Jevons’ paradox

Consider the advent of steam power. Economist Stanley Jevons, in what’s known as Jevons’ Paradox, observed that as the efficiency of steam engines increased, coal consumption went up. That’s not what was supposed to happen. Jevons realized that abundance creates new ways of using something. As steam became cheap, we found new ways of using it, which created demand.

Alistair Croll mentioned Jevons’ paradox while arguing that the changes brought on by new technology require a new ethics. This reminds me of Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s assertion in More Work for Mother that the invention of the invention of the washing machine created more work.

The invention of the laundry machine has not only increased the amount of laundry that gets done, but has brought that task into the house. Before washing machines became popular in the 1930s, middle-class people hired laundresses or brought their clothes to commercial cleaners.

Reading and writing is useless

And it really meant something to the child. The child read beautifully, it turned out, and was really very competent. So it actually meant something. And that story has many other anecdotes that are similar, but wow. The key to the future of computers in education is right there, and it is: when does it mean something to a child? There is a myth, and it truly is a myth: we believe — and I’m sure a lot of you believe in this room — that it is harder to read and write than it is to learn how to speak. And it’s not, but we think speech — “My God, little children pick it up somehow, and by the age of two they’re doing a mediocre job, and by three and four they’re speaking reasonably well. And yet you’ve got to go to school to learn how to read, and you have to sit in a classroom and somebody has to teach you. Hence, it must be harder.”Well, it’s not harder. What the truth is is that speaking has great value to a child; the child can get a great deal by talking to you.

Reading and writing is utterly useless. There is no reason for a child to read and write except blind faith, and that it’s going to help you. So what happens is you go to school and people say, “Just believe me, you’re going to like it. You’re going to like reading,” and just read and read. On the other hand, you give a kid — a three-year-old kid — a computer and they type a little command and — Poof! — something happens. And all of a sudden … You may not call that reading and writing, but a certain bit of typing and reading stuff on the screen has a huge payoff, and it’s a lot of fun. And in fact, it’s a powerful educational instrument.

Nicholas Negroponte’s discussing the myth that learning to read and write is difficult during his amazing 1984 TED talk.

This followed an fantastic anecdote of a child teachers believed couldn’t read. It turned out he believed reading was the boring stuff teachers gave him. When he could get something out of it, when it was useful for him, he was perfectly capable of leaving.

Negroponte eloquently makes the point that children learn best when they are allowed to follow their interests, take on challenging tasks and make something that is meaningful to them.

Reading isn’t hard, but it isn’t magical either. It’s a tool, and kids are more likely to use it when it suits their curiosity and interests.


Creativity has been the long-standing missing ingredient in education. Companies have been desperately seeking it since the last depression. Creative thinking leads to innovation, and innovation leads to success. Sure, science, technology, engineering and maths are necessary, but without the initial creative stimulus for solving a problem or imagining the possible, nothing would ever be accomplished.

Jon Kamen of the Rhode Island School of Design explains STEM is missing a crucial ingredient. Kamen and many others are suggesting that STEM be changed to STEAM, for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

I like the idea of adding the arts to STEM to get at the idea that creative problem solving should be encouraged. But as Vince Betram points out adding an A to the acronym might be missing the point.

I’m often asked why science, technology, engineering and math are the only words used to create the acronym, and when Project Lead The Way (PLTW), the STEM organization I am proud to lead, will change STEM to STEAM, STREAM or STEMM — incorporating art, reading or music into the acronym. If that is the debate, we are clearly missing the point. It’s not about adding to the acronym, but instead adding to the relevancy of learning. It’s about showing students how technical concepts relate to real-world situations and providing them with hands-on projects and problems that help them apply concepts in a new context. It’s about nurturing students’ curiosity and helping them develop creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills. STEM isn’t simply the subjects in the acronym. It’s an engaging and exciting way of teaching and learning.

One crucial point that adding the arts to the STEM might gloss over is encouraging students to learn from one another. In the arts in particular the belief in the myth of the lone genius is very strong. Getting students working together rather than sitting alone at their desks is crucial for preparing them for the challenges they’ll face in the real world.

The miracle of flight

Even in an age that has come to regard journeys to the moon and robot exploration of of the planets as commonplace, flight continues to inspire the same sense of awe and power that it did when th eairplane was new. Aviation, that most hard-edged of technologies, has somehow retained a component of the magic that was so apparent to the first witnesses who saw [Wilbur Wright] fly at Les Hunaundières.

The psychological impact was stunning. If man could fly, was any goal beyond his reach?

The Bishop’s Boys by Tom D. Crouch, p. 369.

What struck me about this passage is that the wonder of flight is still very much alive in my four year old son. Whether we’re launching water rockets of folding paper airplane after paper airplane, he is fascinated by anything that flies. And as a result, so am I. I’m absolutely fascinated by flight again (as evidenced by the fact that I’m reading a book about the Wright Brothers).

This passage also brought to mind Louis C.K.’s brilliant bit on how everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.

Did you fly through the air incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero? You’re flying! It’s amazing. Everybody on every plane should be going “Oh my God! Wow!” You’re flying! You’re sitting in a chair in the sky!

Hulling rice

“There was a lot of trial and a lot of error,” Brill said. It took two years for him to crack the huller, during which time he developed a custom spoke mechanism, found exactly the right foam pad in a boat-supply store, and cannibalized various home appliances for parts. He now offers designs for a table-top huller, capable of milling four pounds per hour; a bike-powered version, which can process up to twenty pounds; and a larger one, powered by the motor from a clothes dryer, on which his son was eventually able to process six hundred pounds.

I love this story by Nicola Twilley about Don Brill‘s creation of a cheap rice hulling machine.

What I love even more is Don Brill’s video demonstrating how it works.

Basic and applied research

While the primary focus of attention in this panel is on basic research, I feel compelled to observe that basic and applied research go hand-in-hand, informing and stimulating each other in a never-ending Yin and Yang of partnership. In some ways, applied research is a form of validation because the success (or failure) of the application may reinforce or contradict the theoretically predicted results and the underlying theory. Basic research tries to understand and applied research tries to do and often one must pursue both in the effort to uncover new knowledge.

via Vinton G. Cerf: "The Value of Investment by the U.S. Government Cannot Be Overstated" – Scientific American.

This reminds me of the point that Tom D. Crouch makes in The Bishop’s Boys: that the Wright Brothers were engineers rather than scientists.

Technology precedes understanding

Engineering was the key. The Wright brothers functioned as engineers, not as scientists. Science, the drive to understand the ultimate principles at work in the universe, had little to do with the invention of the airplane. A scientist would have asked the most basic questions. How does the wing of a bird generate lift? What are the physical laws that explain the phenomena of flight?

The answers to those questions were not available to Wilbur and Orville Wright, or to anyone else at the turn of the century. Airplanes would be flying for a full quarter century before physicists and mathematicians could explain why wings worked.

How is it possible to build a flying machine without first understanding the principles involved? In the late twentieth century, we regard the flow of technological marvels from basic scientific research as the natural order of things. But this relationship between what one scholar, Edwin Layton, has described as the “mirror image twins” of science and technology is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, technological advance has more often preceded and even inspired scientific understanding.

pp. 174-175, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright by Tom D. Crouch

This is something I’ve often wondered about: whether it was possible for a technology to be based on an inaccurate model. When I’ve asked friends about this, often over a pint in the pub, they’ve looked at me as if I was crazy.

If Tom D. Crouch is to be believed, the scientific models that the Wright Brothers based their plane on were not inaccurate, they simply didn’t exist.

This is not to disparage science. A better understanding of why wings work has lead to better, faster and safer airplanes.

What interests me here is the a similarity between this and Don Norman’s claim that technologies precede our need for them. There Wright Brothers, Wilbur in particular, certainly lend credence to Norman’s statement that “technologists invent things, not sometimes because they themselves dream of having their capabilities, but many times simply because they can build them.”

Books are like sharks

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

This is the third thing that I wanted to pull out from Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.

Douglas Adams is right. Books—physical books—have been around for centuries. They’ve spent a long time being adapted to all the things we need them to. I’ve encountered the current limitations of ebooks lately.

I’ve mentioned Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation on this blog a few times. I read it on my Kindle and iPhone. It’s a great book, but reading the foot notes was often a pain. It was a lot of moving back and forth. It got to the point that I ignored most of the footnotes, whereas if I’d been reading the physical book, I would have just glanced down at the bottom of the page.

I’ve also been reading Run Less, Run Faster recently. Determining a training plan means moving across several tables that contain racing plans, cross training suggested and suggested paces. I found this virtually impossible to do in an ebook. So much so, that I ordered the a physical copy of the book.

I also don’t think these are insurmountable issues. The problem right now is that many books are written with a physical book in mind. As people start writing and designing books knowing they are likely to be read across a range of devices, things like footnotes and tables will be presented differently and in a more usable way.

What I do think is interesting is that when I’m reading fiction, it doesn’t really matter what format I’m reading it in. Well, unless it’s something like Infinite Jest or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which are experimenting with the conventions of physical books). But most works of fiction have made the transition to ebooks without any issues. Again, Neil Gaiman has something to say about this.

We need libraries. We need books. We need literate citizens. I do not care – I do not believe it matters – whether these books are paper, or digital, whether you are reading on a scroll or scrolling on a screen. The content is the important thing. But a book is also the content, and that’s important.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

Tales. Stories. They’ve outlasted the format they were written in. Whether in song, on papyrus, on potsherds, on scrolls, or in a book. Stories pass easily from one format to another. Burroughs said language is a virus for outer space, but I think it’s stories that are viral, inhabiting whatever format is available at the time.

One final thought. If books are like sharks, then stories are like dogs. They’ve adapted and evolved along with us. They are both a big part of what make us human. Our technology advances—stone carvings, agriculture, paper, cities, the printing press, the Internet and ebooks—but dogs and stories have stayed with us and easily adapted to those changes.

Mentoring innovation

To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way. So what about just working with health-care workers, one by one, to do just that? With the BetterBirth Project, we wondered, in particular, what would happen if we hired a cadre of childbirth-improvement workers to visit birth attendants and hospital leaders, show them why and how to follow a checklist of essential practices, understand their difficulties and objections, and help them practice doing things differently. In essence, we’d give them mentors.

Atul Gawande has written [a fascinating account of the difficulties faced when trying to spread ideas and change behavior]. For Gawande, behavior change is crucial because it means saving lives. After reviewing a number of medical innovations and considering why the ideas behind them did or didn’t spread, he moves on to the [BetterBirth] project and how try are approaching this problem. Their solution is effectively mentoring: spreading ideas one person at a time.

There are four aspects of the mentorship program that I’d like to briefly discuss.

Innovation is not synonymous with high technology

The first is that not all innovations are technological. Gawande gives the example of infant hypothermia.

We’re infatuated with the prospect of technological solutions to these problems—baby warmers, say… [E]ngineers have produced designs specifically for the developing world. Dr. Steven Ringer, a neonatologist and BetterBirth leader, was an adviser for a team that made a cheap, ingenious, award-winning incubator from old car parts that are commonly available and easily replaced in low-income environments. Yet it hasn’t taken off, either. “It’s in more museums than delivery rooms,” he laments.

As with most difficulties in global health care, lack of adequate technology is not the biggest problem. We already have a great warming technology: a mother’s skin. But even in high-income countries we do not consistently use it.

You can quibble with whether kangaroo care is an “innovation” or not. According to this and other changes could “save thousands of lives.” If that’s true, it certainly meets the Berkun definition of innovation: “significant positive change.”

Innovation is social

The second idea I’d like to pull out is that innovation is deeply social. New technologies and ideas spreads through people talking to one another. Here, Gawande cites the work of Everett Rogers.

Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

The social aspect of innovation is the essence of Bruce Nussbaum’s reply to Donald Norman. While Calthorpe talks about technology and design solutions, but social solutions are often worth considering, as well.

Understanding context

The third point I’d like to consider is the emphasis Gawande places on understanding the context of the mentorees. He mentioned it in the quote I started this blog post with. I think it’s essential to the program that they have put together. This comes across in the story he tells about spreading the word about oral hydration as a treatment for cholera in Indian villages.

Eventually, the team hit upon using finger measures: a fistful of raw sugar plus a three-finger pinch of salt mixed in half a “seer” of water—a pint measure commonly used by villagers when buying milk and oil. Tests showed that mothers could make this with sufficient accuracy.

Without understanding the context in which the villagers lived, a much more expensive solution would have been put in place—measuring spoons with the recipe printed on them. This solution would also have been ineffective, as many of the villagers would not have been able to read the recipes.

Learning by doing

The final point I wanted to pull out was that the mentors didn’t just offer advice, but found that people learned best through doing.

The field workers soon realized that having the mothers make the solution themselves was more effective than just showing them…

Coaxing villagers to make the solution with their own hands and explain the messages in their own words, while a trainer observed and guided them, achieved far more than any public-service ad or instructional video could have done.

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It can be found in the images on our machines, in the spaces we cultivate in our online communities, and in the language we use every day of our digital lives. It began the moment we moved into the alien, shape-shifting territory of the internet and prompted a resurgence of that ancient call to life, biophilia.

Sue Thomas discusses the thinking behind the slighly clunky term technobiophilia. Biophilia is a concept that E.O. Wilson defines as “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” Thomas is extending the concept to encounters with lifelike process in the digital realm.

She gives the example of Deltcho Valtchanov’s 2010 PHD thesis, which “concluded that encounters with nature in virtual reality have beneficial effects similar to encounters with real natural spaces. In other words, it seems that you can gain equal benefit from walking in a forest as from viewing an image of a forest or, as in my case, from watching virtual goldfish as opposed to real ones.”

As a web geek that is also a bit of a nature boy, I’m both intrigued and skeptical. I tend to get my biophila fix in by getting lost in the woods, rather than getting lost in virtual woods. Fortunately, Thomas has recently written a what appears to be a well-researched book that will allow me to explore the topic further.