The case against identity politics

In episode 45 of his “Waking Up” podcast, I loved this piece by Sam Harris on identity politics, and wanted to capture it here for future reference:

Sam Harris:

As far as I can tell, becoming a part of a movement doesn’t help anybody think clearly, so I distrust identity politics of all kinds. I think we should talk about specific issues, whether it’s trade or guns or immigration or foreign interventions or abortion or anything else. And we should reason honestly about them.

And I’m not the first person who has noticed that it’s pretty strange that knowing a person’s position on any one of these issues, generally allows you to predict his position on any of the others. This shouldn’t happen. Some of these issues are totally unrelated. Why should a person’s attitude towards guns be predictive of his views on climate change? Or immigration? Or abortion?

And yet, it almost certainly is in our society. That’s a sign that people are joining tribes and movements. It’s not the sign of clear thinking.

If you’re reasoning honestly about facts, then the color of your skin is irrelevant. The religion of your parents is irrelevant. Whether you’re gay or straight, is irrelevant. Your identity is irrelevant. In fact, if you’re talking about reality, its character can’t be predicated on who you happen to be. That’s what it means to be talking about reality.

And this also applies to the reality of human experience, and human suffering. For example, if vaccines don’t cause autism, if that is just a fact—which is what the best science suggests at this point—well, then to argue against this view, you need data. Or a new analysis of existing data. You need an argument. And the nature of any argument is that its validity doesn’t depend on who you are. That’s why a good argument should be accepted by others, no matter who they are.

So in the case of vaccines causing autism, you don’t get to say, “As a parent of a child with autism, I believe X, Y and Z.” Whatever is true about the biological basis of autism, can’t depend on who you are. And who you are in this case, is probably adding a level of emotional engagement with the issue, which would be totally understandable, but would also be unlikely to lead you to think about it more clearly.

The facts are whatever they are. And it’s not an accident that being disinterested—not uninterested, but disinterested, meaning not being emotionally engaged—usually improves a person’s ability to reason about the facts.

When talking about violence in our society, again, the facts are whatever they are. How many people got shot? How many died? What was the color of their skin? Who shot them? What was the color of their skin? Getting a handle on these facts doesn’t require one to say, “As a black man, I know X, Y and Z.” The color of your skin, simply isn’t relevant information.

When talking about the data, that is, what is happening throughout a whole society, your life experience isn’t relevant information. And the fact that you think it might be, is a problem.

Now this isn’t to say that a person’s life experience is never relevant to a conversation. Of course it can be. And it can be used to establish certain kinds of facts. If someone says to you, “Catholics don’t believe in hell”, it’s perfectly valid to retort, “Actually my mom is a Catholic, and she believes in hell.” Of course there’s a larger question of what the Catholic doctrine actually is, but if a person is making a statement about a certain group of people, and you are a member of the group, you might very well be in a position to falsify his claim, on the basis of your experience.

But a person’s identity and life experience usually aren’t relevant, when talking about facts. And they’re usually invoked in ways that are clearly fallacious. And many people seem to be making a political religion out of ignoring this difference, so I urge you not to be one of those people, whether you’re on the left or the right.

Taxes paid vs benefits received

The Heritage Foundation has an interesting 2015 article on, The Redistributive State: The Allocation of Government Benefits, Services, and Taxes in the United States. In it, I saw this interesting chart comparing taxes paid versus benefits received, based on income. I’ll refer to this next time someone mentions that the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share:

John Gruber thinks this isn’t complicated

John Gruber wanted Marco Arment to whitelist The Deck, because “it’s not crap”. When someone asked Gruber what Arment should do about other “non crap”, his reply was to whitelist those too, as “This isn’t complicated.”

So what’s Arment to do when the email arrives from the guy in Brazil saying, “Hey, you whitelisted The Deck. Can you whitelist this Brazilian ad network as well? I know you can’t read the language, but take my word for it — it’s not crap either.” And then the request from Turkey. And then the request from China.

Gruber’s view on this issue seems a bit short-sighted to me—It IS quite complicated.

PS: Of course, we all know by now that Arment pulled Peace from the App Store. And as expected in his usual passive-elitist style, he writes (paraphrasing):

What a success Peace has been—amazing! But having earned a bucket of money in 36 hours, I decided to pull the app from the store because—it just doesn’t feel good. I’m getting heat from my buddies. I’m “winning”, but I’ve not enjoyed it. And fortunately for me, I’m in a position such that I don’t even need the success! And in case you’re wondering why I couldn’t figure all this out 36 hours ago—you know, before you all actually bought the app—don’t bother asking, because I’m not going to reply to any mentions on Twitter. (Of course, any of you that have ever emailed or Tweeted to me before with a question about any other product of mine you bought, already know I don’t reply — unless you’re a buddy.)

An eye-opening example of the importance of mathematical literacy

If you’d like to understand the importance of having a good knowledge of probability theory, consider the following eye-opening example (inspired by something I read at David Siegel’s site.)

A rare disease is known to exist in 1% of the population. A test for the disease is known to be 98% accurate, meaning that if you have the disease, the test will return positive 98% of the time.

Now, you’re curious whether you might have the disease and so you go take the test. It comes back positive. What is the probability you actually have the disease? The results might surprise you.

To solve this problem, we use Baysian probability theory, which says:

P(A|B) = P(A)*P(B|A)/P(B)

Where:

  • A = You have the disease
  • B = You test positive

In words, this means that the probability that you have the disease (A) and you test positive (B) is the probability that you have the disease, P(A), times the probability that you test positive given that you have the disease, P(B|A), divided by the probability that you test positive, P(B).

So to make this calculation we need three numbers:

  1. P(A) — We know that P(A) (the probability we have the disease) is 1%.
  2. P(B|A) — We know that P(B|A), the probability that we test positive if we have the disease, is 98%.
  3. P(B) — We don’t know this one, and have to calculate it.

We can compute P(B)—i.e. the probability that a random person taking the test returns positive—using “conditional” probability:

P(B) = P(B|A)P(A) + P(B|!A)P(!A)

This means that the probably of testing positive, is the sum of the conditional probabilities that (a) we test positive given that we have the disease times the probability that we actually have the disease, plus (b) the probability that we test positive given that we don’t have the disease, times the probability that we don’t have the disease.

In the above conditional probability equation, we know all the values except P(B|!A). How to determine this? Well, we know the following must be true:

P(B|A) + P(B|!A) = 100%

Therefore, since we know P(B|A) is 98%, we can conclude that P(B|!A) must be 2%.

P(B|!A) is known as the “false positives”, i.e. those who test positive but don’t have the disease.

Therefore:

P(B) = 0.98*0.01 + 0.02*0.99 = 0.0296

So now we have the all the numbers to calculate P(A|B), i.e. that chances that we actually have the disease given that we tested positive for it:

P(A|B) = 0.01*0.98/0.0296 = 0.33

Surprising no? If we went to the doctor, took this test, and tested positive, there would only be a 33% chance that we actually have the disease.

How can we make sense of this? It’s actually quite logical.

Imagine a random population sample of 1,000,000 people. Of those, 10,000 (1%) will have the disease. Of those 10,000 tested, 9,800 (98%) will diagnose correctly in the test. Of the 990,000 (99%) who don’t have the disease, 19,800 will test positive, i.e. the 2% false-positive percentage.

So of the 1,000,000 people tested, 29,600 will test positive, but very few of those will really have the disease, i.e. 9,800/29,600 or 33%.

Socialismo

Un profesor de económicas en una universidad anuncio que nunca había suspendido a un alumno, pero que recientemente había suspendido a una clase entera. La clase insistió que el socialismo de Obama funcionaba y que nadie seria pobre ni rico, un formula magnifica para garantizar la igualdad.

El profesor entonces dijo, “vale, vamos a hacer un experimento en esta clase siguiendo el plan de Obama”…Se hará una media de todas las notas y todo el mundo recibirá la misma nota así nadie suspendera ni nadie sacara un sobresaliente (sustituyendo notas por dólares – algo cercano y fácil de entender).

Después del primer examen, se hizo la media de todas las notas, y todos sacaron un notable. Los alumnos que estudiaron estaban descontentos y los que apenas se esforzaron estaban muy contentos. Tras el segundo examen, los alumnos que apenas estudiaron en el primero, estudiaron aun menos y los que habían estudiado en el primero decidieron no estudiar tanto ya que su nota iba a ser una media de la clase.

La media del segundo examen fue un suficiente y nadie estaba contento. Después del tercer examen, la media fue un suspenso. A medida que se sucedían los exámenes, la media nunca mejoro, se empezaron a echar la culpa unos a otros, a insultar y nadie estaba dispuesto a estudiar y esforzarse para el beneficio de otros.

Sorprendidos, TODOS SUSPENDIERON y el profesor les dijo que al final el socialismo también fracasaría porque cuando la recompensa es grande, el esfuerzo para tener éxito es grande, pero cuando el gobierno quita cualquier recompensa, nadie intenta o tiene interés tener éxito.

No puede ser mas simple.

Estas son posiblemente las 5 mejores frases que puedes leer que son aplicables a este experimento:

  1. No se puede legislar a los pobres en la prosperidad, legislando a los ricos fuera de la prosperidad.
  2. Lo que una persona recibe sin trabajar, otra debe trabajar sin recibirlo.
  3. El gobierno no puede dar a nadie nada sin antes quitárselo a otro.
  4. No se puede multiplicar riqueza dividiéndola.
  5. Cuando la mitad de la gente tiene la idea de que no tiene que trabajar porque la otra mitad está obligada a hacerse cargo de ellas , y cuando esta otra mitad se da cuenta de que no merece la pena trabajar para el beneficio de otro , es el principio del fin de cualquier nación.

(Hat tip to Justin Menchen for pointing me to this.)

Politics, Society and Corruption

Hardly a day passes here in Spain that we don’t hear news of yet another case of political corruption. Whether it’s the left-leaning PSOE or the right-leaning PP, representatives from both the country’s main political parties are regularly caught in unimaginable schemes of corruption.

Continue reading Politics, Society and Corruption

Richard Feynman on knowing something

In the video The Pleasure of Finding Things Out I love this profound quote by Richard Feynman. He’s talking about pseudo-science, but it has broad applicability:

But I have an the advantage of having found out how hard it is to really get to know something. How careful you have to be about checking your experiments. How easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself.

I know what it means to know something, and therefore I see how they get their information, and I can’t believe they claim to know something. They haven’t done the work necessary. They haven’t done the checks necessary. They have done the care necessary.

I think about this quote, when I see people making simple-minded, black-and-white statements on subjects like politics, economics, health and religion.

Calling Gmail technical support (yet another scam story)

My livelihood and many of my hobbies revolve around technology. This past week, after witnessing an unfortunate series of technology problems affecting my Mom, I’ve been reflecting on how I take for granted as commonly understood so many technological concepts that, in reality, are not commonly understood at all.

Continue reading Calling Gmail technical support (yet another scam story)

IRS claims it can read your email without a warrant

In this CNET article some disclosed documents reveal that the IRS claims it can read your email without a warrant.

An IRS 2009 Search Warrant Handbook obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union argues that “emails and other transmissions generally lose their reasonable expectation of privacy and thus their Fourth Amendment protection once they have been sent from an individual’s computer.”

This is another reason why it’s probably a good idea to host your own email, as opposed to going with a service like Gmail or iCloud.

A study of the effects of nasty comments on reader perception

Barry Ritholtz (one of my favorite bloggers) reporting about a study of the effects nasty comments have on reader perception:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself. In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments.

Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.

He’s talking about blog comments, but one can imagine similar results would be found studying nasty comments and reviews in the App Store. Or even non-nasty, but irrelevant comments. I often see products given poor reviews for reasons like the following:

  • The reviewer thinks the product is too expensive. (You shouldn’t rate a product based on whether you can afford it; that’s completely subjective. That’s like giving a Porsche one-star, because you’d prefer it cost $10,000)

  • The product doesn’t have a feature the reviewer thinks would make it better. (You should rate a product on what it advertises itself to do; not on what you wish it did.)

  • The reviewer had a bad experience through some mis-use of the product. (You can’t blame the product, if you tried to use it for something for which it wasn’t intended.)

Why good intentions can fail as a starting point for organizing society

In discussions about society and economics, proponents of collectivism often respond to free-market capitalists with incredulity. How could you possibly put profit above the needs of human beings?

That is a tragic misunderstanding. And in a domain so important but so closely tied to emotion, it often derails constructive conversation and progress.

The sad truth is that putting the needs of others first, ultimately fails as a societal model. Intentions don’t matter; what actually works — or more precisely, what produces the best results among imperfect alternatives — is what matters.

As it happens, organizing society around the innate human tendency to act in ones own best interest will achieve, through the invisible hand of the impersonal price system, the best sustainable results for the poor and needy. Not perfect results; but the best possible results.

Good intentions

It naturally starts as the most noble of ideas. There are those in our society who are in need due to no fault of their own, and we as a society should collectively help them.

How do we collectively help those in need? We don’t tend to do it directly; rather, we attempt to do it indirectly through government. We allow the government to tax a portion of our income, in order to use that money to — in addition to the basic functions of government — help those in need.

But government is comprised of people; human beings. And that’s the fundamental problem.

Who goes to work in government? Government jobs are stable, by and large free from accountability and the pressures of competition. At mid and high levels, government jobs offer power and opportunities for corruption.

I’ve lived in four countries and visited many more, and my experience in this regard is fully consistent. Although there are exceptions, government everywhere, in general, attracts people for whom such job qualities appeal. In general, these are not qualities consistent with achievement in private enterprise, where only the most competent, efficient, productive, competitive and effective entities survive.

The result is no surprise — incompetence, inefficiency and ineffectiveness. For every dollar collected in taxes to help the needy, only a fraction arrives at its intended destination. Furthermore, the situation grows worse with increasing size of government, and government always tends to grow. Over time, less and less of each tax dollar ends up actually achieving the initial aim of society — helping the needy.

Today we see massive inefficiencies, incompetence, and corruption in government, and growth in government spending as a percentage of GDP on a scale in the United States (as in Europe) that is clearly unsustainable. And it extends beyond welfare; just look at the America medical and education systems.

What are the effects on those being helped?

The existence of welfare creates situations in which those with the capability to escape their needful situation choose to remain. And, worse, it creates situations in which those outside actually prefer to enter welfare, rather than to fend for themselves. (Here in Spain, I often speak with unemployed who are in no hurry to find a job, and have seen all manner of ingenuity and innovation in fraudulently accessing government welfare and benefits programs.)

Over time, the proportion of the ever-growing total population eligible for government help who are actually in need, declines.

Milton Friedman was one of history’s most intelligent and respected social and economic thinkers. A life-time of research led him to conclude that although the intentions of a collectivist societal model are good and noble, such a model can’t and doesn’t work in practice in the long run.

A fundamental flaw, therefore, in designing a social model is to begin with good intentions.

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficial. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.
—Justice Louis Brandeis

What’s the alternative?

The alternative is free-market capitalism. In his ground-breaking work, “The Wealth of Nations”, Scottish economist Adam Smith discovered that the impersonal system of prices in a free market acts as an invisible hand, organizing very complex and distributed systems of efficient production, resulting in a situation in which the individual, acting in his own interest, actually works towards the larger benefits of society; objectives which were of no intent of his own.

According to the research of Milton Friedman, history clearly demonstrates that wherever you find reasonable conditions for the poor, you will find something resembling a free-market society. And wherever you find the worst disparity and conditions for the poor, you will find a model of central societal planning.

It’s a counter-intuitive idea, for sure, and leads to hundreds of reasonable questions and concerns. I would urge anyone interested in this topic to watch Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” series, now available on YouTube.

The inefficiency of government subsidized medical care

Phil Greenspun posted an article discussing a study of the efficiency of Medicaid in Oregon.

The conclusion was that Medicaid increased hospital use by about 30 percent, outpatient medical care by about 35 percent, and total spending by 25 percent. Finkelstein noted that advocates for expanding health insurance often predict that use of hospital emergency rooms will decrease when everyone is insured. That turned out not to be true in Oregon. The insured and uninsured used emergency departments at hospitals at roughly the same rate.

My observations here in Spain, a country with a state-subsidized medical system, has been that waits at emergency rooms are excessively long, due to large numbers of people visiting for common colds and other minor problems. It has gotten so bad that the government has begun to impose a minimum (nominal) payment to access the emergency room.

Update: A friend suggested that a desire to see a more efficient system implies less access. That’s untrue. Efficiency is about maximizing productivity, with minimum wasted effort or expense. Greenspun offered some interesting ideas for health care reform a while back.

Obama’s reelection — are we on the path to Spain?

For me, the Obama acceptance speech began ominously:

…the belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation.

It seems that Obama’s dream is a nation of people working hard as individuals, and collectively contributing their fair share towards the provision of a societal safety net, administered by an efficient government.

It’s a beautiful ideal. Who wouldn’t want to live in such a society? There’s just one problem; it simply doesn’t work. Why?

  1. Government attracts those seeking power, operates inefficiently and always becomes corrupt.

  2. The existence of a social safety net lowers the motivation of survival, and usually leads to abuse.

Free to Choose

I wish everyone would take the time to watch Milton Friedman’s series called, Free to Choose. It’s the culmination of the life’s work of one history’s most brilliant economic thinkers.

A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.

Friedman argues convincingly — through both logic and historical evidence — that socialism, while noble in concept, simply doesn’t work.

Taxing removes the incentive to invest. Through incompetence, inefficiency and corruption, only a fraction of tax receipts end up at their intended destination. The presence of a safety net creates unproductive dependency, a sense of entitlement and abuse.

The path of socialism ultimately leads to a society in which an unreasonable portion of its resources are consumed by a growing, inefficient and corrupt government. Its citizens have, by and large, become uncompetitive with those of freer nations, are suffering and have developed a deep sense of entitlement. The productive sector of the society has left, to invest its resources and capital in freer places.

The tragic irony is that this path is governed by a vicious cycle, because it’s so easy for the suffering to place their hopes in the hands of politicians who blame anything and everything except the root organization of the society itself, and promise relief from the government, funded through debt, taxes and redistribution of wealth.

Am I living in the future of the United States?

I live in Spain, a socialist country, and in a sense I feel I’m living the future of the United States.

As you’re probably aware, Spain is in dire straits. In response to an ailing nation, the Spanish government has tried social program after social program — subsidies (money) to those with children, subsidies to young people who want to rent a property, subsidies to those who take jobs far from home, subsidized loans, massive stimulus funds given to local governments, scholarships based on economic status rather than merit, free medical services for everybody including illegal immigrants, laws that protect renters, laws that protect employees.

You name it, and it’s been tried here.

What are the results? Widespread corruption. Widespread fraud and abuse. Massive inefficiencies. An economy hopelessly burdened by its debt. And a society deeply rooted in the culture of entitlement.

In my time here, I have been absolutely astounded at what I’ve seen and have personally experienced as a result of this approach to organizing society.

As a businessman, I’ve experienced the abuse of the Spanish employment protection laws. As the owner of rental property, I’ve experienced the abuse of the Spanish renter protection laws. I was once told,

You’re going to watch me enjoy this apartment’s swimming pool and not paying any rent, while you spend years trying to get me evicted.

In recent news, a nearby local town received 11 million Euros from the central government, as part of a massive stimulus plan. Of those 11 million, 10 million disappeared, and one million went to a mysterious company who was the only bidder on an infrastructure improvement project. Hardly a week goes by without the breaking of another story like this.

Only on the brink of financial collapse under the weight of its debts has the government began to implement austerity measures. And what is the response of the people, who have developed such a deep sense of entitlement? Revolt — against the government who are cutting back entitlements, against businesses and against anyone who’s in a better situation.

Just yesterday I overheard a group of people talking about burning a bank, because it foreclosed on someone who could’t pay their mortgage. It doesn’t matter that it was the bank that provided the possibility for the person to buy a home, and that that person agreed that if they do not repay the bank, they will lose their home. It doesn’t matter that, rather than saving and living frugally during the past generation, the person likely (statistically) lived a life of consumptive excess beyond their means.

And the world view reflected in this example is absolutely typical of a large portion of the Spanish society today.

What about those who could help? Well, more and more, I’m learning of capable Spanish individuals and businesses who are emigrating to other countries, freer countries, to apply their skills and resources.

Over the past few decades, I’ve gotten the sense that America is moving away from its roots as a free society and towards a model of collectivism and ever larger government. Granted, I’m viewing this from afar, but perhaps that also makes it easier to see. Sometimes I feel it’s easier to recognize where America is headed, when you already live in a place that’s just down the road.

Obama’s campaign message wasn’t that we Americans need to bear the painful consequences of a generation of excess, and move in a direction — both individuals and government — of taking more personal responsibility and creating the conditions for freer markets, incentivizing people to take risks and seek opportunities.

Instead, the message was that we’re one big family, we’ll all take care of each other through government mediation, and we’ll pay for it with debt, increased taxation and redistribution of wealth.

As Friedman pointed out, that’s a noble idea, but has never worked. America is worse off today than it was four years ago. I predict it’ll be worse off still four years from now, and over time will continue to look more and more like Spain. I hope I’m wrong.

Is this inevitable? Perhaps it is.

I often wonder why the tendency of nations towards collectivism seem almost inevitable, and I guess it’s because freedom, while a superficially attractive concept, ultimately demands personal responsibility and unavoidable accountability. It’s attractive and easy to delegate the hard parts of freedom to a government willing to make promises, and easy for us to believe that having made that delegation, we still retain the good parts of freedom.

In that respect, the free-market capitalism model which Friedman so eloquently argues is the best known system in the overall interest of a society, is one that appears to be unfortunately unsustainable in the long-run.

Footnote:

I don’t see how any average person, like myself, can claim to know how a society should best be organized. Certainly that’s not what I’m trying do in this article. What I am trying to do is simply articulate the world view I seem to have developed over time, through study, observation and experience.

Moving abroad—proposal for a new Twitter feature

One of the most enriching things I’ve done in my life has been living abroad, experiencing cultures and societies completely different from those in which I was raised. That made me appreciative of things I formerly took for granted, and it exposed me to ways of thinking, living and doing things that otherwise may have never occurred to me.

As regular Twitter users, we’re exposed each day to the stream of tweets from those we’ve chosen to follow. That stream represents a slice of the social universe that’s unique to us. If we imagine each of those voices as a distinct ingredient, the resulting social dish that we consume on a daily basis is one-of-a-kind in the flavors of culture, interests, education and point of view.

It’s probably worth considering that that experience is less diverse and in certain ways potentially more influential that the real-world experience of the societies in which we live. So today I was imagining being able to “move” into the unique social experience of other Twitter users — i.e. being able to see the stream of tweets from another user’s followers — and wondering if it could be as enriching in the unexpected ways that moving abroad was for me.

Would I more likely understand how a person could form an opinion that now seems completely unreasonable to me? Would I come to understand how some of my own viewpoints are limited or distorted by my own unique social exposure, repeated day after day?

Reservations about Our Choice, and the Push Pop Press vision of tomorrow’s books

Like most people fascinated with the potential that devices like the iPad have to change how we read and learn, I rushed to the App Store to purchase Push Pop Press’s highly-anticipated first interactive book, “Our Choice.”

Continue reading Reservations about Our Choice, and the Push Pop Press vision of tomorrow’s books

Spain not interested in productivity

Spainish president Rodriguez Zapatero has been meeting with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to discuss reforms necessary to address the battered Spanish economy. One of Merkel’s suggestions, is that Spain adopt policies similar to those in Germany, which tie salary increases to productivity and profit, rather than inflation.

That suggestion, of course, didn’t go over too well in Spain. In particular, I love this quote from Arturo Fernández, vice president of the CEOE:

“Productivity is more a German interest, than a Spanish one.”

Reactions to Paul Graham’s views of future trends.

I really enjoyed watching this video of Paul Graham at the 2009 Business of Software conference, in which he discusses 21 future trends he believes we can bank on. Having grown and sold an early web business to Yahoo, Paul has since become a highly influential writer and participant in the technology industry. Currently, he runs “Y Combinator,” a venture capital company which makes financial and advisory investments in startups.

In his talk, I was excited to hear Paul emphasize the importance of some areas in which I’m invested, both personally and professionally:

  • OS X on the desktop. Paul points out that open-source, while a great model for the development of technical solutions, falls short at the boarder with design, because of the human psychology aspects which are central to good design. For that reason, he believes (as I’ve long believed) that Linux will never have a place on the desktop, and, of the remaining options, Mac OS X is and will continue to be the clear winner. (He also notes that over 50% of his audience was using Macs — perhaps an early indicator of broader future market trends.)

  • The iPhone will be a huge deal. Paul believes the iPhone has no competition, and is unlikely to see any competition in the near future — because it’s the top priority of the world’s best design company. He also believes this is a tragedy for such a hugely important emerging market (i.e. mobile), because of Apple’s application approval process, which is pretty much the anti-thesis of free markets. (Interestingly, he points out that the central thing going against Android is that it belongs to Google — since a firm can only have one top priority, and for Google, that’s search.)

  • Bet on design. As more and more of our daily lives involve interaction with software systems, the scope of design will continue to increase, and the need for good design will become ever more important. He points out the unfortunate curiosity about design — that everybody believes they’re good at it, and in that respect, it’s quite different than, say, the engineering or medical fields. (Nobody, other than trained physicians, feel they’re “probably good at surgery.”)

I strongly agree with Paul on all these points, especially the one about design. And that’s particularly exciting for me, as design is both a personal passion, and a (if not the) fundamental value of my company.

On a closing note, as clever as he is, Paul didn’t get it right on all fronts. At 41:30 in the video, talking about the coming importance of real-time, he says, “I think Google Wave is going to be important.” On that, he must have momentarily forgotten his earlier emphasis on the importance of good design. Oh, well, nobody’s perfect.

Are we entitled to data security?

In a Wall Street Journal article related to Twitter’s settling of a privacy-related case, Consumer Protection Bureau Director David Vladeck states:

Consumers who use social networking sites may choose to share some information with others, but they still have a right to expect that their personal information will be kept private and secure.

If I, as a consumer, choose to create an account with a free social network service like Twitter, why am I entitled to anything beyond the terms of services to which I agreed?