Monday, October 01, 2012

Athleague Acquisition and Reflections

I wanted to throw up a blog post to announce a life change for myself: We recently put the last touches on a merger of my startup, Athleague, with IMLeagues, one of our former competitors in the college intramural sports web solution space. The outcome wasn't quite what we had hoped for when we started out (and is mostly dependent on the performance of the combined company), but after extended internal reflection, we ultimately agreed it was the right direction for the company and a conclusion of which we could be proud. I will be sticking around for a short while to assist with transition issues on a part-time basis and will continue to help as needed going forward on strategic and operational issues. I also thought this would be a good time to express the deepest gratitude to those who helped us on our journey: amazing and loving friends and family, eternally supportive and wise investors and advisers, and, most of all, an incredible team. You've all heard from me, but it's worth saying again (and again and again) - Athleague would not have happened without your support and hard work.

In a wrap-up email to our investors and advisers, I reflected on some of my failings in building Athleague, four in particular. A few of them asked me to compile those thoughts into a blog post that they could share, and I figured it might be a fun read for entrepreneurs and friends alike. I've edited and pasted the relevant portion of the email below, followed with a quick conclusion on what I think we actually did right. I'd love to hear comments and feedback - get in touch.

First, I just didn't get product development. While I feel the tech community has a proclivity toward taking new trends too far (everything from the "lean startup" model to the glorification of the next big thing in UX, like Pinterest right now), I certainly got the feeling as the "Customer Development" product methodology became popularized by Steve Blank's Four Steps to the Epiphany that we missed something crucial in our product development process. Specifically, the situation was ideal to closely involve customers in our product development, leaning on them for everything from roadmap feedback to actual beta-testing. With a systematic process of customer inclusion, we probably could have halved our overall development time, not to mention built an incredible community amongst our customer base (which would have had a great impact on sales, brand, etc.). Instead, we wasted precious time building features we probably didn't need. It wasn't even as if we ignored our customers completely, but we were not thoughtful or systematic about their incorporating them into the overall process. Major missed opportunity.

Second, I completely underestimated what it took to build a high performing sales and, to a slightly lesser extent, customer service operation - the procedures, the rigor, the self-evaluation, etc. - and, worse, didn't realize how to match the sales and support pieces of our company to our unique customer base (late adopter, fairly technology-phobic). It certainly hurt that our tech-savvy team was so different from our primary customers (school admins), blunting our advantage of being quite similar to our secondary customers (university students). Fundamentally, what we thought was the most important thing (technology) just wasn't that crucial to our customers. They valued human interaction: they wanted to be sold the product, and they wanted someone to talk (frequently) to once they got going. They were making a huge leap of faith in moving their intramural programs online, and the biggest barrier to making that jump was emotional and psychological. Superior features were simply a secondary concern to feeling secure about their decision to do things drastically differently than their entire school was used to doing. 

To phrase it differently, we were a bunch of diverse Ivy League and MIT-ers touting cutting-edge technology to a Heartland crowd and trying to optimize our cost structure by automation. Looking back on it all, it's absurd how poor our strategy was. We truly dropped the ball when it came to our two major touch points with customers: sales and customer service.

Third, I was blinded by a characteristic Silicon Valley hubris: assuming the best product would win. We often snubbed our noses at our main competitor (IMLeagues), whose product was consistently inferior in design and functionality. The net result was that we not only underestimated our main competitor, but it took us longer to figure out what they were doing right (sales and customer support) and copy them. The realization of hubris's deleterious effect on tangible things - operations, strategy, etc. - was a painful but important one that will hopefully serve me well in future projects.

Now, I will say here in our defense that we were outgunned - IMLeagues had boatloads of family money and spent very liberally on both sales and support (and everything else, really). And despite an order of magnitude resource disadvantage and a smaller staff, in the last year and a half, we largely figured this stuff out, out-dueling our eventual acquirers for a number of key schools (Michigan, Stanford, Arizona State, and others). But it was too little, too late, and there is no denying the mistakes above kept us from fulfilling the promise we had at the outset. 

And there were plenty other mistakes - for example, I started the company without a true full-time cofounder. It wasn't until Bo (a technical lead and co-founder in name) came on full time in 2010 that I realized what a necessary piece of the puzzle having a co-founder is - his presence provided a jolt of energy and moral authority in decision-making, which he skillfully wielded to be an appropriate counterbalance to my leadership. (To clarify, Bo was around since the beginning but had remained part-time even after we raised cash because he had a high-paying job that required a low number of hours, and we thought we could move the engineering forward faster by having our two full-timers be other people.) But when I look back at everything, though, these three mistakes jump out at me as the most drastic.

However, there is a last takeaway for myself as an entrepreneur that I believe, in the final analysis, will be the most important: the lack of ambition and self-confidence at the outset. In hindsight, 21-year-old me was approaching the entire notion of starting a company from a place of insecurity. The subconscious thinking was probably that this small vision of intramural leagues was manageable, and that once it was conquered, I'd have the ability/skills to tackle something much larger. When confronted with ideas about pivoting into larger spaces (very much a possibility early on), I didn't take them, in hindsight, primarily for this reason. This concept probably even impacted at a much more micro level - I was certainly aware of our shortcomings in product development and sales at some mental level in the early days, but the combination of fear/lack of confidence and the hubris mentioned above probably inhibited me from taking more serious action than I did. While trying to evaluate the effect of the subconscious on the conscious mind is nearly impossible, looking back on the early days, I'm reasonably confident some strain of this line of thought was clouding my thinking and execution. Thinking fearfully and small is a mistake that I'll labor to not make again.

All of that said, I think, as a team, we did one thing right that partially trumped all of our collective failures: we survived. Paul Graham's How Not To Die perfectly articulates the concept - as a start up, the longer you stick around, the greater the chance that something awesome happens. The resiliency of our team and the support of our investors allowed us to take a concept that probably wouldn't have lasted and turn it into a company that will hopefully be part of an organization that makes sports league administration and participation easier and more fun for years to come. That's not to say this is some ironclad start up concept - sometimes, staying alive just means you burn more cash and have to shut down later. But, for us, I'd say it made the difference.

I'm hoping this post marks a true return to blogging - I'll very much try to post regular thoughts on here in the coming weeks and months. Please get in touch with comments, feedback, ideas for projects, thoughts on the weather, the meaning of life, and everything in between. Thanks again everyone!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Channelling Seth Godin

Short but stupid post here (edit: maybe not so short now that I'm down writing). Last week, I wrote about Aaron Barr and the HB Federal fiasco and speculated on the implications of a world in which both centralized organizations and decentralized populations try to sway public opinion and disrupt each others' opposing operations.

Just in the past week, the examples are all around us, unfortunately with the centralized powers spewing confusion and misinformation all over the place. The New York Times gives BP space to claim the guy that they themselves hired to run the oil spill compensation fund isn't giving them a fair deal, drowning out the people trying to point out the absurdity that BP has the guy on payroll to the tune of $850k a month to run the fund (and the voices of those affected in the Gulf, saying this relationship is causing them to not get their fair share). (Side note: Which do you think is more likely? The guy who is being paid by BP not being fair to BP or not being fair to those affected? Who gets more press access?)

Beyond that, Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone (who wrote the Polk-award winning profile of Stanley McChrystal that eventually got him fired) had a must-read piece on the (mis)use of psych-ops by the US Military against our own government officials (to get them to allocate more funds to the Afganistan War). Immediately, "senior military officials" began anonymously slandering Hastings and his source, Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, which were repeated mindlessly by many major media outlets. Glenn Greenwald has a good summary of the situation, as well as a useful explanation as to why high level personel shouldn't be allowed to attack the powerless anonymously.

In the words of Bob Dylan (hah couldn't find the Dylan version, so enjoy the BSG one), there's too much confusion, and it's hard to get relief. For those looking to get anything done, the mudfight is scary - it takes your message and gets it all dirty and mucked up. While the realm of government and corporations may have the most wide ranging impacts, the impacts of this dynamic are felt by all of us, whether we're trying to write a gossip rag or deliver a marketing message.

More fundamentally, these interactions leave us a world full of suspicion and devoid of trust - and that is where the opportunity lies. With everyone zigging, your best choice is to zag - to build a brand that people can trust, because the brand itself is worthy of that trust. In the short run, this means showing restraint instead of passing judgment, acknowledging when you're wrong, and oftentimes putting yourself in an uncomfortable place. At Athleague, we constantly have to manage the short term gain of telling a customer they'll have a feature by a certain date with the long term credibility hit we take by not delivering. I've more than once fallen pray to this, promising something that I knew deep down was a long shot of being completed on time.

But there is hope - as an example of a success, despite being a comedy program, The Daily Show has built up their reputation so much that Jon Stewart is considered the most trusted news source in America. They research their material, apologize for mistakes, and do a pretty good job making only fair critiques by not taking things out of context (and, in the process, they're not afraid of making some enemies). The model of tribe-building and truth-telling is a great one to follow if the goal is to build an audience who trusts what you're saying.

The credit for this optimism and logic all go to the venerable Seth Godin, who manages to reduce these complex problems and dynamics into understandable hurdles, and inspires us to follow the path he charts - using truth as a weapon and the (social) web as a vehicle.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Stupidity of Aaron Barr - and the Future of Civil Disobedience

This post represents a leap for me, a return to why I started blogging: an attempt to make sense of current events and draw trendlines for where we're headed. It's an activity fraught with opportunities to expose my idiocy, and I don't doubt I will confuse correlation with causation time and time again. Furthermore, the ideas here are by no means my own. Apologies in advance. It's fun to ponder and write, and hopefully not too boring/frustrating to read. So here goes:

A little more than a week ago, the story broke. It didn't register much on the major news networks, but as the rabbit hole went deeper, it got quite interesting. A summary:
  1. Aaron Barr, CEO of HB Gary Federal, tries to unveil the identities of the people he perceives to be the "leaders" of the internet group Anonymous as a stunt to generate publicity (and hopefully clients) for his company.
  2. Bad move. Anon strikes back, hard, hacking into all his social media accounts (including a vulgar but hilarious Twitter hack) and email, putting a large collection of his emails on a popular torrenting website. Arstechnica has a characteristically great (though long) piece outlining the 1 and 2.
  3. In these emails are found multiple presentations, all with the intent of destroying Wikileaks. The most interesting of these is one given in conjunction with Palantir and Berico Technologies to Bank of America's outside law firm, Hunton & Williams (who were apparently soliciting such presentations). 
  4. This presentation included tactics such as fabricating documents to be released to the public, applying personal pressure to key figures in Wikileaks organization (including full bios of families and friends), "cyber attacks against the infrastructure to get data on document submitters," and a "media campaign to push the radical and reckless nature of Wikileaks activities." It went so far as to name Glenn Greenwald (and others) as essential supporters of Wikileaks, and opined that "if pushed [they] will choose professional preservation over cause." In short, it outlined illegal and certainly unethical activities that HB Gary Federal and friends would commit against Wikileaks if hired.
  5. To top it off, it's found that the Justice Department recommended Hunton & Williams to Bank of America.
  6. Everyone starts backpedaling - HB Gary Federal's parent company (HB Gary), their partners, the law firm, etc.
This was followed by a number of good analysis pieces - Glenn Greenwald wrote my favorite. The gall of these firms to write down their illegal activities, the complicity of all parties until it was leaked, the depth of the social connections linking these firms together - all suggest this was business as usual until the presentation was leaked. Clearly, you can call Aaron Barr is stupid, for many reasons (foremost of which was thinking he could mess with Anonymous). But perhaps the most important consequence of his stupidity lies deeper: he gave away the playbook.

The presentations outline the plan of attack of the establishment - though somewhat obvious, it is a disciplined, cohesive strategy that leverages the many weapons they possess: the capabilities of government and large organizations, access to the press, focused use of technology, lots of cash, and others.

Likewise, Anon, and more generally the masses who are disgruntled with the corporatocracy, should give those leaked presentations some serious study, and think critically about their own assets and strategy. Fundamentally, as Egypt and DDoS attacks show us, these groups have the power of the crowds. Digging deeper, we see that this power needs some structure to be unleashed, be it a Facebook or Twitter call to organize at Tahrir Square or the Low Orbit Ion Canon.

As time passes, both sides (and more broadly, all organizations desiring to influence public opinion and make change/maintain the status quo) will become more sophisticated in their approach. The centralized powers like HB Gary (corporations, trade groups, and governments, to name a few) will devote their resources to muddling the debate and spreading misinformation. A few of Burr's leaked emails describe powerful software that can manage large numbers of online personas - coherently linked social media and email accounts. These are being used to sway online discussions and convey the impression of consensus, which can be powerful in swaying public opinion. As an example, think about how easy it would be for a company to hire a blogger to disseminate propaganda and then use these personas and paid traffic to make it seem like the blog is generating a lot of traffic, giving it legitimacy. It's easy to see how an organization with resources can accomplish its ends in a totally opaque and seemingly organic fashion.

But fundamentally, the forces at work and the larger changes in the playing field favor the grassroots protests and Wikileaks of the world. The outsiders have real people behind their cause - and, in many cases, some pretty skillful hackers. It isn't hard to envision a world in which protests - be they against governments, corporations, or people - are taken to the next level. 

Holding up signs outside an oil company whose drilling is killing indigenous people in Peru doesn't really do much. Conversely, educating everyone connected to the CEO - friends, family, etc. - about the atrocities the oil company is perpetrating can have a massive impact on the CEO's life. Imagine the effect of his/her 10 year old daughter, grotesque picture in hand, asking why her parent is responsible for the deaths of so may people.

This is but one example - the possibilities are nearly endless when you combine the ability for large, distributed undertakings of the crowd with a baseline level of organization and communication, which is already in place and only becoming crowd-friendlier. Thus, the future of civil disobedience and protests is open source communities coalescing around systems disruption - Egypt and the DDoS attacks are the tip of the iceberg.  

These tactics will be used by all parties, but in the end I hopeful that the just causes will prevail far more often than not. The internet greatly increases the possibility for transparency, resulting in the greater spread of truth, around which the crowds rally to bring about change. Of course, the path will certainly be filled with confusion and setbacks - for example, the mass persona software programs mentioned above will certainly have success until internet denizens learn of their existence en masse and web companies respond by making social media fraud more difficult. But these will happen, and the freedom of information on the internet will generally work against such tactics, giving them shorter and shorter half-lives.

And so perhaps its naive optimism, but I think the true beneficiary of the sort of targeted systems disruption proposed by Aaron Barr (and carried out by countless others, in all likelihood) will be the disenfranchised crowds seeking justice.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Fun links

Wanted to share some interesting stuff I came across over the past couple days (mostly via Reddit and Twitter). Also, have an interesting blog post coming trying to analyze the HB Gary stuff - stay tuned.

Hilary Clinton on Internet Freedom via GigaOm
Title pretty much sums it up. It's unfortunate (but expected) to see the Government yet again apply the double standard promoting all US Government interests rather than protect the web.

Shell's Worrisome Report on the Future of Oil via The Sietch Blog
When Shell throws its hands up and says "we're screwed," it's time to start worrying about oil. Just sayin'.

Really Cool Analysis of Twitter and Languages During Egypt's Revolution via KovasBoguta
Visualizes who was tweeting in what language, what kind of influence they had, and how news made its way over from Egyptians tweeting in the streets to mainstream news outlets in America. Very cool.

How Congress has no Insider Trading Rules via Democrat and Chronical
Depressingly obvious short piece about how members of congress can literally profit off of their inside knowledge, and, statistically speaking, do.

Mosanto Being Mosanto via Red, Green, and Blue
More of the same here. Nothing to see. These are not the seeds you're looking for. *Hand wave. Move along.

Glenn Greenwald's Original Piece on HB Gary/Wikileaks via Salon
A nice summary of what happened plus a characteristically fun rant on the state of corporate/govt collusion in this day and age. I'll hopefully have a post up with some analysis on the entire incident in the coming days.

Greplin launches public beta. A simple AJAX search engine that aggregates your email, calendar, social networking sites, etc. Very awesome.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Passion and Entrepreneurship

Disclaimer: this is a pretty banal post on a very cliched topic. If you want exciting/juicy, check out how Microsoft bought Nokia for a balmy $0B (thanks Scott).

So I woke up this morning with the goal of getting a post up on the blog. Procrastinating through some writers block, I got into a conversation with a friend who is trying to move from her second tier finance job in upstate NY to a first tier one.

When I mentioned I knew several start ups in Boston hiring (including Athleague!), she responded saying that startups are risky. Fair enough, so I asked her what she was passionate about; her response was deeply saddening: nothing.


What is this crazy world(/country/coast/collection of really cold Northeast cities) we live in? Our brightest graduates of supposedly best institutions of higher learning in the world finally enter the real world - with the passion so thoroughly beaten out of them that they see no better use of their time than to spend the most active and free days of their entire lives sitting at a computer, working on a modern-day abacus to help their boss (to help their boss to help their boss) use their existing pieces of paper (plus the ones they borrow at a discount from the government) to make more pieces of paper, far removed from (and completely apathetic to) any consequences of those abacus findings.

We enjoy the greatest wealth in all of human history, owing it all to the toils of adventurers and entrepreneurs, artists and teachers, explorers and doctors, scientists and musicians, engineers and authors (and 3rd world wage-slave labor and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and indigenous populations - wait, wrong rant). And this is what we're reduced to. It's embarrassing.


Who is to blame? Our schools? Our culture? Or is it you, for letting the external influences cause you to lose sight of who you are. I have no idea, and perhaps that's only the second most important question, the most important being: what is your passion?

The P word, as one our investors fondly reminds me, is one of the most important thing in life. Ask yourself what in your life gives you true, deep happiness. Specifically, ask yourself how these things are related to money, or if they are at all. The whispers of science have joined the wisdom of the ages and begun to pick away at the corporate-driven consumer culture that glorifies wealth and suppresses contentment.

Once you've answered this all-important question, the path from passion to lifestyle is that of the entrepreneur - understanding this system for what it is (a crazy, stupid, but opt-out-able set of rules), and developing a way out of the prison. It can be as simple as the mischevious, slacking banker who spends company time researching the model car he's building on the weekends, as ambitious as the man who resolves to set his country free, or as original as the seemingly crazy person who peacefully lives out his days in bliss on an ashram.

The only guarantees are death and taxes - the rest is up to you. Plot your escape.
Reposted to test my Twitterfeed

Monday, February 07, 2011

Suboptimal Super (Bowl) Decisions

So this stuff gets written about to death on the many NFL stats blogs, but it continues to boggle my mind and was a great excuse to crank out a post, so I figured I'd throw some thoughts up on the blog. I'm just going to comment briefly on one choice by either head coach in the waning minutes of the game.

Packers have the ball, 2nd and Goal, at the Steelers 7, and the Steelers have one timeout left. Short pass nets 2 yards, clock is running with about 3 minutes left. Inexplicably, the Steelers choose to let the clock run instead of using their last timeout. Let's take a closer look:

When the goal is to preserve as much time as possible, a timeout called on defense is much more valuable than one called on offense: on offense, a timeout saves you distinctly less than 40 seconds (because you're not going to burn all of your play clock), whereas on defense it saves you the full 40. So we conclude that the Steelers should use their timeout while on defense.

Next, they can either use it or wait until after 3rd down. However, waiting is a poor choice for a few reasons:
  1. The Packers could score
  2. The Packers could throw an incomplete pass, stopping the clock
  3. A bit more subtly, the Steelers having no timeouts left would add some incentive for the Packers to run the ball, an outcome which is much less likely to produce a game-ending touchdown. 
As it turned out, the 2) happened. So while the Steelers kept their timeout, the kickoff happened with 2:07 left to play. Worse, the kickoff took the clock below 2 minutes, wasting the 2 minute warning clock stoppage. Instead of getting the ball back with about 2:40 left to play and the 2 minute warning, they got it back with 2 minutes and a timeout - a big difference. Really, the Steelers should have called timeout after the Packers completed a short pass on 1st and Goal, and not even waited for 2nd down. Regardless, a poor choice by Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin.

Rewinding a bit, the Packers were faced with their own decision - whether or not to go for it on 4th and Goal from the 5 with 2:10 left, up by 3. Those new to the new-school football stats analysis would think kicking the field goal is a no-brainer - in reality, going for it is the obvious call. I'll let Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats walk you through the scenarios:

[The Packers] opted for the easy FG to go up by 6. The Steelers would now need a touchdown, but often, forcing a team to go for the win rather than the tie can be counter-productive. This might be a little abstract, but by channeling your opponent into a more aggressive, and likely more optimal risk/reward posture, might not be smart. In other word, even if GB fails on the 4th down TD attempt, the Steelers are left at or inside their 5 yd-line and are "thinking FG."

From the 5, conversions are successful 37% of the time. A successful conversion puts GB up by 10 points, sealing the win with a 1.00 WP. A failed conversion gives PIT the ball at their own 5 with 2:10 to play, worth 0.87 WP to GB. On net, the go-for-it option is worth a 0.92 WP.

FGs from the 5 are good 97% of the time. Going up by 6 and kicking off is with worth 0.75 WP. A missed FG puts the ball on the 20, worth 0.83 WP. On net the FG option is worth 0.75 WP.

WAIT! Did I just say that missing the FG would be better than making it? Yes, that's exactly what I said, and historically, that's exactly the case. The reason is likely because teams down by 3 play for the FG in that situation, while teams down by 6 are forced to play for the win. Once inside FG range, they pull up and stop taking risks, accepting a long FG attempt that, even if successful, only buys them a tie--0.50 WP. I suspect Tomlin would be thinking differently, so the answer to whether the Packers should have gone for it isn't so clear. But based on league-baseline numbers, and some counter-intuitive thinking, going for it would have been the better decision by large margin, about 0.15 WP.
The WP stuff can be a bit confusing - it means Win Percentage, the chance that a given team will win the game (historically based on the situation that they are in). So basically, going for it would mean the Packers would win 92% of the time, where as kicking a FG would mean a win 75% of the time. It makes sense if you think about it - even it the Packers don't convert, the Steelers are pinned deep in their territory, hoping to kick a FG to tie the game. Burke's last point about the impact of the various situations on play-calling is also an interesting one.

It's incredible how much these suboptimal decisions persist in football. It's been written about a bunch, but for both coaches to make such poor calls in the most important moments of the most important game of the year is quite astounding. 

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Case for Twitter

I realized it's been far too long since I've been a regular here, and I'm going to try to change that this year. I've been silent for a couple reasons: First, of course, is Athleague - we're continuing to grow the company and seeing some success. I'll try to be better about sharing our story, the various decisions that got us here, and the path forward.

Second, the fever pitch of the innovation/Y-Combinator/Silicon Valley/New-York-is-the-new-Valley/oh-great-now-the-government-is-getting-involved/every other web start up meme is just too high.  When people get overly giddy about entrepreneurship, when I overhear gems like "so we'll be cashflow positive in 6 months," when people forget the blood, sweat, and tears that define start ups - I get worried. I hope I'm wrong.

That said, as much as I miss California, I must admit it's a little nice living out in Boston, away from most of the hype, surrounded by snow, and able to just focus and work. But I'm going to try to restart the whole blogging thing, and I wanted to kick off 2011 getting back to the roots - some casual technology musings. Most of my friends aren't on Twitter, and I'd like to make the case for it. Note - anyone who is reading this blog is probably a web nerd, and will find the below useless. In general, this is a pretty poor/boring post, mostly for myself to get back into blogging. As always, proceed wary of wasting your time.

To start, "aren't on Twitter" is an understatement - from anecdotal evidence, Twitter is the web equivalent of mushrooms and cilantro (sidenote: your author believes both are awesome). More so than most websites, it's loved or hated. More interesting is how few of my friends are on Twitter - I'd say around 5% or less. Most haven't tried it, and they maintain the view it's full of narcissistic babble. Not that that isn't correct, but I thought I'd outline why I use Twitter, and why I think it's awesome:

1) Content discovery. More than anything else, I discover great content on Twitter - so much so that it could be my most essential source. Google Reader gives me everything I want but few recommendations, since so few people use it - it's more a great way to read what I know I'm going to read. Beyond that, Reddit (and it's crazy/awesome community) has earned a special place in my heart, but it's often quite trivial (not a bad thing, necessarily).

Twitter combines the best of these two - I get content I wouldn't have otherwise found, and I can easily control for quality. I can't tell you how many great articles/videos/pictures I found because Twitter.

2) Keeping up with organizations I'm interested in. Any company or non-profit worth its salt has a well updated Twitter feed. By following them, I'm easily notified about what they're up to. Yes, they have a Facebook page, but, imo, Twitter is a much better form factor for this. Facebook will rarely bubble this stuff up to your feed, but on Twitter you get short, simple updates in an unintrusive fashion.

3) It's funny.

4) The narcissism - I want to try to address this head on. When it came to Twitter, some of my friends commented, "I just don't have anything interesting to say" or "why do people think anyone else cares what they have to say."

Well, some people do have interesting things to say. Reference #3. More than that, it's a fun way to keep in touch with friends. One of my rooommates works at a private equity firm - there are weeks I don't see him between Monday and Friday (and I usually don't sleep until 1 or 2 am). However, he has a hilarious, private Twitter feed in which he spouts random musings from his day. They help him share his (often brutal) day and connect with his friends all over the country.

This is just one example - like any medium, some people will abuse it, some people will produce stuff you want to see. You don't not watch TV because Jersey Shore is on, do you? Or stay away from Facebook because that one friend's annoying status updates? Your and others' narcissism will find its ways to shine, with or without a microblogging service. Don't pretend that staying away from Twitter somehow doesn't make you narcissistic. :)

5) Learn. To me, this was the initial draw and still is the most important. Twitter enables a new kind of communication, one that changes the human dynamics. By no means did Twitter solely enable mass uprisings in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, and others, but it clearly played a role. I hate how "realtime" has become an overused buzz word, but it aptly describes what Twitter does. The service has implications for the way we communicate, organize, conduct marketing, and countless other applications.

So there - maybe some of you will try it out. I don't have much to say, but you can follow me @TheMishra, and if you shoot me your Twitter handle, I'd love to read your contributions to the Twitter-sphere.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Strategic Government (Part 2 of 2)

In the first part of this post, I pointed out some flaws in the way our government is set up, and a few examples of how these flaws manifest themselves in American society. In this post, I'll try to flesh out the philosophy that I think should be guiding our government - strategic and systems-level thinking.

Each aspect of an operation can be broken down into a system - there are inputs, outputs, and procedures for operation. The key insight of strategic government is the understanding that the system is not static - each of the components of the system can, will, and should change over time. Healthcare should use newer, safer, and cheaper technologies, teaching should incorporate psychological research to improve methods, and so on.

The question them becomes what principles should underlie these systems - what should the strategy be. 

Today's government agencies face similar issues - they can grow corrupt and impotent. The former is solved by keeping things as local and transparent as possible. And the latter, as I see it, can only be solved one way - competition. Competition provides the motivation to innovate and ensures a higher caliber of personel in an organization. Say we had competing FDAs, education systems, etc. - agencies (local, regional, or national) would shine and rise to prominence, but then, over time, grow brittle and corrupt, only to be replaced by better ones. This would give the power to the people - want to advance local, sustainable farming? Start an agency or buy from the one that promotes it.

(You could argue that this is possible in today's world, but my whole point is that the existence of government agencies impedes progress. The regulations imposed by the FDA on meat providers makes it difficult and expensive for small farms to get their products to market. The FDA has a monopoly on the rules for producing meat and thus no reason to innovate. And today's FDA is bloated, opaque, and full of industry insiders - you can almost be certain that a few FDA officials are friends with the owners of the large slaughterhouses, who have made it clear they don't want the competition that small farms would introduce.)

Furthermore, we should strive to harness people's passion to reduce cost and increase innovation. Open source principles - which allow anyone in the community to propose ideas and conduct research - are a great way to accomplish exactly this.

An example - an open source education board tasked with setting teaching methods and materials instead of the status quo, where executive boards based on seniority essentially set the agenda and everyone else must follow. How could this play out?

A very close friend of mine teaches in the Bronx and is having success using novel methods to stimulate his 8th grade class's interest in literature and poetry. If he could post videos of his class sessions online to community of teachers nationwide, his practices could be "voted up" (much like videos on YouTube) and employed by other teachers (or, conversely, ignored because his peers don't think they work).

Let's take a closer look - what would happen in this scenario? His methods would be debated, teachers would argue and get mad. Factions would form as people, being only human, would take the new ideas as new religions or personal affronts. But, over time, best practices would survive and thrive, and more students would thus have a better education. Which brings me to my next point...

Many would argue this sort of system is chaos - and they're right. It's messy and crazy and nuts. It is in fact true that there will be times where the various FDA-type organizations are more inadequate, resulting in less informed purchasing decisions and potentially more dangerous food. It's a scary thought, one that typically kills this line of thinking. Without a federal government to regulate food, how will I know I'm not buying poison?

But this is the wrong question - we should be asking if this system is better or worse than the status quo. While a decentralized approach seems to open us up to the negative elements of chance, a closer looks reveals we're always exposed to these elements due to the inadequate nature of our current agencies - the Mad Cow and Salmonella scares happen even with the FDA. It is unclear whether they would occur more frequently in a libertarian system, and they may actually happen less often due to the decrease in collusion/corruption (see the BP oil spill). And the upside is enormous - more quickly evolving standards from competition means we don't have to wait years for the FDA to finally recognize that trans fat is bad for you.

This is an important point. Humans are risk averse but not good at identifying risks - we are more scared of terrorist attacks than car crashes, of car crashes than hamburgers, when the burgers are causing way more deaths than crashes and attacks combined. The government run agencies give us a sense of safety, a theoretically bulletproof system. State run schools? Great, my child and every child will get an education. The FDA? Excellent, I'll get food I know is safe and maybe good for me. In contrast, the shortcomings of the libertarian system are plain for everyone to see - when you have multiple FDAs competing, some things will slip through the cracks. We must understand that the big government narratives aren't reality - our schools are filled with awful teachers, and the FDA approving cornfed beef doesn't make it good for you. And when you compare the flaws of the two approaches in reality, it's tough not to conclude that big government agencies tend to be much more harmful in the long run.

Of course there are remaining issues - the devil is always in the details. How would such organizations get funding? How would they serve the poor? Defense and foreign affairs is another area in which I'm largely rudderless. I'm more of the persuasion that the problems can be dealt with in mostly in isolation (i.e. you could layer solutions to those things on top of this type of government), but I've heard some very convincing arguments of the opposite.

However, these are solvable problems - the ones the government should be solving. Instead of trying to build the best healthcare bureaucracy possible, they should be focused on designing a system that forces transparency and accountability and allows for adaptability, competition, and entrepreneurship to solve problems. Monopolies will inevitably become self-serving and ineffective - from a particular agency to the entire government. Obviously, you would need some degree of centralization - my point is more that decentralization and open source can be employed more often than the are today to effectively solve problems.

This should sound familiar - it was what the founding fathers tried to do. They understood the best government was one that was local and always changing. They believed the Constitution should be rewritten every 50 years and that states should be laboratories for democracy. They even gave us the right to bear arms to remove the government's monopoly on violence. Think about how deeply they understood this principle, and far removed from their vision we are today.

It's a messy process, but I believe this approach would be way better than what we have today. We need to approach government at a level of systems engineering, of strategy and not tactics.

I'll try to follow this up with some specific case studies. Clearly, any sort of transition would have to be well thought out and would take much time.

Would love to hear feedback as my views on this topic are far from certain. Credit for this post goes to a few brilliant individuals and authors, as none of the ideas here are my own.

Strategic Government (Part 1 of 2)

So I wrote a really long blog post about our government, and upon finishing I realized I was better off splitting into two halves. This one will address the structural problems I see today, and the second some potential solutions. These are written for fun - to make myself crystalize thoughts into tangible points and to get feedback to add new elements and ideas to my thinking. Make of them what you will. (Also, apologies for the long gap in the "Healthy Living" series - and, unfortunately, it's going to continue. I will get back to it when work and life allow.)

Today, the prevailing ideology regardless of political party is that the federal government, with its power and resources, is the proper institution to provide for or regulate the basic rights we've defined in our country (everything from food/water to education and health care). This is especially true when the poor are involved - locked in a cycle of poverty and unattractive to private innovation, they would be in a far worse situation than the status quo without government run programs and standards. Any societal problem that arises is solved the same way: a government agency is tasked to fix it. 

When we turn to centralized government to solve problems and regulate industries, the quality of service we get is directly dependent on the quality of people in the government - if we have rockstars at every agency, we'll get a great return on our tax dollars and enjoy the efficiencies of scale that central organization provides. However, we have no built-in methodology for assuring this outcome outside of elections, which are indirect and, empirically speaking, largely ineffective.

This approach - creating government solutions to problems - is a tactical and not a strategic one. Today, our government goes from fire to fire, trying to put it out without developing any sort of broader strategy for how to fight fires. This works fine, especially at first - when the passionate and unselfish individuals who created the specific fire-fighting solution are still around (be it an agency or government program) - but eventually the programs grow bloated and, in my opinion, less and less able to handle the problems they're charged to solve. 

This seems self-evident - the SEC has no control over Wall St., our public education system is leaving many children behind, the FDA is classifying french fries as vegetables at schools (any wonder we're so fat?), and our offshore drilling oversight has allowed oil rigs to basically have no backup plan. Be it corruption or ineptitude, it's hard to find a government agency that is widely acknowledged to be doing a good job. (I'm sure I'm overlooking stuff here so I'd love to hear some counter examples.)

The status quo has a clear predisposition to failure. As government agents strengthen their ties to industry (formally by past work experience and informally through social networks), corruption naturally becomes institutionalized, for very human reasons: if you're friends with the people that your policies are going make life tougher for, you're going to think twice before making those policies. Throw in the obvious bribes and favors, and it's easy to see why the system is doomed to fail. 

The takeaway is that government should be concerned with strategy, not tactics. The approach is not "how do we build the best FDA?", then "how do we build the best SEC?", and so on - it's "how do we build the best regulatory agency?" - a systems engineering viewpoint. How do you create a system in which any industry can be sustainably regulated, be it by an outside agency or laying the groundwork for self-regulation?

This is obviously a very complex question. The intricate web of incentives and the diversity of human nature make any system fallible in a large number of ways. People work for or with the government for a number of reasons: they're passionate about their cause, they want a steady job, they know they can make easy money from bribes and favors, etc. They are motivated by vastly separate goals and desires.

The approach to government needs to take all of this into account. The purpose is to build an overall strategy - we're looking to maximize benefit (progress, justice, effectiveness) and minimize harm (waste, corruption, ineffectiveness). No system is perfect but the point is we need to be thinking about these broader issues and distilling them into sets of rules that can then be applied to each specific iteration of the regulation, utilities, and resource problems.

I'll lay out a very rough groundwork for potential solutions in a subsequent post. Again, the purpose is to get feedback and new perspectives, so feel free to share your thoughts. I've clearly left many important points out - either by choice for brevity or, more likely, by ignorance and poor analysis.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Healthy Living" - The Tenets (part 2)

So this post has been severely delayed. Apologies. One of the biggest reasons I'm doing this is to get myself to blog more, and it's already not working. Clearly this doesn't bode well, but I'll carry on and try to get better at following through on this.

So here we go:

Sleep habits - This is a big one, big enough to sneak in Part 1 if I hadn't rambled on for so long. Sleep is one of the biggest unknowns in science. For the life of us, we can't figure out why we do it. We can't take any particular bodily function and say that sleep factors directly into its existence. But we do know that a lack of sleep results in a host of negative side effects - increased risk of diabetes, reduced cognitive throughput, weight gain, impaired judgment, decreased attention span, and more.

Regardless of your religious beliefs, for this lifetime, your body is you. When you do something bad to your body, it tries to find ways to tell you this. If skimping on this one activity causes this many ill effects that we can already measure, and if we don't even understand why we sleep in the first place, think about all the harmful effects a lack of sleep causes that we don't yet know about.

Or, in short, there are very few things core to our existence. Sleeping is one of them.

Nutrition - Similar concept to sleep in many ways. Eating food is, again, one of the few things we absolutely must do to stay alive. Most of you know my take on this: natural, home cooked, fresh, etc. is the way to go. Packaged, fast, synthesized food should be avoided. If you've been living in a cave and haven't read any Michael Pollan, get at it. He spells it out much better than I ever could, especially the tagline for his 2nd most recent book, In Defense of Food, which reads: Eat food, not too much, mostly plans (food as opposed to food-like substances, i.e. almost anything in a package). Nice and simple summation of the philosophy I'm going to try to follow.

Joint/body impact vs fun - This is the first of a stranger set of beliefs that will guide the redesign. One of the biggest areas of rethinking I've been trying to do has been in the area of exercise. I started to question some assumptions I had held my entire life - most fundamentally, the harder your train, the healthier you are.

When I thought about this, this doesn't make much sense. Why is doing crazy cardio that keeps your heart rate at 160+ for extended periods of time good for you? The heart, like any machine designed by nature or man, is optimized for medium usage. It's not good for your car to run at 6,000 rpms on a consistent basis. Why should our bodies be any different? It's a simple materials issue - pushing a system to the high end of its performance capabilities will strain the materials involved, be they metal or living tissue.

Even if you're not with me there, I'm assuming you'll agree that joint impact is an issue. Despite the new barefoot running movement, there is no getting around the plain truth that running is probably not great for your knees. Ditto for other high impact exercises. The machine analogy applies again - if you strike a system with higher degrees of force, you're more likely to cause long term damage.

But on the flip side, some high impact activities are just plain awesome. There are few things in life more fun than a great game of football or more exhilarating than a 20 degree run through Boston Common (a newfound passion of mine, though by no means am I sad to see the winter go).

So my goal will be to optimize along these two goals - if I go for a run, I'll try to keep it short and pay attention to how my knees feel, and if I'm going to be running around for a long period of time, I better be having a blast (playing a game of football, for example).

Sports - Along those lines, I also want to play more sports. They're fun, and the competition gets the juices flowing.

Trying new things - This is also a bit of a subset of the joint impact vs. fun point. Pushing the bounds of what you know and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations is always a great learning experience and a great time. So, when I'm doing active things, I want to make an effort to experiment with activities I haven't tried. Martial arts, rock climbing, and wind surfing are a few I'm kicking around right now.

I think that's it for now - did I miss anything? I'm going to synthesize these into an exact regimin, which I'll describe in my next post. And after that, it's time to get at it. Hopefully I can stay disciplined and get the next post up soon.