Wednesday, October 19, 2011

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 10: Kyle Peters

"This movie is terrible," Kyle told me as he tossed the six-part VHS boxed set onto my desk.

"What do you mean?  I thought it was great," I replied.

"I watched it six times, and the South never won once."

It was 1991, and I was working at the World Bank's office in Jakarta.  Kyle Peters - a Virginian - was a colleague, much senior to and wiser than me. I had lent him Ken Burns's The Civil War, which had just come out the year before.

As a young economist, I felt bewildered by the arcane jargon and knowingness of the Bank's culture. There were a lot of things that did not make sense to me, and I felt as though I were simply not smart enough to understand.

Over the couple of years that we worked together, Kyle kept me sane.  Though he would never admit it, he took the mission of the Bank very seriously.  But he made merciless fun of the bureaucracy and had no fear of skewering pompous people who wielded rules as if they were divine revelations or who pretended to know more than they did.

Along the way, Kyle taught me how to tell a coherent story about an economy instead of writing in the "this is up and that is down" style that our boss Russ Cheatham hated so much. He also taught me the ins and outs of the Bank's mysterious economic modeling tool, called RMSM, which required the user to make a judicious judgment about productivity to balance the books (Kyle would pretend to be deep in thought for 10 seconds before hitting a key, and when I would ask him about his thought process he would tell me it was a secret).

To the Bank's credit, Kyle is now the Director of Operational Policies, in charge of trying to align the processes with what makes sense for the Bank's mission. I guess this means that he has to make fun of himself now.  In any case, I am most grateful to Kyle - a mentor, colleague, and friend - for teaching me how to keep caring about core issues even when bureaucracies sometimes conspire to make one cynical. Thanks, Kyle.

PS:  Please don't tell him about this, because he will make fun of me for writing it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 9: Keith Yamashita

Keith Yamashita
"This is hard, isn't it?" Keith asked.

"Painful," I replied.


"To say the least."

I went to visit Keith Yamashita, co-founder of SYPartners, in 2003, when we were struggling. We had about $50 in the bank (I had no idea how we were going to make payroll the next week), the site was struggling, and I felt incredibly lonely and isolated.

Keith and I sat in the lounge of his office talking for about 45 minutes, as he tried to get his arms around our challenges.  Just having someone understand was therapeutic.  But more than that, his firm helped us out periodically over the next several years.  First Keith and his colleagues helped us change our name (from the wonky DevelopmentSpace, which I loved, to GlobalGiving, which I initially disliked intensely, but proved to be much better for users).  And then they helped us refine our strategy and vision.

The bulk of the credit for our success goes to our awesome team.  But along the way, over the last eleven years, there have been a couple of people whose encouragement and understanding kept us going at junctures when we could much more easily have given up.  Keith was one of them.  Thanks, Keith.

Friday, October 07, 2011

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 8: Dave Goldwyn

I met Dave in graduate school in 1983.  I kind of stumbled into grad school by accident.  By contrast, Dave was one of these whiz kids who was getting not only a Masters Degree, but also a JD at the same time.  He went on to work at the US State Department, UN, and Department of Energy, where he was Assistant Secretary for International Affairs.  Most recently he was the State Department's Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs, before stepping down to run his own firm.  Along the way, he spared the time to help Mari and me found GlobalGiving as its first Board Chairman.  His counsel, advice, and moral support during the first years of our existence were pivotal to our survival and eventual success.  But most of all Dave has been a good friend, through thick and thin, over the years.  And for that I am most grateful.  Thank you, Dave.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Monday, October 03, 2011

Why I May Quit Facebook (and Why They Don't - and Shouldn't - Care)

The envelope of the future?
I had a sinking feeling.  As executor of my mom's estate, I had just compiled a list of all sorts of things on Google Docs and intended to share them with my siblings. Instead, I accidentally hit the "Public" button. This would not have been such a big deal a few months ago until Google+ was launched. But now things are different. My fear was that I had just published these private items on my Google+ public feed.

Fortunately, I noticed right away, and changed my settings.  But how often am I in a hurry and don't realize what I have done?  It used to be that the most you could do was accidentally email things to a few extra people in your address book.  It is now getting easier and easier to inadvertently "email" something to everyone in the world.

It would not have been a disaster if my mom's estate details (including some correspondence with my siblings) had been made public.  There were no trade secrets involved.  But it would have been an inadvertent breach of trust on my part vis a vis my relatives.  And the things in there are really no one's business but ours.

Many things in our lives are no one's business but our own.  All but the most extreme proponents of social media would say the same.  We have all read about the folks who put a live web cam in their house to let the world see their every movement.  But those are in the minority.  The rest of us like some degree of privacy.

Don't get us wrong: we do like the way that social media enable us to share and stay in touch with various concentric circles of friends and acquaintances.  We just don't want to have to worry that every time we go on line that we are inadvertently sharing with more than the people we want to.  We don't want to develop a twitch when it comes to communicating, fearful that we have spoken too loud and others have overheard our private conversations.

The other night at dinner, I was extolling the virtues of Spotify to my friend C.  I wanted him to listen to some music I had discovered.  Instead, I got a blast from him: "I tried to sign up for Spotify, but they would only let me do so if I signed up via Facebook, so I told them to go to hell."  Sure that he was wrong, I told him to stop being such a Luddite and go back and read the fine print to find where he could sign up by email.  I heard nothing, so the next day I went and looked at the site myself.  Low and behold, he was right.  Spotify had made some deal with Facebook whereby all new users are now required to sign up via Facebook.  (I got in under the old regime.)

Spotify got some blow back for its new policy, and in response made clear that new users could opt out of sharing all their music automatically via Facebook.  But this was the exception (the opt-out) vs the rule (the default).  And more and more this requirement to actively opt out  has been adopted by Facebook and others.

And you know what?  From a business point of view, what Spotify and Facebook are doing makes sense because of the power of network mathematics.  Most social media sites make money from the number of items viewed.  The new default of open sharing increases geometrically the number of items shared and the number of people who view them.  Someone will soon (if they have not already) do some little back of the envelope calculations on this, but I would bet that the new open sharing policy increases the number of item views on each platform by a factor of 100 or more.  Not all of those views are high quality views, but you get the idea.  This increase in views for the system as a whole far outweighs the loss to the system if a few people drop out.

The bottom line is that, unless people leave Facebook and Spotify in droves, it makes sense for these companies to stick to their guns.  Sure, there will be people like my friend C who never signs up in the first place, and possibly me, who decides to delete my account because I don't want to develop a "twitch." But  the loss from us will be minor, comparatively speaking.  The more I think about it, the more I want to become an investor in Facebook and Spotify, and the less I want to be a user.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

If you are feeling old...

Spruce Gran Picea #0909-6B37 (9,550 years old; FulufjÀllet, Sweden)
Rachel Sussman has been compiling a portfolio of the world's oldest living things.

In my own travels, I have seen a few things (mostly trees) dated at roughly 2,000 years old.

But this spruce in Sweden is over 9,500 years old.

[HT: Patrick Whittle]