The Secret to a Great TED Talk

Recently I learned from two separate people how the Obama campaign won the 2008 presidential election and it’s fascinating.  Basically everyone who was a part of it learned the “campaign narrative” structure and delivered their personal message to spread the gospel:

  • The Story of Me: why I’ve personally been inspired by this campaign
  • The Story of We: why we (me speaking and you listening) are united and inspired by this campaign
  • The Story of Now: why it’s urgent that you take action now; the train is leaving and you can jump aboard or be left behind

If you think about it, this is a very powerful narrative for creating grass-roots action of any sort.  Having just spent the last week watching many dozens of TED talks (and having watched hundreds of them over the past few years), I’ve been thinking about the fact that the great ones all follow a shared structure, which I will share with you now:

  • The Story of

Inoculating Against the Anti-Vaccine Meme

The debate over vaccination is raging (c.f. Wired article) and it smacks of one of those conundrums that is unlikely to get resolved by scientific inquiry.  I offer the following hypothesis and a way out of the dilemma.

Hypothesis: Vaccination is something that is good at the societal level but bad at the individual level.  That is, it is a tragedy of the commons.  You want all your neighbors to get vaccinated so they don’t pass on the germs to you, but there is enough risk from the vaccination process (at least for certain ones) that you’d rather not do it yourself.

The mathematics of the commons tragedies suggests that there are two ways out.   One is to change the payout/incentive structure, in other words, make the vaccine’s less risky to the individual, or at least change the perception of the individual risk (as the Wired article suggests).  The problem with manipulating perception is, what if you’re wrong?  The marketplace of ideas …

A Theory of Scalability

One of the hidden themes of The Feast this past week has been how to scale successful social ventures.  This has been on my mind a lot recently as I have been working informally with both Self Enhancement, Inc. (SEI) and Decision Education Foundation (DEF) on this puzzle.  SEI is extremely successful in the Portland locale where they began 25+ years ago, achieving 98% high school graduation rate (working against hard socioeconomic realities).  Like with many models that are very successful “in the small”, the biggest challenge is to translate that same success to larger scales (e.g. all across America, or all around the world).  DEF is attempting to build scalability into its model from the start, and has found that this is extremely challenging.

In thinking about this I am reminded about a duet of innovators who spoke at the Pop!Tech conference last year about scaling.  Both Bunker Roy and Paul Polack have some profound lessons to teach us about scalability.  You will …

“Bad people do bad things”

In listening to this account of Hemant Lakhani, convicted in 2005 of illegal arms dealing, I was reminded of another This American Life episode about Brandon Darby.  Underlying both stories are accounts of seemingly incompetent, misguided, would-be bad guys who were actualized on a path of evildoing by law-enforcement agents during sting operations.

What I found most interesting was the quote in the title of this post, said by the prosecutor in the Lakhani case.  This was his justification for why it was okay to have the U.S. military supply Lakhani the weapon that he was convicted of illegally dealing.  (If you listen to the story you will learn that Lakhani had been making promises to the informant of being able to procure weapons for a long time and he’d been unsuccessful on his own).

While it seems on the surface that “bad people do bad things” — i.e. that’s how bad things get done, they require a bad person to do them — …

Should You Use Sunscreen?

This is a very complex topic, as the following talk suggests:

The main takeaways from this that I got are:

  1. Cancers for which sunlight deficit is a risk factor are orders of magnitude more prevalent than the few for which overexposure is a risk factor.
  2. People who are using sunscreen regularly are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be.
  3. We should be very careful and sparing about recommending sunscreen usage or sun avoidance, and always temper such advice with the tradeoffs of not getting enough sunlight.

As someone who wonders on a regular basis whether the public has the right information to make informed decisions about health-related tradeoffs, I am curious… does the above strike you as surprising?  What do you currently do regarding sun exposure, and are you likely to change anything based on the above?  What do you think the overall message that reaches the masses is regarding sun exposure?…

The Diamond Rule

We all know the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  TED Prize Wish winner, Karen Armstrong, even laudably proposed that a Charter for Compassion based on the observation that all three Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) have the Golden Rule at their core.

I do believe that if we all followed the Golden Rule as the basis for how we treat one another the world would be a better place.  But I also think there is a a more fundamental rule, call it the Diamond Rule, which is even better:

Treat others as you believe they would want you to treat them, if they knew everything that you did.

The difference is subtle, and may not practically speaking yield different action that often.  But when it does, the difference can be significant.…

25 Random Things

1) I might be the last person on Facebook to do 25 Random Things, but I promised some people I would, and I take my promises seriously.

2) The more I learn, the less I feel that I know. But I am okay with that. Still it’s unsettling because I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning.

3) I care more about what people think of themselves than what they think of me.…

Victory Over "War on Terror"

For those of who understand the power of self-fulfilling prophecy, there’s some good news on the foreign policy front.  The Obama administration (thanks to Hillary Clinton) will not be using the phrase “war on terror” anymore, as it is widely deemed to be “overly militaristic and perhaps counterproductive.”  Amen!

hat tip: Daniel Horowitz

Complexity Economics

In Chasing the Dragon, I wondered aloud whether we could dampen boom-bust cycles in the financial system with an economic equivalent of a controlled burn.  Kevin suggested that “generic countercyclical policies” might work.  Underlying both mine and Kevin’s thinking is the idea that you can possibly do better (for the world as a whole) by (a) understanding the entire economic system better and (b) enacting policies which are in line with that understanding.  In contrast to these assumptions are a point of view articulated by one of the readers on a different thread:…

Chasing the Dragon

Kevin just posted about a great article by Felix Salmon in Wired.  I underlined three quotes in my reading of it:

  1. “Correlation trading has spread through the psyche of the financial markets like a highly infectious thought virus.” (Tavakoli)
  2. “…the real danger was created not because any given trader adopted it but because every trader did. In financial markets, everybody doing the same thing is the classic recipe for a bubble and inevitable bust.” (Salmon)
  3. “Co-association between securities is not measurable using correlation…. Anything that relies on correlation is charlatanism.” (Taleb)

Global Economic Constitution?

Third-Hand Smoke

Thanks to Daniel Horowitz for alerting me to third-hand smoke.  I guess then if you pass on epigentic mutations to your children from third-hand smoke exposure it’s called fourth-hand smoke?…

Behavior and Emotions as Virus

We’ve talked about obesity as a virus and violence as a virus, both well-supported by the research.  Now there’s happiness as a virus.  Hardly a surprise, but I guess for new paradigms to become the accepted basis for organizing scientific thinking, they first have to become banal.  So let’s bring it on, what’s the next human behavior or emotion that will be featured in a “surprising”study showing a viral etiology?

hat tip: Daniel Horowitz

Invisible Etiology

One of the most poignant moments of this year’s Pop!Tech for me — which, BTW had many — was Gary Slutkin’s talk on the idea of violence being a virus.  You may have heard about his work in stopping violence in Chicago in a NY Times Magazine cover article earlier this year.  The premise is simple: if you throw out what you think you know about violence and just look at the etiology of how it manifests in the world, you find incredible similarities to the etiology of microbial viruses.  This includes not only how it spreads from person to person, but also the larger epidemiological patterns, and importantly, how it can be stopped via interventions which logically follow from the hypothesis that violence is a virus.  Not that violence is caused by those invisible critters we call viruses, but rather that violence itself is a virus.…

Cancer as Evolution

For anyone interested in learning about the complexity of cancer, I’d like to invite you to check out a forum I started a while ago (but only recently made public) called Cancer Complexity.

One of the main themes (but not the only one) in Cancer Complexity is the notion that cancer is an evolutionary process (as in Darwinian evolution), except that instead of populations of individual animals, the population of interest is the set of cells in the body of a single animal.…

TED Talk: Susan Blackmore

Memes and “temes”

Apropos of Kevin’s post yesterday on the “Singularity“, we need to be taking more seriously cultural agency (which includes technological and socio-technological agency):…