I have five pieces of advice for my daughters. My first rule is: Always think like an immigrant, because we’re all new immigrants to the age of accelerations.
Second, always think like an artisan. Always do your job in a way that you bring so much empathy to it, so much unique, personal value-add that it cannot be automated, digitized, or outsourced, and you want to carve your initials into it at the end of the day.
Third, always be in beta. Always think of yourself as if you need to be re-engineered, retooled, relearned, and retaught constantly. Never think of yourself as finished—otherwise, you really will be finished.
Fourth, always remember that PQ (passion quotient) plus CQ (curiosity quotient) is greater than IQ (intelligence quotient). Give me a young person with a high PQ and a high CQ, and I will take that person over a kid with a high IQ seven days a week.
And last, whatever you do, whether you’re in the public sector or the private sector, whether you’re on the front lines or a manager, always think entrepreneurially. Always think, “Where can I fork off and start a new company over here, a new business over there?” Because a huge manufacturing company is not coming to your town with a 25,000-person factory. That factory is now 2,500 robots and 500 people. So we need three people starting jobs for six; six people starting jobs for 12; 12 people starting jobs for 20. That’s how we’re going to get all those jobs. We need everyone thinking entrepreneurially.
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
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 n 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 n 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
Enjoyed this profile of Charlie Munger on Medium, especially the description of the Expert Generalist, a rival to the 10,000 hour specialist:
The Rise Of The Expert-Generalist
The rival argument to the 10,000 hour rule is the expert-generalist approach. Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Co, who coined the term, describes the expert-generalist as:
“Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics., etc. He or she can then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design:
- Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas.
- Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.”
The concept is commonly represented by this model of the “T-shaped individual”:
My fellow blogger and Communications Director at DNS Europe, Steve Hurford, has put together a great position statement on the future of Cloud Computing and its relationship to Grids. Here is an excerpt:
Grids are the building blocks of future clouds
Without knowing today exactly what the future of cloud computing will look like, customers are faced with the decision of what choices to make that give real commercial benefits today and greatest flexibility for tomorrow. As we see it, future clouds will be formed from and accessible by those customers which adopt grid hosting infrastructures, develop multi-tennant applications and offer services that are not tethered by specific location, operating system, physical resources or other geographical constraints. Not only will they be able to integrate with future clouds but they will be best placed to take advantage of other cloud-enabled services and to offer their own services to other cloud contributors.
Clouds should not and will not be “owned”
The term cloud computing is today being used by many providers who, in fact, are actually offering Grid Hosting. Taking Google and Amazon as examples, they have opened up their own infrastructure for customers to deploy their own applications on their “clouds” and use their compute resources for a measured service fee. More correctly, these infrastructures should be called “grids” and the services called “Utility Computing”. Where these offerings substantially differ from our believe of what Cloud Computing will become is in their attempt to own the cloud. Ultimately we believe that this is a futile effort due to the pace of change of market requirements and their restricted service platform development capabilities. Provided that they eventually adopt the principles of open platform integration, they will however become very serious components of the future of cloud computing.
From grids to clouds
Under perhaps the simplest model for differentiating grids and clouds, grids are essentially building blocks, or discrete physical resources that will one day make up, or enable, clouds. One of the key drivers for businesses must therefore be to invest in a technology which facilitates the easiest transition from one to the other. A technology which will enable real cost savings today with open opportunities for tomorrow. A technology which provides a birthing ground for new application and service architectures which will one day fly the nest and reach full maturity in “the cloud”.
The financial crisis may spell doom for many start-ups. From Wired.com:
Angel investor Ron Conway (above) thinks it could be at least two years before “the storm” ends, in which case any company with fewer than 6 months worth of cash, needs to either sell out, get a bridge loan, or “prepare for an orderly shutdown.”
“Don’t put your team through the agony of arriving to work one day and saying, ‘Guess what? We ran out of cash.’ You need to face reality. It’s not easy, but it’s basic,” said Conway, speaking on the panel.
I think the guys on The ZA Tech Show made agood point that the crisis could spark off an orgy of buy-outs and mergers. Many tech companies are looking very vulnerable now, with some, like Yahoo, so badly affected by stock price falls that they might want to beg Microsoft to come and buy them after all.
Joe and Parse 2 has a brilliant post entitled “11 Things I Learned While Trying to Figure Out the Financial Crisis“.
I particularly like his last two:
- Cognitive errors. Megan McCardle of The Atlantic has compiled a useful list of cognitive errors that seem to have played a role in the crisis – both in creating the conditions that led to it and in compounding it…
- The Black Swan. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is my kind of economist. The basis of his philosophy is that, “The world we live in is vastly different from the world we think we live in.” He advocates “tinkering” as our best mean to change the world – and his theory of the markets take into account many of the previous points. While he was running his own hedge fund in the 1990s, he turned his own knowledge of his lack of knowledge – and others’ lack of knowledge – into enormous profits. It came at the expense of losing a little money 364 days of the year – but making enormous profits in that one remaining day. He would bet on market volatility – which he understood financial firms repeatedly underestimated. Taleb’s key insight is that we know very little of the world itself – and will be more often fundamentally wrong than right…
Taleb believes in tinkering – it was to be the title of his next book. Trial and error will save us from ourselves because they capture benign black swans. Look at the three big inventions of our time: lasers, computers and the internet. They were all produced by tinkering and none of them ended up doing what their inventors intended them to do. All were black swans. The big hope for the world is that, as we tinker, we have a capacity for choosing the best outcomes.
“We have the ability to identify our mistakes eventually better than average; that’s what saves us.” We choose the iPod over the Walkman. Medicine improved exponentially when the tinkering barber surgeons took over from the high theorists. They just went with what worked, irrespective of why it worked. Our sense of the good tinker is not infallible, but it might be just enough to turn away from the apocalypse that now threatens Extremistan.
If some of the words in the excerpt seem a bit odd, it is because Taleb is creating an entire new glossary for his ideas.
In a thoughtful post entitled “Thoughts on the Financial Crisis“, Tim O’Reilly quotes a Rilke poem:
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming…What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
He explained the quote like this:
There are a lot of people bloviating about the financial crisis. It’s outside of our area of expertise, so there didn’t seem to be a lot of urgency to add to the hot air. Even professional economists and financial experts disagree on where this is going. I’ve been reading a lot, and sharing the best links via my twitter feed, but frankly, I’m feeling that we’re in the middle of a wave that no one completely understands.Meanwhile, I did in fact spend my NY Web Expo talk on the idea that “I sense a storm coming” (Rilke quote), and the idea that companies and individuals need robust strategies (ones that can work even in uncertain times), with one robust strategy being to “work on stuff that matters.”
In a letter to his own employees where he elaborates on this, he passes on some great advice that we can all heeded:
Many of you have no doubt been alarmed by the developments of the last couple of weeks in financial markets……robust strategies are ones you’d adopt in good times and in bad…we probably end up with more robust strategies if we assume the worst rather than the best.
We could be in for a long, rough time in the economy. I’m not going to say otherwise.
But I also want to point out that rough times are often the best times for creativity, opportunity and change.
…And if you look at history, you see that this has always and everywhere been true. It’s not an accident that economist Joseph Schumpeter talked about the “creative destruction” inherent in capitalism. Great problems are also great opportunities for those who know how to solve them. And looking ahead, I can see great opportunities.
The energy crisis (both global warming and the oil price shock) is helping people to focus on how technology can transform the energy sector. The financial crisis has demonstrated just how out-of-whack an unregulated, proprietary, black-box approach can get. This will lead to
an emphasis on regulation, but I hope, above all, on transparency. This is of course analogous to what happened with open source software. Meanwhile, the mobile revolution will continue, regardless of the state of the economy. If it can prosper in Africa, it can prosper even in an
American downturn. And all the stuff we’re exploring with Make: new materials, new approaches to manufacturing, and the “open source” approach applied to hardware, will take us in unexpected directions. And all of these areas can benefit from what we do best: capturing and
spreading the knowledge of innovators.
We don’t know yet how problems in the overall economy will affect our business. But what we can do now are the things we ought to be doing anyway:
- Work on stuff that matters: Assuming that the world does go to hell in a handbasket, what would we still want to be working on? What will people need to know? (Chances are good that they need to know these things in a world where we all continue to muddle along as well.)
- Exert visionary leadership in our markets. In tough times, people look for inspiration and vision. The big ideas we care about will still matter, perhaps even more when people are looking for a way forward. (Remember how Web 2.0 gave hope and a story line to an
industry struggling its way out of the dotcom bust.)
- Be prudent in what we spend money on. Get rid of the “nice to do” things, and focus on the “must do” things to accelerate them.
These are all things we should be doing every day anyway. Sometimes, though, a crisis can provide an unexpected gift, a reminder that nobody promised us tomorrow, so we need to make what we do today count.
I have been waiting for the dust to settle and for some informed commentary to emerge. Here is the first crop of interesting links:
The Fuel That Fed The Subprime Meltdown by Ryan Barnes (Investopedia overview)
The fatal banker’s fall – Financial Times
Taleb’s Warning by Richard Fernandez
Thoughts on the Financial Crisis – Tim O’Reilly (of O’Reilly Media fame)
Audio & Radio
The Giant Pool of Money – http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=355 (also see Planet Money – Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson (the guys who did that program) have a new daily, free podcast and blog applying that same explanatory power to each day’s breaking news on the financial crisis).
This American Life “Another Frightening Show About the Economy”
Enforcers, Act II “Now You SEC Me, Now You Don’t”
A great episode of Fresh Air, in which Terry Gross interviews Michael Greenberger, a former director at the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. He gives a very helpful, lucid primer on the current financial picture.
A follow-up Terry did with Greenberger, just as good, when the government bailed out AIG in mid-September.
It is almost exactly a year since the European Central Bank was forced to inject €95bn into the eurozone banking system, bringing home what many had suspected – that the fallout from the US subprime mortgage crisis in the US was causing serious pain to global financial markets.
The fallout has been dramatic. Across the world, banks have been forced to raise fresh capital to repair ravaged balance sheets. Several have gone bust or have had to be bailed out, and thousands of jobs have been cut.
The fallout from the crisis has not been confined to the financial sector. The effect on the wider economy, against a backdrop of collapsing house prices, slowing growth and rising inflation, has been profound.
In a series of stories throughout this week, the FT looks at how the world has changed in the past 12 months and the long-term impact on the global financial system and the world economy