So it is 1am and I’m walking with Arjan Haring to his place in the suburbs of Utrecht on my last night in Holland.  We’re chatting about the hackathon, psychologists we admire, and general troublemaking, while I try to draw a mental map in my head so I can make sure I get home.  And as I’m walking the three miles back to my apartment after dropping him off, dodging around on the highway and trying not to die (because while the Netherlands believes in bike paths, it does not believe in sidewalks), it occurs to me: We are all united by these walks in the dark.

Think about someone you look up to and, while it is almost impossible to picture, I can guarantee you that they have had some crazy night walking back alone in some strange place, trying not to get lost.  Presidents to parents, heroes and villains, I think we often underestimate the degree to which there are these fragile moments in our lives that we all experience in much the same way.  I’m sure Barry Schwartz and Andrew Ward and Dan Ariely all stumbled home at some point.

And, of course, someone will probably think of us that way at some point.  Or at least, I think that should be part of our goal: to live a life grand enough that someone else has trouble imagining us wandering home alone at night when we were young.  Which means we all could have the sweet pleasure of surprising with the story of how we did.  Maybe being great is just doing enough that someone is surprised we ever had the time to do absolutely nothing at all.

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 when available.

Atul Gawande: So I probably took the dramatically wrong message from this talk.

He was talking about improving healthcare, and where I ended up was: what happens when the problems at the upper right just become too expensive to solve?  Given my chosen field, I spend most of my time thinking about interventions like Gawande’s lists: simple, small things that make big differences by changing environments and systems.  And while I think there will always be optimizations (especially as technology advances so that the tools available change and our behaviors change right along with it), there comes some point at which it just gets harder and more expensive to keep continuing.

As Gawande points out, in the 30s, medicine meant getting people someplace warm, feeding them, and some very basic holistic health practices.  And while people still die because medical professionals (and everyone else) forget to wash their hands, we’re moving up and to the right on the graph: doing better medicine and keeping more people alive, longer.  But how long can we keep that up?  When we nail lists, when we’ve got people washing their hands and built machines that automatically kill bacteria anyway, and people still die…then what?  What happens when progress slows down?

It doesn’t have to just be health.  When we look at the human graph for the last hundred years, we’ve seen some huge increases in basically every measure of human prosperity.  But what about when that slows down?  We’ll still be moving forward, but if we can’t maintain the same rate, can we handle that as a society?

Jonathan Haidt: I really wanted to like Jonathan’s talk, because his work on morals is truly great.  But he seems to be building a rather shaky bridge between transcendent mental experiences and our evolutionary development of cooperation giving rise to our ascendance as a species, ultimately saying that we’re all searching for “more” than we currently have in the moral/spiritual/belonging sense.

The first part is utterly uninteresting to me.  The second is mildly interesting, though not in the sense of evolution, but only in that it mimics what I think the next great psychological question is: the need for people to both be individuals and part of a group, which seem to be competing desires but that both require satisfaction.  He’s nodding to the “part of a group” bit, and I do think we need more investigation there, as what we think of as “being part of a group” doesn’t seem to be honored by Facebook or the sort of solutions that seem like they would matter.  I think it is actually about purpose and accomplishment, but that’s another blog post.

I like the Dutch.  They’re blunt, practical, and have remarkably low ego.  Sure, they may be a little fatalistic (they recently played in the Euro Football Championship and despite being tapped to win the whole thing, everyone was convinced they would lose, which, predictably, they then did), but their low-stress, high-progress approach to life is great.  And perfectly suited to entrepreneurship.

I’ve been in Holland for a few days this week as part of the first ever Groen Doen (Green Doing) Hackathon, sponsored by Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, the Sustainable Behavior Lab, UtrechtInc, and Jaludo (a Dutch gaming company who are hunting for new ideas and new talent).  It is an interesting mix of partners: an academic setting that focuses on actually getting things done, an incubator, and a private business, coming together to help kids learn through doing (which I was recently ranting about).

And as an educational experience, the Hackathon is fascinating.  There are almost as many mentors here as student participants, which means that they all have access to a lot of personal attention and time.  Dirk Franssens gave what seemed like a great opening talk on behavior change (it was in Dutch, but with English slides, so I got the gist), designer Ramon Goedvree is providing visual and communications coaching, members of the UtrechtInc are sharing their experience founding companies, and the organizer of the whole event is himself an entrepreneur (Arjan Haring of PersuasionAPI).

But what I’m most interested by is the creativity of the participants themselves.  With just 24 hours or so of worktime, they’ve managed to crank out several high-quality ideas, complete with business plans, LaunchRock landing pages, logos, and wireframes.  It reminds me how important a solid foundation is to a good app; you can buy engineering to help create something, but for that style of Elance-type development, you have to have precisely thought through what you want before you put on the cash to do it.  Which means paper prototypes and hours of bouncing things off the wall and being able to freely suggest (and abandon) ideas.

Which is where the Dutchness comes in.  Often at hackathons people are arguing within their group about what the right idea is and how to best pursue it, and  a certain amount of that debate is healthy.  But too often, people are just arguing about something they feel attached to, rather than towards a place of progress; its about ego, not quality.

In my experience at this Hackathon, however, there has been very little of that type of discussion.  In small teams of 3 or so, people are plowing ahead excitedly as a unit – even when someone distinctly comes up with something awesome, they always attribute it to the team.  It is refreshing and bodes well for Holland’s long-term entrepreneurial scene; avoiding the egotism of The Valley could be a real edge for the country as it pursues the concept of small business.

Note: the organizers just told me that Dutch people check their poo before flushing and proposed putting a label in the toilet that reminded people to use less toilet paper.  I may like Dutch people slightly less now.

In an attempt to stay awake on my first day in Holland and conquer jetlag, I spent several hours today watching television. The shows themselves are the same, because I was really just flipping back and forth between the Discovery Channel and Comedy Central, (though I did notice that MythBusters has a different guy doing voiceover than the American version). But the commercials? Awesome.

For example, I saw a car ad that I presume was talking about how modern and flexible the car was (I speak no Dutch). How modern, I pretend you ask?  Modern enough that a young woman gives her father away at a wedding instead of the reverse. That’s right: if I’m understanding this right, in Europe, they’re selling cars with gay marriage. Let’s see Ford try that one!

In a broader sense, what is interesting about watching ads in other countries is that because you can’t be sucked into the verbal message, you start focusing on elements you never really realized you were missing before.  The individual visual elements, for example; I never noticed how ads are just voiceovers with generic visuals before.  Voiceovers have all but disappeared from the narrative structure of TV programs (as opposed to the original, very voiceovered method of telling stories via radio) and yet ads still rely heavily on a 3rd-person perspective.

Is that because we can’t effectively tell a first-person, authentic narrative in an ad?  Certainly I feel like some companies have been able to: the Volkswagen ads, for example, have been tremendously successful at telling emotive stories without even using much language.  So one could argue that companies who aren’t making solid need to rethink their ad strategy.

And yet they must think that what they put out their works, right?  They are spending truly massive sums buying the airtime, and surely no company would waste so much money buying airtime to run ineffective content?

The scientist in me is curious.  I know that measuring the impact of brand advertising is difficult, since it doesn’t track to a specific sale, but some attempts have been made by marketing companies; how much is the difference between a truly world-class ad and a bad voiceover spot?  They feel different (certainly the well-told gay father ad got me thinking and noticing the car) but I wonder if they are, empirically.

Random closing side note: there are posters all over this campus featuring a woman in a bikini on a donkey wearing sunglasses.  I’m presuming they’re advertising a party of some sort, but it is amusing to consider alternatives.

I spent the day working on tech/ed mashups and surveying the space, and two things are painfully true.

First, far too many companies are focused on supporting an educational system that is crumbling.  If it isn’t abundantly clear at this point, the classroom model of education isn’t going to be around for all that incredibly much longer.  So why are we just taking existing educational processes and making them electronic?  There is no long term business model in remaking the same mistakes.

Second, change is not going to happen at the institutional level, so stop trying to sell to them.  The sales cycle is way, way too long to be able to effectively do anything but really big startups, and what we need right now is small change.  We need to demonstrate other ways of learning that are so much more immersive and powerful that they can grow to popularity to outside the classroom and institution.  At which points institutions themselves will change or be eliminated by new institutions that form around the new paradigms.

Education is one of those truly frustrating spaces for me.  In part because, like anything truly frustrating, I care far too much about it – it is hard for me to create the distance that building good product often entails.  It is also one of those broken products that is actively fucked up every minute you don’t fix it.  We can survive without the next social media network and if it takes an extra day for us to create it, it will not be an actual problem.  But every single day that goes by where kids aren’t able to live up to their full potential is a real problem.  This isn’t something we can fix – it is something we have to fix.

That statement feels a bit hypocritical, given that I have had such fortunate educational luck.  I went to a great high school (given that it was public and in a rural state, I could have done considerably worse), attended a bizarre but excellent international school, and finished up at possibly the best college in the US.  I came out with around $20K of debt, which thanks to government grants was actually at a very low interest rate, and I paid that debt off within 12 months by working two jobs provided by the very college to which I had just paid so much money.  It was actually a bit like indentured servitude, now that I think about it, but I’m still a free man at the end of it, so it is hard to complain.

It is probably true that even in today’s job market, my path would have looked more or less the same; people are big on me as this incredibly driven guy and while it is hard to see myself that way, I certainly recognize it is what others perceive.  But good lord do I feel bad for current college graduates.  More than half of college graduates were unemployed or underemployed last year and that is seriously fucked up.

It isn’t like we have no problems that need solving – as anyone at TED will tell you, there are lots of global issues that need work (just don’t ask them to solve them, they’re “just a media company”).  So why aren’t we employing our young people to do so?  Start an Innovation Corp with a small (very small) living stipend and start forgiving student loans.  How’s this for an educational innovation: take those 1.5 million college grads with no jobs and put them in the schools!  There are about 100,000 public schools in America and I’m pretty sure all of them could use an extra fifteen teachers.  And yes, given my teaching degree, I recognize that is sacrilege and that we really need teachers who have at least some pedagogical background.  But even if they are completely hopelessly lost, these are the kids who learned delay of gratification well enough to go to college.  They do have lessons to teach and I’d rather have them than not have them.

This wandered away from ed tech but I’m pissed and I didn’t get enough sleep.  I’m not apologizing – I’m pissed for a damn good reason.  And the next kid that tries to pitch me a Pinterest-clone is going to get an ass chewing.  Fix a real problem, asshole.

You know that moment in every sports movie where the hero, who has achieved success through ability but not personality, has to be reminded of the importance of effort? Whether it is going back to the ghetto to watch kids play in an empty lot or a raging girlfriend who finds him in bed with someone else or a coach who gives him the speech, there is always some pivotal scene where the hero realizes it isn’t just about being able to do something, it is having the will to do it better and in a way that doesn’t suck for the world.

More big companies need that moment.

I spent the day watching investors and large private and public companies interact, and while there were many lovely moments (how often are you going to be in a room with Tim Armstrong and 20 people?), one reoccurring, frustrating theme was the degree to which investors were pushing companies to forget all the things that they learned from fighting hard on the way up. I heard one investor gripe that a presentation was “mostly bullshit” and I wanted to yell that even if that was true, it was because they demanded bullshit. They don’t want to hear the vision of the CEO, the part of the business that is heart and sweat and staying up way too late at night. They want to hear the business EBIDTA and why next quarter will be better than this quarter.

Clearly, I’ll never be the CEO of a major company. But if I ever am, I hope I have the courage to stand up to investors and talk back about why business is worth doing in the first place. Tim Armstrong fielded a question from an investor who essentially implied that without the need to appease the public market, AOL would have “wastefully” used the money derived from the recent patent business to acquire companies.

Good! AOL is adept at getting eyeballs, which they then sell to advertisers. But they could just as easily be advertising their own properties and there are many smart startups that are adept at turning users into cash, either through ecommerce or direct services. AOL should be spending cash on those sorts of deals and investors should count their lucky stars whenever those deals go through, especially with early-stage startups at low valuations. In a time where there are thousands of open jobs at the top internet companies and everyone is fighting for talent, it is hard to lose on a small dollar acquisition of a smart team; even if their product fails, you can find other great things for them to do.

In the Any Given Sunday of business, investors are the owner’s daughter, looking for pure profit as quickly as possible. And that is unlikely to change anytime soon. So it is up to companies and CEOs to be finding their way back to the reasons that they started doing this in the first place. Which probably didn’t have much to do with profit.

Playing with heart still matters.

I could end it there, but I want to say a little more about why playing with heart is so important. If your company becomes just about investors, you will never keep the employees you want. Because you want employees that are playing with heart and that’s a pervasive culture: it only works if everyone tacitly agrees to be part of it. You can’t have just your quarterback playing with heart – he’ll get sacked, receivers will shrug off their mistakes, and he’ll implode trying to get the ball down the field. Good teams require heart and heart only works when everyone has it. Which is why firing heartless people (or benching them somewhere to recharge) is so important: it keeps trouble from spreading.

Also, customers can tell. I’d love to do the experiment asking customers to rate how much they think Company A’s employees care about what they do, versus Company A’s employees own ratings. People respond, time and time again, to companies who are playing with heart. We consume companies in the way we consume sports teams, and honestly, you can find everyday people like my parents cheering for companies as they do battle with their competitors. It isn’t just the technorati that know when a company gives up and settles.  That is the whole point of corporate branding.

And finally, heart matters because without it, what the fuck is the point? The reason that you see satisfaction leveling off with pay increases is precisely the fact that money is not heartening. It may enable you to do some heartening things. But going to work everyday to blah just sounds terrible. You wouldn’t expect your employees to do it, so why should you?

Finally.  I’ve been trying to write this post for days, but keep getting distracted by current events.

This isn’t another Google Glasses post, but they do make a handy example of my basic premise: that information recall has, and is going to continue to, become easier and easier to supplement with technology.  If you don’t remember the name of the song that is playing, Shazam will tell you.  If you can’t remember how WWII started, Wikipedia will tell you.  If you don’t remember who painted that painting, Google Goggles will tell you.  And so on and so forth.

This is not a new point and educators have been making it for awhile.  Accepting it as true, the primary task of education then becomes the ability to derive meaning and importance from that information recall.  That is, why is the start of WWII important?  And how does it affect the writing of this song and the painting of that painting?  Connections become the new educational task.

But then how do you teach people to build connections?  Certainly, you could explicitly connect things for students and hope they generalize.  By explaining the connection between WWII and the music and the painting, you could passively teach them the strategy of how to look for other connections themselves.  And I think that is one part of education.

But there is a different kind of connecting that we need to teach children.  Not just the explicit A->B, but the implicit instinct for the relations between things (and thus, the ways in which one thing can be used to cause or affect another).  And to me, this implicit connection making means one thing: games.

In part because we need more promoting pressures in education.  Education was once basic math and reading, and it was abundantly clear to both kids and parents why that was important to learn, because they were needed in the practical world.  But though we don’t talk about it much, I think one of the current failings of education is that people don’t actually understand much of why we school people; they except that it is abstractly “important” but understand little of directly why, other than as a gatekeeper to social mobility.

Games provide their own competitive aspects, however, and they have the tremendous advantage of being intrinsically interesting for kids.  And for parents, the benefits of good games should be easy to explain: I can write a compelling essay write now on why the skills that chess develops are important in the modern world and convince most parents.

Not that I’m suggesting that chess is a game we should play.  In reality, it is a very limited game and depends mostly on looking far ahead and some rudimentary spacial elements.  Far more interesting are the games that ask you to delve into the psychology of what people do and how the world works.

I’m not going to pretend I’m not a little weird, so the following examples are certainly part of me reading new rules and strategies into a game; I doubt highly that even the creators have thought about them in quite the same ways.  That said, we’re talking about games that weren’t explicitly designed to be educational and where no teacher is making explicit the concept of strategy.  I believe we can teach people to approach situations as games, with rules and strategies and goals.

Galcon Fusion: My brother introduced me to this game and I’ve been playing off-and-on for awhile now.  The basic premise is that there are numerous planets of different sizes on a board, each with their own defenses, represented by a number.  To take over that planet, you simply have to drag more ships to it then it has defenses: a fleet of 31 will conquer a planet with defense 30.  Once you conquer it, it slowly begins to produce new ships for you; the bigger the planet, the faster it builds ships.  You start with 100 ships on one planet, against an opponent with the same, and your win when they own no planets.

Thus, the rules are fairly simple: there are no different kinds of weapons or much in the way of complication.  You can play it a few times and immediately get the hang of it.  But the strategy is incredibly complex.  It depends mainly on three different factors: distance (because it takes time for your ships to fly), defense (how hard will a planet be to take), and size (how rewarding is it to take it).  But to win reliably, you have to think of those factors both as they apply to you and to your opponent.  For example, if you have no close, easy-to-take planets and your opponent has several, you’re going to have to attack them on their home turf as soon as they’re overextended.  Whereas if the reverse is true, you can slowly build up your lines, taking more planets and not allowing your opponent to enter your territory.

Because each game lasts only about a minute, it inspires failure.  That is, part of the point when playing against the computer is to fail, repeatedly, in trying to find a strategy that works for any given map.  It rewards failure with knowledge and low consequences (which I argue is the defining thing that modern schooling gets wrong – it is all about avoiding failure, rather than embracing it when it is cheap).
And I just realized this post was getting absurdly long.  So rather than give another example, I’m going to save that for a second post.

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.