Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for November, 2006

Giving thanks and giving back

Posted by shannonclark on November 23, 2006

Here in the US today is Thankgiving. One of the rare national holidays that is truly non-denominational, yet like the Fourth of July also fairly uniquly American. For most people it is a time of family visits (often somewhat painful ones), too much food, Football (American style of course), and then lots of shopping over the long weekend which begins the Christmas (well “Holiday”) season.

In the past year I have lived, at least for a time, in four cities, move myself a couple of times, helped one ex-girlfriend move twice, sold a condo, sold, stored or gave away much of what I had owned and in short have restarted life in many ways. My health, while not perfect, is good and San Francisco’s hills are having the desired effect as I slowly am losing some weight. Still, my to do lists go on for pages and pages, and many projects are started and ongoing – but the fruits of these labors are not always yet visable.

But I have much to be thankful for – I try to thank all the many friends, old and new, I’ve had this past year – if I have yet reached out to you specifically, consider this a small, not sufficient, thanks!

Later today I’m going to spend the morning volunteering at a soup kitchen, Martin de Porres, which is located in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. I’ll go there as early in the morning as I can and help however I can in prepping and cooking food (or whatever they need me to do).

Then in the afternoon, I’ll return home and cook a traditional Thanksgiving Feast. My plan is to make a whole turkey (was frozen but without additives) stuffing it with a simple sourdough stuffing. I will then bake some Acorn Squash, a few yams, and more stuffing. Make some simple mashed potatoes. And of course, lots of fresh cranberry sauce (the Ocean Spray Recipe – sugar, water, boil till the cranberries burst, cool). At the last minute I’ll quickly prepare some French Green beans for a bit of color, contrast and vegetables. For dessert I’ll have some Mitchell’s Pumpkin Ice Cream (possibly with some Argentinian carmel sauce). That I can prepare all of this food, most of it purchased from small, local stores in walking distance of my home is something I am very thankful about.

That I may end up with most of it as leftovers makes me give thanks that my friends have organized a movie night on Friday – so I’m going to be bringing Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and likely yams and squash for the movie night!

Then on Saturday I may join other friends at a potluck in Palo Alto.

So for old and new friends I am very thankful.

But also whistful. Both for being alone and single, and that though I am trying I have yet to have the impact on the world around me which I might like to have. The world is a very complex place (in both the normal and the technical meanings of that term). In the upcoming months I hope that I may, in a small way, help illuminate one new approach to understanding economics – and thru economics how the human parts of the world work (I’ll leave the ecological aspects to the ecologists and biologists – though clearly what they learn and understand has great implications for economies).

At the same time, I find myself adjusting to a new city and not always in ways that I am happy about. In Chicago while there were (and are) many homeless and impoverished residents, the numbers at least the visable numbers were vastly different than here in San Francisco. Certainly a large part of this is the difference in climate – winters in Chicago can and do literally kill people trapped outside in them, so many many fewer people attempt to survive a Chicago winter on the streets.

Here in San Francisco, however, there are homeless people sleeping in many doorstoops along commercial streets, setting up encampments in abandoned lots, begging in many diverse ways on most major streets, selling goods from blankets on many corners, approaching anyone waiting at many bus stops. I can’t recall a day here in San Francisco without seeing multiple people sleeping on the street and nearly none (when I left my home) when I was not approached to give money at least once. To deal with this you adopt a bit of social coldness on the street, I find myself less engaged by the other people on the street (assuming that at least some of them are looking at me to ask me for money).

I’m not scared or worried, though given the times of days I wander and not uncommonly the neighborhoods where I may be late at night, perhaps I should be at times, but in general I seem to present myself not as a good target for a mugger (and certainly physically I am not a small presence, but also for whatever reason I do not seem to attract mugger’s interest).

But I am saddened by my own coldness – I’d like to help everyone I meet – but I can not. And any amount of money I might give to some does not address the more complex issues that have left the city of San Francisco and indeed the US (and the world) with so many of our residents and fellow humans living without the basics most people take for granted especially here – shelter, clean water, changes of clothes, enough food, a regular means of engaging positively in the world (a job in most cases, school in many others).

Listening to the conversations – both sane and insane of the homeless there are clearly as many reasons and stories as there are men and women on the street – but I do see a few broad patterns. There are many here in San Francisco especially who at least appear to be suffering from a serious illness (often mental) – they talk to themselves and act out all the steroetypes of a crazy person (really poor hygiene, fits of violence, mumbling aloud etc). Another, also large and at times hard to tell apart from the crazy people, group are drug users – not casual users but physically and mentally adicted users, abusers. These too I encounter all to often on the Muni buses and on the streets.

But then there is another, and more uniquely to San Francisco group of people – people who appear in some ways to be homeless (though whether they are or are “just” poor may be hard to tell) but who are also working hard at a variety of unique professions. The bottle/can collectors (who raid most of the blue recyling bins here in San Francisco) – the small scale carry bags, the next stage push shopping carts, and there are a few – must less likely to be “really” homeless who work in teams driving pickup trucks – often taking all the bottles and cans from bars and other businesses (perhaps they are also sharing the revenues from the recyling and deposit returns?).

Another group pick and/or sell the piles of “stuff” which appear on street corners across San Francisco. San Francisco, like New York City, for the most part does not have alleyways which Chicago uses to hide trash collection (and parking) from public view. Instead, all across the town trash is put out on the sidewalk – when someone has stuff to give away/throw away, the place it also on the sidewalk – usually not in garbage cans but just in piles or boxes. People come by and pick through these items – others then spread out blankets on street corners across the city and sell a random collection of items. I suspect that many (perhaps most?) also sell items of a more dubious orgin (both stolen goods and in some cases likely also illegal substances).

It is a strange situation – there are also a handful of people who try to sell the local “street” paper – though something about the process here is less polished or professional than the sales of Streetwise in Chicago (where sellers have to have a badge issued them by Streetwise and have to adhere to some sets of standards).

I also spend a lot of time here in San Francisco in areas that are historically Hispanic. Like similar areas in Chicago there is a strong tradition of mobile venders in these neighborhoods (year round here in San Francisco, in Chicago they are much less active in the wintertime). These corner taco trucks, ice cream push carts, corner fruit sellers etc are a part of the urban landscape. So to, here in San Francisco and across the bay area, are corners where migrant workers gather waiting to be picked up by anyone seeking day labor (something similar happens in places in Chicago but more typically in a slightly more formalized manner – again due to the weather). I’ve seen similar corners in Seattle, Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville and San Francisco.

It all points to an important, yet troubling, oddity about American life and the economy. All of these gray areas, the cash workers, the corner markets, and even the charity of strangers, points to entire swaths of society that are outside of the normal realm of study. Swaths that are intimately a part of our daily lives – but are all too easily ignored and rendered invisible.

As an economist (well at least someone who is writing about economics) my view is that in part these swaths of society suffer from this very invisibility, this disconnecting of them from the rest of the economy.

While I am far from rich (especially here in the Bay Area where even millionaires can face challenges paying their rents) I am deeply thankful for the depth of connections I can benefit from – where the worst to happen and my entire apartment and belongings to be destroyed (and all of my other financial assets at least made hard to reach) I am comforted by the numbers of people – both friends, family and others to whom I could turn. Not just for immediate help, but also I’m confident in my abilities – and their friendships – in helping me get back on my feet should I ever need it.

But clearly for 1000’s of people, likely millions, they do not have these resources and relationships to turn to – the friends who would lend a hand, make an introduction, suggest a job, etc.

Modeling it from my networks perspective, this may also be in part because the connections for many are very few and narrow (a recycling center, a government aid agency or two, an underfunded/overworked private aid organization, sproradic day labors for cash, etc). And though they may spend what they earn at a variety of stores, the lack of the basic elements of society (home, mailing address, bank accounts, etc) combined with the very poor access to (and use of) hygenic facilities make it increasingly difficult for many to build up ongoing positive relationships. (and clearly activies that are deemed “illegal” – such as drug sales etc do build up relationships over time with customers and others but the shroud of illegality make these relationships hard to build on into the future.

Complex issues without easy answers.

I am thankful that I can observe and think about these issues – and not live them myself.

But tomorrow I will try, in a small way, to give back to my new home city and all of the residents here.

Posted in economics, geeks, meshforum, onewebday, San Francisco, working | Leave a Comment »

Milton Friedman – on his passing

Posted by shannonclark on November 17, 2006

Today Milton Friedman (July 31, 1912 – November 16, 2006 according to Wikipedia) died here in San Francisco. The BBC has a great article about his death and life.

As someone who attended the University of Chicago, though long after Prof. Friedman had stopped teaching there, and who is working on a Economic text of my own, clearly Prof. Friedman is an important figure. In many ways I agree with a lot of his politics (though I’m more progressive/centrist than Libertarian). I did not take any economics courses at the University of Chicago while I was there (though since I have yet to complete my degree, perhaps someday I will at least audit a course or two) so my direct exposure to his views is limited.

On a more personal note, however, while I was at Chicago I did grow to know Prof. Friedman’s son, David D Friedman who when I was at Chicago in the early 90’s was teaching at the University of Chicago Law School. There he was also active in the Society of Creative Anachronism chapter there, and I had the great pleasure of camping with him at Pensic War. (I see that he is now teaching at the University of Santa Clara so I should perhaps look him up again). He now also has a blog and website.

I have mixed feelings about Milton Friedman. On the one hand he was a highly influential and important thinker whose impact has lasted for decades. On the other hand, while I agree with some of his analysis, I find myself approaching economics from a very different perspective and reaching some conclusions that are very different. And the lasting impact of some of his suggestions has a very decidedly mixed set of results, people have many debates about whether it was positive or negative when they were applied (or tried to be applied) to South America, often working with dictators such as Pinnochet.

Posted in economics, politics, San Francisco | Leave a Comment »

Voting in San Francisco and CA for the first time

Posted by shannonclark on November 7, 2006

Tomorrow will be my first time voting in San Francisco and CA. Since I turned 18 I have voted in nearly every election which I could vote (I think I may have missed one primary many years ago) but all of those past elections were in Illinois, tomorrow’s will be the first time I vote in my new home state of CA.

I have many times, both in my writings online and in public spaces declared myself as a “radical centrist” or at times a progressive. As such I have been known to split my ballots, to vote against party lines most of the time. While my family is almost entirely Democratic I am not easily placed.

Above all else, if you are reading this I encourage you to vote. To enter the voting booth informed and to vote your conscience. To vote for those individuals and positions you feel will do the best job and make the most sense for your local city, state and the nation.

Here in CA while there are only a handful (mostly very local) races that are seriously contested, there are 13 state and many local San Francisco ballot initiatives which, if anything, are more critical at this point in time than any specific elected official. Here in CA, these ballot initiatives have the force of law, there are over 40B in Bond authorizations being requested, and any number of both controversial and divisive initiatives being proposed.

Further, many of these initiatives, even some which I will be voting for come with any number of caveats and serious issues. To my mind by far, however the most crucial of the statewide ballot initiatives is #90. If #90 passes it will in one not so simple gesture risk nearly all aspects of good government (protection of public lands, making hard decisions about public works, making difficult choices on local issues) and further it will be the more than full employment act for lawyers – suing on behalf of countless companies and individuals all levels of government in CA.

The issue is not even that many of these cases might be won by the governments – if they “prove” that not harm to property was done. They will still have to factor in a nearly unending series of additional court battles over any government action that can be construed as to have any impact to any party’s property. There are few, if any, actions which governments take that could not be so construed. The government, acting on behalf of the people is elected to enact laws and enforce the rules – all of which means that most actions have some impact on various people’s property (especially when property is so broadly defined as to include corporate stock, physical goods, etc as well as land).

I am a capitalist. My economics book will not, by any stretch of the imagination, deny the powerful and important role of corporations (and other entities) in the economy. At the same time, I am vitally interested in all entities in the network – which includes local, state, and federal governments (as well as multi-governmental bodies such as the UN, NATO, the EU etc).

Proposition 90, in a single stroke, casts much of the actions of governments of all sizes in CA into doubt and difficulty. From decisions to enforce any type of zone rules on a very local level, to the construction of roads or public transit, to the preservation of public spaces all of these will, if 90 passes, be subject to vast numbers of legal challenges and open ended damages.

Damages that would be paid out of the public coffers. In short, damages that would be paid from the already stretched revenues of the government – meaning a double loss to the public. First via making all action by the government unlikely and second when it comes time to pay the bills (contrary to popular belief the government’s coffers are not limitless – the funds that run the CA governments at all level come from for the most part the economic activity of businesses and individuals in the state of CA).

I have, for the most part, also made up my mind about the other races and iniatives, but exercising my right to a secret ballot, those choices will remain secret.

Posted in politics, San Francisco | Leave a Comment »

A bus hit my apartment this morning…

Posted by shannonclark on November 7, 2006

Quite a way to start the day. I was awake, working on a technology problem and trying to decide whether or not to attend an event down in Palo Alto, when suddenly my building shook from a major impact, things fell off my walls, and when I looked out my window there was a muni bus plowed into the side of my building.

See this story from the SF Chronicle, it will also be covered in tonight’s Channel 5 news here locally and I’m sure by other local (and perhaps national) papers. No one was hurt, but lots of my neighbors lost their cars. And along with them, I’m a bit shaken up – I ride the 24 muni bus nearly every single day as it is one of the best route home for me most evenings, and often the fastest route to downtown in the mornings.

I will post my photos from the scene to Flickr later tonight.

Update – SFist’s coverage

Posted in San Francisco | Leave a Comment »

StartupCamp Day 1 – notes from my session on Economic Networks

Posted by shannonclark on November 3, 2006

I have just this evening returned from the first day of StartupCamp at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. It was a great first day, lots of engaging conversations and discussions and for myself it started with a session I led during the first timeslot on Economic Networks. This was the first time I have led a discussion of my theory of Economics as Networks or applied it live in a session and especially for a first time I think it went fairly well.

We started with a brief discussion of my theory, then looked at applying it to a number of cases – both broad categories of businesses as well as specific cases drawn from the attendees. I was very happy that I wasn’t the only person speaking, I got multiple people in the session to come up and present their company and lead that part of the conversation.

My theory, in a nutshell, is:

1. All Economic activity can be represented as the creation and destruction of links over time.

2. By looking at the patterns and structures of the network (always over time) new questions can be asked about first the structures around a given entity (a startup company for example).

3. Next we can look at the role of that entity in the networks of the entities in the network – i.e. where your firm is in the economic network of partners as well as investors, employees, suppliers, even local communities.

When you start with this picture of economics as a network you are forced to deal with some aspects of economics in a way that may differ from traditional economics. For example, these networks over time do not suggest ever reaching an “equilibrium” – indeed the fact that not just links but also the entities (nodes) in these networks will be created and destroyed over time makes equilibriums very difficult and possibly impossible (especially given that populations are growing and that the number of non-human entities (corporations, governments, etc) are as well.

As we discussed in the session this morning, this also suggests a view of value that is very different than both our “normal” view and from the traditional economic view (in a simple form). Namely that everything does not have an “intrinsic” value – but that value is ONLY determined within a network context. i.e. that bar of gold in my pocket has no value at all UNTIL it becomes part of the economic networks – at that point it will via these links and relationships get a “value”.

One of the companies that we discussed this morning is working on data systems to help buyers in broad niches online – for example via helping them look at data about what various electronic items have sold for across a large number of electronic marketplaces. In the session the man from the startup used the phrase such as “they will help show what the intrinsic value of an item is” – and one of my points to him is that I would be cautious about that as their approach. For one, it focuses all of the attention on price as the only factor (leaving aside other aspects such as reputation of seller, timeliness, total cost of the transaction vs. the point price of the item, speed of delivery, speed of certainty – i.e. perhaps you use the ‘buy it now’ to be certain of getting it vs. waiting 7 days to possibly save a small amount).

But as well it assumes that the item has an intrinsic value which I would argue it does not. I certainly do not disagree that there may be a historic price trend or range of common prices – but I would also argue that the “value” of the item is that which is set by the transactions around it. This may seem a small, perhaps merely semantic point, but believe that it is a very crucial and important one. Many people today (and much of our current models of economics) build in assumptions that there is some “real” value, some “right” price – that at this “real value” or “correct price” the system will just semi-magically work – everything will be optimal, all trades will clear, etc.

But reality – and thus I also argue our economic models should reflect this – is not at all this simple. Many other, non-price factors impact transactions – as I pointed out, racing to my only sister’s wedding if I broke or lost my camera I would gladly pay quite a lot for a working camera – the “value” at that point in time would be immediate use – and I’m unlikely to dicker over a few dollars, probably not even over a few hundred dollars. Sodas or a cold bottle of water, after a long hike, on a hot summer day – does that extra $.50 matter then? (for some people yes, very much so, but for most – not at all).

Traditional economics does, to be fair, address this point about different needs being reflected in different prices. But there is another, more subtle point that I hope my model of Economics as a Network can address, that all of this value, including money itself, arises out of a network. In the case of money and most currencies, a very large and complex network, but a network. The US dollar does not have an “intrinsic” value – rather it reflects the common agreement of literally billions of people who all acknowledge the link between green pieces of paper and the US Treasury – between electronic records and those same pieces of paper.

To return to this morning’s session, we looked at a variety of firms. We started by mapping out in a very simple format a model of the flow of value through or around the business today. I’ll see if I can get links to the photos from the session – if so I’ll update this post with links to them/embed them here.

Next we looked at where in that flow of activity and value the company was capturing value as well as where value was being transacted. As part of this we looked at the role that the company was playing in the networks around the company – for example helping enable another transaction to occur.

For many companies we then brainstormed about what other sources of value there might be for the company – i.e. what other parties might be interested in some aspect of the business of the firm. Could Edgio (which aggregates classified listings from RSS feeds) build up data from the listings and the content of those listings that might be of value to various Brands or their marketing/sales teams? (for example, helping Sony and Nintendo track how often people are selling older game systems to pay for a new PS3 or Wii).

One of the longest conversations we had and most interesting was a long discussion about how you might model an “Attention” company in this way. (I should have given a shout up to Steve Gillmor during that part of the session). We had a great discussion, one key point which I emphasized being that the point of all of the value that changes hand as a result of attention (from advertisers to an attention firm on to the providers of content and the readers of that content who clearly could be the same people) is funded because at some point in most cases that advertiser had a more direct transaction with some of those individuals. These transactions – the sale of some good (or service) in turn provide much of the value that coul then in part flow through and around the Attention firm.

Again, I’ll see if I can find a link to the photos of our whiteboard notes, they would help illustrate the rest of this conversation.

We ended with a great discussion (which built on a lot of thinking I have done in preparation to writing my book) around the role of credit. Specifically one of the people at the session is working on a new payment technology (using biometrics) which could (they hope) be an alternative to the current credit card (and bank) options. We started by thinking deeply about the current networks around credit card transactions and then tried to think about how a new player could enter the marketplace. I pointed out that and people in the audiance echoed this as well that in many places the new players that are arising are firms such as phone companies (especially cellular phones) which in many places can be used for many different forms of payment already today (for trains in Japan for example).

All in all I am very happy with this morning’s session – I learned a great deal from trying to explain my view of Economics as a Network and I hope it was a useful session for everyone who was there. I may do another session tomorrow as a follow up to this morning’s.

Posted in banking, economics, geeks, meshforum, networks, startupcamp | 2 Comments »