Warnings: Return of The Long Emergency


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



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



Approximately correct strategy

Jason Bates (@JasonBates) tipped me off about the concept of “Approximately correct strategy”, from an interview with by Dick Harrington (former CEO of Thomson Reuters) by HBR columnist Anthony Tjan:

Recently, I had dinner with Dick Harrington, former CEO of Thomson Reuters

We talked about his three most significant lessons learned over his very successful 25+ year career as a Fortune 250 executive.

Dick Harrington (DH): First, you have to have an “approximately correct” strategy — you have to know where you are going, but directionally correct is the key. Two, you have to be highly focused and intensely execute that strategy by motivating and aligning the troops you have. And three, it always comes back to the customers and the fact that you have to manically know your customers and drive everything from that.

TT: Nicely done. So let’s start with the first point. People often worry about architecting a perfect business plan or strategy and then get lost in the minutia. How do you know when you are “approximately correct,” as you say?

DH: You want to be approximately correct instead of precisely incorrect. There is a point at which additional information or research will not change the basics of your strategy. When you get your strategy there, you have to “Nike it” – you just do it. If you continue to refine and refine, you’ll never get into action, and the incremental value of research just won’t be worth the time and money. Schedule time frames and be religious about them to launch, get feedback, and see if the strategy is acceptable to the customer or if you need to adjust.  

From: http://blogs.hbr.org/tjan/2009/08/lessons-learned-from-30-years.html

Clouds are still vapour, Grids are real

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”.

From: http://www.dnseurope.net/cloud_computing.html

We are always keen to hear from anyone that has some ideas about all this, so please feel free to contact Steve with your feedback via the contact form here or on the DNS Europe website.

Bootstrapping your Startup

I recently came across Reuven Cohen’s (CEO of Enomaly) “8 Rules for Bootstrapping your Startup“. It is a good list and there is no doubt that Enomaly is the rising star in the Cloud Computing startup field, earning themselves backing from Intel and the superb PR that such backing affords.

In many ways Enomaly and my company are similar (Consulting companies that have transformed into Cloud Computing start-ups).

I will be keeping an eye on these guys.

Kill your good ideas

Is the hallmark of a great company its ability to resist half-heartedly attempting to implement good ideas, but rather to focus on perfectly implementing a few of the best? Steve Jobs thinks so. From Bob Sutton “Wisdom From Steve Jobs: The Importance of Killing Good Ideas”:

[Steve] Jobs’ argument went something like this: What is really hard – and a hallmark of great companies – is that they kill at lot of good ideas. Sure, this is tough on people who have come-up with the good ideas as they love them and don’t want to see them die. But that for any single good idea to succeed, it needs a lot of resources, time, and attention, and so only a few ideas can be developed fully. Successful companies are tough enough to kill a lot of good ideas so those few that survive have a chance of reaching their full potential and being implemented properly. I would also add that this approach also applies to good product and experience design. If every good idea is thrown into a product, then the result is a terrible and confusing experience. (This seems to be the problem with the latest version of Microsoft word, it does everything, so therefore is very annoying and confusing to use.)

If you take this argument to its logical conclusion, it means that innovative companies might keep track of these two metrics:

1. How many good ideas are killed? (If this number isn’t high enough, that is a bad sign.)

2. Are people complaining – even leaving – because too many of their good ideas are killed? (The idea here is that if no one is complaining about this problem, then there aren’t enough being killed. The complaining, and even people leaving, is bad. But if no one is complaining, it is a worse sign. Creating this kind of frustration is an unfortunate byproduct of an effective innovation process and if your people don’t have enough pride and confidence to get upset when their innovative ideas are killed, then something is wrong with them — or your culture.)

These weird metrics may or may not work, but they make sense given Jobs’ argument (which I find quite compelling). His argument also resonates with our experience teaching in the d.school — the groups that often do the worst work have too many pet ideas and can’t bring themselves to kill enough of them, so they don’t do a decent job on any of them. Groups that can’t kill enough ideas also often suffer from bad group dynamics, either because multiple members won’t allow the group to kill their pet ideas, or because the group avoids difficult conversations about which ideas (and therefore whose ideas) to kill, and instead, tries to develop too many ideas (None of which are developed well — which results in collective failure.) As Perry tells our students, there comes a point in the process where you have to kill the ideas you have nurtured and come to love, even though it hurts.

If only we would let ourselves be dominated

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.