Freelancing Gods 2014

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08 Jun 2008

The End of Charity

As I’m travelling, I’m reading more – so that means it’s time for another impromptu book-review/idea-sharing post.

The book in question this time around is Nic Frances’ ominously titled The End of Charity. The points of the book aren’t that scary though – I find them to be pretty spot-on with what’s needed.

A quick overview:

  • Society’s siloed approach isn’t working: Leaving businesses to focus on making money, and charities to making the world better isn’t really getting anywhere.
  • Value needs to represent more than financial worth: Goods and services need to be given more accurate values which incorporate social and environmental worth.
  • Businesses need to incorporate social and environmental mindsets into their operations: Remove the silos. Don’t leave the ‘doing good’ to a separate organisation (examples: Google Inc and Google.org, Microsoft and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, McDonalds and Ronald McDonald House Charities).
  • The market will make it all work: Okay, that’s a little simplistic, but the market does a decent job at helping the best value goods and services come to the fore.

Now the book itself is far more detailed – Frances draws a lot from his own experiences, both in charities and in socially-minded businesses, so there’s no end of real world examples. It’s also extremely easy to digest, so I highly recommend reading it, even if you don’t have much of a business-focused mind.

Granted, some of these ideas can take some getting used to, especially on the left side of politics where broad strokes paint businesses (particularly corporations) as Bad, and charities and other non-profits as Good. A lot of what’s discussed in this book isn’t particularly new to me – I was introduced to the concepts while working at MBO (now Ergo Consulting) (which, perhaps not so surprisingly, had an awesome culture non unlike what Frances outlines for his own Cool nrg). I remember bristling at the idea put forward by our then CEO Paul Steele (who is currently COO at World Vision Australia) that business is the best way to enact social improvement.

A few years have passed since then, though, and I’ve come around to agreeing that the combined approach is far more likely to succeed than the old, siloed way.

Now, this hasn’t led to any dramatic chances in my freelancing lifestyle – but it’s got my brain ticking away, so you’ll just have to wait and see what comes of it. That said, what do you you think about all this? Do you agree? Disagree? Do you have some suggestions on how to make the organisation you work for take a more holistic approach?

21 Feb 2008

Link: The End of Charity

"a challenging, thought provoking and inspiring exploration of how we should rethink the idea of charity"

15 Feb 2008

Exit Right

(A blog post where Pat cheats and just quotes heavily from the book.)

Another book I managed to get through on my break in New Zealand was the latest Quarterly Essay, Judith Brett’s Exit Right: The Unravelling of John Howard. Anyone who knows me well knows that I was extremely happy with Howard’s loss at the end of last year, so reading about what lead to the downfall wasn’t exactly depressing (unlike the excellent Dark Victory, which covers events around the 2001 election).

As well as pointing out the dangers of groupthink and following the party line (paralleling nicely with Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia), Brett had two incisive descriptions which I hadn’t heard clearly before.

The first was about how WorkChoices had such a strong impact for so many voters.

With its new industrial-relations regime the government was trying to change culture, just as Howard had accused the Keating government of doing. And the culture was resisting. The deep problem for the government was that unlike many other areas of policy, when it comes to what happens at work, people have first-hand experience, both their own and that of friends and family. And opinions based on experience are much more firmly held than those based on media reports or government advertising campaigns.

In the long interviews which Antony Moran and I used for our book Ordinary People’s Politics, there was a discernible difference between the way people talked about opinions based on experience and their other political views. On issues of foreign policy, such as the decision to support the US invasion of Iraq, most Australians have little choice but to trust the government. And if the government gets it wrong, it has no immediate impact on their daily lives. It is the Iraqis who are bearing that cost. Even with the children-overboard affair, the fact that the government lied had no immediate impact on Australian voters’ everyday lives.

But changing the power relations in the workplace is a very different matter. In trying to sell the changes to an already-sceptical electorate, the government damaged its more general credibility. If they are giving us spin on things we know first-hand, why should we believe them on anything else? WorkChoices may well be the main reason people seemed to stop listening to the government some time i the first half of 2007.

The second was in regards to Budget promises and the lack of expenditure on services.

The core problem of Australian federalism is vertical fiscal imbalance. What this means is that the federal government raises most of the revenue but the states have the most need of it, with responsibility for services including education, roads, hospitals and police, where there is never enough money. Australia’s federal system involves not just a mismatch of money, but a mismatch of accountability, which is why it is so difficult to fix.

There is a structural fracture between the level of government (federal) which bears the odium of raising taxes, and the level of government (state) which claims the credit for spending the money. There is also endless scope for blame-shifting. Why would a Commonwealth government give more money to the states for public hospitals, for example, or for TAFE colleges, particularly when the states are in the hands of the opposition party and when it can’t control the outcomes? Why wouldn’t it give voters tax cuts for which it will get the credit?

Voters keep saying that instead of tax cuts from the surplus they would prefer the money to be spent on health, education, infrastructure, the environment. But most of this is done by the states, and so doesn’t easily provide the Commonwealth with the type of big-bang policy announcements that tax cuts do. And from the perspective of the Coalition, it’s just giving free kicks to the Labor state premiers and helping them stay in power.

Neither point is ground-breaking, but I found them clear perspectives that I hadn’t encountered before.

08 Feb 2008

Infotopia: A Vague Review

(Wasn’t really happy with the first version of this post, so writing it again from scratch. If you didn’t catch my initial attempt, don’t stress, you’re not missing much.)

A while ago – sometime in 2006 – I picked up a copy of a book called Infotopia, by Cass Sunstein. I know I wasn’t really familiar with him at the time – nor am I now – but I think I read positive reviews about iton either Lawrence Lessig’s blog, or the O’Reilly Radar (or possibly both). Once I got it, fearing it was a little dry, it sat on my bookshelf collecting dust. Doesn’t help that I’m not nearly a prolific reader as I once was.

Holidays, however, usually give me the chance to power through some books, and even while I was busy travelling through the south island of New Zealand, being filled with awe at every turn, I managed to devour a few tomes, and Infotopia was one of them.

Now, it’s not the most intersting of topics – how to aggregate a group’s knowledge to achieve the best possible results, and avoid (as much as possible) the common pitfalls along the way – but it’s pretty damn important. I found it particularly relevant with regards to my efforts leading the committee for Nullus Anxietas, and I know some of my friends will find it useful as well (Steve in particular). It’s also worth bearing in mind within the context of the Ruby and general open-source communiies.

The main value in the book, for me, was the clear descriptions of the different issues groups can face. There’s a lot of them, but here’s a few I want to share.

Group Polarisation

“When like-minded people cluster, they often aggravate their biases, spreading falsehoods.”

Perhaps you’re familiar with the idea of cocoons or echo chambers – surrounding yourself with similar perspectives, which then limits the growth of your own views. It can be seen all the time in politics, and online as wel (the hype around Web 2.0 is one example that seems to get mentioned now and then).

An extension of this is group polarisation, where the consensus in a bunch of people can be driven to a more extreme viewpoint. Sunstein regularly quotes a study on this, but even without that, it makes sense – if everyone’s pushing in one direction, can’t really expect a group to become more moderate.

Social Pressures

Generally, if people feel their views are not important – in the context of the group (perhaps beause they’re a minority, or they’re in the presence of a known expert), or in a larger scale – they’re much less likely to share what information they have. To combat this, Sunstein recommends emphasising the equality of all group members, to minimise social status as much as possible. I’d like to think I’m not too bad at this (due largely to the influence of a former employer, MBO (now Ergo Consulting)) but I’ll leave judgement up to others.

People may also hold back fom sharing as they don’t want to upset the group dynamic by disagreeing with what may be the majority view. An answer Sunstein has for this is to encourage the view that a team player is one who focuses on the best outcome possible for the team, not on team harmony.

Worth Reading?

While the book is useful and informative, it is a little dry – but that’s to be expected really, considering the topics covered. I also feel it’s perhaps a bit long – I think it could lose a third of the size and still be ust as effective – and the focus is more on the problems than the solutions (although Sunstein makes it reasonably clear that’s not the goal of the book).

That said, if you manage groups of people in some shape or form, it’s definitely worth getting your hands on a copy.

18 Aug 2007

Link: reCAPTCHA: Stop Spam, Read Books

17 Jul 2007

Link: Open Library (Open Library)

02 Apr 2007

Link: Locus Online: Neil Gaiman Sainthood

17 Jan 2007

Link: Lars Wirzenius: January, 2007

The martial arts of visiting a bookstore without buying a book

19 Dec 2006

Link: Mongrel (Digital Shortcut): Serving, Deploying, and Extending Your Ruby Applications - $14.99

19 Sep 2006

Link: How to Make a Hollow Book

15 Sep 2006

Link: Hill House, Publishers: Signed/Lettered Edition of AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman

i want one.

21 Jul 2006

Link: Locus Online: Locus Magazine, Cory Doctorow Commentary, July 2006

09 Nov 2004

Link: Ars Technica: Delicious Library Review

A well written review about Mac software in general, and Delicious Library in particular

06 Nov 2004

Link: Mystery lord of the Discworld

02 Nov 2004

Link: Delicious Library

One very handy piece of software

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About Freelancing Gods

Freelancing Gods is written by , who works on the web as a web developer in Melbourne, Australia, specialising in Ruby on Rails.

In case you're wondering what the likely content here will be about (besides code), keep in mind that Pat is passionate about the internet, music, politics, comedy, bringing people together, and making a difference. And pancakes.

His ego isn't as bad as you may think. Honest.

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