Web Wonders

Isn’t the interweb great?  We do so much so fast.  How in the world did we ever live without it?

One of the great things it does is change our economy, like putting some businesses out of business; as in bookstores and video stores.  I download books and videos when I want them.

Can you think of anything else?

How about temporary jobs?  Or the minimum wage?

What? you say?  How can this be? you say?  Ahh, here’s how it works.

I have a job that requires someone to enter data into a special database; for instance, responses to questions about political feelings.  This data is in the form of a handwritten cards, 100,000 of them.  I can go through the stack by myself, one at a time, or I could hire someone to do it with me.  Even so, all these cards will take months, and many tens of thousands of dollars.

Or, I can digitize those cards (easily automated and cheaply done) and put the images on the internet.  Then I could recruit everyone on the internet who wants to make some money, offering them 10 cents for every digital card that they record.  For someone who works hard, maybe they can make $20 an hour.  For someone who only does a few, maybe they make $1.  But if I recruit a thousand people, and they each spend an average of a few hours to record 100 cards, it has only cost me $10,000.  Best yet, the entire encoding project has taken only a few hours overall.

This is crowdsourcing, and its potential has only just begun.  You may have already been a participant without knowing; by interpreting funny symbols on a website in order to enter an order, you may have also been helping translate an old document that has been recently scanned.

And how does this impact our study of behavior, my fellow students?  It is changing our behavior, it’s changing our society, and how we interact with each other.  And as astute students, we need to watch this carefully in order to better understand these changes.

So, what’s next for crowdsourcing?

Listen to the internet.

 

Watching the Putin follies

Last month the big geopolitical news was that Ukraine was imploding.  Russia, led by their intrepid Czar, Vladimir “bare chested” Putin, swooped in to save the Crimea.  What were they saving the Crimea from?  From the Crimeans, apparently.  Over the last decade or so, Russia has been moving in many Russians for business and military reasons.  Those Russians felt in danger, so luckily the Russian military has arrived to liberate and protect those poor people.  The fact that the Crimean legislature has decided to secede from Ukraine and join Russia is mere coincidence.

Let’s look at the BIG picture for a moment.  Please, step back from your computer.  There you go.  The big picture is this – Russia has always wanted Crimea.  They also wanted Afghanistan, but that didn’t go over as well.  The last time Russia made a play for Crimea was around 1850.  They had to give it back a few years later.  The reason?  They want it for the beaches.  Really.  The Crimea has access to warm water all year round.  Good for your tan, Vladimir.  Also good for your Navy.

Back in 1850, rising political pressure forced Russia to go home.  Today’s takeover is only a few months old, but the political pressure is already starting to rise.  You can tell how excited Putin is about the takeover by how hard his nipples are in those pictures.  Right after the takeover, very excited.  Today’s pictures, not so much.  Why?

Well, the Russian stock market is taking a hit.  Who has their money in Russian stocks?  Rich Russians, that’s who!  How much money are Putin’s pals going to lose before they start calling Vlad up in the middle of the night?  The conversation probably sounds like this:  “Hey, Vladdy, what’s the deal?  My dacha and my devushka are ditching me because I had to sell the two yachts!  Even my wife is getting upset!  Do something!”

Stocks aren’t the only pressure our modern society brings to bear on the Bear of Russia.  We are starting to freeze the bank accounts of Rich Russians and Russian companies.  Very inconvenient, don’t you know.  How would you like to jet off to London or New York and find that you can’t withdraw a million from your bank account?  Now you have to carry all that in cash – and you KNOW how bulky that stuff is!

So, if you’re crying for Crimea, hang on to your babushka.  This is only the beginning.  For the rest of us, sit back and enjoy the Putin Show.  I’m not “Putin” you on!  (Sorry.)

 

Money Day

We spend a lot of time thinking about money.  As Douglas Adams roughly put it, we spend our lives chasing bits of paper all about the universe to no end.

For something that occupies so much of our lives, I expected that academics would consequently study these areas to exhaustion.  For instance, interviewing for an entry level job.  Or writing up a resume.  What about simply filling out an employment form?

Imagine my surprise when I learned that these aren’t considered areas of ‘study,’ instead these are practical seminars in business school.  These are “survival skills” and not behaviors that should be studied by serious researchers.

It’s too bad.  Imagine if we could make our lives easier so that writing a resume only took a push of a button.  Or if we could be evaluated on what we’re really like, instead of what we look like.

On the other side, what do we expect a company to look like?  We call it a company, but it’s really a collection of people, and do we really want to work with those people?  When we’re young, all we want is a chance to know what it’s like to really work, to have real responsibilities, and to get a paycheck.  Why can’t we find a way to have that company be described to us so that we can really know if we’d want to work there for the rest of our lives, or even just a few weeks?

We’ll start exploring the world of business soon – for it’s an area I know too well.  But we’re going to do it by looking at the behavior of its participants, and not in generic ‘corporate’ terms.  Who knows, maybe it can help you make some money.  Stay tuned!

 

Does Warren Buffett have a good soul?

Winter forces us to hide within modern caves.  Its bone-shattering cold and blankets of ice force us deep into dark places, nowhere to gaze but within ourselves.  Deep within there is supposedly an unchanging essence that defines us as unique entities.  Some call this essence a soul.  Is it real?  Is it eternal?  Can it be rewarded or punished or born again?  It’s hard to say because all of these claims are impossible to prove.  For the moment, let’s accept the idea of a deep essence, and call it our soul.

Saying someone is without a soul is normally a great insult, for it means they are evil, doing harm to others, without redemption.  Yet even by our religious standards we know this is wrong.  Everyone has a soul, and it’s that soul which is judged to be good, or evil.

As I sit here by the fire, watching another layer of snow blanket my yard, and sip on an extremely good IPA, my thoughts turn to a well-known tycoon.  This tycoon is Warren Buffett, whom many call the “oracle of Omaha,” but whom we will call simply, WB.  WB appears before me an a regular basis because of his popularity in the business media.  A recent Bloomberg article profiled one of his newest, and youngest, trusted advisors.  This advisor was making news because she’s only 29 years old.  She started working for WB at the ancient age of 25, and within four years already holds the Chairman position in several companies in the WB empire.  Her name is Cool.

Now Cool earned her way to this position, and has worked an extremely hard and focused life.  Under her guidance weak managers have been replaced and companies that would have been ignored or jettisoned are now being properly attended to within the WB empire.  The article quotes WB saying certain companies wouldn’t have been bought if it wasn’t for Cool.  The WB empire is now comprised of many dozens of companies with a total annual revenue of 160 billion dollars.  Almost any way you look at it, this is a large company.

But I’m not here to discuss the business empire; we’re here to study behavior.  The behavior of large groups are normally most meaningful, but we can learn something by taking out the microscope and putting the occasional individual on the slide.

What kind of person is obsessed to the extreme with accumulating wealth, building an empire, and growing only for the sake of growth?  If this person was a cell in our body, we’d be worried.  As a member of society, we laud them as leaders and brilliant meta-managers, even calling them “wealth creators” from time to time.

As we adjust the microscope’s focus it’s doubtful WB or Cool are any of these.  They are popular, but are they of value to society?  A proper evaluation would require an article for another day.  For now, we want to see if we can zoom in on their soul and describe it.

The soul of WB is bent on conquest, is insatiable, and highly focused.  His wealth allows him all his allotted hours to spend with his children and grandchildren.  Yet he chooses to spend time with business associates instead.  He’s near death, and every moment becomes more precious than the last.

Meanwhile, Cool has been blessed with riches, power, and publicity.  This seeming blessing may be a curse, for it puts her on course to value board meetings over board games with her future children.  Even if she chooses to start a family, there’s a good chance she’ll have her children later in life, and fewer in number.  The amount of time she’ll spend with them will be less than average, and there’s a better chance their values will be heavily influenced by material goods, superficial relationships, and an obsession with wealth.

Remember that this site strives to be impartial observers of behavior, of human nature, and unbiased scientists as much as possible.  The above observations and expectations are grounded in evidence, precedence, and experience.  They are not meant to be judgements; for there is no good or bad delineation here.  WB is ambitious, and Cool is his protege.  These are given.  What we want to address is their essence.  Deep inside, once all the trappings of society, technology, and the superficial layers of skin and time are removed, what is it that is left?

Not surprisingly, we are left with a soul reeking of ambition, a soul without empathy, and a soul unconnected to the rest of us.  These souls are rooted in the present, solidly looking to their immediate left and right.  These souls choose to ignore the past as irrelevant to their existence.  They choose to ignore the future they could do so much to create.  And they choose to ignore the other souls around them, not only those of their family, but of their fellow humans as well.

As souls go, these are exceptional qualities, but not uncommon.  Installed in a lesser vessel, souls such as these become psychopaths, embittered divorcees, or worse.  But placed in a healthy body with an extraordinary mind, coupled with a charismatic persona and then given a push by an unpredictable universe, this type of soul has been known to stamp great slices of history with their name.

The greatest of these souls was Alexander the Great of Macedon.  When he began his career he was younger than WB, even younger than Cool.  He charmed both his army and even the conquered across the known world.  2,350 years ago, this 20 year old sought nothing less than world domination.  He would have achieved it as well, but for an errant arrow he met somewhere in today’s India.  Part of his charm was that he led his men into battle, being up front where they knew he was working as hard as they were, taking the same risks.  Had that unlucky archer known, he would have missed Alexander.  Had he missed, his city would have been conquered, an older Greek soldier would have become his Governor, and life would have continued under a new master.

As it was, this archer may have smiled for a moment as he watched the dreaded Alexander fall from his wound.  What he didn’t see coming was the power of the soul within Alexander, a soul that had bound his legions both in duty and love.  That archer awoke the monster of vengeance within the army, and not a single defender or citizen survived.  There was no life to continue under any master, and that city was lost, known to us only as Alexander’s farthest reach East.

And what does the soul of Alexander, one of our greatest military leaders have in common with WB?  They are the same.  Nothing could stop Alexander or his army, errant arrows included.  WB has not stopped his quest for growth.  Which sounds more impressive?  Owning a large portion of a holding company whose portfolio includes companies with a combined annual revenue of 160 billion dollars?  Or conquering the world from the Mediterranean to India?  There is no city named after today’s tycoon, WB.  Alexander founded at least 30, many of which still survive, and at least one still bears his name.

So what of the soul of WB?  Is it good, or evil?  Would he have been an Alexander if he’d been born 2,300 years ago?  Is what he is doing good for humanity?  These are all questions for another day.