Musings on books, technology, entrepreneurship, nonprofits and umm.. everything else …

Archive for May, 2012

The power of habit

It was a New York Times article that introduced me to this book first, just prior to its hitting the stores. Being a data junkie, I was fascinated (and concerned at the same time) by how companies like Target can predict when someone’s going to have their baby and target coupons appropriately. In fact, they had to mask their accuracy with random coupons so people don’t get freaked out. After waiting for a while to get my hands on the book, I finally managed to read it through over the past couple of weeks.

It was fascinating reading, and  recommended to anyone interested in the interplay of body and mind that drives our daily actions. I had written earlier about “On Being Certain”, where Dr. Robert Burton  explores how the body perceives the world around it and the mind adapts its opinion about the physical world based on those observations. This book, “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg is the converse of that, in some sense. It explores how the mind craves for certain cue-routine-reward loops over time, and therefore, forces the body to do what generates those rewards. With an appendix and reference list that will probably take me the rest of my life to read through were I to venture into that, the book provides great examples from psychology, marketing, civil rights movement and religion to illustrate this with examples. Interestingly enough, another recent find, “The Daily You” discusses how companies find you online and store and harvest information about every move you make online, which then goes into feeding algorithms that reinforce, or exploit  your habit loops – as the unfortunate story in the book about a compulsive gambler goes on to show.

The book also provides some context and directions around how to break habit loops in our personal lives. Exactly as Paul O’Neill was able to transform Alcoa as a business through the keystone habit of worker safety, we are asked to look within and identify what those keystone habits are that drive our “vices”.

Now I know why I crave all that junk food and hate to go do any physical exercise. Lets wait for the  next book that’s ten times the weight of this one, so I can expend some more energy in just carrying it around.


The one IPO to rule them all …

Even if you have been asleep all these weeks and just woke up, you would have heard about the importance that folks are giving to Friday. Be that as it may, in addition to having created another cohort of millionaires for Silicon Valley who will go on to create their own successful ventures and VC firms in turn, Friday also marks a coming of age of what is arguably the biggest “network” within the Internet.

To use Seinfeld-like logic, a pre-Facebook world of relationships was largely black or white. You either knew  someone and interacted with them regularly, or did not know them and didn’t know much about what goes on in their lives. A Seinfeld episode around relationships that are propped up by voicemail comes to mind. At some level, Facebook is a replacement for that – granted. But at another level, these “grey” relationships add a lot of color to our otherwise bi-modal lives. I may not have met that friend from college for 10 years, but seeing an update from him on his wall brings back memories of times spent together. And what is life if not what we recall of it, and most of what we recall of our lives is inextricably intertwined with the relationships of the present and the past.

Moreover, Facebook accelerated the adoption of  the network itself as an expansion of memory – of who we are, what we did, who we care for, and what we would like to inform the world about. Yes, it does make it easy for someone to have a fake profile with embellished entries in their timeline. But there were always the pretenders in real life, so why blame the social network when they prop up there as well? Yes, disparately large amounts of time spent on Facebook might encourage people to substitute real relationships with online ones, but then again there is user discretion involved there.  What networks like Facebook allow you to do is to qualify your relationships into real life only, real+online and online only. And there is value to each of those. When people try to reconnect with friends or acquaintances from the past and sound happy when they “Like” something they posted, it is not narcissism as much as a desire to belong back to the places, communities and social gatherings long gone, which but for Facebook one had no easy way to relate back to.

Yes, Facebook has scared us with multiple intrusions into our privacy.Yes, advertising on social media makes it hard to be frank all the time about what we post. But for the savvy user, there are options to limit encroachments on both fronts, at least for now. Despite that, what it allows us to do, is to have curated content sent to us from relationships that we trust, which enriches our lives in many ways. It allows us to elevate the “greyness” of a relationship towards white or away from it based on the place and time we are in our lives. And for immigrants such as myself that live thousands of miles away from home, it provides a colorful window full of riches from our home countries, in terms of little vignettes of life on the other side, making us feel for a moment that we are able to be in two places at once.

Friday might bring in a few thousand newly minted dollar millionaires into the world, but the long road to Friday has brought several million “memory millionaires” to the world, whose lives have had a lot more color added thanks to The Social Network. And for that we are thankful.

One Million Students

Today, SunPower went live with their announcement about the partnership with One Million Lights through which we intend to reach One Million Students and teach them how solar energy works and how it is being used to generate clean energy at several of our partner sites across the world. Kudos to the content team that worked with SunPower Foundation on building this curriculum and field tested it to rave reviews in local schools.

Along with other interesting experiments being conducted in the Bay Area in education, this program presents a unique way in which several aspects of the elementary, middle or high school curriculum can be taught around sustainability, clean energy and cool technological innovations that can transform energy use patterns in the developing world. Not only does solar provide a clean energy option, it often provides a cleaner health option as well as it protects the children and families in these regions from the ill effects of burning kerosene lamps inside their houses.

Interestingly enough, this is not a problem of the developing world alone. There are thousands of families that live in Indian reservations in the US that have power lines running a few miles from their homes but still need to rely on kerosene for their lighting needs. Through groups like Eagle Energy, we’re partnering to make a difference within our borders as well.

The larger impact though is to bring back lessons we learnt from our work internationally to our schools, so the leaders and policy makers of tomorrow see the value that clean energy options brings to the lives of millions around the globe. We at One Million Lights believe we have a compelling curriculum to make that happen. And we hope to raise more awareness and funds towards this in the coming years as we scale this nation wide.

Let us know what you think on our Facebook page or on Twitter.


Democracy and the freedom of choice

At this point in time, I have spent almost an equal amount of time between the two largest democracies in the world. Both of them claim to be the land of the free where people elect their representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Sadly though, the outcome of this rapidly degenerating popularity contest guarantees neither freedom nor fairness. Yet we go through the motions every four or five years to pretend that we are indeed empowered to choose the ones that run our countries.

Manifestos of these politicians are hard to read and understand and there are too many interconnected policy positions listed serially for people to follow. Interactions between their stands on different policy issues are not very clear and obvious and even the voters who make rational voting decisions are sometimes not able to discern the nuances. This can be made so much simpler through choice based tradeoffs, where key stands of each of the politicians are presented in the aggregate and people could choose between the different positions and pick the person who matches their “choice profile”.

Moreover, as Prof. Sheena Iyengar’s “jam study” showed many years ago, having too many choices does not make us any happier. To the contrary, people seemed to regret their decisions less when fewer choices were presented. This would be another key step in improving  the decision making process by making it a hierarchial process as well, though at the expense of more time spent on posturing and campaigning as witnessed during every election cycle here in the US – well, is there any time that is not officially active election cycle? But fundamentally having a flat list of a zillion choices does not help make “better” decisions where the notion of “better” is defined based on minimizing regret post-selection (if I remember the study correctly).

Finally, the premise of a cost function that just maximizes votes is fundamentally flawed. There has to be an important addition to this, which narrows the solution space down to just those profiles that minimize the maximum harm done to the citizenry. Since the citizens may not themselves have the power to narrow down the solution space, this calls for proactive action from objective and independent entities within the democracies – judiciary, election commision etc. It is their responsibility to protect the citizens from their mypoia, so to speak, and making sure that the solution space is defined correctly. For example, if we were to ask people to vote on whether their taxes should be used to build roads or pay teacher salaries or many other public amenities that we take for granted, the divergence of responses based on class and geographical location would be pretty surprising. The objective of good governance should be to make intelligent choices on these policy issues, and give people the option to pick representatives that they have faith in on this front.

In closing, you ask what is the reason for this rant? The immediate inspiration was a smaller issue – of elective choices at Wharton and how due to voting patterns of the current class, marketing is not being offered as an option to major for class 37 out west as a core class is not being offered here, unless people find the time to fly out to Philly during Term 5 and take this class there, which seems like a pretty tall ask.