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


Fri, 2006-Oct-13, 09:27

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Medicine: Safety and Efficacy of Drugs

United States Senator Grassley suggests that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should disaggregate the function of monitoring post-approval drug safety from the process approving drugs. With an independent drug safety office, the people who approved the drug in the first place would not be tempted to overlook safety problems that might reflect poorly on the process.

While it's tempting to accept this disaggregation, not everyone agrees. The New York Times notes that even though the FDA needs reform (and what government agency in the world does not?), the disaggregation of safety considerations from the approval process would be a bad idea.

This proposed change to the FDA management structure poses an fascinating problem. On the one hand, disaggregation of authority — of approval process from safety monitoring — would likely engender trust in the FDA. On the other hand, here's an interesting lesson from high-school science classes: certain things can't be disaggregated. "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction," otherwise known as Newton's Third Law, and that's a connection that simply can't be broken. As much as we'd like to, scientists and engineers can't disaggregate their way out of basic tradeoffs imposed by nature.

In a similar way, drug approvals must trade off efficacy versus safety; every known drug has side effects, and the approval process balances the harm of side effects with the benefits of medications. If the office that determines efficacy disaggregates from the office that monitors safety, it may become extremely difficult to approve any drug or keep it on the market.

Mon, 2006-Sep-18, 09:10

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Keep Your Clients Separate

As a consultant, I've been told by a few companies that if I steer companies their way, I would be compensated. I expect that the practice is legal, but I have severe doubts as to whether it is ethical, and I have never done it. (For the record, I don't even recall which companies made such offers.) Given this widespread practice, clients who hire consultants must clarify whether it's acceptable for these consultants to accept commissions.

Today's Wall Street Journal has a page-one article about a health care consultant who accepted commissions from a company he recommended to his client. Ironically, this was after the client fired the previous consultant for the same behavior. I can describe the consultant's situation as a failure to disaggregate: he should have distinguished between the activity of providing impartial recommendations and the business of working for a commission.

Thu, 2006-Jun-29, 08:24

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Breathtaking Chutzpah: Fake Merchandise on eBay

Here's a terrific example of chutzpah that goes above and beyond the call of ordinary criminal behavior. After reporters from the Wall Street Journal purchased a fake Fendi handbag on eBay, the reporters attempted to get a refund:

It took three messages and a threat to notify eBay to finally get a response from the seller, in which he promised a refund and asked us to ship the bag to an address in New York. But days later, we found out that the address belonged to his next victim: another defrauded customer, who also paid the seller $40 for shipping charges.
Isn't that wonderful? The Journal reporters pay to ship the fake handbag, and the seller turns around and collects shipping charges! I'm always amazed by just how brazen a criminal can be.

I spend a few pages in the book admiring eBay's technical cleverness and how they use that cleverness to make eBay an essential cog of the US economy. I think people forget that eBay is a marketplace where buyers and sellers meet and is not a party to the transaction — caveat emptor.

Fri, 2006-Feb-17, 14:20

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Just a Coincidence. Really.

MarketingShift said some kind words about The Pebble and the Avalanche. I'd like to point out a funny coincidence: the other book he reviewed, The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil, is another Yudkowsky-related book — check the index!

Wed, 2005-Dec-07, 12:15

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Microsoft's Document Format: Another Decoy?

CNET links to an article on Groklaw that analyzes Microsoft's submission to ECMA of Microsoft's XML-based Office formats. Groklaw finds lots of issues of concern in Microsoft's submission.

Disaggregation of authority leads to trust; disaggregation of ownership leads to sharing. Microsoft doesn't seem to want to do either with their XML document format, and as such they're unlikely to gain any traction in the open-source community with their new format. Given Microsoft's past behavior when standards threaten their monopoly, their submission to ECMA is probably just another attempt to undermine the Open Document format.

Wed, 2005-Nov-16, 18:09

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Putting the "Mess" in Instant Messaging: AOL Makes a Big Mistake

AOL made a huge mistake this morning; coming on the heels of Sony shooting itself in the foot with its spyware, I am puzzled by just what AOL was thinking.

AOL breached the wall between my data and their data. They "helpfully" installed a "bot" in my AOL Instant Messenger Buddy List, and then used that bot to install two new contacts: one to propose shopping tips, and the other to let me select movies. AOL cheerfully noted that if I wasn't interested in the new additions to my list, I could simply delete them.

Big mistake. That was my list, not AOL's. They've violated my personal space. By doing this they've demonstrated that my data — my list of contacts — can be tampered with at their whim. I have to wonder what comes next? Can my lists be sold, or mined for more data? Will they find out if my buddies purchase something online and then market that thing to me, on the assumption that I share mutual tastes? Just what is AOL doing with my data?

Then there's the security implications. They've established the precedent in people's minds that occasionally new contacts will show up in your list, unannounced. I have no doubt that evildoers will find a way to use that concept to promote their usual thievery and mischief.

In my book I talk about the battle for your address book — how industries view your list of contacts, and how they would prefer that your list be on systems they control. If I cannot trust the company not to tamper with my address book, I can scarcely trust them to have the information in the first place.