Talk to Strangers!

One thing I love about modern neuroscience is that old tropes like “Don’t Talk to Strangers” get tested in labs, in this case by researchers Nicholas Epley and Julianna Schroeder. Their work, and other research related to it, was written about in the story “Hello, Stranger” in the April 25 New York Times.

They “approached commuters in a Chicago area train station…. In return for a $5 Starbucks gift card, these commuters agreed to participate in a simple experiment during their train ride. One group was asked to talk to the stranger who sat down next to them on the train that morning. Other people were told to follow standard commuter norms, keeping to themselves. By the end of the train ride, commuters who talked to a stranger reported having a more positive experience than those who had sat in solitude.”

Echoing one of Daniel Gilbert’s theses in Stumbling on Happiness, the researchers found that people are often poor predictors of what will make them happy. “When Dr. Epley and Ms. Schroeder asked other people in the same train station to predict how they would feel after talking to a stranger, the commuters thought their ride would be more pleasant if they sat on their own.”

The article goes on to examine another common assumption, that we should invest our emotional time and energy in those closest to us. Of course this is true, but Gillian M. Sandstrom found in a study that both introverts and extroverts alike had a better day if they interacted with more people–friends, acquaintances and strangers alike.

I’ve often bristled at the idea of some that Americans are “too friendly.” I have always said “Hi” to strangers because it just felt good and right. This intuition seems to have a sound scientific basis. Talking to folks on the train or in the supermarket certainly can’t hurt, and I believe the more we knit ourselves into communities big and small, friend and stranger alike, the more we’ll all thrive.

Leaps and Bounds

Today I read two great articles, one from the Next Billion website, via a Twitter link, and the other in the May 2014 print edition of Smithsonian.

Next Billion is a website and blog bringing together the community of business leaders, social entrepreneurs, NGOs, policy makers and academics who want to explore the connection between development and enterprise.” ( The article I read today discussed how cell phone technology skipped so many steps, especially a vast (and expensive) phone lines infrastructure:

“Few land lines were ever built in the rural parts of less-developed countries. There were no protracted deregulation battles. But there were, suddenly, cell phones, and their use mushroomed at a pace unmatched in the history of technology, leaving billions of people connected, their lives changed forever.” (

The breathtaking pace of change in the 21st century means skipping steps we’ve come to believe are necessary. Not long ago folks thought a country needed a national telephone system (and a decent national airline!) to call itself developed. Cell penetration in Africa and Asia shows that developing countries can skip the rural phone lines, to their great benefit (especially cost). Nowadays, innovators–entrepreneurs, tinkerers, do-gooders, NGOs, faith-based organizations, etc.–have so much technology at their fingertips that once daunting start-up costs for complex enterprises can now be managed with very little, even just a smart phone and a few staff. (If you think people in the US and Europe have their heads glued to their smart phones, go to the developing world and follow an entrepreneur through her day.)

The smart-phone-turned-diagnostic-Swiss-Army-Knife was the theme of the Smithsonian article I read. If you’re a Baby Boomer or Gen Xer from the States, you probably can recall the slumpy shouldered Dr. McCoy from Star Trek breaking out his Tricorder, an all-in-one diagnostic device. Today tech tinkerers are trying to get as many diagnostic tools onto smart phones as they can. The article, “Inventing the Real McCoy,” describes the efforts of Aydogan Ozcan and others to get smart phones to detect mercury, allergens, bacteria and viruses. Ozcan has been lauded for promising work that may lead to cheap phone attachments that can test blood for HIV and malaria, and water for pathogens like E. Coli.

I hope that in ten years every small clinic on the planet has the diagnostic capabilities that few doctors offices in the developed world possessed in 2000. The efforts of Ozcan and others–as well as the explosive changes cell phones hath wrought–bode well.

More Incredibly Good News

I used to think Bill Gates was Darth Vader, an uber-capitalist bent on total control. Evil. Bad.

Wrong again, Henry! And not only about Bill Gates…about capitalism, too. While traditional global development initiatives have changed the world for the better, the markets and business opened by globalization have done much, maybe most, of the heavy lifting of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty into opportunity.

I grudgingly appreciate capitalism not because of what it is but because of the good it has done. It’s that unsavory, much maligned (and truly imperfect) system that is, to rephrase Churchill’s adage about democracy, the worst system…except for all the others.

But I digress. Bill Gates, that Darth Vader fellow who created the Gates Foundation with his wife Melinda, has also been a heavy lifter in the changes that have made this era, IMHO, the greatest golden age of humankind.

The Gates Foundation blog, Impatient Optimists, is an excellent source if you want to learn what is working in the fight for a better tomorrow. Here are their  “11 Reasons to Be Optimistic in 2014” (please read the whole post):

1. People are living longer

2. More people around the world can read

3. We’re winning the fight agains malaria

4. TB is becoming a thing of the past

5. Worldwide poverty is down

6. India will become polio free in 2014

7. We’re vaccinating more people than ever

8. Ethiopia is doing well

9. We’re gaining ground against HIV

10. We’re on track to halve hunger by 2015

11. Guinea worm is set to be the first fully eradicated human disease since smallpox.

Read more and feel better about our future:

Cherry Blossoms: DC Rite of Spring

This morning I got up early with my family and headed to the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, to participate in DC’s yearly pagan spring festival: communing with cherry blossoms and thousands of people from around the world.


photo by me

It is what I imagine an east Asian spring festival to be: lots of cameras, picnics, even some girls in kimonos.

If you detect irony you are wrong. I love this rite of spring and never miss it. It is one of the few times that I see DC melt before the awe of simple natural beauty.

I think the symbolism of the Cherry Blossoms is very important. The trees were given to the US by Japan as a token of friendship. Of course that wish went south when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but since WWII Japan and the US have been deep friends despite fierce economic competition in the 70s and 80s.

Today, more than 100 years after the trees came from east Asia, this act of goodwill from Japan is remarkably vital. Even though many of us jaded Washingtonians have seen the cherry trees do their thing for decades, we still get giddy and drop everything when they bloom. We have a big Cherry Blossom Festival every year that goes on for weeks and closes streets.

In 1912, when the trees were delivered to America, there was much optimism about what government could do to make people’s lives better. Many beautiful monuments and works of art were created in the early 20th Century, from the Lincoln Memorial to the WPA public art in and outside government buildings. The DC area, my home, has more of these “public goods” than nearly every other city in America; it is the capital after all. We enjoy the National Gallery of Art for free, as well as the the Memorials, Capitol and White House.

Outside of Washington, does our society and government support enough public art and natural beauty, the kind that knits us together like the Cherry Blossoms do each year? Sadly, unlike our peer countries in Europe and Japan, “public goods” that uplift and ennoble are often seen by anti-government types as wasteful. Think of congressmen attacking the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and slashing funding for public fine and performing arts. Last summer the National Park Service (NPS), like everything else in government, was hit by sequestration cuts.

I really hate it when National Parks are underfunded. The best “brand” that the government retains is its National Park system. That brand should be burnished. People from all over the world travel to visit our natural wonders, and the designation of a special place as a National Park makes a destination even more compelling. Everyone I know deems visiting a National Park both enjoyable and ennobling. Why isn’t making our NPS the very best a priority? It would surely pay for itself, in public good if not economic benefits. And what of the ennobling communion with nature and people that I saw and felt today at the Tidal Basin?

Sakura w Peeps

another photo by me

For me, each visit to the Cherry Blossoms is made even better because of the people. Today I overheard someone complain that photography was difficult because of “all the random people” that ended up in her pictures. I love the random people! In our (supposedly) church and state separated country, walking around the Tidal Basin with people from all over the US and world is the closest thing to Civic Church that I can think of. Let us build an America and world with more shared places of beauty, and let us share them with each other.

The Future of Medicine

I just read a good article in The Washington Post by Vivek Wadhwa about the future of medicine. I’m glad that the author used the word “future” instead of present and “medicine” instead of health care. “Health care” is a phrase that has strong connotations, both positive and negative. It brings to mind Obamacare and the current crisis of cost on the one hand and access on the other.

Being a future optimist like myself is a dangerous thing. The future can seem rosy, especially without the day-to-day complications of implementing new technology and systems. But I base my optimism on clear markers, like the many positive health trends in the developing world (the obesity epidemic being the most noteworthy exception).

Wadhwa points to several things that may make the future of medicine much brighter:

Information: If we want “information about an ailment we search on the Internet. We have access to more medical knowledge than our doctors used to have via their medical books and journals, and our information is more up-to-date than those medical books were.”

Technology: “Wearable devices such as Fitbit, Nike, and Jawbone are commonly being used to monitor the intensity of our activity; a heart monitor such as one from Alivecor can display our electrocardiogram; several products on the market can monitor our blood pressure, blood glucose, blood oxygen, respiration, and even our sleep.”

Real Time Medical Research: “Artificial intelligence technologies will also be able to analyze continual data from millions of patients and on the medications that they have taken to determine which of these truly had a positive effect; which simply created adverse reactions and new ailments; and which did both. This will transform the way in which drugs are tested and prescribed.”

Personal Genomics: “Today a full human genome sequence costs as little as $1,000. At the rate at which prices are dropping, it will cost less within five years than a blood test does today. So it is now becoming affordable to compare one person’s DNA with another’s, learn what diseases those with similar genetics have had in common, and discover how effective different medications or other interventions were in treating them.”

Biotech Breakthroughs: “Entrepreneurs have developed software tools to “design” DNA. These technologies provide the ability to generate designer drugs, therapeutic vaccines, and microorganisms. Like all technologies that modify fundamental biology without a complete understanding of how environment, DNA, protein production, and cell biology interact, this introduces new risks because we could engineer dangerous new organisms. But, used appropriately, this field may dramatically affect the development of novel, and more effective, therapeutics.”

We have a zillion things to fix in our medical system, which seems to get worse, not better. Nonetheless, these and other breakthroughs can only help. And let’s not forget that we’re living longer, healthier lives because medicine is getter better, after all. I hope the medical improvements Wadhwa wrote about do for us what vaccines, public health infrastructure improvements, and treated bed nets have done for the developing world.

The New LGBT Orthodoxy

I’m generally not in favor of orthodoxy unless it’s an orthodoxy that we can all get behind, like equal rights, democracy and civil liberties.

In the electronic edition of Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote an article describing the new “Gay Orthodoxy.” As he put it, “in a great many circles, endorsement of same-sex marriage has rather suddenly become nonnegotiable. Expected. Assumed. Proof of a baseline level of enlightenment and humanity. Akin to the understanding that all people, regardless of race or color, warrant the same rights and respect.”

This incredibly fast (and positive) change in the zeitgeist around the issue of same-sex marriage is remarkable. I believe that there are so many mutually reinforcing positive trends that this kind of blink-and-you-missed-it progress will be more and more common.

Girls In School: New Normal in Developing World

The story of Malala Yousafzai has been one of the great inspirations of the past five years. She has come to us as a lone, courageous voice struggling against the darkness of denial of education to girls.

That said, more and more girls are attending school all over the world, and this appears to be a robust trend.

Percentage of Girls Attending Secondary School, 1975 & 1997

And the number of girls not attending primary schools is going down:

All that I share on this blog builds on this thesis: The world is getting better because of the convergence of many, many positive trends. These trends will continue to interact in positive feedback loops that will further accelerate progress.

While many tens of millions of girls are deprived educational opportunities, the future looks brighter. We need do all we can to make sure ALL children–boys and girls–have a chance at an education. And that should happen because girls in school is the new normal, worldwide.