin Bieber has a YouTube channel.

Indonesia LOVES Twitter.  Its tweets dwarf the rest of Asia, although you can see some tweets from China, which (I can’t read Chinese) might have some Google news since Google is having a hissyfit with the Chinese government right now.  Baidu is Google’s pseudo-competitor/fraudster in China.

India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan:


See any other trends?  Indonesia, the UK, and US…massive number of tweets according to Trendsmap (i.e. the keywords show up with dark black backgrounds).

Posted by: Ben | December 31, 2009

We All Have a Chance Now

My brother always gives the best Christmas gifts.  This year, he gave me Cory Doctorow‘s new book, “Makers”, and I’m only pages in but it triggered thoughts I’ve been having with regards to Malthusian shortages vs. utopian surplus, Schumpeterian creative destruction and entrepreneurship, and the almost limitless possibilities to become rich these days.

Shortages & Surpluses

In earlier posts I’ve been thinking about how one of the keys to finding a successful business in the internet and information age is looking for where there’s a huge surplus of data and then figuring out a product or service within that.  For ebay, it was providing a marketplace for all peoples’ crap.  For Google it was monetizing all the links and attention put out on the internet by hundreds of millions of users.  Netflix and Amazon monetized the long tail for movies and books, among other things.

The big businesses of old benefit from creating scarcity, whether it be the RIAA and limiting access and remixing of art through copyright and IP strangulation, or De Beers or oil cartels or water bottlers throttling the supplies of natural resources, or insurance providers excluding access to the least profitable/most needworthy users of the services insurance pays for.

The new businesses of the dotcom era are taking advantage of the surplus of data online and in effect are allowing consumers and hobbyists to have greater access to products.

But it is in the nature of companies to grab a foothold through appealing to the public, then fighting tooth and nail to stave off competition — just look at the Model T, providing cars to the masses but perhaps leading to an industry which produces cars that look remarkably similar to the originals.

So Many Choices

Thus capitalism requires a pretty delicate balance (and it’s heavily contested how to maintain this) but capitalism is also immensely powerful.  One aspect that is wonderful about capitalism is that it boggles your mind how people find ways to sell products.  For instance, I was at REI yesterday and you can find fingerholds for your rock-climbing wall, quite a few different kinds and styles of carabiners, different styles of jogging windbreakers, fingerless gloves or ski gloves, tents collapsible into floppy thin stacks, etc.  And as I’ve looked for different services for my work and for other peoples’ businesses, there’s services for everything:  strategic consulting, HR and accounting outsourcing, entire food service sectors that cater towards the late hours of the Wall Street banking community, mobile pet grooming services being run out of trailer-vans, flexible armies of anonymous workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk ready to do mundane tasks for money, security guards and convenience store people willing to work overnights and holidays, even Street Sense homeless people standing out on the corner selling newspapers.

I’m not saying everything’s happy and perfect.  Being an international development person, I’m aware of the great injustices being done against brothers and sisters, exploitation in the name of “free” markets and globalization and worldwide races to the bottom in labor prices.  But come on, there’s some awesome stuff going on out there.

My point is that you could take any interest in the US and there’s probably a magazine dedicated to it.  There’s probably specialized, highly competitive equipment being sold for it.  There’s most likely a uniform that people of that hobby or specialization wear.  Whole lexicons.  Each interest gives off multiple waves that affect other economic sectors.  This is Michael Porter’s supply chain but for everyone.

That’s one thing that’s so amazing about capitalism when it’s working successfully.  In the US, you can make a living doing just about anything.

So Many More Opportunities Now

Another point I wanted to bring up:  what’s so cool about making a living doing anything these days is that it wasn’t always that way.  There used to be a very small number of ways you could make money.  Off the top of my head:  being of nobility, sucking up to nobility, thievery and being a ganglord, being lucky in birth and life.

Even not too long ago, you would have probably needed to be white, a member of white-collar professions like medicine or law.  And even more recent than that, you probably had to be a cog in a corporate wheel.

But turn on your TV now and there are people making names for themselves doing all sorts of insane shit.  Hell, some people we don’t even know how they became rich and famous (the Kardashians).  It’s become that diffuse and abstract.  For all their faults, the branders whom Naomi Klein refreshingly faults in No Logo like Nike and McDonalds and the Mad Men of Madison Avenue probably do deserve a lot of credit for inspiring new business niches.

But it’s all really fucking cool.  And as the Internet becomes so much more pervasive not only for Americans, but for the billions of people in the world, just imagine how much more wild things people will come up with in order to make money.

Now You Don’t Have to Be Beautiful, Be Good at Math, or Know How to Play the Piano

Finally:  what this all means is that you and I are not cursed at birth and upbringing to be a failure.  If you have an interest and are passionate about it, you can get rich and be famous while at the same time doing what you love.

As Doctorow suggests, you can even make money being an assembler or a curator, someone who puts together many different parts that he didn’t create into something new, something extremely valuable.

You don’t have to listen to your parents and study law when you know you hate law, or practice basketball because it’s the only way to get out of your shitty neighborhood, or join the military to get out of some no-name town that no one ever leaves from.  Your life isn’t over just because you hate calculus and can’t write for shit and have bad skin.

Instead of a handful of professions, there are now unlimited professions, and we all have a chance.  “I got a million ways to get it.” I leave it to Jay-Z to provide the rest:

Happy fucking new year and new decade!

Posted by: Ben | November 18, 2009

The Secret Link Between Human Stats and Stories

Right now I’m reading Bill Simmons’ epic tome, “The Book of Basketball:  The NBA According to the Sports Guy”, which is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read and which has also renewed my love and interest in basketball.  Simmons has written what is essentially a history and ethnography of professional basketball, which is a considerably easier task than it would be with other sports because pro ball has not been around that long.

At any rate, Simmons has now joined several other writers who have recently written about the volatile relationship between Moneyballization and a statistical revolution in basketball.  There was first Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which was about Bill James, sabermetrics, and the Oakland Athletics bringing on a statistician who sought to buy under-rated, cheap baseball players who had uncanny abilities to avoid outs on offense and get outs on defense.  What this took was an alternative measurement scheme, which valued less the older statistics:  homers, hits, RBIs.  What it valued more was an ability to get an extended pitch count while at bat, to draw walks, to foul off pitches, to have high on-base and slugging percentages, and to throw a lot of strikes consistently.

The site 82games became the source for alternative basketball stats after the statistical revolution of Moneyballization hit.  On it, you can view “clutch” rankings, the best player pairings, etc.  But these do not capture the whole picture.

Michael Lewis recently went on to basketball, to write a formative article about Shane Battier, Houston Rockets forward, which made Battier out to be a thinking man’s forward, studying tape and stats to figure out the best way to limit his opponent’s scoring game.

The FreeDarko blog guys (think Bethlehem Shoals) published a book called The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac:  Styles, Stats, and Stars in Today’s Game, which pushed further, featuring stats, yes, but stating that team ball no matter interested them.  What was fascinating was looking into the heads of the agonizing, troubled superstars of the NBA.  Think Kobe and his Colorado hotel room, or T-Mac and his back (and skeletons in his closet), or Gilbert and his crazy half-court heaves.  This book focused on the personalities and the styles of players.

Bill Simmons’ book seems like a blend of both.  Simmons points out, accurately, that basketball is not a perfectly measurable sport like baseball is.  Baseball is very much individualistic, with controlled standoffs between batter and pitcher.  Basketball, for Simmons, is about The Secret, which is finding players who are willing to give up personal stats in order to play more team ball.  And this chemistry requires that you watch a game in person to see how players react to each other, to see the killer instincts or lack of them.

And yet Simmons says that you can still look at stat lines in basketball and reconstruct a game fairly well:  points scored, free throws attempted, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals.  These can tell you a lot.  Experimental stats like the +/- used now just do not work very well.

So Simmons’ book is genius because it combines statistics with stories.  Yes, Wilt Chamberlain scored over 100 points in a game, but all his teammates hated him and he didn’t set up his teammates to be better players like Bill Russell did:

And yes, certain players put up amazing years, but when it came to the playoffs, they couldn’t pass the ball away faster to a teammate because they didn’t want to be clutch.  They were afraid of failure.

This nexus of stats with stories seems to be unique to basketball as a team game.  You don’t see these sorts of studies in baseball, or football, because those seem to be more individual-oriented.  What I find interesting is how unofficial anthropologists seem so engaged with basketball.  As if the personalities suck in social science hobbyists more in basketball than with other sports.  For instance, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New Yorker article on a girl’s team led by an outsider Indian dad who always wondered why teams let the other team walk up the whole court without being challenged.  He decided that the only way his less talented girl’s team could win was if they executed a full-court press THE WHOLE GAME.  And it worked fabulously.  While violating the norms of the game.  So other coaches and parents became furious!  These are the sorts of articles you can find about basketball.

From an interview with Simmons on The Onion’s AV Club:

AVC: When you talk about everybody seeming happy on their team… You have these observations that are unquantifiable. Like, for example, the fact that Los Angeles Clippers players hate their coach, Mike Dunleavy, Sr.

BS: That’s why I don’t even really go to other games anymore, other sports. I can watch any football game in HD and probably have a better time than I would at the stadium. The tailgates are obviously more fun, but the actual game experience is more fun on TV at this point. Baseball depends on the seats, and these games are so freaking long now that, I don’t know, I’d rather watch them at home, for the most part. If I lived near Fenway, I’d want to go to games. Basketball’s the one sport that you just pick up so much more when you’re at the games, especially if you have decent seats, or if you’re close to the court. You can watch the guys interact, you can watch them watch the JumboTron during time-outs, and see how they react to the coach. All human-nature stuff. It’s the most human of all the sports. And it’s my favorite part. That’s why I love going. It’s why I freaking pay the Clippers $15,000 every year to watch their latest shitty team.

Bill Simmons

My own experience with basketball has been bittersweet.  I didn’t start playing until after college, since I played tennis (poorly) in high school and baseball as a really young kid (and did okay…).  I’ve got no handles, no moves, and no killer instinct within the paint to finish a layup.

I really could have used some coaching.  Coaching would have taught me more aggressiveness and footwork, which I think are crucial towards making an average player a good player.  What I always felt was my advantage was my defense.  But in pick-up games, defense is not rewarded.  I was willing to run down fast breaks or cut off a slashing player driving to the basket.  And I had the length to disrupt shots or poke a ball away.

I felt like I worked a lot harder than other people on the court.  That doesn’t count much in a pick-up era which is based on ballhogs dribbling at the top of the key and then driving to the basket, ignoring teammates, and drawing a foul.  It’s enormously more frustrating because this me-first, my-stats-mean-everything mentality leads to pick-up games where people argue CONSTANTLY about every call and play and stand around peacocking.

So my love for playing this game has always been inhibited by pick-up stupidity, and I wonder what would happen if I had ever played on a team with a bunch of team players.

Getting to the Point:

One of the issues for that comes up when I talk about it with people is that they refuse to be reduced down to numbers.  The repulsion is so extreme that the discussion gets shut off just at that initial point.

Certainly it is true that people are not just amorphous bundles of stats that can predict their every behavior.  But at the same time, peoples’ habits, rituals, and ticks are remarkably observable and predictable.  We tend to create myths about ourselves which may not necessarily be borne out of stats. And that variability, that defaulting to personality or character or defect, that is what really makes us the most interesting.

So a system that is built to support one’s reputation or identity, as will, should be built to wed the statistical side (quantitative) with the mythical/qualitative side.

This could be the holy grail of identity and reputation memory, human story-telling and myth, and statistical analysis improving social sciences.

Can someone figure out how to make a web site that allows someone to study his own stats to see where he could improve quantitatively, yet also somehow measure the intangibles, such as his character or quirks or funny stories about him or his nickname or heroic feats he’s done that didn’t square up with his numbers?

I mean, how do you design a system that accurately keeps someone like Dick Cheney in historical perspective (as a universally loathed and feared death dealer) despite on paper having superior credentials?

How do you capture Dwyane Wade’s night-in, night-out hustle on the court, scrambling constantly and relentlessly, while evoking support and inspiration from his teammates who love playing with him?  How do you capture a will for teamwork (or lack of it), determination (my only talent), and charisma (as in those guys who can get a girl to grab the phone out of hand and put her number in it, or an MLK Jr.-like leader who can get people to transcend themselves?).

How would Jesus Christ come out in a purely quantitative system?  In a world of monetary worship and diploma envy, would a guy who never accumulated wealth and who ended up being crucified rank well against a Barack Obama?

I envision a system underpinned with statistical analysis and automatically-fed stats coming in from peoples’ self-quantification devices.  But on top of that is a layer of human subjective input:  things like “if ‘the most interesting man in the world’ existed in the real world, this guy would be him” or “I would never want to work with this guy ever again” or “her children looked at her always with such reverence that others became envious”.  Did people like being around this person?  Was this person a stat whore who didn’t care about being a team player?  These are questions Simmons uses for his basketball analysis, and I love it.

Maybe that will be a component…along with your stats, there are questions such as “Was he a total dick?” or “Could you trust this person to take care of your cat?”  “Did he have killer instinct?  A swagger?”  “Was she so funny that people would laugh at anything she would say before she finished telling a joke?”

I want to figure out how this system will work — I really do think it’s the convergence of anthropology, economics, statistics, technology, sociology, politics, banking, everything.  And I think I’m uniquely placed to pull this off.

Posted by: Ben | October 6, 2009

Using to Find Trusted Content

My boss forwarded me a Nielsen link yesterday that talked about online socializers:

But with the increasing number of resources available, it’s difficult to know what you should believe or take at face value. Socializers – those who spend 10 percent or more of their online time on social media – feel this effect more than others do. When asked, 26 percent feel that there is too much information available on the Internet, compared to 18 percent of people who predominantly use portals and just 5 percent of people who primarily use search engines.

But why does too much information lead one to use social media as a navigation tool? The short answer: Socializers trust what their friends have to say and social media acts as an information filtration tool. This is key because Socializers gravitate towards and believe what is shared with friends and family. If your friend creates or links to the content, then you are more likely to believe it and like it. And this thought plays out in the data.

Increasingly, I’ve been having to filter down what I look at because the net is just catching too much stuff.  My blogroll is pretty massive and it takes some time to get through — I’ve had to remove some of the more spammy blogs like DCist, Engadget, etc.

The Nielsen article differentiates between searchers and socializers (searchers tending to be less active socially online, using search engines to find content).  But what if we could combine searching with social trust?

Various obstacles have blocked an identity layer online, but none moreso than peoples’ demands for privacy.  Privacy is used haphazardly as a way to ensure trust.  That is, we protect ourselves in public by restricting who has access to us to only family and friends.  But this is not “trust” per se — it’s obfuscation.  But internet trends such as collaborative wikis, Netflix ratings, and tagging show that open trust systems can provide much more information than small, closed networks.  They open themselves up to abuse but with just a few people and a few tools to manage that abuse, the systems can be massive gains for public knowledge.

[By the way, as a related aside, for my Yahoo!/ISD fellowship research, I wrote a paper talking about the meaning of “privacy” and what is currently happening online with regards to how the US and the advancing BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are dealing with openness and closedness.]

What we are heading towards is some brutal endgame with respect to personal data:  Facebook has been developing a pretty complex privacy infrastructure but it is being lambasted both from security people for exposing too much data and from internet geeks who want portable identities and data that they can use across social networks.

Certainly underlying all this is fear of government monitoring.  The Patriot Act under Bush (and probably under Obama too) has disgustingly blurred the lines between lazy domestic surveillance and strict burden of proof for court orders.  Until the government can reassert that it must require a lot of evidence and court approval (perhaps involving a watchdog representative too) to start spying on someone (not just American citizens), the prospect of freeing up personal data online must be tempered.

But imagine if we could sort out all these issues and build up a proper trusted network online for reputation and identities, ensured by a public trust and not by a for-profit company or by the government?  What if we could ensure transparency not only for individuals but also upon governments and companies?  What I feel is missing in the debate about “big federal government” is that companies have become as powerful or in some cases more powerful than governments.  Unions and large public organizations as well.  Transparency and accountability are not popular ideas across the board.

But I look forward to a day when I can do what should be mundane tasks.  I went to a get-together with mainly girls once, and they were playing with jdate, the dating service for Jews.  They were searching only for guys who had Master’s degrees or above.  And they got the results and were disappointed with men who appeared to me to be absolute all-stars:  doctors, good-looking, wealthy, fun guys.  But the girls were practically yawning.

What if I could search across Amazon for only people who’ve read over 200 books?  What if I could look for opinions on Afghanistan only from bloggers who have served a tour there in the Marines?  What if I could find Digg articles from people who have had at least one child and who own a camera I’m looking at?  What if I could filter out my Twitter follow list so I only view tweets from those with at least 100 users and who post at least 3 times a day and who have had over 20 of their tweets voted upwards?

What of serendipity?  Well, the random public lifestream will still be there.  But I want to be able to filter across networks and across siloed databases.

And sure, not everyone will want to share all this information with the world.  They should have the right not to.  But what about those of us who want to opt-in and start using all this data to make our lives better and to be able to use our reputation and others in order to make better decisions?

Posted by: Ben | September 27, 2009

What We Care About, in Real Time

As we connect more real-time nodes onto the internet, we’re able to do more and more impressive things.  I can hardly wait until the entire world is blanketed in real-time nodes sending data to the internet to be mashed up.

Clive Thompson’s always thought-provoking notes in Wired Magazine this month covered the real-time web, quoting Edo Segal:

Edo Segal, a pioneer in real-time search, thinks the field is going to explode as updates become more automatic, with our devices autoreporting where we are, how we’re feeling, and what we’re doing and seeing. Old-school search will never vanish, but real-time news will create a society where we have an omnipresent sense of the moment. “Google organized our memory,” Segal says. “Real-time search organizes our consciousness.”

One of my favorite Twitter tools so far has been Trendsmap.  It shows the trending topics in different regions of the world.  As of Sunday evening (11PM eastern), you can see what the world (or what little of it is represented on Twitter and Trendsmap so far) cares about.  Click the images for larger versions.

Damn, all we’re using Twitter for is to share our feelings about football?





Posted by: Ben | August 28, 2009

Fascination with Personality

I barely ever read fiction.  My general take on that has been that there’s so much interesting out in the world, past and present, that I’m always trying to catch up and learn more just to keep my pulse on things.  While the internet (and heavy computing) has made the present much more accessible and tangible to us, it has also unlocked the past and given us better predictive tools of the future.  But the past and future still remain a blend of fiction and non-fiction, since what is history is often both myth and fact, and what is future is often speculative even if it’s predicted with extrapolated trends.

One comparison I think about is Plato versus Aristotle in the School of Athens painting by Raphael.  Plato points up, to the heavens, while Aristotle points outward, towards the world.

There have been some touchstones in my life that have led me to believe that what my career will end up being.  My suspicion is that I want to make a name for myself studying personalities, biographies, reputation, and identity (both formation and maintenance).

Last year, when I attended the Achievement Summit in Hawai’i, I got to listen to A. Scott Berg speak about his life as a biographer.  He’s written a biography about Charles Lindbergh and is working currently on one for Woodrow Wilson.   I remember being taken by his speech moreso than some others, and I think this quote sums it up well as to why:

“I did tell myself early on: I think it would be interesting, perhaps, to spend a career writing a half-dozen biographies of twentieth-century American cultural figures—each one, as I often use as my metaphor, a different wedge of the great apple pie.”

As a dotcom kid I grew up with extensive biographies swirling around out of Silicon Valley about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (cults of personality if there ever were any), Jeff Bezos, and later Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Williams and Richard Branson, et al.

The intelligence services worldwide of course keep elaborate leadership databases that try to figure people out based on their backgrounds in order to predict true intentions, biases, and future political/military/economic decisions.

When I was in the Army and when I went to Australia, I wrote some very vivid descriptions of the people I met — I enjoyed studying their ticks and appreciating them for their unique qualities.  Perhaps one of the only writers I’ve seen who admires subtle things about personalities is F. Scott Fitzgerald — if you read his books, he writes about people as if their tendencies are timeless and universally understood by all people.  For instance, from “Tender is the Night”:

“The mother’s face was of a fading prettiness that would soon be patted with broken veins; her expression was both tranquil and aware in a pleasant way.  However, one’s eyes moved on quickly to her daughter, who had magic in her pink palms and her cheeks lit to a lovely flame, like the thrilling flush of children after their cold bath in the evening.”


“She did not like these people, especially in her immediate comparison of them with those who had interested her at the other end of the beach.  Her mother’s modest but compact social gift got them out of unwelcome situations swiftly and firmly.  But Rosemary had been a celebrity for only six months, and sometimes the French manners of her early adolescence and the democratic manners of America, these latter superimposed, made a certain confusion and let her in for just such things.”

I guess what I’m going for is that biographies have been tools of only the well-educated, to describe the elite (those worth talking about).

What I hope will be is a way to allow anyone to form biographies about themselves and others.  The way I see the world, not only should one treat another as an equal human being, but he should also see every other person as having a unique, interesting story.  After all, no one goes through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and growing old without having interesting stories about how they dealt with certain crises, new experiencies, their first loves, bad break-ups, etc.  Each person is a story.

I would like to get those stories out.  For everyone on Earth.

And maybe become, in that way, the biggest biographer ever. =)

Posted by: Ben | August 22, 2009

Implications of Our Social Graph

A couple points interest me lately about the social graph.

One:  while it’s old hat now to talk about, I continue to admire the fact that now we are able to keep past friends, acquaintances, and people we’ve met as touchstones by adding them to Facebook.  Life’s relationships hardly seem as ephemeral — I lost touch with a lot of my childhood friends as I left Texas and they stayed within.  But now with Facebook reaching its tendrils into even the older demographics and smaller countries, people I used to spend time with are now becoming visible to me again.  And I will never lose touch with them again as long as we all retain trust in the Facebook system.

How will that affect the way we age, the way we communicate, the way we organize?  Now that we can keep in touch with people from cradle to grave, how will that affect our ability to deal with all of our friends dying or getting sick as they get older?  How will that affect fund-raising when we now can pull favors from our entire life’s social graphs?  If we’re called out for bad behavior, can we use such an extensive social graph to repair our reputations and defend us as good people?

Second point:  what do we do with the people we actively keep out of our Facebook social graphs?  Facebook has finally added the ability to group people so that certain groups can’t see everything about you (i.e. work people can’t see your photos, if you choose to configure it that way).

John Clippinger calls this a negative identity, based on how the immune system works, only exposing itself as much as needed and allowing in anything once it passes basic verification (blood type, usually).

Certainly, many people do not friend their parents.  This is unfortunate but also a coping mechanism.   It might be fixed by Facebook’s new settings.  But there’s that desire to keep one’s parents out of one’s personal life, for individual identity formation.

But what I’m really getting at is what if you meet someone casually, or know someone a long time, and choose to NOT friend them?  That is becoming, now that Facebook is so ubiquitous, quite noticeable to everyone who knows both parties.  Why didn’t he friend me?  It must be because he really has a problem with me.  Now I get messages saying that they don’t want to friend me because they’re trying to limit exposure — they’ll connect with me on LinkedIn, though.  Considering the effort it takes to divide one’s spheres of life like that, it must be a pretty significant psychological issue for people.

Black markets exist because the formal economy does not either recognize the market for those goods as being legal, or because the formal economy is not doing a good enough job providing access to those goods.

How does the negative identity affect a black market for social capital?  Is there a market for those people who are not included in our social graphs?  Does it go beyond social shunning and become a problem in formation of trust and reputation?  If is trying to offer a complete picture of a person in order to formalize a standard for identity and reputation, how does it address the gaps such as distancing oneself from parents and work colleagues, disavowing knowledge of mistresses and affairs, hiding crimes, etc.?

This underground economy of social capital must be expressed in some way to be valuable for accurate reputation calculations.  But how?

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