The Russel Conjugation

Eric R. Weinstein on The Russel Conjugation:

The basic principle of Russell Conjugation is that the human mind is constantly looking ahead well beyond what is true or false to ask “What is the social consequence of accepting the facts as they are?”  While this line of thinking is obviously self-serving, we are descended from social creatures who could not safely form opinions around pure facts so much as around how those facts are presented to us by those we ape, trust or fear. Thus, as listeners and readers our minds generally mirror the emotional state of the source, while in our roles as authoritative narrators presenting the facts, we maintain an arsenal of language to subliminally instruct our listeners and readers on how we expect them to color their perceptions. Russell discussed this by putting three such presentations of a common underlying fact in the form in which a verb is typically conjugated:

  • I am firm. [Positive empathy]
  • You are obstinate. [Neutral to mildly negative empathy]
  • He/She/It is pigheaded.  [Very negative empathy]

In all three cases, Russell was describing people who did not readily change their minds. Yet by putting these descriptions so close together and without further factual information to separate the individual cases, we were forced to confront the fact that most of us feel positively towards the steadfast narrator and negatively towards the pigheaded fool, all without any basis in fact.

…If we accept that Russell Conjugation keeps us from even seeing that we do not hold consistent opinions on facts, we see a possible new answer to a puzzle that dates from the birth of the web: “If the internet democratized information, why has its social impact been so much slower than many of us expected?” Assuming that our actions are based not on what we know but upon how we feel about what we know, we see that traditional media has all but lost control of gate-keeping our information, but not yet how it is emotively shaded. In fact, it is relatively simple to write a computer program to crawl factually accurate news stories against a look-up table of Russell conjugates to see the exact bias of every supposedly objective story.

Thus the answer to the puzzle of our inaction it seems may be that we built an information superhighway for all, but neglected to build an empathy network alongside it to democratize what we feel.”

https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27181

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

 

 

Tyranny and the Cloud

Only one thing worries me about the cloud: It facilitates state control because Cloud Computing reverses the decentralization (distribution) of computer power that heralded the internet. I think I got this fear from Cory Doctorow and his “The coming war on general computing.”

Anyway, maybe it is just a phase. Distributed Computing may very well be making a comeback as we see the end of Cloud Computing.

“World War III will be a global information war with no division between civilian and military participation.” -Marshal McLuhan

Susan Sons on Girls and Tech

Great post on girls and tech by legendary hacker Susan Sons. At the age of 12 she became a respect member of an IRC channel where she was fully accepted despite her age and gender:

Open source was my refuge because it was a place were nobody cared what my pedigree was or what I looked like—they cared only about what I did. I ingratiated myself to people who could help me learn by doing dull scutwork: triaging issues to keep the issue queues neat and orderly, writing documentation and fixing code comments. I was the helpful kid, so when I needed help, the community was there. I’d never met another programmer in real life at this point, but I knew more about programming than some college students. 

Twelve-year-old girls today don’t generally get to have the experiences that I did. Parents are warned to keep kids off the computer lest they get lured away by child molesters or worse—become fat! That goes doubly for girls, who then grow up to be liberal arts majors. Then, in their late teens or early twenties, someone who feels the gender skew in technology communities is a problem drags them to a LUG meeting or an IRC channel. Shockingly, this doesn’t turn the young women into hackers.

Why does anyone, anywhere, think this will work? Start with a young woman who’s already formed her identity. Dump her in a situation that operates on different social scripts than she’s accustomed to, full of people talking about a subject she doesn’t yet understand. Then tell her the community is hostile toward women and therefore doesn’t have enough of them, all while showing her off like a prize poodle so you can feel good about recruiting a female. This is a recipe for failure.

Young women don’t magically become technologists at 22. Neither do young men. Hackers are born in childhood, because that’s when the addiction to solving the puzzle or building something kicks in to those who’ve experienced that “victory!” moment like I had when I imposed my will on a couple electronic primates.

Unfortunately, our society has set girls up to be anything but technologists. My son is in elementary school. Last year, his school offered a robotics class for girls only. When my son asked why he couldn’t join, it was explained to him that girls need special help to become interested in technology, and that if there are boys around, the girls will be too scared to try.

My son came home very confused. You see, he grew up with a mom who coded while she breastfed and brought him to his first LUG meeting at age seven weeks. The first time he saw a home-built robot, it was shown to him by a local hackerspace member, a woman who happens to administer one of the country’s biggest supercomputers. Why was his school acting like girls were dumb?

Thanks so much, modern-day “feminism”, for putting very unfeminist ideas in my son’s head. 

http://www.linuxjournal.com/content/girls-and-software

Clay Shirky on Culture Cones

culture_cones

Last month (January 2014) Clay Shirky gave a talk at Microsoft (50mins with Q&A). He took the opportunity to float some new ideas he has about Culture Cones, a metaphor he has borrowed from the physics concept of light cones.

He starts the description of the concept at 12m 45s into the talk.

Imagine two observers. The first is one light year from a supernova, the other is two light years away from the supernova.  If the supernova explodes with a flash, the event will "happen" one year later to the first observer and two years later to the second observer. One sees it a year before the other.

So it is with cultural events and memes. Culture cones move through networks like light cones through space.

Shirky asks, "When was the first time you heard about bitcoin?", a culture cone moving though society right now.

Less connected people experience these events much later. They just saw the supernova flash no matter how long ago it actually happened. Technologists have this all the time when their family eventually ask them about some new thing that is actually old, "So what’s this Tor thing?"

It’s worth watching the talk. He even mentions Boyd’s and OODA loops.

Clay Shirky – Social Computing Symposium -16 January 2014

Here, but not here

David Strom makes an interesting observation in this week’s Web Informant newsletter  (August 21, 2012: The dichotomy of virtual friendship). 

I had a meeting yesterday that drove home the dichotomy of our virtual connections. It was supposed to be a standard have-a-drink-to-meet-the-vendor-after-the-conference kind of thing, a chance to see a new company (who will remain nameless) at the Gartner
Catalyst show that I am attending and covering for HP’s Input/Output website this week in San Diego.

I had never met anyone from the vendor, nor my intended companion, but both sounded interesting. He brought along his chief nerd and the meeting started falling apart quickly, as Mr. N (let’s call him that) proceeded to fiddle with his iPad. I thought he was queuing up a
presentation or a demo for me, so I didn’t give it much thought.

But then I noticed something odd: as long as I was talking to my companion, the marcom guy, N wasn’t part of the conversation. When I asked a technical question, N immediately piped up with an extended and quite cogent answer. It was as if he was present in two different places: online (or in iSpace, or whatever he was doing with his tablet) and in the here and now, part of my press briefing. It was a bit offputting, to say the least.

It became clear that N was socially inept, perhaps somewhere that could be diagnosed, and didn’t want to be part of my briefing. He also brought along his smartphone, and just as I thought I would get at least a nanosecond of his direct attention, he picked that up and started messing with that.

In all of my years of taking these kinds of meetings, this was a new one for me.

It brought home the point: Never have we have so connected virtually and so removed when we are in person.

I have seen this plenty. It’s a common affliction in the tech industry, especially at conferences. People lurk on the periphery, passive monitoring, and activate their attention to the present situation only when their filter detects a cue for them to contribute.  

I actually think this is behaviour from conference calls carried over into real life. 

Due to poor meeting discipline, so many people on conference calls are unneeded, most put on mute and crack on with their workday, paying minimal “continuous partial attention” to the discussion. 

When they are questioned directly or hear something they want to comment on, their attention snaps to the call. 

How often have you heard someone being addressed on a conference call, only to have dead air as they scramble to unmute and try to recall what was just being discussed?

Attention really is the gold (or Tulips) of the 21st century. 

Economics of Information Technology

Old but good (2001). A primer on the economics of Information Technology.

This is an overview of economic phenomena that are important for high-technology industries. Topics covered include personalization of products and prices, versioning, bundling, switching costs, lock-in, economies of scale, network effects, standards, and systems effects.

Most of these phenomena are present in conventional industries, but they are particular important for technology-intensive industries. I provide a survey and review of recent literature and examine some implications of these phenomena for corporate strategy and public policy.

via Economics of Information Technology.