Preventing HIV transmission: It's time for public service commercials to offer helpful advice, not condescension

While watching TV yesterday, a public service commercial featuring a de rigueur Hollywood celebrity caused me to stop in my tracks:

“Provide your child with a healthy and safe home. Remember, this is your family we're talking about.”

Add in the obligatory tone of condescension, and you get the message.

What a monumental waste of airwave time! Most parents don't need such patronizing lectures, and anyone who does is either too dumb or too apathetic to be receptive to it.

A decade ago, a bevy of supercilious Hollywood celebrities in ubiquitous public service commercials somberly instructed us on the importance of condoms in reducing the risk of HIV transmission. This message is almost bound to fall on deaf ears for a multitude of reasons. What people need is a message like this:

“Prevent HIV transmission without decimating your pleasure. Find out more at”

(Of course, too many people don't know what “decimating” means, so we'd need to substitute “markedly reducing.”)

If anyone doubts why Bill Gates wants to develop a condom that replicates the pleasure of “bare” intercourse, look at the facial expressions on the men in photo #26 when they were given a demonstration of condom usage: skepticism, disappointment, shock, and even disgust.

The problem with condoms is, of course, that they do decimate pleasure (more for men than women, as I explain in The Science of Sex). The current epidemic of obesity is living proof that most people will let nothing stand in the way in their pursuit of pleasure (it's a pity that more people haven't read my weight loss book, in which I explain painless ways to lose weight). Cognizant that people are governed more by pleasure than logic, I invented a simple way for people to have "safe sex" without decimating pleasure. (Not that this is relevant to the current discussion, but I also developed various ways to amplify the pleasure of sex, which I explain in The Science of Sex.)

OK, you movers and shakers in Hollywood. I know you're listening, because several of you have written to me about other topics. Here's your chance to make a real difference instead of squandering your public service commercial time. Find out what I am talking about, and then spread the word.

How to contact me.

Update February 17, 2008: On August 1, 2007, I contacted Patty Stonesifer, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Hates Foundation (read the letter here). My letter began, "I am a physician who devised two new methods to block HIV transmission. I would like the opportunity to present them to you because they dovetail with your efforts to curb HIV/AIDS."

One might think that the Hates Foundation would welcome an effective new way to block HIV transmission (and one that can be implemented now, not after years of research), yet I never heard from her. Why not? Although I know why, yesterday I read about a study which concluded that "when people feel powerful, they ignore new opinions." There's another way to say the same thing: When people feel powerful, their intellectual arrogance leads them to conclude that they have all the great ideas.

Ms. Stonesifer probably thought, "What could a doctor in Michigan know about preventing HIV transmission that we don't already know? Gee whiz, I'm a bright person, and Bill has exhaustively researched this. We've collaborated with the preeminent researchers in this field, so we've left no stone unturned."

Except, of course, for a couple of ones that are glaringly obvious to me (being an outside-the-box thinker), but something that would seem like hieroglyphics to people who think inside the box. Incidentally, studies have shown that most scientists tend to follow the pack with a “follow the leader” mentality. Those people do valuable work by conducting the nuts-and-bolts research that needs to be done, but they aren't the mavericks who generate new ideas.

“So-called 'peer-review' is an oxymoron: if an idea is actually new, then the existence of peers is obviously impossible, which is why almost all of the truly valuable ideas and inventions have come from people who were totally outside the scientific community, people like Edison, Tesla, the Wright Brothers and a long list of others.”
Arthur Jones

According to a press release by UNAIDS (a joint venture of the United Nations and the World Health Organization), in 2007 2.5 million [range: 1.8 – 4.1 million] people became newly infected with HIV. Let's do the math: It's now been over six months since I wrote to the Hates Foundation. In that time, over a million people were infected with HIV. Thus, by blowing me off as she did, Ms. Stonesifer blew an opportunity to save many lives.

But let's be realistic: why should royalty like the Hates Foundation listen to me? Cognizant that they're too important to give five minutes to someone they view as a peon who couldn't possibly have anything worthwhile to say, I set my sites a bit lower and sent a message to a man who appeared as a guest on The Big Idea Show. He was the head of an AIDS organization that I'd never before heard of, and he seemed to be down-to-earth and genuinely interested in combating this problem — or so he seemed on TV. I asked for nothing in return; just the opportunity to present my ideas to him.

He never responded.

Update May 11, 2008: Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the University of California, Berkeley, released a new policy analysis (1) which concluded that the most common HIV prevention strategies are doing a poor job of controlling the primarily heterosexual epidemics in Africa. What isn't working?

  • Condom promotion
  • Encouraging sexual abstinence
  • HIV testing
  • Treatment of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
  • Vaccine and microbicide research

According to Daniel Halperin, lecturer on international health in the HSPH Department of Population and International Health and one of the paper's lead authors, "We need a fairly dramatic shift in priorities, not just a minor tweaking."

I agree. However, the Hates Foundation and others are seemingly more content to burn money in an attempt to manifest their good intentions than to achieve good results.

Update September 2010: It's now been over three years since I wrote to the Hates Foundation. In that time, over six million people were infected with HIV. In the interim, Hates has spoken of using vaccines to reduce the world's population. Some people have tried to explain why his statement is not as creepy as it sounds, but their explanations do not hold water, as this analysis shows.

I've seen a televised videotape of Bill Hates behaving like an unbalanced teenager mocking some of his employees, treating them with thinly veiled contempt, suggesting they are morons. Having had a million and one problems with Microsoft software, he may be correct about that, but treating people like dirt is not the way to get the most from them. Positive reinforcement is more effective at changing behavior. Hates can get away with acting like a jerk because he is a billionaire, but if he were just another employee, the HR department would mandate that he see a psychologist. Judging by what Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) said about him, Hates has a mile-wide cold streak that suggests a defective conscience. If Hates can be so cruel to Allen, one must wonder if he truly cares about African people with HIV or if he is just throwing money at that problem to look good.

Esther Dyson, a longtime friend, said that Hates “never really grew up in terms of social responsibility and relationships with other people. He's brilliant but still childlike. He can be a fun companion, but he can lack human empathy.”

If Hates acts so abrasively when cameras are rolling, what is he like at other times? Many reports indicate that he has (or had) a hair trigger for going into explosive rages. As a child, Hates treated his mother with a snotty offensiveness and obstinacy that led his parents to have him seen by a psychologist, who concluded he was incorrigible. More than a few people say he is a sociopath or has Asperger's syndrome. I won't hazard a guess via the Internet, but unless even credible news sources are making up stories about him, he does seem to possess some of their diagnostic criteria but possessing some of the diagnostic criteria for a given disease, condition, or disorder is not necessarily sufficient to diagnose it. I've have chest pain and shortness of breath, but I've never had a heart attack? Ya dig?

I have great empathy for mentally ill people, who have much less—often no—culpability for their conditions, unlike many folks with physical problems, many of which are caused or exacerbated by overeating. I once was so fat I couldn't see my feet when I stood up, but now that I am slim and have kept the weight off for decades, I know that obesity is indeed controllable even if you are someone like me who has virtually no willpower when it comes to resisting food. (If it's tasty and it is near me, it is gone.)

Thus, I don't blame Hates for being imperfect (aren't we all?), but for being too close-minded to seek help or to circumvent his problems by hiring a brainy aide to guide him when his lack of empathy (according to his friend) or lack of a conscience (according to others) leads him astray.

As a programmer, I never expected perfect software, but the persistence of glaringly obvious software errors that could be easily fixed indicates a fundamental defect in Microsoft's culture. They screen applicants for brainpower, but evidently not common sense. They glorify IQ, but what they term “intellectual bandwidth” clearly does not encompass practical intelligence. The true measure of intelligence is solving problems in the real world, such as how to win the war on AIDS.

Steve Jobs on Bill Hates: “Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he's more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology. He just shamelessly ripped off other people's ideas.”

Bill Hates on Steve Jobs: Hates called “Jobs "fundamentally odd" and "weirdly flawed" as a person.” However, inside-the-box people with limited imagination often ridicule outside-the-box innovators.

His inability to fix Microsoft suggests that Hates is not the business genius he is often said to be. Leonard Mlodinow, author of The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, wrote a fascinating and provocative article entitled The Meritocracy Paradox for Forbes magazine that discussed how hotshot CEOs are often just the beneficiaries of luck, not everlasting talent. Hates was the beneficiary of luck, being in the right place at the right time. If he were to start now, having no foot in the door, he would be laughed out of business. Since Hates obviously cannot master software, I am not surprised that he can't master the AIDS problem.

A sycophantic Time magazine interview said that “Hates' intellect is marked by an ability … to "drill down."” They added that he has “become less enamored with pure intelligence. "I don't think that I.Q. is as fungible as I used to. To succeed, you also have to know how to make choices and how to think more broadly."”

Indeed. The millions of people dying of AIDS who wouldn't die with my inventions manifest that Professor Hates never learned that lesson well enough.

There are countless reasons why our economy is imperiled, but one overlooked explanation is that capital is in the hands of the wrong people. Money can be spent wisely, reaping enormous benefits, or it can be frittered away à la Hates. We need an intellectual meritocracy in which people with good ideas can spend their time thinking and creating instead of wasting their time trying to have their ideas implemented, not accumulating dust in a manila folder. Ex-Microsoftie Nathan Myhrvold (a.k.a., Einstein) has a good idea on how to do this, but rather than being lauded for it, he is often pilloried by being called epithets such as “patent troll.” That just goes to show how dysfunctional our society is; those with good ideas are often ridiculed by others who lack the intellectual bandwidth to tune into those ideas.

UPDATE: Will the Myhrvold bashing ever end? People cheer for politicians who screw them Left and Right, yet they often pillory people, such as Myhrvold, whose ideas help improve the world. If he makes money doing that, who cares? Largely those bereft of common sense. After Myhrvold was interviewed by Charlie Rose, a commenter wrote, “I was inspired by this guy until I discovered this [Intellectual Ventures] is one of the most egregious companies in America. This man is a terrible person.”

This comment reveals a terrible misunderstanding of Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures. As I discussed in other blog articles, the United States is doomed unless we significantly boost our innovation from the “don't amount to a hill of beans” junk patent applications clogging our patent system to significant breakthroughs that fundamentally improve lives. Little Ideas won't suffice; we need Big Ideas, and Intellectual Ventures is helping bring some to fruition. That's “terrible”? No, that's brilliant.

Another wrote: “Nathan is only saying the things he wants to hear (aural narcissism).” One of the keys to science and innovation is to question everything, including one's opinions. Close-minded people are usually spectacularly unsuccessful, so Myhrvold's success strongly suggests that he is open to new ideas, not just clinging to his opinions.

Another comment: “Invention Capital is a nice idea but it supports a broken IP model that restricts innovation.” Dr. Myhrvold doesn't make laws, so don't blame him for imperfections resulting from them.

Journal reference:

  1. Reassessing HIV Prevention. Malcolm Potts, Daniel T. Halperin, Douglas Kirby, Ann Swidler, Elliot Marseille, Jeffrey Klausner, Norman Hearst, Richard G. Wamai, James G. Kahn, Julia Walsh, Science, May 9, 2008, vol. 320.
The views expressed on this page may or may not reflect my current opinions, nor do they necessarily represent my past ones. After reading a slice of what I wrote in my various websites and books, you may conclude that I am a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. Wrong; there is a better alternative. Just as the primary benefit from debate classes results when students present and defend opinions contrary to their own, I use a similar strategy as a creative writing tool to expand my brainpower—and yours. Mystified? Stay tuned for an explanation. PS: The wheels in your head are already turning a bit faster, aren't they?

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reference: Imagining dialogue can boost critical thinking: Excerpt: “Examining an issue as a debate or dialogue between two sides helps people apply deeper, more sophisticated reasoning …”

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