October, 2009

Investing in Superstars

This is the first in a four part series.  The other are here:  part 2, part 3part 4.

Imagine you are in your early twenties, out of college several years and your best friend, who recently came into an inheritance of $300K cash told you they could think of no better way to invest the money than to invest it in you.  Not the company you started, not as a loan, but invest it in YOU, as if you were a startup.  In return your friend said all they wanted was 3% of your gross income for the rest of your life.  Do you think you would take it?

Now what if your friend said that they didn’t care what you did with the money or how much you made each year.  If you wanted to sit on a beach in Nicaragua learning to surf, go work in the Peace Corps, stay at home and do your art projects, …

Complex Systems Events & Groups

There are way too many “happenings” in complex systems research, theory and application to keep track of everything, but here are a few of note that came across my desk recently…

If you know of other “happenings” feel free to post them in the comments and may highlight them in a future post.…

Inoculating Against the Anti-Vaccine Meme

The debate over vaccination is raging (c.f. Wired article) and it smacks of one of those conundrums that is unlikely to get resolved by scientific inquiry.  I offer the following hypothesis and a way out of the dilemma.

Hypothesis: Vaccination is something that is good at the societal level but bad at the individual level.  That is, it is a tragedy of the commons.  You want all your neighbors to get vaccinated so they don’t pass on the germs to you, but there is enough risk from the vaccination process (at least for certain ones) that you’d rather not do it yourself.

The mathematics of the commons tragedies suggests that there are two ways out.   One is to change the payout/incentive structure, in other words, make the vaccine’s less risky to the individual, or at least change the perception of the individual risk (as the Wired article suggests).  The problem with manipulating perception is, what if you’re wrong?  The marketplace of ideas …

Daniel Nocera’s Gift

I just saw the most important talk I have seen in 300+ TED, Pop!Tech, etc talks that I’ve watched.  And at the risk of hyperbole, I will say that the worst case scenario is that Daniel Nocera simply wins a Nobel Prize (and yes, I’m willing to bet at even odds that it happens in under 10 years from today).  But if the system is able to scale through replication, it will be at least as important as penicillin in terms of ending human suffering and will have a bigger impact on the world as a whole.  Here’s why:

  • Input: Water (clean, saltwater or dirty water)
  • Outputs: Electricity + Pure drinkable water
  • By products: nothing (other than what was in the water)
  • Resources required to assemble: all abundant and most have substitutes
  • Knowledge required to assemble: simple
  • Cost to assemble: relatively cheap

Essentially what Nocera has done is reverse engineered and re-created a super-simplified photosynthesis process.  It’s a closed loop (i.e. autocatalytic) so …

Switching Government Service Providers

Ever wish you could reinvent the entire systems of government you live under without starting a costly war, revolution or having to win an election?  No?  Well, Patri Friedman has (wondered, that is).  And so has a growing number of seasteaders, ordinary folks (and the occasional PayPal billionaire).  Or to be more precise, as Patri explained at this year’s Idea Project confab [sign up now for next year, it may sell out quick!] they believe we should at least get to choose from some reasonable options.  Currently your choices are some form of democracy, autocracy, or theocracy.  And switching costs are high.

What if you wanted to start your own sovereign nation in a tucked away corner of earth somewhere?  Problem is, every piece of land more than a few feet above sea level is already claimed by governments, private individuals or commercial interests.  Enter, the high seas.  Turns out there’s nothing stopping you from going out to international waters, building a platform, giant …

Comments on Human Cultural Transformation

This is a followup to Ben’s post on Human Cultural Transformation Triggered by Dense Populations.  Too many links for this to be accepted into the comments directly…

In thinking about these questions, it helps me to remind myself of the difference between evolution and emergence. Evolution happens whenever you have a population of agents with heritable variation and differential reproduction rates. There are at least two types of emergence, both of which can create new types of agents. Various self-reinforcing mechanisms lead to stronger and more stable agency. We may not even recognize the emergence of nascent agents for what they are until said agency (or coherence) becomes strong enough. For instance, many people have a hard time wrapping their head around cultural agency of any form.

Obviously none of us on here have a problem with the concept of non-human agency, but as Alex and Ben collectively point out, cultural agents depend on human agents for their very existence.  Yet …

A Theory of Scalability

One of the hidden themes of The Feast this past week has been how to scale successful social ventures.  This has been on my mind a lot recently as I have been working informally with both Self Enhancement, Inc. (SEI) and Decision Education Foundation (DEF) on this puzzle.  SEI is extremely successful in the Portland locale where they began 25+ years ago, achieving 98% high school graduation rate (working against hard socioeconomic realities).  Like with many models that are very successful “in the small”, the biggest challenge is to translate that same success to larger scales (e.g. all across America, or all around the world).  DEF is attempting to build scalability into its model from the start, and has found that this is extremely challenging.

In thinking about this I am reminded about a duet of innovators who spoke at the Pop!Tech conference last year about scaling.  Both Bunker Roy and Paul Polack have some profound lessons to teach us about scalability.  You will …