Monthly Archives: September 2007

Diversity and the Law/Diversity and Human Resources

We’ve previously posted various posts on Robert Putnam’s research on diversity, immigration and social cohesion.  The paper is (“E Pluribus Unum“) and prior posts about the research can be read here.

I recently came upon an interesting paper by D. Benjamin Barros called “Group Size, Heterogeneity, and Prosocial Behavior: Designing Legal Structures to Facilitate Cooperation in a Diverse Society”. He analyzes how group size and group heterogeneity affects the ability of the group to cooperate, self-police or be civicly engaged and suggests how laws and legal structures might encourage this collaboration in the face of greater diversity. Draft of paper available here.

Also, a Human Resources Journal had an interesting article on this diversity research called Diverse and Disengaged? by Scott Flanders (Human Resouce Executive Online, 9/24/07)

Life’s wisdom from Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, who is imminently dying from pancreatic cancer but still quite alive, gave a ‘last lecture’ (i.e., what lecture would you give if you had only one last chance to give a lecture). He was at Brown University a bit ahead of me and I was a teaching assistant to him in a computer class, but never knew him that well; obviously my loss!

It’s funny, poignant, touching and all about living life to its fullest with humanity. Among his wise takeaways from his life thusfar are:

1. Brick walls aren’t meant to keep us from doing things but to separate the ones who REALLY want to do something (those who find a way around the brick wall) from those who don’t (those who give up)
2. Hold on to our “wonder” as we lose our chance to dream of greater things when we lose our wonder.
3. Experience is the wisdom we learn from failing to initially achieve what we wanted.
and many more…

See notable quotes from Randy here.

A heavily abridged 11 minute version of the lecture was given in April 2008 on Oprah.

Original 76 minute lecture available in ten different parts:

part 0
part 1 (Achieving Your Childhood Dreams)
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6
part 7
part 8
part 9
part 10

Transcript of the Last Lecture available here.

And story also described in a Wall Street Journal column “A Beloved Professor Delivers The Lecture of a Lifetime” (WSJ, 9/20/07, p. D1 by Jeff Zaslow in his Moving On column). If not available there, you can also try here (for text and a 4 minute video story).

Note: Randy’s book The Last Lecture (Hyperion Press) has now been released (April 8, 2008), co-written with WSJ reporter Jeff Zaslow. See Randy’s video about the book and preview of interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News special about the book (airing April 10, 2008). He published an abridgment in Parade Magazine in April 2008.

Updates on Randy Pausch’s condition can be found here and his home page is here (which also has a video of him testifying before Congress on March 13, 2008).

Paul Krugman on fall and rise of inequality

Paul Krugman has an interesting blog introduction charting the *fall and rise* (intentional inversion of the traditional phrase) of inequality over the last 100 years in America.

 Krugman concludes that the great recent run-up of inequality is as much political as some inevitable consequence of technology and globalization and he hopes the precursor of a poliitcal backlash that pushes for greater inequality. 

He also has a nice graphic charting the ratio of share of wealth of the top 10% of Americans to the bottom 90% over time.  The chart shows the Great Compression of inequality under FDR, the long period of Middle Class America from 1940 through the early 1980s and then the dramatic run-up in inequality (*The Great Divergence*) since then.

There has not been strong evidence that inter-generational mobility has dramatically declined over the past generation while income inequality soared, but we are exploring early evidence that today’s lower-class youth may face dramatically lower equality of opportunity than in the past.

Krugman’s blog post can be found here.

Send with care: E-mail netiquette

The New York Review of Books has an interesting review of *Send:The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home*, which discusses the importance of e-mail etiquette, some horror stories about e-mail (resulting from lack of etiquette), and suggested paradigms.  The review is called “Pandora’s Click.” (9/27/07).

Janet Malcolm, the reviewer, deems the book essential and likens e-mail to power tools where only the most lucky and skilled have used without telltale scrapes, bruises, cuts, or severed limbs, shocks, burns, etc.

“Incautious emailing has cost jobs, ruined friendships, threatened marriages, subverted projects, even led to jail time. ‘On email, people aren’t quite themselves,’ David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, the book’s authors, write. ‘They are angrier, less sympathetic, less aware, more easily wounded, even more gossipy and duplicitous. Email has a tendency to encourage the lesser angels of our nature.’ It also has the capacity for instant retribution. In one of their cautionary illustrations, Shipley and Schwalbe hold up an email exchange between an executive and a secretary at a large American company in China. The executive nastily wrote:

You locked me out of my office this evening because you assume I have my office key on my person. With immediate effect, you do not leave the office until you have checked with all the managers you support.

The secretary wrote back:

I locked the door because the office has been burgled in the past. Even though I’m your subordinate, please pay attention to politeness when you speak. This is the most basic human courtesy. You have your own keys. You forgot to bring them, but you still want to say it’s someone else’s fault.

“She then performed the two-click operation that sent copies of her and her boss’s emails to the entire staff of the company. Before long the exchange appeared in the Chinese press and led to the executive’s resignation.

“Another anecdote that Shipley and Schwalbe tell to illustrate email’s special killer combination of winking at our bad behavior and horribly punishing us for it also involves a boss and secretary. In this case, the secretary spilled ketchup on the boss’s trousers, and he wrote an email asking for the £4 it cost to have the trousers cleaned (the company was a British law firm). Receiving no reply, he pursued the matter. Finally he—and hundreds of people at the firm—received this email:

“Subject: Re: Ketchup trousers

“With reference to the email below, I must apologize for not getting back to you straight away but due to my mother’s sudden illness, death and funeral I have had more pressing issues than your £4.

“I apologize again for accidentally getting a few splashes of ketchup on your trousers. Obviously your financial need as a senior associate is greater than mine as a mere secretary.

“Having already spoken to and shown your email…to various partners, lawyers and trainees…, they kindly offered to do a collection to raise the £4.

I however declined their kind offer but should you feel the urgent need for the £4, it will be on my desk this afternoon. Jenny.”

Shipley and Schwalbe (authors of *Send*(note that): The email era has made necessary a special type of apology, the kind you have to make when you are the bonehead who fired off a ridiculously intemperate email or who accidentally sent an email to the person you were covertly trashing. In situations like these, our first inclination is to apologize via the medium that got us into so much trouble in the first place. Resist this inclination.”  And they note that the more grievous the sin, the more an e-mail apology trivializes the omission.

“The young make different mistakes on email than the middle- aged and old do. College students who send outrageous email requests to their teachers (addressed “Hiya Professor!”) or college applicants who write long, self-satisfied emails to admissions officers ‘seem painfully unaware that the person they are writing to (and annoying) is the same person who could be offering them a place in a freshman class or grading them at term’s end.’ The poor lambs don’t know better, and Send is good at setting them straight.”

E-mail suffers from two problems relative to letters: 1) that it lacks anything distinctive (like tone, or stationery, or penmanship) that might soften or humanize it and thus provide a blank screen onto which the reader projects a tone; and 2) that it can so easily be sent on to others that the writer never imagined when he/she sent it.  Thus Shipley and Schwalbe recommend a universal and almost unnatural niceness as an e-mail style. 

The reviewer notes: “Keep letting your correspondent know how much you like and respect him, praise and flatter him, constantly demonstrate your puppyish friendliness, and stick in exclamation points (and sometimes even smiling face icons) wherever possible. ‘The exclamation point is a lazy but effective way to combat email’s essential lack of tone,’ Shipley and Schwalbe write. ‘I’ll see you at the conference’ is a simple statement of fact. ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event.”

While some of the same concerns plague letter writing as well, many letter writers spend far longer formulating their words than e-mail writers and generally spend longer considering whether they want to send the message.  And those who later have second thoughts can often retrieve these letters from the mail table in a way that they can’t from the *sent* e-mail file.

“‘ We don’t think of ourselves as old, but we recall when the phone was a big deal,’ the fortysomething authors write. It won’t be long before email, too, stops being a big deal. The people who now use email to fire employees or propose marriage or disparage friends will realize that they were doing the equivalent of throwing fragile silks into the washing machine. As email’s novelty wears off and its limitations become clearer, we will revert to the telephone when something complex, intimate, or low-minded needs to be communicated. We will use email for straightforward business and social arrangements.”

For further discussion of how the Internet is a hard medium in which to build social capital, see Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, pp. 174-180.

See: Pandora’s Click (full review)

E-searching together: the hunt for Steve Fossett

Technology is enabling complete strangers to cooperate for social good: in this case, the hunt for adventurer Steve Fossett, whose plane disappeared recently in the U.S. southwest.  (I’ve written about other attempts to use techology for such social goals here and here.)

Google’s Amazon Mechanical Turk has farmed out pieces of the southwestern landscape to up to 20,000 strangers who are searching the landscape from their computers (thanks to Google Earth).  If 10 individuals find nothing in their *sector*, the patch of ground is ignored.  If one or more of the 10 see something, it is passed off to humans to actually scan the terrain on the ground.

What is the impact of such collaboration, above and beyond their potential important benefit in locating stranded victims like Steve Fossett?  Such efforts obviously show cooperation and are pro-social.  But they don’t build any social capital (in other words, Jane who is searching this piece of land and Charles who is searching that piece of land don’t build up any social interconnections).  What’s less clear is whether such actions have any bearing on social trust:  does my participation in this act of altrusim together with some 20,000 others change my conception about whether strangers can be trusted?  At a logical level, probably not (20,000 individuals are a very small percentage of the world’s population), but behavioral economists are increasingly demonstrating that we often do not behave in the logical fashion that classical economists expected.

For a story on this, see: Searching by Land, Sea and the Web (NYT Week in Review, 9/16/07)

How teens manage privacy online

I’ve written previously about issues of privacy online and vulnerability. There is an interesting new Pew Internet report on how teens manage their privacy and identity online.

The Pew report (based on a nationally-representative phone survey conducted for Pew by Princeton Survey Research Associates of 935 teens 12-17 and a parent or guardian of each) concluded that: “Most teenagers are taking steps to protect themselves online from the most obvious areas of risk. The new survey shows that many youth actively manage their personal information as they perform a balancing act between keeping some important pieces of information confined to their network of trusted friends and, at the same time, participating in a new, exciting process of creating content for their profiles and making new friends. Most teens believe some information seems acceptable – even desirable – to share, while other information needs to be protected.”

“Still, the survey also suggests that today’s teens face potential risks associated with online life. Some 32% of online teenagers (and 43% of social-networking teens) have been contacted online by complete strangers and 17% of online teens (31% of social networking teens) have “friends” on their social network profile who they have never personally met.”

Here is a general statistical snapshot of how teens use social network sites and the way they handle their privacy on them:

  • 55% of online teens have profiles online, but of them, 60% limit who can see their profiles in some way.
  • Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face: “Among those whose profiles can be accessed by anyone online, 46% say they give at least a little and sometimes a good deal of false information on their profiles. Teens post fake information to protect themselves, but also to be playful or silly.”  That can successfully protect teens’ privacy, but also collectively helps contribute to lower levels of trust online that also undermine the effectiveness of the Internet as a medium for friendships.  As the cartoon says, no one knows you’re a dog on the Internet.
  • Reaffirming that the Internet is most useful to maintain existing friendships, not make new ones, “[m]ost teens are using the networks to stay in touch with people they already know, either friends that they see a lot (91% of social networking teens have done this) or friends that they rarely see in person (82%).” Although surprisingly, “49% of social network users say they use the networks to make new friends.”
  • Contact with strangers: “32% of online teens have been contacted by strangers online – this could be any kind of online contact, not necessarily contact through social network sites…..21% of teens who have been contacted by strangers have engaged an online stranger to find out more information about that person (that translates to 7% of all online teens).” And “23% of teens who have been contacted by a stranger online say they felt scared or uncomfortable because of the online encounter (that translates to 7% of all online teens).”

Read full Pew report.

Trust and small business had an interesting post earlier about a coffee/donut vendor in Manhattan who had people pay on the honor system (leaving money on the counter and making their own change) and seemed to be doing really well. This is also reminscent of the story of the Washington-area bagel seller who delivered bagels daily to businesses and had people pay on honor system into lockboxes; he emptied the lockboxes the following day when he delivered more bagels. This was discussed in Freakonomics, and the authors found, looking at bagel-seller ‘Paul F.’s meticulous data that about 87% of the people pay the right amount, but 13% of the bagels disappear (i.e., are not paid for). And ‘smaller offices are more honest than big offices. An office with a few dozen employees generally outpays by 3 to 5 percent an office with a few hundred employees.’ Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt hypothesize that this is because anonymity is lower in smaller offices so if you cheat, it’s more likely that you may be caught or shun (a form of social capital).

Both the donut/coffee and bagel stories suggest that this honor system might be a more viable strategy when the cost per item is lower (a buck or two) than when one is selling much higher-priced goods (where buyers may see a greater gain from paying the wrong amount). And it does make one wonder whether the repayment/honesty rates are higher when there is more anonymity (like where the bagel delivery guy has simply left the bagels in a lunchroom) than when the victim is known (like the Manhattan donut/coffee guy where if you don’t pay your fair share, you’re much more aware of who is being hurt by your profiteering).

Here is a post about an Ontario bakery.

Here is the post.

Business lessons from the donut and coffee guy

Maybe this situation is typical of Manhattan coffee & donut carts (although two carts near where I work don’t do this), but this was the first business establishment I’ve ever been to that lets its customers make their own change. Intrigued, I walked a few steps away and turned around to watch the interaction between this business and its customers. For five minutes, everyone either threw down exact change or made their own change without any notice from Ralph; he was just too busy pouring coffee or retrieving crullers to pay any attention to the money situation.

If you were the CEO of a big business — say, a movie studio, music company, or multinational bank — you’d have been tearing your hair out at this scene. He lets his customers make their own change?!?!! How does he know they’re making the correct change? Or putting down any change at all? Or even stealing the change? Where’s the technology that prevents the change from being stolen while he’s not looking? Surely there’s a machine that could be invented to keep track of it. Bad, bad, bad! Unclean, unclean! Does not compute…

Hold on there, Mr. CEO, don’t go all HAL 9000 on us. Ralph probably does lose a little bit of change each day to theft & bad math, but more than makes up for it in other ways. The throughput of that tiny stand is amazing. For comparison’s sake, I staked out two nearby donut & coffee stands and their time spent per customer was almost double that of Ralph’s stand. So, Ralph’s doing roughly twice the business with the same resources. Let’s see Citibank do that.

It’s also apparent that Ralph trusts his customers, and that they both appreciate and return that sense of trust (I know I do). Trust is one of the most difficult “assets” for companies to acquire, but also one of the most valuable. Many companies take shortcuts in getting their customers to trust them, paying lip service to Trust™ in press releases and marketing brochures. Which works, temporarily and superficially, but when you get down to it, you can’t market trust…it needs to be earned. People trust you when you trust them.

When an environment of trust is created, good things start happening. Ralph can serve twice as many customers. People get their coffee in half the time. Due to this time savings, people become regulars. Regulars provide Ralph’s business with stability, a good reputation, and with customers who have an interest in making correct change (to keep the line moving and keep Ralph in business). Lots of customers who make correct change increase Ralph’s profit margin. Etc. Etc.

And what did Ralph have to pay for all this? A bit of change here and there.

Facebook, MySpace and Friendships

Will Reader (at Sheffield Hallam Univ. in the northern UK) has been doing research on the number of friends Facebook and MySpace users have.  He finds that the number of close friends is the same for those online as offline (5), although online users report many more total friends. 

Whether having many more nodding acquaintanceships or ‘weak’ friendships through Facebook or MySpace is valuable or not depends on the extent to which those friendships could actually be used for specific goals (finding a job, or borrowing $10, or getting a ride to NYC, or…).

Will Reader opines that many of these weak friends are ‘trophy friends’ (designating people as friends with no intention of reciprocity).  I’ve reported on this phenomenon earlier.  “So ‘everyone is friends with Lily Allen, for example,’  he said, referring to the pop starlet who likes to share her woes with her fans on MySpace.”

“There is even software – notably MySpace Whore and MySpace Whore Train – ‘which automates part of the friendship procedure.’ “

“Another unusual feature of virtual socializing is ‘defriending’ where people are removed from a list of friends, rather than allowed to ‘fade out’, as in real life. One colleague did this because his new friend used poor English, he said.

“Despite this extraordinary flux of making and breaking friendships, the actual number of close friends ‘is approximately the same as in the face to face world,’ said Dr Reader.

“There are ‘good evolutionary reasons’ why this should be. Making friendships means investing time, even money, in another person. To ensure that investment is worthwhile, face to face contact is invaluable, he said. But ‘it is very easy to be deceptive on the internet.’ “

“Of all the sites, the majority – 90 per cent – of close friends have been met face to face. ‘Face to face contact is a requirement for intimate friendships….There are many emotional cues that people give face to face, such as smiling and laughing, which are impossible to fake, whereas online it is easy to say ‘You are wonderful, I love you.’ “

Quotes from Telegraph story Facebook Study Reveals Users’ ‘Trophy Friends’ (9/10/07)

When I’m able to access the write-up from Reader, I may post with substantive thoughts.  Reader advised me that he will put it on his web site in several weeks.

Achievement Trap: the fate of high-achieving students from poor backgrounds

The Achievement Trap report (of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation) “chronicles the experiences of high achieving lower-income students during elementary school, high school, college, and graduate school.”

They note: “In some respects, our findings are quite hopeful. There are [3.4 million]… high-achieving lower-income students in urban, suburban, and rural communities all across America; they reflect the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of our nation’s schools; they drop out of high school at remarkably low rates; and more than 90 percent of them enter college.


“But there is also cause for alarm. There are far fewer lower-income students achieving at the highest levels than there should be, they disproportionately fall out of the high-achieving group during elementary and high school, they rarely rise into the ranks of high achievers during those periods, and, perhaps most disturbingly, far too few ever graduate from college or go on to graduate school.


“Unless something is done, many more of America’s brightest lower-income students will meet this same educational fate, robbing them of opportunity and our nation of a valuable resource.”


The findings come from three federal databases that have tracked students in elementary and high school, college, and graduate school over the past 20 years. And this population of 3.4 million children that are the top quartile academically on standardized tests, but come from households with incomes below the national median exceed the populations of 21 states. (Over one million of these children Kqualify for free or reduced-price lunch.)

Selected other findings:

  • They exhibit an Unequal Start: “Among first-grade students performing in the top academic quartile, only 28 percent are from lower-income families, while 72 percent are from higher-income families.”
  • In elementary and high school, these low-income, high-achieving students lose ground during K-12, becoming ever less frequent as the years progress. For example, “only 56 percent of lower-income students maintain their status as high achievers in reading by fifth grade, versus 69 percent of higher-income students….[And] [w]hile 25 percent of high-achieving lower-income students fall out of the top academic quartile in math in high school, only 16 percent of high-achieving upper-income students do so….Among those not in the top academic quartile in first grade, children from families in the upper income half are more than twice as likely as those from lower-income families to rise into the top academic quartile by fifth grade.”   So the ranks of low-income high-achievers start proportionately smaller, they have a harder time holding ground and low-income students are much less likely to break into this high-achieving group if they don’t start there.
  • High-achieving lower-income students drop out of high school or do not graduate on time twice as often “as their higher-income peers (8 percent vs. 4 percent) but still far below the national average (30 percent).”
  • “Unfulfilled Potential in College & Graduate School: Losses of high-achieving lower-income students and the disparities between them and their higher-income academic peers persist through the college years. While more than nine out of ten high-achieving high school students in both income halves attend college (98 percent of those in the top half and 93 percent of those in the bottom half), high-achieving lower-income students are:
    • Less likely to graduate from college than their higher-income peers (59 percent versus 77 percent);
    • Less likely to attend the most selective colleges (19 percent versus 29 percent);
    • More likely to attend the least selective colleges (21 percent versus 14 percent); and
    • Less likely to graduate when they attend the least selective colleges (56 percent versus 83 percent).”
  • “High-achieving lower-income students are much less likely to receive a graduate degree than high-achieving students from the top income half. Specifically, among college graduates, 29 percent of high achievers from lower-income families receive graduate degrees as compared to 47 percent of high achievers from higher-income families. This pattern of declining educational attainment mirrors the experiences of underachieving students from lower-income families — they start grade school behind their peers, fall back during high school, and complete college and graduate school at lower rates than those from higher-income families.”

“Our nation has understandably focused education policy on low-performing students from lower-income backgrounds. The laudable goals of improving basic skills and ensuring minimal proficiency in reading and math remain urgent, unmet, and deserving of unremitting focus. Indeed, our nation will not maintain its promise of equal opportunity at home or its economic position internationally unless we do a better job of educating students who currently fail to attain basic skills. But this highly visible national struggle to reverse poor achievement among low-income students must be accompanied by a concerted effort to promote high achievement within the same population. The conclusion to be drawn from our research findings is not that high-achieving students from lower-income backgrounds are suffering more than other lower-income students, but that their talents are similarly under-nurtured. Even though lower-income students succeed at one grade level, we cannot assume that they are subsequently exempt from the struggles facing other lower-income students or that we do not need to pay attention to their continued educational success. Holding on to those faulty assumptions will prevent us from reversing the trend made plain by our findings: we are failing these high-achieving students throughout the educational process.”

[above adapted from their Executive Summary.] 

The report is silent on what the mechanisms are that account for the unequal start of these groups in school and why the low-income, high-achieving groups lose ground over time in schools. It could be parental support, it could be school attention on this group, it could be peer groups, or other causes, but they indicate that this issue of mechanisms is definitely worthy of greater attention and study.

Full “Achievement Trap” report here.

Mashups (II)

I wrote earlier about various efforts to map community data in a visually accessible form (they are called mashups or video mashups).

Another recent addition is Oakland Crimespotting.  [Another prior example by the same design firm lets one watch San Francisco cabs traverse the city (cabspotting) — a bit like watching the elevators to see which is on what floor, except that you have no guarantee that the cabs will stop for you.]