07.14.20

So long, Limbicnutrition

Dear Reader,

This is a very old blog. It was started in the late 90’s, inspired by Jorn Barger’s Robotwisdom weblog. I have not really had my heart in it for over a decade. Much of the older material is , frankly, embarrassing. Most of the posts are political – me blustering over the news of the day – and it has not aged well. I am taking it all offline for a while and I am selectively republish anything that has stood the test of time.

For my long-time readers, thank you for the readership and comments over the years. I hope to be back, but lets face it, the internet is full of blogs with the last post saying “I am back! You will see regular updates from now on”. That’s unlikely to be the case here.

Kind regards,

Jonathan Davis
2020

09.26.20

If she’s hot and you’re not

Forget the military, every middle-aged man should get this poster and internalize the message. Beware “Aesthetic Asymmetry”. You are either harassing the person (unwanted attention) or their reason for being “interested” in you is sketchy (money, information, manipulation). It is rarely your character or non-physical attractiveness.

09.26.20

The Turbulent Twenties

30 years ago Jack Goldstone published a model to determine a country’s vulnerability to political crisis based on how population changes shifted state, elite and popular behavior. It is called Demographic-Structural Theory and predicted a turbulent 21st century, for America, with “a populist, America-first leader who would sow a whirlwind of conflict.”

In 2010, Peter Turchin, applied Goldstone’s model to U.S. history, using contemporary data and predicted the “Turbulent Twenties,” forecasting a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe.

Now there is even worse ahead. From Welcome to the Turbulent Twenties:

What creates the risk of political instability is the behavior of elites, who all too often react to long-term increases in population by committing three cardinal sins. First, faced with a surge of labor that dampens growth in wages and productivity, elites seek to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves, driving up inequality. Second, facing greater competition for elite wealth and status, they tighten up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny.

…Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits, even if that means starving the government of needed revenues, leading to decaying infrastructure, declining public services and fast-rising government debts.

Such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions. They create simmering conditions of greater inequality and declining effectiveness of, and respect for, government. But their actions alone are not sufficient. Urbanization and greater education are needed to create concentrations of aware and organized groups in the populace who can mobilize and act for change.

…Typically, tensions build between elites who back a leader seeking to preserve their privileges and reforming elites who seek to rally popular support for major changes to bring a more open and inclusive social order. Each side works to paint the other as a fatal threat to society, creating such deep polarization that little of value can be accomplished, and problems grow worse until a crisis comes along that explodes the fragile social order.

These were the conditions that prevailed in the lead-up to the great upheavals in political history, from the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, to the revolutions of 1848 and the U.S. Civil War in the nineteenth century, the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the twentieth century and the many “color revolutions” that opened the twenty-first century. So, it is eye-opening that the data show very similar conditions now building up in the United States.

…Writing in the journal Nature in 2010, we pointed out that such trends were a reliable indicator of looming political instability and that they “look set to peak in the years around 2020.” In Ages of Discord, published early in 2016, we showed that America’s “political stress indicator” had turned up sharply in recent years and was on track to send us into the “Turbulent Twenties.”

Is the U.S. likely headed for still greater protests and violence? In a word, yes.

American politics has fallen into a pattern that is characteristic of many developing countries, where one portion of the elite seeks to win support from the working classes not by sharing the wealth or by expanding public services and making sacrifices to increase the common good, but by persuading the working classes that they are beset by enemies who hate them (liberal elites, minorities, illegal immigrants) and want to take away what little they have. This pattern builds polarization and distrust and is strongly associated with civil conflict, violence and democratic decline.

At the same time, many liberal elites neglected or failed to remedy such problems as opiate addiction, declining social mobility, homelessness, urban decay, the collapse of unions and declining real wages, instead promising that globalization, environmental regulations and advocacy for neglected minorities would bring sufficient benefits. They thus contributed to growing distrust of government and “experts,” who were increasingly seen as corrupt or useless, thus perpetuating a cycle of deepening government dysfunction.

How can Americans end our current Age of Discord? What we need is a new social contract that will enable us to get past extreme polarization to find consensus, tip the shares of economic growth back toward workers and improve government funding for public health, education and infrastructure.

The formula in both cases was clear and simple. First, the leader who was trying to preserve the past social order despite economic change and growing violence was replaced by a new leader who was willing to undertake much-needed reforms. Second, while the new leader leveraged his support to force opponents to give in to the necessary changes, there was no radical revolution; violence was eschewed and reforms were carried out within the existing institutional framework.

Third, the reforms were pragmatic. Various solutions were tried, and the new leaders sought to build broad support for reforms, recognizing that national strength depended on forging majority support for change, rather than forcing through measures that would provide narrow factional or ideologically-driven victories. The bottom line in both cases was that adapting to new social and technological realities required having the wealthy endure some sacrifices while the opportunities and fortunes of ordinary working people were supported and strengthened; the result was to raise each nation to unprecedented wealth and power.

https://www.noemamag.com/welcome-to-the-turbulent-twenties/

In my 2017 post on Riled Up Citizenry. I quoted The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. Then. as now, much of this is eerily familiar:

“Plato’s reduction of political evolution to a sequence of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and dictatorship found another illustration in the history of Rome. During the third and second centuries before Christ a Roman oligarchy organized a foreign policy and a disciplined army, and conquered and exploited the Mediterranean world. The wealth so won was absorbed by the patricians, and the commerce so developed raised to luxurious opulence the upper middle class. Conquered Greeks, Orientals, and Africans were brought to Italy to serve as slaves on the latifundia; the native farmers, displaced from the soil, joined the restless, breeding proletariat in the cities, to enjoy the monthly dole of grain that Caius Gracchus had secured for the poor in 12 3 B.C. Generals and proconsuls returned from the provinces loaded with spoils for themselves and the ruling class; millionaires multiplied; mobile money replaced land as the source or instrument of political power; rival factions competed in the wholesale purchase of candidates and votes; in 53 B.C. one group of voters received ten million sesterces for its support. When money failed, murder was available: citizens who had voted the wrong way were in some instances beaten close to death and their houses were set on fire. Antiquity had never known so rich, so powerful, and so corrupt a government. The aristocrats engaged Pompey to maintain their ascendancy; the commoners cast in their lot with Caesar; ordeal of battle replaced the auctioning of victory; Caesar won, and established a popular dictatorship. Aristocrats killed him, but ended by accepting the dictatorship of his grandnephew and stepson Augustus (27 B.C.). Democracy ended, monarchy was restored; the Platonic wheel had come full turn.”

Update October 9 2020

David Brooks has an article in The Atlantic magazine on this theme, called “America is having a moral convulsion“:

“American history is driven by periodic moments of moral convulsion. The late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington noticed that these convulsions seem to hit the United States every 60 years or so: the Revolutionary period of the 1760s and ’70s; the Jacksonian uprising of the 1820s and ’30s; the Progressive Era, which began in the 1890s; and the social-protest movements of the 1960s and early ’70s.

These moments share certain features. People feel disgusted by the state of society. Trust in institutions plummets. Moral indignation is widespread. Contempt for established power is intense.

A highly moralistic generation appears on the scene. It uses new modes of communication to seize control of the national conversation. Groups formerly outside of power rise up and take over the system. These are moments of agitation and excitement, frenzy and accusation, mobilization and passion.

In 1981, Huntington predicted that the next moral convulsion would hit America around the second or third decade of the 21st century—that is, right about now. And, of course, he was correct.”

09.25.20

Munger’s Chains

Charlie Munger cautioned students during his famous Psychology of Human Misjudgment speech not to ensnare themselves in mental chains through early commitment. Lets call these Munger’s Chains.

“This is a superpower in error-causing psychological tendency, Bias from consistency and commitment tendency, including the tendency to avoid or promptly resolve cognitive dissonance. Includes the self-confirmation tendency of all conclusions, particularly expressed conclusions, and with a special persistence for conclusions that are hard-won.

Well what I’m saying here is that the human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device. When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can’t get in. The human mind has a big tendency of the same sort. And here again, it doesn’t just catch ordinary mortals, it catches the deans of physics.

According to Max Planck, the really innovative, important new physics was never really accepted by the old guard. Instead, a new guard came along that was less brain-blocked by its previous conclusions. And if Max Planck’s crowd had this consistency and commitment tendency that kept their old inclusions intact in spite of disconfirming evidence, you can imagine what the crowd that you and I are part of behaves like.

And of course, if you make a public disclosure of your conclusion, you’re pounding it into your own head. Many of these students that are screaming at us, you know, they aren’t convincing us, but they’re forming mental change for themselves, because what they’re shouting out they’re pounding in. And I think educational institutions that create a climate where too much of that goes on are in a fundamental sense, they’re irresponsible institutions. It’s very important to not put your brain in chains too young by what you shout out.

And all these things like painful qualifying and initiation rituals, all those things, pound in your commitments and your ideas. The Chinese brainwashing system, which was for war prisoners, was way better than anybody else’s. They maneuvered people into making tiny little commitments and declarations, and then they’d slowly build. That worked way better than torture.”

07.14.20

Accept the truth

“You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” — Maimonides

02.1.20

Bitcoin and crime

I just came across this old screenshot from from the FT.

Alex Stamos made a similar point on the Risky Biz podcast recently. I am paraphrasing but he was stating the obvious point that a substantial amount of Bitcoin’s value is based on ransomware and other cycbercrime.

Patrick Grey also made a good point in the Zane Lacky episode that the explosion in infosec interest really started with Lulzsec. I tend to agree. At least, it was what pushed me from general security interest into making it a career interest.

01.30.20

The African Art of Appearance

Absolutely love this exhibition on The African Art of Appearance.

09.9.19

Spiritual Unfoldment with John Butler

John Butler is a octogenarian spiritual master. He is also an ASMR superstar because of his amazing voice. My wife and I listen to him at bedtime, partly for the wisdom, partly for soporific power of his voice.

His YouTube channel is full of delights. Treat yourselves.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCi0TFuqj6eND-mJRf8i2Tnw

02.19.19

Pi-hole

 

Pi-hole is a little open source Linux-based DNS ad blocker that you run on your network to soak up all the ad junk before it hits your browser.

I tried it in a VM and was amazed at the speed difference it made despite the fact I already have uBlock Origin installed in my browsers.

I decided to get a Raspberry Pi 3 from Amazon (the starter kit with Pi, case, micro usb, and power cord). I had Pi-hole installed and configured within a few minutes and it works beautifully. The speed gains are very noticeable.

I strongly recommend this, and encourage anyone who uses it to support the project.

01.16.19

Jeff Bezos on Day 1 vs Day 2

I love this letter from Jeff Bezos and wanted to quote it at length. The full letter is at Recode.

 2016 Letter to Shareholders

April 12, 2017

“Jeff, what does Day 2 look like?”

That’s a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

To be sure, this kind of decline would happen in extreme slow motion. An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come.

I’m interested in the question, how do you fend off Day 2? What are the techniques and tactics? How do you keep the vitality of Day 1, even inside a large organization?

Such a question can’t have a simple answer. There will be many elements, multiple paths, and many traps. I don’t know the whole answer, but I may know bits of it. Here’s a starter pack of essentials for Day 1 defense: customer obsession, a skeptical view of proxies, the eager adoption of external trends, and high-velocity decision making.

True Customer Obsession

There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.

Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.

Staying in Day 1 requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see customer delight. A customer-obsessed culture best creates the conditions where all of that can happen.

Resist Proxies

As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2.

A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.

…Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They live with the design.

Embrace External Trends

The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.

These big trends are not that hard to spot (they get talked and written about a lot), but they can be strangely hard for large organizations to embrace. We’re in the middle of an obvious one right now: machine learning and artificial intelligence.

High-Velocity Decision Making

Day 2 companies make high-quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly. To keep the energy and dynamism of Day 1, you have to somehow make high-quality, high-velocity decisions. Easy for start-ups and very challenging for large organizations. The senior team at Amazon is determined to keep our decision-making velocity high. Speed matters in business – plus a high-velocity decision making environment is more fun too. We don’t know all the answers, but here are some thoughts.

First, never use a one-size-fits-all decision-making process. Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. For those, so what if you’re wrong?

Second, most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.

Third, use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time.

…Fourth, recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately. Sometimes teams have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They are not aligned. No amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision.

“You’ve worn me down” is an awful decision-making process. It’s slow and de-energizing. Go for quick escalation instead – it’s better.

So, have you settled only for decision quality, or are you mindful of decision velocity too? Are the world’s trends tailwinds for you? Are you falling prey to proxies, or do they serve you? And most important of all, are you delighting customers? We can have the scope and capabilities of a large company and the spirit and heart of a small one. But we have to choose it.