Monday, July 27, 2015

Monica Lewinsky and the Price of Shame

Monica Lewinsky is infamous for her affair with Bill Clinton. I thought that her TED speech was very moving. She talks about cyberbullying and humiliation. The transcript is here: http://www.ted.com/talks/monica_lewinsky_the_price_of_shame/transcript?language=en

It's important to remember compassion and empathy. I watched in horror as people piled on Ellen Pao when she was the reddit CEO; people forgot that she was a person. I hope that reddit moves forward to police blatant bullying from now on.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Engagement, Video Games, and Addiction

I was reading a piece by Neil Gaiman on the longevity of stories when I found a piece about the Creator Economy.
3. The Creator Economy. In 1971 Herbert Simon predicted, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently.” The new scarcity turned out to be engagement. The mass media television channels that had dominated the Consumer Economy were overwhelmed by personal media--YouTube, eBay, Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, Google, Etsy. Hollywood was overwhelmed by video games. (The blockbuster movie “Avatar“ opened in 2009 with a $73 million weekend. The previous month, the game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” sold $310 million in 24 hours.)
Mass participation became the new normal. Stuff is cheap; status comes from creation. Value is created by engagement---from Wikipedia entries to Google queries to Mechanical Turk services to Airbnb to Uber to Kaggle analyses. 
 The emphasis above was added by me. Facebook's business model is to keep eyeballs on it for hours a day and to advertise to people while they are engaged. So they need engagement. Twitter has more spectators, but even so, it's about getting eyeballs on the stuff. Google sells to advertisers as well.

I found the note about Call of Duty fascinating. I don't play video games, though I did when I was younger. If I gamed, then I'd be happy to shell out $50 for a video game that would entertain me for hours and hours. My nieces and nephews game, and it's a social thing for them. Their parents play poker. They play video games together and sing karaoke off of Youtube.

PewDiePie reportedly made over $7 million last year. He's the top Youtuber, and he plays video games and makes jokes. Amazon paid nearly a billion to acquire Twitch, which used to be JustinTV before it pivoted.

Video games are beginning to rise in importance. Apparently, the US considers gamers to be professional athletes in a change that they made when it came to visas last year. I learned that in a New Yorker article about Scarlett, a top StarCraft gamer.

She's part of a new economy, one where fractions of a second matter in gaming. It's not simply what people do for fun. It's a source of livable income. She's moved to Korea for months on end in order to practice. When people watch her (and I can attest this from when I've watched experts), it's mesmerizing. I've used Twitch myself as an observer. It's laggy and buggy, but overall it's an enjoyable way to spend your time.

People are making income off of mobile apps that sell ad space, the banners at the bottom of your screen. They aren't obtrusive enough to interrupt your experience, but they are present enough to nudge you towards buying other games.

The thing about video games is that they are habit forming, or what we could call addictive. South Korea has had to rehabilitate hardcore gamers.

It reminds me of food science. There was that viral article in the NYT about food science and addiction.
One of the other executives I spoke with at length was Jeffrey Dunn, who, in 2001, at age 44, was directing more than half of Coca-Cola’s $20 billion in annual sales as president and chief operating officer in both North and South America. In an effort to control as much market share as possible, Coke extended its aggressive marketing to especially poor or vulnerable areas of the U.S., like New Orleans — where people were drinking twice as much Coke as the national average — or Rome, Ga., where the per capita intake was nearly three Cokes a day. In Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta, the biggest consumers were referred to as “heavy users.” “The other model we use was called ‘drinks and drinkers,’ ” Dunn said. “How many drinkers do I have? And how many drinks do they drink? If you lost one of those heavy users, if somebody just decided to stop drinking Coke, how many drinkers would you have to get, at low velocity, to make up for that heavy user? The answer is a lot. It’s more efficient to get my existing users to drink more.”

One of Dunn’s lieutenants, Todd Putman, who worked at Coca-Cola from 1997 to 2001, said the goal became much larger than merely beating the rival brands; Coca-Cola strove to outsell every other thing people drank, including milk and water. The marketing division’s efforts boiled down to one question, Putman said: “How can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?”
 That's actually the question that advertisers have right now. Mobile advertising is hot as more people spend an increasing amount of time on their smartphones. Mobile e-commerce is rising, and there's a lot of opportunity to reach mobile consumers. The more addictive the experience is, the more money you'll be able to make.

From Forbes:

Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed,” says Dong Nguyen, in an exclusive interview, his first since he pulled the plug on the app. “But it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.”
@dongatory, the developer behind Flappy Bird, pulled it. And it turned out to give it a huge PR push. The more time people spend in the game, the more advertising revenue he makes. I know that my friends have had to delete Flappy Bird because it is very addictive. I also know that we are happy to pick up and put down games very quickly. I used to play Draw Something several times a day. I still occasionally play Words with Friends. I also play Trivia Crack when I'm hanging out with teenagers and 20-somethings alike. Games are social, and if they are social then they are addictive. I read an article (I can't remember where now) that said that when kids go off to college, they are more likely to play games with their parents. Their moms check in with them through the chat app to see how they are doing. It's an unobtrusive way to continue to be part of your kid's life without being a helicopter parent. It's fascinating, really. There are a lot of changes happening in our culture due to the prevalence of mobile games, and I think that there should be more studies done on them. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Unsung Economics Hero: Dr. Alan Krueger

I've referenced Alan Krueger before because he did work that showed where you went to college didn't matter in the long run.

Marc Andreessen retweeted something that Krueger had. Alan Krueger may no longer work for the Obama Administration (former Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers), but he's still worth listening to. The video is 5:31 minutes, and it's worth watching.

Displaced Workers

  • growth at top and bottom
  • little growth in the middle
  • difficult for workers to transition
    • specific example: manufacturing to healthcare
From that perspective, we should be educating more workers to throw into the healthcare industry. I think that the answer to that is really building up our community colleges, as they are an affordable way to retrain our workers into sectors that need them in a 2-year span. You can get your LPN in 2 years as an associate's degree; I believe you can get your RN in the same span. Then, you can do something like University of Wisconsin's Flex Option to get your BSN. There's a shortage of nurses from the United States, and a lot of nurses are immigrants. In my life, I've seen a lot of Filipina nurses.

And I am extremely fortunate to have worked in mobile healthcare software/IT. That's the crossroads of three very good areas to be right now.

Mobile

Software is eating the world, and it's doing it primarily through mobile.


I used to work on an Android app. I understand basic things, like the limits of small form factors or device fragmentation. When we talk about mobile UI, I have a basic knowledge of that, as well. It's a good foundation for the rest of my life. If the day comes when I go back into software R&D, I'll have some small measure of experience.

Healthcare

Healthcare, as Krueger says, is growing by leaps and bounds. With the aging Boomer population, the demand for healthcare has increased. 

From Joshua Wright at Forbes:
In Rochester, Minn., home of the Mayo Clinic, 38 percent all jobs are inhealth care. In the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metro, near the Texas-Mexico border, the share is smaller but still considerable – 22 percent of the workforce is employed in health care industries.
Rochester, McAllen and dozens of other metropolitan areas, as well as a few states, rely on health care as one of the primary sources for new jobs and stable careers. Meanwhile, looking at the U.S. as a whole, the stable health care sector has become an increasingly larger force in the labor market.

Software/IT

The people who can afford to buy very expensive software are often the wealthiest corporations. That means it's lucrative to cater to the wealthiest, the kind of people who buy Apple products. Affluent customers. 

Uber is often lambasted as solving a first-world problem, but it actually solves a ground-level problem: it helps people find work. 

An answer I saw from Loic:
Read Loic Le Meur's answer to What are the largest providers of on-demand work (Uber type)? on Quora

People can choose to work when they want to. Do they have paid vacation? No. Do they need to scrounge a little for healthcare? Yes. But overall, it improves quality of life for some people who want to be able to dictate their own working hours.

1099 Economy

Krueger discusses the idea that the government should be doing more to help freelancers. More people are driving for Uber; people are working as independent contractors, as photographers, as writers, etc.

I test drove Zen99. I initially loved it, but it was a massive PITB when it came to tax time. I switched to QuickBooks Self-Employed and later to QB Online when I needed it in order to connect to Zen Payroll. It's easy-ish to get healthcare as an independent contractor, but you do need to know how to get there. It's the first step that's the hardest.

EITC

The IRS has a great page explaining the Earned Income Tax Credit. Basically, if you work but you are very low income, you'll get income tax credit from the federal government. 

Maximum Credit Amounts

The maximum amount of credit for Tax Year 2014 is:
  • $6,143 with three or more qualifying children
  • $5,460 with two qualifying children
  • $3,305 with one qualifying child
  • $496 with no qualifying children

It's significant if you have a low income and a large family. It's not that great if you are single with no children.

Inshoring

I call it re-shoring, too. Inshoring is not completely smooth sailing (see my discussion of the skills gap), but it's an incredible move forward. Read a comprehensive look at the migration of manufacturing by Chinese companies to the United States. There's an opportunity for people with manufacturing skills if they can live in the right places, near factories that will employ them and need skilled labor. 

Conclusion

There's an absurdly small number of views on Krueger's interview, although it contains so much food for thought. I think that the #1 takeaway from that interview is that we should be retraining anyone who wants training to fill unfilled jobs (that will still be unfilled in 2-4 years). My opinion: we need to have better communication from companies about their needs over the medium term, so that they can influence coursework at colleges, from community ones to universities.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

RFRA and the Kosher Caterer

I'm from Indiana, and I was horrified to see Mike Pence sign the RFRA. More than one company has boycotted Indiana at this point, because the RFRA is widely perceived as an anti-gay piece of legislation. They hastily passed an amendment, but I doubt that it goes far enough, considering the Republicans passed it without the Democrats.

It has two key parts which make it different from other religious freedom acts.
If you do that, you will find that the Indiana statute has two features the federal RFRA—and most state RFRAs—do not. First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” The federal RFRA doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state RFRAs except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their RFRAs.
The new Indiana statute also contains this odd language: “A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding.”
Background from not too long ago:
When Richard and Mildred Loving left Virginia to be married, a state trial judge convicted them of violating the Racial Integrity Act. That judge wrote that “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents … The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

That’s a good background against which to measure the uproar about the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by Governor Mike Pence last week. I don’t question the religious sincerity of anyone involved in drafting and passing this law. But sincere and faithful people, when they feel the imprimatur of both the law and the Lord, can do very ugly things.
I was interested to read a recap of a debate at IU's McKinney School of Law.

In a hypothetical situation, he said he believed a kosher caterer should be within her rights to decline to serve a wedding between someone who is Jewish and someone who is not, because it violated her deeply held Orthodox beliefs.
"I think we're a better society in this situation if we don't force Mrs. Goldberg (the caterer) to do this," Rusthoven said, arguing that people should make accommodations "so Mrs. Goldberg can be left alone, and Bridget and Bernie can go down the street."
Rusthoven added: "Can't we just look the other way and move past this?"
But Henegar countered: "I think we're being unrealistic to say it's not hurtful when someone is denied service – to suggest that isn't a harm, being treated as a second-class citizen because of who they are."
Using the example of a kosher caterer is fascinating to me. Indiana is mostly Christian, so the RFRA is part of respecting their right to deny a gay couple service. Mike Pence can say what he wants, but that's what people think RFRA is.

But what happens if the shoe is on the other foot? What if you want to have your favorite Jewish deli cater your wedding, and they won't do it because you're Christian and they don't believe in your sort of marriage? In the example above, it talks about inter-religious marriage. It doesn't have to be, though. "I'm an Orthodox Jew, and it's my right to deny service to Christians." If it's against their belief system, then they are free to refuse to serve anybody who offends their sensibilities.

Let's go further. Let's say that the Jewish deli has a sign in the window that says, "No Christians Need Apply." (Like No Irish Need Apply) It's astounding to me that Indiana, which has a fair amount of Irish Americans who were discriminated against not very long ago, would applaud the decision for people to discriminate against one another based on religious ideas. The RFRA is a major step back in religious tolerance, which is something with which I was raised.

If I were at IU, I'd be trying to rally together a bunch of Pastafarians for a "wear a pasta strainer" day. Blue Jean Day, when I was growing up, was 'wear blue jeans if you support gay marriage' day. I don't see why Hoosiers SHOULDN'T take advantage of the laws that exist. I think that some people would join as a joke, but others would wear their pasta strainers as a sign of protest against Indiana's RFRA.
ID with the man wearing a pasta strainer
Source

Monday, June 22, 2015

Philanthropy: Gates Foundation and Solutions

Gates Foundation

This weekend, I went to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center. There were a lot of things there; I think that it was primarily an educational center. They explained the three major areas that they were focused on and the smaller, specific initiatives under each area. They talked about starting the conversation. Though the Gates Foundation has loads of money, it's not enough to fix everything in the world. In the United States, the Gates focus on revamping the education system, which I've already seen.

They are addressing poverty and health outside of the United States. I actually read a report of a partnership with Heifer International a while back. It was a project about milk and dairy, and Heifer didn't deliver on what it promised. I still contribute to Heifer during Worldbuilders campaigns but I don't do it otherwise.

Starting the Conversation 

The really big thing was a call to action: what can you do? And our guide, Romson, talked about sharing information that we learned in Facebook or Twitter. Some of the stuff that we learned about was really cool, like the soccer ball that provided light, Hippo Rollers, Shelter Box, and other cool things.

I was thinking about integrating Hippo Rollers and Shelter Box. I think that it would be viable to put non-water into a Hippo Roller. If you put in dividers inside, then you could probably figure out how to put the contents of a Shelter Box into something that was even easier to transport than a gigantic box. They love having visitors think about innovation and solutions to the problems they are facing, like eradicating polio in India or reducing malaria.

Logistics

A very key question is how to get stuff to the people who need things like medicine. They are fighting polio in India by partnering with people on the ground who understand how to get to a village with no road. It's an enormous effort, but I definitely believe that it is worth it. 

Mobile Payments

It reminded me of the African mobile payments revolution. Kenya has done very well with the M-PESA initiative, though it seems that exact model is nearly impossible to translate elsewhere. There have been bumps. I wrote about it in February 2015

There are a lot of people who are unbanked (even in America). When you have initiatives to pull people out of poverty, so that for the first time they have money to save, you need to give them a better place for it than a mattress. The easiest way to leapfrog ahead, as Kenya has done, is to give people a way to pay each other that doesn't require a brick-and-mortar bank. It's not a faceless guy in a suit behind a desk. It's an agent, someone from their community, who puts money in and takes money out of the system using the cell phone as their identifier. As long as you have signal, then you can handle it. That's a lot easier than building a physical structure and running a full bank.

There's a difference between a perfect solution (M-PESA has some problems) and a good enough one. M-PESA is good enough. If you had asked me to implement that solution on my own, I would have thought that you were crazy. But it's something that's worked because at one point people were sending mobile minutes as payment. It's just like how people use stamps as payment in Ankh-Morpork at the beginning of Making Money. Then the government helped switch it to real money. And they are integrated with Western Union, so they can send money in 70 countries. I will say that Western Union is very expensive to use BUT it's true that it can send money basically anywhere. And if I had immediate family members in Vietnam (which I don't), then I'd probably be using it, too. My dad used to send home money to his uncle like clockwork every three months. I don't know how, but I know that remittances are very important. And reading about Kenya, I realize that you can send remittances domestically as well; the money earners are in the cities, and they send money home to the countryside.

There's tremendous opportunity to be had if you help with the mobile banking revolution. It hasn't hit the US yet because people already have a good solution. Venmo is growing, as are Dwolla and other payment services providers. Uber is used as the prototypical example of a first-world solution, but I don't think it is.

Vietnam

Now, I obviously only speak for myself and a few other groups with whom I've spoken. But I can safely say no matter where we are from—we have an internationally diverse program—we applied certain business notions to our plans that simply did not hold water in the economies we were visiting and researching. And that was the beauty of the assignment—to learn the necessity of flexibility, of shaping what we learn, and fitting it to environments or situations entirely new to us.
One of our groups gave a presentation to MBAs at a business school in Vietnam. Their idea was a marketing plan to encourage Vietnamese consumers to get and use credit cards. One of the marketing approaches was mailing fliers. Simple—it seemed. Then a Vietnamese student raised his hand and said: "That's a good idea but no one uses the post here. How are you going to send ads in the mail, let alone the credit-card bill? And the Vietnamese consumers don't trust banks. They keep their money in their homes. How are you going to convince them to take their hard-earned savings and hand it over to some stranger with a business card and a desk in some impersonal bank?"
From Bloomberg

It's hard for Americans to think outside of the box of our own experiences or what we can find. There's never going to be anything to replace on-the-ground know-how, which is why the Gates Foundation partners with local organizations. It's a last-mile problem. The Gates Foundation can get the money to eradicate malaria, but in order to have people use the nets, they have to understand the culture. They ran into problems with the white nets because the color white is associated with death in some cultures (including my own). So by using some blue dye, they fixed the problem and increased adoption.

My own group was assigned the task of figuring out the logistics of a rental car business in Vietnam. We thought this would be easy since there wasn't much of an established industry and the competition was fragmented, mostly mom-and-pop, and limited in scope. Only people with Vietnamese drivers' licenses can drive a car in Vietnam so a driver would come with the rental car. We decided on a nice high price point since there was no competition and we were practically first-movers in this market space. We would offer a convenient, easy-to-use service, with English-speaking drivers.
"Well," asked the senior executive who listened to our presentation, "how do we find English-speaking drivers?" We stumbled our way through an answer to which he nodded thoughtfully. As silence crashed down while he nodded, we cringed and nervously shot each other quick looks that conveyed: "Say something! Anything!" Finally, one of my teammates said: "We, uh, realize there are several elements that still need to be addressed. We are happy to research them further if you would like us to."
We also realized the number of cars on the road was somewhere in the realm of 1 for every 200 motorbikes or scooters. This is not a calculated figure; it is what it looked like when we tried to cross the street. As we walked toward our client's Vietnam headquarters, we mumbled to each other that there were not very many cars.
Confronting Vietnamese Corporate Culture
Then one girl came out and said it: "O.K., uh, nobody drives cars here. It's taxis and motorbikes. Who would rent a car?" 
It's a totally different culture in Vietnam. Cars are extremely expensive; motorbikes are a lot more affordable in a large portion of the world. They get the job done. Sure, it's nice to sit in a large air-conditioned box with all kinds of features. Practically speaking, motorbikes are going to fit more places and be substantially cheaper to buy. In countries with insane interest rates (in Ecuador I was looking at a ~30% interest rate PER MONTH to buy some cloth), nobody takes on any debt. They don't use car payments like we do here in America; you save up for a while to be able to afford transportation, then you pay for it in cash. Often literal cash.

Salvatorian Missions

We had a missionary come to my church in Wisconsin to talk about the work that he was doing in Tanzania. He talked about the long motorbike rides on his pikipiki across roads that didn't exist or were completely washed out in the rain. He talked about using his machete to hack through vines in the jungle (an experience I understand) and what it was like to have a bunch of different villages for which he was responsible, many of them remote. 

What if they had medicine when they went to those villages? What if a nurse got a list of villages from the church and then rode around between them administering cures? I think that the Church would help at least a little, possibly with information, since one of the Beatitudes is Heal the Sick. 

Conclusion

Providing basic healthcare to a lot of people is very difficult. Distributing vaccines, which have to be refrigerated, to remote villages is very difficult. I'm so glad that the Gates Foundation is working on finding solutions to big problems, though. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Local Philanthropy

Patrick Rothfuss
Source: WikiMedia

There's a pretty long ode on love on Patrick Rothfuss' blog. It's from Valentine's Day 2013.
“We’re out of Pedialite.”
For those of you who don’t have kids, Pedialite is like Gatorade if your sport of choice is [poop]ing and puking all over. It’s easy on your stomach, and has all sorts of important electrolytes you need if you’re losing a lot of fluid. Every parent should have several jugs of it on the pantry shelf.
But we’ve burned through our supply, so I get dressed and go brush snow off the car.
At the store I pick up some Campbell’s chicken and stars soup, because that’s what my mom fed me when I had an upset tummy as a kid. I pick up some string cheese, because Oot likes it. And I pick up some olives stuffed with garlic because if this is a flu bug, having some garlic in my system will help me fight it off.
Then I go get the Pedialite. One orange and one purple, so that he has a choice.
In the kid isle [sic] at the grocery store, I see that they don’t stock baby formula on the shelves anymore. Now they have little cards there. You have to take the card to the service desk to get the formula.
To me, this means people must have been stealing baby formula. And standing there at 8:00 in the morning, the fact that people have to steal formula for their babies just breaks my heart. That shows that something is fucked up in our society. Food for your babies should be a given, and if some people are having to steal it, it means that something has gone wrong in my little town. I’ll have to talk to some people and see what we can do about this.
This, you have to realize, is also love. Love is a small thing only if we force it to be small. It isn’t some commodity we hoard and dole out sparingly for family and friends.
No. When you see a broken car by the side of the road and stop to help the person. That’s love. When you watch the news and hear about kids being exposed to lead in playgrounds and frac mining fucking up the environment, the anger you feel actually comes from love. It means you care about people even though you don’t know them.
It’s a hard way to live your life. It means you’ll be feel helpless a lot, and you’ll be hurt a lot, and you’ll be angry at the state of things so constantly that it will rub you raw. But it’s the best way to be. It’s the only way civilization can function properly. It’s the only way we can make things better.

I'm a big proponent of local philanthropy. I talked about Dead Aid in a post a while back. There's a pretty good reason to use Charity Navigator in order to figure out how to use your money the most effectively.

When you do charity in your own community, you can see the consequences of the money that you've spent. The Gates Foundation has billions of dollars and solid global reach. They have reports on what they are doing on their website. If I were to have an endowment, I'd set it up like JLCollinsNH did it.

The issue that I've been working on for a very long time is clean water, and that's something that I share in common with Chris Sacca. Another issue that is pretty close to my heart is providing food for children. I know that we have the means to feed every American child, and it baffles me that we aren't. Clean water is much less of an issue in the United States than it is abroad, as we have more infrastructure than other countries, but feeding our children healthy food should be a top priority. Given a billion dollars, I think that's what I would concentrate on.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Immigrating to Dallas

I have a blog post about immigration to Canada percolating, and I'll write it up at some point. USCIS is pretty convoluted, and it's very difficult to become an American citizen. Canada has much more open doors.

However, a lot of people want to come to the USA. If you have a lot of money, then there's a pretty clear path to becoming a US citizen: the EB-5 Visa.

You only need to invest $500,000 in a business that employs 10 or more American citizens or residents (who aren't your family) in an area that is rural or has high unemployment, defined as unemployment 150% of the national average.

You would not have to move to an undesirable area, because there are a lot of cities that have high unemployment.

Source: Dallas Economic Development

As you can see, the green area, the eligible area, of Dallas is pretty large. All you need to do is hire 10 people who work 35 hours or more (the standard seems to be 40 hours) and have a profitable business. The workers need to be US citizens, but there are a lot of US citizens who are unemployed or underemployed who would jump at the chance to work 35 hours per week. That's the whole point of accepting foreign investment through the EB-5 program. I think that it's feasible to immigrate to the United States if you understand how to set up a profitable business.