Thursday, September 28, 2006

Feminism and Communism -- collaborative filtering gone wrong!

For no other reason that it hadn't really occurred to me, I had never read anything by Virginia Woolf until last month when I picked up a copy of a Room of One's Own. Ordered directly from Amazon, with copies of Three Guineas and Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.

A Room of One's Own is an essay written from a series of lectures that Virginia Woolf gave, discussing the future of women in fiction.

Her directive is straight forward, and very much common sense (or so I thought):

Individual wealth and assets are critical for anyone individual to establish a public voice. Poor people don't regularly write books. Women, now and then, are/were less likely to have this kind of financial security. And if we want the hear women's voices, get them to the table creating and documenting their belief and histories, then the focus needs to be on wealth creation. Specifically, Woolf says a woman needs "A Room of her Own" -- not a room given to her from her neighbor, her government, or any other source. She needs to own it. It needs to be hers. This is tied into the premise of the book.

I think this is a pretty straight forward market-oriented philosophy. So you can imagine my surprise when I logged into Amazon to see my new recommendations, and based off my purchase of A Room of One's Own, Amazon is recommending:

My first thought is that Amazon is supporting one of the oldest stereotypes of all time. But of course, Amazon's recommendations are based off of collaborative filtering -- which means that of the 200+ people who bought the Communist Manifesto, also bought A Room of One's Own (or vice-versa). So based off this phenomena, Amazon thought their recommendation made sense.

Crazy stuff, huh?

Anyone think I missed Ms. Woolf's point? Is there a hidden agenda that my world view isn't open to receiving?

Or is this a case in which the wisdom of crowds doesn't actually produce the 'right' results?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

One of my favorite conversations asks whether individuals acting alone, in their own interests, will create a stronger social fabric than individuals, or governments, acting out of welfare or charity.

Sort of a Wisdom of the Crowds/Libertarian Mashup.

Hungary has a tax law called the "1% law" (written by a fantastic woman I met during the expansion of CBI in CEE). This law allows ordinary citizens to direct 1% of their income any place they like -- health care, social security, nonprofits. While the US tax system does allow individuals to direct a portion of their income to charity, and incentivizes us doing so by decreasing our taxable income based on donations, it never the less limits the end destination to those organizations classified as nonprofit organizations -- 501(c) 3 classified by the US government.

The Omidyar Network and Google are suggesting that this severely curtails people's opportunities to do good. Isn't ebay contributing to our social fabric by building trust and unleasing people's potential? Aren't green energies just as good for the economy and production as they are for the environment? Increasingly, for profits are showing the power to create tremendous good and, if ordinary citizens, wanted to support those efforts the way we support nonprofits, with the incentives to boot, shouldn't we be able?

So what about a system that enables us to direct a portion of our income where ever we, as individuals, see fit? Lets imagine we don't have a welfare state and it was with this system that we needed to fund the social systems we deemed relevant. The assumption is that we would each operate in our own self interest. I, for example would investing in health care, my own retirement, and education. I'm sure a number of other people of my income and age bracket would do the same. Others would invest in programs to accommodate child care and nutrition programs.

Would the spread of these interests result in each initiative getting the support it needs? By sheer buying power, my friends point out, the top of the pyramid would have more to invest than the bottom. So a system where all votes were equal vs. straight taxable income allocation might in fact enable people to cover their own needs.

If you could see where others were investing would this create more efficient allocation of each dollar? Would it decrease or increase the free rider problem? This type of market would inevitably be more efficient, and probably enable the cream of service providers to rise. Largely better than the government's existing system for determining which intiatives get the pork.

Would there still be some need for government protection? How about in defense -- an area that would most likely languish far from the top of immediate direct and personal needs? Would individuals americans be comfortable with a military power not unlike the Polish in WWII?

Its food for thought.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Adding Richard Branson to my heroes list

An Inconvenient Truth made me cry and left me overwelmed with the magnitude of the problem. Richard Branson's commitment of $3b to fight climate change -- profits from his Virgin Brand -- gives me confidence. Hopefully his commitment won't be left alone in the universe like Ted Turner's failed attempt to dramatically increase funding for the United Nations.

While I recognized that a massive behavioral change is necessary to truly mitigate climate change, cheaper and more accessible technologies will make those behavior changes easy.

A Big Whew HOO.

Also on my list of constructive climate warriors...

PlanetReBoot has organized a scavenger hunt that will take participants around Seattle on foot, bicycle, and maybe kayak (love that!!!) The scavenger hunt will raise funds for carbon offsets.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

On Ramp (on speed)

At GlobalGiving, we're committed to helping social entrepreneurs become the best 'sellers' (selling their projects to donors who are buyers) that they can be. We assess donors needs, translating them into strategies, tools, and other resorces for social entrepreneurs. Riffing off eBay, we call this "On Ramp" services.

Yesterday, working on a concept like digital post cards (which I think has awesome story telling capabilities), I came across the mobile365 (didn't exactly come across it -- my mobile guru husband directly pointed me that as a helpful technology for the project).

The cool factor was this. Mobile365 (and probably there are other like technologies/services) could give our team the capability to distribute information, images and resources out to the field via mobile phone. Mobile 365 offers templates into which data and resources can be appropriately formatted for mobile and funds and enables the mass distribution. Collecting feedback/images from the field via mobile phones is viewed as relatively radical -- but also appropriate given the broad and wide reach of cell phones in developing countries, limited bandwidth, etc.

But using the same technology to push out our on ramp services and reach our clients? LOVE THAT... it is, in effect, on ramp on SPEED.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Will finding my place make me a better runner?

I've never been a very good runner, but I've been a dedicated one. I've never really improved my time (despite hill work), I've never focused on my diet, and I've never thought much about lactic acid. I try to run 5-6 days a week, and each year I train for and run several races -- which will always include a few 10Ks, a half marathon, and a 10-miler (my favorite distance). In 2004, I even ran the Marine Corps Marathon (despite getting a stilletto heal through a tendon in my foot only months before -- I love mentioning that one :)

George is my best coach -- alerting me every morning when its time to go out. Dogs are precious that way. And I look forward to getting out each morning as much for her as for me.

Lately however, running is not fun. In fact, its outright stressful. It started with a manic boxer who lunged at us (from within a gate), leaving us both rattled. Next came a dog who, having squeezed himself under a fence and into the cemetary, darted so quickly towards us and into George's face that I barely had to time to assess what type of risk he was. The other day, random passerby's (actual humans) yelled at us to get off the "f*&king" path. And finally the straw, coming across a stray rottweiler who was on George in a matter of seconds.

The humans aside, because lately I can just find no excuse for them, the dogs were probably all harmless (if they hadn't been I doubt George would still be in one piece). But with each experience, I curb by path, my initiative, and my enthusiasm for what would otherwise be a very focused relaxing part of my day. I still run, but now it needs to be planned -- taking time out to head down to the mall and do a 6 mile loop there. Getting up super early to hit the Rock Creek Park trails. Finding places that are 'safer' (mentally) than my own neighborhood, places where I'm more anonymous than others. There are random dogs in these spaces too; and, well, more bodies have been found in these places than in my neighborhood.

What is this about? I believe its rooted in needing a 'sense of place.' I've always struggled with that, and increasingly for the last 5 years. Feeling like a fish out water in all but my professional career. Knowing that DC does not make my heart sing. And what if it did? What do I expect when I find my place? Calm. An urgency to embrace each morning. Clarity. Less distraction.

Ultimately, I antiicpate being better at each thing I do -- including running.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ethical fiber is a trait of leading social enntrepreneurs that perhaps I value more than others. Why? Because our world is full of false leaders who fill us with distrust, who don't inspire hope, who beat down the possibilities of positive change. As warm and fuzzy as this is, we're lost without it. And believe it or not, it wasn't Bush invoking the memory of 9/11 to mobilize suport for the war in Iraq that makes me blog about this (though... I'm not sure if my point could be any more clear.)

My thinking was actually inspired by a recent call from Gretchen Steidle Wallace, a former colleague and founder of Global Grassroots, reminding me of the truly incredible people out there. Gretchen and I got to know each other while at Ashoka; she was helping Bill develop his new baby, Social Enrepreneur Associates, and I was running CBI. There was a nice synergy between the two programs leading us to occassionaly talk collaboration, but more importantly, Gretchen immediately proved to be accessible, warm and very smart. Very attractive traits in a human being.

We both left Ashoka at the same time -- me to GlobalGiving; Gretchen to her own entrepreneurial self. She moved to New Hampshire, where her and her husband, a boat builder, could imagine building a life. I don't know if Gretchen was deterred from starting her own intiative or being isolated -- the prospect certainly scares me -- at the very least her outward persona seemed to embrace it. Gretchen's focus then was take her experience in social investing and apply it to the most marginalized communities.

When I next heard from Gretchen, it was in the context of her brother, Brian. Brian had recently returned from Darfur, Sudan, where he had served as a peace keeper for the African Union. Brian had become a one man witness to the human tragedy facing the Darfur people and was bringing his photos and his stories home with him to help us remember that after the Rwandan genocide -- we had sworn "never again." (apparently we forgot) Gretchen had joined forces with him -- getting media attention and mobilizing support necessary to make a movmenet.

Gretchen returned to Africa with Brian a few months later. It being too unsafe to return to Sudan, the two went to Chad, visiting the camps where hundreds of thousands of displaced people had settled in as home.

Its both simple and difficult to imagine Gretchen in a IDP camp. She has an impenetrable elegance to her that belongs in pearls and pumps. She also has a warmth and empathy rooted so deeply that I can only imagine it leads her into, and makes her at home in, the dark heart of human suffering.

I spoke to Gretchen last Friday morning. I envisioned her enjoying a cup of coffee while breathing in a view of the White Mountains (not sure if she actually has a view or if its just my imagination). She had just finished a manuscript of her brother's memoir's that she had co-authored. She's also finished an application for a movie deal. In a few weeks, she leaves for Rwanda -- where she is implementing a series of trainings focused on bringing social investing tool to the most marginalized -- women who were victims of the genocide, now living with HIV/AIDS, struggling to care for themselves and their children. Gretchen is experimenting with a series of -- training, investments, loans -- to help these women escape a circle of poverty.

I'm half tempted to go with her. If only to be a witness to her determination.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I feel the beginning of fall reading come over me. This summer was more productive then I imagined it would be -- if only because while I do love reading there are days when all my mind can muster is people magazine. This summer however I read some fantastic books:

- History of Love.... a beautiful beautiful story
- The Last Days of Dogtown .... Anita Diamont is a faboulous story teller
- Joy Comes in the Morning ... Great plot, if the only the author had not tried to be melodramatic and foreboding in the last chatpter
- A Room of One's Own ... finally got around to it .. i'll write more about that later...

This reading has ultimately rekindled my romance with good books. And since I look forward to fall reading (historically, other great "fall read books" include: Soldier of the Great War, Anna Karina, Jude the Obscure...), I've set out a course for the next 12 weeks.

1. Return of the Native -- I love Thomas Harding and I can't get around that. He constantly 'outwits' his readers, which is a talent I respect and long for in an author. This is also my contribution to the 'ghoulish' reading campaign. Return of the Native is also one of Scott's favorite books and his recs have yet to fail me.

2. Three Guinees -- Continuing with getting to to know Virginia Woolf

3. Long Tail -- Three times a charm on long tail theories. It was a topic discussion at the Markets meeing. Mari blogged about it recently. And the other night at dinner, one of our best friends recommended this book. So, I will listen to the universe.

I'd like to add three more books to list -- but I need to find some information first. Any thoughts?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

(Stay with me here for a quick story about George. .. It has a point)

While sunning herself on the porch last week, my dog, george barked at passing stranger and his unleashed pitbull. His response left me a bit rattled: "Shut-up , or I'll kick you in the f*&king face."

OK. So my exuberantly friendly 35 lb dog barked at you. Is that call for threatening to kick her face in?

My neighborhood isn't exactly Pleaseantville, but its a pretty sound middleclass neighborhood -- so for the most part, one should expect random acts of kindness rather than malicious-dog threatening. My point however is not about my neighborhood, as I see and hear this open hostility increasingly more every day.

Esther Dyson
blogged the other day about the impact of transparency (through the digital world) on individual ethics. She mused that the rawness we enjoy on the Web has permeated our offline lives -- the result being we all feel much more comfortable being honest and confrontational with one another.

I'm not sure if I agree with the cause and effect, but I do feel our world is increasingly emboldended to leave behind "frank," and become generally comfortable with hostile.

Not only do I feel that this can't lead to anything good, I'm confident it moves society away from the Ghandian principles of respect that are critical to a society that manages the play of power peacefully. And what then?

So I'm left pondering whether the new found freedoms we herald in our digital world -- greater transparency, better information, and democratic access, can actually erode the very conditions that allow society to manage transparency, information, and democracy....