The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

The philosopher Peter Singer wrote a moving book called The Life You Can Save, which makes a powerful moral case that all of us should be doing more to help the poorest of the poor.

The video below provides a 3-minute intro to his thinking. (Disclosure: I helped to create this video, along with my friends Jeff Sims and David Hamburger.) You can learn more at his website*.

I desperately want Singer’s idea to stick: We can, and we should, save lives. If you agree, will you help me spread the word about his work?

Here’s a suggested Tweet*: “I’m IN to end poverty.

* Special thanks to Brains on Fire (and Justin Gammon) for their extraordinary work on the site. Also thanks to Paul Rand for the slogan.

The power of clarity in creating change

What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. Change accelerates when people understand — in specific, behavioral terms — how to reach their goals.

This theme emerged in some educational research cited by Amanda Ripley in her new Time piece called, “Should kids be bribed to do well in school?” The most successful “bribe” programs rewarded behaviors rather than grades. At first look, that seems odd. Why reward an “input” rather than the “output”? Well, here’s why:

The students [in New York City] were universally excited about the money, and they wanted to earn more. They just didn’t seem to know how. When researchers asked them how they could raise their scores, the kids mentioned test-taking strategies like reading the questions more carefully. But they didn’t talk about the substantive work that leads to learning. “No one said they were going to stay after class and talk to the teacher,” Fryer says. “Not one.”

We tend to assume that kids (and adults) know how to achieve success. If they don’t get there, it’s for lack of effort — or talent. Sometimes that’s true. But a lot of the time, people are just flying blind. John List, an economist at the University of Chicago, has noticed the disconnect in his own education experiments. He explains the problem to me this way: “I could ask you to solve a third-order linear partial differential equation,” he says. “A what?” I ask. “A third-order linear partial differential equation,” he says. “I could offer you a million dollars to solve it. And you can’t do it.” (He’s right. I can’t.) For some kids, doing better on a geometry test is like solving a third-order linear partial differential equation, no matter the incentive.

The Birth of a Sticky Idea

Our latest Fast Company column was sparked by a provocative public health ad:

pouring on the pounds

In the piece, we wonder whether sugary sodas will be the next cigarettes…

Making math concrete

Steven Strogatz, an applied math prof at Cornell, has started a series on the NYT site to re-teach basic math from an adult perspective, with the goal to show “why it’s so enthralling.”

I love the second installment, which explores the way that using rocks in place of digits (i.e., six rocks rather than the number “6”) can provide unexpected insight on seemingly tough problems:

For example, instead of adding just two odd numbers together, suppose we add all the consecutive odd numbers, starting from 1:

1 + 3 = 4
1 + 3 + 5 = 9
1 + 3 + 5 + 7 = 16
1 + 3 + 5 + 7 + 9 = 25

The sums above, remarkably, always turn out to be perfect squares. (We saw 4 and 9 in the square patterns discussed earlier, and 16 = 4 × 4, and 25 = 5 × 5.) A quick check shows that this rule keeps working for larger and larger odd numbers; it apparently holds all the way out to infinity. But what possible connection could there be between odd numbers, with their ungainly appendages, and the classically symmetrical numbers that form squares? By arranging our rocks in the right way, we can make this surprising link seem obvious — the hallmark of an elegant proof.

The key is to recognize that odd numbers can make L-shapes, with their protuberances cast off into the corner. And when you stack successive L-shapes together, you get a square!

The Dirtiest Hotels in the World

This is a brilliant promotion from TripAdvisor. Got it via email and it was the one promo email, out of the last 500, that I’ve clicked thru to see. How can you not?  Its strength is its unexpectedness — most companies would be too chicken to try something like this.

From a review of the #1 hotel on the list: “It makes a crack house look like a Hilton. There are mice, roaches, bedbugs,and crack heads all living at this Hell Hole! The hotel itself smells and is filthy from the disgusting bedspread to the filthy bathroom.”

Endless fun and great marketing.

(For you Houstonians out there — this reminds me of the irresistible appeal of dearly departed Marvin Zindler‘s TV reports. “There was SLIIIIIME IN THE ICE MACHINE!”)