Friday, March 30, 2007

Be Hospitable: Waiting for Answers

The last post I made dealt with the chief Christian value of hospitality and how places like CouchSurfing could possibly revive this spiritual imperative because they curb fear. On some mornings my preparation for the day includes watching part of a morning episode of ESPN. The other morning when ESPN shifted to commercial, Hilton ran an advertisement twice in the span of 5 minutes in which they referred people to their website titled On the website people offer testimonials of times when hospitality was heaped upon them and how grateful they were for it. This really underscores the power of hospitality. It's a feel good site. So hospitality is good, now, let's look at the economic side of CouchSurfing.

(Approx.)Number of Hotels Owned by Top 10 Hotel Owning Companies in 2005: 27,000
(Approx.)Total Hotel Revenues in 2006: 100 Billion Dollars

Should hotels be scared of such a network as CouchSurfing? Probably, not. Mark and I anticipate that it would drive down the demand for hostels to the demographic of school aged backpackers but will have zero effect on business travelers that stay at the Marriott or Hilton. (As an aside, I wonder if the movie Hostel had any damaging effects on the demand for hostel stay?) While those statistics had nothing to do with that argument here is a definition that will be important to risk reduction analysis:

Trust Metric: A trust metric is a measure of how a member of a group is trusted by other members. Examples include: references that you would include on a resume (in this case it would be a potential member) or feedback that you give on a buyer or seller on internet purchases.

There were two questions that I submitted to the folks at CouchSurfing, when they post a reply I will post on the blog. Here are the two questions:

1. If somebody uses a voucher system in which one person vouches for another's credibility and the "vouchee" becomes a problem for hosts by breaking some universal code of behavior such as stealing, would the voucher be penalized?

2. Are you recording the traits of all of the failures between host and guest? What are the dynamics of such failures? Do you use that information to perform regression analysis to isolate the contributing factors? Regression analysis is a tool economists use to control variables and test any variable's individual impact on a correlation. That is what econometricians do, an example of who thinks that is important: American Express. Econometricians are in big supply out at their Phoenix office because they can analyze the characteristics of credit card theft and throw up red flags more effectively.

So that was really more than two questions, but I hope they get back to me. CouchSurfing wants to streamline all of its current trust metrics into one overall better metric. This is kind of like the NCAA BCS rankings in which many factors (strength of schedule, coach's poll, AP poll, margin of victory, stuff like that) contribute to one numerical ranking. But much like the BCS there is the potential for controversy.

Skim to the Next Paragraph if you don't like the Technical Side
Anytime you use ordinal rankings, like the BCS or VH1's Top 100 Most Shocking Rock Moments Ever, you run into problems of violating some reasonable principles for "what is best". Say for instance that there are three traits they were looking at for our guests: The Guest Cleans Up After Himself (We'll call this choice A), The Guest is Conversational (B), The Guest is Culturally Different (C). Then say that there are three people that vote on the characteristics they find desirable in a guest.

Characteristic Preferences of the Voters
1. ABC (Clean, Conversational, Culturally Diverse)
2. BCA (Conversational, Culturally Diverse, Clean)
3. CAB (Culturally Diverse, Clean, Conversational)

Because it violates the transitive property in mathematics where if A=B and B=C, then A=C we know this is not what we want. But there are all kinds of flaws within ranking systems like this. If you want to investigate further look at Arrow's Impossibility Theorem:
The same problems exist with scalar rankings like putting your guest on a rank 1 to 5, unless you really believe that the thing you rate as "5" is in fact "5" times better than "1". So all of this is to say, they have their hands full trying to find one overall metric. Maybe they should consider sticking with the metrics they already have but including regression analysis to isolate potential red flags, maybe they already are, but they haven't written me back yet.

If You Left, Welcome Back: The Bottom Line
CouchSurfing desires a steady scale they can point to in order to reassure someone that bad things will not happen. This is a move in the right direction but we must realize that there is no trust metric system that will eliminate everyone's fears. You can't account for psychopaths but you can account for many other things. Here is the the truth, to practice hospitality you are going to have to go out on a limb. The question will be whether the limb is the size of a twig or a trunk.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Netheads and Christianity

Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal ( has a good article this morning on issues surrounding the YouTube lawsuits. Doug and I make almost exactly the same point in our book, namely that "individual choice" is a cultural idol of our age, and music downloading and YouTube clips are manifestations of it. Henninger talks about the effect of all of this on politics. Doug and I warn against the tendency of Christians to "unbundle" individual verses of the Bible, missing the overall themes. If this is so, then the cultural imperative of individual choice may not be good for Christianity, or at least we will need to be cautious of its influences. However, Henninger makes another point, namely that unbundling may cause people to be suspicious of overarching claims to political meaning. He uses as an example the surprising popularity of RudyGiuliani among so-called cultural conservatives. What is the implication of this argument for Christians? If "unbundling" leads to Christians rejecting the idea that Christianity's meaning is single dimensional ("higher taxes on the rich" or "pro-Life") then there could also be some good which comes of this.

Modern Monks Couch Surf

Mark wanted me to make the first post; instead I stared at the blinking vertical line on the word processor. Despite the blog readership being small, comprised mostly of family and close friends there are still nerves about my ability to do these topics justice. Being that this is my first post I find it fitting that it will be on the subject of hospitality and as we mentioned in our statement we would love for people to join in the conversation.

At the start of spring break a few weeks ago, twelve people from the Florida State Wesley Foundation (including myself) set out for the Holy Visitation Monastery in Mobile, Alabama. The name, however, was a little deceiving. This was no “monkery” instead it was a “nunnery”. The nuns weren’t cloistered (to be cloistered is to be secluded from the world, for nuns this meant they wouldn’t interact with others except through a medium such as a screen) but the setting was fairly traditional and the nuns dressed in the conventional garb wearing the black habit and the rigid white veil across their forehead.
Sister Margaret Mary greeted us in the foyer when we arrived Friday night; many of the other sisters were sick in bed, all of them on the greater side of fifty. After that first night, I didn’t see the nuns for about thirty-six hours and though our group wasn’t bumping into them all over the grounds there was a sense that if we needed anything it wouldn’t be a problem. We felt completely at home in their home. Ah, hospitality. We were staying in Mobile but being in the south probably had very little to do with the fact that we were so heartily welcomed. Southern hospitality may be famed but we have no monopoly, hospitality being one of the greatest monastic values.
St. Pachomios established the first Christian monastery between 318 and 323 in Tabenessi, Egypt, starting a shift from the hermetic style of monasticism made popular with St. Anthony. These new monastic communities were mutually beneficial for the monks but they also had a secondary effect of offering a warm place to stay for travelers passing through. The hermits may also have welcoming personalities but what were they going to offer, a cave? So this was a step up and welcoming strangers is a pretty biblical thing (Romans 12:13, 1 Peter 4:9, 3 John 1:8, etc.)
But we’re not in the business of inviting strangers into our home. For some of us it may be a stretch to even invite our families to spend the weekend in our residence let alone a potential ax murderer. So, we’ll be nice to all the people we do encounter, make soup for a friend that is sick in bed, but we’re not going to be radical and have a complete stranger in our house. That would be nuts, unless you’re signed up for was started by Casey Fenton, a weary dot-com employee, who sent an email out before a trip to Iceland, found some hospitable locals to shack him up and show him around. Not only did he vow to never stay in another hotel, he thinks that we all have something to gain by not staying in hotels when we travel. CouchSurfing’s expressed mission statement is:

CouchSurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding. As a community we strive to do our individual and collective parts to create world a better place, and we believe that the surfing of couches is a mean to accomplish this goal. CouchSurfing is not about the furniture, not just about finding free accommodations around the world; it's about making connections worldwide. We make the world a better place by opening our homes, our hearts, and our lives. We open our minds and welcome the knowledge that cultural exchange makes available. We create deep and meaningful connections that cross oceans, continents and cultures. CouchSurfing wants to change not only the way we travel, but how we relate to the world!

That’s just it, they want to change not just the way we travel, but how we relate to the world. They want to “facilitate cultural understanding” and learning from interacting with travelers, which is exactly what happened in biblical times. Passer-bys were fantastic forms of entertainment. Not being able to flip on the nightly news or the O’Reily Factor the hosts would expect the traveler to regale them with stories about the outside world. But the marginal cost of inviting someone I don’t know into my house is greater than my marginal benefit of hearing some cool stories. I have the Dish network. If I want to know about Morocco I can watch the Travel Channel. Fear is a common concern.
Fenton probably hears those concerns in his sleep at night. In the frequently asked questions section of the website Couch Surf talks about being vouched for by a friend already vouched for in their travels as well as verification systems to reduce problems. They also have an E Bay style rating system where the host can grade the guest and the guest can likewise rate the host. There is a caveat however, once you sign up you are required to make your couch available, but, no, you are not required to accept everyone who knocks at your email box. Now there are 188,085 Couch Surfers world wide in 213 countries. The website already faced adversity when it had a database crash and reorganized to version 2.0 in 2006. Now the network seems poised to increase at a great rate. If you would like to get hooked into their network visit
The most unique feature of the nuns was the peace in their complexions. They are human, yes, so I’m going to guess they had been afraid at some point in their lives but they didn’t show fear and certainly would accept someone showing up at their doorstep. In my form of asymptotic Christianity I will try to get ever closer to a Christ like attitude but I’m sure that I will never be quite the host that God intended me to be. Maybe I’ll just have to get over my risk aversion. Couch Surf looks like a helpful tool to curb my fear.

Among the extolled philosophies on Couch Surfing they have what they call, “The Center for Adventure Economics” which grapples with such economic subjects as risk reduction, efficient allocation, and motivation of non profit, pay it forward societies. In our next post we will deal more in the economic side of Couch Surfing.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Not just the first post of the day, but the first post of the first day of this blog. Doug and I have spent the past three months on what seemed like an insane project, writing a popular book about faith and economics for missional Christians. Well, the book is completed, at least until the first publisher gets a hold of it. The purpose of Wise as Serpents is to continue the discussions in our book to ongoing examples of issues in Christian compassion. We may include some excerpts from the book, which includes everything from the Land Promise to Brian Wilson to the Gong Show.