Bring A Trailer Hits 15,000 Posts

Bring a Trailer, the most addictive car site for anyone who truly appreciates cars (if you’re at work, you’ve been warned), just hit their 15,000th post since Randy Nonnenberg and his team launched the blog in early 2007.

What does that mean? The site lists 15 posts at a time. If you wanted to browse every post on the site, hitting “Older” at the bottom of every page, you’d have to go through 1,000 pages to see every post.

Wow. Actually, it may sound like a lot of work to read through 15,000 posts, but the high bar the team has maintained in writing quality & community moderation makes the impossible possible: time-travel.

Because when you’re browsing BaT, time slows down. The clock is saying I’ve spent 60 minutes here. But I feel like I just got here 10 minutes ago. That must be goodyou know why?  If my body thinks only 10 minutes have passed in the past 60 minutes, it must have forgotten to make me 50 minutes older. Aging is all mental, right? Mostly?

Anyone?

Anyway, although the blog has been around since 2007, BaT is just getting started. Their relatively recently-launched auction platform is growing wildly, making the site financially sustainable and primed for growth. It’s a superb digital property that’s found a beautiful means to monetize its media beyond the obnoxious ads business to which so many other media properties fall prey.

To commemorate their 15,000-post-milestone, new commercial approach, and burgeoning community & success, I took the liberty to analyze their enormous, ever-growing oeuvre to see if I could uncover any interesting insights. I’m not a statistician (or a computer scientist…or any kind of -ist, really) but I quickly hacked together some scripts to analyze the 15,000 post titles and determine the most common 2-word, 3-word, and 4-word phrases in those titles. I used a very naive implementation of n-grams, an algorithm used in computations linguistics and probability.

Since BaT prides itself on hand-picking the cars it posts to its site, the hope was to see if any trends emerged in makes, models, and any other terms.

Below are snapshots of the top ~28 rows for each grouping (2-word, 3-word, and 4-word phrases). I won’t comment on the results (you can draw your own conclusions), but I’ve made the entire table of results available here (it’s a Google Doc, but it’s a pretty large one, so you probably don’t want to open that link on a phone).

Here are the results.

2-gram

bat-2-gram

3-gram

bat-3-gram

4-gram

bat-4-gram

That’s all, folks! As I mentioned above, if you’re interested in taking a look at the whole data-set, here it is. That link includes the entire analysis, which is over 130,000 rows, so it may take 2-3 minutes to load.

UPDATE: since making this post, I’ve updated the analysis to be case-insensitive. There wasn’t a huge difference in the results, but for the sake of completeness, the updated analysis is at the Google Docs link.

Silicon Valley data is the new Wall Street debt

Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch. Nay, you may kick it about all day, and it will be round and full at evening.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Built by geniuses, both coasts’ products end up being deceptively cheap, morally corrupting, and of questionable long-term economic utility. We’d be wise to be just as critical of opaque, data-driven tech companies as we are of opaque, debt-driven financial institutions.

It’s cool to hate finance, you know, because ‘fat-cat’ and ‘main-street’ and ‘bonus’. It’s also cool to love technology, you know, because ‘passion’ and ‘disruptive’ and ‘big data’.

But wait—technology isn’t so innocent. Both industries derive much of their value from questionable sources: banks from demand-deposits they shouldn’t be lending, and technology companies from data they shouldn’t be collecting. For centuries, banks have failed when their customers lost trust in them. Will the latest data-driven digital services follow?

Finance

Much of the banking business model is evil. Much of banks’ profits come from devious lending. Although lending demand-deposits is generally accepted, it shouldn’t be, because it’s morally repugnant. It wasn’t always this way, but once we started descending down the slippery slope, all bets were off.1

After all, think about the bankers, in charge of mountains of money just sitting in peoples’ accounts. There’s got to be some way to harness those assets, right? Hence cheap loans; the underlying assets to back them are essentially free.

‘Affordability’ is probably the most misleading term thrown around in consumer finance. “Just 3 easy payments of $19.95!” “I can afford that!” More easy payments of varying magnitudes pile up, gradually enslaving the consumer in a mountain of debt. Drink a few too many shots of easy $19.95 payments and you’re drunk with debt. Your freedom is zapped away by an insurmountable commitment to banks.

Excessive debt is serfdom.

But this isn’t a bash-the-banks post. Many of banks’ core services are useful.2 While I hate trusting banks to protect my money knowing they’re only going to lend >90% of it away, there’s a deeper problem: excessive debt has repeatedly been at the root of bank instability. The folks at your local bank branch don’t really care about your banking ‘experience’ (customer service, etc.)—in most cases, bank customer service does the bare minimum merely so the bank can get more of your deposits to make more loans. That’s why most banks make their basic accounts free.

Technology

Most of the internet’s business model is evil. Much of the perceived value in today’s data-driven digital services comes from devious data-collection. Although this collection is accepted, it shouldn’t be, because it’s morally repugnant. It wasn’t always this way, but once we started descending down the slippery slope, all bets were off.

After all, think about the technologists, in charge of deluges of data just passing by for them to grab. There’s got to be some way to harness that data, right? Hence free web services; the underlying data powering them is essentially free.

‘Big data’ is the big, sexy buzzword of our age. “We’ll always be free—just accept this privacy policy!” “Hey, it’s free! Accept.” And so the ‘big data’ collection begins. Clicks, likes, browsing, texts, location, movement, chats, driving, and watching habits accumulate. More services promising the world in exchange for ‘nothing’ pop up, slowly but surely coaxing us to surrender the most intimate bits of our identity. Smoke a few too many free web services and your predictability gets high. Your freedom disappears to a clamoring horde of advertisers, data brokers, marketers, bureaucrats, and others.

Most ‘big data’ is surveillance.

But this isn’t a privacy post. Many web services are useful. While I HATE SACRIFICING MY PRIVACY TO USE THE INTERNET, there’s a deeper problem: the real purpose of data collection itself has become an economic phenomenon.3 The folks at pick-your-favorite-tech-company don’t really care about what your dog had for breakfast—they merely want to collect that data to ‘monetize’ their services.4 That’s why so much of their services are free.

So what

Collecting data isn’t fundamentally bad. Lending isn’t fundamentally bad. At the same time, I think it’s crystal clear that that both sectors have gone way too far.

Throughout history, bank lending has been a hallmark cause of financial ruin. It’s the same song with a different tune every time: markets innovate, governments set rules for moderation, bankers commit slight violations, governments find the errant practices useful, bad becomes good, markets go crazy, and then mania leads to ruin as greed trumps sound judgment.5

Let’s look at the most recent financial crisis through the lens of this post’s thesis. Is modern banking deceptively cheap? Yes: most banking services are free, provided you allow banks to lend your money away. Morally corrupting? Yes: mania leads lending to get increasingly aggressive and internal banking practices to become increasingly questionable. Questionable long-term utility? Yes, well, let’s flip the question: how much better off are we as a society after this most recent bout of binge-borrowing?

In technology, we haven’t really experienced data-driven ruin just yet, but I think we’re on our way there. Bruce Schneier said it best: on the web, data is currency. It’s become the default medium of exchange for goods and services on the internet.

That’s the tragedy: data is not currency. Data is not inherently valuable. It’s not even a viable medium of exchange. You can’t go to the store and pay for a jar of milk with a stack of data. It cannot buy real assets—only higher and higher valuations backed by (what else?) other high valuations.6

Debt is nothing but a promise for value transfer in the future. Data is exactly the same thing.

Yet, markets insist on treating data as units of real value. Companies insist data helps them give ‘better experiences’ for their users to “make the world more open and connected” and “share and grow the world’s knowledge.” That’s bullshit. Those companies simply have no idea how to make money.7 All their grandstanding ‘visions’ are corporate double-speak their companies must give to exist: it’s how they can attract top talent to build a product, attract dollars from investors, justify their existence to society.

So, modern web services are deceptively cheap? Yes: content is ‘free’ if you trade your most intimate personal data. Morally corrupting? Yes: mania has caused markets to value data as a standalone source of value, and so companies collect as much of it as deviously as they can without regard to privacy, morality, or integrity. Questionable long-term utility? Yes: haven’t you debated closing your Facebook account?8

Moving forward

Bankruptcy is the ultimate verdict in the marketplace. Lending too much directly leads to bankruptcy. Collecting data, however, cannot lead to bankruptcy because it’s not a practice that impacts the balance sheet. So what could happen?

I’m not sure. But I can say one thing with absolute certainty: this data-driven paradigm of today’s consumer technology services will not last. It cannot last. It’s going to die. Information is available much more freely than it has been in the past, and costs to obtain and deliver it are lower than ever before, but that doesn’t actually make the information free.

I’ll stop here, short of posing potential solutions. Anything I could suggest is untested by the rigors of the marketplace and is therefore meaningless. My hope here is that more people realize the profundity of this problem

How profound is it? Well, without a doubt, the internet is the most powerful tool we have today. It’s an indispensable tool to make income, power the food supply, distribute energy, etc. Beyond the necessities, it’s an indispensable force in informing and educating. The internet is the bedrock of modern progress. Its freedom has enabled more innovation to take place in the past 20 years than in the 200 years before it. So if the internet is in trouble, it’s big trouble.9

So let’s not forget the power of this tool we use everyday and take for granted. It would be a shame to see the internet’s power and potential curbed by something as basic as a bad business model.


1 Read the first couple of chapters in this book on the history of banking. They’re fascinating. And the book was written by Jesus.

2 Lending deposits itself isn’t always bad. If I set aside some money and tell my bank I won’t be needing it for 6 months (e.g., a CD) and the bank decides to lend it, fine. But if I put money in a checking account, I expect for the entire account to be available to me whenever I want it. Lending these deposits is wrong.

3 They say writing online in all caps denotes yelling. I’m yelling. Data-collection-for-content with no alternative is such a ridiculous model. It’s like posting your origin and destination on your car in big bold letters every time you go out instead of paying tolls & taxes to maintain the road infrastructure. Or mandating see-through walls in your home for free housing. Or exchanging your medical records at restaurants for free food. What the hell?

4 I put ‘monetize’ in quotes because it’s usually not true monetization. ‘Boost paper valuation’ is a more accurate way of putting it.

Online privacy wonks, don’t parts of that story sound familiar?

Relevant: definition of an economic bubble.

7 There are many exceptions, I’m sure, but the old Google (i.e., before Google+) is the only notable one I can think of.

Several times?

9 Notice that I haven’t even mentioned the elephants in the room: surveillance and neutrality. The economic issue is incredibly significant on its own.

The lens of freedom

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a political conference. There were a host of US Senators and Congressmen, famous authors, distinguished attorneys, successful businesspeople, and even one US presidential candidate.

The usual points were made about war, economics, and foreign policy, but there were some speakers concerned with other topics. Here are two that really caught my attention:

  • Education, and the need for government to get out of the way of education reform. This exact point was a running theme in the AERO conference I attended in August, a conference which was primarily attended by education experts. Homeschooling was strongly supported; many people at this conference and at AERO had home-schooled their own children.
  • Food, and the need for healthy, wholesome foods (that we can pronounce!), environmentally sustainable agriculture, and more sensible regulation (which often means less regulation and less big-pharma influence). Experts agree here too.

Now, here’s the point: this wasn’t a conference full of liberal (whatever that means), tree-hugging, homeopathic hippies. As it turns out, the Liberty Political Action Conference (LPAC) was a gathering of the most conservative (whatever that means), free-market, freedom-minded Republicans.

Don’t get me wrong, though: these aren’t your typical, cookie-cutter, Mitt Romney-branded Republicans. They’re more Libertarian than Republican. Regardless of their official party affiliation, these people were looking at the world through the lens of freedom.

Isn’t it amazing that their solutions to education, health, and sustainability coincide with prevailing views on education, health, and sustainability from progressive, science-and-data-driven experts?

Instead of getting trapped in the endless he-said she-said tit-for-tat debate followed in mainstream news, shouldn’t we each look through the lens of freedom to determine solutions to our other problems?

Our education and economic systems are broken in the exact same way

Why has our economy stalled?  Everyone has a different answer.  Economists will blame politicians, politicians will blame other politicians, and the public will blame politicians.  The blame game continues, and so does the ineffective policy.  Very few people understand how economies work, and so they jump on the bandwagon of yet another hypocrite year after year, only to see the situation worsen.

So goes the story in education.  People blame each other for high tuition prices, ineffective K-12 instruction, and weak numbers of STEM graduates.  Teachers blame superintendents, who blame politicians, who probably find some way to blame the economy.  Another blame game ensues, and so does ineffective policy.  Yet very few people understand how education should work, and so they continue the same policy every year, only to see the situation worsen.

I am not an expert economist or an expert educator, but considering all the bonehead ideas from people who claim to be experts, I think it’s good that more and more non-experts are talking about these topics from a common-sense point of view.  So, what follows is not an expert opinion but a personal opinion gleaned from a range of texts, papers, and people.

US Economy

A core American notion is that truly free markets in which people are free to pursue ventures of their choosing to make productive use of their unique skills are the single most potent source of prosperity in a society.  This notion is rooted into the very freedom with which we pride ourselves as Americans.  Individualism rules.  It is the reason we tell our kids they can be anything they want to be when the grow up–we know nothing will get in the way of someone driven to achieve.  It is the reason entrepreneurs put everything they have on the line to build great enterprises–they know that superior offerings win in the marketplace.  So many of the greatest companies ever created by man were created here in the US because of this driving belief.

Freedom, however, is a double-edged sword.  Freedom allows for the making of good decisions and bad decisions, but freedom can only be sustained if good decisions are rewarded and bad decisions are penalized.  If those choices are distorted, problems arise.  This is the root of our economic woes right now.

How so?  Here are some examples.  Banks that made bad loans and bad trades should not require taxpayers to sympathize with them.  You took the liberty to make billions of dollars in bad loans–so you should pay the price.  The Federal Reserve should not exert so much control over interest rates and money creation–purposely maintaining low rates for long periods of time cause irrational investment decisions (i.e, bubbles).  Money doesn’t grow on trees, and that’s actually a good thing for the economy.  Politicians should give businesses more certainty on future tax rates–uncertainty is causing businesses to maintain record cash balances by curtailing investment spending.  Can you really blame those businesses?

You get what you pay for, and you shouldn’t get what you don’t pay for.

Bad policy (i.e., policy that distorts decision-making for market participants) causes people to make irrational choices.  Banks continue to make trades with outsized risk.  Artificially low interest rates facilitated by money-printing allow a gridlocked Congress to fund a bankrupt government.  Tax uncertainty precludes businesses from hiring people and making big investments.  None of this is good.

Avoiding bad policy should not be confused with calls for ‘no policy’ or ‘more policy’ or ‘less policy’.  I don’t know how much policy is good or how much policy is bad.  I am not trying to promote a ‘liberal’ platform or a ‘conservative’ platform.  All I really care for is effective policy that allows for rational decision-making.  Clearly current policy is ineffective, as irrational activity continues under bad regulation and harmful activity continues under no regulation.

US Education

What’s the problem in education?  Well, there are many problems in education, of course, and a new wave of enthusiasm from entrepreneurs and investors has brought online a wealth of learning tools focused on some of the many problems.  But, as great as these tools are, I have a hunch that the core problem in education is identical to that of the core problem in economics: bad policy is distorting choices and resulting in bad outcomes.  And the root of this problem: an unwillingness to embrace the double-edged sword of our old friend, freedom, and its impact on unleashing the creativity of the human spirit.

Just as a free market enables people to pursue endeavors that make productive use of their unique skills, good education should nurture and cultivate peoples’ unique backgrounds.  Some people are better at math than others, while some people are more artistic than others.  Some people are more athletic than others.  And of course, some people are passionate about adapting unique simplified hydroponic methods to help poor Swazi subsistence farmers.  The point is: in education as in economics, humans are a varied species.  Properly-sanctioned freedom should be at the root of education as it should be in an economy.  It facilitates proper decision-making.

Educators agree.  Two weeks ago, I was in a breakout session in a room full of 35 education experts, mostly people involved with founding and running ‘alternative education’ schools throughout the country.  The event was part of a conference hosted by the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), a nonprofit organization that promotes more effective, learner-centered education models.  The prevailing theme throughout the conference was that children’s talents naturally vary, and proper education methods should recognize this and nurture and accentuate children’s talents as they grow (a theme popularized by Sir Ken Robinson).  The method starkly contrasts with the conventional method of slamming kids with lectures, worksheets, and bookwork in 7 different subjects for 12 years and and hoping something sticks.

It’s almost like a fire was lit after the speakers at the breakout session finished speaking: the passionate and emotional frustration that poured out from these people was moving.  One teacher, in tears and uncharacteristically NSFW language, simply could not make sense of how bad the system was damaging kids’ lives and how helpless she felt as a lone agent of change in a sea of ignorance.  Another man could not understand why, after decades of knowing the root issues in education, nothing has changed.  The ideals of nurturing creativity through educational freedom are just as true and effective now as they were decades ago.  Yet, conventional education continues to fail: record numbers of students are dropping out of high school, and as a country, our workforce is not as highly-skilled as it needs to be for the digital age.

And yet, the system continues to implement bad policy.  Blatantly ignorant of human nature, governments decide what they think kids should learn and how it should be learned with input from virtually no one else.  They mandate attendance to schools that teach only what they have determined is important.  Kids are then required to go to school.  Kids must conform themselves to the ideas, perspectives, and relative performance prescribed by their teachers and peers.  The system makes it a foregone conclusion that those who do not spend tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to college will be failures.  In the end, the groups of vibrant, creative minds set to tackle different disciplines have been dulled into a conforming, like-minded herd taught the same material and held to the same standards.  It amounts to a squashing of human spirit, human potential, and independent reasoning.  If you think this is an extreme perspective, I encourage you to read this excellent paper on the history of compulsory education and its origins.

What’s being distorted here is the human spirit, and it’s leading people to unconsciously make bad decisions.  Kids and parents accept all the schools’ activities, teachings, and perspectives as unquestionably necessary and useful–independent thought and reason are rarely encouraged.  Subjects, habits, schedules, behavior, dress, attitudes, feelings, relationships and all kinds of other perspectives are gleaned from the group throughout childhood–here again, individuality is crushed as pressure to fit in continues.  Creativity is curtailed in favor of conformity in the name of arbitrary standards set by sound-bite-driven bureaucrats.  Do we need to be around people as children?  Absolutely, but the pressure to fit in to society in the prevailing social and academic ways is way higher than it should be.

The human mind is naturally dynamic, emotional, and creative.  It’s this individualism that powers capitalistic success.  It’s this same individualism that our economic system supposedly promotes but our education system squashes. Kids need some element of direction as they discover what life has to offer, for sure, but any means to help them through discovery should not strip them of their spirit.  That’s just cruel.  Everyone is born crazy enough to think they can change the world.  They should stay that way!

So what?

All the focus on educational iPad applications, online video tutorials, and community marketplaces for skills is great in utilizing technology to make education more accessible.  This is a good trend, and it needs to keep on happening.  Really ‘fixing education’, however, is going to require much, much more.  You can give kids as much as you want, but you must unshackle them from the arbitrary demands of others so they can really come into their own.  The system must give kids more freedom if it wants them to thrive.  The human spirit is insatiable, and its potential is enormous.  It’s just as true in education as it is in economics, but you have to structure the system correctly to embrace that spirit.  I’m sure technology can help, but it will require much more than an iPad app.