Monthly Archives: October 2012

Doggedly Chasing Down the Peloton

Sure, there is junk produced when everyone has a voice.

But one of the great thing about empowering everyone with a soapbox is that there is more of a likelihood that there will be some people who will not be co-opted, instead choosing to find and report the truth, however inconvenient.

The Lance Armstrong story is an example.  The New York Times reports about those that doubted the heroic mainstream story, and chased the truth for years.  An excerpt from the story:

Besides, there was a heroic narrative to be nurtured, and mainstream reporters pretty much stuck to the script — either because they were invested in the legend or were worried about maintaining access to one of the most important figures in sports. There were early and vocal dissenters, including Paul Kimmage, an Irish journalist and veteran of cycling coverage, David Walsh, and Juliet Macur of The New York Times. But for the most part, the journalists who seemed to know the most about professional cycling told us the least. To doubt Armstrong was to doubt the American dream, to effectively be “for cancer,” as his legion of defenders would claim.

But amid the conspiracy of silence, often enforced by Armstrong or his lawyers, according to the report, a small group of dedicated cycling enthusiasts took to blogs and Twitter. His otherworldly accomplishments, they wrote, were a monument not to the power of human spirit, but to the remarkable effectiveness of EPO, an oxygen-enhancing hormone. On Twitter, critics behind handles like@TheRaceRadio@UCI_Overlord and @FestinaGirl jabbed at Armstrong’s denials and the sport’s leadership.

More important, NYVelocity, a tiny hobby blog that mostly covered the New York bike racing scene, helped pull back the blankets on the Armstrong legend…

“Bike racing is a niche sport, and then suddenly someone like Armstrong comes along and makes it 10 times bigger and no one wanted to be the one who went after him,” Mr. Shen said over lunch last week. “Everyone in the industry depended on him or was afraid of him.”

The Chaplin of Tech

From the WSJ Innovators of the Year feature, a curious analogy for Jack Dorsey, but the “efficiency of motion” theme is a helpful way to think about untangling complex systems:

He’s considering Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times as his next cinematic lesson. “Every little move Chaplin does, every tic,” says Dorsey, “is either to further the story or for comedic effect. There’s no wasted motion. It’s so stark and so clear. And when you focus on the details and on efficiency of motion, something really magical happens.”

With both Twitter and Square, Dorsey’s flashes of insight are by-products of a lifelong quest for simplicity and order. Dorsey yearns to create streamlined beauty out of giant ungainly systems that at first glance appear to be irredeemably chaotic. He is the Charlie Chaplin of technologists: He makes the impossible happen through efficiency of motion.

Part-Time Wages; Full-Time Abuse

Entrepreneurs pursue innovation for a variety of reasons.  Many of these have something to do with bettering the world in some way.

One way to better the world that comes from entrepreneurship is through creating something that customers want.

Another important motivation for many of us is through the creation of good jobs for others.  There are few ways to improve the world than providing a regular paycheck to someone through which they can support their individual and family dreams.

This is why some of our attitudes toward certain labor is mystifying today.  The New York Times reports today about the increasing use of  part-time near minimum wage labor.

“It’s almost like sharecropping — if you have a lot of farmers with small plots of land, they work very hard to produce in that limited amount of land.  Many part-time workers feel a real competition to work hard during their limited hours because they want to impress managers to give them more hours. (A retail consultant describing attitudes in the retail world.)”

“You don’t want to work your team members for eight-hour shifts.  By the time they get to the second half of their shift, they don’t have the same energy and enthusiasm. We like to schedule people around four- to five-hour shifts so you can get the best out of them during that time.” (A Jamba Juice manager.)

Now, I don’t have a problem with either part-time or minimum wage labor per se.  They can be great ways for young people to enter the work experience, some jobs are better than one, they can be the gateways to work your way up the ladder to managerial positions, they can be ways to supplement other income, etc.

But, at a certain point, it can become abusive.  Giving people last-minute, irregular schedules week by week so they cannot find other jobs, having policies to primarily employ part-time workers instead of consolidating these into full-time jobs when employees want to work full-time, etc. crosses the line.

If we are not going to as entrepreneurs — as a central part of our mission in starting companies — recognize that this has become abusive, we do have to recognize it as a society.

Facebook liking FourSquare?

In BusinessWeek, there is a profile of Mike Schroepfer, the CTO of Facebook and his current vision of the mobile future of Facebook.

The thing is that it sounds a lot more like FourSquare’s vision for a whole long time now…

This line of thinking stretches to include people using their smartphones to glean more information about the world. “You might see that your friend is in town, or you might be on vacation in Paris and see that your friend Peter visited Paris two years ago and said the duck was great at a particular restaurant,” Schroepfer says. “The question is if we can get to a point on a very regular basis where people are having amazing, serendipitous experiences because of Facebook. I think the more we can make your life be like that and not be boring and lonely, the better.”

Is he talking about Facebook…or FourSquare?

FrontRunning the BandWagons

This quote that Amish Jani tweeted out a few days ago resonated as being in line with this blog’s Antonio Gates theory of talent search/elevation.

It’s really easy to get on a bandwagon and cheer. The truly talented recognize potential before it’s actuated.

For my money, network forms of talent search/elevation/validation are the true radical movement in Web 2.0, inspired by, but ultimately with even more foundation-shifting potential than pure social.

We live in a hackathon-inspired world (github for computer code, behance for design, Kindle publishing for books, Kickstarter for art, design projects, Sidetour for experiences, etc., etc.) where “ability to do” should matter more than the artifacts such as a brand name of firm or school or resume that traditionally intermediated the talent/client relationship.

Simple Economics, Difficult Politics

Historically, sometimes the right economic policy in dire economic situations is not because it would be the right thing to do economically, but because we have no other choice because of some non-economic reason, e.g., the Nazis after the Great Depression.

Arguably, we are living in an even more politically hard-headed time.  Churchill famously said, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” Today’s variation of that perhaps, is “we do the right thing when finally confronted with a choice that transcends politics.”

Paul Krugman’s post on his blog today is straight-up brilliant on how economic theory can be simple but the politics can be hard.  Here’s the excerpt:

Here’s how I interpret what we see in the historical data: financial crises leave an overhang of private-sector problems, principally excessive debt on the part of some subset of economic agents — households, in the case of the United States. Because these agents are either forced or strongly induced to slash spending, the “natural” rate of interest, the interest rate consistent with full employment, falls sharply — and in the case of a severe crisis, falls well below zero.

What this means in turn is that conventional monetary policy, which normally bears most of the burden of economic stabilization, is no longer up to the job.

Now, there are other policy options. You could use discretionary fiscal policy, a k a stimulus, to boost demand; you could use unconventional monetary policy to depress interest rate spreads and/or raise expected inflation, helping get past the zero lower bound problem. Historically, however, countries tend not to do these things, or not to do them on a sufficient scale. Why? Politics. Intellectual confusion. Inertia. Misplaced fears.

Basically, it takes much more clarity and unity to pursue either discretionary fiscal expansion or unconventional monetary policy than it does to cut the Fed funds rate, and few countries manage to display that kind of clarity and unity. And that, in turn, is why it took a war to end the Great Depression; there’s nothing special about military spending from an economic point of view, but as a political matter Hitler managed to override the usual objections to stimulus.

Surf’s Up for Innovation

Waves have long been an important metaphor for me in thinking about opportunity.

If you catch the wave too early or too late, you end up flat or wiped out.  It’s Alta Vista or Direct Hit before Google, or it is social platforms before the world was ready for real names or before mobile platforms were more open, cross-carrier, and didn’t require negotiation with the telcos.

That is why I liked this section from Greg Mcadoo’s (of Sequoia) piece in TechCrunch yesterday:

 Whether it was the major transition from terminals to PC that fueled the likes of Dell and Microsoft, the massive adoption of the Internet that drove Cisco’s rise, or more recently the structural shift towards collaborative consumption that is propelling Airbnb, the disruptive companies didn’t create the waves they rode. Like surfers who aspire to greatness, the founders sought out their wave, often seeing it much sooner than almost anyone else.

They had the foresight to see the future first, the insight to build the right kind of surfboard, the courage to paddle very far out into the ocean amongst the sharks (and naysayers) long before the wave hit, and ultimately the steely determination to ride atop the wave, even as it rose to scary heights, and broke in ways they couldn’t foresee.


The Internet and Information Asymmetries

My comment on Chris Dixon’s post discussing the Internet and principal-agent problems:

In addition to incentives, one of the primary factors underlying principal-agent divergence are information asymmetries.

Mitigating those information asymmetries is something the internet is very good at. e.g.. widely available price information drives prices toward marginal cost and makes it less likely we are ripped off; kickstarter, etsy, sidetour, github, behance, kaggle and other talent elevation platforms can make it easier to find authentic talent instead of relying on mediating people or shortcuts such as resumes or various brand names; opinion creation by bloggers instead of just talking heads, etc..

By mitigating them, networks instead of institutions largely get “more efficient” results, e.g., lower prices, recognition of better talent, a more accurate reflection of views in society, etc.


Yo Annotate

I recently blogged about how to put community into the center of the marketplace.  Three relevant concepts which I discuss were dual-use curation, bookmarking, and single and multi-player modes.  Check that post out for a fuller description.

Let me throw in another concept that can super-effective for building and keeping community in the marketplace, as well as surfacing and validating talent.  This is annotation of the important documents, and this concept is best explained, curiously enough, by rap music.

Andreessen Horowitz recently put money into the rap lyrics community site, Rap Genius, which has built community through the annotation of the meaning of rap lyrics — and Marc Andreeseen explained why in a post:

Only a handful of people know that the big missing feature from the web browser – the feature that was supposed to be in from the start but didn’t make it – is the ability to annotate any page on the Internet with commentary and additional information.

Back in 1993, when Eric Bina and I were first building Mosaic, it seemed obvious to us that users would want to annotate all text on the web—our idea was that each web page would be a launchpad for insight and debate about its own contents. So we built a feature called “group annotations” right into the browser—and it worked great—all users could comment on any page and discussions quickly ensued. Unfortunately, our implementation at that time required a server to host all the annotations, and we didn’t have the time to properly build that server, which would obviously have had to scale to enormous size. And so we dropped the entire feature.

I often wonder how the Internet would have turned out differently if users had been able to annotate everything—to add new layers of knowledge to all knowledge, on and on, ad infinitum. And so, 20 years later, Rap Genius finally gives us the opportunity to find out. It’s an ambitious mission, and one we are proud to get behind.

CTO Vision has a post about applying some of the principles from RapGenius to enterprise IT.  Two excerpts:

RapGenius is a site that lets users upload lyrics. Then it lets other users annotate and explain the meaning of the words for each song. It has rocketed to the top of lyrics sites and is quickly becoming the top destination for lyrics on the net. Part of the reason why is the incredibly smart way they built their annotation capabilities. It is powerful and easy. Users can upload lyrics (or any other text) and others can very easily comment on that. And then people can evaluate the comments and suggested continued improvements. In building a platform for lyrics annotation they have built a great means to add context to text.

One non-rap example is the Apple iTunes Terms of Service.  Clay Shirky uploaded that to Rap Genius after he saw another document (the Mayflower Compact) had been uploaded.  Apple’s terms of service, like so many others, is long and hard to understand. Shortly after Clay tweeted about his upload people started coming in and annotating it and clarifying that is is you are agreeing to if you accept these terms. Other than just explaining, people are also pointing out places that make these terms potentially voidable and other issues of note. This is turning into a great example of how our platform can help people communicate and clarify meaning and form assessments on action the meaning might compel.

Freeing Drugs Data

On Thursday, GSK announced an effort to release to open up its clinical trial data sets to outside researchers, perhaps leading the pharma industry to join the Kaggle trend, in freeing data to get the larger community of smart people to mine innovative truths from the data.

GSK announced:

GSK is fully committed to sharing information about its clinical trials. It posts summary information about each trial it begins and shares the summary results of all of its clinical trials – whether positive or negative – on a website accessible to all. Today this website includes almost 4,500 clinical trial result summaries and receives an average of almost 10,000 visitors each month. The company has also committed to seek publication of the results of all of its clinical trials that evaluate its medicines – regardless of what the results say – to peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Expanding further on its commitments to openness and transparency, GSK also announced today that the company will create a system that will enable researchers to access the detailed anonymised patient-level data that sit behind the results of clinical trials of its approved medicines and discontinued investigational medicines. To ensure that this information will be used for valid scientific endeavour, researchers will submit requests which will be reviewed for scientific merit by an independent panel of experts and, where approved, access will be granted via a secure web site. This will enable researchers to examine the data more closely or to combine data from different studies in order to conduct further research, to learn more about how medicines work in different patient populations and to help optimise the use of medicines with the aim of improving patient care.

This initiative is a step towards the ultimate aim of the clinical research community developing a broader system where researchers will be able to access data from clinical trials conducted by different sponsors. GSK hopes the experience gained through this initiative will be of value in developing and catalysing this wider approach.