Thursday, May 26, 2011

why we travel

I recently found what is possibly the best explanation for why we travel that I've ever seen. The article, by New Yorker ace Burkhard Bilger, is about a neuroscientist's research into how the brain perceives time. The piece contains little, if any, discussion about travel per se. Yet when I read this passage, I immediately thought about what it means to go places.

One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, he explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. "This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older," Eagleman said--why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we're dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.

Travel keeps things unfamiliar. Keep exploring unfamiliar terrain and seeking novel experiences, and your brain will write down more information, at least according to this theory. Perhaps it even creates the impression that time isn't passing us by quite so damn fast.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

davos-ians geek out on mobile money

I got a sneak peak the other day at this report on mobile banking. It's published by the World Economic Forum. (That's right: the same people who never invite me to their shindig in Davos because they know I would embarrass them on the slopes.)

It's hard not to be optimistic about how mobile phones can promote financial inclusion, help people save money, and combat poverty. This subject is addressed in some detail in my forthcoming book, The End of Money, but one useful point that stands out from this report could be summarized as follows: chill out a little, people.

Speaking by phone Monday with two co-authors of the study, I was struck by some of the basics that have been overlooked amidst all the euphoria about this technology. For example, in a number of countries, telecom companies don't count the number of people with accounts, but the number of Simcards instead. That may sound like splitting hairs, but when it comes to gleaning dependable data about these programs, this is a fundamental oversight. More generally, the authors make the (admittedly dull) call for more research and collaboration between industry, donors, and governments.

"The question we need answered is: How do you prove the impact?" says Bill Hoffman, head of the Telecommunications Industry at the World Economic Forum USA. "We're optimistic, but we don't want it to get caught in the hype cycle trap." Yet hype and visionary talk share a lot of DNA. When I asked about mobile money sessions at Davos in recent years, Hoffman says the takeaway for many people was a simple line delivered last winter by some government or industry bigwig: "Imagine the possibility of connecting two billion people to the formal economy." Mobile money could do that.

One other snippet worth looking into is the importance of agents, who are the people who connect phone users to the economy, a little like bank tellers, except these agents are local shop owners in your neighborhood, not bank employees sitting behind iron bars. Because it's money, Hoffman explained, people need to have that sense of trust, and for that, they need people, at least at first. This issue of trust, or faith, and its relationship to money is also one that I delve into in the book, with the help of a pastor and a most unusual granite monument in rural Georgia. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

the instigators

My 10,000-word mega-feature about Ahmed Maher, Egypt's April 6 Youth, the #Jan25 Revolution is finally out! Please pick it up. Read it. Review it. Share it. Tweet about it. Meanwhile, here is one small scene that I liked, but that didn't make the final edit: 

That evening [March 18, 2011], as Maher and I headed down Talaat Harb Street, Maher bumped into Moaz Abdel Karim, a 29-year-old member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He carried a bundle of papers under his arm and greeted Maher with a kiss to each cheek. His right hand was bandaged, and while the two men chatted in Arabic, i wondered if his injury had been sustained during the revolution. At one point, the two men burst into laughter. They w ere joking about who would come after whom once tomorrow's ballots were counted. They parted ways, and as Maher stepped out into the street and waited for a stream of cars to pass before crossing, he said, half to me and half into the night sky: "We are talking in public about politics and real elections."