Sunday, December 11, 2011

Best description I've ever seen on why many big corporations have difficulty improving operations

Yup.  This is exactly what it's like, folks.  Don't work for one if you don't want the pain.

Let me tell you why you don't see this happening more often. 
I did this on a project a few years back. I replaced a paper workflow process that was taking up two people each in three departments with a web-based workflow that increased visibility, dropped turn-around time from days to minutes, increased accountability and accuracy and trimmed those 16 person hours of processing down to 1-2 per department. 
Everyone who directly interacted with the new system loved it. Numerous edge cases that would have been lost in high-level review were caught and integrated from day 1 due to my actually watching people do the job for a day or two per department. The solution has been rock solid (minor maintenance only) for five years. 
And I almost lost the job.
The people who sign the checks were furious. The balance of political power between departments were thrown for a loop. One head in particular treated the thing as a near-existential threat. His entire concept of his job revolved around being the authoritative interface for retrieving and maintaining pieces of data that were no longer exclusively under his control. Another flipped out because middle management saw the results as cause to reduce his headcount and budget, and thus importance. 
These two departments fought for months, refusing to contribute their shares of budget that were pledged toward modernizing this system. 
On a technical and practical level, it was the single best experience I've ever had as a consultant. On a personal and economic level, is was one of the worst. It was some of the hardest money I've ever tried to collect. It was some of the most time and energy I've put into the political and 'sales' side of a job (the part I treat as a necessary evil, but very much evil). The corporation has made out like a bandit in the long run. But I paid the price. 
It's simply too easy and financially rewarding to allow a client's political nonsense to screw up every stage of a project. I have less stress, the people who pay me are happier and I bill far more hours. 
As with most software, internally developed software included, you don't see better projects more often because the incentives are horribly perverted and stacked against it.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Who owns the data?

I haven't blogged in a long time.  Various items I want to blog about are in various forms of draft.  But they're all long posts.  So here's a quick one.

It seems that the widow of someone recently deceased would like her late husband's profile removed from Facebook.  Wow, that's complicated.  Me, not being a lawyer, can already see huge problems here if Facebook were to comply with her request.

Facebook is no stranger to privacy kerfuffles.  Note that what I say here is neither for or against how Facebook handles privacy, it is simply stating what is reality. With that in mind, let's look at something that Zuckerberg posted back in February 2009:
Our philosophy is that people own their information and control who they share it with. When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they've asked us to share it with. Without this license, we couldn't help people share that information.

One of the questions about our new terms of use is whether Facebook can use this information forever. When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person's sent messages box and the other in their friend's inbox. Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message. We think this is the right way for Facebook to work, and it is consistent with how other services like email work. One of the reasons we updated our terms was to make this more clear.

In reality, we wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want. The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work. Our goal is to build great products and to communicate clearly to help people share more information in this trusted environment.
Facebook followed through with this philosophy by implementing various privacy features and levels.  More interestingly, they allowed you to download and export all of your data to your harddrive.  If you're able to take all of your data from out of Facebook and download it to your own repository, I think that's a clear statement on their view of who owns the data.  You own it.  Of course, another question arises as to whether it's actually useful or relevant outside of Facebook, but for this discussion that's irrelevant (well, if you're a young legal genius, you might grab some press).

The key point is that if you own the data, then you decide what happens to it.  Other people can't.  So what happens to other property owned by you when you die?  Well, if you have a well-written will, it's clear.  If you don't have a well-written will... well, I'm not an expert on this at all, but some initial reading makes this subject sound pretty complicated and potentially the area of many ugly lawsuits, depending on what property's at stake.  For the sake deciding who gets to own a deceased person's Facebook data, would such ugly lawsuits come into play?  Who knows, some people are strange.

The point is that you own your data, and if you own your data, it's not so obvious to pass own ownership to a specific person.  If that specific person does not have ownership of the data, then how can that person demand that Facebook delete it?  Any holes in my logic here?

Now, let's look at the potential pitfalls of Facebook setting a precedent of complying with this lady's request.

1.  They open up a huge gateway for fraudulent/malicious activity.  Imagine a jealous sibling who always hated the deceased.  This person wants to erase any memory of the deceased.  Would be easy enough to even get all the valid documentation and submit it to Facebook to get someone deleted.  Now imagine it happening by people who aren't even related in any way.  There's lots of documentation these days about social engineering on Facebook to get fake friends for nefarious purposes.  Opening the door would allow all of that malevolent force to do some really nasty stuff.  Ever seen what high school bullies can do to fellow classmates?  To kids who committed suicide because of bullying?  Etc.

2.  You can't delete 100% of the stuff anyway without going against Facebook's own policy (see above).  Facebook made the decision to model their policy based on how the broader Internet works.  So the question is now then is the concern only about Facebook?  If so, why only Facebook?  Why not other channels where information is shared?  Other social networks like Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter?  E-mail?  Online filesharing services?  If you single out Facebook without attacking the others, I think Facebook would have very good legal ground to fend off your attacks.  If you want to include everyone and change up the entire Internet... well, that's not going to happen easily.  It would require rearchitecting decades of Internet technology and policy worldwide for one thing.

3.  What if Facebook ends up becoming legally responsible to retain data for evidence purposes in the future?  E-mail has become such a ubiquitous utility for communication that many companies and e-mail providers are required to submit data to authorities when requested.  Of course, depending on individual corporate policies, they'll also decide whether such information requests are legal and valid.  But the point is, a process exists for this to happen.  In telecommunications too.  Facebook aims to become a global communication utility, that's been Zuckerberg's aim from the beginning.  If they truly achieve that goal (some argue they already have), is it a stretch that Facebook would also have to comply with these types of information requests on a legal basis?  Actually, aren't they already?  And if so, wouldn't allowing 3rd parties to delete someone's data instead of only the owner of that data cause some difficulty in this matter?  What if the deceased were an assassinated mob boss who the police are now investigating?  Would investigations be hampered by Facebook complying with 3rd party requests to delete the data?

4.  What if the guy never wanted his stuff deleted?  He never made it clear.  This is like a digital version of the euthanasia debate.  If he never wanted his stuff deleted, but we can't ask him anymore whether or not he wants his stuff deleted (or if he even cares), then how can we easily decide whether or not we should delete his stuff.  It's obviously not as controversial as euthanasia, but the logical/ethical conundrum is similar.  It's a tricky road to walk, and like any tricky road, decisions shouldn't be made without heavy analysis and debate first; otherwise, you end up with drastically negative unintended consequences.

I understand that this lady may feel anguish whenever she sees this guy's photos, etc.  I'm sorry if this sounds callous, but that also seems a bit immature.  We have photos of loved ones so that we can remember and celebrate their lives.  If this were the 80s, would this woman take all her photo albums and throw them in the trash?  Maybe.  OK, her decision.  But those photos would probably be owned by her clearly, and there would probably be no large ramifications if she threw them out.

Here, we have someone who is unable to deal with her anguish and wishes the pain to disappear by getting Facebook to do something that may not be very good for anybody.  My thoughts are that she should realize that it's precisely because they loved each other that she should keep those photos on Facebook.  That's also a better resolution for everyone else who's on Facebook.  Facebook is constantly pushing the boundaries on what entails privacy, for better or worse.  Remember, I'm not commenting on whether or not I think Facebook's policies are good.  I think there's some good and some bad.  But I hope that nobody thinks poorly of Facebook for turning this lady down.  It would not be a good precedent.

The biggest lesson from here?  Looks like we all need to specify in our wills now who owns our Facebook data.  Then what about my gmail?  Chee, complicated.  @@

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Another day in the life

So I went back to the gym yesterday.  Hadn't gone since the Body Pump class.  Wanted to try something different, so I joined the Body Combat class.  No idea what to expect.  It was aerobics.  Somewhere near the end, there were some push-ups involved.  The instructure was not a TCG (tiny chinese girl), but even so, I've never seen a girl out-push-up a guy easily.  I'm not saying I'm a marine, but I can do a few.

But when these push-ups came, I was so exhausted, I couldn't even do push-ups with my knees on the ground.  These classes are freaking embarrassing.  And all the time, the girl's yelling and grinning.  "Jia you!  Come on!  OK, look at me, follow me!  Knee!  Knee!  Hands up!"  Gah.

Later, I was bending down to wash my ankles in the shower.  My forehead hit a shelf.  It didn't hit the shelf hard, but I felt the shock all the way along my neck, right shoulder, right arm, and fingertips.  Oh, pain.  That'll hurt.  Normally, when you bump your body, your body is able to absorb the shock easily, right?  Not this body.  It was so worn out that even the tiniest shock caused horrible damage.  I decided to go for a massage after because I just knew it would be too painful the next day.  It's traditional Chinese treatment, where they even do this cupping thing.  They put these glass cups on your back, and use a dash of fire to suck out all the oxygen.  It creates a vacuum that sucks up your tissue and blood and is supposed to make things better.  I have no idea if it works.  I now have all these dark spots all over my back and shoulders.  But I am glad I got the massage.  I am able to move around today, unlike last week after Body Pump, when I could barely move.

Seriously, why?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A day in the life

Yesterday, I went to the gym for the first time in a long time.  It's a different gym than before.  I got one of those passes that have a limited number of uses.  The front desk girl told me that the Body Pump class would be starting at 7:40pm.  She said check it out.  OK.

I went and did some treadmill for 10 minutes, and then went to the room where they were going to do Body Pump.  Everyone was laying out equipment on the floor.  Low platforms and barbells?  OK, I can do this.  The class trainer is this TCG (Tiny Chinese Girl).  Yeah, she looks really fit, but she's only a TCG, right?

I never thought a TCG could outlift me.  I am in so much pain today.  For the entire hour, I could barely keep up with her.  My legs felt like collapsing.  And she just kept on going with this big grin on her face.  "Jia you!  Come on!  YES!  One more!  OK, go!  Houmian de nansheng, ni keyi ma??  Jia you!!"  Nod yes, I'm OK, with gritted teeth.  And now today, can barely move.

Went to Mandarin class today after work.  My teacher signed me up for this foreigner speech competition.  She's been bugging me about it for 2 or 3 weeks now.  I keep telling her to find someone else, because my Mandarin is still pretty bad.  But she says no, my Mandarin is by far better than all her other students.  And there's an 8000 RMB prize.  OK, OK, fine.

What do I find out today?  It's a multi-round event and somehow I'm already in the semi-finals, even though I never participated yet.  Furthermore, I have to not only give a speech, but also sing a Chinese song (or do some other kind of Chinese cultural performance).  Maybe I can come down with a big case of diarrhea Friday night.  The semi-finals are on Saturday.  I have to learn a Chinese song in 2 days?  :(

A day in the life.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Wow, this lady nails it

The whole question about whether or not China has what it takes to become the world's next superpower... this lady nails it.  The only thing she doesn't really address is the matter of corruption.  But that's such a complicated subject in China that it would have probably doubled the article's word count.

Can China overcome all of its issues?  If it can... big wow.  If it can't... big ouch.

Monday, October 03, 2011

And here's my other hockey team :D

And here's my hockey team for the HardCOREware.net pool.  Again, not unhappy.  :)  Seems nobody likes Elias this year!  This pool's a bit more difficult to draft because it has a faceoff category.  I got a bunch of wingers who can do faceoffs though, to make up for my lack of good faceoff centremen.  :)

Brad Richards
Paul Stastny
Patrick Sharp
Patrik Elias
Alexander Semin
Teemu Selanne
Duncan Keith
Dion Phaneuf
Alex Pietrangelo
Cam Fowler
Alex Tanguay
Ryan Callahan
Travis Hamonic
Tomas Vokoun
Jonathan Quick

I got Dion Phaneuf twice too?  Hmm.  :)

My hockey team :D

Here's my hockey team for TheRushIsBack pool.  I'm not unhappy.  Drafted #7 AGAIN this year.  :)

Ryan Getzlaf
Danny Briere
Thomas Vanek
Patrik Elias
Joe Pavelski
Brian Gionta
Mark Streit
Dion Phaneuf
Jack Johnson
Kimmo Timonen
Mikhail Grabovski
Dan Hamhuis
Jussi Jokinen
Henrik Lundqvist
Carey Price
Rick DiPietro

MUJI got both Ovechkin AND Crosby.  Nobody was willing to touch Crosby because of the concussion stuff.  If Crosby returns healthy early, Sat said it best.  We're all doomed.  :)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

My hockey pool draft strategy

Get the #1 pick, grab Ovechkin.

Sorry, I really have no clue how to rank players this year.  There is just so much parity in the NHL now and unlike previous years, I feel very few players are separating themselves out from the pack.  Last year, my #1 ranked pick was Daniel Sedin (and fortunately, nobody picked him until I did at spot #7), and I was almost right on the money.  Only Corey Perry got more fantasy points than Danny, and who seriously saw that coming?

This year, Alexander Ovechkin is my #1 ranked player, followed by Daniel Sedin, and then Steven Stamkos.  I know, I know, Ovechkin had a horrible year last year by Ovechkin standards.  But he admits his fitness strategy was horrible last year, so he totally revamped his fitness strategy during the off-season for this year.  He looks great.  He's back to Ovechkin levels.  Fact of the matter is, nobody in the NHL takes more shots than Ovechkin, even last year.  He'll be on his game again and is a great candidate to take both the Hart and Art Ross trophies again (especially with Crosby still recovering from his concussion).

Seriously, I have no idea what I'm doing this year.  My success will probably heavily depend on watching the waiver wire and free agent pool like I did last year (even more so this year), with a couple of savvy trades.  Here I am to defend my crown though.  Bring it on, guys.  Yeah, I'm talking with you, Nicky, let's get our perennial trade out of the way fast.  :D

Saturday, September 24, 2011

On China, Bigotry, and Loving the Unlovable - A Lesson from a Chinese Brother


When I was volunteering in ZJ, there was an amazing Chinese guy who told us his life story.  Two parts of his story really stuck out to me.  The one I'll quickly cite here is how he was cheated when purchasing a lunch on a train in India, so he got angry.  But he was reminded to love the unlovable.  How can he love the person who cheated him?  It was a hard lesson for him and caused me to reflect much.

In China, there are a ton of problems.  Whether it's cell phone safety issues due to poor product design, infrastructure or construction disasters due to mismanagementtainted pork scandalsa huge real estate bubble (ok, honestly, anyone who purchases something but doesn't use it is only acting as a speculator that feeds bubble prices), or what have you, China has problems.  Want a summary?  Read the letter from the angry Chinese girl to the Norway bomber.  Heck, just today, I was buying some milk, and I couldn't figure out whether to trust the cheap milk or the expensive milk.  Is the cheap milk too cheap because it's bad?  Or is the expensive milk a big scam like the allegedly high-end pork that was tainted?  And how come all of it is stored on shelves with no refrigeration?  Should I buy the refrigerated milk instead?

A lot of people here ask me why I came here to China from Canada.  Why leave such a great country for such a poor one?  Isn't that ironic.  I struggle to tell them the media stories and general fear the western world seems to have these days about how China will take over the world and become the next global superpower.  But most Chinese citizens I meet don't believe that sentiment at all.  And ironically, on the other side of the ocean, my parents and others talk excitedly about how the rich Chinese immigrants are driving up all the real estate prices in Vancouver and elsewhere.  There's a huge disconnect here.  The rich (and many corrupt) are leaving, the poor are staying with fewer and fewer jobs, and there's little foundation for a stable society.  How the outside world views China and how China views itself are not the same.

So my friends continue to ask me.  Why did I come here?  I came here to learn Mandarin in the effort to dream that maybe, just maybe, one day I can do something like volunteer in ZJ long-term, among other things.  However, for my friends and colleagues, they worry that China will go bust within a decade, and then things will get really bad.  My one colleague's words echo in my ears: "If things get bad, you can always go home.  But we have to stay here."

I've never quite understood certain types of expats who work here, but would never be able to relate to normal Chinese folks.  They don't have normal Chinese friends (i.e. those who aren't rich), dislike normal Chinese food, avoid trying to learn the language, and live in conditions really out of touch with local conditions.  Are they really even living here, or did they somehow manage to transport a bubble of home over here with them?  I didn't want to be like them.  I wanted to mingle and do a deep dive into real Chinese culture.  And yet, over the past month, I've had various experiences that made me question my commitment and love for people so different myself.

It was a hot day.  I just wanted an ice cream cone.  I walked into the KFC and got in line.  There was only one guy in front of me.  Later, a lady walked up and stood beside me.  Together, we walked to the counter.  Does the guy serve me, standing right in front of him?  No, he asks the lady to the side what she wants.  Excuse me?  OK, it's OK, it's China.  I can wait.  On my right, another lady walks up.  So a girl comes and serves her.  Excuse me?  OK, it's OK.  Then a boy walks up on my right and goes to the counter as soon as the Lady #2 is done.  The girl serves him too.  Meanwhile, Lady #1 on my left is still not done.  Whatever, I can wait.  Then Lady #3 walks up and stands behind the boy.  The girl starts to serve her as well.  I finally get fed up.

Me:  "Hey, is there no meaning if I line up?"
Girl:  /looks at me confused.
Me:  "I've been waiting a long time here!"
Lady #3:  "Oh, he's been waiting in line."
Girl:  "Oh, I'm sorry, I thought he was helping you" /points at co-worker, who is still helping Lady #1; what is Lady #1 ordering??
Me:  "No, he's not helping me, he's helping her, and he's been taking a heck of a long time.  And I don't even know why he's helping her, I was lined up!"
Girl:  "Oh, sorry."
Me:  "Argh, just give me an ice cream."

So later, I went to get a milk tea at the shop near my apartment and complained to the girl behind the counter.

Milk Tea Girl:  "Oh, well, if you don't speak up, then it's difficult to know that you're ready to order.  There are lots of times when there are people here, and they're still deciding, so I serve someone else."
Me:  "No, that can't be it.  Because me and Lady #1 walked up to the counter at the same time, and I was right in front of the guy, and neither of us spoke.  He just asked her right away what she wanted."
Milk Tea Girl:  "Oh, well, maybe they didn't see you."
Me (thinking):  What?????

So I'm a pretty big guy by China standards, it's hard not to notice me if I'm standing right in front of you.  187cm.  

Me:  How could they not see me?  I was right in front of them!
Milk Tea Girl:  Well, if I'm busy serving someone, sometimes I won't notice if someone is waiting.

Now that's a significant cultural difference.  It's getting better in China, but it's still hard to get really good customer service.  In Canada, I'm used to people coming around and asking me if things are fine, looking around to see if anyone is waiting, etc.  You don't experience that a lot in China.  You have to go out of your way to get service, and it's often a matter of yelling for help first or barging your way into a conversation.

Just the other day, I was at China Telecom, getting my set top box changed.  This lady comes and demands something from the service rep.  Excuse me?  Did you not see me chatting with this person here?

As well, there are a lot of shortsighted small-minded people.  I'd say this has to do more with economic status than it does culture.  They're just trying to make ends meet, and Mr. Foreign Moneybags shouldn't condemn them.  Sometimes the small-mindedness extends to beyond economic matters to matters of stature (admittedly closely entwined subjects).  That gets irksome, but it comes with the territory.

Unfortunately, as much as I like diving into real Chinese culture, one thing I dearly miss about Vancouver is the diversity of food options.  Here in China, I am limited to eating cheap Chinese stuff often, simply because I don't know anyone who can afford to eat at expensive restaurants.  I'd be eating alone.  OK, sometimes I do this anyway.  As much as I love Chinese food, I loved Vancouver's diversity more, where you could go from pho to Japadogs to pasta to sushi to a great steak.  It's like one of those stupid first-world problems.

Similarly, the friends I have made here are difficult to compare to the friends I have in Vancouver.  We have little about which to communicate.  On an intellectual level, interest level, life goal level, and spiritual level, I have not found anyone here in Shenzhen with whom I can really communicate.  OK, I know some good friends in Chengdu (hi guys! :D), but they're not in Shenzhen.

So why am I here?  Should I just leave?  I don't think that's right.  I wanted to do this for real and not be half-hearted about it.  I just finished reading Through Gates of Splendor, the story of the five brave men who died to bring the gospel to the Waodani tribe in Ecuador.  These guys loved the Waodani so much, despite how remote they were, despite how primitive they were, and most importantly, despite knowing that the Waodani probably would despise them and even kill them (which they did).  But so much good happened because of that incident, thanks to the undying love that God implanted in the hearts of these men and their wives.  When their wives went to finish the mission work, they were able to reconcile with the Waodani, have peace with them, and change the world.  This story inspired a lot of people.

And thus I recalled the lesson of my dear friend from ZJ, how he had to learn how to love the unlovable.  Here is a Chinese guy only recently a believer, who understands the love of God far better than I do myself.  Before God, we are all the same, how can I be so irked by these people when I myself have irked God countless times?  Jesus had many parables on this theme.  It was humbling and made me realize I still have a long way to go, but motivated me to double down and sign a new 1-year contract for a new apartment.  Some things here in China may still irk me, but I'm here for a while yet.  Especially since my Mandarin still sucks.  And I promised a crying primary school kid that I'd try to go back to ZJ again.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On bathroom design and bigotry

A lot of people laugh at so-called uncultured Chinese people who don't know how to use western toilets.  They're used to squat toilets, so they get on top of the western toilets, squat, and do their business.  Apparently, when mainland Chinese started visiting Hong Kong in volume, they were breaking western toilets all over the place due to their incessant squatting.

I wonder what these so-called uncultured Chinese people think about western folks trying to use Chinese-style squat toilets.  Believe me, it sucks, and I try to avoid it whenever possible.  You need huge amount of muscle and flexibility in the right areas to be able to maintain your balance and still do your business.  Otherwise, you end up with horrible mishaps.

I had an emergency the other day.  I needed a toilet fast.  Of course, there were only squat toilets in the supermarket where I was shopping.  I was able to prove to myself that I've developed the right muscle and flexibility in the right areas to do the deed.  But it still did not end well.

You know what?  I wanted to talk about this somehow, as a form of therapy for all the trauma.  But now... I realize I don't want to talk about it.  Besides being very embarrassing, continuing to remember it is only further traumatizing.  And besides that, it would probably be traumatizing for you too.

One note.  I wonder how much money companies make from those tissue vending machines in all those public washrooms.  I'm guessing not much.  I think it's only the stupid foreigners who can't remember to carry tissue in public.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On unemployment

There is a much larger theme about which I wish to write, having to do with how so-called experts are out of touch with the common people, and how that often ends up making the expert opinion unhelpful and unwanted, no matter how correct it may be.  The Atlantic has an excellent collection of feedback from readers in that vein on the theme of unemployment.  And here's an amazing quote I found on HN:
One more, from Philip Harvey:

There once was an island with a population of 100 dogs. Every day a plane flew overhead and dropped 95 bones onto the island. It was a dog paradise, except for the fact that every day 5 dogs went hungry. Hearing about the problem, a group of social scientists was sent to assess the situation and recommend remedies.

The social scientists ran a series of regressions and determined that bonelessness in the dog population was associated with lower levels of bone- seeking effort and that boneless dogs also lacked important skills in fighting for bones. As a remedy for the problem, some of the social scientists proposed that boneless dogs needed a good kick in the side, while others proposed that boneless dogs be provided special training in bone-fighting skills.

A bitter controversy ensued over which of these two strategies ought to be pursued. Over time, both strategies were tried, and both reported limited success in helping individual dogs overcome their bonelessness -- but despite this success, the bonelessness problem on the island never lessened in the aggregate. Every day, there were still five dogs who went hungry.
Humbling.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Great Artists Steal

Watching some videos of Korea's Got Talent on Youtube, I came across this dancer named Joo Min-Jung.



Wow. In Min-Jung's original audition performance, she was asked if she knew Monster MG, a dance group that had auditioned previously for Korea's Got Talent in another city.  They wore similar costumes and danced similar styles.  Min-Jung said she had been contacted by Monster MG one time, and it appears there was a bit of tension because she had a similar costume and style; the insinuation could be that she copied Monster MG.   She told the KGT judges that she had already been wearing the costume for a year without inspiration from them, and she was confident in her own dance abilities.  If she can outdance them, then there's no reason to change her outfit.

Girl's got spunk.  :)  And guess who's in the finals now?   The funny thing is, guess who turned out for certain to be copying someone else?  That's right, Monster MG.  People all over the web cried foul, saying that Monster MG's performance ripped off Poreotics, the season 5 champions of America's Best Dance Crew.



Monster MG apparently finally admitted this and apologized for it.  And apparently Poreotics accepted; the Poreotics group doesn't strike me as the type of people to get into mudslinging bouts anyway.  But Picasso is noted to have said that "Great artists steal", a quote that has been used by modern venerated visionaries like Steve Jobs.  So why is it such a crime if Monster MG copied Poreotics?

The full Picasso quote is in fact: "Good artists copy.  Great artists steal."  Or, depending on your source on the web, it might be: "Bad artists copy.  Good artists steal."  I couldn't verify.  But it is clear that Picasso thought there was a difference between so-called "copying art" and "stealing art".

Perhaps it's as simple as this.  Break down the attributes of stealing.

  1. Take without permission.
  2. New owner has it.
  3. Old owner doesn't have it.

Think about this.  If the old owner still has it, can it be considered stolen?  Or is it simply copied?  When the concept of stealing is applied to conceptual/aesthetic creations like art (rather than functional creations like socket wrenches), the more important aspect regarding ownership is really who does the world give credit for the creation.  If I painted the Mona Lisa, nobody would claim I stole Leonardo da Vinci's work.  If someone gets the credit for something, they're probably getting it because they did the best job to make that thing as beautiful as it could be and made it their own.  Is Monster MG's performance better than Poreotics' performance?  Did Monster MG do anything to significantly improve on the routine?  Or was it simply a blatant ripoff that wasn't even as good as the original?

And maybe that's the best watermark for a great artist's act of stealing: when an artist can make a separate work his/her own.  Inspiration has to come from somewhere.  It's what you do with the inspiration that counts.  Another famous artist accused of stealing much is Shakespeare.  Some people accuse him of having no original ideas and simply copying both contemporary and ancient playwrights.  Others simply say he was retelling stories in his own manner.  Whatever the case, some of the most iconic stories of our time are attributed to this man, and it is a point that all of those plays bear his classic mark and imprint.

I wonder if there would have been less of an uproar if Monster MG made significant improvements to the Poreotics routine.  Would they have been lauded instead of lambasted?  But they didn't do anything to improve the work.  And I think that's why it's so easy to be upset with Monster MG.  They could be easily viewed as a no-talent group trying to pretend to have the talent and creativity of Poreotics by performing a dance as their own creation, instead of giving credit to Poreotics.  On America's Best Dance Crew, the groups have to choreograph their own stuff, so you know the groups have creative talent.

What would happen if stealing inspiration was actually encouraged and coached?  How to take inspiration for something that's amazing and make it your own.  The concept is interesting, and we see a ton of YouTube videos these days for fantastic music covers and mashups.  I don't claim to understand all of the legal things that might be happening behind the scenes (for example, look at what happened to Love Story Meets Viva La Vida by John Schmidt, and how it became Love Story Meets Love Story due to legal issues).



As stated in the presentation, some have tried to replicate this philosophy for functional type of stuff (eg. open source software) with varying levels of success.  But I suppose that it's important to note that most art, especially in popular culture, is trendy.  That is also the case for technology.  Microsoft stole and owned the basic concepts of today's personal computer graphical user interface. Here's a scene from Pirates of Silicon Valley, one of my favourite movies. The scene captures the seed of the personal computer's graphical revolution most excellently.



It's unfortunate for Microsoft that personal computers are becoming more and more irrelevant.  Apple saw the trend and opportunity, and moved heavily into iPods, iPhones, and now iPads.  Personal computers are still significant, but less significant each day.  Microsoft did not see that trend coming.  Some art, like the Mona Lisa, is timeless.  Some art, like that of popular culture, is only trendy.

The next time you see an uproar about someone stealing something, ask yourself one question.  Did the stealer do anything to improve upon whatever was stolen?  Because if improvements were made, the world is probably better off, and the previous owner was probably incapable of making those improvements.  Otherwise, would we not have those improvements already?  In the marketplace, to the victor go the spoils, including credit.

And to Joo Min-Jung:  you go, girl!  :)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Just Keep Getting Up

Work can get difficult. This is what it feels like right now. This is what's in my head. :(


And this is what the Canucks need to know for next year.  Darn hooligans in Vancouver.  A lot of them weren't even Canuck fans, just looking for an excuse?  :(

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Start Line

Looking at my personal history of startup attempts, if you can call them attempts, I feel sad that they never got anywhere.  But the fact is that if I take a good hard look at myself, I know I am the only one to blame.  I just couldn't execute.  The fact is, I couldn't even get to the start line to join the race.

I love Derek Sivers' thought that ideas are a multiplier of execution.  I've had a nice history of great ideas, validated by the market, most of which my friends and I actually tried to do.  However, looking back at those times, many of my friends will say, "It was an awesome idea!  We could have made millions!"  As I work more and more trying to do startups, the more I realize the proper thought should be, "It doesn't matter.  We didn't execute."  Here's the list of all the startup visions I failed to deliver.

Now I'm working with some friends on SocialCheck.me.  Well, here I go again.  After going back to the normal work world due to having eaten up all my savings doing the other stuff, I am once again trying to do a startup project with friends.  After all my efforts, I only conclude that I probably still don't know what I'm doing.  Here's my pitch for SocialCheck.me.

So what am I doing differently this time, especially since I've eaten up all my savings and still need to work a day job to pay the bills?  What makes this web startup different?

Sometimes Rational Dedication Means Letting Go
You need your coding people to be dedicated.  These are the people making the product, after all.  My friends and I have actually been at this for a year now.  I was so focused on being the do-it-all guy that I refused to look at my options.  Part of it was driven by me reading The Accidental Billionaires.  I know a lot of people say this book paints Mark Zuckerberg as a bad guy, and Saverin and the Winklevoss twins as the good guys.  But honestly, I didn't feel that way after reading this book.  I was blown away by how hard Zuckerberg worked.  I was also annoyed at how little Saverin and the Winklevoss twins brought to the table.  I decided after reading that book that I needed to do my own coding, even though my own coding ability was nothing special.  I didn't want to be a Saverin.  I certainly didn't want to be a Winklevoss.

I had completed a full design document, describing everything from use case scenarios and vision to data architecture.  My code was based on that design document.  My friend worked as the UI designer.  But we accomplished zilch.  Nada.  Part of it was my day job, which relegated me to coding only during evenings and weekends.  That was hard because sometimes my brain felt overworked.  Finally, my friend looked me hard in the eye and asked if we should reconsider outsourcing the code.  She's one of those people who runs multiple businesses at once and collapses every now and then on the weekend.  I wanted to pull my weight and be like her.  I wanted to say no, but fact was, I wasn't getting it done.

Outsourcing our code was the best decision we ever made because we got stuff done.  We ran into some trouble with the first contractor (a revolution in the middle east changed up his life priorities), and so switched gears to another development shop.  These Proudcloud guys are amazing.  We've accomplished in 2 months everything I could have hoped for.  We have a working prototype going through alpha-testing, with a Ruby and MongoDB backend (tech platform choice was a monstrous debate, but that's another story).  We'll be set to launch early access within a matter of weeks, if not days (depending on how current debugging efforts and last-minute feature implementations go).

Outsourcing the development work was an order of magnitude better than me and my crappy coding skills.  For our dev team, it may be a day job, but that also hopefully means they're dedicated rock stars.  My friend literally traveled across the ocean to find the right guys, since she had to be across the ocean for other business work anyway.  For me, now I can just focus on product vision and feature development, managing our timeline and budget, QA, and long-term strategy.  We're getting a lot more done.  In economics, the concept is comparative advantage.

It doesn't work if you don't find the right development team.  I know all the arguments why you want your tech expertise to be in-house.  I'm just saying that I wasn't up to par, so outsourcing worked for us.  It did significantly help that I had already documented a detailed product vision and design, and also had already made some prototypes with a PHP CodeIgniter and MySQL backend.  But I realize now I'm more of a business founder.  Can multiple business founders make a web startup with no tech founders?  We're about to find out.  So far, this is working for us.  But remember that we at least still know what code is.  I'm still convinced that all business founders for web ventures need to understand how to code, even if they won't be the ones doing it day to day.  And obviously, you need to pay cash.  But you get what you pay for, so don't go too cheap.

Sales Is Hard
I learned it the first few times around.  Sales is hard.  SocialCheck.me has a little bit of a viral thing going for it, but not enough for us to depend on viral marketing as our main strategy for customer acquisition.  We're pitching to both enterprise and small businesses, specifically to hiring managers and HR departments.  As such, we're tapping our networks like crazy to get customer leads, and already have some good ones; in fact, a couple of them are currently taking part in our alpha-stage testing.  Hopefully, we'll be able to close all of them to become real paying customers, including the real big hitters, the companies with national presence.

When you work in the real corporate world, you develop a network throughout your career.  Don't neglect it and don't forget it.  It could provide you with amazing opportunities when you're running your startup.  We're miles ahead of where I was in my other experiences, just because we have some solid leads.  Now the real work starts in trying to close them.

The Start Line
As a naive youngster, I used to think that just working on a startup was amazing.  While I haven't lost that sentiment, I now also realize that all the pre-launch work you put in is really just to get to the start line.  The hellish hours, for those who can afford the risk, throwing away your savings and career (been there done that, little older and more cautious now), the fights about features, all these things are only the work required to get you to the start line.  It's like the trials they have at the Olympics.  Participating in the qualification round doesn't guarantee you a spot in the competition round.

It's as if the Tour de France forced every competitor to assemble their own bikes.  When you launch, your bike is finally done.  Then you can go to the start line.  Some people may have finished assembling their bikes weeks ahead of you, and they're now miles ahead.  Others may still yet be assembling their bikes.  But the fact is you can't race until your bike is ready.  Now similarly, I don't think you can say you're an entrepreneur until you have a product (or service) that's ready to launch.  Until then, you're working on something, who knows what, but nothing real to show for it except for sweat, blood, and tears.  It'll make for a nice story at your next job interview, but it won't earn you respect from other entrepreneurs, investors, and perhaps most importantly, all those friends and family who never understood what you were doing every day.  People can only see and discuss what gets shipped.

And even after you finally get to the start line and enter the race, the race is a long one.  I look at examples like Groupon who's about to IPO.  Even at that stage, they have serious questions, where some people are even thinking they're at best a very risky play, or at worst, a scam.  There's an opportunity to do something really cool there, but it'll be up to Groupon's leadership to steer the company down the path of Amazon (which lost money for years while it built up scale to be profitable), instead of webvan (which is the poster child for losing money in the Dotcom 1.0 days).

Passion and Drive
The more I learn from other people's experiences, the more I realize that entrepreneurship is a long hard fight. That's perhaps the biggest change in me.  Before, I didn't have the endurance for this fight and would have given up by now.  So what fuels the tank to keep fighting?  I had no such thing to keep me motivated in previous entrepreneurial attempts.  I was never personally tuned into the pain I was trying to solve.

This time around, the idea was sparked by incredulity I had about some hires with whom I needed to work.  That lit a fire in me to help organizations get more insight into the people they were recruiting.  Hiring is a process notorious for having one-sided information.  You can never get the full picture of somebody.  Someone who's a superstar may come across as a dud, and vice versa.  We really believe we can make the world better, that what we're doing is important.  Now in the final sprint to the start line, doubts are starting to creep in that maybe this won't work, maybe we won't launch, etc.  It seems there's always something new to learn.  But my original incredulity is fueling my passion to keep moving.  There's something that we can and should fix in this world.

It's up to us to finally launch.  And it's only then that the real competition will start.  Wish us luck and please check it out!  :)

The Startups I Didn't Deliver

As I work on yet another side project with some friends, which we hope this time really will become a real company, I thought I'd reflect on what I'd failed to deliver in the past and why.  The answer's usually quite simple, really.  td;lr - I didn't execute.  Here's my list; I worked with various different friends for each project.

Project Bravo:  A side-scrolling RPG developed by a company called Artificial Intelligence Entertainment.  I was convinced side-scrolling wasn't getting the development attention it deserved.  My friends and I gathered some of the best artists, programmers, etc, that we knew from our high school grad year, with the full intention of working through the summer after high school to make AIE into a real game company.  We spent all our time on storyboarding and character design, not a single line of code.  Interesting that this would be much easier to make today with things like iOS, Android, XBox Live, etc.  But not important.

Computer Evolution:  A guy I met at a university event had a small computer services company, and he wanted to bring me on board to help the company to scale up.  Well, we tried.  I found the company had no real strategy, was just him working by himself, and had no real clients.  We worked our butts off to get new clients, and I designed various websites on a volunteer basis for various clients to build up a company portfolio.  He took care of sales, so I didn't learn at the time how hard sales can be.  But eventually, I just couldn't continue, it wasn't making sense.  Companies like these were a dime a dozen, and our service was frankly very sub-par compared to competitors.

SMSMob:  My friends and I were frustrated by the difficulty of skiing around big ski resorts.  Sometimes, some would want to tackle full black diamonds, while others wanted to tackle greens.  Using cell phones or handheld radios to find each other, meet up, and coordinate our ski routes was inconvenient.  Take off the gloves, unzip the jacket, take out the phone/radio, answer.  We wanted a more asynchronous solution that still would accomplish the same goals.  Enter SMSMob, which has an exact current-day equivalent of GroupMe. We gave up our own attempt after skiing around Whistler Blackcomb and discovering that we couldn't even send and receive SMS messages due to network unreliability; the network may have improved by now.  But suffice it to say, we gave up too easily and didn't think of pivoting our use cases.

Paper Recycling:  My friends and I formed a group we jokingly called Knights of the Round Table.  We'd make a paper recycling company that gathered used paper from corporations and other organizations, and shredded what was considered confidential, and ship it off to China for recycling.  Or maybe we'd just gather the paper from waste companies who were already doing collections and shredding and simply act as an agent for shipping product.  The market was perfect, the opportunity was perfect, and China had poor quality trees for making paper.  However, my friends and I discovered changes in China's import laws that would be implemented within a matter of months, that would require certifications to ensure that we were a quality used paper supplier.  It seems everyone wanted in, so China wanted standards on what they accepted.  We gave up at the first hint of trouble.  Only a year later, we found out through some news articles that the richest woman in China ran paper recycling facilities.  Gah.  We didn't even try to hustle.

myGrapevine:  This was to be an online social network that focused on professional life.  People could keep track of their career paths, goals, and colleagues.  Correspondingly, employers could use this network to find new employees through referrals and use an expert system AI to automate analysis of candidate resumes, goals, and job/cultural fit.  We wrote up the entire vision and submitted it to a business plan competition for feedback and the hope to get some funding and mentors (the whole business plan competition was set up for this).  We gave up after being rejected from going to the next round of competition.  Today, we see LinkedIn.  You know what else we see?  The problems that existed in the hiring world years ago still exist today.

DOME:  DOME was a home automation solution that we'd create using mesh networks, specifically based on the Zigbee standard.  It would finally deliver on all those empty home automation promises we'd been seeing for years, simply by enabling all communications for every electronic device in one's home to communicate via the mesh airwaves.  We wrote up a business plan again and submitted to a business plan competition (again).  It's amazing how important those competitions seem to be when you're just a university student; things like YCombinator and the whole Web 2.0 world was only just getting started.  And we of course stopped trying when the competition rejected us.

Project M/My Eyes/Geats (Good Eats):  We wanted to make a restaurant review website with wiki-style pages, geolocation, and a mobile app for easy on-the-spot reviews.  Then Yelp made Yelp.  My friend to this day thinks our greatest blunder was us trying to hire a rock star coder I knew who had his own food review website.  We explained our concept to him, and the guy was like, "Wow, that's a great idea!  Mind if I use it for my own site?"  Excuses, excuses.  We wrote some code, but we didn't execute to the end when it mattered, and actually, neither did that guy.  Yelp did execute.  So did Urbanspoon.

Place to Study:  For this one, my friend invited me to join his co-workers from EA.  I'd be more the business guy.  We wanted to make flash card systems that could run on cell phones and MP3 players.  The iPhone hadn't yet been released, so the thought was very much make things with feature phones (using Java), Windows Mobile, the Nintendo DS, or maybe even the iPod (we had grand visions and saw the writing on the wall).  Unfortunately, everyone was too busy with their day job, so the effort fell apart.

EmployerMark:  Well, couldn't get enough, I guess.  Finally, I decided to go hardcore and quit work to try to do this stuff.  EmployerMark was a system where people could post reviews of their employers, post salaries, keep track of their own goals and wants, and employers could set up corporate profiles and do analysis to find good employee candidates for their corporate culture and available jobs.  It was like myGrapevine all over again, but cooler, with 2-way feedback.  I asked the designer and a coder from the Place to Study group to join me.  But they didn't want to quit their day jobs.  Well, we gave it a go anyway.  Unfortunately, they couldn't focus due to work, and our team started to fall apart when one guy started looking at changing employers for another game developer.  EmployerMark wasn't the #1 priority.  Today, Glassdoor.com is going strong.

Solwrks Solutions:  Well, while doing startup work, still needed to have some cash in the meantime, right?  So another friend and I incorporated Solwrks Solutions to try to make some consulting money on the side.  I was full-time, but he was part-time because (again) he didn't want to quit work.  I finally found out that consulting is hard because sales is hard.  Sales is a harsh numbers game, and so you need to be pounding the pavement and networking all the time in order to get clients.  I was able to keep it up for a while, but eventually, you can't do both sales for consulting work and coding for a startup's product development, when really, both should be considered full-time jobs.  Especially true if you're a no-name and have no client base to speak of.  I ended up finally landing 2 clients, but the money wasn't worth the effort.  Meantime, my partner worked during the day.  He was supposed to be more the business guy, but he couldn't devote the time to be the one to rack up clients, given his day job.  Eventually, we just closed up shop, because the annual incorporation fees, bank fees, membership dues for various networking organizations, etc, were just draining cash.

Omotta:  Well, funding's a problem for everyone, right?  What if we could make an easy way for people to raise seed funding?  Thus, Omotta was conceived.  My friend and I excitedly laid out the vision and designed the product.  Anyone would be able to invest any amount into any idea.  It would be like a mini-stock market of ideas, where the only shares you could purchase were issued by the company.  But as we researched how the thing would work in terms of the regulatory environment, we were very discouraged.  It looked like a nightmare.  So we dropped it.  Look at Kickstarter today.

LegalSuite:  The legal process is horribly paper-heavy.  My friend was interning at a criminal law office and complained about how inefficient their case management was.  As she described the situation to me, I got excited.  What if we designed an online system that allowed criminal lawyers (and eventually all lawyers) to do better case management?  Webifying and automating paper processes is exactly what I did at my first job after university.  I knew I could do this.  We excitedly laid out the vision, designed the product, and started coding.  It would have case workflow, document templates, and even geolocation for case management (trust me, it turned out it was actually a big issue)!  Only thing is, I discovered that while I was excited to work on a product I was confident I could actually create this time after years of no progress, I was actually pretty indifferent about the product itself.  Why did I care whether case management was inefficient for criminal lawyers?  I didn't.  So the effort slowly died.

CV Manager:  OK, still just wanted to create something.  So I thought of a little resume generator that would allow you to generate new resumes custom-tailored to fit any job application, based on criteria you would set in the app.  Honestly though, this was just me bored wanting to fill my time.  It died again from boredom.

Today - SocialCheck.me:  Well, here I go again.  After going back to the normal work world due to having eaten up all my savings doing the other stuff, I am once again trying to do a startup project with friends.  After all my efforts, I only conclude that I probably still don't know what I'm doing.  Here's my pitch.

Introducing SocialCheck.me

Hey, all you hiring managers, recruiters, and HR folks!  Having difficulty choosing the right candidate?  I know you are!  :)

SocialCheck.me is a web-based tool that can help.  It utilizes an employee candidate's social network to allow you to do anonymous and mass-customized surveys for reference checks.  We all know there are still difficult problems in the hiring space, and the hiring process results in a lot of false positive hires due to asymmetric information.  What we're trying to do is make the information field more level by giving you a survey mechanism that is private, anonymous, and customizable.  Data is validated to be submitted by people who actually know the candidate; validation happens through the social network.  Currently, we're integrated with LinkedIn, with other social networks to follow soon.

These 3 words describe what makes SocialCheck.me so good.

Anonymous
- Both the employer and the candidate cannot see who responds to the survey to protect the relationship of the candidate with his/her colleagues.
- The candidate cannot even see the contents of the survey, nor the survey results, to ensure survey integrity.
- The results data has no identifying data.
Result:  The anonymity allows colleagues of the candidate to speak freely to give a whole picture about the candidate, without fear of consequences.

Private
- Only the employer or recruiter can see the survey results.
- These surveys and survey results are not for public consumption.
- Everything will be protected by quality security measures to prevent hacking of accounts and survey data.  https coming soon too!
Result:  The relationship between the candidate and his/her colleagues is protected.  Ugly, public character assassinations are avoided.  And your surveys and survey data can be considered a safe competitive advantage in the hiring world.

Customizable
- Each job is different and will require different knowledge, skills, and personalities.  We allow employers and recruiters to customize the surveys according to the job and organizational needs.
- Custom surveys can be saved as templates for your future use for future open positions.
- The resulting survey data can be sliced and diced according to the type of relationship the survey responders had with the candidate, and other criteria.
Result:  You get a tool that will work for you because you will determine the nature of the surveys.  But to get you started easily, we'll provide you some templates too!

Sign up for early access here!

Saturday, June 04, 2011

So... thirsty...

A couple of days ago, I bought a bottle of Pocari Sweat on the way back to the office from lunch.  My co-workers told me not to drink it because there was a big danger right now with bottled juice.  Some big scandal had just broken.

Huh?

Even if there was some sort of new food scandal (so what else is new), Pocari Sweat is a Japanese brand.  Should be safe, right?  No, they warned me not to drink it.  Seriously, what's up with all the hysteria?  But after wrestling with the thought, I finally agreed with them.  Why take the risk over something where I have zero information, but they clearly seem to have some new news?  So I threw out the Pocari Sweat and thirsted for the rest of the afternoon.

My office has water coolers, but my cup easily catches some kind of weird flakes that fall from the air conditioning.  My other co-worker warned me about that one.  Great.  Still more friends told me they just drink boiled water now at the office now.  Eh?  Even though we have water coolers where they deliver those big plastic cisterns of purified water?

This is the scandal my friends were warning me about.  Oh great, the problem's in Taiwan.  And the brands are identified.  Any imported products will probably be flagged.  So we should be safe, right?  Then my friends ask me, "But how do you know which brands to trust?  There are so many."  So they drink just boiled water or soy milk they prepared themselves from freshly bought soy beans.  It's horrible when I can't find anything wrong with their logic.  GAAAAAHHH!!!  SOOO... THIRSTY!!!!

We apparently now finally have data that China is relatively safe.  Well, that's good news.  Except my friends comment, "But nothing is safe in China."

OK, seriously, what am I supposed to trust and eat?  I have no idea anymore.  Just the other day, I found out another friend never eats out.  She always makes her own lunch and brings it to work.  Why?  Because the restaurants are dirty.  "They always reuse their oil, it's never clean."

This is also remembering that my roommate uses western brand soaps and shampoo because he deems them safer, while I use Chinese brands.  He also still prefers boiled water over bottled water from the supermarket because it's cheaper.

Enough is enough.  It gets to the point where you just don't care anymore, you just want to live life.  Of course, that gave me a weird combination of indigestion and diarrhea when I went to hot pot last week.  That lasted for several days and it wasn't fun.  I was starting to get headaches.  I guess the lack of sleep doesn't help either.  Did I mention work is stupidly horrendous right now?  :)  The hot pot probably only just tipped me over the edge of health's boundaries.

I have no idea what's safe anymore.  But I've eaten crazier things and survived.  That's right.  Heck yeah.  Come on, China, get it together.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Are These the New Enders?

In one of my favourite books, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, the planet earth is facing a massive threat from an alien race.  As such, they launch an intensive effort to find and train the brightest geniuses on the planet into the greatest war minds of all time to make their military able to take on the aliens and win.  The "chosen one" that has the special potential to lead them all to victory is a child named Andrew Wiggin, nicknamed Ender.  The military program is full of brilliant kids, but Ender is the cream of the crop in every situation.

Peter Thiel has been making many headlines for calling higher education a bubble.  There's admittedly a lot of good data to back him up, more than you'd think.  As an alternative to what Thiel seemingly sees as a broken system headed for bad times, he's trying to develop a special 20 Under 20 program that will give a bunch of kids $100,000 to start businesses.  Well, that list was finally released a few days ago.

And while it may seem obvious in retrospect, it surprised me how many of the "chosen ones" were already university students.  8 were already in top-tier universities, another had already graduated summa cum laude from ASU, and still another was 4 years into a Ph.D program at Stanford after graduating from the University of Washington as a younger teenager.  That's still less than half, since there are actually 24 kids accepted into the program.

But it begs the question.  If the program is about demonstrating an alternative to university for the young and bright, why are there so many university kids in the program, especially ones who have already graduated?  Well, for the kids who were still in university when applying, the answer could be as simple as the kids being too risk-averse to drop out of school.  Thiel's program gave them confidence to push them over the edge to make the jump.  For the two kids who already had degrees, it's not so easy to understand.  I get that the program wanted to choose the best people under 20 years old.  But if the program is about demonstrating that university education is unnecessary and a lesser alternative to achieve success for people who have the raw talent, selecting two fully university-educated kids defies that purpose.

If this program was really about demonstrating that higher education was not necessary and that it's a model that would allow people from all walks of life with talent to shine, then why are the "chosen ones" so university-heavy?  Well, as Thiel notes, you can't do it all from the beginning, so he's starting at the top tier.  It is unfortunately a fact that the top tier has more talent than the bottom tier.  But I wonder if the program would be even more radical if the prototypical 20 Under 20 candidate was not Ender, but rather, Ender's good friend Bean.  In Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow, we learn that Bean was actually Ender's rival, even though Ender didn't know it; Bean was in the running up until the last second to lead the war against the aliens.  You don't see that story in Ender's Game, but you do see it in Ender's Shadow.

Bean's background is the opposite of Ender's.  Ender had a fairly privileged background, though not elite.  Meanwhile, Bean survived in the streets based on his wits alone, because his body was too small to be a physical menace.  Ender was also small, but didn't face the same physical dangers as Bean.  Bean was discovered by a talent scout and sent to the military academy, where he followed a path similar to Ender, and eventually ended up on Ender's team (through a crazy plot twist you have to read the book to appreciate).

So what if the Thiel Foundation's 20 Under 20 was full of Beans, not Enders?  Wouldn't that be the ultimate defiance of university institutions?  "Check it out universities, you toss folks like these aside, but now they're huge successes."  I don't know.  Maybe, maybe not.  But structuring the program the way Thiel has and then seeing some of the ideas that will be implemented, I cannot help but think that although this program clearly is positioned in the public eye to compete with universities, its more direct competitors are actually venture incubators like YCombinator.  They both give money to people to start ventures, surround them with mentors, and foster innovation.  YCombinator also has a lot of examples of university kids who dropped out of school to chase their dreams.

In fact, some of those ideas that Thiel's kids are doing look like they fit more in the YCombinator world than not.  Mobile games for improving learning?  Revolutionizing online price comparisons?  A peer-based evaluation system for recruiting?  Mobile payments?  Helping music lovers discover live shows?  This is bubble gum pop trendy startup material that is normally about making moola.  Maybe they can revolutionize the world.  Maybe not.  Or maybe they'll fit somewhere in the middle and get bought out by a big corporation before they become substantial in their own right.  I know that you can't judge what will change the world.  But it is very easy to compare and contrast these ideas with some of the other Thiel Foundation choices and see how those are focused on changing the world.  And the fact is, there are a ton of startup competitors already in those spaces too; so where's the unique value and innovation?  I know, too early to tell.

But if the Thiel Foundation's 20 Under 20 program's closest competitor really is YCombinator, not the university, then Thiel could be pulling wool over everyone's eyes.  This may not be about showing that universities are overrated.  It could simply be a case of wanting to make money.  The only difference between Thiels 20 Under 20 program and YCombinator is that Thiel's program is marketed as a breaking-the-rules alternative to school, while YCombinator is simply marketed as a venture incubator.  In this scenario, Thiel is just being sensational to raise PR for his initiative by telling talented kids they could be the next Mark Zuckerberg and therefore don't need school.  If more entrepreneurs are successful, that story gets into the public conscious anyway (it already has been for a while).  Time will tell whether Thiel's 20 Under 20 and YCombinator are both actually of the same vein, with YCombinator just getting a head start; on that front, YCombinator beats Thiel's program on funding levels too.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Is the Bible full of 'forgeries'?

My friend pointed me to this article about a new book by a Bart Ehrman outlining a theory that many books in the New Testament were forged for an attempt to deceive people.  He asked for comment.  I figured I'd blog the comment, because my comment turned out to be quite long.

First, I have to say I'm not a complete expert on the subject of Biblical text validity, but I fortunately do know enough to get my feet wet and raise my hand when something smells funny.  Anytime someone claims something about the validity of Biblical text (or rather, lack thereof), something smells funny because the topic is a well-researched topic already.  On that note, I've read the 8 blog posts to which the article links, which are written by a supposed expert.  That guy, Ben Witherington, does a lot to decompose the linkbait into much ado about nothing.  It is good that the original article links to Witherington for balance, but the author of the original article doesn't say much about Witherington's commentary.

I find Witherington's text to be quite dry (as is common for academic people), but it is quite comprehensive and carries a balanced tone.  He explains when he agrees with Ehrman, when he thinks Ehrman is just a bit off, and when he thinks Ehrman is outright wrong.  He gives Ehrman credit when he feels credit is due instead of completely dismissing Ehrman, which I think is important for demonstrating that an argument received thorough consideration.  But most importantly, he's thorough.  Maybe too thorough; I fear that most people wouldn't have the stomach to read through all 8 blog posts.

Witherington's chief criticisms that stand out for me are that:
     a) Ehrman defines forgery specifically to suit his purposes, then frames the data to say that forgery happened, while if the data is in fact analyzed wholly and properly, it would not fit Ehrman's argument.
     b) Ehrman takes texts that are categorically dismissed as valid scriptures and unfairly lumps them together with texts that are categorically accepted as valid scriptures.  He attempts to make the argument that if one was dismissed, the other should also be considered for dismissal, even though that debate has long passed.
     c) Ehrman does not spend much time in his book analyzing the principles and historical knowledge that allow us to put a lot of trust into what is accepted as Biblical text.  This lack of balanced attention would easily result in a one-sided, biased argument; he ignores counter-evidence.

On the first point of framing definitions and data to suit his interests, it's sufficient to note that Ehrman accuses people of forgery where no attempt for forgery is apparent.  Witherington goes into a LOT of detail (those 8 blog posts are not short blog posts), but the gist of it is that Ehrman is drastically mischaracterizing people's intentions, writing practices, and written works.  If I tell you that I'm playing soccer today, and then you see me cooking fish, you're jumping to conclusions if you call me a liar.  One does not have anything to do with the other, and one does not exclude the other.

Whether Ehrman does this intentionally is probably unknown.  I know a lot of atheists and skeptics do similar things with scriptural texts, but completely unintentionally.  They're just too ignorant about what they're discussing to make proper judgments.  The most famous example I can think of is Bertrand Russell's commentary on Jesus and the fig tree in his classic, Why I Am Not a Christian.  Russell had no idea how far off the mark he was with his contentions.

On the second point of what is considered acceptable and unacceptable as a Biblical text, there is a wealth of academic information on what is known as the gnostic gospels or apocryphal texts.  The gnostic gospels clearly cannot be accepted as valid scriptural texts, for reasons as simple as date written (several centuries after the time of Jesus Christ), among many other reasons.  Some of Ehrman's arguments seem excellent for rejecting texts like the gnostic gospels.  However, the church already did that a long time ago, as experts still do today.  There's nothing new here.

According to Witherington, the new claim by Ehrman is that the accepted writings and the unaccepted writings should be compared as apples to apples.  This is unfair, as the topic is well-studied and the debate is over for experts who have studied the topic in depth.  Unfortunately, laypeople would not understand that, and would see Ehrman's views as a striking, controversial breath of fresh air.  On a side note, it's important to note that the phenomenon of these special texts that attempt to glorify certain historical figures with mystical stories written centuries after their lifetime is not unique to the person of Jesus Christ.  This in turn makes it even easier to reject the gnostic gospels and ascertain what can be considered acceptable.  Deep research into this specific topic was one of the turning points for Lee Strobel (now a famous pastor and Christian author) to change from atheism to Christianity.

On the third point, there is again a litany of points by Witherington.  But more importantly, I find this particular Ehrman quote from the original article most interesting:
"I'm not a Christian anymore, but it's not because of this kind of thing," he told me. "I got to a point where I could no longer believe that there's a good and powerful God in charge of the world, given all the pain and misery that's in it. ... I don't think that the God of the Bible exists."
That an academic should base his decision to abandon his faith based on such an emotional response to a difficult subject gives me cause for concern as to the rigor of his logic.  The logical aspects of the problem of pain and suffering has been studied quite thoroughly by many people, ranging from academics of yesteryear like C.S. Lewis (himself an atheist-turned-Christian) to modern experts like William Lane Craig today.  From a logical standpoint, the arguments are quite solid.  As many logicians will acknowledge, emotions are not so easy to handle in a similar manner.  Although the logic is quite solid, it may still be too difficult to accept the logic on an emotional level.

That being said, if people base a faith decision on emotion, rather than logic (as this author seems to do), it will then indicate to me that their subsequent works (such as his book on Biblical forgeries) would be prone to influence from such emotional bias and therefore lack logical rigor.  This honestly sounds like another guy who thinks that the world should be simple, easy, and nice without heavily contemplating the root causes and answers of the issues of evil.  That's a complaint I have with many folks who bring up the "problem of evil" argument against the existence of God.

Meanwhile, Christianity has explained that problem: it's at the core of the Christian faith, described in such texts as Genesis, Isaiah ch 59, Ezekiel ch 16, Epistle to the Romans, Epistle to the Hebrews, etc (well, pretty much the whole Bible).  Christianity also offers a solution, claiming that it's the only solution: salvation through Jesus Christ.  I can point to various friends and societies who have had their lives turned around by their faith experience as to the solution in action.  Of course, there are also counter-examples where the church has created evil and caused pain.  Let's be careful here and recognize that the problem of evil and the problem of hypocrisy are two separate problems.  One should not affect the other in terms of analysis.  Again, logic vs. emotion.

Ehrman's bias does seem to play itself out in the book according to Witherington's commentary, even in the gathering of the data.  As per Witherington's 2nd blog post on the book:
Here is where I say  ‘caveat emptor’—let the buyer beware when Bart begins to make sweeping claims like “Second Thessalonians… is itself widely thought by scholars not to be by Paul”  (p. 19).   I called Bart on this very point when we were debating at New Orleans Baptist Seminary last month.  I pointed out, that if one does the head count of what commentators say about 2 Thessalonians, in fact the majority of commentators, even if one restricts one’s self to  so-called critical commentators,  still believe Paul is responsible for 2 Thessalonians. 
Bart’s rebuttal was that he was not counting conservative  or orthodox commentators.   My response to the response was that in fact he was ruling out the majority of Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, not to mention some Jewish scholars at this point.    In other words,  his ‘canon’ of critical scholars is small, a distinct minority of the total number of NT scholars around the world,  with whom he has chosen to agree.     My point here is,  don’t believe such claims as ‘widely believed’  or  ‘the majority of good scholars think’  without first doing the math.   In fact, Bart’s math does not add up.   Thus while it is true that often forgers throw people off their trail by warning about forgery in their own forged documents,  in fact, there were plenty of genuine warnings of this sort by authors like Galen, who were really upset with people writing documents in their own name.   Galen even published a list of his authentic writings to make clear what was a forgery.   As it turn out, many ancients were very concerned about the dangers of forgery,  and Paul was one of them.
The original article does good to link to Witherington to provide balance.  But I fear that many atheists and skeptics would take the linkbait and run with it without wanting to consider the other side first, much as the original author seems to do.  All logicians on both sides of the debate need to hold themselves up to higher standards.  As well, people in general need to appreciate that any subject can be quite complicated.  If Witherington's analysis of Ehrman's text is accurate, Ehrman takes the analysis of scripture too lightly, just like Bertrand Russell did.