The Quest to End Poverty

25. June, 2015

Poverty is a huge problem, even for those not affected. At best, the sight is disturbing, at worst, the sicknesses bred by many people crammed together don’t care much for bank accounts – even when it might help that you can pay doctor’s bills and meds.

In 2011, over $150 billion were spent on development aid. That sum sounds staggering if you look at the number alone. Keep in mind that the world’s GDP in 2011 was 75’621 billion (use the table view to see per country numbers) – aid is 0.2% of that. The US military budget alone was $610 billion. World-wide aid was just a quarter of what the US spends on its military.

What’s more, a lot of that money never leaves the donor country – it’s used to “pay” for debt which the receiving country already has towards the donor – or it’s vouchers for goods which the donor produces (like guns and other military equipment). As odd as that may sound at first: Development aid is often another tool to develop your own country. If it helps a struggling third world place, all the better.

But the problem runs deeper. Too deep to explain in a blog post but TED compiled a list of 11 through provoking talks how we could end poverty. My favorite didn’t make it into the list: Gary Haugen: The hidden reason for poverty the world needs to address now.


Our Loss of Wisdom

3. February, 2013
TED (conference)

TED (conference) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barry schwartz held an excellent talk at TED: “Our loss of wisdom” (YouTube, full lesson on TED Ed). A few quotes (not all of them are literal):

  • The job description of a hospital janitor includes many kinds of tasks but not a single one involves other human beings. Not one. Yet, when you look at what janitors tell you when you ask them about your job, it’s always about other people:
    • Mark stopped mopping the floor because a patient had got up and did exercises in the corridor.
    • One janitor refused to vacuum the visitors lounge because family members slept there despite orders of her superior.
    • Luke washed the floor in a comatose patients room twice because a relative hadn’t noticed him doing it the first time.
  • Not all janitors are like this but those who are think these are essential parts of the job.
  • “These janitors have the moral will to do right by other people and beyond this the moral skill to figure out what doing right means.”
  • “A Wise Person Knows: When and how to make ‘the exception to every rule.'”
  • “A Wise Person Knows: When and how to improvise.”
  • “A Wise Person Knows: How to use these moral skills in pursuit of the right aims.”
  • “A Wise Person: Is made and not born.”
  • It takes experience to become wise and not just any experience: You need the permission to be allowed to improvise, to try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures.
  • “You don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. The bad news is that without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough.”
  • @05:57, he tells a story how people with good intentions ruin the lives of a family for several weeks just by obediently following rules. All people involved said “we hate to do it but we have to follow procedure.”
  • “Rules and procedures may be dumb but they spare you from thinking.” (- and they allow you to blame others)
  • When things go wrong, we turn to two tools: Rules and incentives. When something happens, we want better ones and more of them. That happened after the financial crisis: Regulate, regulate, regulate, fix the incentives, fix the incentives, fix the incentives. @8:21 “The truth is: Neither rules nor incentives are enough to do the job.” How do you pay people a bonus for being emphatic?
  • Rules and incentives help in the short run but they create a downwards spiral in the long run.
  • By relying on rules, we engage in a war on wisdom. Rules help prevent disaster but they also ensure mediocrity (@10:30). We need enough rules but not too many.
  • Incentives seem better. But sometimes, they compete with the original goal instead of complementing it. We suddenly stop asking “What is my responsibility?” and turn to “What serves me best?”
  • Solution? Smarter incentives. Unfortunately, there will never be incentives which will be smart enough. We need incentives but excessive incentives demoralize: “It causes people who engage in that activity to lose morale and it causes the activity itself to lose morality.”
  • “We must ask, not just is it profitable, but is it right.” – Barack Obama, 18th Dec 2008.
  • What doesn’t work: Teach more ethics courses. “There is no better way to show people that you’re not serious than to tie everything you have to say about ethics in a ball and consign it to the margins as an ethics course.”
  • What to do instead? See for yourself @14:25

What We Can Learn About Copyright From Archimedes

3. June, 2012

Archimedes is long dead but we know about him because he left books and other people wrote about him. In  William Noel’s TED talk about how a team recovered the Archimedes Palimpsest, William made some very important points (starting at @11:20):

Now, all this data that we collected, all the images, all the raw images, all the transcriptions that we made and that sort of thing, have been put online under a Creative Commons license for anyone to use for any commercial purpose.

Why did the owner of the manuscript do this? He did this because he understands data as well as books. Now, the thing to do with books, if you want to ensure their long term utility, is to hide them away in closets and let very few people look at them. The thing to do with data, if you want it to survive, is to let it out and have everyone have it with as little control  on that data as possible. And that’s what he did.

And institutions can learn from this. Because institutions at the moment confine their data with copyright restrictions and that sort of thing. And if you want to look at Medieval manuscripts on the web, at the moment, you have to go to  National Library of Wise Site[?] or the Universal Library of Access Site[?] which is about the most boring way in which you can deal with digital data.

What you want to do is to aggregate it all together. Because the Web of ancient manuscripts of the future isn’t going to be built by institutions. It’s going to be built by users … people who just want to curate their own glorious selection of beautiful things.

This really explains the dilemma we find ourselves in today. Artists want to share their data (if not, why would they write books, songs, plays in the first place?) But with non-digital media, sharing means wear. Books get damaged by opening them.

Data, on the other hand, gets damaged by not copying it. The NASA almost lost data tapes from the Apollo missions (see Sticky Moondust) – if they hadn’t shared a copy with Australia. Companies around the globe struggle with data stored in legacy formats that no one can read anymore because the software refuses to work on modern PCs.

The old copyright made sense when the media was valuable. Today, the media costs nothing. No company or country in the world would be able to found Wikipedia. Just think of the legal issues they’d have to clear. Struggles over who “owns” what. Power games over control.

The Copyright Failure

27. March, 2012

And another of my long list of copyright posts. Can’t let it rest for some reason.

Copyright failed. As Larry Lessig said in his TED talk: Every view in the digital age is a copy. Watch a DVD and the computer/box/whatever is going to make 5 to 100 (temporary) digital copies of the movie before it is displayed on the screen: In the laser pickup, in the buffer chips that connect the laser to the system, in memory to decode the video stream, in various post processing filters, in the buffer chips that transfer the signal to the TV set, and several copies in the TV set to further improve the picture.

Let me drive this home: In this day and age, you have to break the law to watch movies and listen to music because the law says: You must not make any copies. Not even one.

The message: Standard usage of movies and music (watching, listening) is illegal under today’s copyright law. Which means we’re all serial offenders.

Or the other way around: We’re breaking the law so often, that we have concluded it’s optional. An important lesson that we inherit to our kids.

Maybe we can attack this the other way around: Why is the content industry failing? Because they sell a product in a way nobody wants.

I love to watch movies, read books and listen to music. I just don’t want to too much pay for something that I can get in better quality, faster and for free. Why do I have to wait six months to see US TV series? Why do I have to watch commercials? Why do I have to buy the album when I want a single track? Why do I have to buy the music at all when I just want to listen to it? Why do I have to watch TV at certain times?

Because no one is selling me the service I want. It’s not impossible. The “pirates” have made all this possible and for free, too. It’s just that the content industry has strangled itself too many contracts.

How is their mess our fault?

You want our money? Change.

Not convinced? Watch this: Rob Reid: The $8 billion iPod

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