The “world’s economy” is a confusing term often described in terms such as “globalized”, “interconnected” or “free”. Stepping one level lower, economists often compare economies based on “Gross Domestic Product”, in order to determine the two “P’s” and the two “D’s”: profitable versus poor and developed versus developing. But underneath all of the economic activity and the invisible market forces, there are “institutions”, which stand to measure, regulate, and facilitate economic growth.

In the book Institutions and the Economy, Francesco Duina explains the seemingly ambiguous term “institution”, and he explores the various functions of economic institutions in the world’s economy. Duina explains institutions as they are understood from a sociological perspective, the impact of institutions on individuals and larger groups of people, and the challenges that institutions faces from the outside and within.

What are institutions?

Institutions have been around for centuries and are a fundamental asset to civilized life. However, the word “institution” was rarely used beyond the most recent two hundred years. During the Renaissance as the academic world began to open up and explore various new disciplines such as Economics, Political Science, and Sociology, the term became increasingly useful.

“Institution” is used to describe a wide variety of functions depending on the person you ask, but Duina explains that “…virtually all scholars agree on at least two aspects of institutions: institutions are fairly stable entities (i.e., if they change at all they typically do so slowly), and institutions exert some sort of influence on actors in society…”(22). To summarize, institutions are stable and exert influence.

Duina notes the important distinction, stability, amongst institutions because, “They stand in contrast to other spaces in society, such as networks of friends”(22). And perhaps the most surprising and important variance in Duina’s theory is the following distinguishment: organizations in the economy are entities that are heavily influenced by the rules and traditions set forth by institutions, but they are not institutions themselves (22).

He provides numerous specific examples of institutions, such as the notion of property rights (49) and the failure of Enron (88), but all the while repeating that the impact of institutions “…is multifold and varied. Sometimes they are intimately and causally connected to the economic reality we observe. At other times, they provide the broader context in which economic activity unfolds”(60). This overarching influence of institutions is especially present at the nation-state level. Both formal institutions, such as intimately written laws, and informal institutions, such as the tradition of a 9AM to 5PM work-day, significantly dictate day-to-day life.


Laws and traditions exist, but so what? Why do participants in society follow them? Interestingly, Duina goes as far as to comment on the reasoning for which institutions are created and then perpetuated into infinity: isomorphism. The idea of isomorphism “…refers to the fact that widespread conformity to certain models and myths produces organizations that look and behave alike”(88).

Through coercion, entities are forced by dominating institutions to follow a certain code of behavior or face penalties. For example, city governments impose parking fines if you park a vehicle in the wrong spot.

In moments when rules are not clear and uncertainty weighs heavily into decision-making, mimetic desire applies. Rene Girard believes this is why Christianity remains the world’s most popular religion.

Finally, normative isomorphism simply describes a continuation of the status quo; meaning that some entities in society take certain actions not necessarily because they are required, but instead because they are motivated out of  habit and social acceptance. Peter Thiel believes this is the root cause for a widespread belief in college education in America.

Thus, the power of institutions is conformity. An organization’s decision to conform depends on how vulnerable it is to issues of legitimacy.

Organizations that produce products or services that are vaguely defined (such as the college that I attend, Wake Forest) may need to do more to establish their legitimacy compared to those that produce more recognized outputs. Hence the abundant evidence of this type of behavior on the homepage of the Wake Forest website, where the school is described as “…consistently ranked among the top 30 universities in the nation.”. This description exists to reassure uneasy visitors of Wake Forest’s legitimacy.

Expanding Thoughts

Despite a continuous dominance of institutions in all facets of life, they are especially vulnerable to change. The interconnected nature of the economy is such that almost any change in institutions at the nation-state level is bound to have a far-reaching rippling effect. For example, the idea of the Western nation-state, one that has an “…education system which is secular and universal, offering instruction in scientific, humanistic, and artistic disciplines” is constantly under fire from religious radicals. Furthermore, an increasing homogenization of cultures throughout the world provides an efficient basis for grouping and organizing economic activity, but also threatens to preserve centuries-old institutions that cannot compete on an economic basis.

Finally, I am personally most looking forward to tracking the challenges that are faced by institutions which stand to exist independently of other institutions, such as the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Is it right that all money has to be legitimized by some sort of governing agency? Or can economic activity sustain and thrive outside of formal institutions? Will experiments in alternatives to college and alternative currencies offer a path to reconsider the role of institutions? I am interested to find out.


02 2015

Mass Culture Versus Popular Culture

Culture” is one of the more vague and confusing words in the English language. For example, is Chinese culture Chinese food or Chinese films? The word “China” is confusing in and of itself.

What scholars know is that the vocabulary of culture is increasing. From a term that was limited to high culture versus folk culture and mass culture versus popular culture, now exists a term that is appended onto an array of terms that describe sub-cultures and counter-cultures, such as sports culture and gay culture. There are now entire college departments designed to promote multiculturalism and diversity of all kinds. “Culture”, whatever that means, is on the rise.

Mentions of the word “culture” via the Google Books Ngram Viewer:

Are we experiencing a culture shock? Probably, but that’s not news. The first Portuguese and Spanish explorers that sailed around the world were likely surprised to meet indigenous people with vastly different beliefs and behavior.

What is rapidly changing, however, is the methods for which mass culture is produced, and popular culture is consumed. That’s the difference right there. Mass culture is something that is produced and popular culture that is consumed.

Governments, multinational corporations, and individual people have the ability to influence people more quickly than ever before with web technology such as blogs, YouTube, and Twitter. And each individual citizen now has more influence in choosing popular culture in the form of text message votes for American Idol, Instagram likes, and Reddit Upvotes.

I am interested to track how popular culture evolves. Mass culture is unlikely to change much beyond its primary mediums, because it is rooted in maintaining ignorance, oppression, and passiveness. Meanwhile the latter, “culture”, signifies a chance to grow, develop, and to change the present.

The U.S. in particular has a variety of institutions that are strong producers of popular culture, such as Disney, Universal Studios, and Warner Music Group. But these institutions are facing troubling times. Substantial markers of change include the YouTube Music Services Agreement and also what Y Combinator calls “Hollywood 2.0“:

In 2014, movies had their worst summer since 1997. Just like future celebrities are unlikely to get their start with talent agencies, future content consumers will watch content online instead of at the theater, and probably in very different ways.

Celebrities now have direct relationships with their fans. They can also distribute content in new ways.

There are almost certainly huge new businesses that will get built as part of this shift.

I agree. The businesses of entertainment and popular culture are not going away but they are already shifting in who has control. My hope is that this shift will further empower the producers of great content and the fans that adore them.



01 2015

Flight Hacking

2014 was a big year for me in terms of moving the dial in my coursework and getting on track to move past college. I enrolled in over fifty credits at Wake Forest, and this correspondingly high amount of classwork took a toll on me at many points. I prioritized travel in my few weeks off because through travel I was able to refresh myself and unlock new perspectives on the world.

I traveled to San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco (2x), Seattle, Miami, London, Dublin, Shanghai, Xi’an, Beijing, New York City, Washington D.C., Asheville, and ~42 weeks in Winston-Salem. Some of this travel was completely subsidized by big companies for interviews and by my parents for family travel, but most of my other plans were made possible due to finding special flight deals. Luckily I’ve been successful with finding the deals due to various communities on the Internet, but finding the deals before they expire is the tougher challenge. Often the unbelievably low fares are mistakes in the airlines’ reservation system or promotions on new routes. Neither of these types of deals last long.

Since I believe that travel will play an important role in my life for many years to come, I’ve added a couple of simple habits to my daily routine that will hopefully help me fly cheaply for as long as necessary:

My discovery process:

  • Visit The Flight Deal blog
    • I’m not sure who’s behind this operation, but its very active and the best source for deals I’ve ever seen.



  • Visit
    • Great place to discover newly announced routes and their associate promotions.


  • IFFT
    • Get automated updates from The Flight Deal and FlyerTalk sent to your email or phone.



The only other tool I need is a place to actually purchase the fares: I can do that by just going to the airline’s website, or sometimes I use the intuitive and friendly Google Flights search tool. If I feel like making more advanced searches, I explore the ITA Matrix Airfare Search, which is also owned by Google.

With the right discovery routine and the right resources, the world can be yours! For example, this week I booked a round-trip flight in March from New York – Abu Dhabi for a total of just $178! I discovered this deal on Etihad airlines by doing the things I just outlined for less than five minutes every day. Good luck!


12 2014

Product Hunt

Rarely these days does a new online community or news site enter my daily direct search routine (meaning that I directly navigate to the site daily on instinct). The bar for producing consistently high quality content is usually too high for any small group of people, thus a strong founding community is necessary. Product Hunt has that passionate group.

Product Hunt is a curated list of the best new products discovered on the web, every day. They have a strong community of early adopters who submit new products that are then curated by the Product Hunt team. I believe they are going to be a big deal.

Andreessen Horowitz recently lead their $6 million series A funding round at a $22 million valuation. But this is just the beginning… I could easily see Product Hunt growing into a $100 million company. Why? Seemingly overnight, they are now consistently ranking as a top two thousand website in the U.S..

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 8.50.16 PM

The climb to acquire new loyal fans beyond investors, founders, and other early adopters will be more difficult. But each new Product Hunt user is far more valuable than a new user on a purely social site such as Reddit or Facebook. Regular users on Product Hunt are using the site with their wallets open; they are ready to test and buy.

Ryan Hoover, founder and CEO of Product Hunt, recently stated in a Forbes interview:

In the short term, we’re going to see more and more products being launched and being scooped on Product Hunt because there are so many users and products and their motivation will be the first one to submit them.

Typically in the past, startup founders building technology products have often introduced their work to the world via a “TechCrunch of Initiation” or “Show Hacker News“, both of which contain the early adopter audience but are not particularly optimized for showcasing products. Product Hunt provides the community interaction through comments but does one better — they segment new submissions by day and curate the content.

Product Hunt is product filtering, not product search. They are providing a classic synaptic web improvement. They are “…making connections between the content and conversations in your daily life and your current interests and future intents” by adding a little “…machine learning, human teaching and user experience improvements.”. This has lead to a phenomenally simple and reliable service for curious minds.

Overall the first year of Product Hunt has been an impressive one. I’ll be tracking this company closely.


11 2014

Uber in Winston-Salem

Get your first ride FREE! Sign up here!


The on-demand ride service, Uber, has been operating in Winston-Salem for over four months, with fast growing popularity amongst Wake Forest students. Uber has become a more convenient alternative to taxis in major cities around the world, but the change doesn’t stop there:

Uber customers request a ride on their smartphone, and then a pre-screened driver arrives in minutes ready to drive you wherever you need to go. 


Uber currently offers its budget UberX service in Winston-Salem, which is provided by drivers who pick up customers in their own cars. For safe measure, each customer is required to provide feedback on their ride experience, 1-5 stars.

2014-10-26 14.46.13

We decided to take a trip to one of Winston-Salem’s popular coffee shops, Camino Bakery. From Wake we rode in a taxi and we returned in an Uber. Here are the highlights from our discussion with key stakeholders affected by Uber’s introduction: 




     Uber Driver – Hamad



How did you hear about Uber?

I heard about Uber through a friend who drives full-time in D.C.. I applied and passed their background check. Then I had to show them my car, which had to be from 2005 or later.

How long have you been driving?

I’ve been with Uber for two months. I really like it.

What differentiates Uber from other part-time or full-time jobs?

I’m my own boss. I set my own hours, it’s perfect for my free time on weekends.

Where are most of your customers?

I’m from Greensboro but I mostly drive in Winston-Salem.

How long do you work?

I usually work a few hours during the day on Saturday and Sunday.

 About how much do you make?

Uber drivers take home 80% of the trip total.

How is the competition amongst Uber drivers and taxis in Winston-Salem? 

The taxi drivers seem to be upset that Uber is taking over a lot of business. 

Any last thoughts?

I believe Uber is going to be something huge. We are just at the tip of the iceberg.


Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 4.19.45 PM



     Student –  Chris Ditta



How did you hear about Uber?

I first heard about Uber from my older brother, who lives in New York City.

How often do you use it?

I use Uber about once a month, because even though I have my own car, it’s a great supplement for going downtown.

 Why do you choose to use Uber?

Regular cabs are too much of a hassle, booking a ride via Uber’s app is just too convenient.

What’s your favorite thing about Uber?

My favorite thing about uber is that its cash free; it goes right to your card so you don’t have to worry about fares and tips. I’ve yet to have a negative experience using Uber.



     City Taxi Commissioner – Rod Ring



Have you heard of Uber?

 Yes, I’ve heard they have been operating here for several months. 

How do you you feel about Uber?

As a regulator, I don’t have an opinion on them. There’s a new North Carolina state law that prohibits the regulation of services with digital dispatch. I believe Uber falls under this category.

Is Uber violating any city laws?

Typical vehicles for hire in Winston-Salem require a franchise application (3 years), driver background check, and vehicle inspection. Uber has not completed any of these items through our office, but under North Carolina state law they are not required to.





     Traditional Taxi Driver – Juan Bugg



Have you heard of Uber?

Yeah, I’ve heard of it, a lot of other drivers have been talking about it.

Have you noticed a decrease in fares from Wake students?

It hasn’t impacted me personally, most of my customers are local Winston residents. I haven’t noticed it, I don’t feel any difference.

 Have you seen people using Uber?

 Not really, most of what I’ve heard has come from complaints from other taxi drivers.

How would you feel about driving your own car?

 Personally, I’m happy to drive a cab. A lot of our customers don’t even have smartphones, so there will always be business for me.

 How much do you pay the cab company to lease a car?

I have to pay to lease the cab from Classic Cabs, and I pay for my own gas.

 . . .

A comparison of our trip to and from Camino Bakery:

Taxi Uber
Time to pick up                                   11 minutes 12 minutes
Type of car   Ford Minivan_____ Toyota Camry
Comfort level Excellent Excellent
Driver knowledge & friendliness Excellent Excellent
Cost $10.50 + tip $10.43


Overall we were happy with both our taxi and Uber experience. Uber is certainly facing growing pains that come with any radical change in consumer preferences. However, they are quickly establishing themselves as a competitive and accessible competitor in the taxi market in North Carolina and around the world.


10 2014

The Swadesh List

Have you ever traveled to a place where you don’t know the language? The feeling of being surrounded by people you can’t communicate with is overwhelming and isolating.

I recently learned about a technique that linguists use when they are translating a newly discovered language in a community where no bilingual speakers exist. One common technique is to establish the “Swadesh List” — A list of “100 words for things that were fairly concrete, could be pointed at or demonstrated, and were presumably universal (not culture-specific).”

Essentially these linguists are saying that all you need to know are these 100 words to survive your trip anywhere!

This list appears below:


So, it appears that there is some truth to the international language of pointing and making signs with your hands! If you can point and memorize just these 100 words, you’ll be able to communicate almost anything!

The theory is rooted in a well-known idea in linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis states that language highly influences a human’s thoughts and behavior. Put differently, the way your language works also determines how you think. Additional reading material on Sapir-Whorf and the Swadesh List can be found here.


10 2014

The Contrarian Question

The question from chapter two of Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

…is a difficult question to answer, Thiel acknowledges. He goes on to say:

This is a question that sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

Most commonly, I hear answers like the following:

“Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.”

“America is exceptional.”

“There is no God.”

These are bad answers. The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

When we can escape thinking of the past and present and formulate a good answer, that’s as close as we can get to seeing the future.

So, what is the future? And how can we begin to formulate a good answer?

The future is time and events that have yet to come. Most importantly, the future is a time when things in the world are different from how they are currently. When a person or place acts or behaves the same as the past, the future has not yet arrived; what is being experienced in the present is merely a similar version of the past.

Thiel advises that in order to pursue the future, we may benefit from starting with a more simple question:

It may be easier to start with a preliminary: what does everybody agree on?

Once we understand what is commonly accepted, we can begin questioning what we know about the past and present. And then we will be on our way towards making the future.

. . . 

I bring this question up because recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be contrary to accepted societal ideals. The easiest example most of us experience daily is observing people who dress “weirdly”. People who dress fashionably fall into this category of thought too. Is counter-culture a culture itself? And are fashionable people really unique?

I think it’s important to consider these questions every so often because it helps me to reexamine exactly what I believe is true. Professionally, it helps me identify opportunities:

Most people believe its great to work for x, but the truth is the opposite of x.

Most people believe the next great technology is x, but the truth is the opposite of x.

Or personally:

Most people believe its great to spend their free time doing x, but the truth is the opposite of x.

Most people believe its great to be good friends with x, but the truth is the opposite of x.

Remember, these are difficult questions because societal norms are by definition agreed upon, and an authentic answer is sharing something that is known to be unpopular. Would you have been comfortable turning down a high paying job at Google to work at the lowly startup Airbnb in 2007? Or a better consideration: What company started just recently that will become the Google of 2002 or the Uber of today?

I first attempted to answer this question in late 2010. Since then, whether I’ve found myself trying to make change at home, in the local community, recruiting TEDx speakers, or any other venue, I’ve found the contrarian question to be a useful starting point.


09 2014

Four Words

Tomorrow I will begin what is likely to be my last school year. My fifteenth “first day of school” (I skipped a year of college). Optimism and uncertainty abound, like any student about to embark on a new year. There’s a lot to look forward to as a senior at Wake Forest.

Although I’m sure I will learn quite a bit in my classes, I’m certain my experiences outside of the classroom are the ones that I will cherish the most. I didn’t fully realize this when I first arrived in Winston-Salem, but I now understand that my classes are a vehicle for helping me interpret the world outside of the classroom. Recent experiences such as a conversation with the CEO of one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, mourning the death of one of the greatest Americans (Maya Angelou), or a day on the set of a feature Hollywood film have all come unexpectedly — and I’m sure my mind will continue to expand in ways that I can’t predict.

My english professor last spring was one of those people who fulfilled on his potential to “change the way you think”. He didn’t begin our course with a syllabus; he began with four words.


adj. Intended to ward off evil.


adj. 1. Excessively determined. 2. Having more than one determining psychological factor.


n. Indignation or ill will felt as a result of a real or imagined grievance.


adj. 1. Of or concerning the appreciation of beauty or good taste. 2. Characterized by a heightened sensitivity to beauty.
n. 1. A guiding principle in matters of artistic beauty and taste; artistic sensibility. 2. An underlying principle, a set of principles, or a view often manifested by outward appearances or style of behavior.

He believed that the behavior of the characters in the literature (and life) is often rooted in these words; thus a useful interpretation mechanism. I hope to keep these words in mind during this next year.

Go Deacs!


08 2014

Brain Drain

From Wikipedia:

Human capital flight (also known as brain drain) refers to the departure or emigration of individuals with technical skills or knowledge from organizations, industries, and geographical regions.

Brain drain is a serious influence in our world and it’s only something that I’ve recently become aware of having recently lived outside of a major center of intellectual capital. I currently live in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is home to Reynolds Tobacco, Hanes Brands, and Krispy Kreme. Not exactly the most innovative businesses but also not bad businesses. They support an enormous workforce in this area, contribute to the local community, and are richly ingrained in the American heritage. There’s something to be said for these institutions, but they simply do not attract talent in a way that top banks, consultancies, healthcare companies, and tech firms routinely do. The result is that top students at Wake Forest and other nearby schools end up immediately leaving the place that provided them such a strong education.

This emigration of intellectual and technical capital is “brain drain”. It occurs on a much larger scale, where currently top African and Asian students leave their home country to study and work in the USA. And it also occurs within centers of intellectual capital, such as the recent trend of Google engineers leaving to join other companies or build their own startups in Silicon Valley.

A prerequisite for a world class – anything – is the ability to foster and retain talent. Current examples of countries include the USA, England, Germany. Cities such as New York, London, Tokyo. And companies such as Tesla, Apple, Intel. When an entity can’t adequately support its top people, the best people leave in large numbers, and brain drain is the result.

The brain drain phenomenon is commonly seen in the world of professional sports, such as the Miami Heat attracting many of basketball’s star players. Another strong example of brain drain is depicted in the documentary “The Two Escobars“. In short, the king pin drug dealer Pablor Escobar used the massive profits from his drug empire to attract and retain native Colombian soccer players in the local professional league. Once the drug empire eroded, so did the big pay checks for the best Colombian players, and they eventually signed back on with European clubs.

As clearly shown by professional sports, the places that attract the best people, “brain magnets”, tend to offer the best economic incentives. The generalization that Wikipedia uses is the following:

Alpha++ cities are London and New York City, which are vastly more integrated with the global economy than all other cities.

Other cities complement these two economic hubs, most often serving large niches of the economy or acting as a link between economic regions. Here’s more info on what it means to be a “Global City” and how each major city around the world stacks up: 

Looking forward, I hope to spend a significant period of time in the next few years living, learning and growing in one of these global cities.



08 2014

“The danger of a single story.”

This recent thread on Reddit highlights a few noteworthy TED talks. One of the most up-voted replies was the talk “The danger of a single story.” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Adichie makes several great points during this talk, mainly related to her theme that viewing anything from just one perspective can lead to great misunderstandings. I agree with her thoughts and this line in particular stood out to me:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

One of my professors recently remarked that nearly all news outlets today have become “boosters for their own causes”. You could probably extend that to “all people have become boosters for their own causes”. Perhaps it’s impossible to avoid bias, but we are all capable of seeking additional angles. We are capable of understanding a complete story provided that we put forth the energy to seek it out.

Personally, I’ve found the threat of a great misunderstanding frequently extends into personal relationships. Gossip produces unhealthy grapevines. When you hear something through the informal passing of information, the picture is often incomplete. Thus, one of the best filters I’ve discovered for “friends of good” lately is to simply take notice of who has asked for your side of the story in a particular conflict. True friends are often those who will not stand for incomplete information; they recognize the danger of a single story.



07 2014