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.