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Small Data

I was listening to something this morning about data mining and it got me to thinking about data and entrepreneurship. Large companies and high tech startup have access to a wealth of data. They have so much that they pay big money to reduce that data down into more manageable, and thus actionable, chunks. They take thousands of impressions on a web page and determine what shade of blue the call to action button should be to get the most engagement. (Probably not blue at all, but you get the point.) What sizes should we make and how many? If you have a wealth of previous information or access to a firehose of potential customers to experiment on, those are trivial questions. I could go on, as could you.

But entrepreneurs, at least my entrepreneurs, don’t have data. They especially don’t have tens of thousands of data points on everything they need to know to make decisions, and even if they did they would lack the resources to make sense of it all. So what do they do?

Well, many entrepreneurs, and student entrepreneurs are no worse than entrepreneurs in the ‘real world’ about this, start with a sample size of one. They assume that if they want something, everyone wants it. As a consultant to entrepreneurs, student and otherwise, I talk them down from this ledge. I used to encourage them to survey at least 50 people in their target market to determine anything important. I knew in my heart of hearts that that wasn’t enough, but it’s what I was required to do in one of the premier entrepreneurship programs in the country, and so I reasoned, it was at least a good start. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. You quite often don’t get the answers you want. But if you find out you’re wrong before you spend a lot of money, a loss is a win. This is the heart of the lean startup tools used outside the digital space, such as the business model canvas.

The business model canvas approach relies on validating assumptions, and assumes a relatively small sample size is adequate to validate an assumption. How small depends on the question. A question of logistics can sometimes be answered with a sample size of one and a brief phone call. A customer-related question really requires additional confirmation, but if during the customer discovery interview process you have a half a dozen people asking to buy your product before they know what it is or how much it costs, we consider that pretty strong validation. I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if I’d presented my 50 surveys and only 6 said they were interested. My guess is no degree would have been forthcoming. But we pass people with less now, routinely.

Why is such a small sample ok? Well, for one thing, the internet is a big place. I like showing my students an example of a very, very niche product, a chess set made from dead mice. When I first started sharing it, there was only one person selling it that I could find. Now there are many more, and a lot of variety. You can get dioramas of pivotal scenes in movies, only with mice. You can get mice in yoga poses. You can get mice in graduation robes to celebrate life’s big moments. It goes on.

Another thing that has happened over time is that we’ve got so stinking rich as a society that we have the free funds to spend money just to please ourselves. That’s pretty great for the purchaser who gets top buy something that makes them happy, at least for a moment. And it’s great for the entrepreneur who, up until this period of practically boundless prosperity, would have had no chance of making a living by stuffing mice and transforming them into Jules and Vincent, laying waste to a few Big Kahuna Burger eating teens in Pulp Fiction.

Also, identifying a target market, a beachhead market really, and finding out what they really want and are willing to pay for by experiencing deeply their pains and desires uncovers not just individual needs, but needs of the entire group. Even if the group is minuscule, according to Proctor & Gamble, it is quite often large enough to support a lifestyle business. In some cases it’s large enough to support something scalable while the entrepreneur finds the rest of the market and figures out how to engage with it.

This train of thought started with the concept of small data. I knew when I began thinking, and began writing that this was not my invention. It’s too obvious. We’ve been practicing it for a long time. I’d just never thought of it that way before. I was sure someone had, and thank you Wikipedia for letting me know that ‘small data’ is a thing, has a few competing definitions, and a lively conversation around it. Here’s one definition.

“Small data connects people with timely, meaningful insights (derived from big data and/or “local” sources), organized and packaged – often visually – to be accessible, understandable, and actionable for everyday tasks.” — Alan Bond

It appears Martin Lindstrom has written an entire book on it that is much closer to my meaning. Even he though, says get the small data to mine it for insight. Nascent entrepreneurs don’t mine though. If you’ll forgive the analogy they don’t have the equipment, the resources, or the expertise. What they do is synthesize the data they are able to get and then make generalizations about the larger world. It’s a very touchy-feely process. Heavy on thinking, feeling, and guts. Light on analysis, spreadsheets, and logic. But it works, at least for some. Entrepreneurship scholars criticize entrepreneurs for generalizing from a small sample, then in the classroom cite Jobs not doing customer research and Ford offering his automobile in ‘any color the customer wants, so long as it is black’. I think it’s time we accept the utility of small data, full stop.

The Thing I do on This Day

Tonight, all over America, young men and women are taking their first legal drink. They were born into a very different world than their predecessors, even of a single day. 21 years ago yesterday your parents could meet your flight at the gate, or rush around at the last minute instead of driving you to the airport. You could arrive at the airport 5 minutes before the plane was to leave and it wasn’t a problem, except for your nerves. You could carry a knife on a plane. You weren’t really supposed to, but if the scanner went off and the plane was about to leave they just waved you through. At least they did me. I carried a set of knives and a wicked set of scissors all over this land. I’ve sold maybe 10 sets of those scissors on flights back and forth between Chicago and Indianapolis. I’ve killed exactly 0 people and hijacked exactly 0 planes. A child could fly alone or even get stranded in an airport and no one really worried.

The government reaction to 9/11 was as predictable as it was misguided. Take freedom from everyone because a small group of people did something horrible. When viewed from a pure cost standpoint it was a clear victory for the terrorists. Property damage in the billions. New bureaucracies created with well over a quarter million employees, who will be paid forever, or until we run out of money. No more seeing loved ones off at the gate. Constant reminders of our vulnerability. Heaven forbid you bring a pint of Jack Daniels to deal with all the BS. Even if you somehow get it in, you’re forbidden to drink it on the plane. You can have all the $7-$12 cocktails you can afford, if the stewardesses hall monitors flight attendants will consent to sell it to you, but you want to get numb on the cheap? Nope, that makes you a danger to yourself and others.

We actually had a color coded ‘threat level’ indicator. It was rainbow colored, with green and blue reversed. I believe the public ridiculed it to death, so they ‘fixed’ it. Now it’s the National Terrorism Advisory System. What do they do? No idea, but man I feel safe.

We’ve learned to hate an entire religion based on the actions of a few. I do not read Arabic. The English translations of their holy book are pretty damning, but then again, so are the translations of the Jewish/Christian book. More importantly, we’ve fed their hatred as well. Things will continue to get worse instead of better if we give these beliefs air. But how do they, how do we, not give them air any longer? I don’t have an answer. One answer might be for me to not get maudlin every anniversary of 9/11. But I can’t seem to help myself. I think about what I’ve lost. Not what all the people who lost family lost. Not what the first responders gave up. Not even the discrimination and repetitional hell every Muslim has to go through now. How selfish. But it’s what happens. I just want to kiss my loved ones goodbye at the gate, get on a plane, pour myself and my seat mate a generous glass of whisky, and sell them a pair of scissors, like in the good old days. And if someone tries to rush the cockpit flight deck, they better be prepared to get my CutCo Super Shears firmly inserted between their shoulder blades, or even better, up through the base of their skull, just like we learned in zoology lab at my high school.

Starting With Media Bias and then Who Knows?

Recently I’ve found myself pointing out media bias. The thing that I’ve noticed is that people pick their media and assume it’s objective, then assume the other sources are biased. I’m not the first to notice this. The point isn’t at all new, but it is amazing how pervasive it is nonetheless. Here are a few thoughts and observations in no particular order.

Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, signed a bill into law yesterday making it a whole lot easier for the state’s teachers to carry guns at school. The law cuts the amount of required training from 700 hours to just 24 hours, well below Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour recommendation. DeWine said legislators have been working on the bill since last year, but the recent school shooting in Uvalde, TX, “increased the urgency to enact it.”

I subscribe to some supposedly unbiased news emails. And they have far less observable bias than say MSNBC or FOX. The quote above is from one of those emails. Imagine if it was about CPR equipment. Would ‘just 24 hours’ be enough training? would the author feel the need to invoke Gladwell’s (Christensen’s actually) 10,000 hours? This particular example is important to be because it’s subtle. If you don’t consciously separate fact from opinion, it seems like a dispassionate argument and those are the most persuasive. Notice that the number of hours was ‘cut’ not ‘reduced’. Let’s rewrite this twice, the first time as neutral as I’m capable of and the second, pro-firearm. This could be fun.

Neutral: Ohio Governor DeWine signed a bill into law reducing the training requirement for teachers to carry a firearm from 700 to 24. DeWine said legislatures have been working on the bill since last year but the recent shooting in Ulvade, TX, “increased the urgency to enact it.” (It is possible that the unquoted part of DeWine’s statement was written to remind the reader that children had been murdered and activate their anger, but I wasn’t there, so I’m using the sentence as is.)

Conservative: With a stroke of his pen, stalwart conservative Republican Governor, Mike DeWine signed a bill into law yesterday allowing the state’s school teachers more freedom in exercising their constitutional right to protect themselves. The new law slashes the 700 hour training requirement to carry a firearm on school property to a more reasonable 24. DeWine said legislatures have been workin on the bill since last year, but the recent school shooting in Uvalde, TX, where the students were not protected by armed faculty “increased the urgency to enact it.”

I’m not a journalist, at least any more than any other person with access to the internet, but it’s pretty obvious that word choices and framing matter. I would love actual unbiased, but we can’t get it because we are human. Since we can’t, it’s important to be aware. Far more important than word choice though, is story choice. There are categories of things that the media just doesn’t report, things they just don’t question, and stuff they only report one side of. Here’s a few quick ones.

Hillary Clinton and her campaign created what’s called ‘opposition research’ on Donald Trump. This material, eventually called the ‘Trump Dossier’ was all fake. It was made up. It was used to spy on the campaign and create ‘impeachment traps’ for members of his staff. Much other stuff. Once this was found out, we just stopped talking about it. There was an asshat celebrity claiming to be in search of the ‘pee tapes’, a particularly salacious (and completely made up) part of the dossier, who did a podcast spreading this made up garbage. Yes Trump did say he could ‘grab girls by the pussy’. No he didn’t hire hookers to pee in a bed that Obama slept in. But it’s better to pretend to ourselves he did.

Persecution of homosexuals in the United States is questioning whether minors should be allowed to take hormone altering drugs, or not letting them have books read to them by alternatively dressed people. Persecution of homosexuals in many foreign countries includes throwing them off the top of buildings. But please, make a federal case out of ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’. That’s where the battle needs to be fought.

Roe V. Wade was a bad decision. Or at least Biden thought so. Here’s an interesting quote: “women did not have “the sole right to say what should happen” to their bodies.”. There never was a ‘right to privacy’ in the Constitution. I wish there was. I’d give up abortion in an infant’s heart beat to have a right to privacy. But we have no such right. Further, RVW doesn’t even outlaw abortion, not that you’d know it from the coverage. It puts the decision on the states. Some states will outlaw it. Some states will put in drive throughs. Some states might boot it down to the county level, I don’t know. We could have…(here should be a clever riff on ‘dry counties’ but I wasted what marginal cleverness I had for this subject with the absurd ‘infant’s heartbeat’ comment) counties with and without abortion. But we can’t have that conversation because we’re too busy lying that the second RVW is repealed the coat hanger doctors are all going to set up rusty medical tables in a ‘back alley’ whatever a ‘back alley’ is.

We only report present extreme weather and future tragedy. We never revisit it when it is wrong. And it is inevitably wrong. The list is never ending. Let’s visit a few so that maybe when they say that this hurricane season is the ‘worst ever’ and it’s caused by climate change and we know this and if you believe anything else you are a climate denier and if you DARE to speak against the narrative we will END YOU figuratively or literally, depending on the particular brand of hystaricist issuing the threat, we can all take a step back and think about whether or not we’ve seen this before.

  1. In 1995 The NY Times stated that most of our beaches on the east coast would be gone in 25 years. That prediction came true in 2020, except it didn’t. It did gin up a lot of bad feelings at the time, and no apology later. Maldives under water by 2018. New York’s West Side Highway will be underwater by 2019?
  2. Ice ages predicted in 1974 without a date, then subsequently due dates were given for the freeze, 2000, 2020, and 2030. Obviously we can’t rule out 2030 yet, but if it does happen won’t the global warming crowd have egg on their face? No the won’t. Like all good businesses in search of a profitable business model they ‘pivoted’ to ‘climate change’ so as long as the climate is not the same as earlier they can claim victory. Plus we’re not going to have eggs in 2030.
  3. As if these Ice Age predictions weren’t enough, the Arctic will be ice-free by 2015.
  4. Food shortages and disasters: famine 1975, 1980. Water rationing necessary by 1974.
  5. Ozone and acid rain will destroy the earth. 1980’s I think.
  6. In the year 2000 it was predicted that children wouldn’t know what snow is. I’ll give them this one. With our education system I find it easy to believe that children could be in snow and not know what snow is.
  7. Oil will run out in 1976, 1992. Oops. Now we have the boogie man of ‘peak oil’. Peak oil happens in 2000, 2010, and 2020. We haven’t hit it yet. There is more oil under Alaska than there is under Saudi Arabia. When we get cold enough, or frustrated enough we’ll go get it.
  8. Pollution will kill all fish, you’ll wear a gas mask if you live in a city, killer bees, nitrogen will make all land unusable, the oceans will die by 1980, there will be 50 million climate refugees by 2020, entire nations will be wiped off the earth by global warming by the year 2000.

I didn’t make any of these up. (Except for one, I put a fake one in here just for fun. Bet you can’t find it.) I remember many of them from my life. Some I had to look up details on. And there’s a lot I left out. The running out of oil thing is just one example of the ‘running out’ genre. We area also supposed to have run out (multiple times) of tin, gold, copper, natural gas, aluminum, and so on. The template is ‘GIGANTIC HORRIBLE CLAIM’ to sell newspapers, clicks, votes, or whatever, then it doesn’t happen, so we make a new ‘GIGANTIC HORRIBLE CLAIM’ to keep the fear up. News that says everything is going to be OK is in short supply, but look around. Everything is mostly OK.

Here’s a list of things you must believe or pretend to believe in polite society centered on former President Trump. It’s fair to say most of these were absolutely debunked. The ones that weren’t (5 maybe a little if you want to interpret it that way, 9, & 10) are things that reasonable people can disagree on. In a civilized world we could discuss them, but we no longer live in a civilized world, and we can’t.

1. Russia Collusion Hoax
2. Steele Dossier hooker story
3. Russian paying bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan
4. Trump called Neo-Nazis “Fine people”
5. Trump suggested drinking/injecting bleach to fight COVID
6. Trump overfed koi fish in Japan
7. Trump cleared protestors with tear gas for a bible photo op
8. Hunter’s laptop was Russian disinformation
9. Elections were fair because no court found major fraud
10. January 6th was an “insurrection to overthrow the government”

This has gone on long enough and I have other things that are more fun to think about. But I do want to mention one other thing. I’m going to do it without stating the usual caveats. Just assume I’m a good human and my heart is in a good place. A football coach of the finally named Washington Commanders asked why we’re spending a boat load of money on the January 6 ‘Insurrection’ or whatever, and virtually none (or effort, or anything really) on the BLM protests. He was fined $100,000 for asking a question. I do not know the dollar amount of damage done to our capital. I do not know if January 6 broke democracy. It doesn’t seem so. I only know (despite blatantly dishonest testimony in the hearings) that of one person losing their life as a direct result of January 6. That person was an unarmed female who was shot by an officer. Collectively the riots claimed the lives of 30 or more people and caused damage in excess of a billion dollars. But we can’t talk about that. When reporters stand in front of a burning building and call protests peaceful we’re supposed to agree. When mass looting takes place we’re supposed to ignore it, or call it virtuous and label it reparations. Because I guess the stockholders of Costco and Nike were slave traders. This man is going to lose his job for having the opinion that investigating a movement that led to such death and destruction is worthy of investigation.

They used to say ‘don’t say the quiet part out loud’. I think maybe just don’t say anything if you have something to lose. The media has adopted that practice, or they seem to have.

Key Accomplishments

We have a new president at the University of South Alabama. He’ll be settling in next semester. In order to get him up to speed the deans (and others) have been asked to prepare briefing documents. Pretty standard stuff I guess. External hires at a high level are going to need a data dump at the beginning. It seems like it would be extraordinarily difficult to come into a new organization as President. Whenever you grumble about what high level execs get paid think about the workload just to get to where you can begin to go to work. It seems unfathomable to me.

Anyway, the dean of my college has asked selected faculty to put together a list of accomplishments. There was very little direction other than ‘recent’, and ‘have it to me by December 1st’. Well, it’s December 1st, so I have to write it, and thought it might be interesting to write it here for the world to read. (as if) One other piece of information is that the entire report that the dean has to submit is limited to 4 pages, and there are multiple requirements besides accomplishments. We have two centers, four academic departments, and three other reporting units, so everything probably needs to fit into less than half a page.

This sort of thing is uncomfortable for me. I don’t think of myself as shy, but I don’t tend to formally spell out my accomplishments. I have to put them in some tracking software we use, so I try to do that, but I’d rather spend my time doing than reporting. This is a defect in my thinking and my work process. If I don’t report out no one will know what I did. If at some point in the future I’m in a position with a responsibility for reporting I will need to be much more proactive, so this is practice and/or therapy I guess. Because of space constraints, lets just do a list. These are in the order of importance, according to me.

  1. Minority Business Accelerator — The Melton Center has been providing a Minority Business Accelerator in partnership with the SBA and the Chamber of Commerce for several years. I believe the first cohort was spring of 2017. We did it every spring until this year when we switched to fall and spring. We’ll be starting the spring cohort soon. That’s a total of 5 cohorts, over 30 minority entrepreneurs, and over $100,000 raised and distributed to help these businesses grow.
  2. Build a Bridge — Began in Fall 2017. This is an outreach program to teach entrepreneurship to high school students. It has a full curriculum culminating in a pitch contest. Participants and winners have been awarded cash prizes and scholarships to USA. We’ve conservatively been in front of 150-200 students, some of which have been recruited to USA.
  3. Coastal Pitch Competition (formerly Causeway Pitch Competition) — Elevator pitch competition. Began in Fall 2016 and has been held annually. Hundreds of students from across campus have competed. Probably gave away $40,000 to students. Multiple contestants have gone on to start the businesses they pitched or other businesses.
  4. Coastal Venture Competition — Business Presentation/Plan/Business Model Canvas competition. Fewer entries than the pitch competition due to it being significantly more work. Most students who entered this competition entered the CPC as well. $40,000 in prizes plus in kind donations of products and services useful in starting a business.
  5. Minority Business Development Program — New program to complement the Minority Business Accelerator and help nascent entrepreneurs get their businesses up and running. Similar format to MBA, but for minority businesses that haven’t launched. This program finished its first iteration last spring and looks promising. We raised $20,000 to support the program and gave away over $10,000 in stipends and prizes.
  6. Fundraising — We have completed several consulting projects for businesses, religious organizations, and government to fund the above initiatives. In addition we’ve raised money through grants, donations, and our board. Our annual budget historically has been between $60,000 and $100,000. Most of this work was not done by me, but it was important to list.

We’ve done more than that, but those are probably the biggest. Not a bad list for five years. This could easily be shrunk down to a quarter page of bullet points. I don’t know what part of this is important to the dean or the president so I’ll leave that to them and get on with the business of the day.

And Miles to go Before we Sleep

The real world is full of misinformation, bad intentions, and lies. That’s what drew me to science. To be sure, there were mistakes. My middle school textbook discussed the impending ice age, and the man-made hole in the ozone layer. Apparently the Aqua Net favored by the theater department for turning normal hair into a plastic facsimile was also favored by hominids forty thousand years ago. But over time, science comes closer and closer to the truth.

And those involved in the creation of knowledge (pretentiousness alert) try. We really do. But we get it wrong sometimes. I remember the first time I encountered this. I was devastated. At fourteen years old a lot of things devastate you. This instance was cold fusion. Now a footnote in history, at the time reasonable people all across the world thought that our energy problems were over. A team at some university or other had created a fusion reaction at room temperature. If this could be replicated then eventually every home in the world could have a table top reactor creating virtually unlimited energy, giving off only helium as a byproduct. But it couldn’t be replicated, and so, after several attempted replications, scientists moved on.

The point is, there was a process. It worked because of the free and accurate sharing of information. Years later, as a grad student I was sitting at a table with (I’m pretty sure, memory is funny though) Benson Honig. We were chatting about data availability and replicating research. He had very strong opinions, opinions that I agreed with as a grad student. I promised that I personally would provide my data to anyone who asked. (As a result of that promise I haven’t published out of my dissertation because I was robbed and my data disappeared. Such is life.) We agreed that data should be available, the analysis should be spelled out, and everything should be made available, upon request, to other scientists who might want to extend the work or even just check it.

It was with that background I had the good fortune to hook up with a talented bunch of authors working on a large project using the PSED. This thing could be a dissertation or two, and will end up being several papers. The first was recently accepted. I’m thrilled that academe has found our work interesting enough to share. I’m disappointed in what we found.

We attempted first to reproduce a bunch of analysis from published papers, then replicate and extend the research. We assumed that the reproduction was going to be simple and we’d start having problems when we attempted to replicate and extend. Nope. I personally was unsuccessful with every reproduction I attempted. I was unable to get to the same N as any of the studies I was examining. This was frustrating and I thought I was going to be kicked out of the club for my incompetence. Fortunately others had similar problems and our failure became the story.

But our failure was different than the cold fusion failure. We didn’t fail the experiment, we couldn’t even set the experiment up. We couldn’t figure out from the published research what beakers, batteries, and solution we should be using to reproduce the experiment. This is a real problem, and one we describe in great detail in the paper, along with making several suggestions about how to limit this problem in the future.

What we discovered was, at least to me, interesting. That may be why it’s being published. But what we found wasn’t really new. Much has been written about problems with replication, first in psychology I believe, then in other fields. The term ‘replication crisis’ was coined in the ‘early 2010’s’ according to everyone’s favorite secret research buddy, Wikipedia. Stories of faked data ending careers and invalidating research are not uncommon. Even completely tongue-in-cheek articles are shepherded through the publication process with the journal editors missing the joke. There are problems. A fantastic part of the scientific process is becoming aware of these problems and working to fix them. Our article is an attempt to do part of that work and I hope that it makes a small contribution.

M & M’S

What a pretty beastie….

Let’s say that M&M’s candies pop out of the Earth, more or less randomly, at a rate of, I don’t know, say five million a year. Further, let’s say that those M&M’s come in the standard assortment of colors, typically brown, green, orange, yellow, blue, and finally, red. Sometimes, before it is found, a red M&M fades and becomes pink. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen often enough that people start to investigate pink M&M’s. Let’s say that a hundred intrepid M&M collectors begin collecting the pink ones, and are pretty successful at collecting them, and more importantly, they figure out why red M&M’s turn pink (it turns out that before they’re found they’re left in the rain, then the sun bleaches them). So you end up with collections of pink M&M’s in a few homes of avid collectors. Naturally occurring M&M’s should appear roughly one every ten square miles, and assuming an equal distribution of colors, one in six is red, so a red one should be found once a year (on average) in a 60 square mile area, and some of those reds turn pink, but others do not. Your neighbor just happens to be one of the pink M&M collectors and you are walking along, a block from his house and you find a pink M&M. Not only that, a dozen other people also find Pink M&M’s as well, all within a couple blocks. What are the odds this is a naturally occurring phenomenon that has nothing to do with your neighbor and his (or her) hobby?

UPDATE: Originally posted May 10th. Reposted today because John Stewart.

I rarely update posts, but John Stewart had to pick on Hershey Pennsylvania. I wonder if he reads my blog. Granted, I was few weeks early on this, but when am I not.

A Guest Post From Michael Crichton

I have some other things I need to write soon, but today, for no particular reason, I would like to share a couple of interesting things Author Michael Crichton wrote. They are widely available, and not spoilers for the books they come from. The first is from the book ‘Jurassic Park’. The second is from ‘State of Fear’. Crichton was an author of fiction, but he was an astute man, skeptical, and well spoken. The first excerpt, from the beginning of ‘Jurassic Park’ might make some people feel bad, but it makes me very optimistic. The second, from ‘State of Fear’, is his author’s statement, sort of a postscript on the book. It depresses me a bit, primarily because it identifies a vital problem we need to overcome, and offers some steps to a solution, but it is one that will have a very difficult time gaining traction. Too many pies with too many fingers in them to easily remedy. As I’m sure you can tell from the last sentence, I’m not bringing my A game today. That’s why I’m having a deceased A list author pinch hit. But if you read these two pieces you may understand a bit more about me and where my head is most of the time.

You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity. Let me tell you about our planet. Earth is four-and-a-half-billion-years-old. There’s been life on it for nearly that long, 3.8 billion years. Bacteria first; later the first multicellular life, then the first complex creatures in the sea, on the land. Then finally the great sweeping ages of animals, the amphibians, the dinosaurs, at last the mammals, each one enduring millions on millions of years, great dynasties of creatures rising, flourishing, dying away — all this against a background of continuous and violent upheaval. Mountain ranges thrust up, eroded away, cometary impacts, volcano eruptions, oceans rising and falling, whole continents moving, an endless, constant, violent change, colliding, buckling to make mountains over millions of years. Earth has survived everything in its time. It will certainly survive us. If all the nuclear weapons in the world went off at once and all the plants, all the animals died and the earth was sizzling hot for a hundred thousand years, life would survive, somewhere: under the soil, frozen in Arctic ice. Sooner or later, when the planet was no longer inhospitable, life would spread again. The evolutionary process would begin again. It might take a few billion years for life to regain its present variety. Of course, it would be very different from what it is now, but the earth would survive our folly, only we would not. If the ozone layer gets thinner, ultraviolet radiation sears the earth, so what? Ultraviolet radiation is good for life. It’s powerful energy. It promotes mutation, change. Many forms of life will thrive with more UV radiation. Many others will die out. Do you think this is the first time that’s happened? Think about oxygen. Necessary for life now, but oxygen is actually a metabolic poison, a corrosive glass, like fluorine. When oxygen was first produced as a waste product by certain plant cells some three billion years ago, it created a crisis for all other life on earth. Those plants were polluting the environment, exhaling a lethal gas. Earth eventually had an atmosphere incompatible with life. Nevertheless, life on earth took care of itself. In the thinking of the human being a hundred years is a long time. A hundred years ago we didn’t have cars, airplanes, computers or vaccines. It was a whole different world, but to the earth, a hundred years is nothing. A million years is nothing. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try. We’ve been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we’re gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.

Michael Crichton’s ‘Author’s Message’ from the book State of Fear:


A novel such as State of Fear, in which so many divergent views are expressed, may lead the reader to wonder where, exactly, the author stands on these issues. I have been reading environmental texts for three years, in itself a hazardous undertaking. But I have had an opportunity to look at a lot of data, and to consider many points of view. I conclude:

– We know astonishingly little about every aspect of the environment, from its past history, to its present state, to how to conserve and protect it. In every debate, all sides overstate the extent of existing knowledge and its degree of certainty.
– Atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing, and human activity is the probable cause.
– We are also in the midst of a natural warming trend that began about 1850, as we emerged from a four-hundred-year cold spell known as the “Little Ice Age.”
– Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be a natural phenomenon.
– Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be man-made.
– Nobody knows how much warming will occur in the next century. The computer models vary by 400 percent, de facto proof that nobody knows. But if I had to guess– the only thing anyone is doing, really– I would guess the increase will be 0.812436 degrees C. There is no evidence that my guess about the state of the world one hundred years from now is any better or worse than anyone else’s. (We can’t “assess” the future, nor can we “predict” it. These are euphemisms. We can only guess. An informed guess is just a guess.)
– I suspect that part of the observed surface warming will ultimately be attributable to human activity. I suspect that the principal human effect will come from land use, and that the atmospheric component will be minor.
– Before making expensive policy decisions on the basis of climate models, I think it is reasonable to require that those models predict future temperatures accurately for a period of ten years. Twenty would be better.
– I think for anyone to believe in impending resource scarcity, after two hundred years of such false alarms, is kind of weird. I don’t know whether such a belief today is best ascribed to ignorance of history, sclerotic dogmatism, unhealthy love of Malthus, or simple pigheadedness, but it is evidently a hardy perennial in human calculation.
– There are many reasons to shift away from fossil fuels, and we will do so in the next century without legislation, financial incentives, carbon-conservation programs, or the interminable yammering of fearmongers. So far as I know, nobody had to ban horse transport in the early twentieth century.
– I suspect the people of 2100 will be much richer than we are, consume more energy, have a smaller global population, and enjoy more wilderness than we have today. I don’t think we have to worry about them.
– The current near-hysterical preoccupation with safety is at best a waste of resources and a crimp on the human spirit, and at worst an invitation to totalitarianism. Public education is desperately needed.
– I conclude that most environmental “principles” (such as sustainable development or the precautionary principle) have the effect of preserving the economic advantages of the West and thus constitute modern imperialism toward the developing world. It is a nice way of saying, “We got ours and we don’t want you to get yours, because you’ll cause too much pollution.”
– The “precautionary principle,” properly applied, forbids the precautionary principle. It is self-contradictory. The precautionary principle therefore cannot be spoken of in terms that are too harsh.
– I believe people are well intentioned. But I have great respect for the corrosive influence of bias, systematic distortions of thought, the power of rationalization, the guises of self-interest, and the inevitability of unintended consequences.
– I have more respect for people who change their views after acquiring new information than for those who cling to views they held thirty years ago. The world changes. Ideologues and zealots don’t.
– In the thirty-five-odd years since the environmental movement came into existence, science has undergone a major revolution. This revolution has brought new understanding of nonlinear dynamics, complex systems, chaos theory, catastrophe theory. It has transformed the way we think about evolution and ecology. Yet these no-longer-new ideas have hardly penetrated the thinking of environmental activists, which seems oddly fixed in the concepts and rhetoric of the 1970s.
– We haven’t the foggiest notion how to preserve what we term “wilderness,” and we had better study it in the field and learn how to do so. I see no evidence that we are conducting such research in a humble, rational, and systematic way. I therefore hold little hope for wilderness management in the twenty-first century. I blame environmental organizations every bit as much as developers and strip miners. There is no difference in outcomes between greed and incompetence.
– We need a new environmental movement, with new goals and new organizations. We need more people working in the field, in the actual environment, and fewer people behind computer screens. We need more scientists and many fewer lawyers.
– We cannot hope to manage a complex system such as the environment through litigation. We can only change its state temporarily– usually by preventing something– with eventual results that we cannot predict and ultimately cannot control.
– Nothing is more inherently political than our shared physical environment, and nothing is more ill served by allegiance to a single political party. Precisely because the environment is shared it cannot be managed by one faction according to its own economic or aesthetic preferences. Sooner or later, the opposing faction will take power, and previous policies will be reversed. Stable management of the environment requires recognition that all preferences have their place: snowmobilers and fly fishermen, dirt bikers and hikers, developers and preservationists. These preferences are at odds, and their incompatibility cannot be avoided. But resolving incompatible goals is a true function of politics.
– We desperately need a nonpartisan, blinded funding mechanism to conduct research to determine appropriate policy. Scientists are only too aware whom they are working for. Those who fund research– whether a drug company, a government agency, or an environmental organization– always have a particular outcome in mind. Research funding is almost never open-ended or open-minded. Scientists know that continued funding depends on delivering the results the funders desire. As a result, environmental organization “studies” are every bit as biased and suspect as industry “studies.” Government “studies” are similarly biased according to who is running the department or administration at the time. No faction should be given a free pass.
– I am certain there is too much certainty in the world.
– I personally experience a profound pleasure being in nature. My happiest days each year are those I spend in wilderness. I wish natural environments to be preserved for future generations. I am not satisfied they will be preserved in sufficient quantities, or with sufficient skill. I conclude that the “exploiters of the environment” include environmental organizations, government organizations, and big business. All have equally dismal track records.
– Everybody has an agenda. Except me.

I won’t say that I don’t have an agenda. But I will wish you all a happy day, just as my youngest son did me on one particular day when he was very young. He had never said it before, and he never said it again, but on that day he smiled at me, looked up, and said ‘happy day!’ in the cutest voice imaginable. 15 years later and I can still hear it when I close my eyes and concentrate. That memory, and others like it, give me hope and peace.

It is Exhausting Being Right

Don’t misunderstand, I’m wrong A LOT. But when I’m right, it’s exhausting. Here’s why. I have lots of unpopular opinions and beliefs. I have spent a lot of time examining myself, my beliefs, and how I got where I am on various issues. So these beliefs, even if they are unpopular, are reasoned. People are welcome to come to other conclusions, but to just be dismissed as an idiot or a conspiracy theorist is hurtful. When it later turns out that I’m right, and there is no acknowledgement from the people who, sometimes literally, called me stupid for believing it, it weighs me down. It’s not the dismissiveness that drains me, it’s the lack of admission when I’m vindicated. I have thick skin, as an academic I have to. I can take the ridicule. But a quick nod after the tables turn would be welcome. Whether that happens or not I won’t hold any ill will. I will still love you all. Anyway, enough whining. No one cares, and they shouldn’t. I do want to provide an example, so that when I look back on this in a few years I’ll remember what I was going on about.

Do you remember when there was this conspiracy theory that Covid-19 was created in a lab, and was not naturally occurring? Do you remember when saying that was racist? Do you remember when even referring to it as coming from China, especially calling it the Chinese Virus, was racist? I’m waiting for the renaming of German Measles and West Nile, as well as the raft of other place-named ailments. (Yes we can evolve, and that’s great, but the outrage was a bit over the top. Not to mention the virus, in all likelihood, ORIGINATED IN CHINA.) Anyway, media outlets published articles about why this ‘lab conspiracy theory’ was a bunch of crap. The articles had the major purpose of making Trump look bad, and maybe some minor purposes of, I don’t know, supporting the Chinese state, or making conservatives seem stupid to liberals. The news flash portion of that is that conservatives always look stupid to liberals because liberals are told by Ariana Huffington (and everyone else in the movies, TV, press, and on the web that are liberal) that conservatives are stupid. You tell a lie often enough and it becomes the truth, so to a certain portion of the country, conservatives are brain damaged. It’s very effective.

So, about this ‘conspiracy theory’. It was debunked by Vox. Tore it to shreds. Couldn’t be true, Vox said so. Politifact fact checked the claim that it came from a lab and debunked it as well. So did virtually every other media outlet. The Washington Post didn’t even try to debunk it, it just referred to the idea as ‘already being debunked’. But when has the Washington Post been known for doing its own work? Fauci said it couldn’t be, and also covered up that research of that type was happening in Wuhan.

But now the fix is in. Sites are scrambling to stealthily rewrite or take down those old articles. This exact thing is the reason we’re being pushed to digital books and news. You can’t edit a newspaper once it’s at my house. But you can change the front page of the New York Times online edition to say that Israel is shooting rockets at Gaza instead of the reverse with a few keystrokes, and it will be as if it had always said that. (As I write this that is a fictional example.)

Why the scramble? Well, there’s not much new data. Certainly nothing that couldn’t have been reasoned out a year or more ago. I came to the conclusion that it was likely the virus originated in the lab without half the information we have now. If you want to follow my reasoning process, for which I was roundly criticized, read the post about M&M’s elsewhere on this blog. When I came to this conclusion I did not say, and I do not say now, that the virus originated in that lab, or in any lab. I just said that it seems like the most likely thing to have happened. I still believe that. But today, unlike a week ago, this is not a conspiracy theory believed by some crazy academic who also probably thinks the Earth is flat and we didn’t go to the Moon. Today, it’s just common sense. And because it’s common sense all that conspiracy stuff has to be swept under the rug. It did its job anyway. Trump is gone. Liberals got to make fun of stupid conservatives and other rational people. Time to clean house. Time to forget they were so, so wrong, and so, so, mean to anyone who dared to disagree.

Maybe this time will be different. Maybe people are sitting at home writing letters of apology to Donald Trump, Tom Cotton, and me. Maybe Facebook and Twitter (and all the rest) will reinstate all the people who they banned and demonetized for spreading false information. Maybe someone will finally tell Raymond Donovan which office to go to to get his reputation back, but I doubt it.

Or maybe next time it will be different. Maybe when inflation hits, people will take a step back and comment kindly. Maybe when we return to judging people by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin (or whatever other intersectional stuff has become more important) those who believed it all along will be recognized as truth tellers, not hate mongers. Maybe the next time communism fails we’ll acknowledge that it has been tried and failed, unlike what we say about Russia, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, Poland, Croatia, Ethiopia, and most especially China. Oh, and Moldova. Moldova sucks. (This is only here for my wife, who loves the movie Red.)

In a personal victory for me, perhaps when we realize that colleges are not glorified trade schools and should be preparing students for life, not to be cogs in machines, I will get much more than an apology. Maybe I can get back 15 credit hours for my students to take Latin, Comparative Religion, Fencing, or even Basket Weaving 101. This is about as likely to happen as the items in the previous paragraph. And the wold is poorer for it.

Talk for Money Fest 2021

Thursday I’ll be giving a short (less than 30 minute) talk about financing a new business using entrepreneurship contests at the Innovation Portal here in Mobile. I’m writing this post to plan out what I’m going to say, work through the details in my mind, and to give the participants something to refer back to in case they need it.

Title Slide

Hello. I’m Thomas Nelson. One of the things I do is design venture based contests to promote entrepreneurship. Venture based contests are a great precursor to starting a business. They allow entrepreneurs to validate their ideas in a low stakes environment, get valuable feedback, make connections, and sometimes provide capital to further develop and even launch a business. One question that I often get, is ‘what is entrepreneurship?’. Well, I spent the first year of my PhD program debating that with a bunch of really smart people and we decided that entrepreneurship was whatever we said it was. Not a satisfying answer, but a very useful one for an academic. Since you all are in the real world though, I’d like to offer a more specific definition instead.

Howard Stevenson’s Definition of Entrepreneurship

This is my favorite definition of entrepreneurship, and particularly salient to entrepreneurs seeking funding. Funding is just one of the necessary resources entrepreneurs need to start their businesses, but it’s a very important one. Most new businesses need cash like people need oxygen. As you’ve heard already (if you attended this conference) there are many avenues to acquire this particular resource. This session will focus mostly on one of those ways, participating in entrepreneurship competitions. Specifically…

Preview, or tell them what you’re going to tell them

We’re going to talk about what different types of competitions are out there, what they’re focused on or specialize in and how to win them. I’m going to try to avoid calling this ‘hacking’ a contest or whatever because I’m not sharing a short cut. This is real work. To be honest, winning contests is probably more work than negotiating with bankers, presenting your plan to actual venture capitalists, or mowing yards and banking the money until you have enough cash to start. But, it does have several advantages, some of which we’ve hit on already and some more we’ll cover as we go through the presentation. After giving some advice on winning, we’ll see a few examples, then look at one in detail. Finally, we’ll wrap up with a counter example that’s important to consider.

General Types of Entrepreneurship Competitions

There are probably countless types of entrepreneurship competitions and a lot of ways to think about them. I’ve broken them down based on what you have to do to compete. I’m speaking in general terms here, and each contest will have its own specifics and rules, so pay attention to what the contest documentation says, but in general, here is what you can expect. An elevator pitch competition will generally have you present a one to two minute prepared speech about your business. A business plan & presentation competition will have you giving a longer presentation, usually with a slide deck, maybe a business plan, and/or some additional supporting documentation. A lean canvas competition will have you deliver similar content to a business plan & presentation competition, but focused differently and you will not be asked to supply a business plan. Those are the three main types of competitions you are likely to run into. Hackathons are usually marathon length (Startup Weekend is 54 hours long) events where you attempt to develop a business idea as far as possible, preferably to launch. Often hackathons have in kind service prizes instead of cash. Finally, there are admission competitions. The form of admission competition is usually similar to the elevator pitch or business plan and presentation. You’re usually competing against other companies that haven’t started or are in the early stages of their business, and you’re competing for admission to something. Quite often the something is a business accelerator or other business development program, and if you win the competition you’re accepted to the program and your prize is…. wait for it… more work. There will be ongoing assistance to help you develop your business as well. Top accelerators do an amazing job of mentoring new companies and getting them ready for launch.

Focus of the Competition

Many competitions will have a specific focus. Understanding the purpose of the competition is important if you want to win. For instance, if you enter a competition where the goal of the organizers of the competition is to promote a particular industry but your business doesn’t do anything for that industry you are unlikely to win no matter how great your business idea is and no matter how good your presentation is. These competitions are often created with very specific goals in mind, and it is unlikely that they will approve of a business with a dramatically different focus. If you went through the Burger King drive through and ordered a Whopper value meal how would you feel if you received a piping hot bowl of oatmeal at the window? Not too great I’ll wager. So keep that in mind. That does not mean you can’t tailor your presentation to fit the goals of the competition, but you do need to make the connection understandable so that the judges have a reason to consider you. You can’t win if you’re not being considered.

Read the Instructions

Really, most of what I’m saying today will boil down to this. Read the instructions. Follow the instructions. Win. Other stuff is important too, and you can follow the instructions and not win, but if there were a competition hack, this would be it.

How To Win

It does come down to reading and following directions in many cases, but there is room for tailoring. First, entering the right type of competition is important. At a minimum you must be qualified to enter. For example, if it is a student competition and you are not a student, don’t enter. You can’t win. But wait. If you’re willing to share your idea and the business with a student, and you can find a student that is qualified, you’re back in consideration. If the competition’s focus doesn’t align with yours, you can either not enter, or you can make a case that it does. This may involve repositioning your business idea to a certain extent. For instance, if your business is, let’s say, a baseball training facility for elite athletes, and the competition you would like to enter is a technology focused contest you could stress that you use app guided stop motion photography to improve the swings and fielding of your clientele. Before entering the competition you thought your business was about baseball, but now you understand that it’s about technology. Let me be perfectly clear at this point. I am not saying that you should lie about your intentions, or even change the way you do business. If you have to do that, don’t enter the competition. I’m only saying that you can stress the appropriate parts of the business for the audience you have. This same business might be able, with a slightly different focus, to compete in a health and wellness category at a different competition. Baseball is good exercise, at least at some positions…. We kinda covered point three while we were talking about point one, but it’s worth mentioning twice. You must be qualified to enter the competition. If you are not, you may still get it, but if you happen to win, the error will be caught, and you’ll be out all the time effort and expense of getting to that point. Next, and this is very important, if there is information about how the candidates are being judged, be aware of it. Play to it. If there’s an actual rubric posted or handed out have your practice judges use it to evaluate you so that you can see where you need to improve. If they’re going to go through the trouble to tell you exactly what they want, you should go through the trouble to give them exactly what they want, or as close to it as you can and remain faithful to your business idea. Next, do as much supplemental research as you have time for. If the judges are listed, find out about them. If there are past winners, try to find their presentations. Call previous participants to get the low down if you’re able. Whatever it takes to get the best edge you’re capable of getting. Finally, show up and be amazing. This does not just happen. This happens from practicing, over and over. You should have practiced your presentation many many times before you’re presenting to the real judges. It should be so familiar that you can stop mid sentence, take a shot of Jack, and pick right back up. (I am not encouraging drinking, especially underage drinking, but you get my point.) {A little inside baseball here. That’s why I’m writing this post. I’ll read it tomorrow and see if I have improvements. If I do I’ll make changes. I’ll read it a few dozen times, practice it out loud several times, and expose it to my advisors. I’ll bake in their feedback and then I’ll be ready to present. This is for a presentation that I don’t even know if anyone will show up for, and that no one is going to pay me for. How much effort should you put in if the top prize means getting to start your business?}


Even if you do all of that you’ll probably lose. So what? This is Piff the Magic Dragon. Some of you may be more familiar with his older brother, Steve. Piff lost on the first season of Penn & Teller: Fool Us. Piff lost on the tenth season of America’s Got Talent. The eventual winner was Paul Zerdin, a ventriloquist. He has a YouTube channel. Piff has a theater in Vegas named after him. Be like Piff. But how? Just realize that there are many, many benefits to competing besides the prize money, and work the competition with that in mind. Network with the judges (after the judging), the other contestants and the audience if you’re able. Sometimes people go to these events looking for businesses to fund. So, even if you don’t get prize money you could find a partner, an investor, or at least get some great ideas from the other contestants’ presentations. And, like Piff, you’ll get some practice pitching your idea and some exposure. Who knows where it might lead.

Selected Competitions

I’m not going to spend a lot of time describing these competitions. You all have Google. But I do have a few thoughts that these examples might help clarify. The Alabama Launch Pad is a long competition with lots of embedded mentoring. It costs money to enter and there’s no guarantee you’ll be accepted into the program at all, let alone win. But if you do get in you’ll get high quality mentoring and a shot at a large prize. The most important thing you’ll find out by reading about the competition is that it is (surprise, surprise) focused on improving Alabama. They’re all about job creation, so if you’re pitching a business where you’ll be importing your products from China that will be a disadvantage. It can be overcome, perhaps by employing several people in state to sell and service your product for example. But if you don’t stress that you’re unlikely to go very far. SXSW has several tracks, so you can enter in one of several categories. MIT’s Clean Energy was focused specifically on energy, but has transitioned to other green initiatives as well, so don’t think last year’s competition is the same as this years in all cases. I put Rice on this list because it’s the biggest competition I know of. You have to have a graduate student on your team as one of the principle owners, but if you qualify, they give away over a million dollars and have been doing so for a long time.

Lastly, as an example of a hackathon, I want to talk briefly about Startup Weekend. For networking, there probably isn’t a better format. However, Startup Weekend is inappropriate for working on a fully developed business idea. Although it’s often ignored, that’s against the rules and spirit of the event. The idea at Startup Weekend is to develop, from scratch, a new business, and it’s organized to do just that. It’s a better fit if you know you want to be an entrepreneur and you’re not sure what, or if you have a general idea but you haven’t fleshed it out yet. If you have a fully developed business idea and a bunch of supporting stuff like a website or a business plan you are in the wrong place. That being said, I know of several businesses that were created at Startup Weekends that are quite successful, so it might be for you.

Sample Contest

Ok, on to a quick example.

Applying Recommendations

The Lundquist Center’s New Venture Challenge is a multi stage contest. You’ll be at this a while, off and on. How long? Read the instructions. Google is your friend. (It’s not. Use DuckDuckGo instead.) You’ll need an elevator pitch, a full presentation, a business plan, and the ability to answer questions about your business. This competition is student focused but there is not an industry or other focus other than a recently added green track that you may qualify for depending on your idea. Also, half you team must be students, you need a faculty advisor, and there is A LOT of information to read and digest online. This contest is a lot of work. Most of them are. But there are prizes and connections galore to be had. If you qualify, you can get in, and you’re willing to do the work, go for it.

I Call BS!

On the first slide I told you I might be full of it. I believe that the talk you’ve just endured was at least a little informative and that you might have a better chance and using competitions to start or grow your business because you sat here. However, I need to tell you about a student I coached early on. We’ll call her Anne. Anne wanted to start a business making video diaries of people doing oversees adoptions. Imagine a really overpriced scrapbook in video format for people wealthy enough to fly private and adopt cute little Russian babies. Anyway, she came to the department I worked with with this in mind. We plugged her into a local competition, which she won. We then found other opportunities for her to compete nationwide and she did well, as the stats on the slide show. Her presentation was a video, not a PowerPoint. She talked to the video and the video talked back. She had the timing down pat. It was a very smooth presentation. If you’ve seen the scene in Jurassic Park where Colonel Sanders talks to himself on video, it was like that, but this was before Jurassic Park came out. We advised her to make her presentation longer or shorter for competitions. She changed nothing. We advised her to write a business plan. She didn’t. We advised her to tailor her presentation to the judges, or to the goals of the contest, or to anything really. She delivered the same presentation over and over again, ignoring everything we said and did other than paying for her transportation and accommodations. She did enter the competitions we told her to, but I think that’s because she didn’t find any on her own. The results speak for themselves. She broke all the rules, disregarded all the advice, except for one piece. She showed up. She was amazing. And she won. So maybe practice and professionalism is more important than reading the instructions. But it couldn’t hurt to do both.


I hope that this has been helpful to you. Are there any questions?

The FAANGs Have Struck

So pretty, so deadly

The companies that make up the FAANG stocks have acted in consort and the result is terrifying. (The companies are Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google which is now Alphabet, but FAANA isn’t nearly as cool an acronym.) This is important to me for two reasons. First, I believe in free markets, and what just happened shakes that belief. Second, I’ve given some advice recently that may have been pretty bad. I’ll go into each after I detail what has happened. We’ll take the FAANGs individually, but out of order.

Netflix — Netflix is the least egregious offender of thought suppression on this list, but like most media, they have an anti conservative bias. Virtue signaling on shows, ridiculing and marginalizing conservative values, leftist board members and executives, and support of organizations that burn down parts of cities are par for the course with media companies. But offering the Obamas a platform for what can only be described as a publicity machine (along with a $50 million payday) firmly seats the company as anti-conservative. At least until they offer Trump (or Mike Pence, or Ted Cruz, or hell, even Lindsey Graham) a similar deal. Liberal messages get air, conservative ones do not. All of this predates the current coordinated attack, but they are part of the FAANG, and share similar ideology, so I felt compelled to include them for completeness sake.

Twitter — Not quite a FAANG, but they sure got the ball rolling. If you’re reading this near the time I am writing it (1/12/2021) and unless you live under a rock you know where this is going. I have purposely tried to be living under a rock and this is still filtering into my life… Anyway, the President of the United States was banned from Twitter for inciting insurrection. His specific crimes were saying that he actually won the election (which 40% of Americans think he did) and saying “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol Building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” When the violence started he denounced it. Twice. But just like the lies about him not denouncing white supremacy, and saying that the KKK are ‘fine people’ his actual words won’t get out. And he can’t even make his own case. The President of the United States has been cancelled. It sends chills up my spine just writing that. Not because I like this President, I do not. But because if the sitting President can be silenced by a small group of companies what hope do the rest of us have if they disagree with us?

Facebook — Not to be left out, Facebook banned the President as well. Add this to their suppression of conservative voices through algorithm, supposed ‘fact checking’, demonetizing, and outright banning and you have a pretty good case for speech control, and thus thought control.

Green Laser Destroying Alderaan

Amazon — Amazon decided that a platform for free speech (Parler) had too much hate speech on it, and might cause further violence, so they just took it down. It was as if 8 million voices suddenly cried out in terror and were silenced. They also removed the President from Twitch, which I’m sure someone noticed I guess.

Apple — Previous to Amazon destroying Parler altogether Apple and Google removed it from their app stores, effectively eliminating any further growth and strangling the app.

Google — As mentioned above, they killed Parler, but they have been actively waging an anti-Trump anti-conservative campaign for a long time with their search engine algorithm modifications and suggested completion of word and phrase stems in their search boxes. Quick example ‘did hil’ has no suggestions in Google, presumably because no one ever looks up things like ‘did Hillary win the Nobel Prize’, or ‘did Hillary have a cat’. On DuckDuckGo (If you’re not using this instead of Google you need to be) the stem ‘did hil’ returns concede, accept defeat, claim voter fraud. Seems like things people might search for. Seems like if Google wanted to be helpful, it would supply those. But that’s none of my business.

Kermit drinking Lipton Tea by a window with a soft focus background
That’s none of my business.

So that wraps up FAANG. Let’s have a couple (dis)honorable mentions. TikTok removed the videos of President Trump asking everyone to peacefully return home. Can’t have those circulating. Destroys the narrative. YouTube (owned by Google) did the same. We really don’t want the narrative that Trump was calling for peace and order out there. It might threaten the impeachment. Snapchat suspended the President. Like with Twitch, I’m sure someone noticed. Shopify shut down online stores related to Donald Trump. And even Reddit, the self-proclaimed ‘front page of the internet’ banned the subreddit r/DonaldTrump. I know I’m missing stuff. I imagine that the President’s Pinterest account is shut down, and Air BnB has taken Trump Tower off of its property list. Hell, I bet Tom even unfriended him on MySpace.

This all sounds silly until you consider the ramifications. The sitting President of the United States has been effectively deplatformed. That won’t happen to you, of course. You’re not like him. I’m not like him. Until you or I are enough different from the powers that control communication that we need to be silenced, then, we will be. This happened to a man with nuclear launch codes. That terrifies me even more than this man having nuclear launch codes, which make no mistake, has terrified me for the last four years.

Throughout this post I’ve discussed things happening to the President and also to conservatives. I do not mean to say that the President is a conservative. Like most politicians and most people, he is conservative on some issues, liberal on others.

Part Two

But, but, but, its a free market. Yes it is. I have, from the beginning said that if Twitter wanted to ban people from their site for being conservative they should be able to do so. I also believe they should be able to ban people from their site for being too tall, or too fat, or even things that we as a society have made laws against banning for, but that issue is for another day, or probably no other day. The point is, if they want to throw someone off, it’s their site. Go for it. The market will sort it out.

Well, the market was sorting it out. Conservatives and populists were leaving Twitter and other social media sites en masse for alternatives like Parler. I did not foresee companies powerful enough to shut down markets entirely. To a certain extent Parler’s decision to host its site on Amazon’s servers was a mistake, and they can (and will) find another host. But short of buying their own equipment and hosting everything themselves they can still be held hostage and forced to comply with whatever ever speech limiting directives their server company demands. Again, it’s a private company, so up until now I’ve been ok with this.

But now we have Apple and Google eliminating the app from their devices. Between the two of them they control virtually all of the smartphone market, the way that most people now interact with the internet. For all practical purposes, the smartphone is the town square, and the the town square has just declared that some speech, legally protected by the Constitution, is not allowed. This is a problem. We are heading down the road to corporatocracy. Perhaps we’ve already arrived.

I can see an opportunity for an entrepreneur to start a server business with the goal of protecting free speech. Their product will be more expensive because they will not have the economies of scale, relationships, or experience to compete, but this can be done. Starting a new cell phone service is also a doable thing. Several companies have sprung up, some even with a conservative bent.

But protecting freedom on your mobile device seems like a very tough nut to crack. At the least you’d need a new app store. Which means people writing apps for the new app store and perhaps even new hardware to run the apps. I am pretty sure you’re not getting a second app store to run on an Apple device. It might be possible on an android phone, but keep in mind that Android is owned by Google, so they could deep six anything you did, just like they deep sixed Parler. And the existing duopoloy in the app store market serves most people well. It is unlikely to be disrupted just because some people (40% or so) lose their ability to communicate freely about things that their tech overlords don’t like.

Considering all of this I have to wonder if it’s time to make a law protecting free speech on privately owned platforms. Even six months ago I would have been dead set against this, but now I’m not so sure. I find myself wondering as I write this if WordPress will decide that it shouldn’t be seen? Will GoDaddy? Do I need to code my own site directly, and host it on a server in my bathroom? (Thanks for the idea Hill-dog!) So, that is the primary implication of all of this. We are no longer free to communicate about certain topics, full stop. Do we live with it or change it?

Second thing worth mentioning is that a while ago I recommended starting a business, either in the real world or online, catering to liberals or conservatives. I still think that is a good idea, but there is a new danger to take into account if you decide to do it. Keep in mind that if you start an online business and you sell through Amazon, rely on people finding you through Google, market through Facebook or Twitter, post videos on YouTube or Twitch, sell on Shopify, expect people to find you on their mobile devices, or just about any other thing you could possibly do online, your connection to a tech company is a potential threat. Some injustice, real, perceived, or even imagined could take your business away from you. And that is the most frightening thing of all.