Monthly Archives: October 2004

Measuring the Micro-Conversations in Blogs, and How Do People Change Opinions?

I was talking to Jesse Berrett (a critic, historian, and teacher) yesterday about whether all these “conversations” in the blogesphere really amounted to anything productive/significant in the context of the national discourse. People like Jeff Jarvis herald these “conversations” that go down mostly in the “comments” section of posts or in other people’s blog posts which link to the original as great things which evolve thinking. Is this true? Or are these conversations predominately “this is my opinion and why” and “this is my opinion and why.” Is anyone’s opinion really changing? Or perhaps the meta question is, What process do people go through before publicly changing their opinion? Doc Searls has said I think that on the blogesphere you can never be too steadfast in your opinion because you can instantly be inundated with links and rebuttals causing to change. Is this true?

We all hear about Rathergate and high profile stories about bloggers. But this is mostly about “fact checking your ass.” Jarvis does say here that the blogesphere so far has been mostly about fact checking mainstream media, asking questions that mainstream media won’t ask, and generally taking the role of media criticism. I get the sense that Jarvis hopes that more bandwidth can be spent on issues and things that elevate the quality of the debate. But the “conversations’ which have ensued on Jarvis’ “Issues 2004” posts have been mostly “this is my opinion” and “this is my opinion.” Not too fun to read, or opinion-changing.

So what I want to know is if we can measure or quantify the value creation of all the “micro-conversations” that exist in the 3 million blogs out there. Let’s face it, outside of the most popular bloggers like Jarvis and others (who mostly are former journalists or professors) the rest of us are popular within our own circle of 20, 30, 100, or 1000 readers. And most of those conversations may be about important political issues, but probably more often about a book one is reading, fishing trips, interesting articles, etc. As hundreds of thousands of these small conversations take place in the blogesphere, I wonder how one measures that in any empirical way.

From what I’ve seen of Technorati, it isn’t useful in this way. Anyway, those are my meandering and opaque thoughts at the moment – I’d love for you to clarify any of this for me!

Emerging Neurosociety and Immortality

I posted a few months ago on Zach Lynch‘s blog on practical developments in neuroscience and the emergence of a neurosociety. I believe that we are all just a bunch of chemical reactions and that brain, heart, and soul are all just about neuroscience. I find topics like neuroeconomics facinating. This stuff doesn’t just define us; it is us.

So I have enjoyed two recent posts by Chris Yeh. The first one links to this article from nature.com which discusses a paralyzed man who can now send email and watch TV all through thoughts because of an implanted brain chip that is connected directly to neurons. It won’t be long before such chips are not singular to disabled people.

Chris’ second outlines his prediction that “Mankind will achieve physical immortality in my lifetime” (he’s 30). He includes some great links that outline where science is at in this respect. If I live to 2080, probable barring some unexpected event, I wonder how powerful personal computers will be and if, as Chris suggests, we all will be creating “virtual worlds” and if we will be running on electronic circuit boards instead of biological neurons.

Gone Fishin'

When I was 10 or so I really wanted to go fishing. I don’t know why, but it was always something I’d wanted to do. Finally, my godfather agreed to take me on his next trip. Before we were to go, he died of cancer, and I spoke about his promise to take me fishing at his memorial service. Today, I finally got to try my casting at some trout up near Napa Valley with 5 or 6 friends from school and our Outdoor Ed director Chris. It was raining the whole 2.5 hour drive up and back, but out on the lake and river there was no rain. It was nice. How many fish did we get? Let’s not get into that (it was my first time). After a couple hours at this one lake we were heading back to the van to go onto the next spot when we came across some bikers who were resting. We asked the two women where they were biking to/from. They were 70 miles into a “century” ride. One of the ladies asked, “Want to see my raspberry?” I didn’t know what that meant. Chris said “Yeah, let’s see it!” She proceeded to pull down her pants to reveal her entire left butt cheek with a huge bruise. We were stunned. “I saw a little more than a raspberry there!” Chris said. Ah, the great outdoors.

Accelerating Change Essay

I was pleasantly surprised to get an email the other day from folks organizing the Accelerating Change conference Nov 5-7 at Stanford. There are some interesting speakers and futuristic-like topics on the table. Since it’s happening on a weekend I considered registering but never did anything. Now, I’ve been offered a “high school scholarship” and will be able to go for free. I think they found out about me through my blog. I did need to write up a little essay that addressed: “Describe the most important changes in the world you think you are going to see happen over your lifetime. Is this different from what you would ideally like to see happen? How would you like your government, businesses, schools, and other institutions help you deal with those changes? What things can you do personally to prepare yourself for the future? What can you do to shape the global future?” My quick essay is below. If you’re going to be at the conference, email me and we can hook up.
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In the past we have been able to pinpoint changes on a timeline by taking time in the present to analyze and interpret history. This ability, to both deal with present-day issues while examining how our world has changed in the past, is rapidly deteriorating. Now, we are moving forward at a pace that many of us can not keep up with. We are moving forward with changes that are more complex and scientific than most of us are intellectually capable of digesting. For example, there is a certain amount of human despair when it comes to the simple task of voting. There are so many issues, so many different ideas and opinions, analyses and perspectives, and even more perspectives on perspectives, that it is not hard to see why so many throw our hands up in a confusing torrent of information.

It is not only the amount of information that worries people, but the media through which we receive it. Instead of everyone carefully reading the New York Times and feeling content for the day that they were well-informed, executive-level thinkers now consume 3 or 4 newspapers a day, 20-30 blogs, satellite radio, on-demand TV, and so forth. In the old days it took a printing press to influence opinion. Now all it takes is a personal computer. The result? Millions are exerting their influence, and when taken together, this creates a dizzying array of choices and contradictory opinions.

Hence my avoidance to use “information overload” and instead “stimuli-overload” as the key challenge and change I will see over my lifetime. It is hard to say how this compares with an ideal future. Will this accelerating change ultimately benefit society and the world? We can only find out. We often spend so much time analyzing our past and predicting the future that we forget to take a breath in the present. To that end, the only thing we do know is that change is happening now.

I believe that government must not try to regulate these changes. Instead, it must let innovation and change happen organically. Educational bodies must inform through research and studies. We often hear technology prophets and visionaries proclaim the Next Big Thing and that leaves a lot of people wondering just how much penetration new technologies are having. If universities can help clear the fog in this respect we will all benefit. Businesses, finally, must do what they do best: attract the smartest people, give them the tools to make change, and then turn those ideas into viable concerns. In the United States, it will take a combination of all these institutions in order to keep this country the capital of creativity and change.

It is up to my generation to look at technologies like the internet and say “To what extent do we accept it for what it is versus what it can and should be?” Fortunately, most young people have not had a problem adapting to an always-on world with more information coming from more places than any parent has dealt with. It is necessary for all of us to foster this spirit of optimism and embracement of change through the appropriate incentives to keep this young talent engaged, caring, and most important, rewarded for their role in producing and adapting to change.

End of Faith: Religion and Reason

Below is a review I wrote for my high school paper

I have the upper hand by reviewing The End of Faith by Sam Harris after Jeremy Avins (’06) wrote about it in Issue 2 of the Devil’s Advocate, as well as skimming various reviews in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. Moreover, I have no explicit goals or baggage, such as bolstering the foundation of my own faith. Instead, I read End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason as a high school kid who is agnostic at best, maybe Buddhist, and more likely just confused. I am confused about why wars have been fought all over the world over this thing called religion. I am confused about what spirituality really means. I am finally unable to effectively describe the interchange that exists today between science and religion.

Those disclaimers out of the way, I devoured Harris’ book, with all of its imperfections, and came away with more questions than answers, a disappointing outcome for Harris I would guess since he so vigorously argues his points and attempts to close the door on alternate viewpoints.

At its best, End of Faith offers an intelligent critique of the intersection of beliefs, rationality, and science, and how those influences affect us every day. He is particularly on-the-ball when discussing the new trend of “religious moderation.” Instead of excepting moderates from his blistering attack on fundamentalism, he is even more harsh on their movement, which has blossomed because the Enlightenment, advances in science, and increasing reliance on reason and evidence to fuel society, have in combination chipped away at many tenets of religion.

Harris derails slightly when he attempts to cite various passages from various religious texts as evidence that the religions do not accept (and in some cases advocate killing) non-believers. Avins astutely highlighted contradictory passages from Jewish texts encouraging peace. This is my point. It is easy to close one eye, as Avins does, and read only the parts of the text that fit modern, rational thinking. Or, as Harris does, to discover parts of Islam that are surprisingly violent and conclude that anti-Semitism is intrinsic to the belief. Harris also swims in treacherous waters when he tries to empirically prove that religion is irrational. All his examples have a contradiction or a way to disprove his assertion. But when he arrives at God, Harris seems to just be frustrated that, as Avins says, there is no way to prove that God does not exist. Nonetheless, his line of logic makes more sense than Avins’ reasoning. Avins says, in essence, that early humans could not find any other way to explain things so they credited a higher being. This may prove that it is human nature to want to understand and explain everything, but it certainly does not by default make it rational.

The book finally offers an interesting perspective on President Bush’s faith-based initiatives, the “myth” that religion strengthens communities (surely debatable), and why talk on religion is taboo in today’s culture. Alas, Harris’ versatility also leads to seemingly directionless meandering, as he ventures into abstract philosophy, consciousness, and neuroscience. By the end, I wish he would have devoted those energies on further discussion of the mortality argument (can we humans just not accept that life will end?) instead of showing off his wide-reaching intellect. But my sense is that any well-documented effort like Harris’ can be heralded as a success if it prompts the reader to dig deeper, keep reading, and keep answering millennium-old questions with more questions.

It's good to be "Ben"

An MIT cognitive scientist has released a study in how people’s names have an impact on how others judge their attractiveness. When men in the study were assigned names with a stressed front vowel they were rated as more attractive as opposed to a stressed back vowel. In other words, good news for Dave, Craig, Ben, Jake, Rick, Steve, Matt; bad news for Lou, Paul, Luke, Tom, Charles, George, John. In women the effect was reversed. Good news for Laura, Julie, Robin, Susan, Holly (boosted sex appeal) whereas Melanie, Jamie, Jill, Tracy, Ann, Liz, Amy had the opposite. Source: The Atlantic

Good October Reading

I was able to catch up on some reading this weekend and I came across some gems. Interestingly, the first two are about topics that may seem to have been beaten to death, but they are very well done and original.

1. The New York Times Magazine has a must-read cover article today on the unwavering presidency of George Bush. It’s almost 9,000 words, so print it out. Usually I try to come to a judgement on a political candidate purely on their positions on issues. I don’t like all the emphasis on “style” and interpersonal differences. But this article is probably best look at the very interesting – perhaps troubling – leadership style of our President and how faith and certainly play a role.

2. The November Atlantic Monthly has a terrific article (may need to be a subscriber) on Warren Buffet. No, it’s not more of that rah-rah crap that so many papers like to take when Buffet holds his annual meeting. I would quote, but it wouldn’t do justice. Go read it or buy the issue (there’s other good stuff too).

3. Speaking of other good stuff in the Atlantic, there are several good Letters to the Editor in the current issue including one of the most eloquent defenses of the Iraq war written by a solider responding to James Fallows’ article last month.

4. The October Harvard Business Review (need to subscribe) returns to its winning ways after a couple dissapointing issues. I feel like HBR is essential to get the latest emperical, academic thinking on key business issues. Michael Porter et. al. have a strong cover article on Seven Surprises for New CEOs. There also is a positive book review for Clinton & Me: A Real Life Political Comedy and I’ve added it to my have good articles on this whole issue about whether it is OK to execute teenage criminals or whether it would be unjust because teenage brains still develop until age 20 or so. If there was a way to check out how far along this kid’s brain has developed and whether he has those judgement skills that come with age then it would make it a whole lot easier.

Zurich Exchange Program: I'm In (and have a sister-blog)

I got some good news today that my family and I were one of four families at my school selected to participate in an exchange program with a school in Zurich, Switzerland. This school in Zurich wants to establish a Zurich/San Francisco sister-city relationship and is working with four schools in San Francisco – mine is one of them. When our Dean of Academics first announced this opportunity a few weeks ago I was immediately interested: a Zurich 16/17 year old comes and stays with us for three weeks in early November through Thanksgiving. He’s been in intensive English language studying in Zurich. Then, when school gets out in June, I go to Zurich and stay with that same family for three weeks and take classes there in English as their school is still in session. $500 covers all expenses, everything. What a deal.

So I put my name into the hat. I knew there would be a lot of interest, who wouldn’t want to do this? When I emailed the Dean, I put a sales-spin on it: “I’ve never been out of the country and I believe I could provide this kid an interesting and multi-faceted experience.” Despite my academic struggles, I have a pretty strong relationship with the brass at my school, I seek them out often (hey, who wouldn’t want to spend time with super-smart PhDs).

Yep, I’ve never been out of the country. Most of my friends did all sorts traveling and international programs this past summer. I worked (and traveled up and down the coast on Southwest). It was fun, make no doubt about it, but everyone keeps coming back saying “you really get a whole different perspective.” I was getting anxious.

Today I learned I was chosen. I have started a sister-blog within my TypePad account called My Zurich Exchange Adventures. There, I will be lightly posting news, updates, and pictures both when he comes and when I’m in Zurich and Europe from now till June. Occasionally, I may post Zurich thoughts on this main blog. FeedBurner has a cool feature so I created an animated GIF on the right column of my main blog that says “Latest From Zurich” and it pulls the latest headline from the Zurich blog. if you’d like to subscribe to my Zurich feed, use this link.

I would close with something like “Ciao!” but alas, Zurich has three official languages.

First Who, Then What

This is one of my favorite mantras from Jim Collins. “Get the right people on the bus. Build a superior executive team. Once you have the right people in place, figure out the best path to greatness.” I’ve always loved assembling a really smart, engaged group of people and then watching them germinate new ideas and figure out really complex problems. Naturally, I am taking the same approach toward my school newspaper. We have some editors who don’t give a shit, and I want them out. Most people around here are scared of any sort of confrontation. I’m not. Some get it, some don’t. Those who do, do. Those who don’t, don’t. Some will, some won’t. I like working/mentoring people, but if you don’t have a passion or don’t want to get better, you shouldn’t be in a driver’s seat.

Friends of Ben: Greg Lahann

Network: Ben Casnocha > Mike Patterson > Greg Lahann

Google: Greg Lahann

Greg is part of the same network that my first Friends of Ben profile, Carol Rutlen, is in. Greg Lahann is a partner at Novus Ventures, a VC firm in Cupertino with $150 M under management.

I didn’t really get to know Greg until this past summer. I had met him originally a few years ago but only stayed in touch via email. One day he responded to my general Comcate update with “Hey Ben – good to hear from you, glad all is going well, let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” I made a point to hook up with him come summer time.

We got sushi together at a place near his office and I immediately felt the warmth and kindness from him that i had heard about. As I gave him an update on things and as he filled me in on what he had been doing for the last year or so, I couldn’t help thinking “Why didn’t I stay in touch with Greg earlier on?” Greg probed, asked tough questions, and offered good feedback.

He also did something that I always listen for – speaking in the “we.” Even though we hadn’t talked for more than a year, he was asking things like “So how many clients do we have? Where do we need to go to get to the next stage?” When I work with advisors and partners – or even a new employee – an easy way to gauge how they feel about their affiliation with the company is whether they say “What you guys really need to think about…” versus “We should brainstorm about…”

After our lunch – a lunch in which I recall really opening up, cracking jokes about the NBA and his not eating breakfast – Greg introduced me to the CEO of Insevo a firm focused on GUI integrations btwn software systems. Not only did he introduce us, but he came to my lunch with the Insevo folks and helped facilitate and add his two cents.

I can’t wait to stay in touch with Greg, pick his brain, and find out how his warm people skills can emit such a friendly atmosphere.