Monthly Archives: January 2006

Income Inequality in the U.S.

This is an interesting paper (abstract) by economist Edward Glaeser exploring why there’s so much income inequality in the U.S. as compared to other rich, European nations. Glaeser posits that ethic heterogeneity and different kinds of political institutions are the main drivers.

He also touches on American exceptionalism. 60% of Americans believe the poor are lazy, while only 29% of Europeans think so, even though the prospects for economic mobility are virtually the same. How we are indoctrinated – in schools, in society – makes a big difference. Why are Americans so uncomfortable with socialist ideas, and why do so many of us think the poor should just go to work, whereas Europeans view the poor as "good people beset by forces outside of their control"?

(Hat tip: David Roth)

On Stereotyping, Racial Profiling, Pit Bulls, Arabs, and Malcolm Gladwell

Racial profiling is really thorny and I’m the last one who’s going to have an original solution to the problem. So I enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on stereotypes and generalizing and then Ross Douthat’s call for Steve Sailer to blast it and sure enough Steve’s blistering critique of Gladwell. I’m now more confused than I was before, but that’s a good thing.

Thinking in Terms of Negative Space

Artists often talk about "negative space" when analyzing or creating paintings. It struck me that negative space is a useful metaphor for anything. In basketball, negative space may mean cutting away from the ball and setting picks across the court. In business, it may mean thinking about the little things on the edges of an idea which, when tweaked, turn the idea from foolish to brilliant. (See my post about thinking 1 degree differently.) Painting says:

Negative space is very useful when confronted with ‘difficult’ subjects, such as hands. Instead of thinking about fingers, nails, knuckles, start by looking at the shapes between the fingers. Then look at the shapes around the hand, for example the shape between the palm and the wrist. Laying these in will give you a good basic form on which to build.

And to wrap it up with a visual:

negative space - is it a vase or two faces?negative space - is it a vase or two faces?

Here's What I Don't Get About Gripes on "Feed Overload"

I choose to subscribe to around 280 RSS feeds.

There’s been a lot of chatter about "RSS overload" and "too many feeds" as if someone is forcing loads of information upon helpless feedreader addicts. If I chose to subscribe to 10 more magazines, would it be right for me to cry out in a month that I’m suffering from magazine overload and need some solution? The sensible solution would be to cancel half the subscriptions, since the cost/benefit of spending all the time reading magazines doesn’t add up.

The interesting twist in RSS is that the bar is so low. They’re free. It takes 5 seconds to add a feed to your reader. You can scroll through uninteresting content in seconds. So for many people, even if 2 out of every 10 posts are interesting, it’s worth the subscription. The onus is on the reader to develop that ratio for him/herself and if a feed isn’t cutting mustard, to remove it.

A lot of these gripes I think stem from too much irrelevant information in the RSS reader so people want better filters. Maybe one day there will be really smart filters. Until then, people should develop a signal to noise ratio that works for them, and then stick by it. That means some RSS spring cleaning.

One other suggestion. Once you get above 200 feeds, you can do some pruning. For example, if I didn’t want to get Jeff Jarvis‘ 6-7 posts a day, but still wanted to read his best, most influential posts, I could unsubscribe and still bet that all the other folks I read will link to his important posts. (I still read all of Jeff’s, btw, because he has good thoughts on journalism that many people don’t link to.)

Voodoo Still Winning in West African Country of Benin

Why, how lovely:

Link: Benin | Voodoo still wins | (subscribers only)

A WOMAN in a bright dress dances round in a tight circle, the pumping artery of a headless chicken pressed to her mouth. Nearby, another woman carries a slaughtered goat on her shoulder, sucking on its red neck as she cavorts around. Benin’s national day of voodoo, earlier this month, may not be how Hollywood would have portrayed it, but it comes close. “The women are not drinking the blood,” a voodoo expert, Martine de Souza, explains. “The animals have been sacrificed to the spirits, and the women have been possessed by the spirits, who are accepting the sacrifice.”

Since 1996, voodoo has officially been a national religion of Benin, a small west African republic, where more than 60% of the people are said to believe in it. Slaves from this corner of Africa brought the religion to the New World, most notably to Haiti. Its tenets echo those of many African religions. There is a supreme god, Mahu, and a number of smaller gods or spirits, with whom humans can negotiate.

America in the Eyes of a Frenchman

There’s a lot of buzz around the Tuesday release of American Vertigo by French intellectual superstar Bernard-Henri Levy. I’ve read a bunch of reviews (as well as BHL’s series of articles in the Atlantic which led to this book) and the most entertaining appeared in this morning NYT Book Review, where Garrison Keillor delivered a pretty funny and pretty striking disapproval of BHL’s impressions of America as a later day Tocqueville.

Trying to Distill Myself For a College Interview

I’ve done a half dozen college interviews with local alumni or admissions reps and on the whole they’ve gone really well. In-person interactions definitely work to my advantage. At first, the interview follows the normal contours. "What is your favorite class?" "What do you do in your free time?" "What do you do at school?" But soon enough we trek off the beaten path as I try to explain who I am and what I do in 45 minutes.

My approach for these interviews has always been to be casual and avoid "talking points" or anything else that reaks of superficiality. The upside to this is I establish an authentic, genuine bond with the interviewer. The downside is that when I don’t stick to a script, what I say reflects what’s on my mind – which is pretty much everything under the sun analyzed in multiple ways with ten different parenthetical asides and then a few counterarguments and a few more anecdotes.

Consequently, in virtually all of my interviews, I’ve just instinctually talked a mile a minute about what I’m thinking about: entrepreneurship, religion, emotional intelligence, Americanism, books, morality, etc etc. It probably has made no coherent sense!

The story of my life, at the moment, is the world of ideas with impact – finding them, creating them, analyzing them, challenging them, discussing them. I can think of no more honest – or messy – way to present this story than talking about the ideas themselves. Besides, this is far more interesting than mundane topics like "favorite class at school"!

Becoming Geekified – Learning PHP and mySQL

This semester, as part of a reduced course load at my school, I am studying/learning PHP and mySQL. To make it easy for my sponsor and others to monitor my efforts, I’m sporadically chronicling my progress at becoming a bona fide geek at my sub-blog Casnocha Turns Geek. (If I weren’t 6′ 4" and co-captain of my basketball team, I perhaps could pass for a geek since I wear glasses – most kids opt for contact lenses – and reasonably tight fitting jeans, but I digress.)

Back in the day, when I was 12 years old, I watched Dan Rather announce the latest dot-com millionaire and immediately charged up to my room and taught myself HTML. When I was building my first dot-com I coded all the HTML pages by copying from other sites and then modifying. I worked diligently to create separate versions for IE and Netscape. When I started my second (and current) company, Comcate, I hired a programmer in Bangladesh to code the prototype in PHP and mySQL. Though we’ve completely re-written the product since, we still use those open source technologies. It’s about time I try to understand what our tech guys have been up to the past 5 years!

Also, an early technology mentor of mine once told me: The most successful people in the Silicon Valley are those who can talk tech at a granular level AND communicate effortlessly with business people/lay people. That’s never been more true.

While I never want or expect to be a programmer, I hope this study will ultimately lead to a greater understanding of web application development, web servers, software as service, and some of the cool web 2.0 technologies coming out…

I Got My Personal Finance Ass Kicked

I asked my friend Ramit Sethi, who writes the I Will Teach You to Be Rich blog, to come to my high school and speak to the senior class on personal finance. He was awesome and the compliments about his talk continue to pour in. It was a nice mix of useful tips and explanations styled with a certain hipness to appeal to the high school demographic.

When I turn 18 in about a month, I will be organizing my finances. I’ll be buying Quicken to track my weekly budget, getting a couple credit cards, opening a high interest online savings/checking account, and investing in an index fund. As per Ramit’s suggestion, I’ll be thinking about my finances  from short-term, medium-term, long-term perspectives and have various accounts for each category. I will also be buying some books to help me understand this stuff.

I know that by starting now – even with small numbers – my 40 year old self will thank me!

Self-Deception and Confirmation Bias in Politics and Life

The always insightful Tyler Cowen linked to one of his papers which is really interesting and accessible to the lay reader called Self-Deception as the Root of Political Failure. A related article in the NYT mentioned how liberals and conservatives will unconsciously ignore data which refute their view and glob onto data which supports their predetermined opinion.

Self-deception is essential to staying confident and acting assertively. We all think we’re smarter than we really are, are responsible for success more than we really are, etc. This has been proven time and time again in studies. Those who don’t self-deceive are usually depressed. I think this is generally a good thing, but when self-deception meanders from the realm of maintaining an upbeat, confident outlook on life to corrupting decisions to fit predetermined views, it can be dangerous.

Cowen’s abstract:

Individuals discard free information when that information damages their self-image and thus lowers their utility. More specifically, individuals prefer to feel good about their previously chosen affiliations and shape their worldviews accordingly.  This model helps explain the relative robustness of political failure in light of extensive free information, and it helps to explain the rarity of truth-seeking behavior in political debate.  The comparative statics predictions differ from models of either Downsian or expressive voting.  For instance, an increased probability of voter decisiveness does not necessarily yield a better result.  I also consider political parties as institutions and whether political errors cancel in the aggregate.  I find that political failure based on self-deception is very difficult to eliminate.