Predictably, I am yet again not going to talk about education and information.  Because I was watching an episode of NOVA last night that focused on energy solutions for the future and the protect of our environment.  One of the innovations was a “branch” of CO2 removing material that was cut up such that it ended up looking much like a pine tree branch.  As the scientist pointed out, the CO2 branch did just about the same thing as the tree, except significantly more efficiently.

Which got me thinking about how we’re better than evolution.  I’ve posted before about Peter Diamandis thesis that we can technologize our way out of the environmental problems that currently plague us, and my belief that he is essentially right.  But to me, this is a new argument that I’m actually rather taken with: that we are just doing faster evolution.

Nature is very good at responding to changes in environments.  One species starts eating too many plants?  The plants adapt to defend themselves.  Or another species starts eating the surplus of the first species.  Or any of a million other tweaks (and more than one of them).

But nature is slow: it has only a single tool for adaptation and that is evolution.  Its entire language is the genome and it is the only language it speaks.  And rather like sending a message in a bottle, it takes an incredibly long time to communicate in this language, so change is slow.  We, on the other hand, have many methods for responding to environmental changes.  Technology, society, legislation, etc.  And all of them are comparatively fast, since we don’t have to wait for people to die off before we start to see the change.

And we have another advantage: our change is not the lottery.  That is, when evolution needs to communicate a change, it does so through random chance: it must rely on multiple mutations and then have them happen enough times to rise to the top, like some insane Monte Carlo simulation.  I have friends that do this kind of math and judging from the computers they use, this is an incredibly inefficient method of adaptation.

But we’re deliberate.  Instead of random chance, we can use the tremendous power of the human mind (and the tremendous number of human minds that we have) to solve problems by more than just chance.  And consequently, our designs adapt much faster than nature’s: we can make, in a single generation (in a single day, even), a tree branch that is massively more efficient than something it takes nature a million years to “design”.

That’s a tremendous faculty that I’m not sure I always appreciate.  And I swear I’ll talk more about that faculty when I get to education and information usage tomorrow.

I swear, I am going to write about education and information recall eventually.  But NPR asked me to do an interview about the New York Soda Ban (which is a lousy name, because soda is not being banned, just large containers; they should have called it the Container Ban).  So instead of my previously scheduled comments, today you get some thoughts on why the ban isn’t a freedom issue and also a short rant about why the New York City Beverage Association rep can kiss my ass.

There are lots of intelligent reasons one might oppose this ban.  But before I get to those, a couple of arguments that shouldn’t be made.

First is that it will have no effect.  It is absolutely unarguable that this will reduce sugared soda consumption: there is no reason to believe it will make it go up, and if even one person buys just one smaller soda instead of two, you’ve made a difference.  And there is abundant psych research to suggest that the effect will be substantial (studies on the unit bias, a ton of studies by Brian Wansink, and a heap of practical sense are all on the ban’s side).  If you don’t believe this, just think about your own behavior.  If you are at the movie theater and you are getting a drink, and the large is smaller than it used to be, are you really going to order two?  Be honest.
Second is that it is an issue of choosing what you drink.  Half the quotes from “man on the street” interviews are about how the government shouldn’t have a say in what kind of soda you consume.  Which they do already, because they won’t let you make soda filled with cocaine or bleach – if you want to drink that, you have to add your own.  But leaving that aside, this is not about what you drink but rather how much of it you drink.  And not even then, because you’re still free to buy as many as you want.  You’ll just pay a premium for doing so.

Third is that this ban is about trying to limit your free will.  This one is the most important but also the most complicated.  Let’s presume here, by free will, that we mean conscious choice.  If you engage your conscious brain, you are free to make the conscious choice to buy two sodas and to deal with the resultant weight issues in whatever way you see fit.  Meanwhile, you are drinking exactly 1 liter of soda because of a French law made in 1795 that defined what a liter was.  Nobody was pissed yesterday that you couldn’t get a drink in a 1.1 liter bottle.  Why?  Because this is just an issue of norms and standards.  And setting those norms (and making you responsible for consciously violating them) is well within the rights of the government to act for the health of its people.

It is a little like organ donation.  If you made the default “yes, I’ll donate” and people had to consciously choose to opt-out, you’d save a lot of lives.  Having the default as “no” is a policy choice as much as the “yes” default is.  So all that is happening here is to make the default choice for soda “less than 16 ounces”.  You’re free to ignore the default if you want to expend mental energy to do so – your freedom has in no way been curtailed.

Now, some arguments you could make.  You could say “yes it will be at least somewhat effective, but it isn’t worth the additional legislature”.  How someone responds to that argument comes down to a personal belief about how bad laws are and how much good you can do with this one.  You could also make the argument that “this is a good law, but there are better ones,” like taxing sugared beverages, which raises money for anti-obesity campaigns.  Trouble there is that NYC and others have tried to get that passed, and they almost always get shot down by lobbyists.  But it is still an argument worth making.

Generally, I’m in favor of this law, although I would prefer a tax.  I think when people are confronted with the choice between a big diet soda that is cheaper and a small sugared soda that is more expensive, diet soda stands a better chance of winning.  But I’m also not personally involved, since I only drink diet soda.

Now, industry spokesman Stefan Friedman, a special bit of rant just for you.  Friedman was quoted as saying: “It’s time for serious health professionals to move on and seek solutions that are going to actually curb obesity. These zealous proposals just distract from the hard work that needs to be done on this front.”

Sorry, what?  First, did you just imply that serious health professionals aren’t working on curbing obesity?  This sort of proposal is exactly the sort that most psychologists get behind, because it addresses the obesogenic environment.  Prevention, more than treatment, is precisely what is effective and there is more than enough solid science to suggest that this will have an effect.

Second, if you want to talk about distractions, let’s talk about the $9 million dollars the American Beverage Association spent in 2010 lobbying against these type of restrictions.  If you want to help curb obesity, why don’t you stop lobbying and pass that money to scientists, who will be more than happy to put it to good use working on even more programs to help us change the food environment?

I had originally planned to talk about information access and how it is going to change education, but that’s going to have to wait until tomorrow.  Just got home from a talk that got me thinking about affinities: the bonds created by some perceived similarity, whether in interest or personality or even appearance.

Not because of the content of the talk, which was about advertising research.  But because of the conversation after the talks, that terrible “networking” hour where people stand around and try to pretend that they don’t want something from each other.  Which turned out to be more interesting this time around.

Two of the speakers I felt strong affinities with.  One was an academic who started his own company and was emphasizing how things like focus groups and other explicit measures were less important than the nonconscious and behavioral measures that are truer predictors of subsequent behavior.  He was interested in similar things, we had some physical similarities (white, male, tall, slender, mode of dress), we are both scientists, etc.

The other I had only one affinity with: she currently worked in Oregon.  Other than that, we had seemingly very little in common – she was much more stylish than I am, more physically attractive, had spent significant time in places like LA, her company was less about science, etc.

Afterwards, I ended up in a conversation first with the scientist, then with both of them together.  I had intended to give only a brief cheer for Oregon to the woman and then spend the majority of the time with the gent, talking about the overlapping areas of what seemed like deeper interest.

And, because you are smart and know where this story goes, it turned out that I liked her considerably more than the gent and would have continued to talk to her almost endlessly, had time allowed.  And part of that is that it turned out that not only did the woman work in Oregon, she had grown up literally down the road from me in the middle of nowhere.  We were separated by enough time that we didn’t have people in common, but we did have places, attitudes, and other remembrances that we could share (to the apparent annoyance of the gent, despite attempts to include him).

On the walk home, this started me thinking about the unpredictable strength of certain kinds of affinities.  Take, for example, dating.  In dating, people are very willing to talk about the affinities that they want and they typically involve overlaps in current behaviors: liked TV and movie and books and music, types of food, hobbies, etc.  And yet when you look at what makes people enjoy spending time together, those sort of things are often non-overlapping.  Much more important turns out to be more base styles of communication and understanding that are more often produced by affinities like shared culture (including shared location).

Put more simply, it is significantly more likely that I will natively like someone who is from Oregon than someone who is also a scientist.  Or at least that is what research would suggest and certainly what came out in this conversation.

But why, then, are we so incredibly bad at picking up on the affinities that matter?  We tend towards the easily listed and quantified (“things with titles” seem to be omnipresent) and dramatically less on things that are more integral to our cultural ways of being.  Most dating sites, for example, would ask where you live, but not where you grew up.  What music you like, instead of what kind of family vacations you took as a kid.  We like to concentrate on our present selves but we don’t exist simply in this moment – we are very much an entire arc that isn’t even complete yet.

All this to say: I’m going to start asking where people grew up more often.  And, of course, I’m already looking at jobs back in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, so hopefully the answer will turn to be an affinity more often.

Lest I come off as too negative about Google Glass, it is actually just that I’m excited about all the possibilities of the technology.  Good and bad, it is a breakthrough that can move us closer to the decision point for so many human behaviors and one that opens up a world of possibility.

This is in part because people tend to discount inhibiting forces and the true downward pressure that taking out a cell phone represents.  People are always trying to sell me on shopping and price scanning apps, for example, with the line “why wouldn’t people do it?  It saves them money!”  They never believe me when I say “Because essentially no one is going to take their phone out in the store and carry it around, scanning prices, unless it saves them literally thousands of dollars”.

But I digress.  Anyone that knows my work knows that I spend a lot of time looking at the reduction of information to avoid choice overload, and one of the most interesting things about Glass for me is not just the ability to add information, but also to subtract it.  Imagine, for example, that you’re trying to lose weight and I can make Google Glasses actually filter out all sorts of food triggers.  When you look at a McDonald’s sign, all you see is a blank red canvas.  The cookie aisle literally gets all blurry.

Or how about a less extreme example, one that won’t piss off the corporate overlords at Mickey D’s.  Imagine you looked at a menu and all of the menu items that you wouldn’t like were blurred out.  A simple recommendation API, a little character recognition, and presto: instead of choosing from 100 things at a diner, you’re choosing from the 5 that you might actually want.

All the standard choice reduction arguments apply: “it restricts freedom and diversity and etc”.  Those are still entirely valid but the fact is, it doesn’t really matter if we philosophically agree on the value of choice reduction: if it is good for people and is going to make them happier (and even if it isn’t), it will happen.  Which goes back to the earlier post about how our brains aren’t adapted for this stuff yet.  It doesn’t really matter that there will be some negative outcomes, in that none of those are serious enough to prevent the technology from catching on.  The question is not whether it will come, but rather when it comes, what can we do to make it appeal to the better angels of our nature.

Like choice reduction.  Like information recall.  Like the ability to envision a better world.  One of the great things about Google Glass for me is just the ability to sit around and brainstorm about the possible things one could do with it (it will completely change how we do education, for example).  Along with Microsoft’s Kinect platform, it is by far the most exciting technology for behavior change in years.

Much is being made of cities right now and the importance of the urban center as a solution to humanity’s ills: TED gave its prize to The City, people got up in arms about what we spend on rural post offices, and green living is oriented mainly at people who live nowhere near the green.  But for all the talk of what we can do with cities to improve the lives of people, I think people are generally missing the boat on the most important problem we need to solve if we believe that cities will be the new center of life for most people.  It isn’t transportation, or green space, or jobs – its happiness.

In study after study, psychologists have shown that living in cities is generally pretty bad for people, mentally speaking.  While it does make them smarter (possibly due to exposure to different kinds of diversity of experiences), it doesn’t increase their well-being, and if anything it has significant drawbacks for happiness.  The first step to towards planning the city of the future is recognizing that making its citizens happy will be the greatest challenge, and it is one of the challenges that we know the least about.

There is a startling dearth of comprehensive research about the “why” of the city-unhappy link.  We have been good about cataloging the various ways in which it gets expressed, but we don’t know that much about why it happens and even less about potential solutions.  While we’re busily out there employing city planners and green architects and transportation experts, very little of the current boom of funding and interest is getting allocated to the basic problem of figuring out how to make cities mentally livable, not just physically livable.

Now at some level, those may be the same things: if we make better transportation, people will be happier.  More green spaces, more happiness.  But without stepping back and taking happiness as an explicit, quantifiable outcome of urbanism projects, I worry that we will create cities in which everyone could live…and no one wants to.

(I’ve been reading the Ender’s Game books recently, so I feel like everything I want to write somehow springs from there.)

I think competition, of the sort that is anything more than hedonic, is bad for startups. And that may just be that I’m not a terribly competitive person and therefore try to justify my own natural inclinations. But I think it is more than that.
“…she had no particular interest in competition because she always started from the assumption that, if it mattered, she would find a way to win.” – Peter’s Shadow, Orson Scott Card

A good founding team believes in its own abilities. Not cocky, but confident (which is a fine line and people can be both). In believing in those abilities, the team doesn’t feel the need to have rivals or to compete against others, because it is confident that if it is neccessary that only one startup team will win in their space, it will be theirs. Knowing this, they may realize the value of being the strong second, of good partnerships over standing alone, of a good race over a Pyrrhic victory.

I know some excellent founders that lead companies that are not the biggest or highest earning in their category. Sometimes, they’ve chosen second place because they prefer that their team have a life: kids, laughter, significant others, enough sleep. At other times, it is because in order to be first, they would have to tear down a company that would ultimately reduce their own profit, by casting doubts on the category as a whole. Thrive would have been a much harder sell had there been no Mint, and the only way to truly stop Mint would to have been to challenge the entire concept of PFM in the first place.

And not competing doesn’t always mean taking second place. Sometimes, you can be less interested in competition and still end up winning the race, purely because you are already naturally setup to run it faster than anyone else. The point of the quote is that if you know what you are capable of, you can make more intelligent decisions about the tradeoffs.

Not enough teams think about themselves. Their products, their market, their profits; all these rise to the top. But critical thinking about what actually makes them work, or not work, as a team? As individual leaders? If I were running an incubator today, I’d spend real time with each founder helping them understand what leadership is about. Not managing investors and outside expectations, but understanding the true nature of their own army.

It is one of the things I loved, and love, most about working with Avi Karnani. He is unafraid to sit down and have an honest conversation about his own leadership style and where he can make adjustments. And it makes him, when he wants to be, one of the strongest leaders I know.

And yes, he’s read the Ender’s books too.

Having just spent a week or so with my bright, shiny new nephew (eight weeks and already twice his birth weight), I think that part of what makes relatives magical is that you are allowed to delight in them completely.

I’m sitting in SeaTac while I type this and next to me is playing a little girl, maybe four or so.  Old enough to play the “I’m playing by myself, but really, I’m playing with you” game.  Which is actually a fun game, as an adult, because young kids are actually really terrible at it and we take special delight in how naive they still are it and playing together is fun!  In ten years or so, I’m sure she’d be able to manipulate me in ways I wouldn’t be able to detect as readily and it won’t be for our mutual benefit, so I’m glad for this earlier version.

That said, I can’t really play with her directly or with too much attention.  I doubt that her parents would leap to the judgment of “pedophile!” but it still makes American parents vaguely uneasy when a stranger takes undue interest in their kids.  Undue, of course, being an entirely socially constructed boundary.

After all, with my new nephew, I am allowed to take full advantage of my own desire to connect.  We can play for as long as he’s awake, I am allowed full access to his full schedule (sleep, wake, poop, eat, play), and my interest isn’t in any way tainted by the negative; if anything, my fascination tends to make strangers infer things like “he’s going to be such a good dad some day”.  With random children in airports, however, that inference doesn’t hold, for reasons I understand but lament.

There is a Counting Crows’ lyric: “I wish I was a girl, so that you could believe me”, the implication being that men are not able to say some things to women and have them be taken as honest and sincere and not with an alternative sexual desire.  I feel the same way about the woman that is playing with her adorable kids right now.  I WANT to play.  It looks fun, I love kids, and both my book and this journal entry are not nearly as interesting.  I want a sign that says “I am not thinking about you as a MILF or your children as targets; I have love for them, but only of the appropriate, speciesist variety.”

Until I manage to get that sign, however, I have my nephew.  Who is awesome and puts up with my singing, off-key, while he’s so patiently trying to sleep.  And anybody willing to do that is OK in my book.  Plus, he’s extra special and extra beautiful and I love him.  Which doesn’t need any kind of sign at all.

Imagine the moment when you can wear Google’s Project Glass spectacles.  Real-time information, all the time.  The ability to take video and audio, and transmit it wirelessly to another storage medium.  Which means, in theory, the ability to remember absolutely everything, forever.

And while I doubt many scientists at Google have thought about it, that might be the end of mankind.

The ability to remember everything, called eidetic memory, has never been shown in a human, so we cannot say with complete confidence that we know what will happen.  But considering the thousands of experiments that demonstrate the ways in which humans adaptively misremember, misinterpret, and misplace, there has to be an adaptive strategy at work.  After all, we know we have the technical ability to remember many things accurately, and yet our brain has adapted so that we don’t.

Human beings thrive on ambiguity, on the ability to manipulate our memories, beliefs, emotions, and decisions in order to serve our sense of well-being.  When we do that manipulation badly, we grow depressed and self-destruct.  And it is a manipulation only made possible by the fact that we do not have perfect recall.

Its true that Project Glass cannot record our emotions (yet), so we can still manipulate the meaning of the audiovisual that will potentially now be saved.  But how far can that really take us?  Could it be that in developing technologically the ability to precisely record and replay everything, we’re opening ourselves up to a type of mental-like abilities that we are not adapted to handle emotionally?

The examples are endless.  A couple fighting about what someone said, with no catharsis of apology and acceptance, just the cold finality of someone being factually (but not emotionally) right.  A buyer who can play back the entire buying experience, perfectly accurately, and is thereby denied the cognitive dissonance that makes him happy with his eventual purchase.  Two brothers who witness a gruesome event, that morbid fascination allows them to repeatedly view.

There are just as many examples of the ways in which perfect recall can help society.  But while many will consider those, psychologists need to start now in considering the potential negative effects and how products need to be shaped in order to avoid them.  Project Glass is certainly going to exist in the mainstream at some point – we psychologists need to start thinking about what that means.

And Google is the natural place to do that, or any tech company that is starting to change the way we actually structure and deal with information in real-time.  As the producers of the product, they will be the ones most tied to its adoption…and the ones held most responsible.

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from TED.com when available.

Billy Collins: It wasn’t shocking when Collins got a standing ovation – you don’t get to be the American Poet Laureate for two years because people hate what you do.  Like most good poets, Collins was good at getting in touch with his own feelings and then sharing them with the audience in a pithy way.  For those who hadn’t seen him before, I think it was a revelation that poetry could be funny and still insightful.  For me, it was a) a reaffirmation that yep, I still like his poetry and b) we agree on a surprising amount of what poetry is and does and should be.

For example, Collin’s spoke about how badly attempts to put his poetry to music had gone (I remember an incident in which someone tried to arrange one of my poems for a chorus and just designed to change the words wherever she saw fit) and his resistance to putting visuals to his poetry, because isn’t the whole point of being a poem that it isn’t a picture?  He showed off some animations that he finally consented to and enjoyed, but for my part, I watched the talk entirely with my eyes closed.

Michael Tilson Thomas: I may be fairly naive for having not paid attention to this before, but classical musical is highly recognizable, without ever having been consciously paid attention to.  Tilson Thomas told the story of an old man who was futilely trying to tap out on the piano something he had heard and his joy when Tilson Thomas recognized it and played a bit of it.  A lovely moment, certainly, but also I think a wider truth about the place that classical music occupies in our minds.  Entirely without paying any attention to classical music, and probably professing to hating it, almost every 10-year-old in America could hum the 1812 Overture for you with near perfection.  Indeed, you could likely get the same effect in most countries in the world.  What other form of music has that kind of penetration, that entirely without liking it or wanting to have it in your life, it still manages to be a part of the dominant consciousness of pretty much everyone?

I’m sure there is other music that has done this: The Beatles, Bob Marley.  But most people would say they like The Beatles and Bob Marley – the interesting part about classical music is that it has had this effect entirely without people liking it or even caring enough to form an opinion.  It just…invades.  And it has its own unspoken language; as Tilson Thomas puts it, the difference between happy and sad (major and minor) is just 37 vibrations.  Sometimes I think we forget the subtlety of our musical palate and our complex relationship with sound: in a world of “interactive”, it is sight that gets most the attention.  I may be wandering a bit here from Tilson Thomas’ examples, but seriously, how often have you actually sat and thought about the two tones that play when you plug in and remove a USB device?  They so clearly say “plugged in” and “removed” without ever saying a word…two notes, either in rising or falling, are simple enough to convey the entire message.

Bravo, sound.

So I’m on a plane to Seattle. Middle seat, between a business guy (you can always tell who has a corporate card, they’re the only ones who buy food) and a woman in her mid-40’s with incongrously sparkly green nails.

And we’re all crying. Repeatedly. To “We Bought A Zoo”. And of course we’re quiet and polite and we all have our headphones on and we don’t talk to each other about it. But we’re still all crying here together.

I have an interview with some folks tomorrow and I’m nervous. Which isn’t unusual, though I generally wouldn’t talk about it publicly. And it is somehow tied up in this movie and the adventures that people take and the fear that all the apps and electronic companies in the world won’t matter if they don’t inspire real human behavior.

It isn’t worry about getting the job; it is worry about whether it is the right job. What if they don’t share my vision? What if it is just a bunch of people who want to play the game of building companies and investing in things and being technorati?

It is a “nice problem to have”, in that most people my age are just worried about putting food on the table. But I don’t apologize for the fact that it isn’t that problem, and I know that once they solve that problem, they’ll have the same problem, the desire to do something bigger and greater than themselves. The search for meaning (or the search for the meaning of Meaning).

Until it can be hooked directly into my nervous system, no computer can replace the real world. But it can augment it. So how do we use technology to help people put food on the table, so that they can run zoos and take adventures and persue something more than the beginning of things?

I love to reread books, because as you change, what you get from the book changes. And so I was rereading Ender’s Game and I was stuck by something one of the mentors says, about the demand of humanity being only survival. Humanity doesn’t give a shit whether I’m happy or challenged; it cares that I survive and/or help others to survive.

And yet a shocking number of people each year commit suicide. Even if we just count the folks we actually record as suicides and leave aside all “accidents” and other polite ways we have of dealing with that, I cannot help but think that happiness is also about survival. That at least some core level of happiness is required by humanity, because it is only when we believe in happiness that we will ourselves into life. Not at the moments of plenty, but in times of famine, living is about the will to live.

So maybe that’s one aspect of technology. When tech helps people be a little happier or more satisfied, gives them a momentary delight, helps them form a real bond, enables some offline behavior, then what we’re actually doing is affecting a real survival trait. It certainly is worth thinking a bit about, sorting the online behaviors that leave people net happier and more productive from the ones that have the opposite effect.

We Bought A Zoo is a story someone was passionate about. Sure, plenty of people got involved in order to make money, but somewhere, someone really believed in three crying strangers on a plane and the importance of touching us in some emotional way. And of course the zoo itself really exists, and is admired the world over for its practices, and it touched the lady at Home Depot and the people who visit it.
And is any business really that different? I mean, isn’t that the point of Dirty Jobs? Mike Rowe’s whole point is that every job, no matter how “menial”, has a story and grandure. The guy who scrapes gum off the sidewalk can always find a better way to do it. And does. And that’s interesting and honorable.

(All of my blog entries ramble if I don’t edit them carefully. I’m going to try to start being more OK with that.)

Other thoughts: we drank all three variety of Coke (Zero for me, Diet for the green nails lady, Classic for the fat guy). And whatever was playing after the movie was insane: I saw some sort of buffalo-like animals run away from wolves, and one buffalo ran another down as a sort of sacrifice to the wolves, who stopped to eat it as the others ran away. Humanity. Survival as the only demand. Which doesn’t neccessarily mean the survival of any particular individual.