I had one of those odd old man moments today where I’m watching a squirrel run up a tree. It goes half way up the tree in a split second, stops, then decides there’s nothing to run from after all. It then spends the next 10 seconds trying to get down. In short, the squirrel can climb a tree in a tenth the time it takes to get down. I realize this is a pretty silly observation.
Humans, too, are really good at running up hills, but terrible at getting down them. I remember climbing Mt. Mulanje in Malawi once. Going up was no problem at all. Getting down was dangerous as hell.
We pull better than we push, see right in front of ourselves better than beside ourselves, and have an easier time thinking of the concerns of a few proximal people, than a vast numbers of people who live far away. The latter, obviously, has important implications for global policy.
All of these things, though, are remnants of our evolutionary past and make complete sense when put in the context of our humble, though dangerous, beginnings. Arising in the savannahs of Kenya, humans would have been easy prey for all sorts of predators. When faced with a lion or hyena, a reasonable strategy is to run up the nearest tree and wait for the threat to pass. Thus, getting up the tree is critical for survival, particularly for children. Importantly, if they are eaten before they reproduce, the survival of the species is in question. Better climbers are survivors who are able to pass their climbing abilities on to their own children.
Getting down from the tree, of course, is not critical to survival. Thus, we can take our sweet time clumsily trying to get down, live and be able to pass our clumsy genes on to our children. So threats create effective adaptations and the lack of threat creates useless ones. The same is true for eyesight. Humans, as predatory omnivores, benefit from being able to focus on their prey while hunting, especially when they have the unique ability to run long distances while they wait for their prey (which likely has a serious head start) to tire out.
The Kericho region of Kenya is famous for producing long distance runners. I wonder if they maintained a particular hunting strategy that the Europeans or Asians no longer required.
Of interest to me is why humans might be so clan centric. It has been shown that humans are able to feel empathy for individuals close to them, but have a hard time imagining the sufferings of millions of unfamiliar people. This limitation, of course, allows us to wage wars far from home, and maintain indifference toward the millions living in poverty around the world.
Again, there are evolutionary roots here. Humans, being pack animals are adapted to be concerned about their immediately family and pack members, particularly children. This is important to survival. When any member of the group is threatened, all must be ready to ward off the threat, and protect children, who pass on similar traits to their children. A group of people indifferent to those aorund them would die out quickly. We are poor fighters on our own.
We have lived only in small groups until very recently. Thus, we never formed a need to be concerned with anyone else besides those closest to us. This state of having to care about the welfare of millions (or billions) is entirely new. We haven’t yet adjusted to it, though we make noble attempts. It is possible that we may never fully develop the ability to feel the pain of billions, unless something comes along and starts wiping out those who don’t. If that happened, we’d probably all be dead, though.
I had never thought of the problems of global policy in terms of evolutionary behavior. I guess, I have the squirrel to thank.
2012 is just about over. I was going to write some earth shattering retrospective on the past year, but I just simply thank everyone who read, commented or passed on the contents of this blog.
I’ll leave 2012 with some footage from Japanese greaser band Carol’s last show, which left the club in flames.
I fear that the answer is yes, particularly in small markets. The NYT ran an article yesterday documenting how public libraries are responding to local demand for popular reading. Specifically, they are catering to the public hunger for disposable romance novels.
At the bustling public library in Arlington Heights, Ill., requests by three patrons to place any title on hold prompt a savvy computer tracking system to order an additional copy of the coveted item. That policy was intended to eliminate the frustration of long waits to check out best sellers and other popular books. But it has had some unintended consequences, too: the library’s shelves are now stocked with 36 copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Now, I’m fine with this. Libraries are free to stock junk. One person’s trashy fiction is another person’s Shakespeare. I wonder, however, if the shift to popular junk fiction isn’t putting someone out of a job or a business. I feel, however, that the friendly public library is doing just that. Certainly, internet sales and e-books are the number one reason book retailers are going extinct. Public libraries, however, must be number two and their influence extends to other types of media.
Ann Arbor used to pride itself as have more bookstores per capita than any other city in the United States. We had more than 15 bookstores (by my count) in the downtown area which sold all kinds of books. These places were great spaces to hang out in, and made Ann Arbor attractive to tourists and visitors. It was something to be proud of. Now, of all the bookstores which were here in 1988, only one remains. It sells exclusively used books. There are other small book retailers, that are really just gift stores in the end.
Libraries did not kill these stores. I do feel, however, that the Ann Arbor Public Library and the (wonderful) Askwith Media Library at the University of Michigan killed the video store. Liberty Street Video died soon after the expansion of the DVD library at the Ann Arbor Public Library, located almost on the same street. Demand for DVDs still exists. The Askwith Library is always busy with students looking to borrow films for the weekend.
I am not trying to slam public libraries. I believe in public libraries and tax payer funded access to open information, even if it is information that some people may not like.
I was interested, however, in the complex issues at play in the simple article.
Are public libraries undermining small, local businesses? Are they setting standards for the small businesses by providing competition where there is none? Liberty Street Video could have responded by offering better services and products. It didn’t. It stuck with VHS until it closed. At the end, it was an awful store. Border’s died because it refused to compete with Amazon’s low prices.
How can public libraries balance potential negative effects on small businesses with the need to satisfy community demand?
Are private donations the solution? It’s worth pointing out that Askwith, UM’s large video library was built using private donations.
Personally, I don’t know, so I though I’d ramble on about it for a while. Though there aren’t many of you out there, what do you think?
The course I took is probably pretty atypical for a business course, though. Ted London, one of my coworkers at the William Davidson Institute, teaches a class entitled “Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid.” Basically, it argues that profitable business ventures which target the poorest of the poor are possible and can have positive impacts in terms of poverty alleviation and improvements in public health. He advocates a strategy that partners developed country expertise and capital, with local entrepreneurship and knowledge.
What I’ve learned:
1) Business is about problem solving. I used to think that business was about profit maximization. In essence, though, it is about identifying problems and creating new ways to solve them for mutual benefit. Certainly, part of this includes profit making but often profits mean sustainability. Certainly, if short term gains are your only goal (stock markets, for example), someone will lose. Long term success, however, depends on creating relationships for mutual benefit. Look at the successes of a company like Toyota.
Science, however, is about discovery. We ask questions and seek answers. The limitation here, is that nobody wants to be wrong and thus the identification of problems is of low priority.
2) People in business are easy to talk to. Businesses are primarily about relationships and cooperation. Opportunities are produced by making contacts and listening to what people have to say. People with poor social skills will do badly in business. People like me.
In science, you can have the social skills of a doorknob and it might not make a bit of difference. You can be hardheaded and happily work away in your bubble oblivious to the outside world. This is fine, in an increasingly diversified and interdisciplinary world, a bit of communication and ability to navigate connections between people is becoming ever more important.
Scientists have to learn to talk to people outside science, or we will fail. Not the issue of climate change. The wishy washy (though necessary) language of science doesn’t translate well to policy makers, giving climate deniers plenty of fodder to work with. The world might end, partly because scientists have poor communication skills.
We could learn a lot from business schools. I noted that they write few papers and do multitudes of presentations, which are often graded on form as well as content.
3) Business is not, by definition, evil. Last night, I went to a Holiday Party for the Emerging Markets Club of the Ross School of Business at UM. Half the people there had served in the Peace Corps, hardly what one would expect of MBA students. They are determined to create careers which benefit the world. Certainly, there are evil business people out there, but there are also evil NGOs and evil scientists (known a few). Business is about what you bring to the table and how your goals align with those around you. If you gather conscientious and dedicated folks together, good things can happen. If you can make it profitable, someone will fund you.
In science, we talk about grants in the hundreds of thousands and several millions of dollars. This funds discovery, but does little to benefit impoverished communities directly. In business, they are talking about tens of millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in capital. Given the right people and the right project, this money can multiply itself and can directly transform the lives of the poorest of the poor in a sustainable fashion. Often, I really wonder what we’re doing. While the information we generate can inform the development of new ways to fight malaria, for example, it often seems like we work in a bubble.
In short, it’s been a great experience. I’m happy to have been able to have the chance to work and learn at the UM B School.
To close, here’s are a couple of videos about Bottom of the Pyramid ventures. The first is about a program that CEMEX, a large Mexican cement manufacturer, has to profitably sell housing to poor communities and the second is a video from the late C.K. Prahalad, a former Professor in the UM B School who pioneered the thinking behind these ventures.
Russell was one of Jackson, Mississippi’s first punk rockers. He would enthusiastically show up to just about any show and tell you about it. It was absolutely true. Being a punk in Mississippi can be a lonely affair but Russell pulled it off, mostly because he never considered that it might be a bad idea. Russell was never afraid of anything. He had a suit of armor forged of smiles and laughter.
Sometimes Russell would show up to our band practice space. We would be trying to write lyrics and Russell would come up with lines that would have us rolling on the ground in laughter. I think that he was completely serious, but it was hard to tell. He would deliver his lines in typical Mississippi fashion, totally serious with complete conviction, dressed up in his ultra thick and authentic outer-Jackson drawl:
“Electric energy, unseen force, thrash into oblivion on a pale white horse”
In retrospect, we should have fired our singer and hired Russell. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to us at the time.
Once Russell led us into the practice space of the WindBreakers, a local band which had achieved some success at the time. I never could figure out if he had the key or he broke in, but we got in, fired up their gear and started jamming out. Russell would again spit off these lyrics that would have you laughing to hard to worry about playing. Eventually, Tim Lee and the WindBreakers showed up with their mouths agape.
You couldn’t really be angry at Russell. He was just too much of a nice guy. Whatever infraction he might have committed was done only in the interest of fun and good times. I never, ever saw Russell say a bad word about anyone at all.
Russell eventually put on a suit and got a job as a jeweler at a mall store. He never ever stopped being Russell, however. Later, after we were somewhat in touch, he sent out a couple emails to me to say “I HOPE YOU’RE HAVING A ROCKIN DAY!!!!!” and really not much more. That was Russell.
Now, I’m kicking myself for not having gone to see him when I was in Jackson last year. Too busy, can always meet him later…. but later will never happen now.
Russell, take it easy, man. You were loved.
When he arrived, it took about 30 seconds to figure out that he wasn’t a student working on a class project. He was a commissioned salesman going door to door selling kitchen knives. I was kind of annoyed. If he had been a little older (he was probably 18), I would have just closed the door and sent him on his way. Obviously, this in itself is a way to get salespeople in the door.
He went through his presentation which consisted of some info-mercial style demos of the fantastic ability of their cutlery to cut rope, apples, tomatoes and leather (during cooking, how common is cutting rope?). At some point I just had to be blunt and told him that we wouldn’t be buying anything at all. Rather than pack up and go, he steadfastly kept going. I felt like I was trapped in a 70′s Ginsu Knife commercial. There were even free gifts and added discounts. Eventually, he left.
I had several impressions:
I realized why I don’t care about buying American anymore. The products are clearly shoddy. The presentation had this absurdly arrogant air, implying that “Made in USA” relieves manufacturers of having to be competitive in the market. When I was buying a new car, I went to three American manufacturers. GM had nothing but junk, Ford had nothing at all and Chrysler ignored me. All three expected me to get down on my knees and beg them to sell me a car simply because they were American.
American manufacturers suffer from a diversification problem: there are too many products and options. While this may appeal to most, I really can’t keep track of 50 different types of knives that do things I don’t need (or want) in 500 different colors with 5000 different “free” gifts. A single, good quality knife (or vehicle) is sufficient.
American companies hate competition. In America, we pay all kinds of lip service to “free markets” but create as many barriers as possible to their actual realization. This knife company’s success depends on consumers being completely ignorant of other companies and prices. Their knives are much more expensive than other company’s products, but consumers have no way of knowing this given complicated packages, the “free gifts” and the inability to see these products next to others.
Lastly, I’m a poor consumer. I spend money on media (news, books, music), but don’t really care about buying knives, barbecue grills or expensive gifts for weddings. Who needs this crap? It all ends up in thrift stores anyway. The whole exchange made me extremely depressed. Being a poor consumer is really being a poor American. Which is ok, but it still was a depressing realization.
Older Americans were of an age when buying crap was a virtue. For a lot of Americans, it still is. I’m trying to get rid of crap and consume less, having borne the brunt of 4 familial generations of material accumulation. This doesn’t mean that I don’t participate in the economy at all, but my purchasing priorities don’t include difficult to dispose heavy material goods.
I was happy to see this poor kid go. He is obviously too young to really realize how absurd his job is, and probably makes pennies. In fact, his customers probably just buy things from him because they feel sorry for him. It’s an awful business model. Never again.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair
I’m getting older so naturally I’m thinking about how to get by when I’m no longer able to work. Personally, I like what I do and can’t see retiring (assuming someone ever pays me for what I do) but I have to consider that I will one day be senile, incontinent and unable to work for money.
One of my employers recently passed on information on retirement accounts. Similar to a 401(k) plan, I put money into a pool and an intermediary invests that money into a certain set of well performing and diverse stocks. I get a reasonable return on my money and an agreement with the US Government allows a certain percentage of it to be drawn tax free upon retirement.
Looking through the lists of stocks, though, is a nauseating experience. The top performing funds contain equities in fine companies such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Pfizer, Coca-Cola, Philip Morris and a host of defense stocks. Obviously, though, there’s no way to guarantee that one’s investments are not linked to oil, big pharma and guns.
I take having my tax money go to further needless wars as something I can do little about. To actively and willingly profit off human suffering is quite something else entirely.
Americans, of course, are little interested in where their money goes, so long as they are guaranteed a solid rate of return. I implore all those with a conscience to dig through their portfolio and truly consider where the money comes from. You might be very unpleasantly surprised.
Presently, I’m looking for work. To be honest, the biggest obstacle I have is a subconscious though ingrained notion that there are no job opportunities outside large box grocery stores. The path to security is marked by low but predictable hourly wages, “hard work” which basically means satisfying repetitive tasks in a predictable and dependable manner, and showing up without question whenever requested.
It’s an awful state of mind, basically a subconscious wage slavery that relies on the charity of large and powerful business owners and the willful subservience of workers. I know I’m not alone.
I grew up in poverty. Actually, I grew up in the worst sort of poverty. A poverty not as a result of deep structural factors and institutionalized racism, but of parental irresponsibility and drug abuse. Though my poverty differed from the poverty of those around me growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, and also from the global poverty I work with on a daily basis, the cancerous effects are the same.
Poor people are trained to believe that their situation is unchangeable. Hollywood loves to feed us lottery style rags to riches stories, but these only reinforce that idea that success comes not from (true) hard work and determination, but from chance events and divine grace. In short, we believe that leaving poverty comes not from within, but from above.
I’m not alone on this. Black/white difference in attitudes toward success and mobility have long been demonstrated. Poor attitudes in African American boys have been shown to correlate negatively with academic outcomes. The same has been shown in other contexts.
Certainly, mobility is hindered by access to financial resources. In fact, without money or assets, it is impossible to change the social and financial outlook of an individual. Capitalism relies on capital to function.
I argue though, that the awful, ingrained self-image of the poor is self-sustaining. As an example, the access to jobs for poor African-Americans is certainly limited, but the worst and most reprehensible barriers (reinforced by those who profit off of it) are those which come from within.
For me, I’m an idiot. Though I constantly see Meijer in my future, I am blessed with the ability to (stupidly) not say NO to anyone. If someone has a cool idea and wants help, I’m there and rarely consider the consequences. This alone will keep me out of what would have been a complete mess had I listened.
Just discovered that this got included in a special supplement of Malaria Journal commemorating the recent “Challenges in Malaria Research” conference in Basel, Switzerland. It was just a poster presentation, but is openly available to all. Thanks to my co-authors. Great work!
Now give me a job.
Knowledge and practices of malaria prevention with ITNs in post-and near-elimination areas of Vanuatu
Peter S Larson1*, Akira Kaneko2, Koji Lum3, Noriko Watanabe4 and Takeo Tanihata5
Insecticide Treated Nets (ITNs) remain an important tool for sustained malaria control and play an integral part in malaria elimination strategies. As malaria incidence decreases in holodemic areas, however, proactive and regular use of ITNs may simultaneously decline if risk perception diminishes.
In Summer 2012, we conducted a cross-sectional survey of three communities in Vanuatu: i) where malaria has been locally eliminated (Aneityum), ii) where malaria remains present but with rapidly declining incidence (Ambae), and iii) an urban area where malaria transmission may or may not occur (Efate). Respondents were asked a battery of questions regarding knowledge of malaria, ITN possession and use, and compliance with other anti-malaria interventions. Information on basic demographics, education levels, dietary habits and household economic activities were also recorded.
Residents of Aneityum (malaria eliminated) reported near universal use of ITNs, but uneven knowledge of malaria, particularly in younger individuals born around the time of malaria elimination. Residents in the other communities reported less consistent, though high levels of ITN use despite past individual malaria diagnoses.
Results indicate that achieving sustained high levels of ITN use in near- and post-elimination contexts is possible, but that maintaining awareness could present a long-term challenge to prevent reintroduction and recrudensence. Sustained local community cooperation will be essential to maintaining elimination efforts worldwide.
This gem fortunately hadn’t succumbed to CDR rot quite yet. It’s me and Ed Wilcox of Temple of Bon Matin jamming out at the BULB Clubhouse in Providence, RI somewhere around the year 2000. Ed would drive up from Philly to play poorly attended shows and we loved having him.
Ed’s one of the greatest and most unknown of all psych drummers and an all around great guy.
One time he brought Mikey Wild up, and I think we took a few minutes out and laid this one down.
Peter S. Larson – guitar
Ed Wilcox – Drums/Percussion/Contact Mike/Vocals
Temple of Bon Hopkins “Ein Tod”
Temple of Bon Hopkins “Papa Hamlet”
Temple of Bon Hopkins “Wander Krebs”
Temple of Bon Hopkins “Intinerant Raccoon”