Category Archives: What I’m Reading

Posts on interesting books or blogs I am reading.

Four Perspective-Changing Books From 2012

Thinking, Fast and SlowThis is about four books that changed the way I see the world in 2012.  Two were published this year and two are a little older.

Thinking, Fast and SlowDaniel Kahneman
Published: Oct 2011

My reaction on reading this book is that it ought to be required reading for entry into adulthood. Kahneman draws on a career of research to reveal how profoundly biased our thinking is even when we are confident of being unbiased. He suggests that the mind is made up of two different thinking systems: System 1 which is quick and dependent on intuition and the emotions; and, System 2 which is slower and uses reasoning and logic. Both systems have their flaws and he does a masterful job of illustrating the many ways in which we can be misled.

It is perhaps not a surprise that, given his experience of human bias, Kahneman is a fan of algorithms.  He argues that in many cases an algorithm will make more consistent decisions on average than humans will. He presents some compelling evidence for this across a range of fields. This is at odds with the work of Gary Klein whose research on the power of intuition was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell. Instead of belittling and undermining the work of Klein, he embraces their differences and embarks on a research collaboration with him that is detailed in Chapter 22: Expert Intuition: When Can We Trust It. In the end they recognise that their different conclusions were influenced by researching people in very different professional roles e.g. parole board members versus firefighters. It is a beautiful example of collegial respect leading to deeper insight.

This is a very sobering book.  It wasn’t completely new territory.  Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational was a great introduction to behavioural economics but the wealth of evidence presented in Thinking Fast and Slow is almost overwhelming.   The notion of System 1 versus System 2 thinking is also a very interesting and a more nuanced understanding of thinking than simply logic versus emotion.

The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt
Published: Mar 2012
I found Haidt’s multi-dimensional view of morality in The Righteous Mind very appealing.  Intuitively the notion that morals might be more like a sense of taste with more than one axe of exploration e.g bitter, sweet, salty, sour, etc.  rather than simply binary e.g. good vs. evil, is quite a compelling one.  It was particularly timely published in the run-up to the U.S. elections where it was possible to see morality battles every day in the news.  He suggests that the dimensions of morality fall along the following axes:

Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions, giving them their “just desserts”.
Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgements in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)
Source: Wikipedia

Interestingly, Haidt comes to the same conclusion as Kahneman regarding the existence  of two different thinking systems in the brain.  He refers to them as  ”seeing-that” and “reasoning-why” systems which is perhaps a little more intuitive than System 1 and System 2.

Haidt has attracted his share of critics but, right or wrong, I have found the notion of a moral matrix to be a very useful tool for looking at problems in a new light.  Take, for example, Open Source software.  There is a very interesting analysis of Open Source that can be made looking at the motivations for contributing to Open Source through the lens of Haidt’s moral matrix.

Further, this book also introduced me to the concept of group selection in evolutionary theory which in turn gave me new insights into the Beinhocker’s Origin of Wealth.  Once again looking at Open Source software, it is easy to understand the success of Open Source approaches through an evolutionary group selection lens.

Since reading it I have found that, once you start looking, you can start to see the morality matrix at play everywhere.  It’s not the only way of looking at an issue but I have found it often offers a perspective I would not have thought of otherwise.

Why Nations Fail

Why Nations Fail - Daron Acemoğlu & James Robinson
Published: Mar 2012
Why Nations Fail is another book that has provoked some controversy.  It could hardly fail to given the epic sweep of history that it covers and the retrospective coherence with which the authors fit historical narrative to their theory.

Once again, right or wrong, their theory is a very interesting one that has shed new light for me on challenges within the world of international development.  They argue that a country’s political and economic institutions need to be analysed together and that they can be broken down into two types.  There are “extractive” institutions in which a “small” group of individuals do their best to exploit their political and economic environment for maximum gain and to inhibit the sharing of wealth; and there are “inclusive” institutions which are broadly open and encourage participation.  They argue that inclusive states become wealthier over time and that extractive states, though they may experience short term growth, ultimately make countries poorer.

Given that their theory operates over generations, even hundreds of years, it is very hard to assess the validity of their theory as its predictive power will take some time to asses and even then political/economic systems are complex and, I think, resistant to this sort of sweeping analysis.

However, that doesn’t it make it any less fascinating a work.  Most interesting for me was the notion of trust and how important it was in an “inclusive” state to create the conditions where individuals do fear to invest their time and money in enterprises.  Land rights feature as a particular issue in the book and it made me think about the world of communication infrastructure and the digital domain in general.  I think there is an interesting analysis to be made of “inclusive” versus “extractive” digital infrastructures.  As another way of looking at the problem, I think the notion of “digital land rights”, being able to afford digital land, being confident that you can keep it, being sure of rights of way, etc is a metaphor worth exploring further.


Mindset - Carol Dweck
Published: Feb 2006

This is a slightly older book but I only discovered it in 2012. It is another book where the author divides the world into two categories: in this case the author divides people into those with a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset”.  To quote Dweck directly:

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

I cannot emphasise enough how profound this book has been for me both as a professional and as a parent.  Her thesis is not especially complex and seems obvious in retrospect but then so many brilliant things do.  It has everything to do with how you understand failure.  If you see failure as a personal commentary on your abilities then it can be destructive and disabling.  By contrast, if you see failure as containing the ingredients for learning and growth, then failure can be an enabler.

Intellectually this is obvious but I have never really taken on board in a personal way until I read this book.  Her narrative style and many many examples from a variety of fields helped the idea to sink in.  It has helped me professionally.  As an entrepreneur, I am confronted with failure on a regular basis.  I have never liked rejection.  Who does?  MindSet helped me make a fairly profound internal shift to not judge myself every time an investor or customer said the dreaded word…. “No”.

Interestingly it has been just as useful as a parent.  As my kids struggle with developing mastery in a variety of domains from academics to sports, they run smack into the failure demon.  Mindset helped me help my boys think constructively about failure as a breadcrumb trail to success.  And with that I leave you with this profound piece of wisdom from the children’s classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Happy 2013.

Will the Real Mobile Impact Please Stand Up

I’ve just finished reading Jenny Aker and Isaac Mbiti’s Mobile Phones and Economic Development in Africa. This is an excellent paper and well worth the read. The authors have done a great job in tempering a generally positive view of mobile impact with some hard questions about evidence of the impact of mobile phones on the continent. My one quibble is that they don’t address affordability of mobile services or the competitiveness of African mobile markets.

This paper drives home the point that there is a critical dearth of evidence of regarding mobile impact. There are many case studies of specific communities where there is emerging evidence of apparent impact but nothing generalisable. And there is ResearchICTAFrica (RIA) who provide the only credible African cross-country, demand-side evidence of mobile usage that I know of. Unfortunately RIA have a fraction of the support they deserve to continue and expand their work in this area.

Their conclusion to the paper did not exactly go out on a limb.

Empirical evidence shows that mobile phones have the potential to benefit consumer and producer welfare, and perhaps broader economic development.

Ok, credible academic caution here but even so, this is a disturbingly modest thing to be able to claim about mobiles after 15 years of their existence.  Having said that, it is a refreshing change from the general boosterism from development agencies and mobile operators alike regarding the impact of mobiles

A tempting riposte to this would be to say that the widespread growth of mobile networks in Africa is evidence itself as if the existence of the market itself is a demonstration of utility. This is a seductive point of view but consider that it is equally possible to say the same about the small-arms industry in Africa. The market is a demonstration of demand, not necessarily one of positive social and economic impact.

So here are a few things I’d like to see (by no means exhaustive):

More Public Data

I would like to communication regulators insisting on better, more timely, and more comprehensive usage data from mobile operators. I would like them to negotiate and agree on standards for making sanitised mobile operator statistics available to researchers and the public at large. Even better would be for regional regulatoratory bodies to facilitate common standards across countries.

Images courtesy of Stefan MagdalinskiMore research on affordability.

If Kenyan’s are spending 50% of their disposable income on mobile services, what exactly does that mean? How does that break down between urban and rural populations? What is spending on mobile services substituting for? We know that pricing has a direct impact on usage patterns but have only scratched the surface of this. What about Facebook Zero? Is the zero cost interface to Facebook having an impact on usage and how?

More research on usage patterns

Who do people call and why? Is it mostly local? What about data? We know that Google and Facebook are the top Internet destinations for mobile users but we don’t know where they go from there. It would be great if Google and Facebook were to release sanitised data on usage patterns by country.

More research on competition in telecommunication markets in Africa

The recent dramatic price drops in Kenya highlight just how uncompetive markets in Africa still are. If overnight, mobile operators can accommodate a 75% drop in price then you have a pretty good idea of how much wealth is being extracted…. from people who can least afford it.  To date Kenya stands as something of an anomaly, although there is hope that Bharti, having brought this aggressive competition to Kenya, will extend it to the other countries they now operate in.

I realise the above may make me sound like a bit of a nay-sayer.   On the contrary, I really do believe mobiles are having an important positive social and economic impact in Africa. I would just like to be better armed to defend my point of view and better able to target areas for improvement.

African Women and American Academics

I find myself wondering if I am the only one dismayed by the “mudwrestling” going on among Dambisa Moyo, Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly… and others. In case you haven’t heard, Dambisa Moyo has written a provocative book on the merits of development assistance. Her book, Dead Aid, challenges some of the accepted wisdom about how to help poor countries out of poverty. I love provocative books. I love people who can stand the world on its head and say maybe the world isn’t flat after all.  We all need shaking up on a fairly regular basis, especially in the times we live in now.

For me, what ought to have happened after the publication of Dead Aid would be for more pieces like the balanced Francis Fukuyama review in Slate to find prominence and for a stimulating, constructive, multi-dimensional conversation to begin about what this might mean for development policy. Conversations that start by seeking points of agreement in the other’s work and that try to build on those points of agreement.

Instead, what I see is the sort of, winner-take-all, academic sniping that destroys without creating. To pokes holes in the foundations of  another’s argument without acknowledging or building on the sturdy parts of their foundations is not really constructive. Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of Karl Popper. I believe that disprovability is the cornerstone of the quest for truth. Yet I also believe that compassion is as important a part of academic discourse as rationality.

George Lakoff, author of Metaphors We Live By, points out that the dominant metaphor for argument is that of conflict and struggle. And indeed, William Easterly validates this when he says that the “purpose of debate is to facilitate the emergence of the best ideas and to shoot down the worst ideas” and “it is clear to me intellectually that Sachs’ ideas are wrong, and I will combat them accordingly” (emphasis is mine).  Hat tip to another World Bank alumnus, Steve Denning, for making me aware of Lakoff’s work.  But why the metaphor of conflict?  Why not a metaphor of mountain climbers roped together scaling a summit?

I am reminded of a page from Sam Kaner’s excellent Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making in which he explores two different modes of problem solving:

Either / Or Both / And
Value System Competitive Collaborative
Type of Outcome Expected Win / Lose Win / Win
Attitude toward “Winning” To the victor goes the spoils Your success is my success
Attitude toward “Losing” Someone has to lose If somebody loses everybody loses
Attitude toward minority opinions Get with the program Everyone has a piece of the truth
Why explore differences between competing opinions? To search for bargaining chips, in preparation for horsetrading and compromise. To build a shared framework of understanding, in preparation for mutual creative thinking.
Essential Mental Activity Analyse: break wholes into parts Synthesise: integrate parts into wholes
How long it takes It’s usually faster in the short run It’s usually faster in the long run
Underlying philosophy Survival of the fittest Interdependence of all things

Ethan Zuckerman’s pointer to a thoughtful post on the blog What an African Woman Thinks is what actually compelled me to write this.  The author, Rombo, has a fresh, critical yet compassionate take on the debate.  It reminded me that compassion and critical thinking will take you a lot further in the social construction of knowledge than critical thinking alone. So, Dambisa, Jeffrey, William how about a little less invective and a little more compassion or dare I say ubuntu?  Africa certainly has no need of aid when it comes to philosophy, perhaps the other way around.

Good Evolution, Bad Evolution

This post is a little off-piste for me but what is blogging for, if not to occasionally skate on or over the edges of one’s knowledge.  This month is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the web is awash in articles about Darwin and the theory of evolution.  Having read many of these articles, I have now come to agree with the New Scientist’s introduction to 24 Myths About Evolution when they say If you think you understand it, you don’t know nearly enough about it.

One of the more egregious myths of evolution is that whatever exists must be the result of thousands and thousands of years of adaptation, a kind panglossian sense that we must live in the best of all adapted worlds.

If I have a sense of smell, it is because thousands of years of natural selection helped those with a better sense of smell to survive in the wild by being better to able to track down prey or smell a predator.  Ok, seems plausible so far.  But what about something more esoteric like my love of music.  Well, if you’re the Economist, you believe that my appreciation for music has helped me pick up girls thus increases my chances of propagating my genes.

Err, hello?  To start with, my early dating career is proof positive that this theory is broken.  But more to the point, just because phenomena can be explained by something does not lead to the inescapable conclusion that natural selection must have shaped it thus. It is worth reading the letters to the editor.

A similar point is made about successful wall street traders by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his books Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan but if you want the short, witty, and brutal version, watch his Pop!tech talk.  Taleb has an ego the size of Umberto Eco’s library but has an intellect to match.

Karl Popper set the bar for good science.  It’s about not about provability, it’s about disprovability.  Things that are impossible to disprove are not very interesting from a science point of view.  Science is all about continuously poking holes in the accepted body of knowledge refining, breaking, re-assembling.  For a brilliant visual display of this as well as an impassioned defense of Open Access, watch Dave Gray’s Free the Facts.

Finally, before I let this rambling thread go, it does occur to me that on complex issues like evolution, from an epistemological perspective, my money is on Wikipedia and not The Economist.  When The Economist makes an egregious error, you might get a letter printed as a rebuttal, you may make a comment in their online version, but that’s it.  The original article stands and is far more likely to be read.  How much better to argue the toss and come up with a better explanation that will be the revised source?  Wikipedia was never intended as a primary source and it certainly knocks the spots of most secondary sources.

Climate Change as Terrorist Threat

Harvard professor of psychology Dan Gilbert gave an inspired talk at Pop!Tech this year in which he asks the question “Why haven’t we rallied our collective power to solve global warning?” In it, he argues that global warming is not the kind of threat that humans are programmed to respond to. Like the boiling frog parable, we simply aren’t designed to recognise global warming as life threatening in the way that we do with “fight or flight” threats. This made sense and was a bit of a revelation to me.

How interesting then to see Tim O’Reilly begin to recast global warming in his brilliant blog post interpretation of Pascal’s Wager in the context of climate change. In it, he suggests that we improve “our national security by reducing our dependence on oil from hostile or unstable regions.” Even more interesting to hear President Obama’s inaugural speech yesterday in which he says:

each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet

Recasting global warming in the context of a terrorist threat turns it into the kind of threat that humans are more inclined to take action on. Cool.