Archives For Sean

I just read a phenomenal blog post by Renee DiResta about an interesting (albeit qualitative) study powered by Google’s auto-complete feature. She went State by state and saw what the Google search results indicated people thought of a particular state. She then compiled the top terms into an interactive map and compared some results with hard data.

Renee’s post leads me to questions whether people’s expectations are fueling the reality we see. There has been extensive academic research into how beliefs shape a person’s view of reality; so I have to believe that Google suggesting results has an impact on people’s searches – thus influencing their beliefs.

Take a look at this search result

Search results on 8/20/2012

Say I was offered a job in New Jersey, and I lived out of state. The first thing I’d find out about the state is that it is very expensive, and this Google search is true according to the hard data. Before the internet I doubt many people would look at cost of living statistics when considering moving, but now with the internet we have access to nearly unlimited data.

Infographic via Renee DiResta 

The questions that remains to be seen is how this data is leveraged, and whether it will truly help people to get a better sense of their world.
I’ve written previously about the power of data behind search terms, and I keep finding great examples of how people are leveraging Google Search data to improve their view of the world. If you haven’t seen it yet, Google has set up a Flu Tracker, which this year predicted a flu outbreak earlier than the CDC (Source). Brilliant.

Economics of Happiness

August 7, 2012 — 4 Comments

“Textbooks describe economics as the study of the allocation of scarce resources.  That definition may indeed be the “what,” but it certainly is not the ‘why.'”

-Ben Bernanke

On Monday Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, gave a speech about economic measurements. This speech was unusual because he was not focusing on indicators such as GDP, inflation, and unemployment rates; the Chairman instead took a philosophical approach and questioned the relevancy of these traditional statistics to happiness.

Before I continue, it is important to note that the Federal reserve focuses on the aforementioned numbers because our Central Bank has a dual mandate – to keep inflation within a standard range while maximizing employment. (note that the European Central Bank does not have a dual mandate, and focuses exclusively on inflation).

Bernanke details a number of other economic indicators which might be able to guide the Federal Reserve towards making more informed economic decisions: How secure do Americans feel in their jobs? How confident are they in their future job prospects? How prepared are families for financial shocks?

This is an interesting and exciting development, and I firmly believe that our economy could use more detailed and thoughtful economic analysis. The amount of data available to Economists today is mind-boggling. Innovative Central Banks, such as Israel’s, have been utilizing Google Search Results to inform their decision making. According to a paper by Google Chief Economist, Hal Varian, adding Google Trends to traditional indicators leads to an 18% improvement in predictions for ‘Motor vehicles and Parts’ and a 12% improvement for ‘New Housing Starts’.

The Federal Reserve works in a deliberate fashion, but I’m excited for the potential of leveraging the vast amounts of data produced by internet users to improve economic decision making.

The Sword (කඩුව)

August 2, 2012 — 1 Comment

Sri Lanka has free tertiary education, but only two percent of students are accepted to university. As a generalization, those accepted to University have excellent English skills; those lacking proficiency in English can be held back and prevented from going abroad on scholarships and grants.

The history of English in Sri Lanka is long and complex. During my orientation I had the chance to meet the gentleman who is the Director of the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission – Tissa. He is a gentle, soft-spoken, retired English literature professor. One day at lunch he told my fellow Fulbrighters and I, “We have destroyed the foundation of English teaching because of stupid political mistakes, because of nationalism and ‘equality’”.

He continued to tell us that the Sinhala word for English is a metaphor for the word ‘sword’ (කඩුව, Kaduwa). It is a weapon of those who speak it to repress those who do not. I recently read an op-ed in the Sri Lankan Sunday Times which stated:

The privileged classes will learn an international variety of English and will be able to maintain their higher position in society permanently. The underprivileged classes who are being taught a local variety of English will be further disadvantaged. Those who will stand to benefit, will be the elite.

As an English Teaching Assistant, I will be sharpening that sword, in a sense. While I’ll be working through an NGO, teaching English at a community center, I need to be cognizant of the political and social implications of English in Sri Lanka.

English is a powerful tool, and it enables developing countries to improve their relations with the global economy. There is a profound need for English teaching in Sri Lanka, but I need to be constantly aware of the way that I teach English – so I don’t inadvertently criticize Sinhala.

I’m not quite sure what I’ve gotten myself into, but I am excited for the challenges which lay ahead.

 

A government shelling civilian hospitals, providing the false hope of ‘No Fire Zones’, and corralling 130,000 people in one square mile.

I’ve just finished watching Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, and am in a state of shock. This documentary sheds light on the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s Civil War – as the Government crushed the Tamil Tigers (LTTE).

A UN Panel believes that at least 40,000 civilians were killed in the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war. International observers were forced to leave the Tamil occupied regions of the country, while civilians were deliberatley targeted by both the Government and Opposition forces.

The LTTE are the pioneers of the suicide bomb, and the nations of Sri Lanka was plagued by civil war for a quarter century. It is difficult for me to fully judge the government’s actions  when contextualized – though nothing can justify the bombing of civilian hospitals in a designated no fire zone.

I am thrilled to find that on July 27, 2012 the Sri Lankan Government announced it will begin conducting formal investigations into alleged human right violations (Indian Express). This is due to pressure on the Government from the international community, and it is expected that their report will be filed within 6 to 18 months.

With this investigation, I hope the nation of Sri Lanka will take another crucial step towards resolving this conflict.

Update: Thanks to a reader for sharing the Sri Lankan Government response to this documentary:

Kindle Previews

July 31, 2012 — Leave a comment

When I search for a new book to buy for my Kindle I always download a few books to preview.

It really frustrates me when an author or publisher only let’s you see the table of contents and the introduction.

Barnes and Noble lets customers sit all day and browse books, Seth Godin has given away several books, when you’re listing a book on Kindle why not let me read a few chapters?

If you’ve written a good book, why not let me read the first few chapters? Don’t you think I’ll be hooked enough to buy it?

The Exponential Project was created by a Red Headed, Left Handed woman named Michelle. The purpose is to connect interesting individuals to create new opportunities.

 

When you walked into the event you were given a goodie bag – full of pipe cleaners, crayons, stickers, a puzzle piece, and a raffle ticket.Name tags were color coordinated, mine was green – for entrepreneurs and those working in the social field.

I found this event through Twitter, and told my friend Vipin about it. He purchases a ringleader set of tickets and brought me along, with his friend  Jamal.  Vipin is building a tool to help people accomplish their dreams, ProgressBar

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I met Mary Louise and Robert, a lovely couple who teach creative writing. They’ve recently launched Eureka Squirrel, a consultancy to help creative individuals reignite their passion.

 

 

The room was full of popcorn icebreakers; such as this one, which spurred a great conversation about urban cycling!

 

 

I met Amy who works at Amazon, creating their competitor to Gilt and Rue La LaMyHabit. She’s been with Amazon since 1999 and moved to NYC last year!

 

 

 

 

Amy’s friend, Charlotte, makes food beautiful. She’s a trained chef who helps established brands display their food. She also makes chandeliers out of cow bones and dresses out of salmon skin.

 

 

Before the raffle was drawn more ticked were awarded. The team who made the biggest bug out of pipe cleaners was awarded an extra ticket.

 

 

 

I happened to win one of the raffles! It looks like I’ll be taking a hike thanks to Discover Outdoors!

If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend checking out the Exponential Project.

On Friday Breaker was joined by Dr. Tom Guarriello, the Chief Idea Officer of True Talk Consulting, for a session on Storytelling.

Humans crave narrative, its a core element of our culture; one which transcends culture, gender, and race. Tom describes stories as being the software of our humanity, and our brain is the hardware. Our hardware drives and shapes software; stories are a delivery system for the six basic emotions.

 

Emotion is defined as a feeling state with physiological, cognitive, and behavioral components. Using this definition, our feelings are: fear, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise, and joy.

 

 

Tom posed a question to the Breakers, “How can you embed your product or experience in an emotionally engaging story? Stories are written for the moral, and follow the same basic structure that Aristotle codified.

To explain the question in more detail, Tom answered it for us. He told us the following story:

Tom was working one day and became very tired, he went to Starbucks and got a venti americano. He was so refreshed that he was able to finish his project.

In this story there is a victim, villain, and a hero. The villain is fatigue, preventing work from being accomplished. While the hero is Starbucks, saving Tom and enabling to complete his work..

Many people are not comfortable with the idea of a corporation being a mentor or hero in their lives. This is not the way people consciously think. Tom went to Starbucks for some coffee, not for a guide to show him the path towards vanquishing his villain. Yet when people attach memories or beliefs to a brand this is precisely what they are doing. Powerful brands enable us.

When crafting your brand’s story, be cognizant of the emotions you utilize.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For those interested in learning more about this subject here are a list of resources:

 

This post is cross-listed on the Breaker Tumblr

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity

-Horace Mann

If you’ve gone for an undergraduate or graduate degree in the past decade, or know someone who has, I’m sure you’re well aware of the staggering cost of a degree. American student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt (NPR).

Student debt vs. credit card and car loan debt

The cost of college has been the subject of debate; billionaire Peter Theil has launched a foundation to pay students to forgo a four year degree, while Seth Godin has written a manifesto on how to change school.

I have a number of thoughts on the course of education, but the subject of this post is to explain why I’ve started a petition against Citi Bank.

Citi is the second largest student loan originator in the country, and they do not offer the chance to defer loans for the Fulbright or Peace Corp programs. As a Fulbrighter I’ve had to start the process of applying for loan deferrals with the banks and government agencies who lent me money to go to college. I’ve spent quite some time on the phone with H.E.S.A.A. and MyFedLoad to determine the appropriate forms to file (for Stafford loans click here), when I got on the phone with a Citi Bank representative I was told that they don’t offer deferment for the Peace Corp or Fulbright – and pretty much said I was out of luck. My loan through Citi is at 10%, and I’m not asking that the interest stops accruing while I’m abroad – just to extend the grace period of the loan.

I’m really fortunate, Fordham is one of the most expensive colleges around and I’m graduating with about $50k in debt. I owe a little over $12,000 to Citi (which started as a $10,000 loan my sophomore year), and I’ll pay that off when I sell my car. If i didn’t have this option available my payments would be about $150 a month on this loan, which is about 15% of my Fulbright Stipend. I have to thank my supportive family for helping me to get through college, but if it wasn’t for them I’m not sure I could take this grant. If I had more loans through Citi, and couldn’t pay them off before my grant starts, I’d be in a tough place.

That is why I’m asking you to sign this petition to urge Citi to change their restrictive policy.

UPDATE: in 2010 Discover Financial purchased the Citi Student Loan Corporation. 

Brewster

July 12, 2012 — Leave a comment

Today marked the launch of a new firm backed by Union Square Ventures, Brewster.

Brewster aims to make managing your contacts, across all of your social platforms, an easier and more enjoyable experience. I downloaded Brewster this morning, and connected it to my gmail, twitter, linkedin, and iphone contacts. About fifteen minutes later I received a push notification telling me my contacts had been aggregated.

The app seems to know a good deal about me already, just by pulling data off of my social networks. It suggested my favorites, which are fairly close to my favorites on my iPhone. One thing that I’m unsure of, is how it decides which photo to pull. Take my mother for example, I have a photo on my phone that I LOVE of her, and on Brewster her photo is empty. Also, the default photo it choose for me on my personal profile page is my twitter. I’ve deliberately left out my Facebook because I’m trying to wind down my usage of that network. From my preliminary perspective it seems to me that Brewster chooses the photo to display based upon what method of communication you use most.

I certainly see Brewster as being a time saving device for me in the future. Rather than  having to jump around various social media outlets I can text, tweet, email, or call a person all from this one app. In future iterations I’d really like to see a Rapportive style contact builder, so that once I connect to someone via email it suggests I follow them on twitter.

Over the coming weeks I look forward to using all of the features of this app. Fred Wilson, in his blog post said, “this is an address book that can handle a search query like “knicks game” or “sushi tonight” or “band of horses concert”. We are always querying our brain with questions like that. Now we can ask our address books those kinds of questions.” I expect that this feature will come in handy.

The team for Brewster consists of 15 individuals, according to the NY Times, who have been working for the past two years. Brewster is led by Steve Greenwood, a former McKinsey Consultant who worked on Drop.io until it was acquired by Facebook. Fred’s blog post talks about Steve’s massive spreadsheet where he kept detailed records about how he met people. I’m guessing its passion like that which led USV to lead a Seed round.

Good luck to Steve and all of the team at Brewster.

The Brewster U.I.

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The Kindle Fire

July 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

For my birthday my parents got me a Kindle Fire. After a few days of use though, I opted to return it for a Kindle Touch.

The Fire is a good tablet, but its no competition for the the Touch, as its not an e-reader. I wanted a Kindle for one thing – reading books – and the Fire is not great for that. I found that the Fire’s screen was hard to read in the sun, and I was often distracted while reading from all the other features of the Fire.

I question Amazon’s branding strategy for the Fire. Its a good product, but branding it as a Kindle weakens the e-reader’s image. My parents assumed that as a Kindle it would be great for reading, though that isn’t the case. Amazon produces the best e-reader in the business. I’ve used the iPad on several occasions, and the Fire just doesn’t hold up. Conversely, the iPad is no match for the Kindle Touch when it comes to reading books. The main distinction here is the e-ink screen, which makes reading on a digital device as easy as a printed paper. There have been some great projects around the Kindle, take a look at The Domino Project for more information.

Amazon needs to reevaluate their strengths, and consider their e-book branding. The iPad has a Kindle App, why shouldn’t the Fire? Why is Amazon cannibalizing e-reader sales for the fire? Now that the Kindle is branded as a tablet they’ll have to compete with Google’s Nexus.