I’m packing my bags and moving to my own domain. You can now read my latest drivel at http://nathanpbell.com/blog

Sorry for the inconvenience!


Below are three articles that I came to read this weekend that really just rocked me. I wanted to share and comment on them here in hopes that someone else will find them similarly thought provoking.

Adam Greenfield – “Anti-social Networking”

Adam’s position can be summarized as such: that the social webs we weave in places like Facebook and LinkedIn are broken, severely so, and at a very fundamental level. Adam further argues that “the only way to win is not to play” and makes the claim that we are better off as a society with out those tools at all (at least, as implemented).

His main argument is this: within these social networks we are asked (read: required) to define our complex, dynamic and often ambiguous real-world relationships in a very concrete way, often having to make a binary choice between defining a ‘friend’ or ‘not-friend’ relationship with the people in our lives that we varyingly know, like, love, dislike and with as many nuances as we have encounters with those people. This is bad as it leads to social interaction that is hopelessly “autistic” in behavior. I’ve read similar positions from others, including one from Joel Spolsky in 2004 who in turn referenced a talk by academic Danah Boyd.

Adam writes:

By contrast, having to declare the degree of intimacy you’re willing to grant each friend, whether in public and for all to see or simply so that they see it, is a state of affairs I’ve described, in comments elsewhere, as “frankly autistic.” It’s no way to arrange things as absolutely central to life as friendship, of that I am sure.

For all of these reasons, I believe that technically-mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. From where I stand, the only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints to begin with.

I understand where Adam is coming from; there is a severe awkwardness that comes with attempting to reify our relationships with other people as a mathematical model and it occasionally (or maybe even often) leads to the hurtful and decidedly anti-social behaviors that he describes in his post. That much I agree with.

Where Adam loses me is in his argument that this is a fundamental flaw of social networking as it exists on the web and that the only solution is to abandon the concept full stop. His conclusion, though, misunderstands the reasons people maintain their presence on these social networks and ignores the the many ways that these networks have proven themselves to be uniquely useful and, arguably, have net positive outcomes for their users.

The most glaring bad assumption is that people use social networks for the purpose of modeling their real world relationships instead of as a means to efficiently disseminate information among the people that are most likely to find such information relevant. While “friending” someone as an indication of a meaningful real world relationship is, I agree, ridiculous, stating explicitly that “this person’s information is, in some form, relevant to me” isn’t really all that awkward of a concept and I don’t buy the idea that because some providers have chosen to borrow words we usually reserve to indicate a more intimate relationship than “relevancy” that it condemns the concept as a whole. In fact many networks have transcended this awkwardness to a large extent simply with a change in wording and a slight tweak to the model.

There are examples of this working successfully all over the web. Twitter, just to name one, allows a person to ‘follow’ the updates of another. The word itself lacks any implication of relationship: I may follow you because you’re a close friend of mine and I want to stay up on your happenings or I may follow you because you’re an industry commentator and your updates may be relevant to my work. The social tool itself is very similiar to what you’d find on Facebook or LinkedIn, only the wording is different and the social awkwardness is gone.

In short, I share Adam’s views that current implementations are to a certain extent broken but I don’t agree with his conclusion that social networking’s inherent properties make the situation hopeless. Which ever side you lean towards, though, you should read the discussion that followed because there are some absolutely brilliant comments embedded in there. My favorite (perhaps because I agree with it ;) ) is a comment made by ‘Even’, an excerpt here:

I think my greatest problem with the ’social networks bad, no social networks best, contextual situated social networks maybe ok’ contention is that it seems, how should I put this, somewhat lacking in nuance.

Abstraction will be useful and we often benefit from simplifications carried out by many processes. I am fairly certain a blanket argument could be made against theatre for its failure to be anything but a bleak imitation of life itself, but I am uncertain how effective it would be. However grotesque we may find the mapping between social relations of real life humans and joined database columns, we do need to look at what use social networks are actually being put to in different services. Most often the network simply eases the dissemination of information.

Read the excellent discussion on Adam’s blog: Anti-social Networking

Clay Shirky – Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

It’s a story we’ve heard again and again over the last 10 years: Old Media consistently fails to “get it” when it comes to the profound changes that the web is catalyzing. Ground-up community-led (often merit-based) efforts that are birthed on the Internet are not a “passing fad” (as one TV producer puts it) but represent a fundamental shift in the way that society creates and disseminates information, on par with prior revolutions such as the introduction of the printing press, the grand scale availability of communications systems to individuals (ie. the telegraph and telephone) and, ironically, the triumph of broadcast radio and television. Old Media’s naivety (or, more likely, willful ignorance) of the changing times would be maddening if it wasn’t so funny. I rest easy at night knowing that the coming tsunami of change does not require the understanding or support of the old guard but that it can and will route around them, as revolutions are apt to do.

Clay’s argument is that this change doesn’t necessarily lead to better production or better content (as anyone familiar with the quality of YouTube comments or Digg posts can attest) simply that it is a different model of social participation, one that has proven not only to be possible but seems now inevitable and one that will fundamentally change a whole lot of existing structures.

Looking forward twenty years I think we’ll see a few of the media companies that will able to reinvent themselves enough to stay in the game (that is, stay in business) but their relevance to society will be greatly diminished, replaced in many instances by self-organized information communities and self-publishing professionals and professional groups. Monolithic top-heavy media behemoths are the steam locomotives of the web revolution.

Read Clay’s take on this: Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

Michael Pollan’s “Why Bother?” (New York Times)

While the web revolution barrels down the track there’s another fledgling revolution, wholly more important, who’s inevitability is not so clear. From Michael Pollan’s excellent article about how individual choices affect global climate change:

Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will. That, after all, was precisely what happened in Communist Czechoslovakia and Poland, when a handful of individuals like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik resolved that they would simply conduct their lives “as if” they lived in a free society. That improbable bet created a tiny space of liberty that, in time, expanded to take in, and then help take down, the whole of the Eastern bloc.

Read the rest of Michael Pollan’s excellent answer to the question: “Why Bother?

4. (BONUS!) Tim Bray – Multi-Inflection-Point Alert

I actually read this earlier in the week, but I’ll include it anyway. This one is pure candy, just for fun. There’s not a lot of substance to it but if you (like I obviously do) buy into the idea that we are at an inflection point in society facilitated by the new types of tools that ubiquitous Internet provides, then you’ll like this post by Tim Bray.

I was up late on IM with a much-younger computer programmer and he asked “Damn, there’s a lot going on. Is it always like this?” Well, no, it hasn’t been. But in the future, it may be.

Near as I can tell, we’re simultaneously at inflection points in programming languages and databases and network programming and processor architectures and Web development and IT business models and desktop environments. Did I miss anything? What’s bigger news is that we might be inflection-point mode pretty steadily for the next few years.

Read the rest of Tim’s post at: Multi-Inflection-Point Alert

Just learned that the IRS has published a list of dates for when you can expect your 2008 stimulus package checks to be sent out.

If you elected to have your 2007 income tax refund direct deposited into your bank account, then you can expect to receive the stimulus payment to be sent (via direct deposit again) on either May 2nd, May 9th, or May 16th, depending on the last two digits of your social security number.

If your income tax rebate check is going to be mailed to you (or you didn’t have an income tax rebate), then the IRS will be mailing your stimulus check out sometime between May 16th and July 11th.

Also, you may want to make sure the IRS has your most recent address on file, and you should change it if they don’t.

Intrigo‘s search for top talent continues. Today we listed openings for three new job positions at Intrigo. You can find them on Silicon Florist‘s brand spanking new job board or follow the direct links below.

All positions are full time and are for our new office in Portland. Benefits include health care, 401K with 6% matching, and a grab bag of other little perks.

Web Applications Developer
We would like someone who wants to grow into a project manager/team lead role and has demonstrated at least some skills in that area already. Starts at $55,000/year.

Graphic Designer
From the ad: “You must provide a portfolio to be considered. We design software using standard web technologies, we are not interested in Flash designers. Demonstrated experience working closely with fickle clients is a plus. The ability to convincingly and tactfully defend and fight for a design you know to be good is even better. :)” Starts at $50K

Marketing and Sales
From the ad: “This is a hybrid position for someone skilled in marketing, sales and light project management. You’ll be responsible for generating and following up on leads, making the sale and bridging the ongoing communication between the client and the design/development team.” $30K plus 10-15% commissions.

Warning: I’m about to teach you something about taxes. Most you of won’t care. It’s safest to leave now before the boring reaches dangerous levels.

By the way I’m not an accountant. I’m about as likely to be fully correct on the statements below as Neil Patrick Harris is to correctly diagnose your colon cancer. That won’t, however, stop me from trying.

Doogie Howser: not a real doctor.
Nathan Bell: not a real accountant.

I’ve left out a few details because a) I want to keep the examples simple and b) talking about them won’t change the main point:

For large swaths of givers, charitable donations are not incentivized by the government.

Guess what, my donations don’t make a damn of a difference on my taxes. And unless you pay an obscene amount in mortgage interest neither do yours.

Here’s what I learned: You have two options when you fill out your 1040.

  • Option A: Take a standard deduction of $5,350. Every renter does this because it’s simple and gives you a very large deduction.
  • Option B: Itemize your deductions. This only makes sense if your deductions add up to more than $5,350.

Only if you chose Option B can you deduct:

  • Either state sales tax or state income tax (choose one).
  • Mortgage interest payments
  • Donations made to non-profits

This has huge tax implications for renters who donate a significant portion of their income to tax exempt entities.

Let’s be generous

Let’s pretend you’re a renter. I’ll also give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re a generous person. Last year you decided you were spending way too much money on booze and hookers and you instead donated $4,000 to a worthwhile cause. Las Vegas mourns the lost income. Also, you paid $1,500 in state income taxes.

What kind of break will the government give you for not being such a worthless hedonist this year?

We’ll approximate: most of you with jobs are either in the 15% or 25% tax brackets. That means for every $1 you make above a certain amount you’ll normally be taxed at either 25% (for my friends who majored in engineering) or 15% (for my friends who majored in English). But if that $1 is deductible then it won’t be taxed at all (via income tax, at least).

$4000 donation + $1500 state income tax deduction = $5500 x 25% = $1375 off of your taxes

Wow, your donation just saved you $1375 on your taxes! Except it really hasn’t because you could have always chosen the standard deduction:

Let’s be greedy

What if, instead, you had kept all that money? Forget the children, you want a big screen.

Well then you would have skipped all that deduction nonsense and instead taken the standard deduction of $5350.

($0 donation deduction + $1500 state tax deduction + …) x 0 (You chose Option A, so you can’t claim any of these) + $5350 standard deduction = $5350 x 25% = $1337.50

Tax credit when you’re generous $1375.00
Tax credit when you’re greedy $1337.50
Tax difference for all you generosity $37.50

Greed wins!!!

Even if you own a home your mortgage interest payments have to be approaching $4000 a year before tax incentives for donations kick in.

Does greed win?

So, fine. It seems that the government has stopped incentivizing donations for all but the very rich. But why?

I’m still trying to figure that out. What I’ve found is this:

  • The government doesn’t like to give up revenue. We already knew that.
  • The government trusts that despite not getting a tax break, you’re going to make that donation anyway. This is backed up by research done here.
  • The above research is hardly definitive, as shown here, here and here.

It all revolves around one very important question: what is the price elasticity of charitable contributions? In other words, are people likely to donate more if there is a tax deduction that comes along with it?

If you can answer that, then you can answer an even more important question: is it more efficient for the government to encourage people to donate to non-profits, or to take the money itself to provide additional services and hand out grants?

I know what I hope the answer is, and I intend to learn more about this. Stay tuned.

Stupid fast.

February 19, 2008

The office building we moved into in Portland has a full blown data center upstairs, from which Intrigo leeches Internet for use in our day to day web browsing. The connection is, technically, “stupid fast.”

We, of course, exchange currency for the privilege but it’s not really fair to call this trade agreement between us and our provider a “business transaction.” When one divides the massive width of the pipe that’s sputtering bits at our desktops by the loose change we occasionally toss upstairs to cover our bill you’re left with quite an absurd ratio, the mathematics of which are perverse. If these bits-per-seconds were things that I could bottle up and sell to you at fair market value in Tucson I would want for money no longer.

In the interest of full disclosure I should note that up until this morning I was the only one employed in our Portland office. Today our first new development hire in Portland joined us (and tomorrow our second!). It would follow that with each new addition to our team I will have to start sharing and keep for myself a smaller and smaller fraction of our bandwidth.

I can’t, though, imagine that happening at any appreciable level, barring any major changes to the laws of physics or of OSHA that would concede a generous increase on the limit of allowable employees per square inch.

This is part two of three of the series “Three small things I’m doing to make a difference in this year’s election.” It was supposed to appear on facebook on Monday, but I figure if it’s still Monday in Hawaii, then it counts. I am, however, a week late posting this to WordPress.

This one’s not as long as it looks because it’s really two notes in one. The second half is a response to Ryan’s comment on my last post, read it if you’re still curious about why I support my specific candidate.

Last week I made my first contribution to the Obama campaign. It was a modest contribution, considering what is at stake, but I know that this year every little bit counts.

Act Two: Contributing what I can.

Here’s why I contributed:

There are a lot of ways to help a campaign or a cause you feel passionately about. By far the two most common ways are:

  • Give your time.
  • Give your money so that other people can give their time.

I hope to, someday soon, give my time to a political campaign, particularly Obama’s. I definitely plan to when he has won the Democratic primary and we’re in the midst of the general election.

But, to be honest, persuading people face to face to support a particular candidate or cause is not my strong suite. Not even close.

So I chose to contribute the best way I know how: by giving resources. Call it campaign contribution specialization. I’ll leave the heavy persuading to the experts, or at least, to those that are half way decent at it, and I’ll help enable them by giving them what they need: money.

Once I decided how to contribute, the question became: how much do I contribute?

That’s a hard question. The obvious answer is, from the perspective of the campaign: “as much as you can!” Yes, well, I’m still working on being that generous.

So I broke it down differently (read: arbitrarily): what am I willing to go without this month to support a cause I believe in? A drink at the bar? A movie theater ticket? A night out at a nice restaurant (I like to treat myself once in a while, okay?)

When I thought about it that way, my contribution was much easier to make. Now I was making a tangible sacrifice as opposed to some arbitrary gift. It even allowed me to put it in terms of working hours. I could start work on a Monday and say “these next four hours are for Obama!” and continue about my day normally doing what I love knowing that during that time I was working double for my cause.

You would hope that when it’s a cause you care deeply about, you can just write a check and not think about it. Well, maybe you can, but I‘m not there yet. I need to feel like my money has no better place to go. So, when I started comparing my choice to contribute against some of the “luxuries” in my life, it became crystal clear: This month, I’m forgoing them to give hope an edge.

It’s such a small gesture, but one I feel very confident making.

Response to comments

Ryan Erickson brought up some very good questions in a comment to my last post. I want to address them because both: A) there is merit in the discussion and B) some of the points raised by Ryan are common doubts of voters on the fence between Obama and Clinton or Obama and McCain (for us independents).

I owe Matt Stone a few beers, at least, for finding and sharing all of the links I present here. I nabbed most of them from his facebook newsfeed. Thanks Matt!

(Quoted text is excerpted from Ryan’s comment on Sunday)

EVERYONE wants what Obama decribes. The real question is, who can make it happen?

I find the argument that ‘everyone’ wants what Obama describes to be verifiably false. There are several positions that Obama takes that few of the Republican candidates dare. He supports (and voted for) the restoration of habeas corpus for those detained by our country, he supports stem cell research, he supports withdrawal from Iraq, he has policy proposals to lead us off of our oil dependency, and he (actually) opposes torture. Most of his positions I support, some of them I do not, but his positions are verifiablly different than those of other candidates. Each voter can judge for themselves whether or not they agree.

I have yet to hear Obama speak of any specific issue he plans to address or how he will address a issues … He fails to identify specific issues and describe how he will address them.

I think you may be listening to only his speeches. I can’t say I blame you, they’re quite good. ;o)

When you do the research though it becomes obvious that no candidate has a specific plan to the point that it can become legislation the day they take office. That’s never going to happen during an election as long as we keep running them as we do, specific policy proposals are too easy to attack, so it largely becomes a leap of faith for the voter.

But there are allusions to plans on each candidate’s website. Obama’s positions are very clear, and his proposals are no more or less detailed than any other candidate’s. I invite you to verify that yourself.

He has no national accomplishesment, or significant track record at all. So how can we judge his ability to create what he describes?

In my mind, becoming a front runner in a presidential election is significant in itself, but I can understand how you may want something more substantial. :o)

Significant, obviously, is subjective and the ‘my accomplishment is bigger than your accomplishment’ bickering between candidates so quickly degenerates that it makes it a mostly meaningless discussion. However there are things that we can look at.

One common argument that the Clintons make is that Hillary Clinton has more experience than Obama. That’s not exactly true, Obama has been representing constituencies as an elected official for far longer than Clinton has. Obama has a voting record in the Illinois Senate that we can look at and verify. In fact Obama has a significant (there’s that word again) track record, similar to McCain in this way, of cutting through the bullshit and getting things done in a divided legislature.

But, and I think this is by far the most important point, length of experience in national politics is an extremely poor predictor of presidential success.

Is it not just as likely that he will have no idea what to do, which is all I can conclude since he NEVER offers solutions? Or, that his lack of experience and direction will leave this country worse off than it was before he took office?

No, for the reasons above, I believe that there is a better than 50/50 chance of Obama not screwing up our country. ;o)

The implicit argument in your statement is that people are naive to follow someone who hasn’t yet proven to be the most effective candidate.

But then as a voter you’re left with two choices: You can risk naively supporting a candidate who is aligned with your beliefs and will fight for them to the best of their abilities, or you can vote for the candidate who will represent values that are not yours and will do so very effectively.

Given those two choices, I’ll gladly take the first. Thankfully, though, this year we have a candidate who can give us the best of both: Obama shares my values and has shown that he can lead effectively.

A belief that we can be better.

I firmly believe that policies don’t make a great country, its people do. No policy will ever catalyze as much positive change as a leader who can motivate and inspire us to be better individuals and a better nation.

Obama has shown that he shares my values and can move a nation. That’s why I’m contributing.