Saturday, April 09, 2016

From Consciousness to AI

This time let's offer up a variety of views on what may be - and certainly should be - a principal concern for humanity across the mid 21st Century - how consciousness itself - both human and artificial - is bound to change, before our conscious gaze. Starting with news that:

IBM Watson and the X Prize Foundation are offering a $5 million award - to be handed out in 2020 - for a team that best proves how AI can be positive for humans. The emphasis will be placed on its positive effect on human kind and, in essence, show that the systems will help us instead of bringing a movie-worthy apocalypse.  I have some ideas how that can be achieved – notions that have circulated quite a bit, lately, how AI might be both enhanced and kept accountable via reciprocal competition.  

I may not be qualified to implement the concept… but I’ll talk to any highly qualified groups interested in exploring this approach.  Indeed, it is the one and only approach that has worked in the past, with “artificial intelligences” called states and corporations... and for that matter people.  It is the only method that can even conceivably work with computerized super-AI.  

== Ah, consciousness ==

A topic that keeps on giving – headaches, that is.  What is consciousness?  Can we improve our own? Will we ever give this combined boon and curse to others?  To machinery? To other living creatures?

For some deep thinking on the nature of consciousness: In February, I participated in a salon panel with famed Caltech neuroscientist and consciousness researcher Christof Koch (now head of the Allen Brain Initiative) and Stanford physicist Andrei Linde who, along with Alan Guth, is known as the father of inflation cosmology. The panel was moderated by Robert Lawrence Kuhn of the ongoing Closer to Truth PBS television series, hosted at the lovely San Francisco home of Susan McTavish Best. 

August company! Christof offered some amazing – sometimes optimistic and at other times grouchy – insights into the difficulties of emulating such a vast number of info-processing and contemplation tricks that humans take for granted. Andre Linde took us on a wild tour of general relativity and string theory, finally concluding that there just has to be some kind of consciousness on a cosmic scale.  A bit daunted… I managed to offer up some big picture concepts of my own.

Again, you really should have a look at the Closer to Truth TV series. Big ideas galore. Here's a clip where I discuss with Robert Lawrence Kuhn about What carries our sense of personal identity?

But others are delving this mine! With a brilliant analysis two decades in the making, Robin Hanson shows that our hyper-smart "downloaded" -- or emulated -- heirs will still have ambitions, triumphs and thwarted desires. They'll make alliances, compete, cooperate... and very-likely love... all driven by immutable laws of nature and economics. Super intelligence may be a lot more like us than you imagined. But you’ll still have to wait a few months, before reading The Age of EM: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule the Earth.

Robin’s fundamental premise is that only one of the six general categories of approaches to making AI will bear fruit, at least in the near term – the method of emulating in software the process of a human mind. His reasoning: that we are most-likely to succeed by copying what has already worked.

The other five approaches – including AI from principle-design and AI via emergence from complexity and AI from evolved systems – he deems to be much farther away. Many will disagree.  It happens that I think Hanson is just a bit more likely to be right, than wrong. Though I don't think the others should be dismissed with a shrug!

In any event, given a proliferation of human-based software emulations, or “Ems,” and assuming a flat-open-fair civilization employs them, what resulting social and even sexual systems will emerge from the basic laws of nature and economics? See abstracts of all thirty chapters... and my blurb... here.

Put The Age of Em on your pre-order list.

== An infamous cautionary tale: learn from it! ==

While we’re at it, there’s a new book series using sci fi to examine consciousness from many angles: Discognition (by Steven Shaviro) looks at science fiction in order to think about questions of consciousness. Each of us knows that he or she is conscious; and most of us take it for granted that not only human beings are conscious, but animals like dogs and cats are as well. But how far downwards does consciousness go?”  -- from a review on Omni Reboot.

Very much related to this topic: One of the most disturbing insights into human nature came when a psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted in the 1960s experiments that showed how easily a large percentage of people can “get into” roles that involve inflicting pain upon others.  These excuses can range from the heinous Nazi factotums whose banal rationalization was “only following orders” to students who were unable to say “stop!” when an experiment or game clearly has gone too far.

“Milgram concluded with his research that people were more willing to harm other people when ordered to do so by someone else. The new study indicated this is because people can separate themselves from the action when the initial idea comes from someone else.”

The later “Stanford Prison Experiment” results should caution all of us to role play, in our own minds” being that person who has the will and power to say Hold. Enough.

Now science has zeroed in on brain function zones that seem to be involved in all this.  A team of neuroscientists has pinpointed the brain's reaction to receiving an order from an authoritative figure to inflict harm on another person.  

Related?  Why are only 20% of synapses active during neurotransmission?  "When stimulated electrically to release dopamine (a neurotransmitter or chemical released by neurons, or nerve cells, to send signals to other nerve cells), only about 20 percent of synapses — the connections between cells that control brain activity — were active at any given time." 

== Brains!  And VIRTUAL brains... ==

Modern tech era pioneer Kevin Kelly (author of the upcoming The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape our Future) emailed me an interesting question. “Everyone can see where VR is going in a serious manner. What I want to know is, what is the VR equivalent of cat videos on the internet?”

In Existence I show characters click-scrolling through a myriad augmented reality overlays, from mapping their route to looking inside those buildings that offer animated in-views. Or overlaying all buildings with vines and turning passing cars into dinosaurs while equipping all passersby with floor-length Fu Manchu mustaches. Seriously, I've seen no sign of recognition of the potential, even from the folks bringing this world closer.*

But Kevin was asking near-term... interesting question. What will be the biggest VR time sink and productivity destroyer?

My first thought is tamagotchi... those virtual pets from the 1990s who you'd "feed" with a button and who would "die" if you neglect them.  My first expectation is that tamagotchi will come roaring back, when your VR specs give you a virtual pet designed for max lovability and cuteness. Stick out your finger and Mr. Bluebird will hop there from your shoulder, whistle happily and take a treat.  If there's someone you detest, Mr. B will chirp angrily and hover over your foe, making droppings. And when your thirty day free trial is up, your little friend will wail mournfully till you sign up monthly, then upgrade... then upgrade....

== Missing Marvin ==

Cool Elon Musk aphorism.  "Interesting to think of physics as a set of compression algorithms for the universe. That's basically what formulas are." 

It reminded me of something Marvin Minsky would have said. Marvin was a great friend and mentor to so many, in whose myriad company I humbly include myself, for this great and vivid person said that I could.  His love of thought-provoking science fiction first drew us together. But Marvin’s wildly varied and unlimited interests soon forged other bridges.

I could count on Marvin to offer up some unusual perspective under almost any topic, from the nature of consciousness to technology to the rainbow arcs of history and culture.  He was among the earliest to shrug off C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” mythology, that science and the humanities are mutually incomprehensible, leaping instead to set up collaborations across every spectrum, incorporating fun and literature and art in almost every project that he had a hand in, at the Media Lab.

Like all the top minds I have known, Marvin was a polymath, whose music and puckish wit seemed as important to him as any of the subjects that he taught (so well) at MIT -- where he authored the classic The Society of MindHis cheerful, egalitarian ways made him approachable even by shy students. His legacy of free-thinking explorers spans the globe. It feels strange knowing that he is now too far to call up or skype. I should have done it more, when I had the chance. But he seemed ageless, as if ready to talk Death into dropping all plans in order to become his student. Hm. A good idea for a story.  I know Marvin would have liked that. 

== Miscellany Science ==

In Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Predicting, Philip Tetlock and coauthor Dan Gardner offer a masterwork on prediction, drawing on decades of research and the results of a massive, government-funded forecasting tournament - The Good Judgment Project.

An Israeli bio-tech company has developed an anti-radiation therapy the US government may begin stocking next year. They claim to “cure 100% of patients exposed to unconventional radiological incidents like a terrorist dirty bomb, or an attack on a nuclear power plant.” A spokesman said that within 48 hours of someone receiving the company's placenta cell injections, bone marrow blood cell production levels returned to normal, and animals fully recovered from the high radiation exposure. 

Scientists have developed the first digital data storage system capable of creating archives that can survive for billions of years. “Using nanostructured glass, the system has 360 TB per disc capacity, thermal stability up to 1,000°C, and virtually unlimited lifetime at room temperature (or 13.8 billion years at 190°C ).”  The resulting disks look a lot like the one Tommy Lee Jones held up, in Men in Black.  This has been needed for a long time!

The human papillomavirus vaccine was first recommended for adolescent girls in the United States in 2006. Since that time, the prevalence of the cancer-causing virus has been dropping among young women, according to a new study.   Oh. Yeah vaccines are eeee-vul.

== Energy & Earth ==

In Half Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life, E. O. Wilson suggests that humans set aside roughly 50 percent of the planet as a sort of permanent preserve, undisturbed by man.  I portrayed this happening in the future… and it will… once we get past these crises and use asteroids to get rich…

The Middle East recently experienced its worst drought in 900 years, according to a new study from NASA. In other words, a lot of the refugee crisis and desperate radicalism is a direct result of climate change.  And those who have been obstructing energy efficiency for 30 years  - (ironically, at the behest of oil sheikhs and coal barons) - have not only  waged war on science.  They (meaning some of you) have made the world a more desperately dangerous place.

Sea levels are rising faster than at any other times in 3000 years. And of course oceans are also acidifying.  Point out to your denialist-cult friends that Fox is not even bothering to issue deceitful talking points about that.  All they can do is distract… like pointing at a single NOAA report and yelling “squirrel!” When will our dear friends out there who are captives of this cult put 2 + 2 together and notice whose interests are served?

One of the Koch-Saudi talking points that are suckled on Fox is that solar photovoltaic systems are not that green, because of the carbon footprint used in melting the silicon and manufacturing the rooftop systems.  Here is some refutation of that made-up piece of anti-future propaganda - suggesting your rooftop solar installation earns back its carbon footprint from manufacturing in one year.  

I invite rebuttals or addenda below, under comments.

The US may not be the “Saudi Arabia of coal,” after all.  When weighed against likely mining and recovery costs, even the vast Wyoming beds now calculate out as only a few decades’ supply.  Of course that changes if we leave the coal where it is, readily accessibly by future generations, if they need it.  That’s already happening, as two major coal companies, hard-pressed by cheap natural gas and rising sustainables, have gone bankrupt.  

3-D-printed organs aren’t quite ready for human transplant.  But as forecast in my story “Chrysalis,” the barriers to crafting replacement or supplemental organs are toppling almost daily.

Remember the cargo zeps in EXISTENCE?*  Well these companies are wagering that the era is (finally) nigh!  


* More on Augmented reality AND future zeppelins? Have a look at the amazing video preview-trailer for Existence, with incredible art by Patrick Farley! 


Tony Fisk said...

Lots to think about ("Raising Junior Inc."!?) but I haven't really got the time right now.

While I'd like to see zeps make a comeback, I don't think see the economics working until they get away from helium*. A rigid envelope maintained at about 0.1 atm (via a bicycle pump!?) would provide the same lift as hydrogen. I seem to recall someone's put up a patent for this (although the shade of Francesco de Lana might raise a 'prior art' flag) Articles discussing the necessary rigidity of the walls tend to pour cold water on the whole idea. (Clarke's first Law being alive and well). Even if that is true, who says it *has* to be spherical?

*Idle speculation for a sunday musing: is there any difference between helium atoms (ie He4) derived from nuclear fusion, or atomic fission (alpha particles)?

David Brin said...

Tony alpha particles ARE He4 nuclei that quickly gather two electrons from anywhere nearby. It appears Lockheed will sell a dozen modern semi-zeps, thanks to their air cushion landing system.

In EXISTENCE I portray what is obviously the answer for lighter than air. It is absurd to be so scared of hydrogen (i.e. the Hindenberg) that you'll utterly ignore its huge buoyancy benefits. In Existence, the zeps have hydrogen bags aligned veritically with spill mechanisms that can vent skyward at an instant's notice. These vertical cells are safely separated from each other and from the zep's passenger air by helium cells. I describe how almost impossible it is to make such a system explode or even burn... though I then show a way.

David Brin said...

I finished the previous comments section with a few responses. can continue here.

Tim H. said...

The attacks on solar and wind look like very short term thinking, petroleum's too valuable as a chemical feedstock in the long run. Didn't Jerry Pournelle make that point decades ago?

Anson Call said...

I've recently wondered if the term "consciousness" is a classical word that was used to describe all of those things happening in the brain/mind that we didn't understand, and how that really hasn't changed, meaning we still use it to describe what we don't know, rather than what we do know. Like the term "Free Will", perhaps its best to let those classical terms go and just let science do its thing, because asking what consciousness is might not even be a real question.

greg byshenk said...

David, this is really a quibble, but, you write "Hanson shows that our hyper-smart "downloaded" [...] heirs will still have ambitions, triumphs and thwarted desires." This construction is something that bothers me often when used in writing about scientific predictions.

The problem I see is that, though there may be cases in which it is reasonable to say that some result "shows that" something is so, such is (almost?) never true in the case of predictions, and certainly not in the case of untested ones. I haven't read Hanson's book (obviously), but my strong suspicion is that Hanson has a model that, if correct, suggests that our heirs are likely to have ambitions, etc. At least to me, this is a very different sort of claim.

As I said, this is something of a quibble, but I think it is nonetheless an important point to bear in mind regarding scientific communication, because one of the things that leads to (or enables enemies of knowledge to argue for) distrust of scientific results is the idea that "scientists say one thing is true today, and next week that it is false, and something completely different is true". Certainly the largest problems arise from science reporters who have little or no understanding of science, but I hope that respected members of the community who do understand science can attempt to avoid falling into the same trap.

Anonymous said...

Hi Duncan,

A CEO's decisions affect the company as a whole where an engineer's decisions affect what his department is working on at the moment. An engineer's focus is much more narrow. He will have power over what he is working on but has little decision power over things like the company's finances, marketing, and generally all the other parts that are needed to make the company work. Of course, the engineers are very important as are everybody else who works there but someone has to make the big decisions and organize the effort. The coin-toss example you gave applies to a specific situation where there were two equally good solutions but only one could be chosen. I seriously doubt that the CEO makes all his decisions that way.

What I am trying to say is that you cannot judge "worth" by only one metric such as 350 times the median salary. There are other metrics such as profitability, number of employees or sales and many more. What metric would you use for a CEO who turned a company from heavy losses back to profitability for example?

There are many CEOs who are way overpaid and they are often in industries that have monopoly power but most CEOs are not paid like these ones. One cannot say all CEOs are overpaid. It really depends on the individual company whether the CEO is worth his compensation or not. What is the alternative to the board for setting CEO pay? Should government “experts” decide it? What is the alternative to the board? I don’t see one.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Deuxglass

I totally disagree - the CEO maybe should be paid more than the engineer - just maybe

Just as a team leader is usually paid more than his team members - again just usually

Should an administrator - a glorified clerk - be paid more than the surgeon??

"What metric would you use for a CEO who turned a company from heavy losses back to profitability for example?"

The same as an engineer who fixed a problem that could have cost millions

I can and do say that US CEO's are grossly overpaid - they used to get about 30 times the median - and that was probably too much!

There is another issue with excessive CEO pay

Sensible people work until they have enough plus a margin for a rainy day and to leave to the family.

Once they have that they are “satisfied” – and don’t need to put major effort into that part of their lives

Given that being a CEO is a difficult ball aching job that takes you away from your family
Why do they continue to do it do it?

The present CEO’s are “insatiable” they literally cannot be filled
This is a well-known type of mental illness

A “satiable” person would take the salary for a short time and leave

After all at 350:1 you get a lifetimes wages in just over a month

What has happened is the “sane” and “satiable” people in those type of positions leave
Leaving behind the “insatiable” and “insane” people

The old saying is
“Pay peanuts and get monkeys”
We should add
“Pay millions and get loonies”

Jumper said...

Busted link at " What carries our sense of personal identity?"
I wanted to view that first!
Now to finish this excellent post.
But first I'll note H2O makes an interesting lighter than air gas if over 100 C.

Jumper said...

The carbon footprint link was broken for me also, until I removed the salad after "entire-life" at the end. I do have a quick & dirty way to estimate carbon footprint: convert 80% of the money cost into wholesale coal. You'll be close.

Jumper said...

What would people be like if we lived in a society that taught that everyone is a brand new personality every day? Would we accept that story, or develop a different story? What would people be like if we taught from childhood that there are two "you"s, one for each brain hemisphere, and gave each its own name?

Why should an artificial mind, which surely would learn that some stories are not necessarily true, accept a story about its own "personal identity?"

Why should I?

Paul SB said...

Jumper, interesting thoughts. I think the first one, about our ever-changing selves, would be a very positive thing for your species. The second idea (the left/right hemispheres thing) less so, since in the vast majority of people these hemispheres coordinate pretty effectively. Their differences only become meaningful in cases of brain damage, especially where the corpus calosom that separates them is severed. The pop culture stuff on left vs. right brain goes way beyond the reality.

On brain stuff, I looked at the article on the experiment with dopaminergic neurons that saw only 20% firing, and a hypothesis immediately came to mind. Not every neuron that is stimulated will release its neurotransmitters due to the strength of the stimulus. A certain threshold has to be reached before the neuron fires. It would make sense that different neurons have different thresholds, so a weak stimulus will only stimulate a few neurons, while a stronger stimulus a few more, etc. This adds another level of complexity to neuronal processing, but not an especially difficult one to conceptualize. If the hypothesis is correct, it could be very useful in understanding memory formation and maintenance.

Anonymous said...

Hi Duncan,

On this issue we are far apart so we must agree to disagree. On other issues we are probably much closer and I enjoy talking to you. Are you Scottish?

Paul SB said...

Larry, (from the previous thread)
We seem to be pretty close in our understanding. Yes, there are petty, jealous people who hate the rich just because they have, but that is not the real issue. People can be as childish as they like, as long as their pettiness doesn't impact anyone else's nose. The problem is when the rich rig the rules and hoard the means of survival - when they thrive to the detriment of everyone else's survival. When the House of Lords raised massive tariffs on French bread that was much cheaper than what those old landowners were charging for bread produced from their fields, they caused waves of starvation and crime, putting so many people on the edge they had to steal to fill their bellies.

A point I have been trying to make here regarding capitalism and our tendency to fetishize the free market is that we need to move beyond the simple dichotomy offered up by the Cold War: either you are all for no-holds-barred, kill-or-be-killed Capitalism or you're some kind of damn pinko Communist. Common sense defies such simple dichotomies, but decades of propaganda create the commonalities of "common sense."

Paul SB said...

You have probably heard this argument before about gun control and the Second Amendment. When the framers of the Constitution created the Amendment Dos, they had just won their independence from the UK with the might of militias and muskets - muskets owned by individual citizens who then joined militias against the standing British Army. No surprise they would enshrine the right to bear arms in the Constitution at that time. But this is not that time. Back then, if a crazy person took his musket into a theater and started shooting, he would shoot one person, then get jumped during the lengthy process of reloading a musket. Today a single crazy person can get an automatic weapon and kill dozens of people (even dozens of armed people) before anyone has a chance to react. Those wise people of the 18th Century had no way of predicting how the technology of firearms would change.

You could make a similar argument about Capitalism and the free market. In Smith's day government was at leviathan scale but the majority of businesses were the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. If a butcher sold bad meat, the word would get around and people would not buy his product. The bad butcher would go out of business, and in the meantime, people would just go further up the street to a different butcher. Smith's choice of the term "invisible hand" was, I think, unfortunate, because in most people's minds it sounds like Divine Intervention, when what he was really describing was very much what Darwin described a century later.

Today the world is a very different place, and the amount of damage a rogue businessman or corporation can do is more akin to the loony with he Ar-15 than the loony with the musket. Lead in the air, the soil and drinking water, for example. Would the oil companies have taken lead out of their gasoline formulations without government intervention? When faced with clear evidence that their product was killing or endangering the lives and damaging the brains of millions upon millions of citizens, they fought against making the moral choice. I could list a catalog or atrocities perpetuated on us by the free market, from bisphenol A to high fructose corn syrup. But the effects of these chemicals on us are not as fast as bullets. It's easy to see a person who is mentally handicapped and assume they were just born that way rather than a result of lead poisoning. It os easy to assume that the millions of obese diabetics are just lazy people who have no self-control, rather than seeing that their problems might be the result of endocrine disruptors that went down their throats as a result of the free market.

I don't want the baby thrown out with the bathwater. Dr. Brin is right in that capitalism gets results and creates progress, but there is a level of caution we have to exercise. Most of all, we have to stop treating the Peter Geckos of the world as heroes, stop buying into their propaganda.

I have to play daddy taxi, or I would continue.

David Brin said...

Gb: I am usually careful about such constructions. Thanks.

A seldom mentioned aspect of the CEO silliness is how they rule in a feudal command style, while those on the right rail about the benefits of competition and maximizing the number of deciders. 100,000 diverse, competing and accountable civil servants should never “pick winners and losers”… but 5000 incestuously conniving CEO caste golf buddies ARE wise enough?

Jumper: carbon footprint link is fixed, thanks.

PaulSB: “In Smith's day government was at leviathan scale but the majority of businesses were the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.”

Not quite. The British East India Company and other giants, owned by lords and moguls, were in many ways more powerful than the state, which served their interests.

locumranch said...

As I recall that Television was once sold to us as an educational marvel guaranteed to 'enbiggen' the smallest intellect -- a claim long-since disproven by numerous studies that correlate childhood television viewing with poor impulse control, inappropriate behaviour, physical inactivity, early onset sexual activity, obesity, smoking, attention deficit, poor academic performance & diminished literacy -- I view the near identical claims made for Artificial Intelligence, Virtuality & Augmented Reality with significant trepidation.

More likely, these much-lauded technological innovations will only serve to make our culture even more STUPID, much in the same way that Television viewing has destroyed our collective imaginations, Internet Data Access has atrophied our memory & Texas Instrument Calculators have eliminated basic maths.

Milgrim's studies on authority figures were only the beginning, and subsequent studies have shown that many people are more likely to believe a broken calculator -- one gimmicked to give obviously wrong answers -- than they are to believe their own rudimentary addition & subtraction skills.

Already, the multitude is enthralled by their smart phones; and, soon our zombification will be complete: We will live & die in accordance with our Calendar Apps; we will eat only at Yelp approved restaurants; we navigate only by approved routes; we will behave as directed by our advertising consortium; we will mate with those as commanded by Tinder; and, ultimately, we will end up being programmed by very machines that we once programmed to serve us.


duncan cairncross said...

Hi Deuxglass

"Are you Scottish?"

Does it show?

Jumper said...

locumranch, the process concludes with hordes of yahoos on the internet who gyrate off into self contained spheres where they can barely write in English, using inappropriate capitalization, don't know "their" from "they're," won't read old Supreme Court decisions but make crap up on the spot, and can't use simple logic. Once these lunatics get any power, we're all doomed. Doomed, I must say!
Get a haircut and a job!

Paul SB said...

Dr. Brin,

You are right, of course. The BEIC, likewise the Dutch East India Company, dictated policy to their respective governments. But this was largely because the owners of them were also members of the government themselves, mainly the old aristocracy that made up the House of Lords. The old Medieval disdain for money - preferring oaths of fealty and direct service - had pretty much disappeared and the aristocracy was adapting to the new economy. Which is to say, they were using their non-economic powers to acquire economic power for themselves. But while these were powerhouses of their times, the majority of business was still small scale, unlike today, when most of our lives and livelihoods depend on huge corporations.

It's very hard to feed yourself today without filling your belly full of processed foods, and the way most people make their living, it simply isn't possible to subsist on non-corporate food. And food is only one issue where the corporate lack of conscience can have hugely detrimental impacts on the very society they depend on for their profits. But short-terms quarterly gains are more important to stock holders than the long-term survival of the species. I think you agree with me that businesses need to be held accountable for the role they play in public health, and accountable to something that will act more quickly and consistently than the free market. This is especially important where people do not even know what is happening to them, and therefore have no way of making rational decisions.

Paul SB said...


I think you mentioned being from Scotland a year or two ago, but that was before Deuxglass was here. It isn't obvious to me, but I have only known one Scott personally, and i don't count on TV/movie stereotypes.

Was the friend who thought we were all losing it if we lived away from the sea able to come up with some physiological explanation for his hypothesis, or was just metaphysical?

David Brin said...

Unutterable claptrap. Has TV lived up to the optimists’ paeans and utopian dreams? Of course not. The transcendentalist optimists are always wrong in the short term, as they were when glass lenses and movable type expanded what humans could see and know. The first results proved that era’s “locum” cynic-grouches right. Printing spewed horrid religious tracts that enflamed the Thirty Years War.

OTOH only a raving fool would claim that the LONG term effects of literacy weren’t elevating, overall. And likewise every succeeding generation’s own tech driven expansions of vision, knowledge, and reach. Prompting us to ask, again and again: “well? What is YOUR notion of the golden time? Hm?”

They were all awful. Every single one of them was worse than now. Which expresses it the way a cynic can grok. To the rest of us, the way to express it is that things are mostly getting better.

Are SOME kids lobotomized by TV? Sure. And yet the Flynn effects shows a steady rise in IQ. “Destroyed our collective imaginations”? Seriously? Really? Prove it, says a guy making his living off the vast, vast imagination industry, and who works at UCSD's new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, where the sciences and arts come together to explore humanity's most unique gift.

Do any of you live in Scotland right now? Duncan?

Paul SB said...

"Prove it, says a guy making his living off the vast, vast imagination industry..."

In fact, the InterNet is expanding the creative economy, and to some extent democratizing it. When I was larval, there was no way any of my creative efforts had a prayer of seeing the light of day. Now artists, writers and musicians can put their amateur works up on the web and get at least some recognition, some modicum of readership. But more important, the web is all content. It doesn't manufacture physical objects like cars or furniture, and while much of the web is devoted to selling the like, a whole lot of the web is about creative content. It looks to me like a net gain, in the long run, as a lot of people's livelihoods will become tied to generating creative web content. Hopefully the competition will produce good stuff, and not just endless rehashes of superhero slugfests.

NB - I'm pretty sure Duncan said he lives on South Island, NZ. But I imagine he'll speak for himself.

Alfred Differ said...

Scotsmen can be found in many places much like Irishmen. Similar reasons too. 8)

@Duncan: I flatly refuse any argument that one person's work can be measured relative to another and a ratio formed. It isn't the work being measured in the ratio. It is what they managed to get someone to give them in exchange for it. The exchanged material can be measured and a ratio formed, but it is a fundamental flaw to apply that ratio to the work being performed. Only the trades are quantified in that way.

As an aside, this helps show why a proper translation of the word 'division' doesn't involve 'sharing'. It is more about 'measure'. If I 'measure' the distance from where I live to where I work in units of how far I can jog before I have to stop and walk for awhile, it is a large ratio. If the units change to how far I can pedal my bike before I have to stop for a rest, the ratio is much smaller. The tasks I perform at work are difficult to 'measure' by any unit, but my employer will try anyway using elapsed time, salary paid, costs avoided, and whatever fantasy they think is useful. They are comparing apples and oranges, though, if they use them in a full circle to decide how much to pay me. Their measures help them decide what they will offer, but have little to do with what I'll demand.

Alfred Differ said...

@LarryHart: (From the last thread)

I'm inclined to agree with you regarding the loading of debt on one company in order to bankrupt it. My solution to that, though, has little to do with making the practice illegal. What I'd do is encourage bankruptcy judges to not tolerate it. If it appears this was the intent of a buy-out company, I would have the debt assignments invalidated and re-assigned to those who did the deed. Creditors in a bankruptcy should be encouraged to seek this form of remedy. If laws make this difficult, THEN we have something to fix.

Think about this, though. If the original loan isn't paid back, why would a creditor enter into such a transaction with the vulture company? Creditors aren't stupid people. They have everything to lose when things go bad and little to gain when everything works. What is motivating them to make what we see as bad loans?

Regarding conversion of assets to cash, it is important to remember that asset value is dependent upon location. Deliver gold to London or New York and you'll get different spot prices from commodity buyers. Deliver it to me and you'll get less than both because I have no immediate use and have to transport it to others who do. Assets can be undervalued where they are and a good vulture will look for them as potential arbitrage opportunities. So what if the host dies? Vultures are predators. It is expected. What matters ethically is who has to clean up the corpse a vulture leaves behind? Deal with the negative externality and you'll change the costs a vulture faces, but you won't eliminate the predator.

Besides, predators in the market are necessary. If you don't like what they do, make sure your company is difficult to pick off. Biological analogies are useful here.

Alfred Differ said...

Wayne's notion of Canada annexing the US is amusing. I'm smiling. Seriously.

I'm also aware that we are a form of gray-goo. Go ahead. Eat us. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

I suspect the big, early time sink for VR will be fiddling with the minutia regarding our avatar appearance. We will spend a fortune in $$ and time for the same reason we buy cosmetics. I saw this in Second Life years ago. It should be more pronounced when dealing with things closer to our Real Life.

As for compression algorithms, I suspect all our languages are and physics is just part of one we use to model the bits of order in the universe we think we perceive. If so, it would make sense of why our childhoods have to last longer today than a thousand generations ago. Language is recursive and we need the time to accumulate enough to perceive the bits of 'order' in our modern civilization.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Alfred
"Only the trades are measured in that way"
I agree!
There are "The trades" and there is larceny - so any honest work can and should be measured that way

Hi Dr Brin
As Paul said I'm now in South Island NZ - like Scotland but warmer

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Alfred

Another way of looking at it

A company is a team - a collection of different work inputs + capital + materials produces a profit

This was produced by all of these things working together

The "labour" share (and how much that is a separate argument) is split between the different workers

How do you justify one man getting 300 times the average?
He/she is not irreplaceable - the graveyards are full of "irreplaceable;e people" -
Any of those people could be replaced

This is DB's point - if a market was working then new CEO's would come in willing to work for a lesser share until it balances out

Instead there are barriers - DB's golf buddy cartel

Anonymous said...

Duncan Cairncross,

I asked if you were Scottish because my wife is from the seacoast of Brittany and is as pure Breton as you can get. Both Scots and Bretons are Celtic and I detected the same type of "hardheadedness" in both of you. That's why I asked and please take it as a compliment because it is.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Deuxglass

I would never have thought of the Celtic image as "hardheaded" -
The lowland Scots - yes! in spades!

But my image of the Celtic was more of a fey emotional hot blooded type - the highland Scots

Saying that the image I have of the Bretons is much more along the lines of the lowland Scots

It is almost as if there are two types of "Celtic" people - the dark haired "dour Scots" (and the ones from Brittany and Cornwall) and the red headed wild highlander and Irishman

Anonymous said...

Paul SB,

You said:

"Was the friend who thought we were all losing it if we lived away from the sea able to come up with some physiological explanation for his hypothesis, or was just metaphysical?"

I wonder about that. My wife's family has been seafarers for as far back as you can go and the sea permeates throughout them. They do have a particular mentality and if you go a few miles inland that mentality is no longer there. The coast people look down on the inland people as peasants while they see themselves as adventurers. At first I thought it was cultural but maybe there is a genetic aspect. Making your living from the sea is much more dangerous than farming and after thousands of years of selection, you could get a genetic shift. It’s just a theory.

The Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company were very powerful special interests groups and could dictate policy to their respective governments but other, less powerful lobbyists could also pressure the governments into making bad long-term decisions. In the peace treaty between France and the UK of 1763, France exchanged all of Canada for Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean mainly because of the heavy lobbying by the sugar planters. Granted, these islands were churning out profits at the time because of slave labor but in hindsight, it was one of the worst trades ever. I wonder if we are not making the same mistakes now when it comes to economic policy; short-term profits but very negative long-term consequences.

I am looking forward to traveling on a zep but we are still far away from what we had 90 years ago.

I found the experiment about dopaminergic neurons firing only 20% of the time very interesting. Brain scans of Bipolar Disorder sufferers light up like Roman Candles when they are in the pre-maniac phase and are probably firing at a much higher percentage. Maybe that is why they can sometimes make connections that normal people can’t see and can account for some of them being very creative.

Anonymous said...


But the Celts are united in their strong dislike of the Sassenach.

Anonymous said...

Or Saozneg in Breton.

duncan cairncross said...

But the Celts are united in their strong dislike of the Sassenach.

Sometimes - I married one!

Anonymous said...

And my wife is fiery and she married a Sassenach.

Paul SB said...

You have a very credible hypothesis about coastal vs. inland life (just please don't call it a theory until it becomes one - that's one of the worst misuses of scientific terminology perpetuated by politicians. Are you familiar with the Russian silver fox experiments? Fur farms ended up creating a very tame breed of foxes with very puppy-like, neotenous features within a few generations, simply by turning the more vicious foxes into coats while allowing the less fearful, aggressive foxes to breed. There are a number of neurotransmitters and hormones whose levels likely changed as a result, including adrenaline, testosterone and serotonin. It would be easy to imagine natural selection acting the same way on coastal and inland people. The coastal lifestyle demanding higher levels of these while the inland lifestyle necessitating lower levels. Of course, people who have higher levels would be attracted to more dangerous work, like seafaring or lumberjacking (Monty Python skits notwithstanding).

What is appropriate for one environment may be maladaptive for another, a basic tenet of evolution. Thick fur is great in the Arctic but maladaptive in the Sahara. In the same way I think that the emphasis in American culture on competition may be reaching a point where it does more harm than good.

It's easy to see why Adam Smith was against government interference with business. In a way, though, he was being just as backward-looking as Thomas Jefferson was when he insisted that the US will always be a "nation of gentleman farmers," never to suffer the smog and poverty of London. with 2 centuries of hindsight we see how that worked out.

Do you think the Zeppelin could become the new mobile home or houseboat? I wonder about the surge in interest in them, and what it says about the adrenaline/testosterone/serotonin levels of steampunk fans...

Autism shows a similar pattern, and may be a malfunction in terms of neuronal pruning. I think we are still some ways from understanding these and many other mental issues our doctors so gleefully medicate. But we're making progress.

Tony Fisk said...

Look up 'spatial sorting' as an evolutionary selection mechanism (associated more with cane toads than Mac Nac Feagle seafarers ;-)

Acacia H. said...

Here's another thing to consider about CEOs. Companies provide ex-CEOs a huge payoff if they get rid of them - the so-called Golden Parachute. In theory this is to prevent lawsuits against the company for getting rid of the CEO. But if the CEO in fact is responsible for the profits of a company, if his job is ensuring profitability and he fails in that duty, then there is justification for firing him.

So why the Golden Parachute? I mean, a company can get rid of any other employee without cause and unless discrimination can be declared a factor the company gets away with dismissing those other employees. Yet a CEO gets a Golden Parachute even when he failed to do his job.

The Golden Parachute is there to provide CEOs with benefits and ensure that if the members of the Board of Directors end up losing their OWN CEO positions elsewhere, this interwoven mixture of CEO/Board members will "look after its own." It is an insidious form of corruption which encourages an oligarchical network of ultra-rich looking after each other. And they turn around and say "we deserve it because we're super-businessmen and no one else but us mutant executives can do this job."

It's bullshit, meant to placate the masses and let the rich get away with destroying peoples' lives and livelihoods so to get as much money as possible out of the system.

Rob H.

Anonymous said...

Tony Fisk,

The seafaring in that area goes back thousands of years and is very well documented through archeological evidence. However there could be some similarities to cane toads but I would never say that to their faces.

Anonymous said...

Paul SB,

There could be some subtile genetic differences. Bretons are very overrepresented in French colonies in America and other parts of the world. Until recently the coast people didn't mix with the inland ones and they even had different dialects of the Breton language, which is very close to Welsh by the way. The Ashkenazi Jews went through heavy selection so why can't the same thing have happened in other groups.

Alfred Differ said...

@Duncan: I should be careful using the phrase ‘the trades’. I didn’t mean to imply a sector of the labor market. I meant to describe ‘that which got exchanged’. You won’t find me using ‘honest work’ very often either. The term has no meaning for me, though I might overlap you a bit when we talk about ‘dishonest work’. 8)

Only a very small company is a team. Larger ones are teams of teams. Coase described an upper limit to this where communication costs become prohibitive and a company reaches a maximum effective size. If one is anywhere near that limit, the team analogy fails miserably. I’ve worked for a large bank and seen this personally.

Even when a company is a team, though, I’m not inclined to ‘measure’ a person’s contribution and then use that to justify their salary. I DO measure value added when I think as an employer, but the salary negotiation is a different thing. The value added gives me a ceiling beyond which I will not trade voluntarily. If the employee wants something close to that number, I’ll think very carefully about my profit margin (I’m assuming the company is my property here) and the growth potential of the company. If the employee contributes value and growth potential, I might flex. If they don’t know how to negotiate properly and undersell themselves, I might let them.

How do you justify one man getting 300 times the average?
He/she is not irreplaceable - the graveyards are full of "irreplaceable people" -
Any of those people could be replaced

You are going about this completely backwards. One does not justify salaries. An employer trades $$ for labor. An employee trades labor for $$. If one employee figures out how to get 1000 times the average in a trade, there is nothing to justify. It is just a trade. If I am an owner of a small company the CEO works for me. Why would I justify anything? If I am an owner of a large company and not on the Board, the CEO works for the Board I’m responsible for helping to elect. If the Board misbehaves, it is THEY who have to justify their behavior to me and only as part of that will I examine the labor trade. I would ask them to explain how the decided 1000x was appropriate.

Having said that, if an employee has to rig the rules to get 1000x or more, THEN I’ll get upset. It doesn’t matter whether or not they believe they are irreplaceable. No one is. What matters is they cheated, thus they are stealing from me if I’m an owner.

Alfred Differ said...

@Rob H: If you are ever sitting on a Board, just say no to golden parachute clauses. Buy lawsuit insurance instead or put a poison pill in the bylaws. You won't get rock-star CEO's when you recruit people for the job. You also won't be as likely to be able to sell the company for as much when you want to exit from your investment.

People often forget that the objective of many company owners is to exit ownership in the near future with more than they put in. Whether it is through equity growth or dividends, they don't plan to stay long. Only the long-term investors are going to worry much about long-term problems.

locumranch said...

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Says Fry:

"But that's not why people watch TV. Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared... TV audiences don't want anything original. They wanna see the same thing they've seen a thousand times before".

Anonymous said...

Not only the television was billed with the same enthusiasm as now for VRML 2.0, a.k.a. a poor mask for a rich dent in your checking account. This same line was trotted out for the telegraph—"It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought" (New Englander, 1858)—and again for the areoplane, telephone, cable television, the internet, twitter, etc. So the pronouncements of linear thinkers who cannot help but cycle through the same line should be taken with a suitably sized grain of salt. One fairly large, I would imagine. Toynbee, by contrast, finds periods of regressions and stalls—military tech advancing even while a civilization circles the drain, and similar nuance and complexity that is notably absent from certain schools of thought.

As for the modern Prussian school model, stamping out model citizens of uniform density and consistent spending habits as cogs for a 24x7 industrial hegemony, weighed against the extirpation of the oral tradition, well, you know, it's progress because progress. And as for "LONG term", Toynbee holds the rise (and fall! and arrested development! and arrested fall!) of civilizations as simultaneous when weighed against deep time, so we'll see.

matthew said...

Alfred's views on how negotiation for wages occur show a big problem with his world view on markets.

His employee engaged in negotiation for fair wages must make their decisions on their own - the company is legally allowed to work as a team to determine fair wages. Yet Alfred sees collective bargaining as an evil against the *employee*, from his own statements. The company gets to use its' full resources, but the employee is hampered by negotiating alone, in an information vacuum due to nondisclosure bylaws. Alfred, again, from his own statements here, does not see the contradictions as wrong, which is why I hope that he, like locum, never gets trusted with so much as a burnt match.

A poor team will almost always outperform an individual, including in a negotiation. An employee, even the magical-thinking Alfred, will always negotiate from a position of weakness with an employer.

Acacia H. said...

@Alfred: You are mistaking what the Board of Directors is SUPPOSED to do with what it does under an oligarchical system.

How many "rockstar CEOs" are such because within that oligarchical system, they have built up their reputation, potentially falsely, so to get that ultrahigh salary and golden parachute?

And should not the job of a CEO be to ensure the healthy growth of a company? Rather than the current cancerous system where companies grow, absorb smaller companies, and eventually become so bloated they are bought out and cut into small pieces by other companies undergoing the same bloated unhealthy growth?

Rob H.

Acacia H. said...

Matthew actually has a good point.

The current oligarchical system of boards of directors being higher-level executives for other companies which negotiate out CEO salaries and the like... is in fact an Millionaire Labor Union.

Rob H.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Matthew

I agree with what you say about negotiation

PLUS there is the question of power and risk
The employee is negotiating for his sustenance - his/her main source of income, the company is negotiating for a tiny fraction of its income/expenditure

It's like playing poker - if you start with a massive "stake" you can always beat the other guy

Except the negotiations at the top where the "companies negotiators" are effectively colluding with the executive employee because if he/she get more then they will also end up with more

Alfred Differ said...

@matthew: You are paying attention sir. 8)

The evil I see regarding collective bargaining isn’t as global as you suggest. What I’ve described is an evil done to me by one particular union which cut a deal with management that prevented me from bargaining for myself. I suffered a negative externality while protected union members benefited at my expense. My objections to closed shops isn’t a diatribe against unions per se. It is a complaint about their unethical behavior in shifting costs in that fashion. It only applies to picket lines and closed shops. Other than that, I don’t object to unions forming to foster the negotiating power of their members. If they crush non-members with closed shop rules or picket lines, I regard that as rule rigging and cheating.

When I negotiate for a salary for myself (as the employee) I do not act alone even if my prospective employer fails to see what I’m doing. I can consult the market. When I negotiate as the employer, I do not act alone, but few prospective employees would think I was. I can consult the same market.

Alfred Differ said...

@Rob H: You have a valid point, but I’ve been on two Boards and know that the role doesn’t corrupt one’s soul. One might lose friends and leave a wake of pissed-off, former business partners, but it is possible to perform the duties as they are intended. People who buy into a company really, really, really should think about the ethics of their Board members before making the investment. I wish I had taken my own advice on this more times than I can count.

Have I ever mentioned that I’ve thought of writing a book on this stuff? There are many things I’ve learned about how NOT to start and run businesses. You’ll see such books in the software engineering world. They are the anti-pattern design books. I think about it occasionally, chuckle, and then put the idea down. Who would want to hear about all the ways to fail? No one takes that kind of advice seriously. 8)

I’ll agree with you all, though, that the oligarchic system of inter-relations among directors is a cancer consuming our vitality. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it will be until we DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. My previous attempts haven’t made me rich enough to see if I could avoid the corrupting influence, but I still think it is possible to do it and teach it.

David Brin said...

It is so predictable. People who have clearly never read Toynbee, citing Toynbee for believeing and teaching things that are quite mutant compared to what he actually said. I'm surprised Anonymous did not trot out "life-cycles of societies." and Spengler!

Locum never provides a scintilla of evidence nor refers even slightly to "compared to what?" The junior assistant graphics designer at a small advertising agency could, if transported to 1630, stun Rubens with her skill. She would not quite be a Rubens (there is such a thing as genius) but he'd hire her on the spot for class A portraits for him to finish.

And our very best artists are true geniuses. They just find it hard to stand out, in a civilization where POTENTIAL is discovered and nurtured at levels orders of magnitude higher than, say, Mozart's time, when 99% of geniuses starved in peasantry without a chance to even pick up a crayon or flute.

It isn't just bullshit, it is utter, stunning, diametrically opposite to true in EVERY conceivable way bullshit. Heck It's Republican.

Are there aspects to modern media that do thwart some young minds? Yes. It is their challenge to rebel! As modern media PREACH kids to rebel! Only in Mozart's time that rebellion was costly and risky, but today all it means is "I'll turn off the video game and try to be skilled at one of ten million cool things I am being offered." Some fail to take the challenge and their talent is wasted. Maybe we'll do better with talent-detection systems. BFD.

What amazes me is the near genius-levels of delusion that it takes to look at the most creative time in the history of our species and DECLARE AS FACT that it is the least. THAT is creative!

Alfred Differ said...

@Duncan: PLUS there is the question of power and risk
The employee is negotiating for his sustenance - his/her main source of income, the company is negotiating for a tiny fraction of its income/expenditure

Sorry. This is garbage. I was Chairman once of a 501(c)3 that was on the verge of collapse. I had to negotiate away large debts to people I cared about and pay no more than starvation wages to someone who really wanted to see the group survive. I had to treat a Founder poorly pushing him to the brink of bankruptcy until he made the mental shift to realize his baby wasn’t there to pay his rent. All of this was a terrible time for the group, but it was necessary for it to survive… and we did. The group survives today under different management, treats its people and finances far better, and I’m proud of them.

What you are describing is appropriate for strong companies and weak employees. That is only part of the market. Anyone who founds a company knows this because in a start-up the strengths are usually reversed. Each weakness CAN be beaten, but only if one takes responsibility for it and works to eliminate it. Any employee who thinks of themselves as permanently weak has placed shackles upon themselves and offers the chains to whoever will feed, clothe, and house them. We have a name for that practice.

duncan cairncross said...

"I can consult the same market."

But the company campaigns and colludes with the other companies to deny you that information

"Your salary is confidential and must not be divulged"

duncan cairncross said...

Ho Alfred

Even in your example the company and owner was only risking his "legacy"
(that and $5 will buy a coffee)
He had already had his living from the company - and I would bet he had a lot salted away!

Whereas the employees were risking their livelihoods!

If he really had no money left over then I have little sympathy for him - a rich man who becomes poor through his own incompetence.....

Alfred Differ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alfred Differ said...

@Duncan: Companies certainly do try to deny me information on what they might be willing to pay, but that's much like someone in a bizarre trying to conceal what they might accept for a trinket I want. They have the trinket and might think they are driving the bargain, but I have the $$ they want and I can look around in other parts of the market to figure out what I need. You can argue that trinkets aren’t involved when sustenance is part of the bargain, but I’ll counter with a suggestion that one should not let it get that far if possible. Carry water with you if you plan on a walk in the desert. Save $$ if you can before a lay-off. Pay attention before the predicament arrives. Any prospective employee who hasn't done the research they need before walking into an interview IS in a weak position. So don't. Just do the research. Take someone out to lunch and get them to divulge.

The Founder had nothing serious salted away. He started selling personal items hoping things would turn around. I knew they wouldn't because I knew what my 'CEO' was doing. Besides, his legacy meant a great deal to him because he had never been rich and the Dream mattered more. He has been involved in at least two start-ups since then, inspired many more to pursue our collective dream, and his legacy survives. I like the guy a lot and hope he DOES get rich doing what we do and I like to think I've helped him get closer to that future.

What I'm trying to point out is that the world isn't as simple as you make it out to be. Each of us has ample power to shape it, but little power to design it. One must never confuse these two things or tolerate those who try to make them the same.

Jumper said...

"Take someone out to lunch and get them to divulge." Easy peasy!

And locumranch, if you are going to use my material, at least credit me.

LarryHart said...

Deuxglass to Duncan:

Duncan Cairncross,

I asked if you were Scottish because my wife is from the seacoast of Brittany and is as pure Breton as you can get.

You knew his name was Duncan Cairncross and you had to ask? :)

Alfred Differ said...

@Jumper: Worth every penny spent on their lunch. Do it right and the payoff is complete before the first day on the job is complete. 8)

I was taught to do this BEFORE one needs the information.
I suspect the golf caste is doing something similar.

matthew said...

@Alfred, while I certainly think that many of your professed philosophical musings are not just wrong but damn wrong, I would *still* be in the market for your book on the ways business dealings, negotiations, and inceptions go horribly wrong. In all seriousness, you write very well (if, to my point of view, delusional) and do have an inside knowledge that I do not possess. You wanna pass on the knowledge and I'll give you my hard-negotiated lucre in return, easy peasy.

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. Thank you. One of the things I like about this place is my ideas get criticized in a way that is useful to me. In exchange, I try to do the same for everyone else.

As for being 'damn wrong', my wife would agree with you. The Scotsman within me enjoys the conflict, though, so I wouldn't have it any other way. 8)

duncan cairncross said...

"The Scotsman within me enjoys the conflict,"

Damn! I resemble that comment!

donzelion said...

Step away for real life for a few days, and too many interesting debates follow. Still, I'll keep needling on this point until folks viewed as adversaries are not seen through too simplistic a lens...

@Dr. Brin - "They [the oil sheikhs and coal barons, and some of us] have made the world a more desperately dangerous place."

The oil sheikhs made Silicon Valley what it is today (or at least, what it has been since the late 1970s). Frozen out by the principle families in the 1970s and 1980s, they had to invest in startups (or rather, into VCs and investment banks which made the VCs themselves rich). Their interest was more in diversifying where they parked their cash than developing technology, but since they viewed real estate as problematic (too hard to hide the ultimate owner indefinitely, at least, given 1980s processes), technology (and stocks generally) was one of the few places they could park cash (other than U.S. government bonds). That's quite different from both U.S. oil barons and coal barons, the bulk of whom focused on defending their assets and arbitraging to real estate rents.

Some Saudi billionaires have poured more of their money into "American" technology than many American technologists...

"One of the Koch-Saudi talking points that are suckled on Fox is that solar photovoltaic systems are not that green..."
My understanding is that the argument about PV solar panels is less about the carbon costs of manufacturing, and more the toxic chemicals typically produced. The great "subsidy" offered by China may be in the form of lax enforcement of environmental rules, rather than in direct cash infusions.

donzelion said...

@Duncan - picking up a thread from before with Deuxglass - CEO pay is based on the power to destroy, not the benefit to the company.

In the 1920s - 1970s, an ordinary worker with a misplaced wrench could screw an assembly line, costing substantial amounts of money to a corporation. These days, an engineer solving a problem can stop a major product defect or a broken assembly line, and save millions of dollars a day. A respectable amount, but consider the power of the CEO - with a few misplaced words, they can destroy hundreds of billions of dollars. In seconds.

Their pay these days (esp. in the form of stock options) is entirely premised on devising means of preventing them from doing so. But nobody in the business world likes to dwell on the immense destructive power, or to suggest that drives their decisions...

"What metric would you use for a CEO who turned a company from heavy losses back to profitability for example?"
No CEO ever turned a company from heavy losses to profitability. Steve Jobs didn't turn Apple around - Steve Jobs was baled out by Bill Gates, and by Apple fanboys, and by gifted engineers and designers and marketers, and by Napster slackers stealing billions of dollars of music, and a confluence of other circumstances.

The cult of the CEO is about hiding the danger they present to the company, not their special genius or acumen, not their suffering on behalf of whatever firm they represent (which is no greater than that borne by most small business owners and other entrepreneurs).

Steve Jobs was a very good businessman, but he was no Mozart.

donzelion said...

And one last thought for my day re the Stanford Prison Experiment - what brain hemisphere, what overriding consideration, what mental logical operation brought that experiment to an end?

Zimbardo describes the role of his then-girlfriend, Christina Maslach, who questioned the morality of the whole affair once the students started getting out of hand, effectively reining in the curiosity as to just how far things might go. I've wondered before about AI and the extent of our ability to program love into entities which are themselves devoid of biological evolutionary imperatives. If love consists of dopamine/oxytocin interactions, then these can perhaps be simulated, or analogous structures created - but if love includes creative possibilities (including that of progeny), rather than mere chemical states, then who can say what "instincts" will rein in our digital creations?

This was my biggest critique of the "competition as cure" theory last time this discussion arose. Competition alone is insufficient - the concepts of 'fairness' themselves include fundamental notions about human value, ultimately linked to some need to connect in some form (with a partner, family, society). Perhaps that need to connect is fundamental to consciousness itself - e.g., a recognition of "self" is only possible through cognition of "a being separate from other." But that sounds a little 'French' for most of the participants in these discussions... ;-)

donzelion said...

@Alfred - You're coming closer to the story than Duncan and Deuxglass here - "If I am an owner of a small company the CEO works for me. Why would I justify anything?"

However, in most cases, the owners of companies are themselves large companies. The majority shareholders are typically representatives of interlocked complex entities, which are themselves representatives of other entities and owners. One must justify compensation to all those constituents, while also masking their disparate motives and interests (e.g., they like seeing company profits converted into share buybacks, or sometimes, dividends when it is tax efficient to do so, or less often, new investment activity). Since the Board (and the major shareholders) are primarily concerned with "non-destruction" of assets, and since any discussion of the actual threat posed by a CEO would itself destroy the value of assets, all discussion about 1000x pay for the CEO is a misdirection intended to prevent other shareholders from fixating on the ultimate risk presented by the 'leaders.'

"if an employee has to rig the rules to get 1000x or more, THEN I’ll get upset."
If that ever actually happened, you wouldn't know about it happening in those terms... ;-) An employee who successfully rigged the rules to extract so much would be set up as a new CEO of a spinoff firm, largely to ensure that you never knew you ought to be upset about what other people did with your money as a "small" owner.

David Brin said...

Yes donzelion, values are vital. Transparency may prevent Big Brother but it could lead to majority rule domination by a nasty 51% openly and transparently persecuting lawfully a minority. And hence you also need the value system that's contained in nearly all western/US movies, songs etc... appreciation of diversity, eccentricity and non-harmful difference.

If you combine THAT with transparency, then open competition means that those conspiring to oppress will be denounced as harmful oppressors of harmless difference. And then competition can discover most errors.

Paul451 said...

Two and half threads later... my usual shotgun of posts...

"E. O. Wilson suggests that humans set aside roughly 50 percent of the planet as a sort of permanent preserve, undisturbed by man."

The problem is that all ecosystems have been so completely "disturbed by man", for so long, that merely withdrawing human interference is no longer an option. As hunter-gatherers, we lived in a post-change environment long enough to caused the major ecosystems on every continent to adapt to our presence. We therefore cannot completely withdraw. We have to continue our role as a pseudo-replacement for the megafauna we killed. If we withdrew completely, it would be the equivalent of a major extinction-level event. And ecosystems before and after ELE's are rarely the same.

(For example, in Australia we replaced large grazers with fire-stick farming. By merely withdrawing our presence, we create an uncontrolled dry grassland environment prone to catastrophic wild-fires that sterilise the soil. Likewise, all woodland in the US and southern Canada was essentially cultivated farmland for many thousands of years, not actual wild woods. I expect the current mix of trees and undergrowth is vastly different from that which existed before human arrival.)

If you want to return an ecosystem to it's pre-human state, you have to artificially recreate the right mix of plants and animals that existed before human expansion. And my guess is that even the darkest Greens would never allow such radical interference, even if the end goal was to then remove interference.

"What would people be like if we lived in a society that taught that everyone is a brand new personality every day?"

It'll be even harder to get kids to go to bed. "I don't want to die!"

(IMO, a better model would be something like David's version of post-humanism in Stones of Significance. We are an ad-hoc gestalt entity that emerges from the various mental modules that make up our brains/minds. In SoS, the entity was explicitly aware of his component nature, we usually aren't. But I wonder if it would be possible to train someone from birth (to create a whole society around) to be aware of their subconscious component-intelligences. To train yourself to be aware of the tug of different systems, to be aware of how the gestalt emerges. Or would it break the system? Like thinking about breathing.)

Paul451 said...

Tony Fisk,
"A rigid envelope maintained at about 0.1 atm [...] would provide the same lift as hydrogen."

No. The pressure on the walls (10 tonnes per square metre) would require vastly stronger materials, and hence more mass, hence much, much less lift. I've never seen anyone achieve buoyancy in a vacuum system.

Think of a thin 1m² platform that is capable of holding up 10 tonnes - say a two metres tall 1x1m column of solid iron - with the platform supported only at its edges. Even using the most advances CNT-reinforced composites, how thick does that shell need to be?

Now compare that with the skin of a balloon holding in a gas at only slightly more than external air-pressure (ie, nearly zero pressure difference.)

Even a dirigible, with an internal frame, is vastly lower mass than any rigid shell, let alone a rigid shell capable of supporting thousands of tonnes of pressure across its surface.

If that wasn't the case, dirigibles would already use rigid shells!

"Even if that is true, who says it *has* to be spherical?"

A sphere is the strongest shape to resist external pressure. If you use any other shape (including the standard ellipsoid airship shape), you would need even stronger walls and therefore a heavier shell.

If you can't make it work with a sphere, you can't make it work.

The jokey image in the New Yorker article, reflects the common perception that airships have a lot of cargo-volume. In that image, the actual cargo space is the tiny gondola underneath the envelope.

Re: Hydrogen airships with quick release vertical cells.

That's fine when you are docked and landed, but during flight... it's kind of like a ship where the only response to fire is to break open the hull and sink the ship. Sure it works, but...

Paul451 said...

"US CEO's [...] used to get about 30 times the median - and that was probably too much!"

I guess the question for Deuxglass's value-criteria is "are modern CEOs over ten times better value than those in the '50s and '60s?"

Or, reverting back to LarryHart's riff, are modern corporations ten times better for society?

"What metric would you use for a CEO who turned a company from heavy losses back to profitability for example?"

Two points: In such a situation, the CEO is likely to receive a additional bonus (either directly or usually via shares) that is well in excess of his salary. Hence there's no reason for the base salary to be pre-emptively so high.

Secondly, there seems to be no connection between CEO salaries and subsequent company performance. (At least according to analyses I've read over the years. Similarly, publicly listed companies seem to underperform private companies, on average.The "wisdom of the market" isn't.)

"What is the alternative to the board for setting CEO pay? Should government "experts" decide it? What is the alternative to the board? I don't see one."

And yet previous generations managed it. They went from a similar situation to today (extreme executive salaries, high social inequality) to the "30xMedian" era that Duncan refers to. I feel like modern financial discussions are trapped in a kind of "learned helplessness": that-which-is, is-as-it-must-be. (For some, like Alfred, that "learned helplessness" develops into "market worship". That-which-is, is-as-it-must-be, therefore-is-good.)

If CEO salaries don't reflect company performance (and they don't), and hence both shareholders and society are not getting value for money, then the system has failed. To work out what to do to reverse the market failure, you have to answer the question of why. David talks of "5000 golf buddies", essentially a cartel situation. He might be right, he might be wrong. But you aren't offering an alternative explanation.

(Alfred offers an explanation, see below, although he wouldn't accept it as one. A inherent systematic flaw, rather than simple a cartel. In spite of the implicit insults I throw his way on this topic, I think his explanation is more right than David's. The golf-cartel may exist, but the flaw is deeper.)

Paul451 said...

"If the original loan isn't paid back, why would a creditor enter into such a transaction with the vulture company?"

As I understand the method, the loan is secured against the company assets. The bankruptcy (or threat of bankruptcy) allows the creditor (part of the web of companies involved in the leveraged buyout) to strip the assets of the company, default on obligations to workers, raid pension funds, etc, then resell whatever is left to the next owner.

The creditor enters the arrangement with their eyes open, and their mouth salivating.

"People often forget that the objective of many company owners is to exit ownership in the near future with more than they put in. Whether it is through equity growth or dividends, they don't plan to stay long. Only the long-term investors are going to worry much about long-term problems."

Alfred, we don't forget. You ignore the implications.

Why should such people be on the boards of companies (let alone dominate them)? They are, in effect, short term creditors. We don't put other short-term creditors onto boards. The fiction that they are "owners" doesn't change that the market pressures on them are going to be utterly different to a true owner. Having them dominate the market breaks all the assumptions about how the market will functions.

Actually, they are worse than other creditors. They're a non-repeating creditor. Unlike the overwhelming majority of regular short-term creditors, they don't hope for future trade with the same company. A parts supplier wants to sell more parts, there's a limit to how much they will damage their long-term business relationship to extract short-term gain. But a non-repeating creditor has no such self-corrective mechanism. The model is much closer to resource-extraction than business. The mine owner doesn't care about the mess left behind, unless forced to by society.

They don't even suffer reputational damage amongst other "customers", because the system believes in its own propaganda. On the contrary, you even state outright that the reputational pressure runs the opposite way: "but I've been on two Boards and know that the role doesn't corrupt one's soul. One might lose friends and leave a wake of pissed-off, former business partners, but it is possible to perform the duties as they are intended." It's possible to perform your duties as intended, but only if you destroy your own chance of future business.

How can such a distorted system not be considered broken?

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Paul451

The inherent flaw is the Lake Wobegon effect,
The board wants to pay THEIR CEO above the average wage for a similar CEO
(The CEO is a single person so that doesn't instantly destroy the bottom line)

Then the other companies do the same - so the next round we need a large increase to stay above the average

It's a spiral that has gone out of control

As far as David's airships pulled by trains is concerned - I think that he is missing the point - like all of the ScFi with hover-cars

The weight is NOT a problem - in fact it helps for traction
The only time ground effect has been used in cars was the old fan cars - sucking themselves down onto the track!

One you have a rail line the thing to do is to put bigger faster trains on it
Zeppelins have one MAJOR advantage - they don't need tracks
A Zeppelin train amalgam has the worst features of both

LarryHart said...

Alfred Differ:

People often forget that the objective of many company owners is to exit ownership in the near future with more than they put in. Whether it is through equity growth or dividends, they don't plan to stay long. Only the long-term investors are going to worry much about long-term problems.

I'm not sure why you see that fact as a feature of capitalism rather than a very harmful bug. Don't many of the justifications for free-market capitalism rest upon the presumption that investors will act in the best interests of the company?

Paul451 said...

"A inherent systematic flaw, rather than simple a cartel."

That sentence makes sense in my native language. I'm just not sure what language that is.

LarryHart said...

Alfred Differ:

I’ll agree with you all, though, that the oligarchic system of inter-relations among directors is a cancer consuming our vitality. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it will be until we DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

Hmmmm, I'm not sure why you consider vulture/predators to be a necessary part of the system but cancer to be something to be DONE ABOUT. Wouldn't the justifications for one also justify the other?

Paul451 said...

Re: Existence of airships, or vice versa.

I can't recall, did David specify the propulsion system? "Tracks", yes, but "traction"?

Maglev type systems would work with his idea. (I'm not saying it would be better than conventional rail/maglev/airships, but it would "work".)

donzelion said...

@Deuxglass - a dropped thread, from two posts ago, re Panama/Helvetia - (sorry, missed this while traveling).

"I am concerned about the legality of publishing the Panama Leaks..."
There's a difference between state secrets (e.g., blueprints on certain satellite monitoring systems, or the schedules of certain satellites in certain eras) and private secrets. Steal and print state secrets, and one might be engaging in a form of treason. Steal private secrets and one might be engaging in a form of theft. For a tiny handful of crimes (slave trading, piracy on the seas, torturers), the perpetrator is regarded as an enemy of all of humankind (e.g., pirates), and thus, they can (and should) be punished by people from any country. However, theft is not one of those crimes.

"If hacking was used then could an international arrest warrant be issued against the hacker?"
There's no such thing as an "international arrest warrant." Not really. The closest concept is an Interpol notice (which is the equivalent of a broadcast fax from one country stating that a specific person is subject to arrest, and asking other countries to assist if they choose to do so) - Interpol itself is not much more powerful than a website stating "wanted" in a manner that police departments pay close attention to (but are not required to enforce).

"Should we give a “safe haven” status to the source and if yes, then why should we not do the same for the WikiLeaks founder?"

Julian Assange was NOT found guilty of the leaks themselves, and is wanted for questioning in connection with a very specific type of rape alleged to have occurred in Sweden. Were we to give "safe haven" to him, we would be asserting that Swedish police investigations are unjust and should not be recognized (creating reciprocity issues if they did the same to us). That's actually not all that uncommon, but it's a complicated matter (e.g., Reagan gave amnesty to millions of Latin Americans, charged with political crimes, but did not find them to qualify for asylum - leaving them in legal limbo for years).

donzelion said...

Oh, catching up earlier on -
@Alfred -
"Besides, predators in the market are necessary. If you don't like what they do, make sure your company is difficult to pick off. Biological analogies are useful here."
There is No. Such. Thing. Predators (and parasites) can pick off the largest companies in the world, or the smallest.

"the loading of debt on one company in order to bankrupt it..."
This is actually one of the main tactics to prevent getting picked off. The issue isn't just the amount of debt, but to whom it is owed, and the conditions and implications for repayment.

Bankruptcy judges will investigate fraudulent transfers, but while they're investigating and reversing them, the company will often continue operating (depending on a great variety of factors). Whether or not a judge reassigns debt, whether the debt is reassigned based on its value at the date of formation or the date of decision - whatever occurs, all these decisions and the probability for any decision can be gamed. Whatever laws you set as the basic principles will be gamed by players who don't even< need to win the legal battle, but simply defer a judgment (often, for years).

"If the original loan isn't paid back, why would a creditor enter into such a transaction with the vulture company? Creditors aren't stupid people."
Creditors will be unlikely to enter transactions for $1 million loans with vultures (absent fraud or insider dealing). For $1 billion loans, in a case where they have taken on $250 million in debt? All. The. Time. Usually, they'll do that to package $5 billion loans, hoping to shift debt and resell it in a form of bonds (hoping they can reduce it to $100 million in total exposure - they'll praise the great leadership of someone they despise, counting on enough suckers buying in to get them profits that cover their exposure).

"What is motivating them to make what we see as bad loans?"
Usually fear, occasionally greed (particularly for a handful of insiders at the creditor institution if they're paid commission), sometimes arrogance (and an expectation of shifting the debt repayment to someone else). Bad loans are a sign of power at work that is far different from the expectations of most market participants.

"Assets can be undervalued where they are and a good vulture will look for them as potential arbitrage opportunities."
You're referring to a merchant, rather than a vulture. Nearly all merchants will look at assets as having differential value through time/space arbitrage. Vultures convert liabilities into assets through numerous forms of alchemy.

"What matters ethically is who has to clean up the corpse a vulture leaves behind?"
Technically, this is what a vulture is supposed to do - break up corpses, freeing the markets from zombie institutions that are not productive, but are blocking and choking the growth of other, healthier institutions. But just as one might struggle to find a scientific, objective definition of a 'weed' - one will struggle to distinguish zombies/dinosaurs from 'healthy companies' - when you get right down to it, all are paper creatures, showing transitional states, healthy at one time, moribund at another. Apple itself is among the great 'zombie' are many, many others that are surprisingly more robust than anyone realized at one time or another.

Anonymous said...

I have been on a few boards and I had the occasion of having to fire a CEO. We had hired him and after five months it was clear that he was a total disaster. He was going through a life crisis and it affected his performance and we couldn’t wait for him to sort his private life out so we decided to fire him. We had two problems. We had to get him out as fast as possible and we had to find a new CEO quickly. The CEO thought he had an iron contract but to his surprise he didn’t. Our lawyers were better than his but we did have to pay him a certain mount just to get him out quietly and quickly. Seen from the outside he had a “golden parachute” but in reality he got only a fraction of his contract.

Once you make the decision, you don’t want him around. The next problem was finding a new CEO but in the meantime someone had to run the company and I agreed to do it temporally because I knew the business and was running a similar operation. Our two companies had equity ties so I was pressured into running both operations separated by a wide ocean at the same time. We looked in house to find a successor but unfortunately the two who could have become CEO had been forced out by the former CEO. He just didn’t like completion from underlings. At the time there weren’t many good CEOs that knew the industry intimately and who were available. The good ones already had jobs and were happy in them and the unemployed ones had flaws and their reputations were suspect. If your reputation takes a hit, even CEOs have a hard time getting another job. It took several months and we ended having to poach a CEO from a competing company and he was expensive. There really wasn’t a choice and he did do a decent job for the company.

My point is NOT that CEOs in general are rare birds but that it is difficult to find a good one who can hit the job running and that was necessary for our company which is in a fast-moving industry. The right person for the job has bargaining power and knows it and is not going to take a chance on your company unless he has good compensation and guarantees. Is it deplorable and leads to overpaying? Most definitely but sometimes the board doesn’t really have a choice.

Acacia H. said...

Actually, combining zeppelins and trains is not a dumb idea - so long as you ensure the trains don't have to go under bridges! ;) And if you're rebuilding a train track infrastructure, you can ensure that the trains are the ones going over bridges, not the other way.

You scoff? Well, consider this: a number of train accidents were caused by overloading the train. The tracks were not able to take the weight and derailment occurs. While you could point your finger at the failure to upkeep infrastructure (and you may very well be right), if you reduce the weight of the trains you reduce the threat of accidents.

The zeppelins carry extra cargo. They don't even need much in the way of fuel seeing the train provides the propulsion. So you have an, in theory, safer mechanism to carry larger loads long distances at a reasonable rate of speed.

Rob H.

locumranch said...

"And hence you also need the value system that's contained in nearly all western/US movies, songs etc... appreciation of diversity, eccentricity and non-harmful difference. If you combine THAT with transparency, then open competition means that those conspiring to oppress will be denounced as harmful oppressors of harmless difference..." [DB]

And, so we come to the inherent FLAW present in many of David's arguments:
The denial of technological amorality, coupled with an almost Panglossian faith in the universal applicability of a subjective moral value system.

Assuming this 'Best of All Possible Worlds' morality, then (1) Self-Sacrifice ought to be viable survival characteristic instead of a pathway to personal extinction, (2) CEOs ought to put aside high Wages & self-interest in the name of the greater good, (3) Profit-driven corporations ought to sacrifice profit for employee benefit, (4) Reliance on AI 'thinking machines' ought to help the average man think better, (5) Transparency ought to be liberating rather than oppressive, (6) the Protector Caste ought to be incorruptible, (7) the Progressive Assembly process of automobile manufacture ought not apply to death camps & (8) Fat people ought to be thin because of self-restraint.

Where there 'ought to' be empiric observations to support these optimisms, there's a whole lot of moralizing going on here.


A.F. Rey said...

Assuming this 'Best of All Possible Worlds' morality, then (1) Self-Sacrifice ought to be viable survival characteristic instead of a pathway to personal extinction...

If Self-Sacrifice wasn't a viable survival characteristic for societies, then why are there wars?

During a fierce battle, it is a much better tactic to run away than to fight. So why don't soldier traditionally all run away when the fighting gets bad? Why would anyone fight to the death, even against hopeless odds (as is chronicled many times in history)?

Because Self-Sacrifice is a very viable survival strategy for the group as a whole.

raito said...

"What would people be like if we lived in a society that taught that everyone is a brand new personality every day?"

Buddhist philosophers.

Google is insisting that I'm asking about writing, so I'm having trouble finding the quote or its author, but its something like:

"Every morning I prepare my mind as a blank page for the day to write upon."

Not too much to say about AI, though I've worked (any by some measure, am working) in the field. We're getting there through relatively simplistic (compared to the biological thought process) processing of very large (compared to the biological sensors) data sets. It will be very interesting to see how 'big data AI' compares to 'recreating biology AI' (which are not artificial neural networks). Of particular interest are fitness functions. What is a good one? How can you synthesize one from nothing?

Sure, The Two Faces Of Tomorrow posits that AI would independently come to the conclusion that helping mankind is in it's best physical and moral interests, but I don't think I'm going to count on it. Something more like The Octagon is likely without a lot of care. And with respect to our host, that story was one about competition.

As for CEOs, who knows? My previous CEO (by which I mean I worked at the company he ran) was worth a bunch because he knew (or lucked onto) who to buy and when, and it drove the company from $50 million/yr to $300 million/yr in 15 years. Could someone else have made those same right decisions? Maybe. Would you chance losing that guy in order to hire someone cheaper? Heck no! (wouldn't have happened, he was also an owner and a founder, but you get my point)

Then again, such idiocy is well known at lower levels. A friend of my wife worked for a company where he consistently, year after year, figured out a way to save the company at least a million dollars a year. After 10 years, that's 10 million a year. And he wasn't out of ideas. So naturally, when it came time for layoffs, they laid off the guy's wife. So he quit and they don't have anyone doing that level of work any more. Talk about killing the goose...

My current CEO could do the job of anyone in the 100 person company better than they could, including me.

Previous ones weren't so good. To tie in to the AI thread, the one from the AI company (who had an early AI PhD) rejected an implementation of mine because 'he didn't understand it'. Even when directed to the research papers, and having been given a pile of data showing objectively how well it worked.

The one before that one destroyed the company by deciding that they weren't going to produce any new product, just maintain the old ones. And by trying to pull the wool over the customer's eyes. Something I pointed out at the time of the decision. Didn't make me too popular.

Alfred Differ said...

@LarryHart: It isn’t a harmful bug because a corporation is a juridical person at best. It is an owned person when we choose to think of it as such and property can be bought, sold, carved up, and whatnot. A juridical person’s bests interests exist, but they are strictly subordinate to the best interests of natural persons who own them.

This distinction is important now and will become even more so in a world of Ems or David’s dittos and uplift. We WILL blur the line, but there are consequences and some are easy to predict... and avoid.

Alfred Differ said...

@donzelion: I hadn’t thought of CEO pay in terms of their power to destroy. It sounds too cynical, but I’ve been accused of being overly optimistic. I’m going to have to think on this because it matches one of my start-up experiences. My CEO thought the Chairman was doing something illegal. It didn’t matter who was right or wrong because FOOM. The company was made worthless very quickly and the one serious creditor understood nothing of value remained.

I get what you are suggesting about them being able to hide rule rigging. If they are competent, they should be able to do that, but I’ve seen people fail at that in a publically traded company. The cheaters aren’t omniscient and a small share-holder like me (through stock options since I was also an employee) can occasionally catch them. The odds are in their favor, though, without transparency rules. Even then it will be difficult.

David Brin said...

Wow, some of the skills hinted at by Contrary Brin commenters suggest a separate thread, some time, comparing them and pondering some joint project? Just sayin'

Paul451: “Re: Hydrogen airships with quick release vertical cells. That's fine when you are docked and landed, but during flight... it's kind of like a ship where the only response to fire is to break open the hull and sink the ship…”

You are probably venting just one or two H2 cells in any emergency and you still have the He cells, The landing might be rough, but not a straight-down crash.

Duncan the locomotive can be heavy. It is the zeps' CARGO that floats. The big problem for the trains is getting bridge and powerline wights of way.

Ah, then locum: “Assuming this 'Best of All Possible Worlds' morality, then (1) Self-Sacrifice ought to be viable survival characteristic instead of a pathway to personal extinction…”

Is there no limit to the fellow’s aptitude for strawman-misinterpreting almost everything that almost everyone else says? There was not one single word that I said that could (sanely) be imputed to demand self-sacrifice.

Indeed, the general meme of tolerance of diversity – which I would guess is the source of his weird conflation - is ultimately practical and in one’s own self-interest. Since it defends your own eccentricities, too.

Lordy, sometimes I think he’s deliberately pulling our legs.

David Brin said...

Onward to new posting.


Alfred Differ said...

@Paul451: I’m guilty of learned helplessness? Heh. You are the first to suggest that of me in many, many years. I’m usually the one informing people they shouldn’t give up even if they do feel like a rat tossed in a barrel of water with no way to get out. Keep swimming until you literally can’t. Me as a market worshipper is funny, though. You are essentially saying I have faith in humanity. I’m okay with that as I find that far safer than faith in particular people. En masse, we have a chance of spotting our delusions.

Regarding loan security, I think you are getting to the kernel of truth here. If the buy-out loan IS secured, the creditor gets paid off if they get the assets and can resell them at an acceptable price. If that happens, we are back to an earlier question. What’s wrong with that?

I assure you I don’t ignore the implications of short-term thinking. I’ve tried to raise money for start-ups. One simply HAS to think of the company as an asset if one wants to talk to anyone beyond their circle of relatives and have a chance of them investing. They aren’t imagining my company in a dreamy, social good sense. They want to make money on their money. They think in terms of ROI, expected NPV, risk, and exit strategy. To mangle Adam Smith a bit, they care more about their little finger than the earthquake I intend to cause with my disruptive company. If there is no viable exit within five years, it takes a real leap of faith from them to invest because market conditions change rapidly. Even if my sales projections are perfect, the economy might change making their investment a poor performer relative to other options.

As with all short-term thinkers, one has to be careful regarding goals. Non-repeating traders ARE different from traders expecting repeat opportunities. Some investors are repeaters. Some aren’t. Some are better described as ‘milkers’ because they expect dividends or a direct cut of profits. The environment out this is complex enough for a biological analogy to fit well. Some are vultures. Some are cultivators. Some are rent-seekers with cash they need to stash somewhere. It is a gross simplification to argue that the market is flawed, though, based on one’s dislike of the behaviors of certain players. The market is what it is independent of our desires to design it into a utopia.

The critters to watch out for in our markets are the cheaters (cancer/disease analogies apply here). They compete in a meta-market of rules governing the lower market. Justice is a market at the meta level we operate to cope with them. The danger in that occurs when we fall for the delusion that we can design either of them. No one has that power. At best we can compete in them.

Alfred Differ said...

oops. Moving on too. 8)

David Brin said...



Dave said...

@Alfred (vis-a-vis previous post) We are not thinking of the same thing. For me to make myself transparent does nothing to shed light on the activities of the NSA. For the transparent society to happen, there have to be concrete steps I or we can take to get there. If it requires serious reform of government, it requires the cooperation of the elites we aim to constrain, even more than the hiding approach does. I suppose there is an asymmetry, in that it might be easier to catch an elite cheating on a transparency requirement than to catch them cheating on a "don't look" requirement. that is not enough to make me optimistic.