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Soul of an Engineer #6

This Issue: Elusive Haven, Tim Berner Lee's New Project, Complexity, Good Understanding

Amarinder Sidhu
Amarinder Sidhu
3 min read

Elusive Haven

While it started with much fanfare in 2018, Haven Healthcare was quietly disbanded in Jan 2021.

It was a collaboration between Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan in 2018 with much fanfare. The three iconic leaders of these companies - Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Jamie Dimon - handpicked Atul Gawande to lead the new venture. Atul is a famous surgeon, best selling author and public health researcher (His New Yorker articles on healthcare are amazing without fail).

We don’t really know in detail why Haven failed. Not much was disclosed by the collaborating companies or Haven. Which was kind of an anti-climax given how loudly it was launched.

But while reviewing the whole situation again, a couple of things caught my attention.

First, Haven’s stated goal at the launch in 2018:

“the initial focus of the new company will be on technology solutions that will provide U.S. employees and their families with simplified, high-quality and transparent healthcare at a reasonable cost.”

Second, a Jeff Bezos quote from the same time was interesting:

“The health care system is complex, and we enter into this challenge open-eyed about the degree of difficulty.”

The emphases on “technology solutions” and “complex” are mine.

Given how expensive healthcare is, I rooted for Haven to succeed when it was launched - despite feeling somewhat skeptic. But I wasn’t too surprised when it was shut down either.

Because when it comes to applying technology to complex problems, I have always believed simple and targeted approaches increase the probability of success. And large and high visibility projects with vague goals, like Haven was at launch, tend to escalate the complexity prematurely and teeter towards eventual failure.

In that respect, I actually liked the Haven statement when it was shut down.

“Moving forward, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. will leverage these insights and continue to collaborate informally to design programs tailored to address the specific needs of their own employee populations.”

The emphasis on "tailored to address the specific needs" is again mine. Because it prompts a question - why didn't they start with that in the first place? Instead of a big splashy PR exercise.

Where everyone else saw a highly public failure, I saw an overdue realization of the right approach to solving complex systemic problems - by solving real needs of people.

What is Tim Berners-Lee up to these days?

For those who may not know or remember, Tim is the inventor of World Wide Web (WWW). WWW is the information framework that undergirds the internet. He is unhappy with what the web has evolved into. Quoting him below.

"Think of all the data about your life accumulated in the various applications you use – social gatherings, frequent contacts, recent travel, health, fitness, photos, and so on. Why is it that none of that information can be combined and used to help you, especially during a crisis? It’s because you aren’t in control of your data."

He is working on a new information framework for the web called Solid.

"With Solid, you can effectively decide how to share anything with anyone, no matter what app you or the recipient uses. It’s as if your apps could all talk to one another, but only under your supervision."
"My goal has always been a web that empowers human beings, redistributes power to individuals, and reimagines distributed creativity, collaboration, and compassion."

We desperately need this kind of technology activism. The web started with open protocols like HTTP and TCP/IP but has evolved into walled gardens of aggregators (e.g. Google, Facebook etc.).  

Also, given how predatory consumer data acquisition has become on the web, I will be rooting for Tim's new venture to succeed.

Source: We need to change how we share our personal data online

Complexity of a Human Cell

I am fascinated with complexity theory and complex systems. Human bodies are best understood and studied as complex systems. Not as reductionist models.

This picture of a human cell below makes me think that perhaps even a human cell is a complex system.

Source: @euvieivanova


Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein on why developing good understanding is an antidote to confusion.

“To understand is to know what to do.”

Source: The Multidisciplinary Approach to Thinking