The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Mon, 2010-Mar-15, 06:47

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Today is International Eat a Tasty Animal for PETA Day.

Tue, 2010-Mar-09, 07:56

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Proper Answers to Census Questions

Yesterday I received a letter from the Census Bureau that informed me of next week's arrival of the census form. I always fill it out the same way: I give the government all the information to which the government is entitled, namely a count of the individuals living in my home. The rest of the information, including their names and ages, is none of the government's business.

This year the census form includes questions about race, as it always does — there's quite a few this time around, and I'm always bemused by the arcane process that selects the ethnicity to measure. But I do wonder: how does government-mandated disaggregation into racial groups affect governance and society? While it's very easy indeed to come up with negative consequences, I draw a complete blank when I try to think of an instance when officially-mandated racial disaggregation resulted a positive innovation.

Fri, 2010-Jan-29, 09:23

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"Is this still you?"

A friend just sent an email message to my email address to ask "Is this still you?" I added in a few more details about how to find me:

  • A microblogging service
  • Two different IM networks
  • Two social networking sites (the ones I use most often)
  • Three of my blogs (again, the ones I update most often)
The question "is this you?" is more complicated than ever before.

Wed, 2008-May-07, 08:53

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Plant Rights

The Swiss government wants to protect the "rights" and "dignity" of plants (PDF format); here's an interesting analysis. In my opinion, this is a failure of disaggregation: the Swiss government experts fail to distinguish between sentient and non-sentient living objects.

Tue, 2008-May-06, 07:31

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Is "Prison Culture" Behind Chicago's Crime Wave?

According to an article by Gary Fields in the Wall Street Journal, former prison inmates bring their "prison culture" with them to the streets once they leave jail. This prison culture emphasizes "respect," which doesn't mean what I would think it means; and of course disputes are resolved by violence. The article then goes on to claim that because so many individuals in the US are incarcerated at some point in their lives, this prison culture is spreading across our cities and makes a noticeable contribution to violent crime. The City of Chicago experienced a small spike in murders recently, but with a sharp increase in deaths of school-age youth, and Mayor Daley is using this as an excuse to promote his anti-gun campaign.

While this article caught my eye — I began to wonder how disaggregation affects the connection between offender, victim, prison culture, and crimes — I would like to caution that I have to take the article with a huge grain of salt. The Wall Street Journal seems to have a cabal of reporters who promote Hillary Clinton with a stream of articles that read as if they come directly from her campaign headquarters. The most recent example was an extraordinarily poorly-written article on health care in the US, with a heavy emphasis on denigrating the management of non-profit hospitals.

This "prison culture" article carries a tell-tale quote from David Kennedy of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control: "This is part of the price we're paying for 20 years of mass incarceration." The notion that the prison population is too high is a common refrain in certain political circles.

While I've spent a while this morning trying to find some statistics on crime, the subtle political slant of this article is so unpersuasive that I think I'll put the entire question aside.

Tue, 2007-May-08, 13:56

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Don't Trust Any Data Over Thirty

After about a million or so articles that raise fear, uncertainty, and doubt over blogs and MySpace — based on anecdotes about people who lost their chances of finding a job after prospective employers found something they didn't like on MySpace — comes the million-and-one article: this time with the imprimatur of a Harvard professor.

Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger believes that the Internet changes how we think of people. Instead of gathering assessments from current acquaintances, we look at data on the Internet, some of it quite old, and make judgments from there. He believes that's wrong.

Now, in some very real sense I agree with him: Don't trust data over thirty, to coin a phrase. I'm glad that every foolish comment I uttered in high school, or for that matter in first grade, hasn't been preserved forever on the Internet. And by all means let's disaggregate information by time: a person's current thoughts and actions are almost always far more relevant than items from two decades ago. I think that as social networking sites have a greater impact on society, we will see sites that find a way to wade through the drivel left over from kindergarten and present timely current information about individuals.

But Prof. Mayer-Schoenberger comes from Harvard, and as such he's of the opinion that the free market can't possibly present a solution to the problem of credible assessments of reputation. According to the article above as well as this one, he demands laws to force computers to forget data. This idea is so patently absurd, betrays such complete ignorance with how software and computers work, and would create such an incredible logistical nightmare, that I did what anyone else would do: I searched for the Professor's work online. Unfortunately, I can't find anything to confirm that the quotes and views attributed to him in the press are actually accurate because he doesn't seem to have placed his articles online — to prevent future embarrassment, perhaps?

Thu, 2007-Mar-15, 14:04

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Truly Ancient Phrases

Every once in a while I run across a phrase that I think is modern in origin but has more remote antecedents. For example, I ran across a diary of a World War I Allied soldier who described his unpleasant circumstances as "SOL," using the exact abbreviation. I'd always thought that bit of profane language dated from a later time.

But now I've run across a quote that absolutely amazes and delights me. During the heyday of Athenian democracy, the citizens practiced ostracism — they could vote on an annual basis to expel, for a period of ten years, a single individual who they believed would best serve the city by a prolounged absence. The name of the individual was written on an ostraka, a shard of pottery, and cast as a ballot.

Megacles managed to attain the distinction of being ostracized not once, but twice; the first time in 467 BCE and the second time at some unknown later date. We know of this from records and from ostraka that were recovered from Athens. In 1994 we saw the first publication of one of these ancient ballots (Cerameicus, Ostrakon 3015):

For Megacles, son of Hippocrates and his horse as well...

In other words, Megacles and the horse he rode in on. Two thousand five hundred years later, and some curses have never changed. I don't think I'll ever be able to hear that phrase the same way again.

Thu, 2006-Dec-28, 08:16

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From Citizen to Lab Rat

As a free citizen of the United States, I expect the government to respect my basic human rights; and one of them is to ask my consent if they want me to participate in an experiment that may harm me.

That's not the case, however. According to a front-page article in today's Wall Street Journal [subscription required], the US public finds itself engaged in an experiment to determine if moving poverty-stricken families to ordinary non-poverty neighborhoods will improve the lives of those family members.

What could possibly be wrong? Consider the fate of the adolescent males who participated, involuntarily, in this program:

School participation deteriorated and property-crime rates, mental distress, and smoking all increased among those who moved with the vouchers, compared with teenage boys in families who didn't move. For property crime, there were 58 arrests for every 100 boys who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods, compared with 22 arrests for every 100 boys in the control group.
Two groups of victims emerge. The first are the adolescents themselves, who fared poorly and will suffer the twin life-long consequences of criminal records and lack of schooling. And the second group are the neighbors of these adolescents — presumeably victims of these crimes. The neighbors are also involuntary participants in this social experiment.

When an ordinary scientist performs an experiment on human beings, the scientist must seek approval from an Institutional Review Board to make certain that the experiment is well designed and unlikely to inflict unnecessary harm. Participants must give informed consent. But the government doesn't need consent; and apparently ours decided to blur the line between citizen and lab rat.

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Wed, 2006-Aug-23, 08:28

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Indian Legacy Telcos Squash Competitors
Like many other developing nations, India could use a good dose of improved telecommunications:
"Many, many people in India have never heard a dial tone," so they jump at the chance for cellular service once it reaches their small town or village, says Manoj Kohli, president of Bharti Airtel Ltd., the largest Indian cellphone company in terms of numbers of subscribers.
But there's a problem: the legacy state-run companies are working hard to block any competition:
"This is the part causing the most grief," said S.P. Shukla, president of the wireless division at Reliance Communications Ltd., referring to carrier-connectivity problems. "When it comes to making a call go through on another network you need a point of interconnection. If you are on one side of the river and someone is on the other side, you need a bridge."
And the state-run companies are apparently exploiting this to the fullest possible extent; for example, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd., a legacy company that controls many of the landlines, isn't providing sufficient or timely connections:
Analysts say the reason is a combination of BSNL being a slow state-run company and its desire to thwart the advance of private-sector competitors.
If you've read the book, you'll recall a series of similar problems here in the US as companies attempt to freeze their competitors out of the marketplace and prevent disaggregation of service; none of these companies welcome the competition and cost reduction that's subsequent to disaggregation. Sometimes the companies lose in court or in the marketplace — but when it's a state-run company or a company propped up by state regulators, such as telecommunications companies here in the US or in India, they often succeed.

Mon, 2006-Jun-26, 09:04

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Buffett/Gates: Charitably, A Disaster

As noted in dozens of news stories, Warren Buffett recently pledged to donate $37,000,000,000 to the Gates Foundation charity. I can't see how this can spell anything but disaster.

Bill Gates will devote more time and attention to the Gates Foundation now that he's stepped back from Microsoft, and I believe the gift from Buffett shows that Gates hasn't lost his devotion to gargantuanism and the will to dominate. The Gates Foundation will be by far the largest charity in the world, able to sway governments and utterly crush smaller, rival charities. With Gates at the helm of the Gates Foundation, I anticipate that the ferment and creativity that marked the world of charity and philanthropy — the creativity and competition of disaggregation — will be replaced by the stultifying uniformity and poor results of Gate's Microsoft products.