Tech and solution-ism

A little over a decade ago, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) idea was hoisted out of obscurity by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab at – where else? – the WEF in Davos. He got a bunch of big, mostly techie corporations to commit to backing it, and later, at another Davos summit, the UNDP. The idea was basically this: schoolchildren in the developing world needed computer literacy to compete, yet computers (notably then) were expensive. So a non-profit effort needed to develop a basic computer that would cost <$100. This would enable massive distribution and give children in poor countries access to computers.

The program has been mired in controversy for the last decade. It’s still something of a cause célèbre in some techie do-gooder circles, while development experts have generally reserved deep skepticism. Sure enough, the American Economic Association just published a new, large-scale, randomized evaluation of the OLPC program in Peru, where it found “no evidence” that the devices contributed to math or language skills improvement.

Before I got into tech, I worked in international development, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon and then as a program manager for a U.S.-based development contractor implementing a bunch of USAID projects. (I’ll write about that sometime.) In 2008, I got to play with one of the “OLPCs,” as they were called. It was cute, but manifestly not a “computer.” Ironically, I had just gotten my first iPhone at that time. Like many people, I’d started to suspected that was the future of computing for most of the world; now, we know it is.

I have started writing, abandoned and then revisited a big formal Medium post on tech silver-bullet-ism many times. (I had one that was popular earlier on why Google’s balloons and Facebook’s drones are bad ideas.) It’s incredibly frustrating. Every year, millions are spent on dumb, gadget-y projects that some white person sitting in America (or Europe), who either spent a cursory amount of time in the developing world or sometimes none at all, imagines will revolutionize life there. The OLPC is just one such example. PlayPumps was another famous one. It’s an incredibly myopic, and predictably ineffectual, view on structural, contextual problems like poverty, education and healthcare. But it makes for great PR. So the reason it keeps happening should tell you why many people/companies invest in it.

OLPC’s goal was to improve education in the developing world. The best way to do that, as almost any expert on the topic agrees, is not by building a school (every “mission trip’s” favorite pastime) or handing out gadgets. Rather, it’s systemic: you start by paying teachers. (No, that doesn’t always happen.) Pay them enough, and on time, regularly. Give them respect and don’t place them in a corrupt administrative system. Provide sufficient resources for children to learn. In many contexts, comparatively small investments in providing meals and healthcare at school works wonders.

Just imagine what could’ve happened if Negroponte had pitched those ideas at Davos?

Recommended

Buddy of mine and I saw these guys in person. Sissoko is a renowned Malian kora musician, and Segal an accomplished French cellist. Unreal how good they are together. This is one of my go-tos now for background music when I put my headphones on. (They’re on Spotify too.)

How I became an optimist

One built-in limitation to human psychology is our hardwired inability to imagine new things in the future. Risk aversion is probably an evolutionary advantage, so this makes sense. Offered an uncertain choice, most people’s imaginations immediately leap to what could go wrong, what they could stand to lose, etc. After all, the positive future is defined by things that don’t even exist yet, while the negative future is defined by the lack of that which I already have here in front of me.

There are any number of examples of this. Doomsday predictions – financial, political, environmental, social, etc. – are reliably popular, while more optimistic ones are trashed. You observe this all the time. Pessimistic predictions are frequently given weighty consideration, and the predictors gain a penumbra of wise skepticism; while optimistic ones are dismissed as unrealistic, pollyannaish whimsy. So grounds for optimism are often ignored. Who, in 1990, predicted that global poverty would be cut by more than half in 25 years? How many predicted that the iPhone would be such a transformational product? You can find tons of examples of the same.

Recognizing this limitation of human psychology and correcting for it can be a huge “hack.” It gives you a greater sense of control over your own life and can make you a lot happier.

Nevertheless, I think about this a lot when hearing people complain that, to become more successful, this political party or that one needs to invent a new “positive message for the future.” Do people really believe in, let alone vote for, optimism? I’m not so sure. I think people vote for personalities and brands and the feelings they represent (and, often, which people project onto them). “Make America Great Again” resonated with a lot of people because it appealed to nostalgia, however misplaced; Trump also ran against a historically weak opponent, plus Russia, etc etc.¹ But the Trump campaign was also markedly negative in its outlook on America. Obama in 2008, Clinton in 1992 or Reagan in 1980 are often referred to as campaigns of “optimism,” but each, gifted and charismatic communicators all, also ran against weak opponents who misread the electorate. No one remembers all the block-and-tackling of those campaigns – just the warm and fuzzies of “Morning in America” and “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” “Optimistic” is simply what we wind up calling most campaigns that win.

So I guess this is to say that I don’t believe all the hand-wringing about how Democrats need to invent some new, positive spin to win back [insert your pet constituency here]. Likeable, charismatic candidates, smart comms strategy, campaign organizing fundamentals, media and tech savvy and electorate trends are where victory lies, no matter your party.

 

¹ – This isn’t a partisan post per se, but it’s worth noting that Trump lost the popular vote by a convincing margin, so his “win” here is meant in the technical sense. Clinton’s campaign was not a fundamentally “optimistic” one either, though.

Saccharin and food beliefs

I’m a southerner and thus am addicted to sweet tea. (This means iced tea, obviously.) During the hot months, I brew my own at home in 1.5 gallon jugs. I probably go ~2 jugs a week.

… yeah.

“Real” sweet tea is made with sugar, but I use Sweet ‘N Low – saccharin. I buy it in bulk packs. When I tell people about this, some recoil – surely that can’t be good for you, right? Doesn’t saccharin cause cancer?

Saccharin does not cause cancer. Those tiny warnings everyone remembers – “this product has been shown to cause cancer in rats,” etc. – has been gone since 2000, since the FDA and the EPA reviewed those studies, which dated from the early ’70s, and concluded they were mostly bad science. But earlier controversies over artificial sweeteners, combined with modern-day paranoia about additives, have conspired to probably permanently stigmatize saccharin. Natural sugar (refined or not) is much worse for you on almost every level: it rots your teeth, fries your nervous system, is full of calories and more. None of that is true for saccharin. But the “cancer” smear has sort of set.

People’s food beliefs are strongly linked to their disgust reflexes, which are set early in life and extremely difficult to change thereafter, and are rarely rational. We Americans have our own culturally constructed mythology about what makes food “clean.” You can get a piece of six-month old, hormone-fed, antibiotic-bathed piece of chicken breast fried in day-old peanut oil, but as long as it is wrapped in shiny foil and never touched by an ungloved human hand, it is considered “clean.” Meanwhile, many European consumers find the notion of a genetically modified ear of corn, picked fresh from the farm, utterly, viscerally revolting. A lot of Africans I know relish a nice stick of boiled manioc wrapped in banana leaf, but are a little repulsed by the level of sweetness in a lot of American foods.

Once you start realizing how utterly arbitrary our food mythologies are, your world of food sort of opens up, but also collapses around you at the same time.

Markets in everything – Gwyneth Paltrow edition

The next time you have an idea, but then think “surely no one would possibly buy that,” remember that Gwyneth Paltrow is selling packs of stickers – yes, stickers – that she says “promote healing” for $60 a pop for packs of 10. Everyone’s favorite homeopathic shuckster invokes science to claim that her $6/a sticker scam is based on tech:

https://www.shopbodyvibes.com/science-technology/

Vox busted them on claiming it was based on NASA technology, too.

Last I looked, their inventory was sold out. People buy this stuff. Whether you see that as exploiting easily-mislead simpletons or cashing in on homeopathic faddism is up to you. But it means that your idea probably isn’t stupid, either.

Stimulants

I nurse a moderate coffee addiction and a sweet tooth. Possibly as a result, over time I have a very low sensitivity to stimulants. This has both good and bad effects, but isn’t my point today.

Imagine you’re a striving young European intellectual in the mid 17th century. A lot is going on in Europe at this time – it would’ve been an exciting (albeit dangerous) time to be young and doing stuff. People you know start drinking this weird beverage called “coffee” which acts like lighter fluid on your brain. It was immediately associated with the intelligentsia and revolutionary troublemaking, which is why kings began outlawing it from their realms. (They tried for over a century – King Charles II in 1676 to Frederick the Great in 1777.) Many rulers wanted their people to go back to drinking beer instead, for obvious reasons.

The introduction of coffee gave its consumers an unfair competitive advantage over non-coffee drinkers, particularly those doing the knowledge work of the time. Caffeine is a psychotropic drug, after all. I wonder if it was received something like adderall is today among the wealthy, plugged-in urban set. I know lots of people (almost all white and from money) who went through college/grad school popping adderall to study and pull all-nighters. (Needless to say, none of them were ever the least bit worried about being caught/punished. Privilege at work.) That said, there’s still some lingering stigma around popping pharmaceuticals like this.

Of course, adderall ain’t caffeine. Different degrees of effect. But it does make me think about how performance enhancing drugs – and they’re all just drugs! – are culturally normalized over time.

Lastly – do you know about chewable coffee? I discovered this stuff a few months ago and love it now. Basically it’s gummy coffee-flavored cubes that pack caffeine. Recommend: GoCubes

Hello world!

I’m restarting my own site. I’ve wanted to do this for a while, but, well, am just now getting around to it.

2017 has been a really busy year that is only going to get busier. I’ve been learning to focus more, which is good!

Things I have yet to do this year that I still want to:

  • Publish up the serial fiction thing I’ve been writing.
  • Read more fiction.
  • Launch an interesting side project with a few buddies of mine.
  • 1000-lb club at the gym
  • Buy a new banjo and re-learn. (I learned to play while in the Peace Corps, but had to leave it there.)

Some things I’ve basically cut out:

  • Facebook. Haven’t deactivated my account, but I’m basically off it.
  • Most TV. Reality is stranger than almost anything they come up with.
  • Reading distractions. I’ve tried to get better at quality > quantity.

Tips? Let me know.