What makes (or forces/allows, depending on the situation) a person or a group of people to take an action? What impels (or propels/liberates, again depending on the situation) someone to act a certain way? It’s not always clear. I am fascinated by these questions because often the answer is the right set of incentives.
Two articles crossed my desk* and they show how complex incentives for people really are.
On the one hand, there is a really cool initiative happening over at my alma mater. A piece in the today’s New York Times highlights the work of Balaji Prabhakar, a professor in EE and CS. Essentially Prof. Prabhakar realized that rush hour on Stanford campus was bad. He also realized that “congestion pricing” — that is, charges for driving to peak places during peak hours — is unpopular with drivers, though is a common tactic to fight congestion. So rather than a disincentive from driving at busy times, he developed an incentive structure. You enter a lottery when you drive or park off-peak and can win up to $50. Simple.
It’s brilliant since it cuts down on wasted time, creates less rush hour pollution and is also flexible in how it scales. It’s a brilliant move and from an incentive standpoint, totally logical: people are willing to change their behavior in order to receive a benefit, in this case, money.
On the other hand, an even loftier goal is afoot to help improve obesity and public health in Philadelphia. Context: the US spends $147B treating obesity each year. That’s more than the GDP of New Zealand. Of America’s big cities, Philadelphia has the highest obesity rate and poorest population.
Unfortunately, access to healthy food in a neighborhood has no causal link to improved health outcomes wapo.st/JS4caz
— Christian L. Tom (@cltom) June 12, 2012
The new program to combat this is to turn the local corner grocery into a greengrocery. The city is working with 900+ stores to stock healthy items. To me, this sounds great since it stands to reason that greater access to healthy food (particularly in poorer neighborhoods where it’s not otherwise available) will increase selection of healthy food and increase healthy outcomes. Making it easier to buy healthy food should be a huge incentive to making one and one’s family healthier.
Except not. Emphasis mine:
“In the U.K., we’d started making policy about this before there was any empirical evidence,” says Neil Wrigley, a professor of geography at Southampton University in England, who works on urban planning research. “Time to time, this happens, where you get policies that outstrip the evidence. Then the evidence needs to catch up.”
Wrigley conducted one of the first studies of a food desert intervention, looking at what happened when a grocery store was brought into an underserved part of Leeds, an industrial city in northern England. Of shoppers surveyed, 45 percent switched to the new store. Their habits, however, barely changed: Consumption of fruits and vegetables increased by one-third of a cup per day — about six grapes or two broccoli florets.
“The results came out quite small, a very modest increase in consumption of nutritious foods,” Wrigley says. “It seemed an almost nonexistent improvement.”
Similar research in the United States shows much the same.
There are some good explanations for this. For example, access to food is not also only dependent on proximity to home but also about distance from public transit.
Still, when presented with two options — healthy food and not (selling apples is not mutually exclusive with selling candy) — people often choose the candy, simply because they want the candy.
Maybe the problem is this program in Philadelphia really only removes a barrier without providing a kick. And with the Stanford driving experiment, there is a good catalyst in cash rewards. Still, I look at these articles and I see two behaviors that are trying to be changed. It seems like both could be successful (and both are, after all, just starting so success is not predetermined). I read these excited about them both. And while initial trials at Stanford have gone well, the skepticism by experts regarding the Philadelphia work worries me since it’s rational, it’s too logical.
Note: Also check out the awesome Dan Pink TED talk from a few years ago about extrinsic and intrinsic motivators which I posted to this blog last year.
The New York Times had a feature story today on Stanford QB Andrew Luck. It says exactly what you’d expect: he’s smart (on and off the field), he’s got first-round potential and he hugely admires Coach Harbaugh. As a side note, I have been an Andrew Luck fan before he even arrived on The Farm.
ESPN also had its PAC-10 preview, which was also was about exactly as you’d expect: it’ll be a tight race to the finish, Jake Locker and Andrew Luck will be battling for the Top QB herald and Oregon might still be a threat despite their team’s inability to stay out of police custody.
Both items also had their own surprises. In the New York Times article, Andrew Luck’s dad, Oliver, made a very good point about Harbaugh:
Jim has taken Stanford kids — and they all come from pretty good families; I’m sitting in the parents’ section with doctors and lawyers — and he’s convinced them they are a group of lunch-pail, blue-collar, smack-you-in-the-face, union kind of guys. I just love the irony of that. It’s the last school you would anticipate where you could create that.
He’s totally right.
In the ESPN clip, the commentators claim that USC and Oregon are the schools to watch — Lane Kiffin will have his struggles, and the arrests across just about every position at Oregon will have their effect. But the surprise is at the end: Stanford is the (dark-horse) pick to represent the PAC-10 at the-bowl-which-must-not-be-named.
He is also totally right.
In a year where you really can make an argument for any one of 7 or 8 teams to win the PAC-10 title, it’ll be a great football season.
And Andrew Luck will be a huge part of all the story lines.
I have recently been given three documents which have caused me to think about education and technology. Two are pieces by Professor Robert McClintock at Teachers College at Columbia University, entitled “Into the Starting Gate: On Computing and the Curriculum,” and Power and Pedagogy: Transforming Education through Information Technology. The third piece is an article detailing the use of and access to YouTube in British schools.
The three intersect for perhaps obvious reasons based on their subject matter, but they deserve a closer examination, primarily for what I think is the prescience of Prof. McClintock’s writing (from more than 17 years ago!) and the way in which the YouTube example so perfectly complements many of his points about the power of computing and, more specifically, the decentralized information and knowledge sharing which is endemic to the Web.
In 1986, in “Into the Starting Gate,” McClintock makes the following metaphor:
“Computing is like a young thoroughbred that has been growing into its physical potential through the work of the hardware of software developers and put through rigorous training by computer science. Everyone says that the young thoroughbred will give a real challenge to the long-dominant steed, the print-based culture, in a match race, and the mature horse stands ready to take the shy challenger on. The problem is to get the challenger to the starting gate [thus the title of his article], for computer is still frisky and high spirited and we do not yet really know how to bring it into the gate, kicking bucking, prancing.”
I imagine this was a spot-on assessment of the situation when it was written (before I was born). The tension as it existed then is of course in stark contrast to now, when you can conceptualize the digital-versus-print dichotomy as that same thoroughbred, all grown up with hardly an acknowledgment from the prize winning steed of years past. To me, the problem is not so much an artifact of older horse’s arrogance or aloofness, to continue the metaphor, but more that the racing surface has changed over time and the younger horse has developed an entire new stride which allows it to easily outpace the older horse, which must still inefficiently scamper on.
Metaphors aside, McClintock is a Professor of Education, and this is where his comments are most insightful. In his 1992 Power and Pedagogy – whose preface states the thesis that “together educators and technologists have the historic opportunity to improve the civic prospect” – McClintock writes about the new thinking required given the digital world.
Using what is now perhaps an antiquated example, McClintock describes how spell checkers (which have already been heralded as a disruptive technology) require that “educators concentrate less on inculcating low-level skills and attend more to higher-order thinking skills.” This move from “verbalization” to the “multi-modal” marks the shift from access as “comparatively restricted, troublesome and transient” to open – and more importantly, in my opinion, participatory.
The new order of the multi-modal “is not a mere opposition to the verbal, not a simple alternative to it,” McClintock explains. It is, instead, a “Hegelian Aufhebung of it, the upheaval of it into something else in which the original form remains nevertheless included and preserved in the new.” In other words, the realities of the digital world do not hinder or restrict the printed word; it enables and extends it, “challeng[ing] people to integrate all of those forms into a comprehensive and many-sided culture and education.”
Besides opening education to a greater variety of cultural and geographic items, the Web of 2010 encourages participation and creates an inherently iterative learning process. The former is a point acknowledged by McClintock, as well: “Its historic effect will be to broaden effective participation in the culture greatly.”
But this is also where the story of YouTube in the classroom comes in. As this story shows, the schools in England found it both detrimental as well as expensive to block YouTube from its school’s computers. The article cites a Cambridge criminologist and a video he posted about a long-term experiment investigating crime hotspots in Manchester. It also mentioned the popularity of the below video, of a Stanford University Civil Engineer talking about the buildings in Haiti after the earthquake:
And so you can see how the school systems across England (“dozens of town halls and hundred of schools”) came to the decision to embrace this technology.
The case of YouTube in school is an amalgam of two things: (1) the acknowledgment of education being a fluid and iterative process and (2) the understanding that knowledge cannot be contained solely in the role of a singular person at the front of classroom, as educator. The more linear model of assignment-then-grade or report-then-critique is not without its place, of course. But it’s easy to see how the process of digesting, creating and iterating drafts has a much more prevalent role in the world of UGC (user-generated content) and YouTube. Likewise, it is evident that the basis of “good learning” has changed, too. It no longer based “in mastering precisely what has been taught.” The multi-faceted curricular resources allow for what McClintock calls: “many valid paths of inquiry…without any inquirer exhausting all their contents and permutations” [ital. mine]. The new curriculum, based on “networked, intelligent multimedia” both encourages a different cultural politic, and is far more inclusive in scope.
This is education today, I think. But to read accounts from the 1980s and 1990s with such foresight is impressive.
McClintock, Robert. “Into the Starting Gate: On Computing and the Curriculum.” Teachers College Record. Vol. 88, No. 2. Winter 1986. Columbia University. (link tp full text, PDF)
Ibid. Power and Pedagogy: Transforming Education through Information Technology. Institute for Learning Technologies, Columbia University, New York: 1992. * (link to full text, PDF)
*This publication was produced and distributed in “device independent format.” The subheadline reads: “Readers are free to copy the electronic text and reproduce copies by other means for critical, educational, or scholarly use, provided they do not alter the text or distribute reproductions for profit.” Without having researched this particular claim deeply, it sounds in many ways like a progenitor of Creative Commons and a share-alike copyright claim. Interesting.
I found myself reading a number of articles on Ars Technica today. The first was a good run-down of what Comcast already owns in the face of its controlling stake in NBC. The second was an exciting look at the future of WiFi and the 1 Gbps speeds we can soon look forward to. Finally, Ars examined the history of YouTube, not only from a cultural perspective but also from a tech/policy standpoint.
Without endorsing endorsing or distancing myself from Christopher Hitchens, this piece on Palin is notable. I agree that it is absurd to see she has jumped on the “birther” bandwagon and all that, but what I like is the word Hitchens created:
…I pointed out the crude way in which she tried to Teflon-ize herself when allegations of weird political extremism were made against her (emphasis CLT).
In other news, we (the Stanford Cardinal) will be playing in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas on New Year’s eve (yay!) but without star redshirt quarterback, and Texas native, Andrew Luck (not-so-yay). That could be bad news bears. It could also mean that Toby will step up like he always does and account for 900 all-purpose yards. We’ll see.
Politics: Barack says he wants to use TARP money to stimulate the economy and put on some public works projects; the GOP goes all crazy. We’ve already put aside the money…people are looking for employment…Wall Street is in better shape (or at least so it seems): I think the Dems are right to fight for this money to be used intelligently.
CNet compiles a nice list of free holiday MP3s across the Web: 29 of which come from Amazon, including some titles by Lady GaGa and others.
Lifehacker shares a nice iTunes alternative, something I’m always happy to read more about.
I find it hilarious and also smart for AT&T to offer its “Mark the Spot” app in the App Store (iTunes link). It’sfunny because it’s an admission by the carrier that their service is, well, somewhat lacking. And it’s smart because it makes it at the very least appear like they’ll do something about it. Plus it’s a nice little community crowd-sourcing project which I think is a smart play.
But here’s what I don’t get: how it’s supposed to work. Let’s say I’m walking through Manhattan and I get to the corner and — BOOM! — service drops out. The very important business call that I was on is now terminated. I am mad. But, at least AT&T hopes, I fire up the app to report the spot as problematic. EXCEPT WE JUST SAID I DON’T HAVE ANY SERVICE. So riddle me this: how does a location-based app for reporting service dead zones work? I could walk down the street until my little EDGE or 3G icon reappears, but by that point, the whole idea of a GPS-tagged submission is gone. It’s all somewhat funny to me, and unless I’m missing something, AT&T is either going to have lots of frustrated customers trying unsuccessfully to report spotty (get it?) service, or lots of dead zone tags from nearby-but-not-quite-right locations.
Finally, today was a big day at Google*. Two huge announcements of (1) real-time search and (2) Google Goggles.
For real-time search, it’s a fantastic feature and the implementation could not be better, IMHO. There is lots of (far better) coverage across the Web on this, but I think it’s great.
Goggles is also an interesting product, and its launch was kind of buried by in a number of other big mobile announcements. The fact that is basically has augmented reality is also really really cool. This video does the best job of quickly and clearly communicating what exactly it is:
**NB: Just to be clear, none of my comments on anything at Google relate in any way to my employer. I’m just a guy, writing about and commenting on tidbits I find across the Web. Nothing here is an endorsement or Company position. I know you probably know this, but I wanted to put it in writing.
Tags: amazon, andrew luck, at&t, augmented reality, barack obama, birther, CNet, comcast, el paso, google goggles, hitchens, itunes, lady gaga, lifehacker, mp3, nbc, palin, real-time search, sarah palin, stanford football, sun bowl, TARP, texas, toby for heisman, toby gerhart, wifi, YouTube
According to Stanford (via the Stanford Report), yesterday Santa Clara County officials informed the University that seven (7) now eight (8) students tested “probable” for swine flu.
It appears that:
(1) These are the first reported cases of the H1N1 flu at Stanford.
(2) The students who tested positive have since either recovered from their illnesses or “are on the way to recovery.”
(3) Some were treated at Stanford Hospital; others were seen at Vaden (a scary thought unto itself).
(4) None of them needed hospitalization.
(5) No changes in the university schedule or its plans for Commencement are planned, though “the University is augmenting health precautions around upcoming events.”
(6) According to the CDC, there are essentially 3 levels of definition: confirmed, probable and suspected. These cases fall under the category of “positive for influenza A, but negative for human H1 and H3 by influenza RT_PCR” (I am guessing RT-PCR is reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction– thanks Genomics class!).
In the Stanford Report, Vaden Director Ira Friedman was quoted as saying:
Following the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the county public health department, we are treating this as we would seasonal influenza [emphasis mine]. So, we recommend that students follow the precautions they were given to avoid spread. Based on the advice of county health officials, we do not believe there is need for any other action at this point. The flu has been circulating widely in the country, state and county, so these results do not surprise us.
This answer does surprise me, in light of the fact that Provost John Etchemendy wrote us all an email on 28 April saying that if there were a confirmed case on campus, “we could be required to close most of our dorms and send as many students as possible home.” I know he said confirmed and none of these are at that point, and he also qualified his statement with a firm could. However, to go from that sort of language to an almost flippant “we’re treating this like a regular ol’ flu” is a pretty big reversal. Especially since we’re talking about 7 8 cases here, not just one isolated incident.
UPDATE: As reflected throughout the post, there are now eight cases to speak of, with the University hinting that there may be more probably cases since “additional samples are awaiting test results.”
I’ll update as more information becomes available. The official Stanford flu page is here; The Stanford Daily is (supposedly) updating; nothing yet on the Mercury News breaking news but I’m sure there will be something soon; I’ll be checking the @stanford Twitter stream also.
For a while now, I’ve been well-aware of Stanford’s desire to regulate undergrads. From a perhaps overly zealous OSA to a redesign of White Plaza which, in my opinion, doesn’t serve students well, it’s all there.
But perhaps the most annoying of it all has been the absurd proliferation of bike signs around campus.
That photo was taken under Braun Music Center, a much-trafficked area between White Plaza and the Row.
The signage has been particularly excessive here. Take a look at this walking tour I made, for example (it’s less than 1 minute long):
If you’re still not satisfied, I even made a schematic of the area (overkill, I know):
Take a close look. There are eighteen (18) total bike signs in there. That space is about 35′ x 15′ by my estimate.
On the side closest to the Muwekma and Storey, the three bollards and the garbage can have a total of eight signs on them. Is that really necessary?
I know, this is not, in the grand scheme of things, a big deal. Or even a small deal, really. And I mainly created that map up there because I wanted an excuse to use DocStoc. (Forgive me).
But it’s all just kind of absurd. Right along that path, they are building a pedestrian sidewalk. In an open area. Where there are no cars. (See below).
And in their effort to force bikes to park anywhere besides in the sacrosanct archways/arcades, there are bike racks in all the wrong places.
There was an interesting article today in Slate’s Green Lantern section which answered a question about biodegradable plastics. (“Breaking Down Is Hard To Do“).
The biggest challenge, it seems, is not simply getting people to recycle– after all, here was a self-proclaimed frat boy about to throw a night of debauchery asking about biodegradability.
The problem is that the term “biodegradable,” as a marketing term, is unregulated by the federal government. This means that, “manufacturers can sometimes get away with being a little squirrely in their advertising.”
Granted, the science behind it is complicated as well, since landfills have different levels of biological activity: many compact trash tightly and cover it daily with dirt and clay to reduce odor. Then there’s the question of whether biodegradability is such a laudable goal at all:
Then there’s the fact that biodegradability may not be a worthy goal in the first place! The tomblike conditions in most landfills mean that any biodegradation that occurs is going to be anaerobic. In the absence of oxygen, the process produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 21 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. So your biodegradable party-ware might end up warming the planet more than a standard plastic cup—which would at least sequester its carbon for a long, long time.
What I take away from all of this is not that sustainability is worthless, or that it is impossible for the average college student, urban dweller, suburban mom/dad, etc. to do.
This is on the same day that SF Mayor Gavin Newsom announced San Francisco now recycles 72% of all trash, making the goal of 75% by 2010 and zero waste by 2020 a distinct possibility.
Large-scale recycling efforts, then, are not out-of-reach. In fact, Newsom’s announcement shows me that the key to sustainability is in government regulation, outreach and support.
This means starting small and scaling up. Take, for example, the ASSU Green Store here on Stanford campus. The student government, with I’m sure some help from the University Administration, has made an effort to make sustainability easier for students throwing parties (like the Stanford version of the frat boy in the Slate article).
Now consider how the ASSU initiative fits into a greater Bay Area political effort, such as Gavin Newsom’s emphasis on recycling.
And if the federal government were to enact legislation imposing tougher sanctions on what “biodegradable” is (like the USDA does for “organic“), then you’d have a comprehensive set of incentives and opportunities for people to lead more sustainable lives.
While sustainability is not “cheap,” price is one clear hurdle which can be passed. I did some quick comparison shopping:
|Source||Type/Brand||Number||Price||Cost per item (in cents)|
|ASSU Green Store||Recyclable||50||$5.60||11.2|
|BevMo (online)||Solo (Jack Frost)||100||$11.99||11.9|
So while cost plays into the decision, it ultimately would dictate that buying Green Store cups is the best bet anyways.
The role of the government, then, is to take a more active stance in regulating marketing terms for consumers who may not understand but who want to make the right purchase. Correction of misinformation (and misleading advertising) when combined with community and national initiatives can result in– if not a lot of good– at least a lot less of bad.
Tags: assu, bevmo, biodegradable, costco, cups, garbage, gavin newsom, Government, great pacific garbage patch, green store, marketing, organic, party cups, recycling, regulation, san francisco, SF, slate, Stanford, sustainability, trash
Mitchell made some very interesting points about the relationship between the open-source model for software development (such as Firefox) and citizen participation in the government, which is the topic of our class.
When she was asked what three “techie things” she would like to see changed/adopted in the new Obama Administration, Mitchell mentioned the following:
(1) A restore in trust. She meant this on various levels, of course. For one, I think it is fair to say that the American people have in the past eight years had their trust in the government stripped away. In addition, from a techie perspective, Mitchell called out voting machines, and the fact that these systems are locked-down and a black box in terms of voter trust.
(2) A sense of ownership in the government. This perhaps is a good segue from her first point to her third point, because it gets at the heart of the problem of citizen participation in the US government. People have no stake in our government, no mechanisms for participation at the national level. And this is where technology, used in the right way by the right person, can drastically change that. Look at what Obama has done already with change.gov. They have received 200,000 resumes there, and counting. Mitchell pointed out that even reporting of potholes in one’s neighborhood (while not a federal issue) is part of this democratic process, and it seems like it is being lost. There needn’t be an overtly techie solution to this problem, but the crowd-sourcing, idea jam style of problem-solving is something which can effectively be ported over from open-source computing.
(3) A national bug system. Finally, Mitchell raised the issue of a bug-tracking system for the US government. She saw the model (not the acual bug reporting system Mozilla has called bugzilla) is a perfect example of how we can track/aggregate/disaggregate actual experiences. It is the way we can go about asking, “Are we making healthcare better or worse?” She distinctly did not call for the implementation of bugzilla for government– or bugs.us.gov as course co-instructor Brian Behlendorf joked it should be called. But Mitchell’s point was a good one: technical or not, there is a tool like that out there.