Intellectual NASCAR

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Tonight, the debate between Clinton and Trump was televised.  And, like most television, it was more likely to entertain than to inform.  Many folks have made up their mind already, and all this could do was reinforce what they already decided.

If anything, these “debates” (micromanaged to the last detail), are essentially “intellectual NASCAR”, where some folks aren’t looking to see the race (and attendant strategies) or the debate issues, but to look for the big gaffe, the big crash, the intellectual-wrapped-around-a-telephone-poll blunder that shows that the other side is ill-equipped to lead, govern, or even put two coherent sentences together.

Frankly, given the rhetoric on both sides, it seems like a waste of time to listen to a few debates.  Politicians, as much as we might dislike many of them, are human beings, and are bound to make mistakes, missteps, and gaffes.  It happens.

There were seven (!) Lincoln-Douglass debates (and they weren’t even presidential ones, at that).  In them, one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other spoke for 90 minutes, and then the other spoke for 30 minutes, as a ‘rejoinder’.   Can you imagine, in this age of twitter and soundbites, any candidate speaking coherently for 90 minutes, and better yet, someone coming back for 60 minutes, or even 30 minutes?

Although the modern format of debates has changed considerably, there are three presidential debates, and only one vice-presidential debate.  My guess is that these won’t change much, we won’t learn much, and at best, the folks who are watching will be looking for the big intellectual car crash, than learning anything new.

Questions:

  • What sort of debate format would get us to really know the candidates?  How could we make the debates work any better?   How about even small changes, like having the candidates sit down?
  • How many debates should there be?  My guess is one per week (or every two weeks) that had a particular topic to be discussed (the economy, defence, health and education, commerce, the environment) would get us a far deeper understanding of things.
  • Is this entire thesis wrong?  Do the debates tell us things we don’t already know?
  • Have you ever seen a debate and been swayed by the other side’s oratory or arguments?
  • Are debates an anachronism, given the level of information that each candidate gives out and discusses?

 

Post-burn/Peak-burn

450px-the_man_at_night_burning_man_2002https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Man_At_Night_Burning_Man_2002.jpg

Some recent articles in the NY Post had some comments and discussion about the folks returning from that big festival in the desert you might have heard about.  The first article, that says “Burning Man is a cry for help” seems a bit dubious.   I know quite a few “burners” and most of them go there because they actually enjoy the art, enjoy making things, and enjoy the world that they live in.  The bit that spoke volumes, however, is something from that second article, about coming back from Burning Man:

“How do you transition back? You feel fake — you feel like you’re an impostor. I experience depression because I have impostor syndrome — that’s what I suffer for weeks coming back,” says Joanna Nabholz, a mom of three kids under 6 who works in tech and declined to give her age. “You feel like you’re lying to yourself.”

It’s not uncommon for attendees to re-evaluate their raison d’être post-festival.

“You find people who question their job or who quit their corporate environment — some job that’s not their mission,” Kaplan says. “It’s a common story.”

Ah, the proverbial nail on the head.  There is an amazing cognitive dissonance that happens when people see things like that, and then return to their previous lives.   It’s almost like having a near-death experience, and then shrugging it off as a quirk, and going back to the routine you had, ignoring the reality of what you just saw.

As much as I’m not the hugest fan of the fossil fuels and extravaganza of excess that happens in the desert, the ethos of Burning Man does posit a different way of living and viewing the world, and for that, I think it is worth examining.   The local “burns” that happen around the country are a bit more my style; they have far less of an environmental impact, and being smaller (Burning Man is over 50,000 people), they are a bit more “cosy” and are perhaps a little less overwhelming.   As much as there is a lot of valid criticism of Burning Man (who can afford to attend, the environmental impact,  the people who do attend, especially now), Burning Man and their smaller offshoots are trying to come up with different ways of viewing how people and communities can get together and get things done.

Of course, this isn’t all perfect.   Some Burners believe in the techno-utopia (and quite a few folks in attendance hail from the Mecca of the Techno-Utopia, San Francisco); some may believe that all the world needs is the Ten Principles.   But for a start on the way we might live our lives differently, this could be at least an interesting way forward.   This will still have to square with things like Dunbar’s number, resource limitations, the ability of a community stay cohesive in the long haul (Burning Man is not religious or based on family ties, and may not hew to the “Communities that abide” template that has examined the “best practices” in community building).

One laughable comment that needs a bit of skewering, however, is one of the last lines in the second article:

“In a post-apocalyptic world, post-nuclear holocaust, this is the way people can survive.”

Uh, probably not.  Look at any local apocalypse (any war zone) and it probably won’t look anything like a Burning Man camp, and most likely won’t have 50,000 people in a barren desert.  Somebody has been watching a few too many Mad Max movies.

Questions:

  • What do you think of Burning Man?
  • What are some of the best things that have come out of it?  The worst?
  • Which of the “Ten Principles” might be carried forward into the future?
  • Have we reached “Peak Burn”, where tickets have become far too expensive, and too many turnkey camps have appeared?

 

 

 

The usefulness of small disasters

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In reflecting on some minor glitches in these past few weeks, it can be a good thing to reflect on the usefulness of these very glitches (sometimes called small disasters when you are in the thick of things).  Of course, it isn’t fun to have to deal with a wonky computer and email, a broken vehicle or flat tire, small financial losses, and so on, but these events can prove beneficial in the long run, if only to reinforce the idea that we should never get too comfortable.   If you’ve ever changed a flat tire at night and in the rain, you know that not having a flashlight or rainjacket can be the difference between an inconvenience and a miserable experience.  Small disasters give us reminders that a bit of preparation or work ahead of time can prevent them from becoming larger ones.  Small disasters and glitches are good reminders that Mr. Murphy lurks in all human endeavors, and a bit of preparedness and firewalling of important elements in your life (and the life of communities and nations).

Some small “disasters” that have gone unheeded have more likely than not caused greater trouble down the road, and conversely, disasters that have made people pay attention have more likely than not helped prevent larger troubles.

In the category of unheeded small disasters, the incident at Three Mile Island and a host of other small nuclear accidents should have been a telling indicator that nuclear power (as implemented) was an is unsafe in its current form, and that we should either get serious about how we use nuclear power, or abandon it completely.  Of course, most of the world hasn’t, and incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima have continued, getting worse as time goes on.

In the category of ‘heeded’ small disasters (and some of those disaster weren’t so small), the abolition of chemical warfare (mostly heeded by major powers) after World War One, and the elimination of CFCs that were destroying the ozone seem like things that had enough impetus to reverse course, or at least put a large damper on certain developments.  The examples are numerous on both sides, and you can find them everywhere.

The sad part about the inevitable ignoring small disasters (or not accepting smaller amounts of pain) is that the inevitable bigger shock that comes along when not accepting or permitting small amounts of pain is likely to feel worse.  Also, handling larger disasters can sometimes be impossible, as the problem can be too big to solve.

There are a few examples of this that haven’t yet born fruit, but my suspicion is that these unheeded and “underhandled” situations are going to make life really miserable for many people quite soon.

One is the decision by the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates artificially low for so long.   Interest rates (the risk free interest rate, most specifically) is one of the key elements in a financial system, and by artificially keeping it low, the Fed has blown multiple asset bubbles of immense proportions.  Money is incredibly cheap, and as interest rates are low, too much money is chasing crazy ideas and projects.  The bubbles in real estate and stocks are still being inflated, and when these bubbles pop, it is going to be tough sledding for many folks (who thought housing prices, even in metro areas, only ‘went up’).   If we had accepted the true pain and mis-allocation in 1999, 2008, rather than propping things up, yes, things would have been hard. But now, that things have gone so out of whack, the resulting crash will hurt a lot more.  A few small disasters might have made people wise up.

The second is the issue about Peak Oil itself, and our society’s inability to come to grips with the energy issue.  After a few oil embargoes, and a few wars in the Middle East, the United States and others should have seen the signs, and actually gotten its act together regarding energy policy, and its dependence on foreign oil.  Yes, things might have cost more, but in the long run, we might have been in better shape.  Now, it is to too late to change course, and the end result will be a bit of a mess.

The odd thing is, these sorts of mini-disasters happen to individual people all the time.  People can learn from these mini disasters (ask the folks who survived Katrina or Sandy), but it seems larger institutions rarely do so.  Folks in places such as the Fed still think they are omniscient, and that they can control the levers which make the economy hum along, even when disasters have started to oscillate to the point of being out of control, or too big to correct.

Kinda sad, but that is the problem with not handling small disasters, and letting them grow to larger ones.   You may that ignoring a problem turns it into a much larger one down the road!

Questions:

  • Personally, have small disasters made you wise up?  Does the disaster have to really hit you hard, or can you pay attention after a ‘close call’?
  • How big does a disaster have to be before one ‘wises up’?  How do you even measure such a thing (personally)?
  • Why do we still have this disconnect (avoidance behavior) in our philosophical worldview?
  • What tragedies and disasters have been ignored by society?  Which ones have been illuminated, and tamed?

On complexity, realized

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Last week I had a computer glitch; nothing major, and in the end, everything came out OK.   Interesting enough, some other devices and machines were having problems as well; everything from the office coffee machine to the transmission on a car.  What kept showing up in these problems was that complex systems could fail in so many ways.  Yes, this is something we all should intellectually know, but in our hearts, for most of the time, the tendency is to let these systems continue to run, until that day arrives when they don’t work.   Complexity can easily allow complacency to set in, as we let things go on “automagically” in the background.

One piece of equipment that kind of exemplifies this is the local office coffeemaker.  The complex one we have grinds the beans on command, can do all sorts of drinks, and even has a 2×16 character display that shows menus on coffee strength, type, and so on.  Perhaps when it was new, it made good coffee, but as it got older, the uptime and upkeep of this coffee making beast became intolerable.  Quite literally, you had to reboot the coffee machine on some days.  To add insult to injury, it didn’t make good coffee either.   After a bit of nudging the appropriate parties, we got one of those regular coffee machines, with a simple reusable filter.   Everyone likes the new coffee, and the old gee-whiz machine sits in a corner, half apart until someone decides to come and try and fix it again.

This simpler machine may not be as efficient, as sometimes people don’t drink all of the coffee (although generally unlikely), and you might get a half a cup at the end that isn’t as quite as wonderful as the just brewed coffee.   “Of course,” you might say, “the more complex machine is more ‘efficient’, because the coffee is made via a ‘just in time’ method, and everyone gets what they want.”  Yet the complexities that make this machine efficient make it not very resilient.  It has more parts, more can go wrong, and if one particular part fails, the whole operation comes to a grinding halt (yes, a bad pun).   This tradeoff between resiliency and efficiency isn’t new.  This has been mentioned by a few others; JMG wrote about this years ago, as well as Nicholas Taleb, though some take a different tack and respectfully disagree.

What is the striking thing about this efficiency-resiliency bit is that as our modern lives have become more ‘efficient’, they have also become more individualized, and more custom made, and almost to the point of ridiculousness.   Even more revealing, is that this efficiency/individualization has made it possible to everyone to get what they want (as far as goods and services are concerned).   We all, of course, want what we want.    What might be a problem, however, is that if you start getting what you want (coffee on demand, with a wide variety of options, a personalized device of any kind), you might begin to expect it.  And that’s where the real problem lies.

As efficiency/individualization has increased, our tolerance for not getting what we want has gone down, and that probably has more of an impact than we like to think.  Our consumer tastes have become more hyper-individualized, and correspondingly our civic outlook can become more narrow as well.

Going back to the coffee example – if a few pots of coffee are made a day, there are some that are going to be stronger than others, and others that are weaker, or the bean chosen for that particular brew may not be your ideal.  In the modern world, this is unacceptable; “I want what I want!” may be the refrain.    In previous times, when an amazing resource/delicacy like coffee showed up, people might have griped about the particular blend or strength, but they drank the coffee, and learned to live with it.   Yes, it is a small point, but if people learn to handle small inconveniences, they will more likely be able to learn to barter a bit socially, and discuss things with their neighbours and colleagues.   If you have twenty choices of snacks with coffee, it is going to be harder to stock all of them, and people will expect those twenty choices.

One of the commentaries above made the point that ‘efficiency does not mean the opposite of resiliency’, and in the technical sense, that viewpoint may be correct.  A more efficient house burns less fuel, and therefore, our lives are more resilient, as we need less resources to get what we want.  The part that is forgotten is that Jevon’s Paradox takes over, as soon as you make your world more efficient.   If the temperature of a house is at 72 F, with a modern, hyper-efficient house, there will always be someone who wants to run it at 73 F, or 74F.   Or, they may want to make their house have more open space, more glass, or even larger.    If all cars got 100 MPG, and were self-driving (all complexities!), they would be hyper-efficient, but it is almost a guarantee that they’d get more use.    When engines are less efficient, and costly, you make the most of them (people ride buses together, for example).

From personal music machines (everything from the Walkman to the latest iPod), to coffee, to cars, to the chips and drinks in the supermarket, to video (Netflix and Youtube) the range of choices we have (through efficiency) makes us ‘get what we want’, but reduces our social cohesion.

Questions:

  • What “efficiencies” do you think we can do without?
  • What complex machines have failed on you?  Did you accept the failures and continue on,or did you regress to older technologies?
  • Can we ever escape the clutches of Jevon’s Paradox?  What would it take for us to recognize this in future technologies?

 

Complexity kills… computers

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Well, due to a series of unfortunate events, today’s post will be short, due to massive computer issues.

A few good things:

  • We have multiple machines
  • We have backups (some may have been corrupted, however)

If anything, this has taught me to be ever vigilant.   There are some pretty scary things out there in the computer world.

Leadership glitches

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The original glitchy leader, Max Headroom.

In talking about what makes good leaders over these past few weeks here on the peakfuture blog, it still shocks me that our so-called leaders are making so many questionable decisions, and are making decisions that have such bad optics.  It makes you wonder how they got in power in the first place.

A few data points:

Hillary Clinton and the Goldman Sachs speeches – Yes, she may have been trying to raise some cash, but didn’t anybody in her organization think this would look bad?  This issue has been raised a few places, most notably, in the New York Times.  One of the best lines from that article:

After seeing her stumble this week, Mr. Crutchfield said that Mrs. Clinton should be ready to face the question about her fees over and over again, and that her answer of “that’s what they offered” rang hollow. Her staff would probably have negotiated such payments, he said, and Mrs. Clinton could always have given some of the money to charity if she thought she was being paid too much.

“It’s bad framing,” Mr. Crutchfield said. “I don’t know who’s training her, but they should be fired.”

Really – who is advising her?   Not only does it speak badly of the advisors, but of her own judgement.

The recent comments from someone up the food chain (the German president), “The elites are not the problem, the people are the problem.”   You should have been wearing a watch with a sweep second hand to see how fast people started to get together to protest in the streets after hearing that tone deaf comment.  Cue the music, and the attendant violence.

Peggy Noonan’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “How Global Elites Forsake Their Countrymen”, available here, commenting on the elites, and how they are becoming so different from the rest of us; echoed in others (The Pitchforks are Coming…).

Some obvious advice to anyone in office, or in a position of power:

  1. Pay attention.
  2. Realize everyone isn’t as well off as you.  Feeding the homeless at Thanksgiving won’t cut it, in trying to bond with folks less well off, by the way.
  3. Be humble.
  4. Read history.  Realize that yes, it can happen here.

Of course, all this has a proverbial ‘snowball’s chance  in hell’ of getting people to change, but someone, somewhere must be elbowing someone in power, saying “Hey, uh, this course of action may be good in the short run, but in the long run, it’s going to be hell.”

Questions:

  • What other advice would you give to folks up the food chain?
  • What other bonehead moves have you seen recently?
  • What makes these folks so blind?   Are they so immune to history, or is this just a typical reaction of “we know better”?