Archive for March, 2011


Now reading: A Way of Life Like Any Other

March 20th, 2011 at 10:01 pm ET

3/20: Darcy O’Brien, A Way of Life, Like Any Other

Mobile telecom: a lifeline for Africa

March 20th, 2011 at 4:08 pm ET

I had lunch last week with a friend of mine who works for a U.S. executive-branch agency on cultural and mentorship programs in a dozen countries in Africa, where she spends most of her time. As you might expect, the time passed pleasantly and quickly: someone in a job like that can make interesting conversation on a variety of topics I don’t ordinarily hear much about. One topic in particular came up over and over: the remarkable transformation in African civil society wrought by mobile phone technology. For the most part, this doesn’t mean smartphones; it means ordinary voice communications, and especially SMS.

My friend said she has personally witnessed surprisingly deep societal change just in the past five years, directly driven by the availability of basic mobile technology.

In many countries in Africa, landline infrastructure is almost nonexistent, or prohibitively expensive; but in every country nowadays, cellphones are widely available, coverage is quite good, and service is cheap (thanks to the nonexistence of the oligopolistic pricing and service controls that prevail in the United States). As a result, business can be done, people can live away from their families without being isolated, and a wide range of transactions can be conducted via the SMS network.

This transformation hasn’t been twenty years in the making, or fifteen years; virtually all of it has happened in the last decade, with the bulk taking place just in the past seven years or so. Telecom entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim (profiled here by Ken Auletta) has had as much to do with this as anyone, investing in infrastructure around the region (and profiting handsomely).

In my line of work most of our focus is on the newest technologies — the smartest smartphones, the most innovative location-based services — and I often forget that for over a billion people, just managing to get access to reliable voice service and the most basic data service — i.e., SMS — is enough to vastly increase opportunity.

Seals can talk?

March 20th, 2011 at 3:52 pm ET

Did you know seals can pick up human speech, the same way parrots can? Neither did I, until I read this New Yorker story by Ian Frazier. Here’s a recording of Hoover, a talking seal at the New England Aquarium who died in 1985, speaking in a Boston accent(!).

Psychiatry: the end of talk therapy?

March 20th, 2011 at 3:48 pm ET

The death of traditional conversational psychotherapy has been announced periodically for almost a quarter-century (Prozac was invented in 1988). And as the son of two therapists (a Freudian psychoanalyst and a Jungian), the stepson of a MFCC and of a neurosurgeon, and the nephew of another Freudian, I’ve kept my eye on this story.

Certainly my father’s career has told the story of this change — some of his traditional practice work began being replaced by medication management and utilization review as early as the late 1970s — but I haven’t seen a narrative of the changes in psychotherapy as clear as this account in the New York Times of the careers of the Levins, a married pair of therapists.

Even twenty years ago, when I was first in therapy, I could tell things were changing — even at the young age I was then, I knew that the brief period during which I was seeing a therapist three times a week was anomalous — but talk therapy worked then for many people (as it did for me), and it works now.

Unfortunately, it seems, talk therapy is now largely the province of the rich. For everyone else, it’s about the pills. The Levins now run a practice where they see dozens of people a day for the sole purpose of medication management. They do feel that they’re helping people (and their patients agree), but they hate it. They have so little time for each patient that when a patient starts talking about his problems, they have to immediately deflect them back to the physiological symptoms that have bearing on the medical prescription at hand.

“The sad thing,” says Dr. Donald Levin, “is that I’m very important to them, but I barely know them. I feel shame about that, but that’s probably because I was trained in a different era.”

Mexico, and the contingency of history

March 20th, 2011 at 3:32 pm ET

Just finished reading The Oxford History of Mexico, spurred by a week’s vacation near Playa del Carmen earlier this year. I had a pretty good grasp of 20th-century Mexican history, but it occurred to me that I didn’t know nearly enough about what came before, so I decided to find a source, and this was the one that I put my hands on first.

It’s been a long book, produced by a team of authors as so many sweeping histories are, and I learned a lot of little things and some large things. (Example: Mexico’s political development over the past 150 years is arguably the most successful social revolution in the history of the world.) Now that I’m done, I also have some clear macro responses to it and to the story it tells of military conquest and reconquest, cultural development, and daily life.

First and foremost, I’ve been struck by the degree to which chance — taking the form of specific actions taken by specific people, based on short-term opportunities, for their own decidedly local reasons — was an important factor in the way this story played out.

In particular, the fact that Texas became American at all was the result of the confluence of three things: the relative weakness and distraction of the Mexican central government at a critical time, the distance of Texas from the Mexican center of power, and the absolute determination of a bunch of the “heroes of Texas history” not to have their right to make a buck (via slaveholding and the aggregation of land) interfered with, honesty and straight dealing be damned. If (for example) Stephen Austin had been incrementally less determined or just a bit more scrupulous, things might well have gone differently.

Or, to take another example, so much of the economic history of Mexico in the 20th century was bound up with the need of great powers (on both sides) to have access to raw materials for their wartime production. So people (in government, and in industry, and in private society) made decisions based on that. (J.G. Farrell’s The Singapore Grip, which I read earlier this year, was as much about rubber profiteering as it was about the war.)

This is, of course, always true — “people doing their own things for their own reasons” is, at the end of the day, the only definition of history there is — but in retrospect, everything always seems orderly and foretold. In the moment, it isn’t at all.

Secondly, and equally significant, is the extent to which the history of Mexico and the history of the United States have been bound up together to a degree that most Americans don’t think about. U.S. ties to Mexico stemming from the large number of people of Mexican ancestry living in the U.S. are the least of it. For most of our collective history, the border was even more porous than it is now, with people moving back and forth (in both directions) for personal and economic reasons. For people on both sides, the border region is seen as “remote” and local interests trump the national interest. And in many ways, the three large North American nations have been an economic collaborative all along, NAFTA or no NAFTA. U.S. colonialism has had a diversionary effect on economic activity, but Mexico is huge — its population is a full third of that of the U.S., and it has a strong and diversified economy — and the country is economically significant. It has economic momentum in its own right.

And, on top of everything else, until the first or second quarter of the 19th century, it was far from clear that the U.S. would permanently out-compete Mexico in economic terms. Mexico, in fact, had some considerable advantages going into the game (not least a long cultural and economic history well adapted to the geography of its central lowlands, and tighter ties to the Spanish aristocracy and central government than the American colonies had).

The Compass iPad stand

March 19th, 2011 at 2:48 pm ET

After a week I’m happier than I expected to be with the folding Compass iPad stand, one of the few iPad accessories I’ve seen that’s as beautiful a designed object as the iPad itself.

The Compass is a steel tripod that collapses into a sleek oblong mass slightly larger than a cigar, with a velveteen case (which I don’t always bother with), so it can be carried in a large pocket or tossed into your bag. It flips open to hold the iPad in 3 positions:

  • like an easel, to hold the iPad in portrait mode (for reading) or landscape mode (for watching video)
  • holding the iPad on a table at a slight tilt, in typing position

In all 3 positions, it’s stable on a table, and there’s enough resistance to make the touchscreen usable even when the thing is in portrait mode. It’s not so usable in typing position on your lap, but this can be done too if you set it on a large, solid hardcover book. I find I’m using the iPad a lot more often now that I have an easel to set it in.

Spring is here (sorta)

March 19th, 2011 at 2:41 pm ET

So spring is here, more or less, and everyone is out on the street today in New York in as little clothing as they can get away with. Unfortunately it’s not quite as warm out there as it looks — as I type this, in early afternoon, it’s in the upper 40s — so everyone’s chillier than they expected to be.

I went out right after I woke up, to buy butter (don’t ask), in shorts, and I was really sorry I did — I barely made it to the end of the block.

Still, spring! Enjoy it while it lasts, because it’ll be disgustingly hot and humid before you know it.

World’s tallest prefab building coming to Brooklyn?

March 17th, 2011 at 8:52 pm ET

To the news that Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner is considering erecting the world’s tallest (at 34 stories) prefabricated steel building right here in Brooklyn, I have only one thing to say: bring it on.

Prefab construction is cost-effective, environmentally sensitive, and fast. For lots of reasons, though — starting with the fact that you need room for a gigantic crane, and staging space — it’s often not feasible in the city. But it would work at Atlantic Yards, and the building would be really interesting — a first, a biggest, a one-of-a-kind.

To those who are concerned about jobs, while I’m sympathetic, I’d say this: society as a whole benefits when vastly more efficient methods become mainstream. The money no longer spent on the formerly-inefficient thing is freed up to be spent on everything else in the economy, or to be saved and invested elsewhere. It isn’t Bruce Ratner’s job to operate inefficient in order to create the maximum possible number of jobs; it’s his job to get the damn buildings built, after this long delay, so that economic health can begin to return to the hole in the middle of Brooklyn.

And if we as a society want to put builders to work, we have a way to do it — it’s called economic stimulus. We did it through ARRA, and the positive effects are being seen all across America, including right here in New York City:

Italy’s autonomous provinces

March 17th, 2011 at 8:28 pm ET

Did you know that Italy has two autonomous provinces — Bolzano (aka the South Tyrol) and Trento — that have authority in taxation, health, education, and welfare that is largely independent of the national government? Me either.

More info here and here and here.

The struggle for Inbox Zero, cont’d

March 17th, 2011 at 8:19 pm ET

Since reaching Inbox Zero last weekend, I’ve been making a valiant effort to stay disciplined and keep my obligations under control. This isn’t easy — I have a high-email-volume professional life, a lot of outside interests that also hit my inbox in one way or another, and (like most people of my professional generation) only limited administrative support. But it’s looking more possible than it used to be, thanks to the excellent tools that are now available to everyone for free:

Gmail. The Gmail web interface is designed by people who use it heavily, and it shows. Message threading, archiving behavior, keyboard shortcuts combine to make it the fastest way to process high volumes of mail by a large margin. And in virtually every respect, the product gets better and better, mostly in tiny ways that wouldn’t show up on a feature list but are obvious to heavy users. If you’re combatting a heavy email volume and you aren’t using Gmail, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

Getting Things Done. This is a philosophy, not a product; but despite the cultishness of some of its adherents, it is not a cult for most of us, just a set of effective time-saving habits regarding how we keep track of the commitments we’ve made to ourself and others. I’ve talked about GTD before; here’s a detailed yet accessible introduction. Or if you’re a book person, buy the book that started it all.

GQueues. This free task manager (with some enhancements available if you pay $25 a year) is what Google Tasks should have been. Although you sign in with your Google ID, it was independently developed and is independently run, but (like Gmail) its developers are obviously heavy users of the product, which feels both stripped down and extremely carefully designed.

Evernote. A free notes archive, magically synchronized to the web and to all the devices you use it on. I pay $5 a month for the premium version (I forget why).

Increasingly regimented habits. A GTD-based approach (and I would say my approach is broadly GTD-based, although it isn’t textbook GTD) depends on instantiating a few good habits from which you never waver:

  1. Record all your commitments in one place, e.g., a central to-do list or set of lists.
  2. Break down complicated processes into individual actions — or, failing that, think about the first few actions you have to take.
  3. For each project or group of tasks, keep your mind on the next thing you have to do, not all the things that will follow it.
  4. Triage consistently, completing immediately those incoming obligations that will take just a few minutes, and putting the others on your list.
  5. Whenever possible, do things now; whenever possible, don’t do them partially, do them fully so you can forget about them.
  6. Work from the list, not from your email (which is probably just an endless series of urgent-but-unimportant fire alarms).
  7. Review your list on a schedule — a brief review every day and a more detailed review every week — to make sure it doesn’t accumulate cruft.

For me, the single most helpful productivity habit I adopted from GTD is the habit, from item 5 above, of taking care of things immediately if they can be taken care of quickly. An obligation completed is one you’ll never have to think about again — you can move on to something else.

That’s pretty much it. Do those things regularly, and you’ll be in much better shape. A system like that takes some ramp-up time, but once you’re ramped up and have good habits in place, it starts to become second nature and you wonder how you lived without it.