Society

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 …

If You Had A Billion Dollars…

If you had a billion dollars to make the world a better place, how would you spend it?…

Violence on the Decline

From Monday’s Washington Post:

The District, New York and Los Angeles are on track for fewer killings this year than in any other year in at least four decades. Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis and other cities are also seeing notable reductions in homicides.

Full article is here, in which more sensible police approaches are given credit for the decline.…

The Diamond Rule

We all know the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  TED Prize Wish winner, Karen Armstrong, even laudably proposed that a Charter for Compassion based on the observation that all three Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) have the Golden Rule at their core.

I do believe that if we all followed the Golden Rule as the basis for how we treat one another the world would be a better place.  But I also think there is a a more fundamental rule, call it the Diamond Rule, which is even better:

Treat others as you believe they would want you to treat them, if they knew everything that you did.

The difference is subtle, and may not practically speaking yield different action that often.  But when it does, the difference can be significant.…

Paying Women to Not Get Pregnant

What’s fascinating to me about this is not that it works so well and or that there might actually be support in the Obama administration for doing it on a national scale, but rather that there has not been a backlash against it yet.  What are the odds that something like this will actually get implemented?  Is it actually a good thing?

hat tip: Annie Duke’s mom

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

A few articles on the economy that were sent my way recently.

The Good: After Capitalism (Geoff Mulgan)

The era of transition that we are entering will be disruptive—but it may bring a world where markets are servants, not masters.”  I urge you to read this entire article, and leave your ideological biases at the door.  Despite the title, this is no polemic.  Here’s the punchline:

Contemporary biology and social science has confirmed just how much we are social animals—dependent on others for our happiness, our self-respect, our worth and even our life. There is no inherent contradiction between capitalism and community. But we have learned that these connections are not automatic: they have to be cultivated and rewarded, and societies that invest large proportions of their surpluses on advertising to persuade people that individual consumption is the best route to happiness end up paying a high price.

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).…

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.…

Is the Party Over?

I don’t like the Republican or Libertarian parties. But I’m also no fan of the Democratic party. In fact, I dislike all political parties and think they should be done away with.  And while I’m not naive enough to think that this will happen, it makes me glad to see that the “post partisan” utopia is closer today than it was a year ago.…

Another Must Read on the Origins of the Crisis

Steven Gjerstad and Vernon Smith have published a really nice article that starts out with bubbles in general and goes on to explain why the bursting of this particular bubble hurt the economy so much.  It echoes a lot of themes that I’ve covered before, but is obviously much more soundly though out.

The short version is that the effect of a bubble on the economy is determined by its effect on consumer spending.  The Dot Com Bubble didn’t have much of an effect because it primarily affected institutions and already relatively wealthy consumers. However, the Fed’s attempt to shorten the resulting recession created a loose monetary policy which forced dollars into the most attractive asset class: homes.  This attractiveness stemmed from relaxed lending standards and tax-free capital gains on homes, which created more buyers. But asset appreciation in this class is fundamentally limited by the ability of consumers to repay loans from income, which was not growing fast enough. As the institutions insuring mortgages …

Tribes

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.…

Powerful Images

Click here to see the whole set.

hat tip: mom

Why It's Important to be an Optimist

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.  (James Branch Cabell)

I am currently reading What Are You Optimistic About?, a collection of short essays by thought leaders in many different disciplines on the eponymous subject.  I’m also reading True Enough, a compelling argument by Farhad Manjoo for how despite — nay, because of — the fire hose of information that permeates modern society and is available for the asking, the schism between what’s true and what we believe is widening; a polemic on polemics if you will.  Taken together, these two books suggest to me that there is a case, not for being optimistic per se, but for why you should consciously, actively try hard to become an optimist if you aren’t already.…

Social Entrepreneurship Tax Credit

I typed “social entrepreneurship tax credit” into Google and the top result was this page on BarackObama.com.  There are some good ideas there, and I hope they get implemented once he takes office.  But I’d like to see even more.…

Homelessness

foodonfoot

This is a picture of what Food on Foot did on Christmas. …

Should We Hold the Bush Administration Accountable?

Paul Phillips’s blog entry quoting Greenwald on Bill Moyers sums up it up pretty well.  And I’ve wondered what the Obama administration is going to do about this and what they should do.  The arguments for not pursuing the Bush administration’s crimes are good ones.  We have such big fish to fry with the economy, climate and wars that it would be a huge distraction right now.  And secondarily, it would come off as divisiveness in a time when we need it least, not to mention that it was one of Obama’s main campaign promises change the culture of partisan politics that has plagued us for so long.…

Obama's Must Do List

Everybody has their wishlist and “must do” lists for the new President.  Back in March of 2007, the NY Times published this Op Ed piece that I personally believe is critical and outlines what needs to be done above all else.  The article goes into much more detail about specifics, but the overall thrust is threefold:

  • Restore Habeas Corpus
  • Stop Illegal Spying
  • Ban Torture, Really

I’m curious to know though, what do you think the priorities should be for Obama’s presidency?…

Historical Inflection Point

Click here for election night slideshow

Two Paths to Empathy

By all accounts, the ability to empathize with others is the hallmark of social behavior.  Indeed, when we come across those rare individuals whom we view as anti-social, or those even more rare individuals that we label as sociopaths, the diminished or missing feature of their personality is empathy.

There are two paths to empathetic behavior, one innate, and one constructed.  …

Response to "Thoughts on Ants, Altruism and the Future of Humanity"

[ This is an edited version of a blog comment on Brandon Kein’s Wired Science post here ]

The question of whether we will “break through” to a superorganism or collapse through any number of spiraling cascades or catastrophic events is the subject of Ervin Laszlo’s book, The Chaos Point, which I highly recommend.  In it, he gives a sweeping view of the complex evolutionary dynamic (focusing on human society), and makes a solid argument that we are at an inflection point in history right now, similar to the “saltation” that begat multicellularity.…

The Socioeconomics of Cancer

Pop Quiz: Which is a bigger determinant of cancer mortality in America, being poor or being black?

According to Dr. Harold Freeman of the National Cancer Institute, poverty is the bigger factor today, but it hasn’t always been so:

Global Warming

A few months ago a friend of mine engaged me in a discussion about the controversy surrounding global warming.  If you are surprised to hear that there is still controversy, read on; I was equally surprised.…

Dangerous Media, part 2

I have talked about some of the dangerous aspects of main stream media in the past.  Recently I was reading The Black Swan, in which the author argues that watching TV news, listening to news on the radio, and even reading newspapers actually makes you less informed (and dangerously so) than if you were to tune out completely.…

Notes from TED

Here are some notes that I took at TED 2008.  I have a bunch more on each of the speakers individually which I may post as time permits.  Let me know if you want me to expand any of the notes below into a full post.