Thoughts on Uber

Yesterday, my boss came out in favor of a deregulated vehicle-for-hire industry which would allow companies like Uber to operate in San Antonio. The San Antonio Express-News ran a B1 story on his proposal this morning. This is from his post on D8 Dialogues blog on the subject:

Currently, San Antonio lacks the regulatory flexibility needed to unleash innovation in the transportation industry. Even though City Council recently amended Chapter 33 of the City Code, which regulates vehicle-for-hire services, progress and marketplace disruption demand that we revisit its contents.

To open the doors for innovation in the transportation-for-hire industry, the City Council should adopt policies that: 1) level the playing field; 2) encourage competition; 3) ensure public safety and consumer protection; and 4) provide access for all of our residents.

Two years ago, I wrote an op-ed for a political commentary site outlining my views on the subject:

Uber exists as a mechanism to streamline processes, making urban transportation more convenient for every party involved. Uber has even used market forces to protect the public (a novel concept!) because consumers know more about a driver because of information available about each driver on the app.

Critics of Uber are ostensibly attempting to “protect the public,” but are actually just safeguarding their own…oligopolies of urban transportation. 

My time working for Councilman Nirenberg has changed my perspective slightly, but I wholeheartedly support his proposal.

Self-Censorship on Facebook

Facebook saves our keystrokes. A record exists even if the user decides not to post those keystrokes. Essentially, Facebook tracks self-censorship and wants to minimize it. Jennifer Golbeck doesn’t like this very much (I added the emphasis):

Facebook studies this because the more its engineers understand about self-censorship, the more precisely they can fine-tune their system to minimize self-censorship’s prevalence. This goal—designing Facebook to decrease self-censorship—is explicit in the paper.

So Facebook considers your thoughtful discretion about what to post as bad, because it withholds value from Facebook and from other users. Facebook monitors those unposted thoughts to better understand them, in order to build a system that minimizes this deliberate behavior.

Let’s clear something up. Users are not Facebook’s customers- we are the product. Facebook maximizes its own value by minimizing behavior that decreases our value. The more we share, the more valuable we are.

The Wolf of Wall Street & Assorted Links

Erin and I saw The Wolf of Wall Street yesterday afternoon. It was a gross display of excess. Three new-wolf-of-wall-street-trailer-leonardo-dicaprio-is-the-wealthiest-stockbroker-in-the-worldstraight hours of profanity, sex, greed, drugs. There are those who say that the film doesn’t go far enough to villainize the Wall Street hucksters or moralize about how greed can breed self-destruction. I thought the bacchanalian nature of every single scene made many moral lessons self-evident. Here are some links:

The Wall Street Journal published a profile of Terence Winter, who adapted Jordan Belfort’s memoir into the film. He gives some of his own perspective:

“You, the viewer, are the sucker. You’re being duped and seduced into laughing along with these guys. And every once in a while you’ll hit a little bump in the road”—as when Belfort mentions an employee’s suicide in passing—”where you go, ‘What did he just say?'”

Not many revisions were needed to make the movie’s ’80s and ’90s-era hubris seem relevant, Mr. Winter says: “That’s the point of the movie: We don’t learn anything. Nothing changes.”

From 1905 to 1937, corporate America relied on a Supreme Court case, Lochner v. New York, to challenge most government regulations as violating a “liberty of contract” implicit in the Due Process Clause. Haley Sweetland Edwards argues in Washington Monthly that Citizens United is the new Lochner.

In the Lochner Era, big industry groups and their allies on the Court wielded the notion of “freedom of contract”—any regulation that abridged it was chucked. Today, the notion of “freedom of speech” is being used virtually the same way, just as Rehnquist worried it might be. Any rule or law that abridges a company’s claims to First Amendment-protected speech is now vulnerable to attack.

I’ve argued that generalists are undervalued in our corporate culture. Philosopher Roman Krznaric critiques the “cult of specialization” that has arisen since the Industrial Revolution.

Moreover, our culture of specialization conflicts with something most of us intuitively recognize, but which career advisers are only beginning to understand: we each have multiple selves. … We have complex, multi-faceted experiences, interests, values and talents…

smoking-pregnant-woman1Prevalence of smoking among pregnant women is still, in 2013, 10%.

These numbers are not just women who smoked a little before they realized they were pregnant — these are women who reported smoking during the last three months of their pregnancies.

I’m personally really not a fan of CEOs wearing hoodies. But a recent study profiled in The New Yorker gives some insight into why this “sartorial tactic succeeds.”

But how is nonconformity interpreted by others? Do we see it as a sign of status? New research, to be published next near in The Journal of Consumer Research, suggests that we do. The authors call the phenomenon the “red sneakers effect,” after one of them taught a class at Harvard Business School in her red Converse.

The Understated Value of Generalists

LinkedIn has rolled out an interesting concept over the past several months. There are now blogs by “thought leaders” that seem to be hosted on the site. As a content addict, this would be exciting, except that it seems that, as with HBR and other similar business sites, there is a groupthink when it comes to trends. We’ve all seen the word “innovation” one too many times.

I describe myself as “an unapologetic generalist” and lament the specialized era in which we live. I was naturally intrigued when I came across a blog post entitled The Myth of the Generalist by venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz.

Tunguz discusses his experience at Google, where a generalist was highly sought after but thought of as an engineer who knew every relevant type of technology. It seems that Google sees a cross-platform technology expert as a generalist. I would dispute the notion that this definition could even remotely describe a generalist and claim that Google doesn’t even really want generalists, but technology geeks well versed in all platforms (which apparently don’t exist).

Tunguz revisited this notion of a generalist after reading a book by Peter Drucker:

[A] generalist is someone has demonstrated learning one field, who has an open mind and who can articulate relationships between known domains and new ideas.

This still doesn’t go far enough. I would redefine the term as follows:

A generalist has one field on which she focuses her learning, but continues to learn in multiple other fields so as to supplement her learning in her primary field.

Tunguz also fails to fully capture how generalists can provide value to an organization. As a venture capitalist, he narrowly focuses on (tech startups):

A team built of these types of people would be a great fit for a startup – smart, flexible thinkers who communicate well.

Startups bob and weave. They change architectures and products and markets and tactics. Startups need teams who can change the tires on the bus as it’s traveling at 60 mph; they need a team of MacGyvers, who combine a little bit of knowledge, a wad of gum(ption) from their pocket and some raw smarts to solve a problem. That’s my kind of generalist.

Specialization has become more and more incentivized since Adam Smith wrote about it in 1776 and as knowledge has become more available. There is growing evidence, however, that a generalist can provide value in contexts outside of the tech startup.

Let’s say there is someone employed by a company as an attorney. If that attorney devotes time to reading about business, politics, and advertising, she can provide far more value to that company than a second attorney who focuses his study narrowly on the law. The second attorney will be better at the legal aspect of his job, but the value added by the first attorney’s knowledge exceeds the value added by the superior legal skills of the second attorney. A case study:

A prominent company in a small-town creates a PR scandal legal implications. The vssecond attorney, with superior legal skills, will approach the situation thinking “we must do whatever we can to minimize our legal exposure”. His approach will result in conflict with other departments in the business.

The first attorney, with inferior legal skills but superior skills in the subjects outlined above will have a much different approach: “we must minimize our legal exposure while maximizing the effectiveness of our public relations crisis management plan”.

This case study oversimplified the matter, but I hope that it highlighted that generalists can create unforseen efficiencies within an organization.