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

 

 

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)

Checking the the idea of “Privilege”

I noticed three articles this week on the theme of privilege and leftist ideology as religion.

One of my favorite public intellectuals, Jonathan Haidt, has a video in the Wall Street Journal (paywall)

Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage – “ An unorthodox professor explains the ‘new religion’ that drives the intolerance and violence at places like Middlebury and Berkeley.”

On Twitter, Peter Boghossian points out that he called this first, back in 2016:

Privilege: The Left’s Original Sin:

The concepts of Original Sin and privilege are identical except that they operate in different moral universes. In familiar religions, Original Sin is something you’re born with. It’s something you can’t escape. It’s something you can’t really do anything about – except be ashamed. It’s something you should confess and try to cleanse yourself of. It’s something that requires forgiveness, atonement, penitence, and work. It’s something, if you take it to heart, for which you will browbeat others.

For many contemporary left-situated activists, privilege occupies the same role in a religion of contemporary identity politics. There is no greater sin than having been born an able-bodied, straight, white male who identifies as a man but isn’t deeply sorry for this utterly unintentional state of affairs.

Finally, “The last thing on ‘privilege’ you’ll ever need to read” is a book review of Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s “The Perils of "Privilege": Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage”.

Power really does corrupt

I learned last week that becoming powerful has measurable neurological effects on your ability to empathize.

Listen to this fascinating episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain on “The Perils of Power”.

If you have a Harvard Business Review subscription there is a long article in the October 2016 edition called “Don’t let power corrupt you”.

Zikr

The BBC recently reported on the “Islamic Sufi prayer ceremony known as Zikr“.  It is pretty popular in the Caucasus. 

Years ago I remember seeing a brief news spot on Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman ruler of Chechnya. He was doing what I now realize is the Zikr dance. At the time I was absolutely intrigued, and I still am.There is something fascinating about this. Must be the raver in me.

There is an entire Youtube channel devoted to Zikr.

And because it is the internet, there is a pisstake (this dance set to rave music, which highlights just how similar dance/trance and these spiritual practices are to each other).

More

A Whirling Sufi Revival With Unclear Implications  – NY Times, 2006

Chechnya: Kadyrov Uses ‘Folk Islam’ For Political Gain – Radio Free Europe, 2016

Kadyrov Turns to Zikrism to Legitimize His Rule – The Jamestome Foundation

Disclaimers Against Reality: Charles Bukowski on Censorship

A wonderful letter on censorship from Charles Bukowski that I found on the Farnam Street Blog. Bukowski had one of his books removed from a library and this was his response to the person warning him about it. The emphases are mine. It was written in 1985:

The thing that I fear discriminating against is humor and truth.

Censorship is the tool of those who have the need to hide actualities from themselves and from others. Their fear is only their inability to face what is real, and I can’t vent any anger against them. I only feel this appalling sadness. Somewhere, in their upbringing, they were shielded against the total facts of our existence. They were only taught to look one way when many ways exist.

I am not dismayed that one of my books has been hunted down and dislodged from the shelves of a local library. In a sense, I am honored that I have written something that has awakened these from their non-ponderous depths. But I am hurt, yes, when somebody else’s book is censored, for that book, usually is a great book and there are few of those, and throughout the ages that type of book has often generated into a classic, and what was once thought shocking and immoral is now required reading at many of our universities.

I am not saying that my book is one of those, but I am saying thatin our time, at this moment when any moment may be the last for many of us, it’s damned galling and impossibly sad that we still have among us the small, bitter people, the witch-hunters and the declaimers against reality. Yet, these too belong with us, they are part of the whole, and if I haven’t written about them, I should, maybe have here, and that’s enough.

may we all get better together,”

Absolutely wonderful.

Michael Mauboussin

Just heard an interview with Michael Mauboussin on The Knowledge Project podcast (a Farnum Street blog production) and he was super interesting.

A few quotes form the podcast. These are paraphrased:

  • “An expert is someone who has a predictive model that works.”
  • “When it comes to decision making, Daniel Kahneman advises us to use the statistical baseline first (system 2) then Overlay your intuition (system 1), not the other way around or you have confirmation bias.”
  • Evaluate your decision making – track your results. The objective is to make quality decisions over time (like Munger and value investing which is more about avoiding loss than making huge gains).
  • Lessons from Colonel Blotto – if you are dominant player you want to keep It as simple as possible – fewest possible battlefields.    Also for weaker then dilute the power Of the powerful opponent.  Create more complexity, more battlefields.
  • Advice for Parents: Instill Growth Mindset (praise for effort not characteristics) , consider opposite viewpoints and learn how to bet ( decision tracking). Teach kids that even though they win a bet, if it was an irrational/reckless bet, they will lose in the long run. Offer them recommendations, not orders. If you are right, they will learn to respect your recommendations.

He recommended these books: