Saturday, August 8, 2015

Major Tom

  • She asked, "What have you to fear?" He took a deep breath. 

  • "Nothing but fear itself. And fear of failing to measure equal to the tasks before me."
  • With only her mind, she reached to him.

  • "Like the whole damn city's a blaze and everyone's mad, laughing, cheering, dancing, but that's just the way it goes... Something along those lines?

  • Mmm, no task is so important, I hope you know. But I think you already do. 

  • Tell me, if you were to fail, at your tasks, or anything for that matter, who are you letting down?"
  • He replied with a wry self-aware chuckle.

  • "Don't you know? I'm out to save the world."

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Secret Behind ol' Necessity and Ma Invention

Necessity is the mother of invention, but necessity and invention have raised a terrifying grandchild: Consumption.

The word conjures images of old-time diseases, but believe me - it's happening right now. If you are reading this right now, you're a consumer. I'm a consumer. Most of this earth is being consumed by a unthinking, unfeeling, nigh-unstoppable force of Consumption for Consumption's sake. It's going to kill us.  I quote Brower and McPhee:

Compare the six days of the book of Genesis 
To the four billion years of geologic time
On this scale, one day equals about 666 million years.
All day Monday, until Tuesday noon, 
Creation was busy getting the Earth going.
Life began on Tuesday noon,
And the beautiful organic wholeness of it 
developed over the next four days.
At 4 PM Saturday the big reptiles came;
Five hours later, when the redwoods appeared, 
there were no more big reptiles.

At three minutes before midnight, man appeared.
At one-fourth of a second before midnight, Christ revolted.
At one-fortieth of a second before midnight, the Industrial Revolution began.

We are surrounded by people who think 
that what we have been doing 
for one-fortieth of a second 
can go on indefinitely.
They are considered normal.
But they are Stark. Raving. Mad.

This is the danger of Consumption.  To carry the metaphor, Capitalism and Addiction have fathered Consumption, but they take no responsibility for controlling their children. Only Necessity and Invention can stop us now.

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein

So, dear reader, we're faced with a dire abstraction, so what?  Well, as the 2016 presidential election begins coming to a boil this year, more and more candidates are being quoted on the 'issues'. A lot of millennials are posting about the economy, about the lack of jobs, about student debt and shrinking opportunities, about distrust for power. Even Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs is telling people to skip a University Degree and go into a trade. And a shocking thing was mentioned on a friend's facebook, a Jeb Bush paraphrase- "Let's work harder to get ourselves out of this rut." 

There's a classic scene in Indiana Jones where Indiana faces an increasingly frenetic series of attackers, culminating in a swashbuckling sword expert. As the two daunting foes face off, Indiana is so exhausted, he simply pulls a revolver and shoots his attacker.



In real life Harrison Ford was actually crippled with an intestinal bug and was supposed to go through another impressive series of fight scenes.  Necessity truly is the mother of invention, but how do we balance perseverance with thoughtfulness in the quest to solve our big issues?  What do we do when hard work simply isn't enough?


Tell me, reader. Is work really the answer?


So I posted the following reply to the goal of  "4 percent growth as far as the eye can see...  a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise ... people need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families":

Respectfully, I must make an impassioned plea. This is super retro thinking. We now live in an information-based economic system where the real crises are distribution of wealth and responsible growth, and creating citizens who have the tools to solve the most pressing and complex social problems. We are no longer a manufacturing economy, where more material goods equals greater prosperity. The only way we can compete with hungrier centers of manufacturing, with India and China, is to automate - which means fewer jobs, not more. Yvon Chouinard talks of how we need more thinkers, how we need to learn to be happy with less, not more, and how a craft economy (think Etsy, think farmer's markets) will have to evolve in order to employ the large part of the population who are superfluous to survival. We work ourselves to death on a mouse's wheel - but if we realigned our goals to focus on healthcare, education, food and happiness - then we could all work a hell of lot less, not more. The protestant work ethic is damning us all.

I hope the reader is acquainted with Sisyphus. 


This poor soul who, being too cunning for his own good,
was famed as the craftiest of all men, and even deemed
himself craftier than the gods, tricking them too.  

The gods eventually caught up with Sisyphus, dooming him to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill, only to see his efforts wasted at the last moment. So it is that the laws of physics will eventually catch up with man in our thirst to suck life out of nature.  So it is that the greatest prosperity is not remotely synonymous with the greatest satisfaction - and as our wealth increases happiness remains only inches out of reach.

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and 
you are the easiest person to fool." - Richard P. Feynman

Can we stop to think of the huge advancements which have been gifted to our generation?  The technology of the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries are surely godlike powers.  We have sanitation, running water, more than enough food, books, electricity, movies, medicines, fossil fuels, the might of industrial power and the knowledge of the internet with the swift justice of machine learning algorithms and the awesome communication of social media.  Maybe we are more like Prometheus, another Greek legend - clever enough to steal fire but not ready for the consequences of a global economy: death by vanity, global warming and drug resistant mega-infection.  

And I am painfully aware that much of the gifts heaped upon me are pearls to swine. I realize that even a tiny fraction of my wealth could so improve the human condition of so many and yet I am numb to it.

Bill Nye talks about the root to global success being the education of poor young mothers. I think that is much closer to the true answer.  

Honestly, we are so much better at deeply knowing the world around us - at knowing why plants thrive or die, and how to control diseases and populations, at how to harness our own destinies and avoid our human pitfalls and achieve happiness.  And yet, none if these things is truly necessary - we are lulled into complacency by our own success at survival.  There's only one necessary thing.

 As Richard Dawkins puts it:

“We are survival machines – 
robot vehicles blindly programmed 
to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. 

This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.” 

So maybe it's time to take a long hard look in the mirror at how we are approaching the solutions to our problems.  Hard work might not be the answer.  There is talk of us now entering a sharing economy, something which can bring with it either huge risk, or huge reward.  

Machines can make our sharing economy a global community. They can make both communism and capitalism fair to the people. The beauty of machines is that they are programmed by people, but cannot change their minds like people.  We have the power to program machines which treat us all as equals, machines which approach fairness, machines which can drive our cars more safely than we can diagnose our diseases more accurately, and invest our wealth more intelligently

Even our political process can be improved with code - what if Apple encouraged every iTunes user to input political preferences, just like a dating site does with sexual proclivities and personal tastes? What if iTunes then recommended a candidate based on their past voting record and position statements? Would you vote that way?

In 2016, I will vote for whomever shows the greatest zeal for technology, and the highest calling to education and truth.  

In the meantime, a little camp wisdom:



Tuesday, May 26, 2015

About the Amp

When I was a kid, the night before a climbing day I'd lie in bed unable to get to sleep.  I lived to climb rocks. When I got a new piece of gear, I'd bring it to bed with me as a talisman, and when I was planning to do a new climb, I'd be awake at the crack of dawn with anticipation.

I would also become so anxious, about climbing, about school - that I'd pretty much be blown by the early afternoon and ready to head home. I was the kid who was pretty reserved and shy and so it was hard to tell (even to myself) when I was amped up with positive or apprehensive energy about some perceived future. I'd ham it up for some public speaking event, seemingly in my element, but my limbs would be tingling with adrenaline when it was over.

Since then, I've done a lot to work on my long game.  I've tried to focus more on the long-term future, and on enjoying the present moment, rather than seeking the thrill of the next big stoke.  I try to exercise and enjoy the outdoors daily, I try to sustain habits that need never expire.

But every once in a while, some of that trapped energy still surfaces from deep in me - and it takes me a day or a week to recover from my 'cheaper thrills' - the short-term highs that I need to chase.

Nowadays, I find I thrive on that kind of energy, and I have to have it in order to do good work - but it's best served throttled.

In Give and Take, Adam Grant describes a school teacher on the verge of burnout - trying to do service education in inner-city Philadelphia.  Instead of quitting, she actually adds to her workload with a new program she puts together from scratch, to mentor gifted and overachieving kids.  The program energized her, because the kids are more responsive to her support and flourish with her guidance, and so she's able to keep at the daily struggles because on at least one battle front it's clear she is winning.

And I guess that's what Jane McGonigal calls "Urgent Optimism" - the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success."


It helps to drive focus when you focus on where you're winning. Another McGonigal quote about games:

“When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation."

I am finding this is true for me about most things I do - I want to know 'why' (the goal) I want to know how (the rules, or restrictions I have to work within) and I want to know whether I am successfully making progress. And it's very important that I not feel trapped - that I feel it is my own will driving me at this and not a fate sealed by chance. It's demoralizing to take on a challenge controlled by forces beyond my ability to effect change, and even worse to feel like I must stay in that situation.

I talked with my girlfriend L a bit last night and we're both feeling a little burned out, and maybe a bit stuck. So it's with renewed awareness that I look at this enormous opportunity for change (I'm getting moved from marketing to sales with a blank slate so far as to structuring that move) and try to craft it so that I can really do great things, and find the work/life balance I need - a balance heavily swayed by how successful I feel I am - at climbing the mountain or making the sale.  I have to stay excited about my future, and continually renew my expectations and plans.  I make my future worth working toward.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Yes, Dear. Let's organize and develop.

Two bits of wisdom in HR, courtesy of Softerware's Nathan Relles and Google's People Operations:

First, the single most revealing question to ask an interviewee?  Ask them to tell you about your company.

Nathan believes (and I agree) that hiring is like a marriage.  This is very much the process and analogy that Ricardo Semler uses, too.  Think of it as an engagement.

My two cents: The best employees are already borderline fanatics about your company and will be bright enough to teach you something new about your company before you hire them.  You should also judge a person by their past performance and ability to understand the current situation, not by their ability to create strong positive feelings (although that's important, too).

Second, Google's People Operations mentions their philosophy on their webpage.  "Find them, grow them, and keep them". Yes!  Yet for some reason, traditional companies seem to under-emphasize Organizational Development (grow & keep).  I am fighting to convince RMS to commit significant resources to 'grow'.

I have been listening to a lot of Elon Musk podcasts in the car recently.  His Oxford talk goes in to particularly juicy detail over his concept of first principles - which I sheepishly admit I got a bit wrong. The good news is that my interpretation, combined with his, is enormously powerful!

I interpreted first principles rather simply: Find the most basic rules about the nature of things and then derive from them to meet the needs of a complex situation. This is how physicists work.  I am sure this is intuitive to Elon, and he has learned to apply this in his business, but I wonder if he has a core life's philosophy.

It's funny how obsessed I am with people as opposed to other natural forms. I am guilty of anthrpocentrism in spite of my pledge of Deep Ecology and biocentrism.  But then again, people do seem to be where the action is these days - at least in terms of the most prominent threats to the future of the planet.  But we could be the most responsible stewards of this planet as well.  Just read Ishmael.

Anyway, the bottom line is I try to find philosophical first principles about people - simple tools for negotiating life with humans such as thinking of ideas as memes, extrapolating from that that all people are inherently 'good' that is, they are all trying to advocate for the survival of their genetic code.  Unfortunately, sometimes that gets a bit haywire with such a complex piece of genetic machinery as a person, occasionally with disastrous results.  But for the most part it appears evolution has done an amazing job of weeding out destructive forces such that even the most twisted individuals are often actually very sick. And you try to help sick people, you don't hate them.

Pick your least favorite person, living or dead.  If you'd been given the same genetics, at the same time, expressed the same way, gone through the same experiences in the same environment, you'd basically be that person - you'd make decisions just how they do. So there's only this narrow margin of becoming exposed to new things beyond one's control, absorbing that experience or information, and changing your own course because of it. That's why creating social structures, 'situations' which are designed to optimize human experience, is so important.  You need the set people up to succeed.

And I try to do that using first principles.

Elon is thinking a bit more about technology when he talks about first principles.  He's literally applying the laws of physics to the technology to see 'back of the envelope' what the growth potential of his technology is.  If it can outperform a mainstream technology by a significant margin (usually a multiple of some key efficiency indicator, sometimes orders of magnitude) then he figures it will eventually be profitable.  (Space X was a crazy folkloric gamble, but I'm guessing he had backup plans.) For example, he could see the opportunity to improve battery technology, and figure that eventually electric cars could be cheaper to run than gas ones if the energy density goes up and cost goes down.

And one of my core challenges I grapple with in first principles of people is that idea of how to influence people. Maybe I'll post more on that later.  Gotta get to work!


Saturday, April 18, 2015

In our urgency to break it all down into buckets,
do we create artificial dichotomies?
Maybe it's all more of a stream than a bucket,
then all we need is flow.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Time is on my side, she said.

There's this quote: "Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone."

I don't get this game we play.
I find I play anyway.
I thought I was behaving,
moving on more righteously,
learning from my mistakes.
but I cannot speak in planes like you.
my words are butcher's hammers.

Your name slipped out over a long flight,
now it crops up time and again.
In the strangest irony, it isn't you, but you
as a tool. Maybe you believed I saw you that way.
Part of my collection.

So anyway the wonder gnawed at me and I took the practice back up.

More than anything, I valued your soul.
A friend, bright kindred, you made the cosmic ocean less large, more bright,
 a spot of light to reference beside me.
But it hurt to see the light go out after us two lights danced in the current together so well.

The hell do I know about it anyway. The dolphins can go bleed on the rocks with you, and I have reclaimed the north country without needing to shovel coal out of my stomach anymore, where once we're butterflies. Im still angry.

But certain things, like mention of outer space, or the VA benefit, or piles of leaves. Like you said, we will always carry a piece of each other. We will always leave a mark.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Temporal Childhood

I remember
when the year 2k 
seemed so far away.