The Opposite is True

When my car dealer contacted me for a recall, I made an appointment. Then, the weather forecast turned foul, and I needed to find the phone number to reschedule. Quickest way: look up the website. Now, when I visit my usual collection of websites, none of them related to cars or my recall experience, the advertisements promote my car dealer.

Naturally, I don’t perceive this highly-targeted advertising as anything but intrusive. The goodwill and emotional capital that the car dealer has banked with me is now gone. I no longer trust the sites that I visit every day. So we have a perfect lose-lose-lose. The work of a mad scientist that we now accept as perfectly reasonable behavior.

It’s unreasonable, and its growing. One person I know is now receiving telephone calls from websites that he visited. Privacy policies are poorly communicated, and somehow, that’s okay.

I’m fine with a car advertisement, targeted to me, based upon my recent web behavior, BUT ONLY WHEN I APPROVE THIS USE OF MY DATA FOR THIS PURPOSE.

What we need is a change in policy, brought about by well-organized consumer pressure. And if that doesn’t work, what we probably need is new law. That’s not easy to do because laws regarding rights of privacy are difficult to create and even more difficult to enforce.

So what should we do?

First, contact the advertiser and tell them that this practice is bothering you. In many cases, a local advertiser will not completely understand what is happening, why it is happening, how it is impacting their customers and the company’s good name. Most likely, their web advertising is either being controlled by a third party or by an advertising agency. A well-placed email to the owner of the car dealership (in my case) will certainly bring about a colorful internal meeting.

Second, don’t rely upon the Federal government. I just did a Google search (which will, no doubt, result in more unwanted ads) for “consumer protection unwanted web advertisements.” The first result was an FCC page about unwanted faxes (!), and the second was about unwanted telephone calls. So, the Feds have some catching up to do. Instead, handle this by visiting your local state legislator (there’s one whose office is probably in a shopping center not five miles from where you live or work). The first relevant site: number ten on the list, a company called Abine. Theyre based in Boston, backed by serious investors, operated by a credible team, and clear on their role:

Since its launch, Abine has emerged as the online privacy leader. And now that we’re on a roll, we’ve recruited a team committed to giving our users a more private web experience. Our engineers are building the next generation of web tools, our marketing and press teams are advocates for change, and our support and operations staff go beyond service to provide daily advice to those navigating the complexities of online privacy.

Feeling good about what they’ve written on the web is one thing, but the necessary action is to download their app, and for this, one must provide some personal information. Yes, there’s a Better Business Bureau bug at the bottom of the page, and yes, their blog does a fine job in explaining, for example, the latest Target credit card debacle, but at this point, I’m not sure who I ought to trust. When I download their software, will I make the situation worse? Or are they one of the good guys? What if they’re hacked? Does that release a storm of additional refuse throughout the internet, all with their users’ names on it?

Gosh, we have allowed ourselves into a mighty mess. And we continue to feed the monster with more personal data every day, gently forgetting to remind ourselves that the data entered into one site is easy connected to the credit card purchase made two weeks ago, and the EZ-Pass data and the gas station data and the ATM data, and the list goes on. And everything we want to do online, or in an app, requires just a teeny bit more disclosure.

If there is an advertisement on this blog, you’ll have to tell me because, as a writer, I don’t see anything except a word processing screen. And if there is an advertisement that connects your personal web behavior to your reading this website, that makes me part of the problem. Which makes this whole web journalism thing that much more complicated. But we will get nowhere if we just accept the present-day reality, which isn’t good. We do need to change it. And that begins with articles like this one, and with your comments and ideas.

From Abine’s media kit, a comparison chart. It’s fascinating to see the list (left side) of issues to date, and the sheer number of solutions indicated by the green check marks. Clearly, I’m late to this party. But at least I’m here now, and paying attention. (You are, too, but I guess you knew that. Your computer and a dozen other websites certainly do now.)

full_privacy_tool_comparison_chart

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What Kickstarter Has Kickstarted

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If the graphic appears a bit fuzzy, visit the Fast Company site for the article, scroll down, and click on the yellow-and-black infographic. You can magnify the infographic on their site, but nowhere else.

I missed this Fast Company article when it was published in April. Most useful was the infographic. In it, I learned:

  • Among creators, film and video is the most popular type of Kickstarter project, but this category ranks second among backers, and sixth in the list of successes.
  • The category most likely to be funded: projects related to dance (but there aren’t many of them, and there aren’t many people who back dance). Theater projects come in second,  music in third, and and art in fourth. Both music and art are strong in terms of number of projects, and also, in terms of their success rate, ranking fourth and fifth on the list.
  • There are lots of game projects, and lots of people who back game projects, but in terms of project success, odds are not so good. Still, games have generated more revenue than any other category.
  • Video matters. More than four out of five Kickstarter projects are pitched with a video.
  • For the past several years (that is, for as long as Kickstarter has been around), just over 2 in 5 projects are successfully funded.

There’s much more in the article.

What We Don’t Know About Distracted Driving

DistractedDriverEvery day, about ten American die and about ten more are injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver.

Sending or receiving a text message takes your eyes off the road for an average of just less than five seconds. If you’re driving 55 mph, in 5 seconds, you will drive the length of a football field. (Yikes.)

In 2011, we sent nearly 200 billion (!) text messages, twice the number of texts we sent in 2009. But the number of deaths and injuries remained stable. That made me wonder what we know about digital devices and driver safety.

Preliminary web research uncovered dozens of articles published around 2009-2010, but not much material that was more recent. At the time, there was great concern about the most at-risk groups (mostly, 18-24), and cries for additional research, including scientific research of all sorts. And that got me to thinking.

In theory, I suppose it’s best to drive without any distraction whatsoever. In practice, commuting is often a boring routine, so we listen to the radio, or, if we’re sharing the drive, we chat with another passenger, and if we’re on a long trip, it’s always easier with at least one passenger. Are these distractions positive (keeping the driver alert, awake and interested), helpful (second pair of eyes), or negative (any distraction is a problem)? That’s probably the first question we ought to answer. Inevitably, the answer will include a large grey “it depends” zone–if the other passenger is offering light conversation, it’s not much of a distraction, but an argumentative or boring passenger might add to tension or drowsiness.

Related question: does radio listening affect driver safety? It’s difficult to imagine a long drive without a radio companion. Half of all U.S. radio listening is done in a vehicle. Sirius/XM has built a business by providing a large number of radio program services to truckers and noncommercial drivers. Some radio programs are very engaging–political programs can really raise the level of listener emotion–and it’s fun to turn the radio up loud and sing along to some dreadful 1980s pop tune. How would we measure the level of distraction associated with radio, or CDs, or recorded books? A really good book, presented by a really good actor, can captivate the imagination. On a long drive, that’s heaven. But is it safe? Is a great book with fabulous characters more dangerous than a book with a weak story?

For the moment, let’s put aside the goofy “I probably shouldn’t do this while I am driving” behaviors that include applying makeup, drinking hot coffee, pawing through a grocery bag in the back seat while driving 60 mph, turning around to tell little Timmy to stop pulling little Kimmy’s hair, and all that.

Instead, let’s turn to digital communications devices. And let’s start with the telephone.

First question: is it more dangerous to talk (not dial, not set up a conference call, but just talk) any more distracting or dangerous than talking to a passenger in the seat next to the driver?

Second question: why have manufacturers made it so difficult to talk on the phone in the car? My car has a bluetooth setup so I can talk and listen to phone calls through my car’s sound system. Great idea, but the system doesn’t work because the car manufacturer refuses to update the firmware. BlueAnt offers a portable speaker that attaches to the visor, an adequate solution that should, in this day and age, be built into every automobile. With voice-controlled dialing.

Shifting the focus to the cell phone makers, they should be taken to task for not establishing standards for voice calling, and for not establishing features that make in-car use easy and safe. Simply: every car should include a standardized port in which the place can be safely and securely placed. The port should include power and connectivity to the car’s sound system. There should be NO access to the phone’s keypad while the car is in motion. This requires a superior in-car voice dialing system, either from the phone or from the car’s digital systems. Not a giant technological challenge.

What about email and texting and web surfing and Angry Birds? Not while you’re driving. Not at all. When the car is stopped (stopped = the engine is off), sure. Otherwise, these activities should be unavailable.

Apple MapsOne gotcha: maps. A voice navigation system is helpful, but the map really needs to be available in visual form. Should the driver be looking at that map while driving? Absolutely not. Eyes on the road, please! We’ve become addicted to our GPS systems, but we need to think about this system in a more rational way. Voice systems are probably the answer, but they need to become more reliable. Printed map directions are helpful, but they should not be used while the vehicle is in motion. A heads-up display (map projected on the driver’s windshield) may be a promising solution, but we need more scientific testing to determine whether a driver can both navigate the real world and study a map simultaneously. My brain cannot do both at the same time. I cannot multitask while in motion–I need to stop the car, study the map, try to remember what the map told me, and then drive the car. Some evolution is in store: both for humans interacting with digital maps and digital maps becoming more useful to humans in motion.

What’s missing? Video, for one thing. We’ve been smart enough to keep the video player pointed toward the back seat passengers, but radio control, map navigation, and other kinda-sorta-video is making its way into the driver’s field of view. It won’t be long before on-screen navigation is sponsored, and, here and there, the driver might be exposed to a video commercial. And it’s certainly tempting for McDonald’s to play a commercial around dinner time, especially when a driver is about to pass a McD’s installation.

And what about emergencies? You’re driving 65 mph and you absolutely must call or text somebody RIGHT NOW. I’m trying to imagine a situation. There’s a drunk driver in front of you (oh, no, wait, I think she’s just texting). Your car is heading for a bridge that used to be there but is now a Wile E. Coyote cliff. Stuff happens, and sometimes, you need to make that call. One solution: save the number 9 on your autodial for 9-1-1. Seems to me, the likelihood that you will be in a situation where (a) there is an emergency that requires an in-motion call, (b) that is not the sort of thing where 9-1-1 is the call to make; (c) there is no passenger in the car to make the call; and (d) you cannot pull off the road and stop to make the call is fairly small.

So, where does that leave us? I’d like some answers and I’d like some changes. First the answers:

1. Will the US Department of Transportation please fund annual research and an annual report to the American people about distracted driving. Which distractions are most dangerous (by the numbers)? Which are less so? What are USDOT’s specific recommendations to consumers, and specific agenda items for legislative change (at the Federal or State level) to ensure our safety? If in-motion telephone use is truly unsafe, we should pass legislation and enable enforcement to prevent the use. If in-motion telephone use is safe, but the use of one or two hands to operate these phones while the car is in motion is not safe, then manufacturers should be required to offer a standard solution that always works properly.

2. Will the car manufacturers please take responsibility for reliable, flexible systems for the safe in in-motion use of telephones (not texting and other uses) in cars? I’d like to see an annual report to consumers that addresses release dates for industry-wide standards, and, subsequently, annual upgrades so that every phone works in every vehicle. Yes, we may need some legislative help on this one.

3. Will the phone manufacturers please take responsibility for reliable, flexible systems for the safe in-motion use of telephones (not texting and other uses) in cars? Once again, an annual report should be required by any manufacturer selling telephones in the US.

Changes:

1. As consumers, we should fully understand the product and human safety issues related to phones in moving vehicles. We should demand real answers to these questions from our state and Federal agencies and from our lawmakers–and not just once, because cars and phones and consumer behaviors keep changing. What is and is not safe? We should know.

2. Unless we are certain, or reasonably certain, that hands-free telephone conversations are truly unsafe, more unsafe than, say, listening to the radio or talking to a passenger, both the phone makers and the car makers should be required to provide safe, reliable communications systems in moving vehicles.

3. We should establish reasonable industry review processes for a rapidly-changing digital environment.

Big Data, Bigger Ideas

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Every animate and inanimate object on earth will soon be generating data, including our homes, our cars, and yes, even our bodies”— Anthony D. Williams on the back of a big book entitled The Human Face of Big Data

From the dawn of civilization until 2003, humankind generated give exabytes of data. Now, we produce five exabytes every two days.” — Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google

The average person today processes more data in a single day than a person in the 1500s did in an entire lifetime.

Big Data is much more than big data. It’s also the ability to extract meaning: to sort through masses of numbers and find the hidden pattern, the unexpected correlation, th surprising connection. That ability is growing at astonishing speed, it won’t be long before Amazon’s ability to dazzle customers by suggesting just the right book will seem as quaint as our ancestors’s amazement at horseless carriages.– Dan Gardner, from the book’s introduction

human face big dataClearly, big data is a massive idea. Let’s see if we can’t break it down, if not by components, then, at least, by illustrations of classes and contexts.

The connection between data collection and pattern recognition is not new. In fact, we know the earliest example, which still exists, in book form, in a small, private Library of Human Imagination in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The book is called Bills of Mortality, and it records the weekly causes of death for London in 1664. This data was used to study the geographic (block-by-block) growth of the plague, and to take measures to prevent its future growth.

Two hundred gigabytes per day may not seem like much data, not in the days when you can buy a terabyte drive from Staples for a hundred bucks or so, but collect that much data day and day out, for a few years, and the warehouse becomes a busy place. That’s what MIT Media Lab’s Seb Roy did to learn how his newborn son learned language. The work was done at home with eleven cameras and fourteen microphones recording the child’s every move, every sound. The recording part of the project is over–their son is now seven years old–but analysis of “unexpected connections between the routines of everyday life and how one child learned his first words” continues as a research project.

On the other end of the age scale, there’s Magic Carpet, now in prototype. The carpet contains sensors and accelerometers. When installed in the home of, say, a senior, the carpet observes, records, and learns the person’s typical routine, which it uses as a baseline for further analysis. Then, “the system checks constantly for sudden (or gradual) abnormalities. If Mom is moving more slowly than usual, or it’s 11 a.m., And her bedroom door still hasn’t opened, the system sends an alert to a family member or physician.”

Often, big data intersects with some sort of mapping project. Camden, New Jersey’s Doctor Jeffrey Brenner “built a map linking hospital claims to patient addresses. He analyzed patterns of data, and the result took him by complete surprise: just one percent of patients, about 1,000 people, accounted for 30 percent of hospital bills because these patients were showing up in the hospital time after time…a microcosm for what’s going on in the whole country (in) emergency room visits and hospital admissions…” Subsequently, he established the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers to help address this “costly dysfunction.” He collected the data, analyzed it, then brought out meaningful change at a local level.

One of the many superb photographs depicting the intersection between human life and technology use. The book was put together by Rick Smolan, an extraordinary photographer, curator and compiler whose past work includes A Day in the The Life of America and other books in that series.

One of the many superb photographs depicting the intersection between human life and technology use. The book was put together by Rick Smolan, an extraordinary photographer, curator and compiler whose past work includes A Day in the The Life of America and other books in that series.

Yes, there’s a very scary dark side. Bad people could turn off 60,000 pacemakers via their Internet connections. A real time, technology enabled 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai killed 172 people and injured 300 more thanks to Blackberries, night vision goggles, satellite phones and other devices.

If you control the code, you control the world. There has not been an operating system or a technology that has not been hacked.

Fortunately, the good guys have tools on their side, too. The $40 million Domain Awareness System in Manhattan includes “an array of 3,000 cameras known as ‘The Ring of Steel” that monitor lower and midtown Manhattan as well as license plate readers, radiation detectors, relevant 911 calls, arrest records, related crimes, and vast files on characteristics such as tattoos, body marks, teeth, and even limps. They can also track a suspicious vehicle through time to the many locations where it has been over previous days and weeks.”

Google’s self-driving car is safer than a human-controlled vehicle because the digital car can access and process far more information more quickly than today’s humans.

By 2020, China will complete Compass/Beidou-2. This advanced navigation system will outperform the current (and decades old) GPS system. Greater precision will be used for public safety (emergency response, for example), commercial use (fishing, automotive), and, inevitably, for far more productive war.

Data can mean the difference between life death when the weather turns ugly. Thousands of lives are saved each year by weather earnings in wealthier countries. Yet thousands of lives are lost in poor ones when monsoons, tornadoes and other storms strike with little public warning, an intensifying threat as the planet warms,,,

If you’ve ever wondered what Amazon’s true business is, or why it uses the name of a gigantic river, the answer is big data. Ultimately, Amazon intends to become a public utility for computing services. Take a careful look at Amazon Prime and you will see a prototype. The streaming side of PBS and Netflix are among the enterprises enabled by Amazon’s big data operations.

For FedEx, “the information about the package is as important as the package itself.”

human face big data movementsWhether its eliminating malaria or making art, text messaging for blood donors or tracking asteroids, the future will be defined by the collection, analysis and use of big data. It will shape our individual knowledge about our own bodies, our children’s growth and our parents’ health, our collective tendencies for public good, safety, and bad behavior. It will be embedded in robots and intelligent systems that may, soon, control aspects of life that we once considered wholly human endeavors. It is a change of epic proportions and yet, most of us are unaware of its importance.

The book, The Human Face of Big Data, along with its related website and app, provide a useful gateway into this brave new world.

Only Half of This Is True

Maybe not now. But soon.

Turns out, facts are like radioactive materials, and, for that matter, like anything that’s not going to last forever.

arbesmanMore or less, this is half-life principle, developed just over 100 years ago by Ernest Rutherford, applies to facts, or, at least, a great many facts. This persuasive argument is set forth by Samuel Arbesman in a new book called The Half-Life of Facts. I especially like the sub-title: “What Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date.” Arbesman is a math professor and a network scientist, and, as you would expect, this is a smart book. The book seems more like a musing than a fully worked-out theory, but I suspect that’s because facts are not easy to tame. Herding facts is like herding cats.

HalfLifeOfFactsLet’s begin with “doubling times”–the amount of time it takes for something (anything) to double in quantity. The number of important discoveries; the number of chemical elements known; the accuracy of scientific instruments–these  double every twenty years.  The number of engineers in the U.S. doubles every ten years. Using measures fully detailed in the book, the doubling time for knowledge in mathematics is 63 years, in geology it’s 46 years. In technology knowledge, half lives are quiet brief: a 10 month doubling for the advance of wireless (measured in bits per second), a 20 month doubling time for gigabytes per consumer dollar. With sufficient data, it’s possible to visualize the trend and to project the future.

So that’s part of the story. Of course, it’s one thing to know something, and it’s another to disseminate that information. As the speed of communication began to exceed the speed of transportation (think: telegraph), transfer of knowledge in real time (or, pretty close to real time) became the standard. But not all communications media is instantaneous. Take, for example, a science textbook written in 1999. The textbook probably required several years of development, so let’s peg the information in, say, 1997. If that textbook is still around (which seems likely), then the information is 16 years old. If it’s a geology text, the text is probably valid, but if it’s an astronomy text, Pluto is still a planet, and there are a lot of other discoveries that are absent. And, there are facts rapidly degrading, some well past their half life.

Trans-Neptune

Although you can click to make the image bigger, Pluto still won’t be a planet…

And, then, of course, there are errors. Sometimes, we think we’ve got it right, but we don’t. Along with the dissemination of facts, our system of knowledge distribution transfers errors with great efficiency. We see this all the time on the internet: a writer picks up old or never-accurate information, and republishes it (perhaps adding some of his or her own noise along the way). An author who should know better gets lazy and picks up the so-called fact without bothering to double check, or, more tragically, manages to find the same inaccurate information in a second source, and has no reason to dispute its accuracy. Wikipedia’s editors see this phenomenon every day: they correct a finicky fact, and then, it’s uncorrected an hour later!

Precision is also an issue. As we gain technical sophistication, we also benefit from more precise measures. The system previously used for measurement degrades over time–it has its own half-life. Often, errors and misleading information are the result.

The author lists some of his own findings. One that is especially disturbing:

The greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.

And, here’s another that should make you think twice about what you see or hear as news:

The hotter a scientific field (with more scientific teams involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true.

My favorite word in the book is idiolect. It is used to describe the sphere of human behavior that affects the ways each of us sends and receives information, the ways in which we understand and use vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, accent, and other aspects of human communication. A fact may begin one way, but cultural overlays may affect the way the message is sent or received. This, too, exerts an impact on accuracy, precision, and, ultimately, the half-life of facts.

Word usage also enters in the picture. He charts the popularity of the (ridiculous) phrase “very fun” and finds very strong increase beginning in 1980 (the graph begins in 1900, when the term was in use, but was not especially popular).

Time is part of the equation, too. The Long Now Foundation encourages people to think in terms of millennia, not years or centuries. Arbesman wrote a nice essay for WIRED to focus attention not only on big data but on long data as well.

Given all of this, I suspect that the knowledge in the brain of an expert is also subject to the half-life phenomenon. Take Isaac Newton–pretty smart guy in his time–but the year he died, most of England believed that Mary Toft had given birth to sixteen rabbits.

Last week, on CBS Sunday Morning, Lewis Michael Seidman, a Georgetown University professor commented about our strong belief in the power and relevance of the U.S. Constitution (signed 1787, since amended, but not substantially altered):

This is our country. We live in it, and we have a right to the kind of country we want. We would not allow the French or the United Nations to rule us, and neither should we allow people who died over two centuries ago and knew nothing of our country as it exists today.

CBS News Constitution

Dream of a Nation: Inspiring Ideas for a Better America

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Happy new year.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

That sentence, and the ideas below, are parts of a book entitled Dream of a Nation: Inspiring Ideas for a Better America. Here are some of those ideas:

Shift the rules for campaign financing so that most of the money comes from most of the people. Currently, one-third of one percent of the people provide 90% of campaign funds. This drives special interests, and encourages a system based upon lobbyists that was never a good idea. And, while we on this track, let’s reduce the ratio of lobbyists to legislators: the current ratio of 23:1 (lobbyist to legislator) is probably too high by half (or more).

Let’s take control of our Federal budget (and, in time, our state budgets, too). In Porto Allegro, Brazil, a “citizen participation” approach to budgeting resulted in a 400% percent increase in school funding, and a dramatic increase in funds for clean water and sewers. Budgeting by citizen participation is a new movement that we want to encourage.

If Americans cut bottled water consumption by 80%, then the number of bottles, laid end-to-end, would circle the equator just once a day. Right now, we can circle the equator with bottles every 5 hours.

If each of us thinks more clearly about what we spend, and where we spend it, then the people living in an average American city (say, 750,ooo population) can add over 3,000 new local jobs and shift about $300,000 more into the local economy. How? By spending just 20% more on local, not national, businesses. Go to the local hardware store, the farmer’s market; don’t go to Wal-Mart or Walgreens. In the end, you’ll be richer for it. We all will.

Recognize that the high school drop out crisis is costing the U.S. at least half a trillion dollars each year. Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of school in the U.S. Encourage your legislators to take the time to fully understand the problem and to work with states and school districts to end this problem. The problem is not just the schools: it’s the support systems that do not provide sufficient support for lower-income families. An astonishing one in four American children live in poverty. We know how to change this: we need to focus on what worked during the LBJ years and the Clinton years, and do more of it. And, along the way, we need to invest about $360 million to fix crumbling school buildings. This priority pays off in so many ways: GDP, elimination of crime, family stability, reduction in prison population, so much more. We should no longer accept the idea that 25% of earth’s prison population resides in a U.S. prison–an outsized number for a nation with just 8 percent of the world’s people. Similarly, we should no longer accept the high price of education and the middling results that we achieve with those dollars. Other countries do better because their systems are more reasonable. We need to change the way we think about all of this, and we need to make it clear to legislators that this will be their last term if they do not accomplish what we need done.

Let’s get started on two substantial changes in the ways we work with our money. First, let’s start thinking in terms of a V.A.T., as most Western nations do. If the book’s calculations are correct, this should increase our available funds by about 13%. And second, let’s eliminate the 17% (average) payroll tax, reducing hiring costs for employers, as this model is proving to be more effective than our current approach. For more about this, Get America Working! (not the easiest website for clear presentation of ideas; the book is better).

In Canada, they spend $22 per person on noncommercial educational media (we call it public TV, public radio). In England, they spend $80 per person per year. In the U.S., we spend $1.37 per person per year (less than a bottle of water). If we increase funding to a more reasonable level, of, say, $75 per person per year (one bottle of water per week), we get something as good as the BBC for ourselves and our children. Noncommercial matters.

There’s much longer discussion about carbon footprints, waste, overconsumption, and the need for cars that average 100mpg. And another about rethinking just about everything related to the outsized defense budget and its underlying strategies. We haven’t got the health care concept down yet, but moving it into the public goods shopping cart seems to be a step in an appropriate direction.

We should all become familiar with, and promote, the 8 Global Millennium Development Goals that aim to:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and women’s empowerment
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability and better access to water and sanitation
  • Create a global partnership for development

So that’s a start. It’s going to be a busy year. And, I hope, one of our best.

Unreasonable

As the year winds down, a call-out to some unreasonable people.

One is called The Unreasonable Institute.

Why We Exist: To create a world in which no one is limited by their circumstances.
Our Mission: To unlock entrepreneurial potential to overcome our world’s greatest challenges.

Three recent college graduates decided to take on the world’s biggest problems–no shortage of idealism here–by causing interactions between promising entrepreneurs with big ideas, mentors, and funders. They do all of this–quite reasonably, I might add–by having everybody work and live together in a big house for several weeks. I’m not sure that “institute” (their term) is the ideal description, but this combination networking fest and dorm experience makes a lot of sense. There are lots of informal interactions between smart, interested, connected people who want to make things happen. I love this idea, and I suspect you will, too.

The second is called Charity: Water.

charity: water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.

Two simple ideas here. One is clean water for everyone, everywhere in the world. That’s a tremendous challenge, one that can be solved only on a local level, well-by-well, source-by-source. It’s also a transformative idea: clean water means healthier people, far less time each day caring for the ill; empowerment of women (who, in many places in the world, expend an enormous amount of time at the well or other source, and carrying water home).

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To play the video, please click on the image.

Both are mentioned here are examples of a new way of thinking about the world’s problems: a small entrepreneurial group with big ideas, unique approaches to management, operations and funding, plenty of attention to details, and, far less reliance upon large organizations to provide solutions. And one more thing: the internet is central to the success of these new conceptions. Be sure to explore Charity: Water’s use of internet mapping for every project, a solid example of things to come.

BTW: while searching for a link, I ran into a Huffington Post story that explains the trend in more detail. It’s definitely worth reading, especially at a time of year when we’re all trying to figure out how to do it even better next week.

A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing

It’s often tempting to consider the past through a present-day lens, and that causes distortion. Take, for example, the idea of a fact. Our ancestors did not elevate the fact as anything of importance. Instead, they considered facts to be evil, in opposition with God’s plan. This way of thinking begins with perception, a capacity that we share with animals. “For them, knowledge had to be something more than what we learn from our senses, because it is such a distinctly human capability of our God-given and God-like soul.”

Thomas Bacon, known for the Scientific Method and for his cool combination of dapper hat, moustache-goatee combo, and stylish  collar.

Thomas Bacon, known for the Scientific Method and for his cool combination of dapper hat, moustache-goatee combo, and stylish collar.

It isn’t until the 1700s that the current idea of a fact takes shape. In the Italy of the 1500s, double-entry bookkeeping is among the first presentations of fact as a decision-making tool. In England, in the 1700s, Francis Bacon’s work on the scientific method led the way toward building theories based upon “particulars,” not deduced from a grand theory. Of course, this way of thinking sidelined generally accepted beliefs, a radical idea at that time, and in our times, too.

220px-Thomas_Malthus

Thomas Malthus

You may recall that Thomas Malthus theorized that food supply would not keep pace with population growth. His initial documents were based, mostly, upon deduction. His later documents were based upon well-researched fact. The shift in thinking occurred during his watch, before and after the year 1800.

Portrait of Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill

Portrait of Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill

Enter Jeremy Bentham, a Malthus contemporary. Bentham’s theory, simplified: government ought to provide “the greatest happiness of the greatest number [of people]” In order to do the job, government would need a clear picture of the people it served (also a new idea, government as service, but that requires another article).

The word “statistics” enters the language around this time: stat, of course, is German for the state.

By the 1830s, the British government is obsessed with this powerful tool: facts. They commission a series of Blue Books filled with facts, statistics, anecdotes, interviews and more. The Blue Books are reports about “poverty, crime, education, and other social concerns.”

Charles Dickens, who made fun of his government's newfound love for facts.

Charles Dickens, who made fun of his government’s newfound love for facts.

By the 1850s, the clever novelist Charles Dickens grows weary of the fact-based Blue Books. From Dickens’ Hard Times, “We hope to have, before long, composed of commissioners of facts, who will force the people to be a people of fact and of nothing but fact.”

By around the 1900s, fact-finding missions had become common, and World War I becomes the first war fought, largely, upon the basis of facts.

At the risk of capturing the obvious idea, our contemporary media environment is skewed because opinion and pontificating is, often, more entertaining than fact-based thinking. Rush Limbaugh gets the ratings; the Encyclopedia Britannica ceases publication. Constitutional scholar Cass Sunstein says, “Many people are mostly hearing more and louder echoes of their own voices.” His context is the internet, where groups of like-minded people share their beliefs, and by their numbers, magnify ideas that may not be fact-based into cultural touchstones. He goes further to explain that members of those groups are becoming less likely to communicate with people outside the group, and wonders whether this supportive groupthink is detrimental to democracy. (So much for the hope that the abundance of information, and facts, on the internet would encourage interaction between these groups.)

And that leads to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, who believes that the internet is “weakening our capacity for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins ‘mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

220px-Al_Gore_at_SapphireNow_2010_croppedA parallel path also leads to Al Gore, who asked this question in his book, The Assault on Reason: Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way American now makes its important decisions?”

Perhaps the answer to Mr. Gore’s question is complexity. We learn arithmetic but not calculus, we have been taught to think in simple linear terms, not in terms that help us to understand the complex, dynamic system that our society has become. Our contribution to the chain begun by Bacon: the mapping of complex systems that change over time. It is these systems that draw facts into the future, and these models that provide potent vaccination against those who theorize on the basis of beliefs, not facts.

On another parallel path is the passionate amateur. Included in that class would be both Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, neither one a scientist, each a relentless cataloguer of observations, and, as a result, a theorist whose ideas are based upon endless study and analysis.

Jenny_McCarthy_at_E3_2006And, there is the celebrity whose role is related to a megaphone. Ideas that might not otherwise reach a large audience become popularized because a celebrity become involved. When former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy and actress Jenny McCarthy started making noise about vaccinating our children, people paid attention. The Michael J. Fox Foundation is attempting to resolve the delicate balance between Mr. Fox’s own story and fame, and the broader agenda that must drive the Parkinson’s foundation (that carries his name). The Fox foundation has been intelligent and thoughtful in its use of social media, engaging individuals, on a large scale, to participate in trials and other research. Here, the “particulars” are the individual cases, the undeniable truth of daily life with a disease not yet cured.

Too Big To Know

How does all of this come together? The fact is, we’re still figuring out the answer to that question. David Weinberger’s book, Too Big To Know, the source of many of the ideas and all of the quotes in this article, does a fine job in raising questions and providing examples. Addressing the crisis of knowledge (his belief, with which I do not wholeheartedly agree), Weinberger suggests that we open up access to a much broader range of facts; link everything in sight; dig deeply into institutions to make their knowledge available to a larger population; and relentless teach so that we all gain a better understanding of how our world works, and how it might work in the future.

BTW: The article’s title, A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing refers to love as explained by lyricist Hal David for the Broadway musical, Promises, Promises.

Cowboys & Indians

Remington’s got the story right. See below.

Mortal enemies, right? The basis for zillions of all-American children’s games. And, more or less, utter nonsense. It’s amazing how thoroughly we buy into the distortions that media provides each and every day.

Nobody knows how many Native Americans lived in North America before the enemy showed up and killed most of them. In what become the United States, there were probably between 5 and 10 million native people. The vast majority of these natives were killed by European settlers, not “out West” (by which we mean, mostly, the Great Plains), for those deaths came in the 1800s, toward the end of the story. Far more were killed first by the European diseases carried by explorers and traders, and then, by a century of U.S. military actions. By 1871, the U.S. government no longer bothered with Indian treaties–they had already won the war and decimated the native population. Our images of cowboys on the open plains are circa 1880, and by that time, the “Indian problem” was mostly resolved by Manifest Destiny. (Prior to the final third of the 19th century, there wasn’t much of a cattle industry, so there weren’t many cowboys).

Remington had the story right: his painting, above, A Dash for the Timber, U.S. militia–not cowboys–shoot at the Apaches (see in the rear).

Sure, cowboys battled Indians (or, if you prefer, Injuns), but much of the action occurred courtesy of wildly imaginative Wild West Shows operated by the likes of Wild Bill Cody Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody. As pure show business, these spectacles were extremely popular, and provided a nascent motion picture industry with the necessary creative impetus to produce “Westerns,” most often featuring some version of cowboys and Indians (not so much, “smallpox and Indians,” or “U.S. Army troops and Indians”–cowboys made more sense as entertainment). And with all of that, we’ve bought into this elaborate mythology: our native people were primitive, violent (when provoked with loss of land, family, and health, but that part is forgotten), a class of warriors who deserved no better than their present fate.

It’s a bit of a reach, but not too much of a reach, to wonder about a retelling of the Civil Rights movement through the magic of CGI, or a reconstructed version of Weapons of Mass Destruction emerging from a Jeb Bush White House in 2016 or so. The alternative truth is easily constructed, sold on the big screen and through immersive videogames, and if the stage management is effective, and the bits are in the right places, most people can be made to believe what they know not to be true.

We’re better than this. I sure wish we are smarter today than we were as kids playing cowboys n’ injuns. It’s not about getting the historical facts right–not a bad start, but not the point, either–it’s about teaching our children (and our adults) what really happened, why it happened, and why we might rethink the subject matter that becomes the basis for our entertainment or our children’s games.

Just in case you missed it, here’s a tale about The Battle of Little Big Puck, for thirty years an annual hockey game between Cree Indians and the local cowboy population. The referee is a local Mountie. Here’s the backstory:

“The roots go back to a hot summer day in July where a couple of cowboys and a couple of members of the Nekaneet band met in the old Commercial Hotel over a cold beer,” he said. “And as good friends do, they got to bickering good naturedly as to who could ride the rankest horses, and rope the quickest, and pretty soon it came down to, ‘We can darn sure beat you guys at hockey.’”

BTW: If you can figure out how to write the last sentence of this blog, please post your closing sentence as a comment below. I’m completely at a loss for the best way to close this one out.

 

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