22 December 2013

A muscular new kid on the block

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. – George Bernard Shaw, “Man and Superman”, 1903

How far should we go, to be the best that we can be? If personal greatness lies at the other side of an intense effort, should we strain every muscle, muster every personal resource, and vigorously push away every distraction, in order to seize that crown?

For example, should we accept the “Transhumanist Wager”, as dramatically portrayed in the trenchant new novel of the same name by former world-traveller and award-winning National Geographic journalist Zoltan Istvan?

The-Transhumanist-Wager-e1368458616371The book, which hit the #1 best-seller spot in Amazon a few months back (in both Philosophy and Science Fiction Visionary and Metaphysical), is a vivid call to action. It’s a call for people around the world to waken up to the imminent potential for a radical improvement in the human condition. The improvement can be earned by harnessing and accelerating ongoing developments in medicine, engineering, and technology.

However, in the nightmare near-future world portrayed in the novel, that improvement will require an intense effort, since the seats of global power are resolutely opposed to any potential for dramatic, human-driven improvement.

For example, under the influence of what the novel calls “a rogue group of right-wing politicians – those who considered Sunday church a central part of their existence”, the US government passes sweeping laws forbidding experimentation in stem cell therapies, genetic reprogramming, human enhancement, and life-extension. Istvan puts into the mouth of the President of the United States the soporific remarks, “Good old-fashioned, basic health, that’s what the people really want”.

That ambition sounds… reasonable, yet it falls far, far short of the potential envisioned by the hero of the novel, Jethro Knights. He has much bigger sights: “My words define a coming new species”.

Anyone reading “The Transhumanist Wager” is likely to have strong reactions on encountering Jethro Knights. Knights may become one of the grand characters of modern fiction. He challenges each of us to rethink how far each of us would be prepared to go, to become the best that we can be. Knights brazenly talks about himself as an “omnipotender”: “an unyielding individual whose central aim is to contend for as much power and advancement as he could achieve, and whose immediate goal is to transcend his human biological limitations in order to reach a permanent sentience”. Throughout the novel, his actions match his muscular philosophy. I read it with a growing mix of horror and, yes, admiration.

The word “wager” in the book’s title recalls the infamous “Pascal’s Wager”. French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal argued in the 17th century that since there was a possibility that God existed, with the power to bestow on believers “an infinitely happy life”, we should take steps to acquire the habit of Christian belief: the potential upsides far outweigh any downsides. Belief in God, according to Pascal, was a wager worth taking. However, critics have long observed that there are many “possible” Gods, each of whom seems to demand different actions as indicators of our faith; the wager alone is no guide as to the steps that should be taken to increase the chance of “an infinitely happy life”.

The transhumanist wager observes, analogously, that there is a possibility that in the not-too-distant future, science and technology will have the ability to bestow on people, if not an “infinitely happy” life, a lifestyle that is hugely expanded and enhanced compared to today’s. Jethro Knights expounds the consequence:

The wager… states that if you love life, you will safeguard that life, and strive to extend and improve it for as long as possible. Anything else you do while alive, any other opinion you have, any other choice you make to not safeguard, extend, and improve that life, is a betrayal of that life…

This is a historic choice that each man and woman on the planet must make. The choice shall determine the rest of your life and the course of civilisation.

Knights is quite the orator – and quite a fighter, too. As the novel proceeds to its climactic conclusion, Knights assembles like-minded scientists and engineers who create a formidable arsenal of remote-controlled weaponry – robots that can use state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to devastating effect. The military stance is needed, in response to the armed forces which the world’s governments are threatening to deploy against the maverick new entity of “Transhumania” – a newly built seasteading nation of transhumanists – which Knights now leads.

It is no surprise that critics of the book have compared Jethro Knights to Joseph Stalin. These criticisms come from within the real-world transhumanist community that Istvan might have counted to rally around the book’s call to action. Perhaps these potential allies were irritated by the description of mainstream transhumanists that appears in the pages of the book: “an undersized group of soft-spoken individuals, mostly aged nerds trying to gently reshape their world… their chivalry and sense of embedded social decency was their downfall”.

I see four possible objections to the wager that lies at the heart of this novel – and to any similar single-minded undertaking to commit whole-heartedly to a methodology of personal transcendence:

  1. First, by misguidedly pursing “greatness”, we might lose grasp of the “goodness” we already possess, and end up in a much worse place than before.
  2. Second, instead of just thinking about our own personal advancement, we have important obligations to our families, loved ones, and our broader social communities.
  3. Third, by being overly strident, we may antagonise people and organisations who could otherwise be our allies.
  4. Fourth, we may be wrong in our analysis of the possibility for future transcendence; for example, faith in science and technology may be misplaced.

Knights confronts each of these objections, amidst the drama to establish Transhumania as his preferred vehicle to human transcendence. Along the way, the novel features other richly exaggerated larger-than-life characters embodying key human concerns – love, spirituality, religion, and politics – who act as counters to Knights’ own headstrong ambitions. Zoe Bach, the mystically inclined physician who keeps spirituality on the agenda, surely speaks for many readers when she tells Knights she understands his logic but sees his methods as not being realistic – and as “not feeling right”.

The book has elements that highlight an uplifting vision for what science and technology can achieve, freed from the meddling interference of those who complain that “humans shouldn’t play at being God”. But it also serves as an awful warning for what might ensue if forces of religious fundamentalism and bio-conservatism become increasingly antagonised, rather than inspired, by the transformational potential of that science and technology.

My takeaway from the book, therefore, is to work harder at building bridges, rather than burning them. We will surely need these bridges in the troubled times that lie ahead. That is my own “transhumanist wager”.


1.) A version of the above essay currently features on the front-page of the online Psychology Today magazine.

DW on front cover2.) If you can be in San Francisco on 1st February, you can see Zoltan Istvan, the author of the Transhumanist Wager, speaking the conference “Transhuman Visions” organised by Brighter Brains:

Transhuman-Visions2-791x10243.) I recently chaired a London Futurists Hangout On Air discussion on The Transhumanist Wager. The panelists, in addition to Zoltan Istvan, were Giulio PriscoRick Searle, and Chris T. Armstrong. You can view the recording of the discussion below. But to avoid spoiling your enjoyment of the book, you might prefer to read the book before you delve into the discussion.

15 April 2012

Hope for healing healthcare

Filed under: books, change, Economics, healthcare, market failure, medicine, passion — David Wood @ 12:45 am

Within the space of the first few pages of his book “The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care“, T.R. Reid had me chuckling at some of his descriptions of healthcare systems around the world. Within these same few pages, he also triggered in me a wave of anger and disbelief. He’s a veteran foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, and his writing skills shine throughout his book. Marshaling personal anecdotes from his experiences during visits to healthcare facilities in ten different countries, with historical accounts of how these healthcare systems came to have their current form, his writing addressed both my head and my heart.

Given the title of the book, it’s no spoiler for me to reveal that the episode in the first few pages that triggered my feeling of anger and disbelief was located in the USA. NY Times journalist Nicholas D. Kristof also read T.R. Reid’s book and had the same reaction as me. He retells the story in his article “The Body Count at Home“:

Nikki White was a slim and athletic college graduate who had health insurance, had worked in health care and knew the system. But she had systemic lupus erythematosus, a chronic inflammatory disease that was diagnosed when she was 21 and gradually left her too sick to work. And once she lost her job, she lost her health insurance.

In any other rich country, Nikki probably would have been fine, notes T. R. Reid in his important and powerful new book, “The Healing of America.” Some 80 percent of lupus patients in the United States live a normal life span. Under a doctor’s care, lupus should be manageable…

As Mr. Reid recounts, Nikki tried everything to get medical care, but no insurance company would accept someone with her pre-existing condition. She spent months painfully writing letters to anyone she thought might be able to help. She fought tenaciously for her life.

Finally, Nikki collapsed at her home in Tennessee and was rushed to a hospital emergency room, which was then required to treat her without payment until her condition stabilized. Since money was no longer an issue, the hospital performed 25 emergency surgeries on Nikki, and she spent six months in critical care.

“When Nikki showed up at the emergency room, she received the best of care, and the hospital spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on her,” her step-father, Tony Deal, told me. “But that’s not when she needed the care.”

By then it was too late. In 2006, Nikki White died at age 32. “Nikki didn’t die from lupus,” her doctor, Amylyn Crawford, told Mr. Reid. “Nikki died from complications of the failing American health care system.”...

Alas, the case of Nikki White is very far from being an exception. Kristof notes the estimates that “18,000 Die a Year for Lack of Insurance” each year in the US. (And numerous online responses to his blog post give other sad personal experiences.)

But here’s what I found really stomach-churning in the opening pages of T.R. Reid’s book:

Many Americans intensely dislike the idea that we might learn useful policy ideas from other countries, particularly in medicine. The leaders of the healthcare industry and the medical profession, not to mention the political establishment, have a single, all-purpose response they fall back on whenever someone suggests that the United States might usefully study foreign healthcare systems: “But it’s socialized medicine!”

This is supposed to end the argument. The contention is that the United States, with its commitment to free markets and low taxes, could never rely on big-government socialism the way other countries do. Americans have learned in school that the private sector can handle things better and more efficiently than government ever could.

In US policy debates, the term “socialized medicine” has been a powerful political weapon…  The term was popularized by a public relations firm working for the American Medical Association in 1947 to disparage President Truman’s proposal for a national healthcare system. It was a label, at the dawn of the cold war, meant to suggest that anybody advocating universal access to healthcare must be a communist. And the phrase has retained its political power for six decades…

I was reminded of the remarkable claims at the beginning of this year by would-be President Rick Santorum that the “NHS devastated Britain” and caused “the collapse of the British Empire”.

T.R. Reid had been bureau chief for the Washington Post in both London and Tokyo, and had lived in each of these cities for several years with his family. That gave him considerable first-hand experience of the healthcare systems in these two countries. The book arose from a wider set of visits, including France, Germany, Canada, India, Nepal, Switzerland, and Taiwan. He had two reasons for all these visits:

  1. To inquire about possible treatments for a shoulder injury he had sustained many years previously, but which had recently flared up again, becoming increasingly painful and hard to move. As he explained, “I could no longer swing a golf club. I could barely reach up to replace a lightbulb overhead or get the wine-glasses from the top shelf. Yearning for surcease from sorrow, I took that bum shoulder to doctors and clinics… in countries around the world”
  2. To seek, more generally, for “a solution to a much bigger medical problem… a prescription to fix the seriously ailing healthcare system” of the US.

He retells his diverse experiences with good humour and great insight. Along the way, he lists and punctures “Five Myths About Health Care in the Rest of the World” – myths that are widely believed in some parts of the US, but which have limited basis in actual practice:

  1. It’s all socialized medicine out there
  2. Overseas, care is rationed through limited choices or long lines
  3. Foreign health-care systems are inefficient, bloated bureaucracies
  4. Cost controls stifle innovation
  5. Health insurance has to be cruel

For example, on whether cost controls stifle innovation, he notes the following:

The United States is home to groundbreaking medical research, but so are other countries with much lower cost structures. Any American who’s had a hip or knee replacement is standing on French innovation. Deep-brain stimulation to treat depression is a Canadian breakthrough. Many of the wonder drugs promoted endlessly on American television, including Viagra, come from British, Swiss or Japanese labs.

Overseas, strict cost controls actually drive innovation. In the United States, an MRI scan of the neck region costs about $1,500. In Japan, the identical scan costs $98. Under the pressure of cost controls, Japanese researchers found ways to perform the same diagnostic technique for one-fifteenth the American price. (And Japanese labs still make a profit.)

And the facts and figures throughout the book are relentless and comprehensive:

  • Average life expectancy at birth in the United States is 77.85 years. “That means the world’s richest country ranks forty-seventh, just ahead of Cyprus and a little behind Bosnia and Herzegovina, in terms of longevity. The United States is among the worst of the industrialized nations on this score; for that matter, the average American can expect a shorter life than people in relatively poor countries like Jordan”
  • “For those Americans who are uninsured or under-insured, any bout with illness can be terrifying on two levels. In addition to the risk of disability or death due to the disease, there’s the risk of financial ruin due to the medical and pharmaceutical bills. This is a uniquely American problem. When I was traveling the world on my quest, I asked the health ministry of each country how many citizens had declared bankruptcy in the past year because of medical bills. Generally, the officials responded to this question with a look of astonishment, as if I had asked how many flying saucers from Mars landed in the ministry’s parking lot last week. How many people go bankrupt because of medical bills? In Britain, zero. In France, zero. In Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland: zero. In the United States, according to a joint study by Harvard Law School and Harvard Medical School, the annual figure is around 700,000”
  • “The one area where the United States unquestionably leads the world is in spending. Even countries with considerably older populations, with more need for medical attention, spend much less than we do. Japan has the oldest population in the world, and the Japanese go to the doctor more than anybody – about fourteen office visits per year, compared with five for the average American. And yet Japan spends about $3,000 per person on health care each year; we burn through $7,000 per person”
  • “When a Harvard Medical School professor working at the World Health Organisation developed a complicated formula to rate the quality and fairness of national healthcare systems around the world, the richest nation on earth ranked thirty-seventh… just behind Dominica and Costa Rica, and just ahead of Slovenia and Cuba…”

(For more about the WHO comparative rankings of healthcare systems, see e.g. Wikipedia’s coverage. T.R. Reid addresses various criticisms of the methodology in an Appendix to his book.)

Rising above the facts and figures, and the various anecdotes, the book provides a handy framework for making sense of the different systems deployed around the world:

“Fortunately, for all the local variations, health care systems tend to follow general patterns. In some models, government is both the provider of health care and the payer. In others, doctors and hospitals are in the private sector but government pays the bills. In still other countries, both the providers and the payers are private.”

There are four basic models:

  1. The Bismarck Model: “Both health care providers and payers are private entities. The model uses private health insurance plans, usually financed jointly by employers and employees through payroll deduction. Unlike the U.S. health insurance industry, though, Bismarck-type plans are basically charities: They cover everybody, and they don’t make a profit”
  2. The Beveridge Model: “Health care is provided and financed by the government, through tax payments. There are no medical bills; rather, medical treatment is a public service, like the fire department or the public library. In Beveridge systems, many (sometimes all) hospitals and clinics are owned by the government; some doctors are government employees, but there are also private doctors who collect their fees from the government. These systems tend to have low costs per capita, because the government, as the sole payer, controls what doctors can do and what they can charge”
  3. The National Health Insurance Model: “The providers of health care are private, but the payer is a government-run insurance program that every citizens pays into. The national, or provincial, insurance plan collects monthly premiums and pays medical bills. Since there’s no need for marketing, no expensive underwriting offices to deny claims, and no profit, these universal insurance programs tend to be cheaper and much simpler administratively than American-style private insurance. As a single payer covering everybody, the national insurance plan tends to have considerable market power to negotiate for lower prices. NHI countries also control costs by limiting the medical services they will pay for or by making patients wait to be treated.”
  4. The Out-of-pocket model: “Most medical care is paid for by the patient, out of pocket, with no insurance or government plan to help”.

Which all these systems apply in the US? The answer, surprisingly, is: All of the above – but not done in an efficient way.

Chapter by chapter, the book highlights ways in which the various medical systems keep costs lower (e.g. through having simpler administration) and deliver generally higher quality than applies in the US.

But two examples are even more important than any mentioned so far. These are the examples of Switzerland and Taiwan. Both of these are countries where significant reforms in the healthcare system have recently taken place – putting the lie to any viewpoint that complicated healthcare systems are incapable of major improvement:

Neither of these countries looks much like the United States of America… Still, both countries have important parallels to the United States. Both are vigorous democracies marked by fierce competition between political parties that look a lot like our Republicans and Democrats. Both have finance and insurance industries that are rich and politically influential. Both are ferociously capitalist places, and both have jumped aboard the digital revolution to build advanced, high-tech economies. Most important, both Taiwan and Switzerland had fragmented and expensive health care, similar to the American system – until they launched their reform campaigns.

In both countries, payment for medical care was dominated by health insurance plans tied to employment; in both significant numbers of people were left with no coverage at all. Even with large numbers of people uninsured, both countries were pouring considerable amounts of money into health care. In both Taiwan and Switzerland, as in the United States…, a growing chorus of voices began demanding universal coverage, arguing that every sick person should have access to a doctor…

In both cases, the results of the reforms have been very positive. To take the case of Taiwan:

Almost overnight, some 11 million Taiwanese who had no medical insurance suddenly had access to doctors and hospitals, with the Bureau of National Health Insurance paying most of the bill. This created a flood of new demand for medical services. The market responded with a flood of new supply: Clinics, hospitals, dentists, optometrists, labs, hostels, and acupuncture centers sprang up everywhere…

The most striking result of Taiwan’s new system is a healthier population with a longer healthy life expectancy and much higher recovery rates from major diseases. This is particularly evident in rural areas, where it was difficult or impossible to see a doctor before the new system took place…

As a system started from scratch, with uniform rules and procedures for every doctor and patient and state-of-the-art paperless record-keeping, Taiwan’s new health insurance system is the most efficient in the world. The 1994 law seemed hopelessly optimistic when it set a limit of 3.5% for administrative costs; in fact, the system has done much better than that, with paperwork, etc. accounting for only 2% of costs most years (and sometimes less). That’s about… one-tenth as high as the administrative burden for America’s private health insurers. As a result, even with explosive growth in the consumption of medical services, national health spending in Taiwan remains at about 6% of gross domestic product (as opposed to about 17% of GDP in the United States). This has kept costs low for patients…

As for the healthcare reforms in the US, under President Obama, T.R. Reid points out that they miss various elements of the reforms undertaken in both Taiwan and Switzerland:

  • Even with the reform in place, there will still be around 23 million Americans without healthcare insurance in 2019
  • American health insurance companies will still be able to get away with various practices (for denying payments to patients) that are banned in every other rich democracy
  • Much of the argumentation in favour of the reform has emphasised economics (not a bad thing in itself), but the moral and ethical drivers which were at the forefront in the debates in Taiwan and Switzerland have had a much lower profile in the US.

The final passage in the main body of the book puts it like this:

The sad truth is that, even with this ambitious reform, the United States will still have the most complicated, the most expensive, and the most inequitable healthcare system of any developed nation. The new law won’t get to the destination all other industrialized democracies have reached: universal healthcare coverage at reasonable cost. To achieve that goal, the United States will still have to take some lessons from the other national healthcare systems described in this book.

I’ll touch on four points in my own conclusion:

1. The moral argument for healthcare reform

The time I’ve spent recently reading Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” and watching him speak at a couple of events in London, has made me more sensitive to the fact that different people have different moral “tastes”, and can assign different priorities to six major dimensions of moral sensibility:

  • care vs. harm
  • fairness vs. cheating
  • liberty vs. oppression
  • loyalty vs. betrayal
  • authority vs.subversion
  • sanctity vs. degradation.

Failure to appreciate this fact leads of lots of bewilderment, as summarised in William Saletan’s New York Times review “Why won’t they listen?” of Haidt’s book. As T.R. Reid highlights, the current US healthcare system may well fail important moral tests on grounds of care vs. harm, and by being “unfair”. However, the arguments of people like Rick Santorum against the reform act build on different moral dimensions – e.g. liberty vs. oppression. These arguments find it particularly objectionable that, under these reforms, many people will be obliged (“oppressed”) into purchasing healthcare insurance. That’s seen as a fundamental denial of liberty.

Another insight from Haidt is that, in these circumstances of conflicting moral intuitions, reasoning often fails. One of his key summary points is as follows:

Moral intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes second, to justify the intuitions we have already reached.

That’s not to say further discussion is pointless. As William Saletan puts it:

Haidt believes in the power of reason, but the reasoning has to be interactive. It has to be other people’s reason engaging yours. We’re lousy at challenging our own beliefs, but we’re good at challenging each other’s. Haidt compares us to neurons in a giant brain, capable of “producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.”

Our task, then, is to organize society so that reason and intuition interact in healthy ways. Haidt’s research suggests several broad guidelines. First, we need to help citizens develop sympathetic relationships so that they seek to understand one another instead of using reason to parry opposing views. Second, we need to create time for contemplation. Research shows that two minutes of reflection on a good argument can change a person’s mind. Third, we need to break up our ideological segregation. From 1976 to 2008, the proportion of Americans living in highly partisan counties increased from 27% to 48%. The Internet exacerbates this problem by helping each user find evidence that supports his views…

2. A surprisingly effective example of lower-cost healthcare

So, what happened to T.R. Reid’s shoulder? Out of the all the recommendations from different doctors around the world, which was the best?

Doctors in several countries – including the US – recommended expensive, invasive, reconstructive surgery – even though all these doctors noted that there was no guarantee the surgery would be successful.

But the advice T.R. Reid ultimately found most useful involved a very different kind of technology, with roots going far back into time. That treatment was in India, and was based on Ayurdveda – which, like yoga, is derived from ancient Hindu scripture. It included

  • Eating only bland food (lentils and rice, primarily) during the course of the treatment, on the theory that the body should be under minimal strain during treatment
  • Daily massages involving hot oils and powerful hand movements (“to smooth the bodily routes that the prana needs to follow”)
  • Six times each day, imbibing “a vile assortment of herbal medicines, most of which tasted like spoiled greens or aging mud”
  • Attending a temple within the hospital grounds, “to perform poojah, or reverence, tot he Hindu god of healing”
  • Undertaking various yogic exercises
  • Accepting advice to “relax, and to forget whatever stresses and worries”
  • Reading one of the key Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita.

After several weeks of this treatment, the results were unmistakable. The shoulder had a much greater range of movement than before, and the pains were much reduced:

To this day, I don’t know why it happened. Was it the massage, the medication, the meditation…? In any case, the timing was definitely propitious. Ayurveda worked for me. I didn’t have a miracle cure; my shoulder was not completely healed. But my pain decreased, my range of motion increased, and I was definitely better – and all without the trouble or cost of a total shoulder arthoplasty…

Note that the book also describes some alternative medical treatments that were not successful – including other herbal medicines in Nepal, and acupuncture in Taiwan. And as mentioned, the Ayurveda did not provide “complete” healing. What’s more, Ayurvedic clinics increasingly incorporate x-ray machines, stethoscopes, and other western tools. But this section of the book was an intriguing reminder to me that I’d love to dig more deeply into material such as William Broad’s “The science of yoga: the risks and the rewards“.

3. Every healthcare system is under increasing financial strain

Despite the many successes of healthcare systems covered in the book, T.R. Reid was clear that all these systems are under increasing financial stress. He quotes the (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) “Universal Laws of Healthcare Systems” as articulated by economist Tsung-Mei Cheng:

  1. No matter how good the health care in a particular country, people will complain about it.
  2. No matter how much money is spent on health care, the doctors and hospitals will argue it is not enough.
  3. The last reform always failed.

As the author states,

All national health systems, even those that do their job well, are fighting a desperate battle these days against rising costs.

We live in a technological age, and technology – in the form of new miracle drugs, new medical devices (e.g. man-made shoulders) and new procedures – plays a huge role in modern medicine. This is unquestionably a good thing… but it is also an expensive thing.

But good technology, wisely applied, can reduce healthcare costs, rather than simply make them more expensive. For example, as T.R. Reid points out, suitable early tests can do wonders in preventive medicine. One place I’ve covered this topic before is in “Smartphone technology, super-convergence, and the great inflection of medicine“.

4. The good news in American medicine

Lest it be thought that T.R. Reid, the author of “The healing of America”, is unduly negative about America, or unpatriotic, let me draw attention to a 53 minute PBS documentary he has recently released: “The good news in American medicine“.

Whereas “The healing of America” gathers inspiring examples of best practice from around the globe, “The good news in American medicine” gathers inspiring examples of best practice from around the US – and draws out some important economic and moral principles along the way. (Quote: “A whole lot of this is about doing the right thing“.) Just as I recommend the book, I also recommend the video.

1 April 2012

Why good people are divided by politics and religion

Filed under: books, collaboration, evolution, motivation, passion, politics, psychology, RSA — David Wood @ 10:58 pm

I’ve lost count of the number of people who have thanked me over the years for drawing their attention to the book “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” written by Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Virginia. That was a book with far-reaching scope and penetrating insight. Many of the ideas and metaphors in it have since become fundamental building blocks for other writers to use – such as the pithy metaphor of the human mind being divided like a rider on an elephant, with the job of the rider (our stream of conscious reasoning) being to serve the elephant (the other 99% of our mental processes).

This weekend, I’ve been reading Haidt’s new book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”. It’s a great sequel. Like its predecessor, it ranges across more than 2,400 years of thought, highlighting how recent research in social psychology sheds clear light on age-old questions.

Haidt’s analysis has particular relevance for two deeply contentious sets of debates that each threaten to destabilise and divide contemporary civil society:

  • The “new atheism” critique of the relevance and sanctity of religion in modern life
  • The political fissures that are coming to the fore in the 2012 US election year – fissures I see reflected in messages full of contempt and disdain in the Facebook streams of some several generally sensible US-based people I know.

There’s so much in this book that it’s hard to summarise it without doing an injustice to huge chunks of fascinating material:

  • the importance of an empirical approach to understanding human morality – an approach based on observation, rather than on a priori rationality
  • moral intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes second, to justify the intuitions we have already reached
  • there’s more to morality than concerns over harm and fairness; Haidt memorably says that “the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors”
  • the limitations of basing research findings mainly on ‘WEIRD‘ participants (people who are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic)
  • the case for how biological “group selection” helped meld humans (as opposed to natural selection just operating at the level of individual humans)
  • a metaphor that “human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee”
  • the case that “The most powerful force ever known on this planet is human cooperation — a force for construction and destruction”
  • methods for flicking a “hive switch” inside human brains that open us up to experiences of self-transcendence (including a discussion of rave parties).

The first chapter of the book is available online – as part of a website dedicated to the book. You can also get a good flavour of some of the ideas in the book from two talks Haidt has given at TED: “Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence” (watch it full screen to get the full benefits of the video effects):

and (from a few years back – note that Haidt has revised some of his thinking since the date of this talk) “The moral roots of liberals and conservatives“:

Interested to find out more? I strongly recommend that you read the book itself. You may also enjoy watching a wide-ranging hour-long interview between Haidt and Robert Wright – author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny and The Evolution of God.

Footnote: Haidt is talking at London’s Royal Society of Arts on lunchtime on Tuesday 10th April; you can register to be included on the waiting list in case more tickets become available. The same evening, he’ll be speaking at the Royal Institution; happily, the Royal Institution website says that there is still “good availability” for tickets:

Jonathan Haidt, the highly influential psychologist, is here to show us why we all find it so hard to get along. By examining where morality comes from, and why it is the defining characteristic of humans, Haidt will show why we cannot dismiss the views of others as mere stupidity or moral corruption. Our moral roots run much deeper than we realize. We are hardwired not just to be moral, but moralistic and self-righteous. From advertising to politics, morality influences all aspects of behaviour. It is the key to understanding everybody. It explains why some of us are liberals, others conservatives. It is often the difference between war and peace. It is also why we are the only species that will kill for an ideal.

Haidt argues we are always talking past each other because we are appealing to different moralities: it is not just about justice and fairness – for some people authority, sanctity or loyalty are more important. With new evidence from his own empirical research, Haidt will show it is possible to liberate us from the disputes that divide good people. We can either stick to comforting delusions about others, or learn some moral psychology. His hope is that ultimately we can cooperate with those whose morals differ from our own.

Discovering and nourishing an inner ‘Why’

Filed under: books, challenge, Energy, films, leadership, marketing, motivation, passion, psychology — David Wood @ 1:21 am

Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end?

In the 2012 year of London Olympics, the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” is poised to return to cinemas in the UK, digitally remastered. As reported by BBC News,

The film tells the true story of two runners who compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics despite religious obstacles.

It will be shown at more than 100 cinemas around the country from 13 July as part of the London 2012 Festival.

Starring Ian Charleson and Ben Cross, the film won four Oscars, including best picture, screenplay and music for Vangelis’ acclaimed score.

Although the film is 31 years old, producer Lord Puttnam believes the message is still relevant.  “Chariots of Fire is about guts, determination and belief…” he said.

This is a film about accomplishment against great odds. More than that, it’s a film about motivation that can enable great accomplishment. The film features athletics, but the message applies much more widely – in both business life and personal life.

I vividly remember watching the film in its opening night in Cambridge in 1981, and being so captivated by it that I returned to the cinema the following evening to watch it again. One part that has wedged deep in my mind is the question I’ve placed at the top of this article, which comes from a sermon preached by Eric Liddell, one of the athletes featured in the movie:

Running in a race… is hard. It requires concentration of will. Energy of soul… Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.

Liddell’s own answer involved his religious faith, including following the principle that forbade playing sport on Sundays. Viewers can take inspiration from the film, without necessarily sharing Liddell’s particular religious views. The general point is this: Lasting personal strength arises from inner conviction.

Anyone watching the film is implicitly challenged: do we have our own inner basis for lasting personal strength? Do we have a ‘Why’ that gives us the power to pick ourselves up and continue to shine, in case we stumble in the course of our own major projects? Indeed, do we have a ‘Why’ that inspires not only ourselves, but others too, so that they wish to work with us or share our journey through life?

In similar vein, the renowned writer about personal effectiveness, Stephen Covey, urges us (in his celebrated book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”) to Begin with the end in mind and to Put first things first:

Are you–right now–who you want to be, what you dreamed you’d be, doing what you always wanted to do? Be honest. Sometimes people find themselves achieving victories that are empty–successes that have come at the expense of things that were far more valuable to them. If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster…

To live a more balanced existence, you have to recognize that not doing everything that comes along is okay. There’s no need to over-extend yourself. All it takes is realizing that it’s all right to say no when necessary and then focus on your highest priorities…

I was recently reminded of both Chariots of Fire and Stephen Covey when following up an assignment given to me by a personal coach. The assignment was to view the TED video “How great leaders inspire action” by Simon Sinek:

This talk features high on the page of the TED talks rated by viewers as the most inspiring. Watch the video and this high placement won’t be a surprise to you. I liked the video so much that I downloaded the audio book the talk is based on: “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”. I’ve been listening to it while walking to/from work over the last few days. It’s been both profound and challenging.

Sinek’s central message is this:

People don’t buy ‘What’ you do, they buy ‘Why’ you do it.

To back up this message, Sinek tells a host of fascinating tales. He offers lots of contrasts, between individuals (or companies) that had a clear, inspiring sense of purpose (their ‘Why’), and those that instead became bogged down in the ‘What’ or the ‘How’ of their work. The former generated loyalty and passion – not so the latter. Examples of the former include Southwest Airlines, Harley Davidson, Starbucks, the Wright Brothers, Martin Luther King, and Apple. He also gives examples of companies that started off with a clear sense of purpose, but then lost it, for example due to changes in leadership, when an operational leader took over the reins from an initial inspirational leader.

Sinek repeatedly contrasts “inspiration” with “manipulation”. Manipulation includes both carrots and sticks. Both inspiration and manipulation can lead to people doing what you want. But only the former can be sustained.

One vivid example covered by Sinek was the leadership of Sir Ernest Shackleton of the 1914-16 Trans-Antarctic Expedition. According to Sinek, Shackleton gathered crew members for this expedition by placing the following advertisement in the London Times:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. —Ernest Shackleton.

Another of Sinek’s example is how the Wright Brothers succeeded in achieving the first powered flight, beating a team that was much better funded and seemed to be better placed to succeed, led by Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley.

In Sinek’s view, it’s not a matter of having energy, or skill, or financing; it’s a matter of something deeper. It might be called ‘charisma’, or ’cause’:

Charisma has nothing to do with energy; it comes from a clarity of ‘Why’. It comes from absolute conviction in an ideal bigger than oneself. Energy, in contrast, comes from a good night’s sleep or lots of caffeine. Energy can excite. But only charisma can inspire. Charisma commands loyalty. Energy does not.

Energy can always be injected into an organization to motivate people to do things. Bonuses, promotions, other carrots and even a few sticks can get people to work harder, for sure, but the gains are, like all manipulations, short-term. Over time, such tactics cost more money and increase stress for employee and employer alike, and eventually will become the main reason people show up for work every day. That’s not loyalty. That’s the employee version of repeat business. Loyalty among employees is when they turn down more money or benefits to continue working at the same company. Loyalty to a company trumps pay and benefits. And unless you’re an astronaut, it’s not the work we do that inspires us either. It’s the cause we come to work for. We don’t want to come to work to build a wall, we want to come to work to build a cathedral.

There’s a bit too much repetition in the book for my liking, and some of the stories in it can be questioned (for example, the advertisement supposedly placed by Shackleton is probably apocryphal).

But the book (like the TED video) has a tremendous potential to cause people to rethink their own personal ‘Why’. Without clarity on this inner motivation, we’re likely to end up merely going through the motions in activities. We might even seem, from outside, to have many achievements under our belts, but we will (to return to Stephen Covey’s analogy) have climbed a ladder leaning against the wrong wall, and we’ll lack the power to inspire the kind of action we truly want to see.

I’ll finish with a few thoughts on what I perceive as my own ‘Why’ – To enable the widespread radically beneficial application of technology:

Technology, deployed wisely, can do wonders to improve the everyday lives of humans everywhere. But technology also has the potential to do very serious damage to human well-being, via unintended disruptions to the environment and the economy, and by putting fearsome weapons in the hands of malcontents.

As a technology super-convergence accelerates over the next 10-20 years, with multiple hard-to-predict interactions, the potential will intensify, both for tremendously good outcomes, and for tremendously bad outcomes. We can’t be sure, but what’s at risk might be nothing less than the survival of humanity.

However, with the right action, by individuals and communities, we can instead witness the emergence of what could be called “super-humanity” – enabled by significant technological enhancements in fields such as synthetic biology, AI, nanotechnology, and clean energy. Progress in these fields will in turn be significantly impacted by developments in the Internet, cloud computing, wireless communications, and personal mobile devices – developments that will ideally result in strong positive collaboration.

The stakes are sky high. We’re all going to need lots of inner personal strength to steer events away from the looming technology super-crisis, towards the radically beneficial outcome that beckons. That’s a cause worthy of great attention. It’s a race that we can’t afford to lose.

28 January 2009

Package Owners contemplating the world ahead

Filed under: architecture, Nokia, packages, passion, Symbian Foundation — David Wood @ 3:13 pm

I’ve just spent two days at the very first Symbian Foundation “Package Owners workshop”, held in a Nokia training facility at Batvik, in the snow-covered countryside outside Helsinki. The workshop proved both thought-provoking and deeply encouraging.

In case the term “package owner” draws a blank with you, let me digress.

Over the last few years, there have been several important structural rearrangements of the Symbian OS software engineering units, to improve the delivery and the modularity of the operating system code. For example, we’ve tracked down and sought to eliminate instances where any one area of software relied on internal APIs from what ought to have been a separate area.

This kind of refactoring is an essential process for any large-scale fast-evolving software system – otherwise the code will become unmaintainable.

This modularisation process is being taken one stage further during the preparation for opening the sources of the entire Symbian Platform (consisting of Symbian OS plus UI code and associated applications and tools). The platform has been carefully analysed and divided up into a total of around 100 packages – where each package is a sizeable standalone software delivery. Each package will have its own source code repository.

(Packages are only one layer of the overall decomposition. Each package is made up of from 1 to n component collections, which are in turn made up of from 1 to n components. In total, there are around 2000 components in the platform. Going in the other direction, the packages are themselves grouped into 14 different technology domains, each with a dedicated “Technology Manager” employed by the Symbian Foundation to oversee their evolution. But these are stories for another day.)

Something important that’s happened in the last fortnight is that package owners have been identified for each of the packages. These package owners are all highly respected software engineers within their domain of expertise.

We’re still working on the fine detail of the description of the responsibilities of package owners, but here’s a broad summary:

  • Publish the roadmap for their package
  • Have technical ownership for the package
  • Be open to contributions to their package from the wider software community
  • Evalutate all contributions, and provide useful feedback to the contributors
  • Maintain a good architecture for the package
  • Act as feature sponsor in their package area
  • Manage package deliveries.

This is a huge task, so most package owners will rely on a network of approved committers and other supporters in order to carry out their role.

(Instead of “package owner”, the word “maintainer” is used with a similar meaning by some other open source projects.)

Over the next month, the nominated package owners (along with some of their line managers) are each attending one of three introductory workshops. Each workshop lasts two days. The goal of the workshop is to review and discuss how software development processes will alter, once the source code for the package is available to a much wider audience. Many processes will remain the same as before, but others will alter, and yet others will be brand new.

As I said, the first of these workshops has just finished. There were people from at least three different continents in attendance. I knew a handful before, but for many others, it was the first time for me to meet them. Without exception, they are singularly impressive individuals, with great CVs, and (in most cases) with glittering track records inside Nokia or Symbian.

Not surprisingly, the newly minted package owners brought a variety of different expectations to the event. Several already have considerable experience working with open source software. Others are, naturally, somewhat apprehensive about the changes.

A series of presenters covered matters such as:

  • An overview of the operation and architecture of the Symbian Foundation
  • Great software developers and open source principles
  • Tips on growing a successful community of external contributors
  • The importance of meritocracy
  • Tools and processes
  • IPR considerations, licensing issues, and legal aspects.

There were also small group breakout sessions on topics such as “What are the key challenges and issues facing package owners?” and “What are we going to do differently from before?”

What impressed me the most were the events on the first evening. After a dinner and optional sauna session, the participants gathered again in the seminar room, and spent another three hours reviewing ideas arising from the group breakout sessions from earlier in the day. The passion of the package owners stood out. In their own individual ways, they displayed a shared strong desire to explore new ways of engaging a wider community of software developers, without destabilising the mission-critical projects already being undertaken. These are all busy people, with multiple existing tasks, but they were ready to brainstorm ways to adopt new skills and processes in order to improve the development of their packages. (And I don’t think it was just the Lapin Kulta speaking.)

I half expected the fervour of the debate to die down after a while, but the buzz in the room seemed as strong at 10.50pm as at 8pm. There was a constant queue of people trying to get hold of the marker pen which had been designated (with limited success) as giving someone the right to speak to group. The workshop facilitator had to speak up forcefully to point out that the facilities would be locked shut in ten minutes.

With this kind of intelligence and fervour being brought to bear in support of the Symbian Foundation’s tasks, I’m looking forward to an exciting time ahead.

23 November 2008

Problems with panels

Filed under: communications, passion — David Wood @ 6:56 pm

As an audience member, I’ve been at the receiving end of some less-than-stellar panel discussions at conferences in the last few months. On these occasions, even though there’s good reason to think that the individuals on the panels are often very interesting in their own right, somehow the “talking heads” format of a panel can result in low energy and low interest. The panellists make dull statements in response to generic questions and … interest seeps away.

On the other hand, I’ve also recently seen some outstandingly good panels, where the assembled participants bring real collective insight, and the audience pulse keeps beating. Here are two examples:

The format of this fine RSA panel was in the back of my mind as I prepared, last Monday, to take part in a panel myself: “What’s so smart about Smartphone Operating Systems“, at the Future of Mobile event in London. I shared the stage with some illustrious industry colleages: Olivier Bartholot of Purple Labs, Andy Bush of the LiMo Foundation, Rich Miner of Android, James McCarthy of Microsoft, and the panel chair, Simon Rockman of Sony Ericsson. I had high hopes of the panel generating and conveying some useful new insights for the audience.

Alas, for at least some members of the audience, this panel fell into the “less-than-stellar” category mentioned above, rather than the better examples:

  • Tomaž Štolfa, writing in his blog “Funky Karaoke“, rated this panel as just 1 out of 5, with the damning comment “a bunch of mobile OS guys, talking about the wrong problems. Where are cross platform standards?!?”; Tomaž gave every other panel or speaker a rating of at least 3 out of 5;
  • Adam Cohen-Rose, in his blog “Expanding horizons“, summed up the panel as follows: “This was a rather boring panel discussion: despite Simon’s best attempts to make the panellists squirm, they stayed very tame and non-committal. The best bits was the thinly veiled spatting between Microsoft and Google — but again, this was nothing new…”;
  • The Twitter back-channel for the event (“#FOM“) had remarks disparaging this panel as “suits” and “monologue” and “big boys”.

It’s true that I can find other links or tweets that were more complimentary about this panel – but none of these comments pick this panel out as being one of the highlights of the day.

As someone who takes communication very seriously, I have to ask myself, “what went wrong?” – and, even more pertinently, “what should I do differently, for future panels?”.

I toyed for a while with the idea that over-usage of Twitter by some audience members diminishes the ability of these audience members to concentrate sufficiently and to pick out what’s actually genuinely interesting in what’s being said. This is akin to Nicholas Carr’s argument that “Google is making us stupid“:

“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle…”

After all, I do think that I said something interesting when it was my turn to speak – see the script I prepared in advance. But after more reflection, I gave up on the idea of excusing the panel’s poor rating by that kind of self-serving argument (which blames the audience rather than panellists). That was after I remembered my own experience as being on the receiving end of lots of uninspiring panels – as I mentioned earlier. Further, I remembered that, when these panels started to become boring, my own attention would wander … so I would miss anything more interesting that was said later on.

So on reflection, here are my conclusions, for avoiding similar problems with future panels:

  1. Pre-prepared remarks are fine. There’s nothing wrong in itself with having something prepared to say, that takes several minutes to say it. These opening comments can and should provide better context for the Q&A part of the panel that follows;
  2. However, high energy is vital; especially with an audience where people might get distracted, I ought to be sure that I speak with passion, as well as with intellectual rigour; this may be hard when we’re all sitting down (that’s why sofa panels are probably the worst of all), but it’s not impossible;
  3. The first requirement is actually to be sure the audience is motivated to listen to the discussion – the panel participants need to ensure that the audience recognise the topic as sufficiently relevant. On reflection, our “mobile operating systems” panel would have been better placed later on in the agenda for the day, rather than right at the beginning. That would have allowed us to create bridges between problems identified in earlier sessions, and the solutions we wanted to talk about;
  4. Less is more” can apply to interventions in panels as well as to product specs (and to blogs…); instead of trying to convey so much material in my opening remarks, I should have prioritised at most two or three soundbites, and looked to cover the others during later discussion.

These are my thoughts for when I participate as a panellist on someone else’s panel. When I am a chair (as I’ll be at the Symbian Partner Event next month in San Francisco) I’ll have different lessons to bear in mind!

9 October 2008

In search of software glamour

Filed under: developer experience, FOWA, passion — David Wood @ 8:51 pm

I keep running into the “glamour question”. Scott from Mippin raised it again the other day, in a shrewd comment in response to Roger Nolan’s recent analysis “Symbian’s open source challenge”:

I think that one inherent disadvantage for Symbian compared to Apple and Android is the glamour factor. This can be demonstrated by looking at the comments stream to this excellent post. If it had been talking about Apple or Android it would have people crawling over themselves to comment. Symbian just does not elicit the same excitement. This means – more meaningfully perhaps – that developers gain more kudos for developing for one of the glamour platforms than for Symbian (despite its market share).

Scott suggests that one reason for the reduced excitement over Symbian lies “the complexity of Symbian. It is just too complex and developers stay away“. Previously, I’ve offered my own list of “Symbian passion killers” that can hinder developers from becoming fully inspired (and therefore fully productive) about creating software for Symbian OS. As I’ve said before, the plans for “Symbian 2.0” in the wake of the creation of the Symbian Foundation include several important projects to address passion killers.

I heard quite a lot more, today, about developer passion. I was attending Day One of FOWA – the Future of Web Apps expo, taking place at London’s ExCeL conference centre. I experienced considerable déjà vu at this event, since the annual Symbian Smartphone Shows were held there from 2002 to 2007. The layout of the keynote hall and the so-called “university sessions” reminded me a lot of similar layouts from bygone Smartphone Shows. The audience seemed of comparable size too. But whereas the motivation of many who attend the Smartphone Show is to make business connections and to promote the success of their companies, the motivation I sensed from many of the FOWA attendees was rather different: it was to explore new technologies, and to exult in new products and new processes.

For example, Edwin Aoki, AOL Technology Fellow, included the following remarks in his keynote speech “Web apps are dead, long live web apps”:

What drives developers? It’s not just money. It’s building out communities. It’s building pride. It’s dedication and passion, not dollars and pounds.

And I couldn’t help noticing how frequently speakers used words like “amazing”, “exciting”, “awesome”, “kickass”, and “cool”. At first I wondered if they were joking or being ironic, but then I realised they were un-selfconscious. They were simply being enthusiastic.

Blaine Cook, ex Chief Engineer at Twitter, and Joe Stump, Lead Architect of Digg, performed a dynamic two-hander on the subject of “Languages don’t scale”. Taking turns, they ripped into features of programming languages that, in their words, made the languages “suck”. Thus “here’s why PHP sucks…” and “here’s why Ruby sucks…” and “Python sucks as well…”. But this was just a prelude to their main theme, which is that you should beware asking committed developers to switch from one language to another. Language choice is often personal – and often heartfelt. According to the speakers, scale performance issues that sometimes bedevil web applications, only rarely come down to language issues; instead, they usually depend on hardware architecture or network architecture. Hence the advice:

Value happy coders! Happy coders are productive coders. Let them work with the languages they love!

Many of the speakers oozed passion. I was particularly impressed by Francisco Tolmasky, co-founder of 280 North. His presentation title hardly sounded earth-shattering: “Building Desktop Caliber Web Applications with Objective-J and Cappuccino”. However, the delivery was captivating and uplifting. (And the technology of their product does look attractive…)

All this brings back to mind the glamour question: To what extent can Symbian’s developer events match this kind of enthusiasm – an enthusiasm driven by love of product and love of technology, rather than (just) love of market opportunity and commercial reward? To what extent can Symbian OS become viewed as glamorous and exciting, rather than just some kind of incumbent?

Happily, there’s a lot of fascinating technology on Symbian’s roadmap. There are also new tools that should appeal to various different kinds of developers. For those who value choice of languages, there’s a growing range of language options available for Symbian OS. For those who are interested in the hardware, there are literally scores of new phone models in the pipeline. Some of this will fall under public spotlight in under two weeks’ time at the 2008 Smartphone Show.

This year, the show has moved from ExCeL to Earls Court. The more significant change is that, this year, there’s a “Mobile Devfest” which is running alongside the main show:

Mobile DevFest is Symbian’s premier conference for developers and has been designed to provide developers with deep technical training and information on building mobile software solutions for the next generation of mobile phones powered by Symbian OS.

Mobile DevFest is the ideal developer event for anyone engaged in building, or interested in building mobile applications on Symbian OS.

Mobile DevFest is the best way to stay ahead of today’s mobile technologies. It provides in-depth technical sessions, delivered by industry experts in the mobile development space.

I’m eagering looking forward to taking part – and to gauging the degree of passion at the show. And in the meantime, if you think your own new product or solution for the Symbian space is particularly exciting, I’ll be pleased to hear about it!

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