Monthly Archives: September 2004

Extreme Democracy and More at Future Salon

Last night I went to the Future Salon: Extreme Democracy event in Palo Alto. I didn’t have school – Jewish holiday – so I didn’t mind getting back home until 10:30 PM. It was excellent, and free!

I had never heard of this concept of “extreme democracy” before but that being the topic (intertwined with internet stuff) made it quite appealing to me. There were three speakers – Ross Mayfield of Socialtext (excellent), Zack Rosen of CivicSpace (he started the key collaboration software behind the Dean campaign), and Tom Atlee, author of Tao of Democracy.

The audience was made up of hippies/idealists left over from the 60s, business guys in suits, geeks in t-shirts, and overall just really smart, politically engaged folks. Zack started off talking about his work trying to allow civic organizations allow their local branches to organize and make change – cool stuff.
Ross then talked about social software, wikis, and blogs and tried to tie those concepts into democracy and political organizing. Finally, Tom presented case studies from Denmark and British Columbia about how they think about democractic decision making. All in all, very interesting stuff, stuff that I want to learn more about and think about how Comcate can perhaps get involved given our work with local governments. Fundamentally this is about: How can we improve the democractic process that is our government? Highlights, tidbits:

  • In the 80’s, making your voice heard consisted of institutional lobbying, inside-the-beltway politics. Reagan changed all that by insisting the public contact representatives and apply public pressure. Someone asked if sending 1,000 emails and faxes to a congressman really does anything now versus a lobbyist presenting a $1k check. Ross smartly responded that it’s either $1k check or $1k worth of staff time dealing with all the public contacts.
  • The Dean campaign used a wiki for policy analysis and decentralized news analysis. In other words, different volunteers and staff would analyze various media outlets in different regions and post reports on a wiki.
  • Is Wikipedia authoritative? Well, the only thing we know is that the quality of each article gets better every 5 minutes. Ross mentioned that he is working with some professors and journalism schools to compare the quality of Wikipedia to Britannica.
  • Big/Old/Legacy/Mainstream Media exaggerates differences, disputes, and polarization because it creates better stories.
  • Ross doesn’t buy into the “echo chamber” concept because he thinks things are getting more transparent and that private email lists are turning into public forums.
  • In Denmark they have citizen-councils – a group of about 15 people who represent a complete array of interests, often competing interests. They bring together all these different constituencies and a facilitator and discuss important issues. In the process, “experts” on the issue will come and testify (“Experts on-tap, not on-top”) to the council. In essence, this is like a citizen jury that reflects the community’s values. People know don’t know a lot about the issue but are facilitated to a concensus statement at the end. Media and other citizens watch the proceedings and then it becomes a big issue for the real government to act on.
  • “Wisdom Generation”: The building of collective understanding among diverse groups.
  • This notion of concensus, deliberative, democracy supplements actual democracy, not replace.

I don’t know about you, but there is something really exciting about new ways of thinking about our democracy. Cleary, two giant, opposing parties who play a political game of inches is not going to move our country in the right direction. $100 M has been spent this election on what? George Soros says that after thinking about how to support philanthropic endeavors that back his values he concluded making sure Kerry wins is the best choice. I would disagree. If we spent all this money and intellectual resources on rethinking the very roots of our democracy, much better change could come. Check out Extreme Democracy and the Tao of Democracy.

The Most Creative Uses Of That Four Letter Word

After posting a comment on Brad Feld’s post about “freaking” as a substitute for “fuck,” and in the process of that comment I posted a link to my favorite Bobby Knight half-time speech, on the same site I found two other top sports f-bomb tirades:

1. Bobby Knight Halftime Speech – The only clip I have found that actually recorded what Mr. Knight said to his Indiana U team at halftime. Unbelievable.

2. Lee Elia Goes Off on Cubs Fans – Just listened to this. 43 out of the 456 words are curses. Ouch!

3. Earl Weaver on Radio Show – Balt Orioles manager goes off during a radio interview…This sounded like it was on the air. I can only imagine what the radio show was thinking as he started dropping f-bombs left and right.

Am I Going to Suffer From Info Overload? Slate Added to Aggregator

I’ve never until the past couple days read Slate or Salon except for the casual visit. Slate’s articles are mostly free and I’m not prepared to pay for another monthly service for Salon (though I might – the two for one combo of Salon and The Well seems pretty appealing). Plus, Slate publishes a couple sentence description of all their new articles each day in RSS format so I can add them to my aggregator.

I’ve been very impressed with Slate’s stuff so far, and the description in the aggregator is enough to allow me to judge whether to click through or not. My favorite feature of Slate is its daily “Today’s Papers” feature. Here’s today’s. I know this particular feature is blasted out to hundreds of thousands of people each day, so maybe I’m behind the curve. But it is a nice overview of how each major US daily approached the day’s events. This supplements my reading of the NewsDesigner blog which analyzes the graphical, visual choices a paper makes. (There is a weekly feature too which covers all the weeklies.) There have also been some darn good articles that I haven’t seen elsewhere or if I have, not written as well. The best part? They’re all brief and delivered right into your aggregator.

So now I monitor about 50 blog feeds, read three daily papers (Times, Journal, and SF Chronicle though not all sections from all three), two current affairs monthlies (Atlantic and Harpers), three business monthlies (Harvard Biz Review, Fast Company, Inc), two government weeklies (American City and County and Governing), a business weekly (Fortune), a weekly politics/internet email newsletter, a daily Software Information Industry Association briefing, and a few other specialty email lists. Am I suffering from information overload? I hope not. It may be one reason why I have a hard time remembering things that don’t naturally engage me, because I have so much other stuff flying around in my head. Consuming this much information also allows me to easily discern good stuff from BS.

On a related note, does anyone have good articles or resources on digital lifestyle aggregation? I just heard that buzzword, and it sounds intriguing.

Siebel, CRM, Looking Forward

There’s an article in today’s NY Times on Siebel and CRM. Siebel’s CEO gave his first interview since taking the helm. The article puts quite the positive spin on Siebel’s position, calling them the CRM expert and that they have a best in breed solution. Further, Siebel got the spin on that they like: “small and scrappy” and “good for small and medium size businesses.” I’m sure Marc Benioff, CEO of salesforce, would have loved to get a quote, but instead they gave it to the CEO of RightNow. What Benioff would have said is that on-demand, utility computing is the future, Siebel never lets folks like PC Mag test its on-demand product nor do they release their utilization numbers so who knows how succesful it is, c) CAN scale to suit large companies. Alas, this last point is where the whole CRM market gets interesting. Benioff himself has said that if salesforce is to become a very big deal it needs to have customers that have 4, 5, 10 thousand users. Right now the highest is a customer with two thousand. The other interesting thing about this space is how Oracle/SAP approach it. Oracle is going in saying we can provide 70% of what you need and have it seamlessly integrate with our eBusiness suite so every part of your business runs on our softare. That’s a powerful propostion.

Overall, a very interesting market to watch. And for me, to play in.

Edit – one other thing: SugarCRM announced that they raised $2M from Draper Fisher. They sell a completely open-source CRM product. Another interesting development.

Focusing on One Thing at a Time – City Govts Do Not

There was an article in today’s Journal about how Gateway is once again going to focus primarily on personal computers instead of consumer electronics. It made me think of the folks Comcate works with every day – city governments. City governments are the weirdest corporations you’ll ever see. Cities do sewer. Water. Streets. Police. Parks. Fire. Econ development. They provide such an eclectic mix of services that the CEO – or “city manager” – has quite a task. I can’t think of any private sector company that provides the array of unrelated services as city governments. Such diversity makes it a challenging market for us as to engage all the different stakeholders and makes for a long sales process. But it also provides opportunity to sell a lot of different modules and services in to various departments within one agency.

Despite all the talk about the national elections, who you vote for for Mayor or other local offices November 2nd will mean a hell of a lot more for what you see and feel every day…as opposed to who you vote for in Washington to slave away in partisan politics for four years.

Weblogs Murdering the Soul of America's Youth

I picked up on this in today’s NYTimes Book Review Section, but Jeff Jarvis already blogged it. It has to do with Cornel West in his new book saying that a “soul murder” has taken place among America’s youth. Guess what ranks up there with Cocaine and oral sex? You betcha.

In a negative review of pompous Princetonian Cornel West’s Democracy Matters, Caleb Crain writes this: Then there are West’s eccentricities of tone. For the ”soul murder” of American youth, West blames cocaine, Ecstasy, oral sex and –Weblogs. He writes, somewhat cryptically, that ”Since 9/11 we have experienced the niggerization of America.”

Weblogs are murdering the soul of American youth. Wow. It that because we are addictive or just because we like puncturing that self-important bag of tepid wind, West?

Then again, we could use this as our new marketing slogan: Weblogs: as much fun as cocaine, Ecstasy, and oral sex!


First Try at Picture in Blog

I’m trying out putting pictures in my blog for the first time…This was a picture I had handy. It’s a stillshot out of a movie I recently made promoting a club at my school. A little Blair Witch action indeed. Ben_picture

Everyone Can Find Smart People…Interesting People, Now That's Another Thing

I listed yesterday to the program on the local NPR station here called “How Colleges and Universities Are Ranked” because my school’s college counselor was one of the four guests, along with the prez of Reed College, a guy from US News and World Report, and the editor of Washington Monthly. My high school always manages to get some good press. A couple months ago a front page article on the NY Times included one accompanying photograph – one of my college counselor and a student.

The program was mostly same old same old if you’ve follow debacle that always ensues after the US News and World Report college rankings are released each year. Most people say they contribute to the increased levels of stress amongst students and parents and that it promotes poor behavior among colleges trying to boost their ranking. One listener called into the program and commented that as a Silicon Valley recruiter he won’t even talk to someone who didn’t attend one of the top few schools on the rankings. Another person called in and responded saying that the rankings are a reliable indicator of where smart kids are, but interesting people, now that’s another thing. For a lot of professions, if you are smart but not interesting, you won’t go anywhere.

In my experiences as an entrepreneur working with others in the business world, I often come across people who have their undergrad and MBA or PhD from some worldly institution. They are almost always reliably smart. But it’s usually those really interesting guys, the folks that stand out in your mind who could deliver the “aha” or the person you could talk to for hours without ever wanting to leave, who attended XYZ University in Anywhere, USA.

New Trend in Spending

Article in today’s NY Times called The New Trend in Spending talks about how “the good life may be better lived by doing things than by having things.” Excerpts:

We spend too much of our income on restaurant meals, entertainment, travel and health care and not enough on refrigerators, ball bearings, blue jeans and cars….

Restaurant meals have changed, too. More and more of their value comes not from the nutrition and dishwashing services – function – but from the experience the restaurant provides. We don’t go out to eat just to avoid cooking. We go to enjoy different cuisines in pleasant environments….

This result sounds both logical and humanistic. It’s consistent with economic theory. But translated into economic life, it disrupts cherished assumptions. In the popular imagination and the political debate, making things is “real” work. Providing experiences is not. Analysts assume that working in a factory is a good job and working in a hotel is not.

The Age of the Essay

My classmate Zach Lipton (the only person in my school who is also blogging) turned me on to a fantastic article titled The Age of the Essay which is now another arrow in my quiver on why there are some fundamental issues with the way education is approached. This article is about how writing skills and composition is intertwined with reading novels. Excerpts below:

The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens…

The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn’t take a position and then defend it….

And yet this principle is built into the very structure of the things they teach you to write in high school. The topic sentence is your thesis, chosen in advance, the supporting paragraphs the blows you strike in the conflict, and the conclusion– uh, what is the conclusion? I was never sure about that in high school. It seemed as if we were just supposed to restate what we said in the first paragraph, but in different enough words that no one could tell. Why bother? But when you understand the origins of this sort of “essay,” you can see where the conclusion comes from. It’s the concluding remarks to the jury….

Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought– but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation. Real thought, like real conversation, is full of false starts. It would be exhausting to read. You need to cut and fill to emphasize the central thread, like an illustrator inking over a pencil drawing. But don’t change so much that you lose the spontaneity of the original….

Err on the side of the river. An essay is not a reference work. It’s not something you read looking for a specific answer, and feel cheated if you don’t find it. I’d much rather read an essay that went off in an unexpected but interesting direction than one that plodded dutifully along a prescribed course.

I wish this thinking was mainstream, because at the moment I’m slaving my way through a boring Greek drama and yes, we will need to write a boring, old essay on it.