Monthly Archives: March 2007

Why I blog

Earliest captured Davos Newbies page
This Sunday is the “official” tenth anniversary of blogging. I know there is lots of room to quibble about just when blogging really started, but 10 years ago Sunday Dave Winer’s Scripting News had its start. Dave has as good a claim as anyone to being the first blogger, and he has to my mind an unimpeachable claim to being the person who, more than anyone, made blogging both a mass phenomenon and a medium of real importance. So it’s the official anniversary of blogging in the same way that the Queen of England has an official birthday, distinct from the actual one.

I’m proud that Davos Newbies has a direct lineage from Dave. I started reading Dave when he wrote DaveNet for Wired. When in 1999 I was mulling the program for the millennium Davos summit, I thought it would be worthwhile meeting Dave on one of my swings through the Bay Area. In the fall of 1999 I met Dave at his house in Woodside and he showed me the work he was doing on Edit This Page, which became Manila. With Dave’s encouragement, I started this blog (although I didn’t know the word blog then) that December with a simple purpose: to help the 2,000-odd folk that were coming to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos (to give it the full title) get the most out of the meeting.

To the credit of the founder and still-president of the Forum, Klaus Schwab, my skunkworks-like effort on Davos Newbies was shielded from the many nay-sayers within the Forum’s headquarters in Cologny, just outside Geneva. I wrote about completely mundane issues – how can I get an Internet connection in Davos – and important, programmatic ones – how does a program integrate the president of the US, or how do we shuffle panels when a major CEO pulls out with illness.

I had an excellent bully pulpit in those days, of course, and I received a tremendous buzz from the response to those early days of Davos Newbies. Lots of Davos participants, particularly tech CEOs, got in touch to find out more about practical matters. All of these folks had teams devoted to them within the Forum and staffs that could have sought the answers. But in an early glimpse of the power of a conversational voice, they chose instead to get in touch personally with me.

In its first incarnation, that’s what Davos Newbies was and the answer to “why I blog” was pragmatic: I enjoy writing and I’m offering a valuable service to “Davosians”. You can read all those early posts, but only through the handful of pages archived by The Wayback Machine can you see what Davos Newbies looked like back then.

When I left the World Economic Forum in late 2000, Davos Newbies didn’t change very much. In fact, it probably didn’t change enough. I still had the perspective of a privileged insider and the weblog still revolved around the event of Davos itself. I slowly found my way to another kind of blog and in the process discovered other reasons to blog. This is still called Davos Newbies, but the title really has meaning only as a palimpsest. So why do I blog* (when I blog – work, tennis and family have taken precedence recently):

  1. I like writing. That’s always been true. I remember boring injunctions in school to keep a journal, which I never listened to. I have never written privately. I write to be read. But that brings me to…
  2. I write for no audience in particular. I suspect that if absolutely no one read Davos Newbies, the enjoyment I find in it and the value it has as a kind of back-up brain would steadily diminish (in any case has become more of my back-up brain). I write, however, what I want to write. My strength/weakness has always been my eclectic interests, so Davos Newbies is about whatever strikes my fancy. A lot of what strikes my fancy happens to be at the nexus of business, technology and geopolitics, but that’s by the by.
  3. I love the connections blogging has created for me. Dave Winer, a good friend and now a neighbor. Many people I’ve met more infrequently, or not met at all, but who I feel I know through blogging. It would be wrong to say all my best friends are bloggers, but it is definitely true that many of my most interesting connections are bloggers.
  4. I’m proud to be part of a revolution. I know it’s easy to mock the word revolution, but I do think the growth of what Jay Rosen (another one of those great blogging connections) calls the people formerly known as the audience and what Dan Gillmor (another one!) calls citizen media is revolutionary. I’ve written and spoken at some length about my thoughts on the blogging revolution.
  5. I want to influence others. If I can get people to think outside their usual shells, in however minor a way, that’s humbling. If I can get people I love and respect to get aboard the blogtrain, that’s thrilling. Perhaps immodestly, I think both have happened more times than I would ever have anticipated.

*Rex Hammond, who I’ve met at BloggerCon, has an inspiring post with the same title. Imitation is the sincerest form of…

Improving digital literacy

In my work, I spend some time speaking with clients about digital literacy. Sometimes it means familiarity with web tools some of us take for granted: blogs, RSS, wikis, podcasts. But I also talk about a second level of literacy: how do we develop the deep-rooted ability to judge the authority of what we read online?

Most people, at least most people at senior levels in business or government, grew up with traditional media. We have an immediate understanding of a wide number of signals. Book A is nicely bound, from a “reputable” publisher. Book B is a cheap paperback with raised silver foil lettering on the cover. Book A signals more authority. Newspaper A is sober and great. Newspaper B splashes pictures of cavorting celebrities on its front page. “This is NPR” versus some inane chuckler on morning talk radio. Easy choices.

Of course traditional media have benefited from these signals and still misled and deluded readers and viewers. Examples abound (see Brad DeLong’s railings against “journamalism” passim). Most of us, however, have a good feel for assessing the quality of traditional media.

On the Web, we need to find new bearings. I’ve written before about the ways trust can be developed through blogs in particular. There are always new lessons to be learned. Dan Gillmor has a good one today:

We are far too prone to accepting what we see and hear. We need to readjust our internal BS meters in a media-saturated age.

We should start with this principle:

An anonymous or pseudonymous attack on someone else should be presumed false, unless proved true.

If people started from this perspective, we’d have a much easier time dealing with the You-Tubing of the political class.

I’ll add that to my literacy lessons.

Let me sleep on it

I have long been a skeptic on the need for speed in all decision making. I remember the one-time European management hero Percy Barnevik declaring in Davos, “It’s better to be fast and wrong than slow and right.” Well, maybe once in a while.

I’m glad that my predisposition to reflection is echoed in the fascinating How Doctors Think. Jerome Groopman’s book is about the cognitive errors that can influence doctors’ judgments. What he consistently finds is that most doctors are unaware of the many cognitive pitfalls they face and their training does very little to educate them. Here’s one passage on the rush to judgment:

Most people believe that decisions in the ER must be made instantly, but [emergency physician Harrison] Alter said that “is a misperception that we doctors in part foster.” In order to think well, especially in hectic circumstances, you need to slow things down to avoid making cognitive errors. “We like the image that we can handle whatever comes our way without having to think too hard about it – it’s a kind of a cowboy thing.” As if being swift and decisive saves lives. But as Alter put it, he works with “studied calm,” consciously slowing his thinking and his actions with each patient in order not to be distracted or pressed by the hectic and sometimes chaotic atmosphere.

Groopman’s book is aimed at us as patients, but his lessons could be applied far more broadly. I can think of a bushel load of business executives that would profit from practicing “studied calm”.

Managing an economy in real time

I’m not sure this is a good idea:

If the Federal Reserve were to combine the use of historical data with real-time feeds from a number of additional data sources, I believe there would be fewer policy blunders and a higher probability of achieving the Fed’s statutory goals of maximum employment and stable prices.

Second, instead of the Federal Reserve meeting eight times per year to decide whether or not the federal funds rate needs to be adjusted, the rate should continuously adjust in real time through a closed loop mechanism.

The third and final principle would be to implement tiny interest rate adjustments.

Instead of the typical 25 basis point move, the model should move in increments as small as 1/100th of a point. The new Fed chairman wants to provide more clarity–what better way than to let people see the rate and potential rate change every day based on incoming data? This computer-based model would officially welcome the Federal Reserve to the real-time information age.

Vivek Randivé, CEO of Tibco Software, reckons the Federal Reserve should respond as nimbly as the best companies. I don’t have special insight into the tools the Fed does have, but I strongly suspect Randivé is off base in suggesting the Fed doesn’t have access to plenty of real time tools and data. My stronger objection, however, is his belief that real time response would provide better “management” of the economy.

Has the Fed done such a bad job? Its record compares pretty favorably to any corporate steersmen, I suspect. And would decision making improve with micro-adjustments and decisions around the clock? Almost certainly not. There’s a real value in time and reflection, not least on the scale of changing foundational interest rates for the world’s biggest economy. If Ben Bernanke and his colleagues have a week or two to reflect on data before they sit down at the Federal Open Market Committee meetings, more power to them.

Completing the family blogging circle

I started this blog at the end of 1999. So unpersuasive was I that it took until 2005 for my wife to take up the cudgels. One of my sisters took the plunge last month. And finally my other sister has leaped into the fray. Take note of her subtitle: “On the path to building an Indian hotel in the Mexican heartland.” I hope you can’t wait.

So every adult in my immediate family now has a blog. Whether or when the next generation will take up the cause, I have no idea.

It's hard to be Web 2.0 when so many sites are blocked

One of the issues raised with the company I’m working with here in Dubai is the need to improve their “digital literacy”.

Some elements of digital literacy may be hard to achieve because of the number of things that seem to be blocked by national firewalls. On my last visit here in November I learned that you couldn’t use Skype. That has a lamentable commercial logic to it: the national telecoms monopoly, Etisalat, doesn’t want its monopoly rents threatened. But there are plenty of blockages that have nothing to do with commercial advantage.

I can’t reach any Typepad blog. Fortunately (I couldn’t live without my fixes of Brad DeLong and many others) nothing is blocking the many Typepad full-text feeds that are flowing into my Google Reader (something I’ll have to recommend to my clients). Flickr is blocked: “We apologize the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.”

Using the Google cache I’m able to find blocked items. Here’s a poem posted to the Flickr page about the block in the United Arab Emirates:

Unblock flickr
Let the children of our tribes grow
Whether they live
By moon magic sands
Or the glow of it on snow

Unblock flickr
Let us see the flow of
Arabic script
Let it shine how it wills
Do not slab it over
In a jailing tomb
Or a crypt

Unblock flickr
For what ye shall do to family
Of sister and man
Ye shall do to us with this ban

Unblock flickr
For the soul sets free from
The lord of eyes
And it needs to reach back out
To honour the skies

Unblock for the photo’s and arts
Unblock to risk how the soul
Flows through all our hearts
Unblock or we fail
Unlock the jail
Let us see the shine in our
Other tribes eyes……..

Do unto others as thou wilt be done by ..

Bubble or not?

When I was in Dubai last November I heard the kind of urban myth statistic that sounded extraordinary but also plausible. Now I find a trustworthy source, and it looks like it’s true.

Stephen Roach: “According to construction trade sources, somewhere between 15% to 25% of the 125,000 construction cranes currently operating in the world today are located in Dubai.” To put that in perspective, Dubai has about half the population of the Bay Area.

Roach teases out the meaning of the Dubai boom. There are undoubtedly bubble aspects of today’s Dubai, but there’s also something real. One of the executives at my client here suggested over lunch that Dubai was in many ways like a nation operating as a venture capital fund. As in most venture investing, some of the businesses will go bust, others will tick along and a handful will be spectacular successes. That’s a creditable viewpoint on what’s happening here.

Tennis double whammy

When I’m not working or with my family, chances are I’m playing tennis. That has been one of the wonderful benefits of our move to California.

But this weekend I find myself in the position of tennis addict agony. One of my teams has reached the Northern California championships, in part through my undefeated record with a great doubles partner, George. The team kicks off its quest for the title Friday morning in Fresno.

I, however, am in Dubai on business (and it’s already Friday lunchtime). Here’s the irony. The best tennis in the world this week is happening pretty much down the street. I, however, am stuck in a conference room in the desert.

So no tennis playing in Fresno and no tennis watching in Dubai. Woe is me.

For queen and country

There’s a long tradition in Britain of appointing an official war artist when troops are in combat. The choices are often adventurous and risky. The decidedly left-wing John Keane was the official war artist for the first Gulf War and Peter Howson, no shrinking violet, went to Bosnia.

But in the Financial Times there was an incredibly moving interview with Steve McQueen, who was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to create an artwork in response to the war in Iraq. He went on a six-day tour to Basra which proved “a huge waste of time”. “They led me by the hand. I couldn’t investigate anything.”

But McQueen returned to home and safety and had what Peter Aspden calls an “epiphany” in the FT. “I was doing my taxes, and I suddently had this idea of a stamp. The only people who are allowed to be portrayed on stamps are dead people, or the royal family. And I thought this would be a better way to honour the dead than making some kind of three-dimensional object in London which no one would come and see.”

So he set out to make a series of stamps with portraits of all the 110 British people who had died in the war to that point. The project fell on deaf ears at both the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Mail. But the families of the fallen were hugely supportive. He had 98 positive responses and only four no’s (eight couldn’t be contacted). So McQueen created his artwork on his own. They are on display until July at Manchester’s Central Library.

If they were ever issued for real, the stamps would “enter the bloodstream of the country. Something that would hit you over your toast and marmalade. All I am saying is: ‘Look at this.’ It’s very simple.”