Posts Tagged ‘30 day experiment’

November 14 2008

The 30 day recap and the next 30 days

by Hang

Well, the 30 days are over and it’s been quite an interesting experiment. I’m quite proud that I managed to get a blog post done every single day. One of those posts was inexplicably eaten by the server, one was kind of bullshit and one was done several hours after the deadline. All in all, by my calculations, I think that counts as one $20 donation and one beer that I owe to Jeff.

By an act of total serendipity, I happened upon an ACLU canvasser in my neighbourhood for today so I’m all paid up on that angle:

Doing this 30 day thing was definately interesting to me. I had been battling motivation problems with my blog for a while and it was amazing how such a simple thing managed to get me over the hurdle. As a result, I’m going to be trying another simple experiment.

Over the next 30 days, I’m going to try and develop 10 substantive features for the sites that I’m working on. The parameters of the challenge are the same, $20 to the ACLU for every challenge that I miss. It’ll be a good way to force me to work on some stuff that’s been sitting on the back burner for a while. I’ve yet to figure out how to emulate the social proof aspect although I might end up utilizing my sketches blog for that purpose.

At the same time, the blog is most definately not dead. I’ve got almost a dozen ideas still sitting around that need to be written about so subscribe to the RSS feed to keep yourself updated. The ironic thing seems to be that I’ve posted more content today than any other day now that I’m out of the one post per day format I set myself.

Nov 12th (day 30): No Evil Geniuses

by Hang

Yesterday, I wrote about the mystery of why spam was so bad at being spam and I claimed that it was a mystery that seemingly defied explanation. None of what I proposed as possible answers was really satisfying. In order to answer this question, I think you have to look further afield and ask some other interesting questions: “Why has there not been a non-pathetic foreign terrorist attempt on US soil since 9/11?” and “Why has there only been a handful of truly crippling computer viruses in the last 10 years”

Our first instinct is that such occurrences are rare because they are difficult. However, neither of these tasks actually are difficult. Two guys in a van managed to terrorize Washington DC for a month and no amount of security precautions could have prevented them from doing so. The Sasser worm was written “by someone that could barely get the code working” and attacked a security flaw that had been noted and patched months ago and other worms haven’t been much more sophisticated. Such things are not trivial but they aren’t of such herculean difficulty that would be sufficient to explain their rarity. Just why exactly isn’t there a legion of evil geniuses who are routinely executing the downfall of society?

An evil genius is anyone who is both a genius and evil where “Evil” encompasses everything from trolling to keying someone’s car to pedophilia, “Genius” is anything which evokes any degree of “huh, why didn’t I think of that?” or “That’s clever”. As a rough approximation, we assume that the number of evil geniuses can be calculated by multiplying the proportion of people who are geniuses with the proportion of people who are evil. But what I’ve noticed through looking at a huge range of diverse social systems is that evil geniuses exist at a stunningly lower frequency than this naive calculation would have us believe. The number of evil geniuses is so off base from the naive calculation that it indicates a our model of the world with regards to evil geniuses is unsalvagable and needs to be replaced, not just tweaked.

Such a claim has radical implications for the design of social systems as so much of our thinking about security, about design and about society is obsessed with preventing evil geniuses from wreaking havoc that we don’t even stop to notice that they aren’t.

Part of the reason we’re so obsessed with evil geniuses is because we think we know what they’re like: they’re just like us except they actually do the evil things we think about. Bruce Schneier, one of the most widely read security experts in the world writes about how

Uncle Milton Industries has been selling ant farms to children since 1956. Some years ago, I remember opening one up with a friend. There were no actual ants included in the box. Instead, there was a card that you filled in with your address, and the company would mail you some ants. My friend expressed surprise that you could get ants sent to you in the mail.

I replied: “What’s really interesting is that these people will send a tube of live ants to anyone you tell them to.”

- The Security Mindset

“Why golly”, the man with the Security Mindset says, “I’ve found a great way to exploit this system. It’s lucky I’m a good person because all that is stopping me from executing this exploit for my personal gain is my innate goodness.”

It’s easy to imagine a person who is just like me except without my innate goodness. As a result, it’s easy to design a system with defenses against such a mythical attacker. What we completely fail to notice is that, most of the time, such an attacker simply does not materialize. But even though evil geniuses might not be a major problem, evil behavior most definitely is and it’s in our best interests to design a system which is resilient to pathological actions such as trolling, flaming and abuse.

Our naive view of the world is that we mentally segment people out into “good people” and “bad people”. Good people are people like us and bad people are people like us, except without any morality. The work of Milgram and Zimbardo shows though that goodness is largely a property of circumstance and the more correct way of thinking about the world is that most people are ordinary people and there are good situations and bad situations. If evil people are inherently evil, then it’s easy to imagine an evil genius. However, if evil is a product of the situation, then maybe the reason there are no evil geniuses was because noone gave them permission to be evil geniuses. The reason why Milgram and and Zimbardo managed to cause people to become evil was by relying on authority to signal that such actions were permissible. Genius, by definition, cannot provide be provided such social proof because you’re doing something new and unexpected. Without such social proof, it’s very hard to create an evil situation and, as a result, evil genius is hard to come by.

Such a statement has radical implications for design: you can cause pathological behavior simply by putting in visible mechanisms to prevent pathological behavior. We look to social cues within the system to understand acceptable bounds of behavior and in certain cases, one could reason that if the designer spent so much time building safeguards against certain behaviors into the system, such behavior must be prevalent and thus, acceptable to experiment with. In some cases, the correct approach to obsessing about the security of a system is to leave the system deliberately unsecured so that it does not even occur to people to test the security.

The “No Evil Geniuses” hypothesis is a radically different way to think about the world and one I don’t even think I can completely justify. At the same time, after having looked at all of these disparate cases in which there simply isn’t any other good explaination, it’s one I’ve been increasingly forced to take. Whenever I’ve gone out on a hunt to spot a rich treasure trove of evil geniuses, I’ve never been able to find them. Maybe there’s a simpler, more coherent explaination for all of this but until I find it, I’m going to bill this the No Evil Geniuses Paradox.

Nov 11th (day 29): Bumblebees and Spam

by Hang

Bumblebee Labs is called Bumblebee Labs because of the following quote:

Aerodynamically, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly. But the bee does not know this, so it goes on flying anyway – Antoine Magnan

A bumblebee is an occurrence which cannot be explained by our current theory and thus, demands special attention. Bumblebees are the keys to uncovering areas where our understanding of the world drastically fail and how we can construct a better theory to explain what is happening. But to even notice bumblebees, you have to be on the lookout for them. You have to make a commitment to noticing when you theory goes awry and be willing to dig for an answer.

I was reminded of bumblebees while reading about how researchers infiltrated the storm botnet and discovered that the response rate to spam is 1 in 125 million (Slashdot, Original Paper). How is it that spam is still so awful in this day and age? Spam should be just like any other business, those who are incompetent at it should go out of business and those who do the best, thrive. But this does not seemingly explain why spam seems to have such abysmal conversion rates and why spammers aren’t innovating and experimenting with better ways of spamming.

Spam seems like the perfect vehicle for a data driven, analytic approach. Each email is constructed programatically, websites are created in a largely automated fashion and the path from action to profit is easy to chart out. All the necessary ingredients for Spam 2.0 seem to have been around for the last 10 years and yet spam is still universally awful.

How do we explain the quality of spam then? I can think of a couple of possible explanations, none of them satisfying:

  • The spam we are getting now has been optimized and is the spam which maximizes conversion rates. If so, I would be very surprised as this seems to violate almost everything we know about marketing.
  • Spam suffers from a supply problem, not a demand problem. Spammers only profit when there’s something to sell and there’s simply not enough people wanting to sell via spam to bother increasing response rate. Andrew Chen writes about how your ad-supported Web 2.0 site is actually a B2B enterprise in disguise and the same issues could be facing spammers. However, for spammers hawking V1agra, it seems like the potential supply should be limitless so I’m going to discount this theory for now.
  • Quality is totally irrelevant to a spam campaign, high quality spam and low quality spam get close enough to the same response rate that it doesn’t matter. This might be true if you view spam not as an inducement but as a provider. The purpose of spam is not to convince you that you need a 12 inch h4rd C0ck, it’s to be there for those who have already decided a 12 inch h4rd C0ck is what would rock their world. If this is the case, it doesn’t matter what you put in the messages. However, this does not seem to account for Nigerian Scam emails which very much are set up like an inducement.
  • Spam is an oligopoly and hard to break into. It might be the case that there really only are 3 or 4 actual spammers in the world and it’s a hard market to break into. If that’s the case, then it could be none of them have the necessary awareness or expertise to conduct a data driven campaign. There does not seem any obvious structural element to spam though that would make this the case. Given how many Silicon Valley titans have been overthrown by entrepreneurs, spam doesn’t seem to be any different.
  • Spammers are all universally stupid. No one in spam is smart enough to conduct a data driven approach. This may be true but if so, it points to a gaping niche in the market which has been open for an extraordinarily long time. By all rights, an entrepreneur should have filled this space by now.

None of these explanations are wholly satisfying and none of them just plain sound right. There is one other explanation I have though which holds some tantalizing clues as to what the true answer might be. However, this explanation is so paradoxical, so shocking and so counter to our intuitive experience that all I can do today is lay the necessary groundwork to show how the problem of spam is a bumblebee that defies resolving with any of our conventional theories. If you have a better explanation for why spam is the way it is, post it in the comments. Otherwise, tune in tomorrow to understand the problem of spam can be explained by the fact that there are no evil geniuses.

Nov 10th (day 28): The crisis in economics

by Hang

Economics, however much economists seem wilfully blind to it, will soon undergo a radical paradigm shift (in the strict Kuhnian sense). The old model of the economically rational actor is coming increasingly untenable as we gather more evidence from behavioral psychology and a new paradigm of behavioral economics will be arriving within the next 10 – 30 years. What is interesting though is how obvious such a shift is from those outside of economics while insiders seem utterly unaware that the foundations they are standing on are crumbling.

Why is it that economists seem so blind to what’s going to happen in economics? There are the standard Kuhnian factors which Kuhn lays out in an exemplary fashion in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions but I think economics also had one other unique factor as well. Economics is a highly non-intuitive science and there is an almost perverse pride in illuminating just how poorly our naive view models the world: Raising the minimum wage decreases well being, trading with people who are universally more efficient than us increases our well being, allowing businesses to fail causes more businesses to suceed. These are all well established parts of the mainstream economics canon and they are all, by and large, true.

But the result of this curious structure of economics is that economists are extremely used to hearing well meaning and sincere economic arguments made by non-economists which are grossly flawed. They’re used to hearing the same shop-worn fallacies assembled to yet again make a seemingly devastating attack on the tenets of economics which, in reality, miss the mark so wide you could fit yo mamma through (sorry, I couldn’t resist). What’s more, these errors are conceptual in nature and to correct them would require indoctrinating the opposing party in the entire philosophy of economics.

As a result, economists have developed a simple zero knowledge proof: At the first obvious sign that the other person is not a complete insider of economics, stop listening and nod politely. And by and large, this is effective. For the vast majority of cases, people jibber jabbering about the evils of globalisation or the benifits of socialism simply have no idea what they are talking about. But the unfortunate side effect of this is that economics as a field has become highly insular and unreceptive to outside influences. In order to mount an effective attack on economics, one needs to be well versed in both the standard economic paradigm and the research methods and corpus of behavioural psychology. There simply aren’t enough people who have the time, intelligence, determination and opportunity to get to that point and, as a result, economics simply isn’t advancing.

Kuhn writes a lot about a crisis point and how paradigms tick over and I think an interesting thing is how the current bailout crisis just might be the crisis point needed for economics to finally start making the transition. The bailout crisis has begun to lay bare some of the fundamentally untenable assumptions of conventional economics and has brought to the forefront radical (to economists) new ways of analyzing human behaviour. Things like non-linear analysis, game theory of groups and incentive structuring theory. Terms like “Black swans” and “tipping points” are being used.

It may seem like such things were in economics already, game theory has been used in economics for decades. But the economics version of game theory was game theory formulated in an economic language. What this shift really represents is economists now being forced to grapple with very different standards of proof and modes of argument. Whether this will herald the beginning of a systematically behavioural view of economics remains yet to be seen.

Nov 9th (day 27): Zero knowledge proofs

by Hang

In cryptography, a zero knowledge proof is a way to prove that something is true without knowledge of what that thing is. For example, I could prove you know the password to a profile by having you insert the text “Hang, I own this profile qX45s” in the about me section but this would not give me knowledge about what the password is.

I use the term zero knowledge proof as ways of proving whether an assertion is correct without knowing anything about the domain itself. This is as opposed to “first order proofs” in which the proof relies on direct application of domain knowledge to determine truth. For example, if you were presented with a claim that the WTC towers were brought down with timed explosives, a zero knowledge proof would involve looking at who was making the claims, how coherently they are able to make their point, who are the major parties who disagree etc. A first order proof would computing the structural integrity of the buildings, verifying the melting points of steel and how it deforms under high temperature and assessing similar building collapses.

Zero knowledge proofs are powerful because they allow us to leverage the insight that we gain one domain to practically all aspects of life. Given powerful enough zero knowledge proofs, we can attempt to answer questions as diverse as “Is postmodernism bullshit”, “Is global warming real”, “Which president has better economic policies” and “Is the God described by any major religions real”. Unfortunately, most people’s toolbox of zero knowledge proofs suck.

Common zero knowledge proofs include things like whether the person sounds like they know what they’re talking about, whether they have an advanced degree from a prestigious institution, or simply whether they agree with you. Most of these zero knowledge proofs develop as instinctive heuristics and we never really give them much consideration.

Here are some basic zero knowledge proofs which I’ve found to be useful:

  • How willing are they to admit the weaknesses and flaws in their own position?
  • How well can someone argue against their own position? How aware are they of the best arguments from the other side?
  • How willing are they to show you their raw data, their raw speculations and the tools neccesary for you to reach the position they are at?
  • Do they have the support and endorsement of others who you know and trust according to similar zero knowledge proof or first order proof criteria?
  • Have similar claims been made in the past and been systematically proven wrong?

A powerful toolbox of zero knowledge proofs is the most efficient way of applying analytical insight to a variety of fields. At the same time, even the best zero knowledge proofs cannot match a proper first order proof in determining power and the evidence gleaned from zero knowledge proofs must be placed in it’s context.

Nov 8th (day 26): The state of Academic HCI

by Hang

Jeff Atwood’s blog post on reading HCI Remixed lead me to try and clarify some of the thoughts I’ve been having on the role of Academic HCI and it’s relationship with developers, entrepreneurs and other interested parties in this space. I’m an enormous fan of the book and I know and admire many of people who have contributed essays to it but it’s never struck me as a book that would be of much use to those outside of the tight knit community of academic HCI researchers. On reflection, I’ve noticed an interesting distinction which might not be immediately apparent to outside observers.

The normal role of (good) academic research is to engage in medium to long term basic research which will eventually migrate it’s way into industrial research and finally into products. Academic material scientists are working on carbon nanotubes which will eventually be thrown over the wall to practising material scientists to make into space elevators. Academic biotechnologists are working on sequencing genomes to throw over the wall to practising biotechnologists to convert into gene therapy. Natural, the naive observer might expect that the role of Academic HCI is to develop new tools and techniques that practising HCI professionals can then take forward and use.

In actuality, the worlds of Academic HCI (including “Industrial Research”) and Professional HCI have very little to do with each other. Academic HCI is the province of major academic universities as well as industry research labs such as Microsoft Research, IBM and Xerox Parc. Professional HCI is largely the province of Interaction Designers, User Experience Engineers and Usability Experts who work for either large companies of consultancy firms.

The key to understanding Academic HCI is that it’s not in the business of throwing stuff over the wall to HCI folk, it’s main goal is to throw research over to product designers. Academic HCI is in the business of envisioning potential future products that have some significant interface component. This is a key distinction to make and one which I failed to adequately understand when I first entered my PhD program, focusing on HCI.

Indeed, there really is no discipline dedicated to advancing the state of the art of practicing HCI and I suspect a large part of this is because the slot of “Academic HCI” has already been taken. The work of contributing to a greater theoretical and practical understanding of the new problems facing design is one which simply isn’t being done for lack of various infrastructure elements like funding, tenure and journals.

Although Academic HCI and professional HCI share the same names and even aspects of common terminology, it’s a mistake to see one as the research version of the other. I found out the hard way that the field I was looking to make a contribution in simply doesn’t exist and that was primarily the reason I decided to leave academic and strike out on my own as an entrepreneur.

November 8 2008

Nov 7th (day 25): How the next 30 days could play out

by Hang

While most people were focused on the presidential elections, far more interesting IMO was the US Senate elections and the “race for 60″. Briefly, of the 100 US Senators, 50 are required for a majority but 60 are required for a “filibuster proof majority” through which any sort of legislation can be rammed through regardless of dissent from the opposing party.

As of midnight of election day itself, the polls stood at 56 Democratic Senators (including independants Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman in the count) to 40 Republican Senators with 4 election races on the knife edge. As of today, Oregon has been called for the Democrats, Alaska is still counting mail in and absentee votes, Minnesota is going into a mandatory recount and Georgia is going into a mandatory runoff.

There are signs that Alaska could be called for the Democrats in which cases the Democrats would have already grabbed two for two of the swing seats.

Where it gets really interesting is if Minnesota is either called for the Democrats or is still mired in recount and legal woes by December 2nd, at which time Georgia will hold it’s runoff voting. If this is the case, Georgia might just become the most unanticipated important election of the year in terms of how much effect each voter could have.

If Georgia becomes the battleground for the filibuster proof majority, expect the see the might of both the Democratic and Republican National Committee to descend with full force for the biggest get out to vote efforts ever seen.

There are a few things that make me optimistic about the Democrats’ chances in Georgia. For one, the Democrats have conclusively proved that their ground game far outranked the Republicans in the general election and all that infrastructure is still in place. For two, the most lucrative pool of voters to chase after is those of the Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley who drew support away from the Democratic candidate more than the Republican one.

A series of relatively unlikely series of events need to happen for such a scenario to occur but it seems to be not beyond the pale to think that such an election could end up happening. If so, be prepared for a piece of political theatre that will be to the general election what Applejack is to cider.

November 6 2008

Nov 6th (day 24): newsweek article

by Hang

There’s an excellent article in newsweek about the inside view of the election. A team of reporters were embedded within each campaign and absolutely forbidden to communicate with the outside world until the elections were over. As a result, they managed to write a much more honest and interesting view.

They should extend this policy further and embed a journalist for 4 years and write a book at the end of it.

Nov 5th (day 23): Three types of passion

by Hang

The world seems to be split into roughly three different types of people: Those who have a passion for nothing, those who have a passion for one thing and those who have a passion for everything. This way of categorizing is not to cast a value judgement onto any particular group. My informal observation is that aspects such as intelligence, courage, moral fibre and wisdom seem roughly evenly distributed across all three of these groups although it may initially not seem that way. It’s always difficult trying to describe a group with an insider’s perspective if you’re not an insider but I’m going to give it a try:

People with a passion with nothing are the ones who are content to lead an ordinary life. They are the ones who can grow up, go to school, get married, get a good job, buy a house in the suburbs, raise children and grandchildren and die utterly content with their lives.

People with a passion for one thing are those who have found some calling in life and live and breathe that calling. These people may have multiple “one things” for which they are passionate about but they are interested primarily in the thing itself. These are the people who have dreams about thier passion, who spend idle moments of their day thinking about it and who possess a sense of manifest destiny and purpose once they discover their calling.

People with a passion for everything are not interested in things themselves, they’re interested in interest. To them, the actual objects of study are actually incidental, what’s fascinating to them is the more abstract layers in which everything is interconnected. This is not to say that these people are equally interested in everything or even that there are large areas of human experience are completely alien and boring to them(sport gets cited as a common example). But these people are voracious and indiscriminate readers. They’ll be able to converse knowledgably about a huge range of topics and often know surprisingly huge amounts of trivia. If you’ve ever met someone who is a massive fan of TED talks, this is someone who is fascinated by everything. At the same time, for these people, their lives are constantly wracked by a guilt and longing that there is simply never enough time in the world to truly accomplish what they hope to accomplish or master what there needs to be mastered.

It’s no surprise to people who are reading my blog that I place myself firmly into the 3rd category. As a result, it’s been interesting but difficult for me to really peer into the minds of the other two groups of people. But what I’ve noticed in the process of doing so is how radical communication differences arise between members of different groups. If you’re not aware of these very different styles of thought, then you implicitly assume that other people think roughly like you with slightly tweaked parameters.

When a person who is passionate about one thing meets a person who is passionate about nothing, they feel extreme sadness that this person has not yet found their calling. To them, their life is so infused with purpose from their calling that they assume everyone else without a calling feels the same hollow emptiness inside them that they do. They are horrified with the prospect of living an utterly normal, undistinguished life.

When a person who is passionate about one thing meets a person who is passionate about everything, they just assume that this person is passionate about many “one things”. They understand how you could be passionate about two things or five things so they naturally assume the person they’re meeting must be on the far right end of the bell curve and interested in like… a dozen things or maybe twenty things. Widespread passion is mistaken for intelligence because they assume people who are passionate about everything manage their passions in the same way that people who are passionate about one thing do. What they fail to realise is that the passion is not thing-centric.

When a person who is passionate about nothing meets a person who is passionate about one thing or everything, there is a sense of otherworldliness to it, that those people possess some kind of mutant gene which compels them to action. To these people, passion is an utterly mysterious process which they can only reverse engineer from the outside. To them, it’s like thinking of love as really, really, really liking someone.

When a person who is passionate about everything meets a person who is passionate about one thing, they just assume that this is a person who has settled. Every person who is passionate about everything ultimately faces the dilemma about how to focus their attentions. In order to be successful, they need to settle on something to be “their thing”; They need to become a software engineer or a journalist or a academic. Settling one one thing can, on the surface, looking like being passionate about one thing.

But what people who are passionate about everything fail to grasp is that others could be passionate about something without being passionate about your things. It’s a grave affront to people passionate about everything that you cannot convince someone else that something is worth being passionate about. You can’t convert someone into being passionate about your things but you can at least give them a sense of why your thing is worth being passionate about. It’s an utterly alien mindset that someone could be passionate about A, B & C *only* and care not one whit about the things you’re passionate about.

When a person who is passionate about everything meets a person who is passionate about nothing, the lack of curiosity is mistaken for unintelligence or a lack of opportunity. If only they were smarter or if only they had been exposed to a brilliant teacher in school like I had, they would be infused with the same sense of wonder with the world that I have. I think this is one of the more insidious miscommunications that exists because it imposes a subtle form of prejudice and judgement.

 So much of the rancourous debates and misunderstandings I see in the world can be boiled down to a conflict between these basic personality types. Debates about education, about hope, about destiny and about ideals ultimately don’t boil down to the issues at all, they boil down to these three very radically different ways of thinking about the world. Each one is legitimate and each one is valuable and can act as a complement to each other.

The realisation that others have a system of values so shocking different that it seemed almost alien at first was one that enabled me to really connent with many people in a way which I had not previously been able to.

November 5 2008

Nov 4th (day 22): Elections

by Hang

I’ve almost deliberately avoided pushing politics on both my blog and my everyday life. It’s pretty clear from those who know me who I supported for the presidential election and I’m happy to talk about the political race as a sort of abstract, intellectual game. Part of the reason was because of the overwhelmingly uniformity of the social group that I hang out with. Virtually everyone I knew was not only voting for Obama but considered it unthinkable to vote for McCain and I always feel slightly uneasy giving people more reasons to believe what they’re already convinced they believe. But now the elections are over, I feel more comfortable talking about why it is that I supported Barack Obama even though I was unable to cast a ballot for him.

There are two stories about Barack Obama that convinced me that not only was he the right candidate, he was one of those once in a generational figures which people are lucky to have the opportunity to vote for. The first was about how Obama left Harvard Law School with the world as his oyster and, instead of choosing a position of money, power or influence, he chose instead to work as a community organizer in Chicago. Cynicism is a lens that so pervades politics in America that a significant amount of people even had a hard time being able to interpret this for what it was. “What’s his hustle?”, “What’s he trying to do?”. The truth is there simply was no hustle, there could not have been a hustle. Barack Obama was then and is now an idealist, not a cynic. When he speaks, he means the words. When he is running for president, he is not doing it for the position of president but because he believes that he can do genuine good in the world.

That being said, unlike many, I do not believe that this is an especially rare trait and I believe it’s equally obvious looking at John McCain’s record that he is also an idealist and, indeed, I believe that much of the political machine is made up of idealists.

The commonly accepted wisdom within American politics is that the political establishment has failed because it’s made up of people who want only the best for themselves, not their country. This is certainly an attractive view to take and one that seems to explain the set of facts but I don’t think it holds water. Instead, it seems obvious to me that idealism is not enough. To merely want to do good is not a sufficient pre-condition to doing good and the path to genuine positive change is narrow and paved with good intentions.

Which is why the second, much less known story is one which played and equal role in convincing me. Very early in the primary campaign, Obama gave an interview at Google in which he was asked by the CEO Eric Schmidt how he would sort a million 32 bit integers. Obama, unsurprisingly, doesn’t know the correct answer but he does managed to give a reply which shows a remarkable amount of inside knowledge of CS culture. In other words, Barack Obama knew how the two facts and one joke. It may seem a small thing to know but in order to have been in a position to give such a reply so confidently gives us a picture of Obama’s mind and what he values.

Obama is someone who knows about two facts and a joke. He’s someone who is relentlessly intellectually curious and, what’s more, revels in seeking out experiences different from his own. Obama was a lawyer, there’s no reason why he would ever need to talk to computer scientists or deeply engage with them. And yet he did and to the level where he not only learned who they were, he learned their culture.

It’s easy for me to understand why people are virulently agains Obama. The criticisms against him: that he is vaguely uplifting and full of gloss is one that I can understand someone making. Because so much of what he says are powerful words that others have reverse engineered and pumped out as ersatz noise. In his acceptance speech tonight, he talked powerfully, not about what he had done but what still needed to be done. How humility was needed and this was merely the offer of greatness, not greatness itself. He talked of unity and the mutual desire of people regardless of party to make America great. I trust Barack Obama with those words, not because of the words themselves but because of the thinking and worldview that backs up those words.

Many people have tried to make the world a better place. Included among them some of the vilest dictators and despots in history. Merely wanting does not make it so, you have to be good at being good as well. And I believe that Obama’s intellectual fortitude and desire to not be enmeshed inside an ideology or party or world view is what will make him to be one of the greatest presidents in living memory.

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