Warnings: Return of The Long Emergency

warnings

James Kunstler’s 2005 book “The Long Emergency” made a huge impression on me when I read it in 2006. In fact, it was one of the reasons I found myself pursuing a career in cloud computing in 2007. Partly thanks to this book and a former boss from British Telekom, my business partner and I were convinced that peak oil and climate change would create a huge demand for energy efficient, carbon neutral compute resources, and cloud computing was the future.

The Long Emergency was primarily concerned with America’s oil addiction and ill-preparedness for what looked at the time to be the coming energy (oil) shock, but it also examined other threats to civilization:

  • Climate Change
  • Infectious diseases (microbial resistance)
  • Water scarcity
  • Habitat destruction
  • Economic instability
  • Political extremism
  • War

Every one of those is still an enormous threat.

A new book by national security veteran Richard Clarke and R.P Eddy called “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes” updates The Long Emergency with some new features of the threat landscape.

The book starts off by asking how we can reliably spot Cassandras – people who correctly predict disasters but who were not heeded – so that we can prevent future disasters.

They examine recent disasters – like 9/11, the Challenger space shuttle disaster and Hurricane Katrina, then examine the people who predicted these events, looking or patterns. They come up with some stable characteristics that allow us to score people on their Cassandra Quotient.

The second part of the book looks at current threats, and their doomsayers, to see if any have a high Cassandra Quotient and thus should be heeded.

The threats are:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Pandemic Disease
  • Sea-Level Rise
  • Nuclear Ice Age
  • The Internet of Everything
  • Meteor Strike
  • Gene Editing (CRISPR)

The bad news is that they all have high Cassandra Quotients and the scenarios in the book are plausible, science-backed and terrifying.

Artificial Intelligence as a threat hs been on my radar for a year or so thanks to Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawkins and Sam Harris warning of the risks of intelligent machines that can design and build ever moire intelligent machines.

Pandemic Disease has worried me since reading The Long Emergency, but I thought there had been better global awareness, especially since the world took the 2011 flu scare seriously, and Ebola and Zika.  Unfortunately, we are – as a planet – woefully ill-prepared for a global pandemic. A high fatality airborne flu could kill billions.

Sea-Level Rise genuinely surprised me, especially since the Cassandra in question – James Hansen – predicted the current melting and ice shelf break-offs we see in the Arctic today…30 years ago. I even googled how high my home is above sea level after being convinced we could see 7m rises within my lifetime.

As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, nuclear horror is deeply embedded in my psyche. But I thought the risk of a Nuclear Ice Age was a pretty low risk. It turns out you do not need a large-scale nuclear exchange between the US and Russia to cause global climate chaos. A limited exchange between India and Pakistan could be sufficient to kill billions though global starvation. I was also surprised to learn that Pakistan moves its nuclear arsenal around to thwart attacks my Indian commandos in the event of a war. This raises the risk of terrorists intercepting on of these weapons on the move, and using it for nuclear terrorism.

The book does a good job of examining the incredible fragility of out interconnected IT systems in the chapter on The Internet of Everything. As an IT professional I know the reality of how fragile these systems are and we are right to be scared of dire consequences of a serious cyber war.

I do not really think about Meteor Strikes, as there is little we can do about them and they are now part of popular culture.

The final worry in the book is about Gene Editing, especially CRISPR. CRISP has absolutely marvelous potential, but it also has many people worried. Daniel Saurez even has a new book on the topic called “Change Agent“. CRISPR is could be the mother of all second order effects. Take “off target events” for example:

Another serious concern arises from what are known as off-target events. After its discovery, researchers found that the CRISPR/Cas9 complex sometimes bonds to and cuts the target DNA at unintended locations. Particularly when dealing with human cells, they found that sometimes as many as five nucleotides were mismatched between the guide and target DNA. What might the consequences be if a DNA segment is improperly cut and put back together? What sorts of effects could this cause, both immediately and further down the road for heritable traits? Experimenting with plants or mouse bacteria in a controlled laboratory environment is one thing, but what is the acceptable level of error if and when researchers begin experimenting with a tool that cuts up a person’s DNA? If an error is in fact made, is there any potential way to fix the mistake?

So we have planet-scale problems, ingenious solutions. Instead of feeling paralysis or resignation we should accept Peter Thiel’s challenge to find the big breakthroughs, 0 to 1 intensive progress:

Progress comes in two flavors: horizontal/extensive and vertical/intensive. Horizontal or extensive progress basically means copying things that work. In one word, it means simply “globalization.” Consider what China will be like in 50 years. The safe bet is it will be a lot like the United States is now. Cities will be copied, cars will be copied, and rail systems will be copied. Maybe some steps will be skipped. But it’s copying all the same.

Vertical or intensive progress, by contrast, means doing new things. The single word for this is “technology.” Intensive progress involves going from 0 to 1 (not simply the 1 to n of globalization). We see much of our vertical progress come from places like California, and specifically Silicon Valley. But there is every reason to question whether we have enough of it. Indeed, most people seem to focus almost entirely on globalization instead of technology; speaking of “developed” versus “developing nations” is implicitly bearish about technology because it implies some convergence to the “developed” status quo. As a society, we seem to believe in a sort of technological end of history, almost by default.

It’s worth noting that globalization and technology do have some interplay; we shouldn’t falsely dichotomize them. Consider resource constraints as a 1 to n subproblem. Maybe not everyone can have a car because that would be environmentally catastrophic. If 1 to n is so blocked, only 0 to 1 solutions can help. Technological development is thus crucially important, even if all we really care about is globalization.

…Maybe we focus so much on going from 1 to because that’s easier to do. There’s little doubt that going from 0 to 1 is qualitatively different, and almost always harder, than copying something times. And even trying to achieve vertical, 0 to 1 progress presents the challenge of exceptionalism; any founder or inventor doing something new must wonder: am I sane? Or am I crazy?

From Blake Masters notes

 

 

LARPing

“For employees (campaign staff), there is an opportunity for live-action roleplaying (LARPing) disruption instead of actually taking the existential risks of disrupting. LARPing disruption is fun..Don’t mistake LARPing disruption for the real thing.Venkatesh Rao on “Software Adoption Bullshit” via Ribbonfarm newsletter

“The High Modernists claimed to be about figuring out the most efficient and high-tech way of doing things, but most of them knew little relevant math or science and were basically just LARPing being rational by placing things in evenly-spaced rectangular grids.” Review of “Seeing Like A State” by Scott Alexander

I first internalized the meaning of this phrase when I saw it in the Ribbonfarm newsletter above.

LARPing suddenly crystallized and gave a name to a phenomenon I have witnessed my whole life: people playing roles as though they were in a solipsistic theater, rather than living their roles.

LARPing is common amongst the wealthy, where dilettantism is endemic. I know of entire companies that exist merely to provide a realistic LARPing set for someone to play CEO / Founder, with sometimes hundreds of employees cast as actors in their personal drama.

It reminds me of the old vituperative “poseur“, but LARPing is more collaborative. You need a cast to play along. It is group or collective posing.

 

 

Amazon’s Leadership Principles

Jeff Bezos recent shareholder newsletter has received much praise in the tech press. Inc drew special attention to his principle of “Disagree and commit.”

When I read the article, this principle felt familiar to me, then I remembered where I had seen it before. It is the 13th Amazon Leadership Principle:

“Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”

The rest of the principles are also well worth remembering.

See also:

Communication is Failure

 

 

Skills for the 21st Century

From 2011, but good. The four drivers of change:

  1. Longevity, in terms of the age of the workforce and customers – Retiring Later
  2. Smart machines, to augment and extend human abilities – Workplace Automation
  3. A computational world, as computer networks connect – Internet of Everything
  4. New media, that pervade every aspect of life – Online Privacy
  5. Superstructed organizations, that scale below or beyond what was previously possible – AirBNB
  6. A globally connected world, with a multitude of local cultures and competition from all directions- Geek NationFrom http://jarche.com/2014/07/four-basic-skills-for-2020/

Matched by the 10 core skills:

  1. Sense making –  Ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed
  2. Social intelligence –  Ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions
  3. Novel and adaptive thinking –  Proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based
  4. Cross cultural competency –  Ability to operate in different cultural settings
  5. Computational thinking–  Ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data based reasoning
  6. New Media Literacy – Ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication
  7. Transdisciplinary –  Literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines
  8. Design Mindset –  Ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes
  9. Cognitive load management –  Ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functions
  10. Virtual collaboration – Ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual teamFrom http://www.top10onlinecolleges.org/work-skills-2020/

All started with the Institute for the Future document.

Hail the Maintainers

I am finally clearing out some old Instapaper articles. One that I really enjoyed was Andrew Russell’s examination of our civilizational obsession with “innovation” at the expense of maintenance and sustainable operability.

This is something we in cloud services learned fairly recently. Features are increasingly table stakes, fundamentals (e.g. availability, supportability, security, privacy, operability, maintainability, etc.) are the crucial differentiators.

Hail the Maintainers 

 

 

Vive la Intolerance

Ella Whelan had a nice article on Spiked about the de facto sacking of Kevin Roberts for expressing an admittedly naïve, but contrarian,  opinion on gender equality in the workplace:

It seems that illiberal liberals have discovered a new type of microaggression: gender-equality denial. Kevin Roberts, former chairman of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, has been forced to take a leave of absence following his comments on gender equality in the workplace.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Roberts had gone on a rant about women having smaller brains and making sandwiches. But, if you forgive his cursing, Roberts’ comments were actually quite boring. In an interview with Business Insider, he said shocking things like, ‘I don’t think [the lack of women in leadership roles] is a problem’ and ‘the fucking debate is all over’. He defended his own company, (Saatchi & Saatchi has a 50/50 gender quota scheme) and asserted that the reason more women aren’t in top jobs is that they want to be happy rather than rich – hardly scandalous.

But even Roberts’ nonchalant lack of interest in gender equality is unacceptable, it seems. Feminists barely had time to hit the keyboards before Roberts had been put on leave with the promise that his position at Saatchi & Saatchi would be reviewed – in other words, he was sacked. Not only that, but Publicis Groupe, the parent company of Saatchi & Saatchi, released a statement damning Roberts’ comments and warning its employees that ‘diversity and inclusion are business imperatives on which Publicis Groupe will not negotiate’. Yes, that’s right, Publicis values diversity and inclusion so much that it will not tolerate diversity or inclusion of political opinion in the workplace.

…Roberts doesn’t want a debate about gender equality, but neither do his critics. Gender equality, it seems, is not up for discussion. Anyone who has criticised the political inadequacies of contemporary feminism knows this. If we want to have a real debate about women’s freedom (a discussion on reproductive rights would be a good start), we should have one. But let’s stop this pretence of a debate about gender and get serious about defending women’s agency and capabilities. That means allowing men like Roberts to have an opinion and to voice it freely without being silenced or sacked.

The thing that amused me was the Orwellian press release from Publicis. Talk about self-contradiction!

vive-la-differance

 

Finally, as “white male”, I am really feeling the hate from radical feminists. One wrong word and you are fired. I am sure many many men are choosing to stay silent on a whole host of issues for fear of repercussions. Mission accomplished I suppose?  Whilst men are being sacked and having their livelihoods destroyed for expressing heterodoxy, radical feminists in particular can express the most sordid anti-(white)male sentiments with absolute impunity. It does not dim my commitment to gender equality at all all, but I am actively rooting for the real feminists like Camille Paglia who are taking the fight to these vicious people and standing up for free speech, gender equality and human rights.

See also:

Joanna Williams in The Spectator – http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/08/saatchis-sexism-row-suggests-feminists-cant-handle-debate/

Communication is Failure

An interesting discussion last week over on the Pickax retailers episode of the Exponent podcast . Ben and James were discussing Ben’s hugely popular Amazon article The Amazon Tax.

It is a great discussion and well worth the listen, especially about how in many ways Apple and Amazon resemble their org charts. Apple has a single P&L – and they go all in for perfectly integrated appliances that fit perfectly into their ecosystem. Amazon is like AWS, an assembly of modular “primitives” (storage, compute, DB) all interacting through very well defined protocols and interfaces. So much for Steve Sinofsky’s “don’t ship the org chart” !

One thing I learned is that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos considers communications to be a sign of failure. Increased communications signals issues a failure to define interfaces. At Amazon they do not use PowerPoint because Bezo’s says “the details get lost between the bulletpoints”. Instead they use Word documents for meeting briefings. Maximum 6 pages . No powerpoint in Amazon meetings only maximum 6 page Word doc because if you cannot explain it in writing you have not thought about it enough to justify a meeting.

Love that.

The Four Elements of Leadership

Michael Lombardi, former General Manager of the Cleveland Browns and current member of the coaching staff on the New England Patriots enumerated four elements of leadership:

  • Management of attention, aka plan. Systems and processes are offshoots of management of attention.
  • Management of meaning, aka communication – explain the plan.
  • Management of trust – consistency and no double standards.
  • Management of self – self-criticism and humility. Honesty. Admit mistakes and correct course.

He also quoted Bobby Kennedy – “Guide your life by principle not ambition”. Not sure if its accurate but I like the quote.

From The Knowledge Project podcast

The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

can a giant eraser remove the past?

“Can a giant raser remove the past?” Typewriter Eraser. Scale X, 1999, by Claes Oldenburg (American, born 1929, Sweden) and Coosje van Bruggen (American, born 1942, The Netherlands). Photo by Woodleywonders via Flicker (cc)

Came across this whilst reading Felix Salmon’s superb “Why you can’t trust journalism“. He links to Seekerblog’s 2006 post on “The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect“, who in turn quotes Michael Criton’s 2002 speech “Why Speculate?“:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

I have noticed this time and time again. People who lambaste the media for supporting something they oppose will uncritically quote the same media when they suddenly find themselves in agreement.

Another area I notice this is with Serbs commenting on other countries. Serbs have been demonized in the media for over 20 years. They have suffered the most appalling slanders, yet it has not equipped many of them at all to spot the same treatment of others.

When Denmark recently came under fire for extending its social welfare laws of asset confiscation to migrants, I had Serbian friends in all my timelines writing “F*ck Denmark!”, not wondering at all if the story was being portrayed accurately (which it was not).

See also:

Truth Leakage – How politicians and journalists often reveal the truth as metadata or background material when discussing a tangential topic.

Why Donald Trump Leads National Polls

Donald Trump

“The frontrunner’s support is built less on bigotry, than on his confident projection of executive intelligence.”

The always excellent David Frum explains where Trump is getting his political energy from.

The simple “xenophobes, bigots and old white people” trope peddled by his opponents does not explain it.

Frum argues it is a combination of his satisfying the deep hunger in the Republican base for leaders with “executive intelligence” and because “Republicans have come to fear that their leaders have turned anti-native”.

This aligns with Scott Adams’ assessment that Trump’s strategy is all about presenting himself as the only adult in the room, the only person with a plan (no matter how nutty) and the experience to deliver on it (Frum’s “Executive Intelligence”). The good news is that we can all blame George W. Bush for this.

Read it here: Why Donald Trump Leads National Polls – The Atlantic