Monthly Archives: August 2016

On complexity, realized

Kaffekanne_dbhttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Coffee_pot#/media/File:Kaffekanne_db.jpg

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?

 

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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”?

 

None of the above

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Dmitry Orlov recently posted a neat idea, that when in the voting booth, vote randomly.   The arguments for this are pretty interesting, and he also gives some other sage advice (no party affiliation, when responding to a poll, say ‘undecided’).

What if we went a step further, though?  With two truly random coin tosses, you will be adding randomly to the tally of Clinton, Trump, Stein or Johnson.   With Stein and Johnson being distant third/third fourth, the effect of this will be boosting their poll numbers.    If 900 out of 1000 voters vote with 400 for Trump, 400 for Clinton, 50 for Stein and 50 for Johnson, we’ve got 100 voters left (44.4% for Trump/Clinton, 5.6% for Stein/Johnson).  If they vote according to the distribution above, out of the remaining 100, 40 voters go for Clinton/Trump, and 10 each for Stein/Johnson).    The percentages stay the same.   If, however, those 100 vote randomly, they add 25 to each vote count, so the percentages become 42.5% for the major candidates, and 7.5% for the minor party candidates.

This makes minority candidates stand out, but doesn’t influence the final details.  Yes, there will be chaos, and yes, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

But what if it was possible to send an even more direct message?  What about another option?

The capability exists in most polling places to write in a candidate (this was mentioned by Cortes on Club Orlov in the comments).  What if those 10% of the people who were intent on flipping a coin, wrote in simply “None of the above.”   Flipping a coin is certainly one option, yet writing in your dissatisfaction with the candidates and process might be another way to signal that things are wrong.  With truly random voting, we’ll never know if the independent candidates rallied, or if it was just chance that boosted their poll numbers (of course, this is Dmitry’s point!).

The key here is the as many people as possible write in “None of the above,” so that there isn’t any bias at all – it is simply random, and a statement of protest.  Only the clear message, we aren’t getting quality candidates, needs to be sent.

My own decision is still up in the air.   It’s a mess, for sure, and many don’t like either candidate.

Perhaps the bumper sticker “None of the Above” is one we should have.

Questions:

  • Are these theoretical options just whining (voting randomly, or voting ‘None of the above’)?  Shouldn’t we pick the lesser of the evils?  Winston Churchill, at one point during the war, quipped, “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”
  • My long standing question has always, always been – who do you want to run, on either side of the aisle, who might even have a passing probability of being elected?
  • If we throw out the ‘probability of being elected’, who else would you nominate?  Besides folks like Amanda Palmer, Dmitry Orlov (he can’t be elected president, being born overseas), John Michael Greer (who probably doesn’t want the job), or any one of the folks who ‘gets’ our resource problem (and who seem to be NOT sociopaths, on the whole), who would you choose?
  • How concerned are you about electronic voting fraud?  There are stories circulating that make you wonder.   If that ever came out as a true, verifiable story, it would shake our nation to the core.
  • When you are in a difficult and bad situation, one way  to analyze things is to ask, “How did we get here?”   Yes, you can cue the Talking Heads Once in a Lifetime.  How did we get here?

Better leadership, better leaders

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(Wikicommons, in public domain;  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Crowns#/media/File:CrownForShield.svg)

Last week, the idea that non-technocrats, non-lawyers, and ‘regular people’ might make better leaders was put forward, with one particular candidate, Amanda Palmer, although many other folks might also fill these roles as well.  The idea that an artist (or randomly selected individual) might be our next representative, senator, or president may seem a bit odd, but given the strong dislike for the current crop of presidential candidates, and the incredibly low approval ratings for Congress, it doesn’t seem to be a stretch.

A few weeks ago, the concept of a ‘feudal democracy’ was floated; a democracy where all rights that we enjoy in our modern world were balanced with very, very explicit responsibilities.

The big question behind these small essays is this – how can society work and be governed, when its population is significantly larger than Dunbar’s number (where everyone knows everyone else)?  How do we get better leadership, and better leaders, especially when the resources for a democratic republic are limited (and falling) with large populations?

Again, science fiction gives us a few ideas; artificial intelligences running things (like in many an Asimov short story), a hyper-connected virtual congress (like the Althing in the book Hyperion), many kinds of dystopia (1984, Brave New World) or, in some cases, a reversion to hereditary rule (like in the Dune universe).    Sometimes, even democracy can limp along.   Of these scenarios, which is the most likely?  If we think that technology will continue its long trajectory upwards, then any one of the techno-fantasies or horror shows mentioned above might come true.   But as noted in a post here almost a year ago (On Revolution, Again), the technologies for even dystopias may not exist, simply due to resource constraints.   Of all the future leadership possibilities, it may be that hereditary rule of some sort might make a comeback.

What, you say?   We will get kings and queens and dukes and earls and knights and so on?   Well, in our modern world, there are plenty of examples where political families (Kennedy, Bush, Clinton, Roosevelt, etc.) have entrenched themselves in the body politic.   They may not have the titles of baron, count, and so on, but they do have political power, and their families have been influencing government in one way or another for years.

So, political families exist; might they be breeding better leaders?   Some scoff at the idea of breeding humans for character traits, but humans are no different than any other animal.  Is there a gene for good leadership (without sociopathy)?  Or are their dynasties merely a product of having money and connections; politics being only a tool to ensure that their families prosper?

The probability of a techno-future appears to be relatively low, given the projections on resources, pollution, and environment.  Democracy can only seem to work with excess energy available (and it became more widespread as the industrial revolution ramped up).  When excess energy becomes less available, perhaps democracy’s fortunes will fall as well, and the most common form of governance (when excess available energy is low) of large bodies of people, hereditary rule, might return.

Questions:

  • Could we breed for leadership without sociopathy?
  • Would you want to live in society where hereditary rule by humans who actually good at ruling is a fact?   For some, the answer will always be no, like Lucifer’s comment in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
  • Do democracies/republics do a better job of governing, in the long run?   Of course, we have to define what ‘better’ means!
  • Great Britain has a constitutional monarchy; the Queen (or King) represents the ideal of the country, and even though their power is mostly ceremonial, the figure of the Queen (or King) is generally well respected.   If things get a bit ‘rough around the edges’ in modern life, could these figureheads step up and rule?
  • It is said democracies last until people can vote themselves money from the public treasury.  Perhaps hereditary rule short circuits this?   For those of you who think hereditary rule, or clan rule is a step backwards, check out Poul Anderson’s classic “No Truce With Kings.”