Having a Title and Description
I was listening to the Stack Overflow podcast
today. I was struck by something that seems like an obvious procedural thing that is so often missing from software projects: having a title and description. This is often called the 'elevator pitch.' Or, as the podcast calls it, a 'vision statement.'
The idea is to answer the question, "So, what are you doing?" or "What is your project about?" Here's a stab at a necessary and sufficient list of constraints on the answer to that question.
1. It has to be short. That is, think about it as the title and paragraph description on SourceForge, or the title and a snippet in a search result or in an RSS reader. The canonical 140 characters is a good upper limit.
2. It has to be written. Written like *written*. Like writers do writing. Not like "I put a bunch of ascii characters in a row."
3. It has to be concise and descriptive. More nouns and verbs than adjectives.
How come? First of all, it should be short because it should be easy to explain. It should be easy to explain because it should fit into the world in a way that is easy to explain. If it isn't, it is probably a waste of time.
It should be written in order to solve two problems. One is communicating it to people who aren't in the elevator with you. This also puts a proper scope threshold on the project. A project which isn't worth titling and describing is not a software project. It is something you should do with awk or grep.
The description should be mostly nouns and not many adjectives. This makes sure that you know what it is you are trying to do. The writing of this description commits you to some thinking. Fine. You may be wrong, but fortunately this needn't be your last project. You can change the description and try again.
These constraints imply a certain level of thinking and iterating and refining about what it is you are doing. That's fine. That's basically writing like writers do.
What's the news?
Friday, November 6, 2009
I'm interested in following the rapid evolution of the news business. Something that puzzles me is the conviction on the part of many people who are experts in this (i.e. Jay Rosen
), that Twitter is somehow emblematic of the new news system. That's true to an extent, but only insofar as what the news system has allowed itself to become.
As the news system has become more driven by individual personalities, and replaced the apex of the profession with the blow-dried TV anchor, coverage has gotten more and more shallow, driven by the logic of the news organization itself instead of by facts and reality. In short, news is now optimized for sharing unattributed gossip about celebrities, and basically treats every story in that way.
In that sense, Twitter is great for news -- the perfect online match for the attribution- and research-free milieu of today's journalism. But that match is dancing with the devil. Any modern news system that is going to be successful is going to look very little like Twitter, and rely on such knee-jerk low-information tools in only the most rudimentary way. Recent examples as I write this: Balloon Boy and the Fort Hood shootings. In these and similar stories, the news might as well be reading twitter streams -- they put on ignorant "experts" and relay breathless and almost invariably wrong reports from on-the-scene reporters.
But what is going to be successful in a world where passing on vapid chatter is zero cost is adding the values of reputation and authority. That is only going to be earned the hard way -- by taking the time to not get it wrong. To get it right. To explain. To find the facts behind the facade. To investigate. To ask the follow-ups.
What does Twitter have to do with that? If the existing news business abdicates its role of spending the time to get the story to doing low-value "curation" (that is, largely link-blogging), then someone else (probably what we now call "bloggers") will step into the role. The real lesson of Twitter is that curation is easy, and can be done largely through algorithmic aggregation. Unless you are occupied with doing the thinking, investigating, and explaining, you're simply not doing news. That today's news infrequently thinks, rarely investigates and seldom explains, is not evidence that Twitter will save it, but that Twitter will destroy it.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
There's an interesting new poll breaking down what people who suspect Obama isn't a natural-born citizen
It is really pretty crazy that 24% of Americans believe this, but that's about the number who still thought George W. Bush was doing a good job in 2008. Perhaps these two beliefs are correlated.
But two other results struck me as even more interesting than that. First of all, the basic theory by people who talk about such things is that Obama was born in Kenya. That's what the faked documents are made to show, and where the real action is in the "discussion" (such as it is). Yet of respondents, 10% think Obama was born in Indonesia, and only 7% in Kenya. (More about the remaining 7% presently.) What does this mean?
What it must mean is that most people formed some kind of early belief about this, based on email forwards or something, and have interpreted all subsequent talk as confirmatory of their belief, when in fact they aren't even hardly talking about the same theory any more. These countries are basically on opposite sides of the world, the proposed mechanisms for Obama having been born in them are different (as they'd have to be).
And the other 7%? Well, 6% of respondents say that they don't think Hawaii is part of the United States. Others probably know that it is, but believe that since his parents weren't born in the United States, that makes him not a "natural born citizen." These geographical and legal misunderstandings mark the bearers as not just not paying attention to an arcane conspiracy theory, but in fundamental default on basic facts of the political reality around them.
So what's going on?
One possibility is that people who tell pollsters they don't think Obama is a natural born citizen don't actually believe it. That is, this belief is more of a statement that Obama oughtn't to be president rather than indicative of what they think. But why? Why express this opposition in such a silly and baseless way? It is manifestly clear that this theory has no chance of ever bearing any political fruit, and in fact may end up being harmful to the cause. But as is clear by the fact that virtually all of the people who believe in this are unmoored, not only from basic geographical facts, but from the conspiracy discussion itself, they are probably not well equipped or care particularly much what the political realities are. They may be in the mindset that opposition to Obama implies that they should believe he isn't even qualified to be President. That is, it is just a facet of the unacceptability of his presidency that infuriates them as a whole. Evidence suggests this may make up quite a substantial fraction of the people holding this view.
A fruitful exercise is to look at the circumstances surrounding George W. Bush's election in 2000. Most people opposed to his presidency believed that the Florida election was not fair. The fact that it hinged on such technicalities, and the realities of the error-prone ballots, made it appear that the outcome of the election was within the error bounds of the voting process itself, and that consequently, control over the process of vote-counting was determinative. The fact that Bush's brother and his campaign officials were in a position to exert such control made that belief irresistible.
I'm not saying these beliefs are based on the same kinds of footing; what I'm saying is that we don't have to look back very far before finding an instance where opposition to a president was tightly coupled with various theories of his illegitimacy. Polls in 2001 might have shown that a lot of people believed various versions of how Bush won Florida, all of which would be expected to occur in people opposed to him, and which formed part of the overall complaint about him.
What's up with agency?
Saturday, August 15, 2009
The agency problem
seems to be getting worse. Or perhaps it's as bad as it's ever been, but we're in a payback period now where it's more noticeable how bad it actually is. Whatever the case, we should take advantage of the situation to try to think of ways to improve it.
In business, it seems like stock ownership isn't proceeding under the agency theory. That is, managers of firms don't appear to act as agents of investors, at least, not to the extent that investors wish or believe they ought to be. Instead, shareholders are more accurate characterized as investing in the talents of the managers. Or perhaps better yet, as making side bets on the bets the managers are making. Is this because of incestuous board relationships and other conflicts of interest? Or will the downturn cause investors to stop wanting to make these kinds of side bets?
The prevailing wisdom on the problem is that you attack it by means of incentives. That is, you assume that you are hiring a crook, and that your responsibility is to make sure that the crook is cheating for
you, instead of on
you. I am suspicious that whole approach may be wrong.
In a similar fashion to the microeconomics result that charging parents for picking up their kids late at daycare leads to even more tardiness
[Freakonomics], I suspect that this implicit posture that managers are crooks and need to have their interests mechanically aligned with owners ends up producing a system in which managers feel entitled to exploit their information asymmetries to get around these rules. (After all, if "the incentives aren't properly aligned," they can't really be blamed for exploiting them, right?)
Perhaps the answer is the same: a return to moral argument. But a diffuse set of shareholders of a public company has a lot of obstacles in making moral demands on a company's management structure. Presumably the board is the vehicle by which this happens, but there's a lot of risk there of over-coziness, an agency problem on stilts (the board is itself the shareholders' agent), and classical information asymmetry.
So how would shareowners exert moral pressure in a more direct, socially powerful way? Putting it another way, how should they make better decisions about hiring morally competent managers, rather than ignoring that and hiring ones they think are managerially competent (but perhaps morally questionable)?
In government contexts, how do voters exert direct moral pressure on lawmakers and executives to provide the leadership they are elected to provide, rather than using the information asymmetry and systemic lags to engage in featherbedding and other kinds of corruption?
Both areas suffer from common problems: historical methods of direct social pressure available to the majority of the stakeholders simply aren't effective. Voters by and large don't go to the same parties as politicians, so if they stop inviting the politician to parties because he or she is corrupt, the politician can just go to the parties of the people whose influence they are transmitting. Same goes for CEOs and shareholders.