I want to be healthy in Italy, but be sick in the Netherlands (Wi-Fi in every room)

Last year, in reviewing Ray Kluun’s book Love Life, I wrote that I wanted to live in Italy, but die in the Netherlands, based on the quality of treatment for terminal cancer patients and the attention to palliative care for intractable pain (blog post here – in Italian).

Reader comments told me that, while this might have applied to patients’ final moments, the overall quality of Dutch health care was poor, and lots of diseases were left untreated for too long. Now, I don’t know if I am suffering from some sort of cognitive bias, but it seems to me now that, even for non-life-threatening illnesses (such as hernia), at least some Dutch hospitals are taking care of their patients in a way that the ones over here aren’t. Or at least, so reports Boris, writing in The Next Web blog:

Within 1 hour after the procedure Patrick was back online Twittering and commenting on blog posts. The hospital has wi-fi in every room and even offers an eCard service which you can use for free to send cards to patients there.

Wi-Fi in every room? Now that’s the kind of hospital I want.

Have a good recovery Patrick!

Myth of the day debunked: the commitment gender gap

Quick LinkedIn poll on European LinkedIn users:

And, ladies and gentlemen, I truly hope someone brings out these results when at promotion time people argue that a man is likely to be “more committed to the job” (whatever that means) than a woman:

Five dimensions of leadership

Here’s a good framework for a quick check of how you’re doing as a leader. Do you need some fine tuning in any of these five areas? Do you need a major boost?

You can also read the full article by Barsh, Cranston and Craske, “Centered leadership: How talented women thrive”, at McKinseyQuarterly.com (free registration required). Like all good leadership literature, it is quite relevant for both women and men. Enjoy!

General Powell, next time go easy on the i-word, please

General Colin Powell issued yesterday his endorsement of candidate Obama in the upcoming US presidential election. Which is interesting, but not the zenith of credibility or even good judgment: you may remember seeing Powell wheeled out by Bush, Cheney and Rice to testify before Congress that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed some sort of danger to the United States – he looked like a man whose arm was being painfully twisted behind his back so that he would toe the party line on the necessity and desirability of another invasion.

And this time, while he certainly looked more like he’s speaking his mind, his choice of words was odd. Very odd. Consider the following reports:

  • Powell praised Obama’s “steadiness,” his “depth of intellectual curiosity” and his “intellectual vigor.”
  • He praised Obama’s “calm, patient, intellectual, steady approach to problem solving.

Oh man. That’s three too many utterings of “intellectual”. The Republicans are going to have a field day.

Of course, factually Powell is right. One doesn’t get through Harvard Law School without a decently evolved cerebral cortex, and as an intellectual Obama probably towers among his generation of politicians, even if that’s not saying much (it doesn’t take much to look and sound like Karl Popper, in comparison with Sarah Palin). But voters rarely vote with their cerebral cortex: they vote with their reptile brain.

Berlusconi was voted into power, repeatedly (quod erat demonstrandum). Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was voted into power.

Gordon Brown, who has refrained from calling an election, was terribly unpopular (in contrast with the congenial Tony Blair) and only regained ground in the polls in the last few weeks, when it became evident that some intellect would actually be of use in rolling out a rescue plan for the financial system.

So, future endorsers of Candidate Obama: please endorse him all you want, but don’t highlight any of his intellectual vigor or intellectual problem-solving approach. Congress has passed the rescue package, and most Americans want to get on with their lives. Please carefully consider your choice of words when endorsing your candidate: you don’t want to put the final nails in the coffin of a potentially transformative U.S. presidency.

The Numerati and The Broken Window: fiction beats facts

Stephen Baker and Jeffery Deaver have recently taken the very same topic – the explosion of data mining on every trackable aspect of our behavior – and done very different things with it.

Stephen Baker is a veteran BusinessWeek journalist, and The Numerati reads very much like, well, a collection of BusinessWeek stories. In seven chapters titled Worker, Shopper, Voter, Blogger, Terrorist, Patient, and Lover, the author offers a quick tour of what’s going on in domains of our lives ranging from employment to dating. While some factoids hold promise (could Parkinson’s be diagnosed though analysis of imperceptible changes in voice patterns, years before the visible onset of the disease?), the book does not really dive into the matter at hand (it contains not a single mathematical formula or line of code), nor does it offer satisfying profiles of those that Baker points to as the new masters of the universe (having investment bankers rather fallen out of fashion lately), the applied mathematicians and algorithm developers (“Numerati”) who are working to extract and use every single detail of our lives. Being familiar with many of the commercial uses of data, I thought at least I’d learn something from the chapter about global terrorism; I didn’t (even the NSA saw it fit to keep the reporter out of its walls, let alone real terrorist cells). The final chapter, Conclusion, is a coy defense of the hope that liberal arts majors will still count for something in the brave new world ruled by the Numerati: “We should grasp the basics of maths and statistics – certainly better than most of us do today – but still follow what we love… […] Even in the heart of the math economy, at IBM Research, geometers and engineers work on teams with linguists and anthropologists and cognitive psychologists […] The key to finding a place on such world-class teams is not necessarily to become a math whiz but to become a whiz at something.” I’m all for greater numeracy in basic schools, but if I were to counsel a young person choosing a course of studies, I still would caution that the opportunities for world-class epigraphists or papyrologists are, well, limited.

At the center of Jeffery Deaver’s The Broken Window sits an inscrutable data-crunching corporation, Strategic Systems Datacorp. Yes, it is a fictional construct; yet it does not seem materially different from ChoicePoint, Acxiom, and other companies run by pioneeristic Numerati and briefly profiled by Baker (rather too briefly and uncontroversially, if you ask me). The Broken Window, like many of Deaver’s books, is of course a thriller, featuring quadriplegic forensic expert Lincoln Rhyme and prematurely arthritic detective Amelia Sachs. Whether you like the genre or not, Deaver has done his homework before sitting down to write The Broken Window. In fact, I maintain that, once you strip away the layer of fiction, The Broken Window is both more entertaining and more informative than The Numerati. At least it helps you get a much better perspective on the privacy debate; it makes it clear that identity theft is a serious issue, and that paying for everything in cash, holing up in an unwired apartment and cutting RFID tags out of book bindings cannot possibly be a desirable solution. I am a big fan of the European Union for a couple of reasons that in my opinion make it a success (compensating for the folly of farm subsidies and the endless death throes of its surprisingly robust governance model): the Euro (I have been arguing that most of us here would have spent the last several weeks out in the street banging pots and pans, like Argentinians in 2001, had it not been for the common currency) and the EU privacy protection framework. In fact, I would probably be somewhat tolerant of American-style intrusions on my privacy (most bloggers are, I think by definition) if I lived in the United States, but I just have a preference for EU rules. A strong preference, I guess, after reading Deaver’s thriller.

In summary, if you know absolutely nothing about data mining, cover your bases and read Baker’s book. But if you know a bit, or you actually work with data, then skip it and snuggle up in your couch with Deaver’s.  You may well learn more, and you’ll definitely have more fun.

Tableware designers: Consider the food

Clever design is a pleasure. But some design is so self-referential that it clashes with function to a degree that any aestehtic or intellectual pleasure in viewing the object is crushed by the discomfort in using it.

Consider the “Seconds” tableware series by designer Jason Miller. They are meant as “beautiful mistakes”. These plates are a visual pun, which is all well and good when there is no food on them. Yet, consider the food. Would any skilled chef want to serve food in these plates? No. Because, once you put food on them, you can’t “read” them anymore. The pun fails; they become indecipherable.

Contrast this design approach with the one taken by Doriana and Massimiliano Fuksas in their “Colombina” series for Alessi – my current tableware favorites. These are plates that any chef loves. They are beautiful in and of themselves, and their pattern remains fullly “readable” when they contain food, which it is their job to do.

Good clothes respect the body; good tableware respects the food.