Alternative Institutions

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, …

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 …

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 …

What Obama Needs to Do

The old philosophical theory says that reason is conscious, can fit the world directly, is universal (we all think the same way), is dispassionate (emotions get in the way of reason), is literal (no metaphor or framing in reason), works by logic, is abstract (not physical) and functions to serve our interests. Language on this view is neutral and can directly fit, or not fit, reality.

The scientific research in neuroscience and cognitive science has shown that most reason is unconscious. Since we think with our brains, reason cannot directly fit the world. Emotion is necessary for rational thought; if you cannot feel emotion, you will not know what to want or how anyone else would react to your actions. Rational decisions depend on emotion. Empathy with others has a physical basis, and as much as self-interest, empathy lies behind reason.

This is part of a brilliant article by cognitive science and linguistics pioneer, George Lakoff (emphasis mine).  His argument about what …

Providing Global Energy Needs

Derek Abbott says Australia alone could solve the world’s current and future energy needs using solar thermal and liquid hydrogen.  Saul Griffith says, practically speaking this is not feasible and we need to use all available clean energy technology and reduce and conserve substantially or we are doomed.  Who is “less wrong”, Derek or Saul?…

Equity Micro-Investing

I’ve been having a serious discussion with two colleagues of mine about closing the gap that exists between two groups:

  1. People of my generation (40 and older) who have capital they want to invest in innovation but only know the VC for-profit-only value model and don’t have any true view into or understanding of social entrepreneurship business models;
  2. People coming out of college today (27 and younger) who are actually creating untold value for the world without taking on investors because they don’t (a) know how to attract them, and (b) have heard too many horror stories

Jay and I fall into category 1 and Michael falls into category 2.  All three of us agree that the gap above exists — due in part to rapidly declining startup costs — and represents a very real (and lucrative) investment opportunity if it can be closed properly.…

Reinventing Liberal Arts Education

This was one of the most important and encouraging talks of this year’s TED conference:…

World’s Most Ambitious Crowdsource

Everyone has heard about the Large Hadron Collider, arguably the most ambitious and complex engineering project ever undertaken, anywhere.  The purpose, no less ambitious, is to answer all sorts of burning questions about the nature of the universe, including whether the Standard Model of particle physics is valid.  Given such ambition and high stakes, it would surprise most people that the LHC is managed in a collaborative manner with very little hierarchy.  Essentially it’s a giant, crowdsourced science experiment.…


Has anyone played Foldit, the protein-folding game that is designed to advance the science?  This Wired article makes it sound like Ender’s Game meets biochemistry!  Sounds like the Poehlman kid is the protein-folding equivalent of Stephen Wiltshire.  I love the crowdsourcing, the meta-evolutionary algorithm of it (to find the savants), and the implications for science.…

Peer-Review vs. Info Prizes and Markets

I have been having a 140 character discussion with Ciarán Brewster (@macbruski) via twitter.  And while it’s kind of interesting to force complex subject matter into very few characters, it is limiting the discussion, so I will summarize it so far here and hopefully others can weigh in too.…

Alfred Hubler on Stabilizing CAS

With his permission, I am posting an email thread between myself and Alfred Hubler.  I had contacted him on the recommendation of John Miller when Kevin and I were posting on the possibility of dampening boom-bust cycles in the financial markets through policy or other mechanisms.  Here’s what Hubler had to say:…


Yesterday, from the Director of the National Cancer Institute, addressing one of the two largest cancer research conferences of the year:

NCI commenced a series of workshops that began to bring aspects of the physical sciences to the problem of cancer. We discussed how physical laws governing short-range and other forces, energy flows, gradients, mechanics, and thermodynamics affect cancer, and how the theories of Darwinian and somatic evolution can better help us understand and control cancer.

Read more on my Cancer Complexity Forum post.…

If Rafe Were In Charge: Major Medical Edition

Kevin started an interesting discussion that included a thoughtful proposal for the problem of major medical care costs risk mitigation.  You should read that here before reading my proposal below.

Part 1: Major Medical Annuities. Federally mandated/funded (similar to SSI/Medicare), with a specific initial lifetime value that is the same for everyone. The concept is that you pick a number slightly bigger than the average expected lifetime major medical bill and set aside that pot of money for everyone individually. At some point (e.g. 65) you can choose to start drawing down from your pot as taxable income. Prior to then, the only way the fund can be used is for major medical expenses not covered by other insurance you may have. Such payments go directly to providers and are tax-exempt. When you die, any leftover amount gets transferred to the MMA accounts of your heirs (per your desired breakdown, or according to probate law in the absence of a will).…

Mass Adoption of Electric Cars

Leveraging Taxes for Civil Engagement

Dan Ariely had an interesting idea on NPR’s Marketplace today.  Here’s the audio of the segment.  The idea is to get tax payers thinking about how their tax dollars should be spent, thus getting them more civilly engaged.  His research and that of others suggests that such activity would reduce the propensity to cheat on one’s taxes, and may even get people to pay more than they would otherwise.…

Executive Compensation

The main problem with executive pay is not that they are compensated too highly, but that there’s not enough pain for them personally when they do a bad job.  I propose that the top three executives in all public companies be required to invest 100% of their salary in their own stock each year, with a decaying lockup period before they can sell.…

Decision Education Foundation

On Saturday I attended a fundraiser poker tournament for non-profit organization called DEF (Decision Education Foundation).  As it’s name implies, they are dedicated to helping individuals become better decision makers via the education system.  Their strategy is multifaceted, but their core goal at the moment is to introduce decision making explicitly into the curricula of primary and secondary schools around the country.  To do this, they first educate the educators on the components and process of making good decisions.…

The Nature of Innovation

One of my favorite talks of all time is Ken Robinson’s on how children are born naturally innovative and the process of schooling and growing up in our society beats it out of them by the time they are adults.  More recently, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame) opened some eyes with this talk on how we think of individual creativity and where it comes from.…


Tribes are hot.

Kevin has referred more than once to the famous Dunbar number for limits on optimal human tribe size.

One of my favorite books recently is Seth Godin’s book on leadership, called — you guessed it — Tribes.

Yesterday I heard a great talk by David Logan, co-author of Tribal Leadership.…

How to Change the Climate in 3 Years

Oh, and re-grow the rainforrest, strengthen the social, political and economic climate, save endangered species and increase biodiversity and resilliance all at the same time without any budget.…

TED Talk: Linked Data

One of my favorite talks of TED 2009 was from Tim Berners-Lee, the man often credited with (actually) inventing the Web.  He’s been going on for quite a while about the coming of the “semantic web” and how it will be even bigger than the current web in terms of impact.  But until his TED talk on linked data, I didn’t really get it.  Now I do.  And I think he’s right:…

Complexity Economics

In Chasing the Dragon, I wondered aloud whether we could dampen boom-bust cycles in the financial system with an economic equivalent of a controlled burn.  Kevin suggested that “generic countercyclical policies” might work.  Underlying both mine and Kevin’s thinking is the idea that you can possibly do better (for the world as a whole) by (a) understanding the entire economic system better and (b) enacting policies which are in line with that understanding.  In contrast to these assumptions are a point of view articulated by one of the readers on a different thread:…

Chasing the Dragon

Kevin just posted about a great article by Felix Salmon in Wired.  I underlined three quotes in my reading of it:

  1. “Correlation trading has spread through the psyche of the financial markets like a highly infectious thought virus.” (Tavakoli)
  2. “…the real danger was created not because any given trader adopted it but because every trader did. In financial markets, everybody doing the same thing is the classic recipe for a bubble and inevitable bust.” (Salmon)
  3. “Co-association between securities is not measurable using correlation…. Anything that relies on correlation is charlatanism.” (Taleb)

Twitter vs. Psychoanalysis

In this Times Online article, two psychologists and an author weigh in with their view of Twitter users as narcissistic and infantile:

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes