Basic Income: A Sellout of the American Dream?

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Schemes for giving everyone a guaranteed income are gaining momentum in Silicon Valley and throughout Western Europe. It’s a great idea, until you look closely.

From my article in the June 2016 issue of MIT Technology Review

Matt Krisiloff is in a small, glass-walled conference room off the lobby of Y Combinator’s office in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, shouting distance from some of the country’s wealthiest startups, many of which Y Combinator has nurtured and helped fund. Krisiloff, who manages the operations of the tech incubator’s program for very early-stage companies, is explaining why it is committed to investing an amount said to be in the tens of millions of dollars in a venture that is guaranteed never to make a penny.

It’s the simplest business model conceivable: hand thousands of dollars over to individuals in return for nothing, no strings attached. Krisiloff insists he and his Y Combinator colleagues can’t wait to get started giving away the money. “This could be really transformative,” he says. “It may help change how humans, society, and technology all operate together in the future.”

Proponents say a “basic income” is a way to liberate those who have struggled to find acceptable work: currently 7.4 million people are unemployed in the United States, another six million want full-time work but can only find part-time jobs, millions more have given up looking, and perhaps tens of millions have settled for jobs with low wages, skimpy benefits, or poor working conditions. But it can also be argued that the idea is a way of buying these people off, making it easier to avoid developing the education and training programs that would actually help alleviate income inequality and reverse wage stagnation. Could it just be a way to give up on providing the wide access to decent jobs that has long been considered an essential element of a healthy society? Or, to put it more bluntly: at a time when the tech economy is generating huge amounts of wealth, is Silicon Valley just attempting to appease those left behind? Read more

Improving Public Perception of Behavior Analysis

In a journal article, I explore why the field that does the best job at helping people change problematic behaviors is slighted by the media

From my article in the May 2016 issue of The Behavior Analyst

The potential impact of behavior analysis is limited by the public’s dim awareness of the field. The mass media rarely cover behavior analysis, other than to echo inaccurate negative stereotypes about control and punishment. The media instead play up AbaJournalCoverGenericappealing but less-evidence-based approaches to problems, a key example being the touting of dubious diets over behavioral approaches to losing excess weight. These sorts of claims distort or skirt scientific evidence, undercutting the fidelity of behavior analysis to scientific rigor. Strategies for better connecting behavior analysis with the public might include reframing the field’s techniques and principles in friendlier, more resonant form; pushing direct outcome comparisons between behavior analysis and its rivals in simple terms; and playing up the “warm and fuzzy” side of behavior analysis. Read more (paywalled)

Inside NASA’s New $18-Billion Deep-Space Rocket

Is NASA’s Space Launch System a flying piece of congressional pork or our best shot at getting humans to deep space?

From my article in the June 2015 issue of Scientific American

Deep inside a giant but little-known NASA facility, crews have for years been staging elaborately faked space missions. This is not a conspiracy theory. It is the sad tale of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, the sprawling New Orleans complex where the space agency had for decades built its biggest rockets.

NasaSciamPicAfter the Space Shuttle’s last flight in 2011, Michoud’s massive hangar-like facilities were rented out to Hollywood studios, housing some of the production for Ender’s Game and other sci-fi movies. But lately a growing cadre of NASA engineers and other workers have been engaged on an important new production here—a sequel to NASA’s greatest days of human spaceflight. Michoud is back in the rocket-making business, serving as a factory for the biggest, most ambitious space vehicle ever to undergo construction: The Space Launch System, often called by its acronym, SLS.

The SLS is the rocket in which NASA hopes to thunder a crew of astronauts skyward from Cape Canaveral for roughly a year’s journey to the surface of Mars, while hauling the living quarters, vehicles and supplies they’ll need to spend at least a few weeks shuffling through the rusty dust there. That mission is still about 25 years away. But between now and then, SLS could carry people to the moon and an asteroid, and send a probe to search for life on one of Jupiter’s moons. It is an interplanetarily groundbreaking project, one of the most audacious NASA has ever undertaken.

Why, then, do so many people seem to hate it?  Read more (paywalled)

How Do You Sell a Product When You Can’t Really Say What It Does?

San Francisco startup Ploom has a high-tech spin on smoking tobacco (and certain other plants). It also has a huge marketing challenge.

From my article in the May, 2014, issue of Inc. Magazine

There are two big factors that favor Ploom’s James Monsees and his co-founder Adam Bowen in their quest to make tobacco cool again. One is that their devices let users pull from tobacco most of the nicotine and flavor of cigarettes in the form of vapor, without taking in the cigarette smoke–thus removing many of the health risks, according to some experts. And, as a major bonus, one of their devices has become the darling of the pot-smoking wojames-monsees-ploomrld, which is steadily converting to vapor even as that world swells with growing legitimacy.

But two big factors are also working against Ploom. One is predictable: fierce competition that’s likely to stiffen as both startups and tobacco giants invade the “e-cigarette” market–already worth nearly $2 billion a year and growing fast. The other is a bit less typical in the business world: Ploom can’t market on its strengths. That’s because making health claims and wooing drug users cause all sorts of problems for a company that’s trying to remain squeaky clean in the face of widespread disdain for, and the threat of regulation of, anything linked to tobacco.

That leaves Ploom with a burning problem: How do you expand a company when you can’t really talk about what your products are good for? Read more

America Is Burning: The Fight Against Wildfires

Wildfire2Years of climate change, drought, and reckless development have transformed nearly all of the American West into a giant tinderbox. Is there anything we can do to keep from going up in flames?

From my article in the Aug, 2014, issue of Men’s Journal

Traffic jams are a fact of life in Southern California. But few motorists have seen the likes of the one that stranded thousands of vehicles in May on Interstate 5 near San Marcos, about 35 miles north of San Diego. As vehicles idled, walls of flame arcing as high as 50 feet, and whipped by winds of up to 70 miles per hour, raced along an adjacent hillside, ripping through acres of parched trees and shrubs and blotting out the sky with roiling, glowing, thick smoke. And that wasn’t the only out-of-control blaze raging: At one point, San Diego County firefighters were grappling with nine separate wildfires – and six of those blazes were winning.

….Big, out-of-season fires are starting to look like the new normal. For as long back as there are records, California’s wildfire season hasn’t truly gotten under way until fall. But through most of 2013 and 2014, wildfires have been raging almost constantly, essentially leaving the state with a 12-month wildfire season.

And it’s not just California. In May, Arizona, Oklahoma, and even Alaska all were hit by large wildfires, months ahead of schedule. More blazes are occurring in fall and winter, as well. “In November, a fire in the Colorado Rockies burned across a snow-covered forest while firefighters watched, astounded,” says Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, in Claremont, California, who studies wildfire. “That may be something no one has ever seen before.” Read more

The startups saving health care

3-mhealth_33254Obamacare is fueling a hot new industry that uses mobile technology to curb health care spending. Smart startups are already cashing in.

From my article in Inc. Magazine 

Three years ago, Sterling Lanier, a serial entrepreneur then running a successful market research firm, got a phone call from a medical researcher he knew at the University of California, San Francisco. The researcher wanted him to help with a pro bono project that involved gathering data on thousands of breast-cancer patients. The trick would be to find a good way to get patients to fill out tedious forms.

Nice guy that he is, Lanier agreed. The result, designed with a tech whiz named Boris Glants, was an iPad app that the two named Tonic. Tonic made it easy–almost fun–for patients to provide information about themselves and their health. Mission accomplished.

And that might have been that, except a few months later, Lanier got another call, this one from Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. It turned out the UCSF researcher had shown off Tonic at a health care conference and stirred up some interest. It wasn’t long before Lanier…read more.

Can processed food be healthy?

APMACNCHEESE1000-500x333Burger King makes a low-cal French fry. Processed food wants to compete on the health front. Can it?  Fake meat. Super soy. We’ll look.

From my September 2013 interview with NPR’s On Point 

We all know the mantra of healthy eating these days.  Lots of vegetables and fruit on the plate.  Not much meat.  Organic if you can.  And local is lovely.  We like to picture that armful of dinner ingredients fresh from the farmers market.

But what about all the people who don’t get close to that.  And maybe can’t afford it.  There’s a new buzz around processed food that’s being made and pitched as healthy.  Burger King’s low-cal fries.  Fake meat.  Seaweed chips.  Factory-engineered health goop.

This hour, On Point:  could processed food be re-engineered to save our health?  Or is that dreaming?…listen here (beginning at 15:20).