Saturday, April 21, 2012

What Hannibal Can Teach Religion

Economist Tyler Cowen had this to say about the struggles that religions face in our modern society:
For most mainstream religions, for most urban and suburban intellectuals circa 2012, it is hard to live a religiously observant life during the ages of say 17-25. American religion is left with late convert intellectuals and proponents of various enthusiasms, all filtered through the lens of America’s rural-tinged mass culture. Where is the indigenous and recent highbrow Christian culture of the United States?
Cowen wrote his thoughts in response to Ross Douthat's new book, How We Became a Nation of Heretics in which he argues that "Christianity’s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, but by heresy: debased versions of Christian faith that breed hubris, greed, and self-absorption." (Side note: How meta is it that I'm writing a blog post about a comment that Tyler Cowen has on a Ross Douthat book? The cycle will be complete when this post is quoted in Ben Casnocha's blog, and Tyler comments on it.)

For me, the biggest issue that religions face in modern society is Hannibal's First Law of Leadership: "Never give an order that won't be obeyed."

As Cowen points out, it's hard to live a religiously observant life in modern society. Serious thinkers argue that the link between sex and love has been broken. Young voters strongly favor gay marriage. The result? People have to decide whether to follow religious codes or social mores.

I like to use ABC Family as an example of the evolution of America. The channel was launched in 1977 by Pat Robertson. Today, it's most popular show is "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," which focuses on a teen mom and features ample helpings of premarital sex. Mind you, this is a show that appears on a Disney-owned channel, and was created by Brenda Hampton, who had previously created the squeaky-clean and religious-themed Seventh Heaven.

Once people begin to pick and choose among the dictates of a religion, Hannibal's law is violated. Just look at the damage that the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to birth control has done to its standing in America.

Where is the indigenous highbrow Christian culture of the United States? It won't come back until someone establishes a religion whose values are aligned with contemporary culture.

The 5 Components of Wisdom

I've written about wisdom before, concluding "I consider the loss of certainty a sign of wisdom."

As it turns out, I'm not alone. Tucked away in an Economist article earlier this month were these nuggets of wisdom:
"Psychologists consider [these the] five crucial aspects of wise reasoning: willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict; willingness to search for compromise; recognition of the limits of personal knowledge; awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist; and appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better."
Loss of certainty represents a thread that ties all five components together. For example:

1) Willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict
2) Willingness to search for compromise

When your worldview is full of certainty, your self-righteousness will lead to intolerance and conflict. In fact, to be logically self-consistent, it ought too--if you know that you're right and someone else is wrong, compromise harms both parties. In other words, you may need to destroy the village in order to save it.

3) Recognition of the limits of personal knowledge

Once you realize how little you know, it's hard to feel a sense of certainty about issues, since they are almost more complicated than our limited understanding would lead us to believe.

4) Awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist

Accepting ambiguity is key to productive engagement with alternate viewpoints; seek first to understand, then to be understood.

5) Appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better.

I'll close with a quotation from perhaps the wisest man that ever lived, Abraham Lincoln. The words come from a speech he gave in 1859 to, of all people, the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society.
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! -- how consoling in the depths of affliction! "And this, too, shall pass away." And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Startup Idea: Podcastagram

Here's the latest startup idea I'm offering to the world. As usual, you get what you pay for.

1) After years of false starts (Odeo anyone?), podcasting is finally turning the corner and becoming mainstream.

2) Despite this fact, it's still a major pain to start a podcast. There is no WordPress or Blogger of podcasting.

3) The ideal tool for podcasting already exists--it's called a smartphone. Today's smartphones can easily accommodate the storage requirements for recording a podcast.

4) Instagram has shown the incredible power of a simple interface that lets you share with your friends.

Put it all together, and you get Podcastagram. It's a simple smartphone app that makes podcasting as easy as sharing a photo. Simply install the app, select a name for your podcast, and start broadcasting.

Sure, it won't replace a professional podcasting setup with microphones and tricasters, but for hobbyists, it should do just fine.

Any takers?

Monday, April 16, 2012

My New Desktop Background

Say "Cheese," Kobe!

Is There A Social Media Bubble?

Of course there’s a social media bubble.

All over the map, everyone ranging from seed-stage investors to the public markets are paying inflated prices for social media assets. But while the current frenzy is a bubble, it doesn’t even come close to the magnitude and madness of the Dot-Com bubble.

Back in those days, “eyeballs” were being valued in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars—even if most of those eyeballs consisted of a one-time user registration with zero usage. In contrast, Instagram’s value of $25 for each of its 40 million users seems tame in comparison.

Another famous example, Chemdex, raised $112.5 million in its 1999 IPO…on quarterly sales of $165,000. No, that’s not a misprint. At its height, the company was valued at over $4 billion. That’s a Price/Sales ratio of 6,000X. LinkedIn comes in at a comparatively reasonable 20X sales (for reference, Apple is valued at a little under 5X sales).

So while today’s valuations are frothy, we’ve got a long way to go before we reach the insanity of the Dot-Com era.

Give it a year.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Speak Up, Silicon Valley

I had an interesting experience at Mega Startup Weekend. I was lucky enough to be invited to help judge the startup pitches at the end of the weekend. It's remarkable how much a dedicated team can accomplish in just 54 hours.

But my most interesting experience took just a few seconds.

During one of the pitches, the all-male team used a gratuitous photograph of leaping bikini-clad women. The bikini-clad women had little to do with the app; I think the entrepreneurs simply thought it would amuse the (extremely sleep-deprived) crowd. But rather than simply flashing the image once, the pitch returned to it several times, and the team even switched to the image as the background for their onstage Q&A at one point.

Gender balance is rare in Silicon Valley, but the Mega Startup Weekend team did a good job of attracting a diverse set of entrepreneurs and audience members, including quite a few women. I watched a few of them during the pitch; while they didn't display any extreme reactions, I could see at least some signs of (perhaps resigned) discomfort.

So when it was my turn to speak on the judging panel, I took a few seconds to do something really simple. I lifted the microphone and said, "I hate to be a buzzkill, but I just have to point out that using that bikini picture seems inappropriate. It doesn't have anything to do with your product."

The whole thing took less than 15 seconds, but even before I finished speaking the women in the audience applauded loudly--and because there were a good number of women in the audience, it brought the proceedings to a brief halt.

Afterwards, several women made their way up to the stage and thanked me for speaking out. They wanted to underline how much it meant to them.

I'm sure that the startup in question had no bad intentions. They didn't want to offend anyone or make them feel uncomfortable. They simply displayed an image that they liked and thought was entertaining.

The high tech community is undergoing a transition. Traditionally, high tech has been dominated by young Caucasian and Asian males (go back another 20 years, and it was just Caucasian males). Like many other parts of society, entrepreneurship has become more inclusive.

There are far more women and non-East Asian minorities involved now than when I started my own high tech career in 1995, nearly 20 years ago. This is a good thing--we Caucasian/Asian males have no monopoly on ambition or ability. But the traditional demographic still represents a solid majority of participants (I believe the kids these days would call it a "sausage fest"). And it's still all too easy to forget that other perspectives exist.

If you're a woman or a minority (and I have to make the distinction because women now make up the majority of college graduates in this country), it's much harder to speak up when something occurs to make you feel uncomfortable. Were I in the same situation, I'd be worried that I'd be seen as "oversensitive" or "think-skinned." And with good reason.

Check out the recent Geeklist incident (short version: Shanley Kane (a woman) noticed that Geeklist had made a promo video with a woman in her underwear. She tweeted the company for an explanation and suggested that they take it down, using some profanity. The founders did not respond well). Charles Arthur of The Guardian does a great job of letting the entire tweet stream tell the story. I think it's pretty clear that the founders of Geeklist acquit themselves poorly and that nothing Kane did was out of line. Yet some of the commenters still defend the company and criticize Kane for her actions.

Fortunately, there are plenty of folks who speak out regardless of the potential fallout. Yet if those of us who aren't affected speak up, the effect can be even stronger.

Speaking up when you see someone else wronged sends a powerful message. It simultaneously demonstrates the wrongheadedness of the action to the perpetrator while showing support to the wronged party.

And in my case, it didn't take any special courage or eloquent words to have an impact.

If you see something wrong, speak up. If just a few more of us speak up, in time, none of us will need to.