The Kenguru: The First Car Exclusively Designed For Wheelchair Users

Over at Big Think, Teodora Zareva introduces a revolutionary new car that will give wheelchair users much needed mobility and independence: the Kenguru, designed by a Hungarian company of the same name and manufactured by the Austin, Texas-based Community Cars.  This clever vehicles is the first of its kind, the product of an international partnership between Texas lawyer and wheelchair user Stacy Zoern, and Kenguru chief executive Istvan Kissaroslaki.  Continue reading

_83014550_ironfish_children

How An Iron Fish Can Help Millions of People

Anemia, caused mostly by iron deficiency, is one of the most widespread and consequential health afflictions in the world, impacting 30 percent of the world’s population, mainly children, teens, and young mothers. From constant fatigue and headaches, to potentially deadly hemorrhaging, it literally weakens entire communities and makes the already laborious lives of the poor even more miserable.

It is easy to take for granted the prevalence of iron in most developed-world diets. But for most people living in the developing world, such as in Cambodia, it can be difficult to grow or access iron-rich food, let alone take expensive and equally unavailable iron tablets. It is one of those problems that should not be so widespread and intractable, indicative of the pervasive neglect and inequality of many economic and political systems (and indeed the world).

The BBC highlights a promising solution by Canadian scientist Dr. Christopher Charles so simple and cost-effective that there can be no excuse for not implementing it.  Continue reading

Four Cancer Charities Accused of Fraud, With Some Important Lessons

According to the New York Timesfour sizeable charities — the Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, Children’s Cancer Fund of America and the Breast Cancer Society — have been accused by the Federal Trade Commission and all fifty U.S. states of being controlled by the same small network of individuals who were enriching themselves with millions in donations.

According to the complaint, [James] Reynolds devised the fund-raising scheme in 1987 and recruited his son, friends and members of his church congregation to participate in the years that followed. The F.T.C.’s finding of $187 million in misspent donations reflects the charities’ activity from 2008 to 2012. In that time, the charities spent less than 3 percent of donations on cancer patients.

“The defendants’ egregious scheme effectively deprived legitimate cancer charities and cancer patients of much-needed funds and support”, said Jessica Rich, director of the F.T.C.’s bureau of consumer protection.

The complaint also accuses the organizations of falsifying financial documents, reporting inflated revenues and “gifts in kind” they claimed to distribute internationally.

Aside from the sheer sordidness of this affair — enlisting loved ones and church members to embezzle funds meant to go to cancer victims — this it is vital reminder about the importance of being vigilant towards any and every charity you are interested in. No matter how admirable or convincing the cause, please do your utmost to fact-check rigorously. Plenty of good and honest organizations doing effective work lack funding.

And while it is true that these organizations have not been formally convicted, the details of the case, and some prior controversies, do not look encouraging.

In any case, checkout charity reviewers like Charity NavigatorGive Well, and Charity Watch to see if any organizations you are interested in make the cut. Feel free to share your own trustworthy watchdogs.

How To Lift Families Out Of Poverty

NPR reports on an international study with a vital, yet surprisingly novel, goal: finding out whether or not humanitarian is actually effective for lifting people out of poverty. Despite the billions of dollars going into global aid of some form or another every year, there is an unfortunate dearth of data on what is most effective and how.

In response, a Yale university professor has teamed up with several humanitarian groups around the world (including MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and the nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action) to rigorously test poverty reduction programs with “the same method doctors use to test drugs (that is, randomized control trials).” Listen the result here or read the following excerpt:

They teamed up with a network of researchers and nonprofits in six developing countries. They went to thousands of communities and found the poorest families.

Then they divided the families into two groups. They gave half the families nothing. And the other half a whole smorgasbord of aid for one to two years. They gave them:

  1. Some livestock for making money, such as goats for milk, bees for honey, or guinea pigs for selling. “Depending on the site, there were different things specifically appropriate for that context,” Karlan says.
  2. Training about how to raise the livestock
  3. Food or cash so they wouldn’t eat the livestock
  4. A savings account
  5. Help with their health — both physical and mental

Karlan and his colleagues reported the results of the massive experiment in the journalScience this week.

So what did they find? Well, the strategy worked pretty well in five of the six countries they tried it in. Families who got the aid started making a little more money, and they had more food to eat.

“We see mental health go up. Happiness go up. We even saw things like female power increase,” Karlan says.

But here’s what sets this study apart from the rest: Families continued to make a bit more money even a year after the aid stopped.

“People were stuck. They give them this big push, and they seem to be on a sustained increased income level,” says Justin Sandefur, an economist at the Center for Global Development in Washington, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“What I found exciting and unique about this study is that the impact of the aid was durable and sustainable,” he added.

The results suggest that the right kind of aid does help people in multiple places. It lifted the families up just a little bit so they could finally start inching out of extreme poverty.

The researchers caution that while the data is positive, there is still a lot to be done. For starters, most recipients remained very poor, with incomes and food consumption together only increasing by around 5 percent on average.

Moreover, it is still unknown how sustainable even these modest bumps are, as the study only followed the results for a year after the aid stopped.

Even so, the findings are very important, as they show aid groups that fairly basic strategy can often work. Even a little bit of extra money can make a huge difference in improving families’ lives, whether it is allowing them to make gains in their nutrition or health, send their kids to school, or simple hope.

 

Nepal’s Citizens Step Up To Heal Nation

An often unreported part of almost any disaster response is the pivotal role played by the victims themselves. Whether directly impacted or not, citizens from all overall the affected country come together to help one another and recovery.

NPR highlights how the beleaguered people of Nepal, long misgoverned and impoverished, have persevered through collaboration and generosity against one of the deadliest disasters in their nation’s history. Continue reading

How Goodness Helps The Body

I have discussed before the psychology and biology of altruism and compassion (see here and here). It seems more and more scientific evidence is pointing to both the naturalness and beneficence of kindness towards others — which is ultimately not all that surprising given the inherently social nature of our species. Communities starting from the family unit up thrive optimally when its members look after each other, are cooperative and harmonious, and cultivate a sense of togetherness and mutual trust.

The positive health effects, both mental and physical, help reinforce and reward this behavior, as well as signify how much better we thrive as individuals when we are not feeling stressed, insecure, or threatened by the predations of others. It goes without saying that not having to worry as much about crime, exploitation, and the other consequences of a cruel and predatory society wonders to your life satisfaction and overall well-being.

But a study at the University of California, Berkeley, part of the Greater Good Project, wants to look more deeply into what exactly happens to our minds and bodies when we either participant in a good deed or simply just witness one. Read the details and results below. It is a long excerpt but well worth reading.  Continue reading

The Psychology of Misunderstanding

Misunderstanding someone, and being misunderstood in turn, is an indelible part of the human experience. So it is not surprising that there is a deep psychological basis for this inconvenient — and often times even dangerous — tendency to mutually misinterpret each other.

Business Insider and The Atlantic report on research that is getting to the bottom of why humans seem inherently unable to read one another’s feelings and intentions (or conversely, clearly convey their own). The reasons — and solutions — are pretty interesting:

First, most people suffer from what psychologists call “the transparency illusion” — the belief that what they feel, desire, and intend is crystal clear to others, even though they have done very little to communicate clearly what is going on inside their minds.

Because the perceived assume they are transparent, they might not spend the time or effort to be as clear and forthcoming about their intentions or emotional states as they could be, giving the perceiver very little information with which to make an accurate judgment.

“Chances are,” Halvorson writes, “how you look when you are slightly frustrated isn’t all that different from how you look when you are a little concerned, confused, disappointed, or nervous.

Your ‘I’m kind of hurt by what you just said’ face probably looks an awful lot like your ‘I’m not at all hurt by what you just said’ face. And the majority of times that you’ve said to yourself, ‘I made my intentions clear,’ or ‘He knows what I meant,’ you didn’t and he doesn’t.”

In other words, we have a blindspot with respect to our own behavior and communication. We fail to recognize, let alone see, that we might be coming off a certain way to others than we mean to. This goes a long way to explain another common human failing: hypocrisy.

While many hypocritical acts are no doubt deliberate, a lot of times it is accidental — you genuinely do not notice you are acting contrary to your intention behaviors and values. The transparency illusion applies as much to ourselves as to our external communications with others. We think our principles and values are clear, and thus fail to be vigilant or aware of any instance in which we violate them. After all, it is neither instinctive nor feasible to be methodically analyzing each and every action or statement. Hence we tend to just assume we are consistent and principled as we think we are.

All this touches on the next conclusion of the study, which looks at our perceptions to one another (and towards ourselves):

The perceiver, meanwhile, is dealing with two powerful psychological forces that are warping his ability to read others accurately. First, according to a large body of psychological research, individuals are what psychologists call “cognitive misers.” That is, people are lazy thinkers.

he perceiver, meanwhile, is dealing with two powerful psychological forces that are warping his ability to read others accurately. First, according to a large body of psychological research, individuals are what psychologists call “cognitive misers.” That is, people are lazy thinkers.

According to the work of the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, there are two ways that the mind processes information, including information about others: through cognitive processes that Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2. These “systems,” which Kahneman describes in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” serve as metaphors for two different kinds of reasoning.

System 1 processes information quickly, intuitively, and automatically. System 1 is at work, as Halvorson notes in her book, when individuals engage in effortless thinking, like when they do simple math problems like 3 + 3 = 6, or when they drive on familiar roads as they talk to a friend in the car, or when they see someone smile and immediately know that that person is happy.

When it comes to social perception, System 1 uses shortcuts, or heuristics, to come to conclusions about another person. There are many shortcuts the mind relies on when it reads others facial expressions, body language, and intentions, and one of the most powerful ones is called the “primacy effect” and it explains why first impressions are so important.

According to the primacy effect, the information that one person learns about another in his early encounters with that person powerfully determines how he will see that person ever after.

For example, referring to research conducted about the primacy effect, Halvorson points out that children who perform better on the first half of a math test and worse on the second half might be judged to be smarter than those who perform less well on the first part of the test, but better on the second part.

In contrast to System 1 style of thinking, which is biased and hasty, System 2 processes information in a conscious, rational, and deliberative manner. Whereas System 1 thinking is automatic and effortless, System 2 thinking takes effort.

Thus, System 2 acts as a check on System 1. It helps evaluate and update first impressions, prejudices, and other brash thoughts. It is basically a backup for when your thoughts fail you.

But as I alluded to during my tangent about hypocrisy, this sort of deeper, conscious thinking takes time and mental energy. In fact, it is rarely ever engaged in without some sort of external trigger or reminders — such as someone pointing out that you misunderstood them or read a certain situation wrong (even then, egotism, face-saving, or just plain arrogance might leave you resistant to sincere self-analysis).

But as the article points out, humans are otherwise too inclined to be “cognitive misers” to go much further beyond System 1. Hence why misunderstandings and miscommunications alike are so common.

To make matters more complicated, there is more to interpersonal conflict than a shortcoming in our thought processes. A lot of other variables — albeit as just as psychologically inherent — are at play, too.

Perception is also clouded by the perceiver’s own experiences, emotions, and biases, which also contributes to misunderstandings between people. As Halvorson puts it, everyone has an agenda when they interact with another person. That agenda is usually trying to determine one of three pieces of information about the perceived: Is this person trustworthy? Is this person useful to me? And does this person threaten my self-esteem?

How a perceiver answers those questions will determine whether she judges the other person in a positive or negative way. Take self-esteem. Researchers have long found that individuals need to maintain a positive sense of themselves to function well.

When someone’s sense of herself is threatened, like when she interacts with someone who she thinks is better than her at a job they both share, she judges that person more harshly. One study found, for example, that attractive job applicants were judged as less qualified by members of the same sex than by members of the opposite sex. The raters who were members of the same sex, the researchers found, felt a threat to their self-esteem by the attractive job applicants while the members of the opposite sex felt no threat to their self-esteem.

In a sense, there is something reassuring about a lot of our misunderstandings being rooted in flaws that are mostly beyond our control. It is not that most people have bad intentions or are purposefully being obtuse, unclear, or inconsiderate — it is that our minds and cognitive capacity make us inherently prone to faulty thinking, nearly always without us realizing it.

Given all these obstacles to accurately perceiving someone (or conveying yourself to them), what do people have to do to come across they way they intend to?

“If you want to solve the problem of perception,” Halvorson says, “it’s much more practical for you to decide to be a good sender of signals than to hope that the perceiver is going to go into phase two of perception. It’s not realistic to expect people to go to that effort.

Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to weigh every possible motivation of another person? Plus, you can’t control what’s going on inside of another person’s mind, but you can control how you come across.”

People who are easy to judge — people who send clear signals to others, as Halvorson suggests people do—are, researchers have found, ultimately happier and more satisfied with their relationships, careers, and lives than those who are more difficult to read.

It’s easy to understand why: Feeling understood is a basic human need. When people satisfy that need, they feel more at peace with themselves and with the people around them, who see them closer to how they see themselves.

In a recent discussion about this article with some friends, it was brought up whether or not humans should somehow be altered, perhaps with cybernetic implants or something, so that they can think and communicate more clearly. Setting aside the precise means and mechanics of it, the hypothetical suggests that we if somehow eliminate our tendency to misunderstand and miscommunicate with each other, the world would be a better place overall.

Humans would be less prone to anxiety, less likely to fight with loved ones or make wrong assumptions about strangers, and refrain from the sort of violence that is often predicated by misunderstanding.

But this would raise questions about how fundamentally different human behavior and society as a whole would be without this barrier between us. Our individual and collective psychology is shaped by this constant and fundamentally human inability to communicate or understand clearly. As a species, we have developed all sorts of ideas, rituals, approaches, institutions, and even art forms to get around this problem, or to express ourselves in alternative ways. What would happen to all of that if we removed this inconvenient yet familiar issue?

It is a bit of a tangent, but it touches on the overall point expressed in this research and many more about how biological, psychological, and evolutionary limitations shape our existence and affect our conditions. What are your thoughts?

Lessons From Charlotte and Salt Lake City On Ending Homelessness

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are homeless across the country, and it seems no city, big and small, is without a sizeable number residents deprived of permanent shelter.

Though Charlotte, North Carolina may be an exception.

According to a recent article in HuffPo, the city of over 775,200 has made groundbreaking strides in addressing chronic homelessness — and it has done so in the simplest way possible.

Moore Place, a nonprofit that provides permanent housing and other services to homeless people, has saved Charlotte $2.4 million in medical costs alone since 2012, according to a new report from UNC Charlotte. The study also found that the program’s clients are more likely to take advantage of preventative health care services, and get off the streets for good, than people who aren’t offered stable housing.

After two years of partaking in the program, 81 percent of clients remained in permanent housing.

“Stable housing provides a foundation for recovery and well-being,” Lori Thomas, a UNC professor of social work who led the study, said in a statement.

The 85-unit apartment complex follows the “housing first” model, an approach that once raised eyebrows, but has repeatedly proven to be cost-effective and efficient.

The concept promotes giving homeless people housing, and then addressing their mental health, unemployment or addiction issues after they’re settled.

Run by Urban Ministry Center, Moore Place opened in 2012 and gives clients access to a team of social workers, therapists, a nurse and psychologist, in addition to a place to call “home.” It costs about $14,000 to house an individual and residents contribute 30 percent of their incomes to rent. The rest is subsidized by private donations and public funding.

The program gives participating clients a fresh start and has led to major savings in the city’s medical system.

Tenants visited emergency rooms 648 fewer times and were in the hospital 292 fewer days after two years in the program.

Moore Place, a nonprofit that provides permanent housing and other services to homeless people, has saved Charlotte $2.4 million in medical costs alone since 2012, according to a new report from UNC Charlotte. The study also found that the program’s clients are more likely to take advantage of preventative health care services, and get off the streets for good, than people who aren’t offered stable housing.

After two years of partaking in the program, 81 percent of clients remained in permanent housing.

“Stable housing provides a foundation for recovery and well-being”, Lori Thomas, a UNC professor of social work who led the study, said in a statement.

The 85-unit apartment complex follows the “housing first” model, an approach that once raised eyebrows, but has repeatedly proven to be cost-effective and efficient.

The concept promotes giving homeless people housing, and then addressing their mental health, unemployment or addiction issues after they’re settled.

Run by Urban Ministry Center, Moore Place opened in 2012 and gives clients access to a team of social workers, therapists, a nurse and psychologist, in addition to a place to call “home”. It costs about $14,000 to house an individual and residents contribute 30 percent of their incomes to rent. The rest is subsidized by private donations and public funding.

The program gives participating clients a fresh start and has led to major savings in the city’s medical system.

Tenants visited emergency rooms 648 fewer times and were in the hospital 292 fewer days after two years in the program.

It seems like common sense: solve homelessness by giving the homeless homes. In some cases, it may not even be necessary to build any new stock, since most cities have ample vacant developments (especially following the burst of the real estate bubble). Providing permanent shelter helps line everything else into place, from finding steady employment (for which a permanent address is contingent) to, as Charlotte found, getting adequate healthcare.

Salt Lake City, Utah has seen similar resounding success with its decade-long “Housing First” initiative, which has lead to an incredible 91 percent reduction in chronic homelessness (defined as those who are homelessness longer than one year or who endure four episodes of homelessness in three years, and they have a disabling condition).

More from Deseret News:

Utah’s program places chronically homeless people in housing and supports them with services that help address the root causes of their homelessness such as physical and mental illness, substance abuse and addiction, low educational attainment, criminal records, or poor work histories.

Before “Housing First” started in 2005, about 14 percent of Utah’s homeless population met the definition of chronic homelessness and consumed about 58 percent of resources.

“Before the ‘Housing First’ model, people had to change their lives, and then we would offer them housing. Now what we do is we offer them housing and allow them to change their lives if they choose to do so,” Walker said.

Utah is the only state that has achieved such a sharp reduction in chronic homelessness on a statewide basis, he said.

“No other state is even close. We’ve had no additional resources than anyone else has had to do this, but by focusing, having a plan and having great collaboration with our partners, we’ve been able to see successes,” Walker said.

Around 10 percent of the nation’s homeless population is chronically homeless, and they account for more than 50 percent of available resources going to Americans experiencing homelessness. Housing these individuals in particular would not only improve their lives substantially, but will free up a considerable amount of capital and resources to other efforts (such as medical care, job training, and the like).

Interesting Lessons From A Norwegian School

Ideas for improving primary education are a dime a dozen, especially once you venture out into the varied international landscape. To the highly individualized approach of Finland, to the more rote-based standards of Singapore, there are many diverse yet seemingly effective models to draw from, each reflecting particular cultural, social, or demographic factors.

Norway does not tend to figure much into these discussions — it ranks somewhere in the middle of educational quality, according to the most recent OECD data — but at least one of its schools offers an intriguing approach that stands out from all the rest: “cross-curricular” work that, among other things, entails the elimination of clearly delineated subjects. Quartz has more:

These educators were inspired by the Danish pedagogue Knud Illeris and his ideas of cross-curricular project work, and in the 1980s, the fundamental concept and organization of the school was revamped. Although the pedagogy of the school has been developing ever since, the basic idea of learning through multidisciplinary studies has endured.

The lower secondary school is organized in a way that supports this multidisciplinary learning. When teachers are hired at this school, they know very well that they will have to cooperate with other teachers—and not just the ones who teach the same subjects as themselves. They will have to work in multidisciplinary teacher-teams.

Each teacher-team, consisting of 4-6 teachers, is responsible for the education and growth of 60-75 students. The teachers together craft the students’ schedules from week to week, and make their own plans based on the national curriculum and the expectations of the school leaders. The school uses different cross-curricular methods, and is constantly refining methods like storyline, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, simulations, etc. The teachers pick up ideas from each other and share their experiences ensuring that although the school does not have a local specified curriculum, all students experience the same learning methods and multidisciplinary themes.

It sounds like a highly engaging approach, allowing students to learn through a varied and dynamic curriculum that focuses on hands on, participatory projects. It also pools together the best ideas from multiple instructors. Here is an example of how it would play out:

Students in the 8th grade, at age 13, will often study earthquakes, volcanos, and other forces of the earth—topics usually taught in natural science and geography courses. Instead of working with this subject in fixed lessons, teachers have to come up with different storylines that incorporate several different subjects. In one of the storylines, the students pretend that they are going to climb Mount Everest. In preparation, they have to study maps, weather, and climate. As the story moves forward, they are

assigned different tasks from the teachers—such as suggesting the best route to the top of Mount Everest, making a list of the equipment they need, calculating the time they will use, making a budget, and applying for funding in English, which is a foreign language to these students. As they solve these tasks, the students have to find a lot of information and discuss their findings within the group.

The students at the Ringstabekk school work in small groups most of the time. This is based on the theory that most of our learning happens when we think, talk, and solve tasks together instead of on our own—and the idea of “learning by doing”, theories developed by the late Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the late American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey.

I can definitely see how this can be a more stimulating approach than putting kids through a regimented, industrial-type regimen of classes. It synergistically taps into the creativity of both teachers and students, creating something unique and engaging, like the following example:

Another cross-curricular theme, often executed in the 10th grade, focuses on the environment and sustainability. This is done in different ways by different teacher-teams. One way is to give each group of students a unique area of their local municipality and let them work as consultants. They produce a report and perhaps some models on how one should develop their specific part of the local community—with special focus on transportation, energy, waste, etc. If they are to produce models, they have to work with ratios and other mathematics, as well as design. They will need to investigate different kinds of energy and corresponding pollution outputs—which is part of the natural sciences—and produce and present their report both written and orally. The first year this project was run, the teachers cooperated with a local consultant company that was doing these kind of jobs. The consultants and engineers were impressed when the students, aged 15, were able to inform them of a new technology that they were not aware of.

During cross-curricular work, the students don’t have a fixed weekly plan—one that segregates English to one lesson, and science to another. They stay in school for at least the specified number of lessons given in the national curriculum, and they work on their task through the weeks, receiving guidance and instruction from their teachers.

Of course, this is just one school of 425 students, but it does seem to be doing quite well so far, and parents and students alike are satisfied. Finland, ever the darling of innovative and effective pedagogy, will be trying something similar soon. We should definitely see this model being applied in more schools, if at least to try another way to improve education.

How Crowdsourced Cartographers Are Helping Nepal

When one thinks of disaster relief, it is invariably food, shelter, medical supplies, and healthcare professionals that come to mind. But mapmakers are — or should be — a part of successful responses, too. As The Atlantic reports:

It’s become a regular occurrence: Whenever there’s a natural catastrophe, a team of “crisis mappers” activate around the world. These volunteers use crowdsourcing tools to turn satellite data into digital maps, which are then used to make decisions on the ground.

After Typhoon Haiyan struck the city of Tacloban in the Philippines, volunteers with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) worked to add the city’s pre-storm roads and buildings to the map. For months, the same group mapped the rural infrastructure of Guinea and other countries hit by the roiling Ebola crisis…

…They mention facts like this: The city of Kathmandu was already well mapped before the earthquake, but, in the past week, volunteers have tripled the amount of mapping data in Nepal in OpenStreetMap.

And all this matters. The maps that HOT makes “improve outcomes”, in the lingo of international relief organizations. In other words, they enable rescuers to deliver food, shelter, and supplies to areas that need them most. It is almost certain that they greatly help reduce suffering, and it is very likely that they save lives.

Maps are one of those things that are easy to take for granted, especially when the more visible worries (understandably) involve feeding and healing people. But it goes to show that effective disaster response involves a synergy of many different factors. After all, it is the maps that help responders better find who needs those resources.