Category Archives: group membranes

Defending the Problem

Craftsmen always love their tools.  Further most of them love their problem.

The policeman must sympathize with the criminal; otherwise how will he be able to model his thinking. Negotiators recommend that you to walk in the other guy’s shoes.

Solutions are a complement to a problem.  This demands a synergy.  The best engineers know a bit about sales, manufacturing, quality assurance, or product marketing.

Perversely this leads to a pattern where in the problem solver becomes the problem’s advocate.  Defending it.  Assuring the problem persists, that it survives.  It when the problem solver’s survival becomes tightly linked to the problem’s survival.  When they have become codependent.

Clay sketches this out nicely in his new book (go get a copy).

The modern example is the record company. Your business solves (what used to be) a hard problem; e.g. how do we get excellent high quality audio performances widely distributed to the general public. Back in the day that was hard! Wax cylinders for heaven’s sake!  Limited shelf space!  Damn radio station play lists!

Now days anybody with a computer can do it; so it’s not really a problem anymore. But for the industry, given that they are in the business of solving that hard problem, they have become the problem’s best friend.  Fighting tooth and nail to keep the problem hard. Odd, isn’t it?

Say you’re a religion. Your business solves the hard problem of giving people a way stay true to a set of principles; call them ethical principles if you want. But these days modern societies have spun up dozens of schemes to help groups of people stay a chosen course. Some are organizational, like hierarchical management or professional societies, some are technical, like PDA’s, some are very transient like flash mobs or flicker groups formed on a single tag; but none of them look particularly like the classic mainstream religion. Again the religion becomes an advocate for the problem.

Clay tells the amusing story of finding some rants defending the craft of monks copying manuscripts in the face of the printing press. He derives a bit of fun by noting that the rant was run off on a printing press.

Recall that Clay’s book is an investigation of what’s unfolding as the cost of forming groups has radically different.  He suggests that there is a phase transition when the cost falls below what he delightfully calls Course’s floor.  Firms, i.e the kind of groups that Course was studying, are glued together with contracts, long-term relationship, and hierarchy. One of his ideas is that these new easy to form groups are often bound by light forces.  For example affection.

Problem solvers don’t just defend their problem when their livelihood is threatened.  They will do it even in the face of threats to these lighter binding forces.   The problem solver has affection for his tools, his profession, his institutions, his clients.  When the shift happens and the displacement arrives these ties can not be casually unbound.  To me, that makes it a lot easier to sympathize with a what looks at first to be quite hypocritical behavior.  Gotta love ’em.

Here Comes Everybody

Clay Shirky has written a book. Oh joy! Here Comes Everybody is a wise and insightful look into what’s happening as the costs of group forming evaporates. The book is in your bookstore starting today, so run out and get it!

The big question Clay takes on here runs as follows: Given that we are social creatures. Blessed with a having a latent desire to form groups. What happens when it suddenly becomes radically cheaper to form these groups? The straw-man answer: a lot of groups get formed. Groups start popping up, all over, all the time, for all things.

In much the same way that a mole, living underground, is unlike the butterfly living in the summer air these groups are sufficiently different that our intuitions about groups are called into question. While the cost structure does that so does the scale. The traditional organization must cut off it’s own long tail to curtail it’s classic coordination costs from running out of control. These new lower costs groups can push that cut off much further out. That creates entirely new organizational patterns.

This book is roughly targeted at the same audience as Tipping Point or The Long Tail; i.e. the intelligent reader interested in trends. I don’t want to undervalue how critical such books are, but unlike those books this work brings much that is new to the table. Clay frames existing ideas in new ways that gives them additional energy. For example when he says “beneath the Coasean floor” he is illuminating a very radical idea. E.g. We can now solve large swaths of coordination problems in ways that are contrary to architecture of institutions as we have come to know them.

But at the same time Clay introduces many ideas I’d not seen before and which I suspect are fresh. For example it’s well known that modern societies are rich in groups whose domain is very limited. The neighborhood group that forms only to worry about traffic, or the diet club, the knitting group, the professional society each with it’s very specific topic. These go by the name communities of limited liability, and I’ve often encountered people who would prefer that these not be called communities because they are so carefully limited in their scope.

Clay points out a wonderful reason why we choose to create and maintain these limits. First he reminds us of the birthday problem, i.e. that the chance is high that in a group of 30 people two will have the same birthday. That happens because the number of pair wise connections in a group is N!, i.e. grows very fast in the number of people. Now having a common birthday, that’s a delightful coincidence. But the same pattern has a dark side. As the group grows the chances of pairs with some deep-seated antipathy explodes as well. By keeping the scope of the groups limited so some very narrow topic the chance that these will be uncovered and go onto polarize the group is kept low.

There is much more that I’m loving about this book. So I’ll no doubt be talking about it more over the next weeks. But I think if you’re the least bit interested in groups you gotta read this. Like I say it should be in your bookstore today – get a move on!

Holding the Bag

The Irish decided to impose a 33 cents tax on those plastic bags that retailers use. I presume this was in part a sin tax, in part an attempt to tax the externalities created by the bags, and in part a bit of stunt. The end of the story is that it’s wiped out the use of plastic bags, shifted social norms about bag usage. It’s a fascinating story about deciding to change the way a society behaves; making it acceptable to shun those who exercise their freedom to use plastic bags.

For some reason that story is currently slotted in my mind with the health care debate’s latest point of discussion.

The question at hand is should we put everybody into the system, or should we allow people to opt out. Allowing people to opt out would presumably create incentives for people to game the system. Or putting it another way it would allow people to gamble that they aren’t going to need health care during the next time interval.

Boffins think that this single choice would have a sharp effect on costs. Plans were we all join look likely to cost us each about $2,700 a year, while those were we allow gaming would cost $4,400 per year. Intuitively that sounds about right – you just take a guess on how many people would decide to take a swag at getting away with no healthcare, say 25%, and then you figure that group is likely to be somewhat less likely to need care, say 60% less; an you get similar numbers.

So that’s 63% more expensive or additional $147/month. Our faux progressive funding system pushes most of the cost of these social programs onto the middle and upper middle class so you can multiply that as you think is appropriate. But that class struggle is less interesting to me today.
What this highlights is how it creates two classes: those who decide they want to take the gamble, in one class, are costing everybody who decides to join, the second class. It is an interesting case of creating a clear cost to the majority group by allowing a minority a freedom. The boffins think that minority is pretty large. Will those who join will shun those who take the gamble? Will the system create shifting social norms, like the Irish experience with the bags, where it becomes unacceptable behavior to take that gamble?
There is another interesting take though. An intertemporal one. I presume that many of those who might decide to take that bet they won’t get sick will be young people. There are plenty of reasons to think that. Young people tend to be less able to afford the insurance. They tend to be less risk adverse. They tend to be healthier. They tend to have less common cause with large institutions. Over time a person is two people; a young person, and then latter a older person. The first of these is raising the costs of the second one.

Actually there are really three people or more people in each individual, since for example, what makes for a healthy young person is a healthy childhood. So the healthy young person that opts out has his head in a bag, selectively blind to both to the past and the future.

looking at you

mirrorglasses.jpg“A picture showing a pair of eyes attached to a cafeteria collection box significantly raises the donated amount compared to a flower symbol…” Teehee. Presumably the eyes trigger a reframing; the contributors situate their choice in a different context. A more social one? That effect what ever it actually is might be a portion of what people are reaching for with all those damn TV cameras. “Totem poles put up in villages in North America several hundred years ago standing vigilant at attention, with ever-watchful eyes.” It’s got associations with the managerial tendency to over value close-monitoring (“the cleaning wrasse fish grooms its client fish in the friendliest way when other clients watch, but without an audience it prefers to bite off pieces of its client’s skin”) and the rationalizations used to justify the cost savings inherent in cubical office layouts. It reminds me of the way that a smiley face on the check increases tipping. Important because apparently almost anything on the check increases tipping, including a credit card logo.

Let’s be simple minded and say that people have only two modes of behavior, the one they adopt when watched v.s. the one they adopt in private. How would we determine which of these is more authentic. Maybe this pair creates something that’s more functional than either one alone would be. That mimic’s my presumption that the constraints of group membership generate value that overwhelms their costs on personal autonomy.

There is something here about the difference between gossip and spying. Gossip is about passing private information about a 3rd party outside their oversight. Spying is the collecting of that data. What offends (or frightens) about gossip is the fear that your story will be told poorly. What offends (or frightens) about spying is that you do have two modes and you certainly would have adopted your social and public one if you’d known others were watching; we would have presented those of our many persona that was appropriate to the group in effect.

The mirrored sunglasses are rude; they are spy gear. At the same time they make the wearer appear aloof. They signal that he is not a social participant. That marks him as an outsider.

Around the Camp Fire

I’m enjoying reading the last Harry Potter in part because so many other people on the train are reading it.  Last summer there were banners on the Libraries in Cambridge announcing that Cambridge was reading some book and they got me to imagining what that would be like.  Stepping onto the bus, chatting with the bus driver about a particular scene or character.  Waiting at the corner for the light and striking up a conversation with another pedestrian about that plot twist in the third chapter.  You can do that with the Harry Potter, and people do; the book acts as a kind of gang colors inviting the conversation.

The ebb and flow of block busters in the culture is part of the symptoms of the highly skew’d distributions that permeate networks.  The book I’m reading on cities includes an argument that mass media was extremely corrosive to the civic sphere.  At one time cities had an unimaginably rich ecology of civic groups.  To put it simply, with the arrival of television everybody suddenly just stayed home; and the civic groups evaporated.  It’s the bowling alone story or the collapse of social networks story, but much earlier.

A friend pointed this out to me this morning, an early form of cinema

That would travel about, tickets were sold, a man would read a narration, the hand painted scroll would be displayed to the gathered audience.  Now we look at uTube on our iPhones alone, later maybe, forwarding them to our mySpace contacts.

The Offensive of Tagging

One of the seeming puzzles about identity is how tags placed upon people don’t work as one might hope. For example if I tag somebody as “short,” the act can be many things: accurate, insulting, invasive, diagnostic, etc. You can’t treat the act of tagging independent from the context. You need to know a lot about the actor who generated the tag and your likely to need to know the conversational context the tagging took place in.

This problem is particularly subtle when the tag assigns a person to a group, i.e. when it ascribes group membership. It’s more fraught in that scenario because the boundaries of groups are always disputed territory. In some situations the boundaries are only marginally disputed, such as in the case of short people; but even then there are people who care deeply about the boundary and what it’s functional purposes are.

The problem becomes more acute when there is polarization being engineered on the boundary. When two groups are in dispute, when the rights of the group members are in play, when states are at war, etc. These cases are not rare, both because you can get two groups into opposition at any scale (marketing v.s. sales, offense v.s. defensive squad, freshman v.s. sophmores, etc. etc.) but also because there are numerous benefits that agents in these games can harvest from playing with these boundaries (hightened common cause, humor, separation of concerns, etc.).

So I’m amazed that Google has decided that one, just one, such case deserves a bit of special handling. This is the fundamental problem of a system like Google’s. All words are tags, all search terms have contextual meanings. I like that they have tried to do something. I hope they find a way to make it scale.

Progressive taxation is the enemy of the Professoriate

This is rolling on the floor funny:

” … Theorists love the model of job market signaling . In this model agents perform a costly effort which produces nothing useful. The only point is that it is less costly to the able. Thus an equilibrium exists in which the able signal their ability by performing the costly effort (the example is obtaining a BA). Employers require the lowest level of signaling such that it is not optimal for the less able to produce the signal of high ability. The able can save on pointless effort by paying the less able to be honest. This is a collective action problem. They can implement this strategy by taxing each other to pay a subsidy to those who admit they have low ability and, therefore have low incomes. Obviously the policy helps the less able (they get something for nothing). Therefore, in a model of job market signalling a progressive tax and transfer program can be Pareto improving …”

So true!


Today I noticed this ad offering to reimburse you for getting a passport.  $157 per adult.  I felt some sympathy for the advertiser, an island in the Caribbean.  A place people go for the weekend; well they used to.  The island tourism folks woke up recently to discover that numbers where down and they have discovered that the newly increased tedium of getting a passport has caused huge numbers of idle travelers to decided to, well, just go someplace else.

When my 1st son got his learner’s permit it took us three trips to the registry before we managed to accumulate enough documentation to convince them to let him have the learner’s permit.  My 2nd son submitted his first pay check’s stub rather than the check and the bank called to correct the error.  A bit got set on his account that didn’t get cleared.  So the ATM ate his bank card.  It took months to get a replacement card since his school was yet to issue the ID card they required.  All N of my financial institutions have recently insisted that I add four security questions, including one involving a photograph; which is a pain since I share access to these accounts with my spouse so all 30 odd questions and their answers all have to be in some shared location.  We recently got new passports, a project that was at least a dozen times more expensive and tedious than doing my taxes.

I once had a web product that failed big-time.  A major contributor to that failure was tedium of getting new users through the sign-up process.  At each screen they had to step  through we lost of 10 to 20% of our customers.  Reducing the friction of that process was key to our survival.  We failed. It is a thousand times easier to get a cell phone or a credit card than it is to get a passport or a learner’s permit.  That wasn’t the case two decades ago.

The Republicans have done a lot of work over the last decade to make it harder to vote; creating additional friction in the process of getting to the polling booth.  The increased barriers for getting a drivers license, passport, etc. are all part of that.  This make sense because now, unlike 30 years ago, there is now a significant difference in the wealth of Democratic v.s. Republican voters.

Public health experts have done a lot of work over the decades to create barrier between the public and dangerous items and to lower barriers to access to constructive ones.  So we make it harder to get liquor, and easier to get condoms.  Traffic calming techniques are another example of engineering that makes makes a system run more slowly.

I find these attempts to shift the temperature of entire systems fascinating.  This is at the heart of what your doing when you write standards, but it’s entirely scale free.  Ideas like this are behind the intuition of some managers who insist on getting everybody in the team working in the same room with no walls between them.

In the sphere of internet identity it is particularly puzzling how two counter vialing forces are at work.  One trying to raise the friction and one trying to lower it.  Privacy and security advocates are attempting to lower the temp. and increase the friction.  Thus you get the mess around the passport, real-id, and the banks.  Wearing that hat it seems perfectly reasonable that one should present photo id when you vote, or have your biometrics captured if you cross a boarder.  On the other hand there are those who seek in the solution to the internet identity problem a way to raise the temperature and lower the friction.  That more rather than less transactions would take place.  That more blog postings garner good coments, that more wiki pages will be touched up, that more account relationships will emerge rather than less.

Of course the experts in the internet identity space are trying to strike a balance.  It’s clearly one of those high-risk high-benefit cases that people have trouble holding in their head.

Loyality Oath

The HR department is administering the loyalty oath.  This is annual event.  We are requested to testify, via a form, to all our professional affiliations.  To a degree I am, of course, joking.  This invasion of our personal privacy is motivated by three concerns: concerns about possible conflict of interest (i.e. that the best interests of the employer might not be #1), concern that we might be not do what we are paid to do but rather work on some outside project, and finally that we might leverage the employer’s good name to the outsider’s benefit.  I gleaned that list from the sections of the policy manual the form points to.

Social networks are a particularly interesting test case for looking at issues of the multihoming since of course they are where you make you home.  I have account memberships in about a half dozen different social networking sites; but I don’t actually participate in any of them.  Though that all depends on your definition of social networking site.  If your more generous in your definition, including say all the on-line forums and mailing lists that include a social (v.s. purely on-topic) component then the number of sites I have accounts at explodes.  A quick review of my password wallet suggests the number gets up toward a hundred; the phrase ‘a gross’ seems useful at this point.  An then some percentage of the blogs I read have a social (or community) subtext.

Some of these places are quite social.  The shaving and diet forums for example. The Oil Drum and Crooked Timber are two nice examples of blogs that sustain a community around them.  Others are semi-social; the one for my PDA for example.  It’s worth noting in passing that the social can make it a bit tough to keep the sites useful for their nominal on-topic purpose.

Where you sit changes how you look at the question of multihoming and social networking sites.  If you have a large stake in one; owning LinkedIn for example but even if you have invested a lot of your social energy into a particular one your profession for example, then you are likely to be interested in ways of reducing the degree of multihoming.  There is certainly plenty of literature on how to execute on that.

Lots of people interested in knowledge flows have noticed that that individuals that cross between two social/professional networks often account for critical knowledge transfers.  So if your interested in encouraging that kind of thing then you might be interested in how to manage and enable increased multihoming.  I don’t think I’ve ever worked for employer who failed to consciously, though rarely conscientiously, encourage a modicum of that kind of thing.

Multiple social networks create some diversification, which in turn can be a buffer against various risks.  Two risks bear mentioning.  If a social network goes bad having other networks enables members to exit, but also it enable them to be critical and that critique can be key to fixing what going wrong.  Having multiple social networks also allows members to take risks, not just of criticism, but also to take risks that may do irredeemable damage to their reputation; such risks are much harder to take if there no other network to retreat into.

None of this helps to puzzle out the question of exactly how many of my ‘professional’ associations I should enumerate on this form.  I’m sorely tempted to enumerate the complete list of all the on-line forums I’m a member of to which I both feel some loyalty and have any overlap with my employer’s vast range of activities.  Just for fun.  Oh, but curiously I appear to be in a job category where they decided to wave the requirement.  Well golly, now my feelings are hurt – they don’t seem to care if I’m a two timing disloyal abuser of the brand!