Network Laws

Last week I spoke at Dr. Natalie’s social business class at UCLA and one of the presenters who was on before me commented on the idea that people have a finite number of connections they can maintain, if I recall correctly he said 123 connections. What he is referring to is something called Dunbar’s Number, which asserts that the number of relationships a person can maintain is limited by the human brains cognitive abilities to between 100 and 230, with 150 being the commonly quoted number.

I have no reason to dispute this and would defer to Dunbar’s research in this area however it is vitally important to recognize a couple of facts about the human condition, which is that we are, as a species, amazingly adaptable and complex in our interactions with other people. This is where Dunbar’s Number falls short for me, which is that we do not have the same intensity of relationship with each person we have a relationship with.

Dunbar’s Number is unique among the various network laws which are often quoted, unique because it doesn’t deal with the economic utility of a network but rather our ability to scale a social graph. The other 3 laws which come up in these discussions build on prior work and take into account technological advances.

Sarnoff’s Law: This is named after television executive David Sarnoff who observed that broadcast networks have economic potential that is proportional to the number of participants. Simply put a broadcast network that can reach 100 people is 10x more valuable than one with 10 people.

Metcalfe’s Law: Along with Moore’s Law this is the most cited law in computer science and very clearly builds on Sarnoff’s Law. Where Sarnoff’s Law is proportional, Metcalfe’s is exponential. The utility of a network is equivalent to the square of the number of participants. Metcalfe’s Law is well covered so I’ll leave it at that.

Reed’s Law: Of all the network laws this one is the most interesting to me and it goes directly to the idea that Dunbar’s Number understates the capacity of people to maintain very large social graphs. What Reed’s Law stipulates is that the value of the network is increases exponentially, in proportion to 2n, rather than n2 as Metcalfe states.

Beckstrom’s Law: This one is interesting because of the specific measure that Beckstrom has developed, which is that the value of a network is the net value added for each transaction multiplied by all the members of that network. Where it gets interesting is on two dimensions, the first being that the net value added is combinatorial, as in all the participants in a transaction derive value from the transaction, and that the network itself has a virtuous cycle in that the more participants it has the more value it has which then becomes an attractor for more people to join (think Facebook here).

What I find appealing about Reed’s Law is that it recognizes that people belong to multiple network groups and have a wide range of weak and strong connections online. Dunbar’s Number makes an implicit assumption that we have a finite number of maintainable connections and each connection requires an equal investment for maintenance, or that we have a finite amount of cognitive ability and each connection chips away at that total. Reed’s Law circumvents this by recognizing that we get value from the group as well as the individual connections contained within…. so in short I find that it is possible to maintain far more than 150 network connections.

World Malaria Day

Today is World Malaria Day and the global theme being promoted is sustaining gains made in recent years.

Malaria is something we can control and even though 90% of the infections occur in sub-Saharan Africa (60% of those are children) the consequences for the entire world are significant given the massive numbers of people at risk. Malaria infections result in lost productivity which affects economic progress and in children the loss of education days as well as the social and economic consequences of care are significant.

We are making progress and in just a few short years the number of malaria deaths worldwide has dropped by over 150,000. This progress is a result of a comprehensive approach to controlling the cause of malaria as a primary strategy. By distributing pesticide treated bed netting and working with regional authorities to treat standing water in order to eradicate mosquito populations, the infection rate has dropped to 225 million cases, a decline of 20% in the last decade.

The United States has been a standout in terms of supporting this cause. Beginning with President Bush the USAID program tripled funding for malaria prevention and treatment and under President Obama this funding has continued. This is one foreign aid program that is clearly working and economic gains as a result of malaria prevention and treatment efforts promote stability and economic progress in a part of the world that has been sorely lacking in both respects.

Bureaucrats Gone Wild

Q: Why would there have been no scandal in Columbia if the GSA accompanied the Secret Service?

A: The GSA would have never haggled over $47 for a hooker. 

Like most Americans I am outraged but not surprised by what is going on in government when it comes to stewardship of taxpayer (and borrowed from China) dollars. Not surprised because this is our expectation of government, wasteful and inefficient with few controls that amount to more than window dressing, and every administration comes in, Republican and Democrat, promising there is a new sheriff in town and things are going to change, but it doesn’t.

Here are the major issues every candidate and incumbent should address this election season, and not just the Presidential election but at every level down to city councils:

1) Start with the default position that there is enormous waste. Start cutting across the board with an expectation that the bureaucracy itself will eliminate waste as a result of scarce resources.

2) Fire and forget government employees who demonstrate incompetence and poor ethical behaviors. All too often an innocent-until-proven-guilty argument is put forward as if working for the government is different than at-will employment in any other industry. It is not, and if people act with disregard to ethics and resources, fire them… don’t remediate, fire.

3) The idea that workers in the public sector are poorly compensated than the private sector is factually inaccurate as well as laughable on it’s face. Study after study documents in frightening detail how public sector employment is a path to prosperity when total compensation is considered, yet without the risk that private sector employment carries.

4) Congressional benefactors padding legislative acts with unrelated funding for pet projects, aka pork, has declined but not nearly enough. The Porkbusters movement is the precursor to the Tea Party and has successfully decreased the number earmarks attached to bills, but it’s not nearly enough and Republicans in particular are at risk of going back to old habits. Fiscal discipline starts with Congressional appropriations and then flows down to the agencies that consume taxpayer resources.

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Wading into the Pink Slime

If you know me you know I am somewhat obsessive about food and go to great lengths and expense to source the food I feed my family. I do this because it matters to me as a core value, it’s about connecting with something primordial in the human existence.

What I do not believe, broadly speaking, is that the individual food items that I purchase are more or less healthy than grocery store bought alternatives. What makes the food I serve my family healthy is diversity of our menu, portion size, an emphasis on vegetables and lean proteins, fewer fats, and a lower volume of grains than the typical American or European diet consists of. In other words, what is served and how it is prepared delivers more punching power than where it comes from or what label it has on it (the organic industry industry is disgraceful in how they have subverted grocery aisles with high priced products that are not demonstrably better than non-organic labeled options).

With this prelude you might find it surprising that in the debate about processed meat treated with anhydrous ammonia (aka Pink Slime) I come down on the side of pink. This product has been defamed by a hysteria driven media campaign that presupposes this food product (and that’s what it is, a product) is unsafe in the absence of evidence suggesting safety issues, and fails to address the substantive issues of how society provides a food supply to a large population.

This is a core problem with fashionable foodies and other well-intentioned people who on even days declare we should let science be a defining force while on odd days rejecting science because it can’t prove the negative. The science is overwhelming, pink slime is nutrient providing but critics are demanding the impossible, which is to prove that it is not unsafe.

The meat products industry is pretty remarkable in a couple of respects, the first being that they are able to deliver to the retail supply chain an uninterrupted supply of safe meat products that are highly perishable and subject considerable bacterial contamination risk. In addition to that they let no animal product go to waste, which is an insult to the animal aside from being bad for the bottom line; literally every part of the animal gets processed into a food, consumer, pet, and agriculture feed and fertilizer products. Pink slime recovers 12-15 lbs of beef from every animal slaughtered and the recovery of this meat product means that 1.5 million fewer animals are slaughtered each year to meet the needs of American and export consumers of beef.

This is where pink slime is derived from, the remnant pieces of butchered beef are collected and trimmed before being processed with heat to remove excess fat and then pushed through a large die where the ground meat product is produced. The risk here is that ground meat has a high contamination risk potential. All store bought ground meats have a high contamination risk relative to whole cuts because bacteria grows on the surface of meat and when ground becomes distributed through the product. This is why you should cook a hamburger patty to medium but you can get away with a steak served rare… unless you grind your own meats, which is what I do at home.

The bacterias in question are particularly onerous for elderly and children, e.coli among others, so mitigate this risk the processors subject the meat to anhydrous ammonia, which is gaseous ammonia absent of water. Ammonia is a powerful antiseptic and this process effectively reduces the bacteria load in the meat product to safe levels.

Media reports have succeeded in freaking consumers out about the meat being pushed through a die… despite the fact that this is how all ground meat is prepared. It’s how I prepare ground meat at home, albeit on a much smaller scale, by using a meat grinder attachment on my KitchenAid stand mixer (ask me about how I make freakishly good salmon cakes with this).

The entire pink slime debate is manufactured and pits food snobs, who would do away with industrialized food with reckless disregard for the consequences to the economy and food supply, against average Americans who are struggling to afford proteins of all kinds in this economy (food inflation is very real and it impacts middle and low income families as much as high gas prices). The media has been, no surprise, irresponsible by not shining a light on dubious claims about the hazards of antibacterial treatments (remember all the coverage of how immunizations were linked to autism, and then when thoroughly debunked there was scant coverage to be found?).

The solution should not have been a knee jerk demonization about a food product that is responsible and safe, but rather a push for labeling requirements to let people decide for themselves what they want to serve to their family. And for the record, I would have no problem eating pink slime or serving it to my family… it’s food, get over it.

Link Post (weekly)

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The Apps Revolution Manifesto

UPDATE: Here is the download link, courtesy of Credit Suisse.

I’ve been reading a research paper put out by Credit Suisse called The Apps Revolution Manifesto – Volume 1: The Technologies.

It’s a fascinating read, if you can get a copy I would encourage you to get a copy (I don’t believe I have distribution rights otherwise I would like a download copy myself). As I read it I am struck by 3 thoughts:

1) Credit Suisse’s thesis is, to paraphrase, that predictions of big on-premise app vendors deaths are premature. I tend to agree with this view… but with some important caveats.

2) We are upon yet another great app modernization cycle, but for me the question revolves around the winners and those that don’t win as much. The last upgrade cycle was CAPEX centric, this one is going to have it’s own healthy dose of CAPEX but not nearly as much as the last cycle, while OPEX spending will be greater and spread across a far more diverse market. This is the first caveat on my point #1, existing big application vendors are not well suited to thrive in this environment and it is unlikely to believe they will undergo a radical transformation to achieve these competencies.

3) The forcing event for the last cycle was Y2K, this one is being driven by mobile, social, and cloud-based big data. The last cycle easily translated into product sales cycle, this one does not. Mobile, social, and big data have product componentry but are more accurately described as a transformative business strategy rather than technology strategy.

I have made it through half of the document but one thing is eminently clear, a lot of old world acronyms are being swapped out with new terminology, vendor names, and market forces which are thrusting them into a central position for companies looking at the decade ahead and how they achieve and sustain competitive advantage.