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Mark Twain on How To Tell A Story

by Jason on January 28, 2015

marktwainI recently discovered the “Word” category at the very bottom of my Spotify interface. Intrigued, I’ve been digging through it during my seemingly endless commutes, and have found some interesting gems.

Today, for example, I heard a reading of something Mark Twain wrote on how to tell a humorous story:

There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.

The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.

The humorous story is strictly a work of art—high and delicate art—and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story—understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print—was created in America, and has remained at home.

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the “nub” of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.

If you’re curious, you can find the audio on Spotify (it’s quite well done) or you can find the text of it here (the audio takes you through The Golden Arm).

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Walking by Rupert Ganzer CC on FlickRNew research highlighted in the New York Times has convinced me to take a 30 minute stroll every day. We’re so used to health outcomes happening on long-term time frames that it’s taken us this long to see how we feel on the same day:

Fewer studies have examined more-abrupt, day-to-day and even hour-by-hour changes in people’s moods, depending on whether they exercise, and even fewer have focused on these effects while people are at work, even though most of us spend a majority of our waking hours in an office.

The responses, as it turned out, were substantially different when people had walked. On the afternoons after a lunchtime stroll, walkers said they felt considerably more enthusiastic, less tense, and generally more relaxed and able to cope than on afternoons when they hadn’t walked and even compared with their own moods from a morning before a walk.

I’ve recently waffled on, then settled on a standing desk made of cardboard boxes instead of a sitting desk. Graduating to a daily lunchtime walk seems like a natural next step, and now it might even be defensible too.

The article with all the details is well worth a read.

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CC from FlickR

It’s a startup world out there. Let’s face it; many of the people who are working on universe-denting projects are entrepreneurs and cash is a scarce resource.

We live it, too.

We think Dent is a pretty great opportunity to build real relationships, open doors to new opportunities for growth, and hopefully exchange a few good ideas with your peers. It’s exactly the kind of edge we want to provide to little organizations with big goals.

So we’re offering 10 passes to Dent, available to Startups on a first-come first-served basis, at 50% off the regular price: $1,375.

How do I request a startup pass?

It’s easy! Just request an invitation on this form, and type “(Startup)” after the name of your organization.

We review all invitation requests manually, and we’ll be in touch to confirm your ability to register. It’s a soft science; but we all know the difference between Pinterest and a startup that could use the help.

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Stewart UgelowDenter Stewart Ugelow’s new nonprofit venture Teach Fishing, which has been brewing for around two years at this point, has been featured in the Yale Alumni Nonprofit Alliance Newsletter, via a Q&A around the origins and purpose of Teach Fishing:

Q: How did Teach Fishing start?

My parents were both career civil servants and raised us very much in the spirit of “to whom much is given, much is expected.” While I was at Yale in the late 1990s, five classmates and I founded an Internet startup that received over $1 million in venture capital funding, which was extremely rare then. At the same time, a number of my classmates started or joined nonprofits — which often had next to no funding. Whenever I could, I helped them with press releases, how to bring something to market, and a variety of other private sector skills. It was work that was meaningful and impactful for both of us.

The concept behind Teach Fishing is simple and elegant, and very important. Stewart does a great job describing the whole effort in the interview, which you can read here.

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Is Addiction Caused by Loneliness?

by Jason on January 22, 2015

Addiction by Kaushik NarasimhanAuthor Johann Hari has written a book about addiction and the war on drugs, but it wasn’t the book he thought he was going to write. According to his research, a state of addiction might actually have relatively little to do with chemical slavery:

Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”

But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.

The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

What’s particularly interesting about this is how well it backs up other research about the importance of our environment. We are more creative when we feel comfortable but are bombarded with different perspectives (cities, busy buildings). We are more criminally inclined when the setting seems to justify it (broken windows, boarded houses).

Thanks to Denter Marcus Nelson for surfacing this post in my Facebook news feed :)

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Look to Science Fiction for Great Inspiration

by Jason on January 21, 2015

CC on FlickR

I am instinctively drawn to the concept of prototyping new technologies and experiences by gluing together concepts from science fiction. Lots of it is obvious in retrospect: you may notice the iPad in Ender’s Game. Today’s smartphones were called “data pads” in 80′s Star Wars novels. And so on.

I think there’s still stuff in Ender’s Game that hasn’t arrived yet but is on the way. You remember the game that Ender plays on his iPad? That was 50% of the inspiration for DreamBox Learning, the company that Denter Jessie Wooley-Wilson runs. The other 50% was Stephenson’s Diamond Age.

So a medium post titled What I Learned About the Future by Reading 100 Science Fiction Books? Instant winner for me. And totally useful for you, too.

Go check it out.

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Amy Webb, the founder of Webbmedia Group, and co-founder of Spark Camp (a great event in its own right), is going to join us this March to conduct an interview on stage with craigslist & craigconnects founder Craig Newmark, where they will dive into a topic that’s near and dear to them both: what does the future of ethical journalism look like?

If her name sounds familiar, it might be because she’s given a TED talk that’s been viewed more than 3 million times: How I Hacked Online Dating.

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Why Your Startup Needs a Chief Economist

by steve on January 13, 2015

EconomistAs you can tell by our speaker lineup for 2015, we’re sold on the idea of firms having a “Chief Economist” on staff.

Hence our aggressive courting of Redfin’s Nela Richardson to join us onstage. In the article “Silicon Valley economists: Meet the market shapers” the Economist magazine profiles several silicon valley firms who are gaining competitive advantage via the wonkiness that economists and data scientists bring.

At Dent, we will learn firsthand from Nela Richardson how she is working with data and economic models to predict consumer behavior.

From the article (emphasis mine).

…this new breed is injecting economics into the structure of Silicon Valley firms. While they are too busy to realise it such firms are also providing the best defence of economics against its critics. Far from being unrealistic and out of touch, the role of chief economist will design the way that the firm works.

Of those who are specifically lettered in economics, they describe the work of:

Bryan Balin of SmarterTravel who builds algorithms that detect the probability that a user will become a buyer.

Scott Nicholson, a Stanford economics PhD who advised hiQ on how to detect employees at risk of leaving the company and is now building systems to benchmark sales and customer retention for Poynt.

Riley Newman, head of economics at Airbnb whose efforts led to techniques to better align supply and demand of lodging.

Request your invitation to Dent here.

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Entrepreneur MagWe typically think what happens at Dent is pretty cool and pretty well worth the time, but it’s really nice to see some other folks think so, too.

Entrepreneur Magazine posted their list of 9 Conferences in 2015 That Are Worth Your Time and Money, and right there at the top of the list is Dent (along with other events we respect like PopTech and ONA).

Fun side note: we posted the news to Facebook, and Olympic Gold Medalist Dick Fosbury’s comment was “So true.” In other words, yeah, even Olympians who redefined their sport in front of the world think Dent is pretty neat.

If you’re interested in joining us this March 22-25, request an invite. Or you can read more about the conference itself on our conference page.

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The Economics of Sloppy Journalism

by steve on December 30, 2014

CraignewmarkDent speaker Craig Newmark will be joining us in Sun Valley this March to provide insights into a topic near and dear to him, the importance of trust in journalism. Craig asserts that a trustworthy press functions as the “immune system of democracy”, and while that sounds intuitively true, what evidence exists to support that case?

It turns out quite a bit of research backs up this claim. For a sample, see Coyne and Leeson: “Media as a Mechanism of Institutional Change and
Reinforcement”
, Kumar: “Promoting Independent Media: Strategies for Democracy Assistance”, and Weder “A free press is bad news for corruption”.

Positive Externalities of a Functional Press Market

To the uninitiated, the term “externality” has a negative connotation (pollution, etc.). Economists know well that positive externalities are pervasive too, and Jacobsson, Becker at. al. say a healthy, competitive, media marketplace provides a society with the positive externality of enhancing democracy (emphasis mine):

Additionally, independent high-quality journalism products have significant socioeconomic
externality value
in the form of encouraging democracy, fostering development of a civil society, supporting economic development, promoting governmental transparency and discouraging corruption…This leads some to suggest that the true value of media
includes the provision of quality information that serves society’s needs
…and that the definitions of consumer welfare and utility in media markets should reflect that.”

In other words, individuals consume news they like, and as a by-product society gets better institutions.

The Problem of Hypercompetition

The problem? Jacobsson, Becker at. al provide a lot of evidence that this externality is greatly mitigated in a “hypercompettive” market. What is hypercompetition? They define it as:

“…a market in which supply substantially exceeds demand so that a large percentage of the producers in the market operate at a loss and are dependent upon subsidies from external sources to stay in business. In the case of media, a hypercompetitive market is one where combined revenues from advertising and subscriptions are insufficient to cover operating costs for many of the media companies in the market. By some estimates, up to one-third of total media-industry operating costs in some developing countries come from external subsidies rather than operating revenues.”

At first blush, this does not seem like much of a problem. More than ample consumer choice is typically viewed as a positive thing, and while it may be true that an individual consumer can better find what they want, there is evidence this translates into a net societal loss.

What is the result of hypercompetition in media?

“…media markets often are characterized by hypercompetition suggest that excessive competition may result in low-cost, low-quality news strategies such as focusing on scandal and sensationalism…It also may produce media organizations and
media workers susceptible to influence peddling, and journalists who are not well-prepared for the challenges of their profession. In short, it may well be that under conditions of hypercompetition, media that survive in the market may do so at the expense of their journalistic product and their larger contributions to society. “

Contrast this to the healthy optimum in terms of competition:

“A synthesis of these two models suggests there should be an optimal level of competition relative to the resources available in the market that would produce a sufficient number of financially strong media companies to make the industry largely impervious to outside influence.”

Mitigating the Incidence of Low-Quality News

One of the main areas where Craig has been focusing his attention lately is on how news consumers can benefit from traditional principles and ethical standards of journalism. Efforts of institutions he supports (Poynter Institute, Center for Public Integrity, etc. serve to augment the educational efforts of traditional journalism schools.

These organizations directly addresses a core symptom of hypercompetition (emphasis mine):

In media markets suffering from hypercompetition, however, the sharp increase in the number of media organizations sometimes outstrips the ability of the educational infrastructure to produce enough professionally trained journalists. Additionally, inadequate audience and advertiser resources relative to the number of media outlets in the market keep wages for journalists low despite the limited labor supply, making it difficult to attract qualified professionals to available jobs (Hollifield, Becker & Vlad, 2004; 2006). The consequence is that many working journalists and other independent content producers have little professional education or training.

We are looking forward to seeing Craig in Sun Valley, and to us all delving into this topic more deeply.

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