When Liberalism Stops Being Liberal


View story at Medium.com

Interesting series on Medium.

  • Identity Politics – Left, right, and the making of Trump’s America
  • Political Correctness – The tyranny of “PC culture” is real — and a threat to liberal society
  • Big Government – Slouching toward illiberalism
  • Campus Censorship – The purpose of higher education and why and how it is censored
  • Free Speech in a Global Context – Dangerously illiberal trends in liberal societies
  • Religious Liberty – The right to religious belief and expression is of first importance to a free society
  • Education – School choice both manifests and strengthens the liberal order

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



Effective Theory

I was reminded of this concept of Effective Theory in an article on Economics by Arnold King.  Heren it is explained by Harvard physicist Lisa Randall:

Effective theory is a valuable concept when we ask how scientific theories advance, and what we mean when we say something is right or wrong. Newton’s laws work extremely well. They are sufficient to devise the path by which we can send a satellite to the far reaches of the Solar System and to construct a bridge that won’t collapse. Yet we know quantum mechanics and relativity are the deeper underlying theories. Newton’s laws are approximations that work at relatively low speeds and for large macroscopic objects. What’s more is that an effective theory tells us precisely its limitations — the conditions and values of parameters for which the theory breaks down. The laws of the effective theory succeed until we reach its limitations when these assumptions are no longer true or our measurements or requirements become increasingly precise.

Kind writes:

Whereas the term “science” often is used to connote absolute truth in an almost religious sense, effective theory is provisional. When we are certain that in a particular context a theory will work, then and only then is the theory effective.

Effective theory consists of verifiable knowledge. To be verifiable, a finding must be arrived at by methods that are generally viewed as robust. Any researcher who tries to replicate a finding using appropriate methods should be able to confirm it. The strongest confirmation of the effectiveness of a theory comes from prediction and control. Lisa Randall’s example of sending a spacecraft to the far reaches of the solar system illustrates such confirmation.


“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.



The Unconscious: A machine for operating an animal

There is a wonderful article on language and the unconscious in Nautilus magazine written by author Cormack McCarthy.

It answers the mystery of why the unconscious “speaks” to us in symbols and images instead of just using words.

He calls it the Kekulé problem:

“Among the myriad instances of scientific problems solved in the sleep of the inquirer Kekulé’s is probably the best known. He was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth—the ouroboros of mythology—and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” Well. The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesnt it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.””

The article attempts to unpick the mystery. It comes down to the fact that the unconscious was operating humans long before they acquired language, and its picture-story mode, honed by evolution is extremely good storing the vast amounts of information we need to maintain survival heuristics.

Apart from its great antiquity the picture-story mode of presentation favored by the unconscious has the appeal of its simple utility. A picture can be recalled in its entirety whereas an essay cannot….The log of knowledge or information contained in the brain of the average citizen is enormous. But the form in which it resides is largely unknown. You may have read a thousand books and be able to discuss any one of them without remembering a word of the text.

…The picture-story lends itself to parable. To the tale whose meaning gives one pause. The unconscious is concerned with rules but these rules will require your cooperation. The unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general but it doesnt care what toothpaste you use.

...The unconscious is just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break

This video from Simon Sinek has some good illustrations of the power of the unconscious and belief:

* He is a bit irritating in this video. Too performative.

Arendtian Action

Great essay from Venkatesh Rao in his Breaking Smart newsletter. Here are the first few paragraphs, the rest is at the link:

2) There is an enormous itch we all seem to share, to act in the world some way. To do things that are consequential on a stage that is larger than that of our private lives.

3/ To do what philosopher Hannah Arendt called appear in public. This does not mean narcissistically inserting cough Trump cough your life story into the narrative of the world via long trolls.

4/ Instead, it means seeking to live fully in a way voluntarily recognized as fully human by others. Whether they agree or disagree with you, they acknowledge how you have enriched the human condition for all.

5/ The side-effect of Arendtian action is entering history books, but that is not its intent. The intent is to live a fully human life, in the company of a plurality of other humans, who welcome your presence.

6/ A mode of being human that transcends a life lived in private, with family, or within the closed cognitive context of a particular tribe. A mode that history has traditionally reserved for royalty.

7/ A mode of being that requires the presence of other fully human individuals around us, who also act. and act differently from you, your family, and your various tribes, in ways you cannot control.

8/ Arendtian action is a way of creating a full life for yourself that goes beyond contemplation and integrates behaviors all the way from intimate and private contexts to the worldly public stage.

9/ Arendtian action is action that allows you to feel fully human. It is not the off-by-yourself fuck-you-money action of self-isolation. It demands cultivation and use of voice. Arendtian action subsumes both mute action and empty speech.”

Read the rest at the newsletter archive (backup here)

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