An Open Standard for APIs Could Lead us to Better Health

There’s a parable about the elephant and the rider that’s been used by Chip and Dan Heath, and that originated with Jonathan Haidt, to describe how humans make decisions. A person’s mind can be thought of as consisting of a rider, representing the rational part of human thinking, and the elephant she’s riding, representing emotion. Both of these play a role in how a person decides things, and many of us believe the rider–the rational part–is in charge. The rider taps the elephant with her guide stick, and the elephant obediently moves in that general direction or does a specific task, like carrying lumber from place to place.

Except that’s not how a lot of decisions actually get made. Instead, the elephant sees a bunch of bananas, or a herd of other elephants, or a nice cool river to bathe in, and goes that way instead. And the rider…well, the rider can’t do much about it except, after the fact, rationalize how she always wanted to go in that direction to begin with. Yeah, it was time for a bath, sure

This framing has stuck in my mind for years and it’s a really helpful way of looking at many of the odd things that people do or say, ranging from climate change denial, to believing genetically modified organisms are inherently evil, to smoking despite everything we know about the harms that result, to even saying that Paul Blart, Mall Cop II is really, you know, not that bad–really. And it also speaks to one of the more vexing problems we have in human health. Why do people keep doing things they really probably shouldn’t, and know they shouldn’t, if they want to stay healthy?

I’ve touched before on how the power of digital tools can help make it easier for us to make good decisions. OPower is doing this for power consumption and conservation, and with the advent of tools like Apple’s Healthkit and the proliferation of activity trackers, the time is right to do this for health. Continue reading


Tall poppies, tall corn and creating the right environment

All opinions my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

The first time I heard the saying, “Cutting down the tall poppies,” I was in Australia, over 20 years ago, talking to an Professor who was a US expatriate and working at the University of Queensland.  I’ve heard it since in conversations with people from the UK, Denmark and other countries.  The specific connotation in each culture differs somewhat, but the general underlying meaning is that those who rise above the crowd should in some way be brought back down to the level of everyone else. This might be in a physical and material sense, or in an attitudinal way, as in, “don’t think you are better than us just because of your (choose one) wealth, success, position, knowledge, etc.” An egalitarian sentiment, to be sure, but one that sounds odd to someone raised in the US, where individual attainment and excellence are among the key values.

I often contrast that idea to the following story about tall corn.  I first heard it from Professor Michael Freeling when I was a graduate teaching assistant at UC Berkeley, and assigned to TA for his class on Genetics and Society. This was an undergraduate survey class and on the first day, a freshman stood up (aren’t freshmen cute?  Always so earnest and ready to play “stump the Professor.”) and asked Michael where he stood on the question of Nature versus Nurture.

Michael’s answer was to describe his own work in maize genetics. Take a handful of genetically diverse maize kernels, he said, and sow them in a field and see what happens.  You get plants growing to a variety of heights, and each plant will give you different yields. Take another handful of kernels from the same batch and plant them in a greenhouse.  Give them fertilizer, gro-lights, plenty of water, keep out bugs and other pathogens. Then you’ll see the plants growing to more or less the same height, and yielding similarly, every ear on every one.

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Jeff Bezos is the anti-unbundler or, can the founder of Amazon make us eat our greens?

All opinions are may own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

h/t to @Frank_S_David for tweeting the link.

People have wondered and speculated and analyzed why exactly Jeff Bezos decided to buy the Washington Post.  Late last week Timothy B. Lee of the Washington Post offered some clues.  He reported how Bezos, in remarks to the Post staff, described wanting to get back to “that glorious bundle that the paper did so well.”  What Bezos wants is to find a way to make the Post such a destination that people will choose to visit regularly and not just read individual articles but stay and scan through many, presumably in one sitting, as people used to do as their morning ritual.

Timothy Lee is skeptical and I’ll just briefly summarize his points and urge you to go read his great article for the details.  Lee points out that news distribution has become unbundled due to the influence of the internet.  (For some nice posts on the concept of unbundling see this one by Leigh Drogan and this one by Frank David).  People consume news in individual article-sized chunks, often following links provided by friends and colleagues and search engines, without much loyalty to specific outlets or writers.  Lee also points out that while the Post has excellent writers, they’re still a miniscule fraction of the writers on the internet and most of the best writers are not on the Post’s staff.  Lee uses this as a launching point to talk about the increasingly important skillset of attracting clicks, largely through evocative headlines.  You know, like the one I tried to write for this post.  Did it work?

Jeff Bezos’ ambition is quite interesting on a couple of different levels.  The first is the basic question of why Bezos thinks he can do this?

The answer, I believe, is that he already succeeded once.

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