Welcome to DarwinianInterlude.org

“Three billion years ago, life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them.

Evolution was a communal affair.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell separated itself from the community and refused to share.

The Darwinian interlude had begun.

Now, after three billion years,

the Darwinian interlude is over.

— Freeman Dyson

Table of Contents – Donald Trump and the Working Class

Lately I’ve taken to writing on Medium.com as well. Here’s the Table of Contents to Donald Drumpf the Working Class— Sources and Comments hosted there.

  1. Pain – “Half a million people are dead who should not be dead.”
  2. Economics – “Rural America has taken a real shot to the gut in the past couple decades. What once was the pride of American industry and economy has since dwindled to its nadir.”
  3. Let’s Get Personal 
  4. Left Behind, Disrespected
    Desired: Work…
    …and a Fair Shake.
    The Sandbar
    Rage and Resentment
  5. Aside: Drumpf’s Convenient Pathologies
  6. Analysis
    Why would women vote for Drumpf
    Democrats, WTF
  7. Conclusion
    1) First, I need to rethink how I think about political strategy.
    2) I am struck by the paradox at the core of the WWC’s economic situation.
    3) There’s a massive amount of misinformation that provides the context for most decisions in America politics

One final article: This Is How Steve Bannon Sees The Entire World.

Open Source Software and ‘Indie Biz’

[Also available on Medium.]


  1. The Open Source movement freed large scale software development projects from a set of narrow constraints imposed by the capital infrastructure needed to finance big projects.
  2. Current developments including B-Corps, crowdfunding projects (e.g. Kickstarter) and, in particular, crowdfunding equity under the JOBS Act III (e.g. Wefunder) are allowing a parallel development in the capital infrastructure needed to finance Independent Businesses.


Biz — an enterprise that needs to return concrete value to key stakeholders, i.e. customers, investors, and employees.

Indie Biz — an enterprise funded bottom-up from customers, fans, supporters and small investors rather than top-down by VCs or large lenders.

Let’s start with a Manifesto. I like Manifestos; this will degrade into an essay all too soon.

Indie Biz Manifesto

  • An Indie Biz should grow out of community: businesses should be the outgrowth of communities of interest; capitalization should scale with community growth.
  • An Indie Biz should retain its connection to its community in as many ways as possible. Constant communication is the key.
  • An Indie Biz should provide a clear vision but allow a variety of interests. At the founding of Mountain Hardwear, our fearless leader, Jack Gilbert’s, provided this initial vision statement: “Where others have gone off in other directions, we are going to build the really good stuff.” Simple. Clear. Works for all shareholders…with the possible exception of financers.
  • An Indie Biz’s financial structure should keep interests aligned. For example, if offering stock to small investors, that stock should provide the same rewards and value as any founder’s stock. Proceeds should be parceled out relative to contributions. (My favorite model for that: Slicing Pie)
    It’s not exactly anarcho-syndicalism but it’s a start.

Restating That By Example

The food biz can provide a great example. First, communication with one’s community is not generally a problem. You’re feeding people. You can tell if they’re liking it. There’s an engagement path (dinners for friends->catering->food cart->pop up->restaurant) where reputation can grow an expanding clientele. A clear vision (great food) can be pursued from a variety of motivations (making it, being creative with it, enjoying it alone and with friends, being proud to produce and serve it, etc.) Finally, with new regulations, a food biz could scale up based on financing from its community at various points along that path and returning value to its investors in a mix of cash payouts and discounts on dining.

Note: this provides a path for people with vision and talent but limited financial resources!


On rare occasion, I get a distinct whiff of the future arriving. Here was one:

20+ years ago at the height of Microsoft’s empire, Ruth (a little old lady)*1 and Jay Cheroske (a Ruckus Society activist and coder) separately explained Open Source Software to me.

Ruth gave me a description of the emerging ecosystem and breadth of projects. Jay gave me the emotional hook:

“There are two approaches,” he said.

“You can build proprietary software and make money by squatting on it like a big ugly spider.
“Or you can join in and build open source tools. You don’t make money by charging tolls and rents. You make money building and using tools to practice the craft you love.”

The core: you’re not in it to score and get out. You’re in it because it’s where you want to be…and you need to put together the revenue stream to stay at it.

Here’s a great recent statementwith a shout out to Medium author, Nadia Eghbal

I’m here because I want to make it easier for other people to build, do, and express themselves however they want. To me, that’s the heart and soul of tech. Technology is about making tools for us to express our humanity. To make our creative expression frictionless.

The Problem

Expressing yourself creatively “frictionlessly” is a bit more difficult if your expression is a physical product…say gear we make for mountaineers, climbers, backpacking and wilderness explorers out in all sorts of weather and locations.

I’m a backpacking biz lifer. I don’t design gear, but I’ve been using it and loving it as long as I can remember. My job for most of my working life has been the application of information to the design and sourcing chain that brings that gear to you over the web or through REI or your local specialty shop.

For example, I was one of the founders of Mountain Hardwear in charge of IT, Forecasting, and Operations. My great love has always been systems and what we call hardware: tents, packs, bags. I’ve been lucky enough to combine them. I built my first forecasting systems in Dbase and Quatro Pro on a Kaypro II a couple of thousand years ago.

This biz is a capital intensive one. We often use boutique fabrics with long lead times using fabrication techniques being hacked together along with materials. As an example, Mountain Hardwear used a special Italian fleece laminated by Gore in Germany and sewn in Oakland,CA, into one of the original softshell jackets. We would have to commit 8 months in advance before a shop saw the product. We’d need to buy a second season before we could see most of the results of first season. Forecasting was a bit tricky.

In capital terms that means: spend season #1, spend season #2, start seeing money for #1, spend #3. That’s worst case. Some short lead products leaven it out but the capital demands are bruising. It’s basically a motherfucker.

Once gear visionaries emerge from the (often literal) garage, they hit against this hard. So, they generally have to make a deal with the money people. I could get into details of how it goes south from there but the net result is most typically a classic example of what Tim O’Reilly terms the ‘clothes line paradox.’ Value is created; value is harvested. But not by the same people. The brand, with diluted vision, totters on to a slow death or crashes and burns.

Occasionally the brand is strong enough to survive pirates, thieves and MBAs (witness The North Face), but it is not an accident that Patagonia and Osprey are privately held and essentially bootstrapped companies.

Indie Biz

On rare occasion, I get a distinct whiff of the future arriving. That is happening now.

It is my belief that we’re on the cutting edge of a change comparable to the emergence of Open Source Software that is grounded in the way outdoor brands and other “passion driven businesses”can be funded.*2

(The parallels are probably best communicated in nested bullet points shown in the supplement post.)

When the capital required to fund an enterprise is significant…and the forced path to obtaining the capital is top down from professional investors or big banks…then it is easy for two sets of interests to collide in a way that is detrimental to the sustained creation of genuine value.

This is particularly acute for businesses that are, at essence, “affairs of the heart”…food, beer, outdoor gear, bikes, small label music, that sort of thing. These enterprises don’t often start with a business plan; they start with someone making something great and the community responding.

As they grow, they need funds. This typically sets up a collision course between the need for steady and unending growth, quarterly progress, and an exit strategy on the one hand versus looking for sustainable (and perhaps steady-state) business, a reasonable return for key stakeholders, and a consistent delivery of value and innovation in a more natural “punctuated equilibrium” pattern on the other.

This malign dynamic is being upset!

How ?

  • Kickstarter and such where initial products can be tested and developed in dialog with the community. This might be all that’s needed. Peak Designhas leveraged a series of Kickstarters into a vital business. Typically more is needed to provide enough capital for the business.
  • Wefunder and such where the JOBS Act TIII allows a business with a track record and a little seasoning to then appeal to their community for working capital. (I’m involved in that now with a gear company, SlingFin.)
  • The maturing of the B-Corp is worth mentioning: a wider mission can now be baked in to an enterprise making it substantially more durable.

This will have (is having!) a number of positive effects.

  1. Founders will in be a stronger position when they have to deal with the money people if they end up needing them at all.
  2. Surviving businesses will exhibit a greater diversity of motivations (more Patagonias.)Like Open Source, the gatekeeper is now gone and a significant choke point for surviving enterprises has been removed.
  3. More value will be harvested by the core value creators: designers, visionaries, and enthusiasts who support and sustain them.
  4. This will result in a more vital ecosystem. There will be more great gear and experiences. This will help us better share our love affair with the amazing world we all inhabit!

Point 2) is, I think, the key. Rather than all value eroding over time to a monetary bottom line, more of the heart and vision of startup businesses will survive. Granted, “money is a necessary evil” and stakeholders need be rewarded, but those stakeholders will define their interests in less narrow terms. This will I think be to everyone’s benefit including the money folks. I’ve seen great long-term value trashed at a whole series of outdoor companies afflicted by a monetary focus that is too short-sited.

Do what you love reprise

One point that shouldn’t be overlooked is that the process outlined above will lower the barrier to entry and soften the barrier to success. Great outdoor gear has generally constellated out of the community. The return of the 10th Mountain Division from WWII, the 60’s backpacking craze, and the thru-hiker surge (AT, PCT, John Muir Trail, etc) all pushed innovation created precisely by the folks actually doing it. There has always been a permeable barrier between enthusiast and pro and a strong DIY ethic in our ‘industry.’

Most of us are in the biz to stay connected to our passion. We seek to make a living doing that. We feel that our work should be a vehicle for our contribution to wider society…while running an honest business. Now we have a whole new tool set to accomplish that.

PS, If you read this before 11 pm on 12/19/2016, come check us out at the SlingFin page on Wefunder…particularly if you love outdoor activities from the extreme to simple backpacking or bike camping. If not (pity you<g>) check out Wefunder anyway. You’ll find lots of essentials from coffee to beer to environmentally friendly tampons to glow in the dark shrubbery and smart guitars.

DISCLOSURE: Obviously, I have an interest in Slingfin. I’ve, also, invested small amounts via the Wefunder platform in a number of companies including Wefunder itself. You can see all that on my Wefunder profile. (Hmmm, just checked the link and it only shows things that have fully closed. I’ve committed to a half dozen others in amounts from $100 to $1500.)

*1 Ruth is now 93. From the perspective of my current age, I’d say she was barely passed middle age when she described Open Source to me in the mid-1990s.

*2 Outdoor businesses are generally what Kristin Carpenter-Ogden calls ‘passion driven businesses.’ She’s exploring this space in her great podcast, The Intrepid Entrepreneur.

Open Source and Indie Biz – Parallels

This is a supplement to an article published on Medium as well as on DarwianInterlude.  This page is under continual revision. It’s where I make note as they occur to me.

  • Parallels
    • The Makers
      • Like open source – Motivation is to do what we love in a way that expand possibilities for both ourselves and the wider community.
      • Like open source – Work is a source of meaning and a vehicle for our contribution to the wider society.
      • Like open source – Businesses start dedicated to our customers and vision and not to pumping something up and exiting.
      • Like open source – You should be capable of a stable release before getting too full of yourself.
    • The Community
      • Like open source – projects often begin as a natural outgrowth of the efforts of a community of interest.
      • Like open source – Makers are supported emotionally and financially to various degrees by the wider community.
      • Like open source – There’s a diversity of motivation around some common visions. Not all squashed down into a monetization or growth strategy. Unique visions of high quality endeavors.
      • In my biz gear constellates out of community. 60s backpacking. Appalachin Trail. The barrier between fan and pro is permeable. We want to stay connected to our passion and make a living.
      • Like open source – The product can scaffold up through this direct connection to community.
  • The Change
    • Kickstarter
      • Projects and premiums – Peak Designs and all those damn hammocks as eg.
    • Wefunder.
      • Premiums remain but can also offer equity/debt/profit-sharing. Synergy of premiums.
    • Facilitates further evolution in a direction that supports both the Makers and the wider Community.
    • Part of a recognition of the wider range of motivations for economic activity.  Another parallel = selfish gene, classical economics vs Sober & Wilson, Sante Fe Institute, Behavioral Economics. This has resulted in B-Corps, community capital programs, etc.
    • Removes the barrier to entry. Minimize risk to individual investors. Premiums as part of ROI and smaller amounts. (Up to 500 now, raising that is key.)
      Lower cost of allows a greater range of motivations. 50k 5k .5k
    • Intensify the community/maker connection. Extends companies as natural outgrowth of community.
    • Removes choke point where diversity of interests are squashed down to a narrow stock market / exit strategy.
    • Currently funding suffers from mono-culture in models.
  • Alignment of interest.
    • Should go both ways – value returned from equity. To align interests there should be significant equity position in same class of stock by founders. Common interest in a method to get value from the efforts of founders and the cash of investors. (SlingFin as example.)
    • Challenge – as in all small and/or privately held enterprises: liquidity when needed
      • Process has to acquire, absorb, transform and then secrete capital
        Implications of wider range of investment motivations?
      • Owning what you do vs exit = transfer of interest vs diffusion into uninterested capital. There are some promising experiments.

Free Will: A Thought Experiment in Three Lunches – Part 1: Intro

I frequently come across asides on Free Will in articles, scientific or philosophical, that strike me as religious statements in the scientific drag.

Their core argument:

  • human behavior is composed of material mechanisms
  • material mechanisms can be modeled scientifically and predicted
  • therefore human behavior is determined
  • and, hence, Free Will is an illusion.

The author then generally goes on to explicitly clue us in on our delusion: the activity we engage in that feels to us like the exercise of Free Will is not…and the illusion’s time is almost up!

I disagree. I think Free Will is what it is.

I can explain the divergence using a little historical background. Descartes split the human experience into two components– the body and the mind– connected, if I remember correctly, by the pineal gland. Some phenomena attached to the material body and others…thought, belief and doubt, choice…are of the mind and immaterial. Our ‘higher’ nature is the classic ghost in the machine.

This is essentially a religious perspective with a separate severable soul.

As science claimed all phenomena as a single set of unified physical systems, the immaterial had to either be delegated to the illusory (the ghost isn’t real so how can its attributes be) or had to be reframed as a material process. Many things made the transition but folks tend to choke when trying to bring Free Will across.

My contention is that this is misguided and we need to follow the other fork in the road. Perhaps it’s the terminology that has tripped us up with free having a variety of meanings including, prominently, ‘unconstrained’ At any rate, I contend that ‘free’ will is exactly what it appears to be…the ability to make meaningful conscious choices.

Defining Free Will.

To restate, I contend that Free Will is a meaningful process that works exactly as it presents itself to us.

The basic unit, the monad of Free Will as it were, is the consideration of at least two options and a meaningful, i.e. non-illusory, conscious choice.

Free Will will be treated here as an emergent property of matter related to other mental phenomena such as intention, planning depth and prediction. (In most places where I use the term, I have capitalized Free Will to emphasize that I am working with this particular definition.)

This definition views Free Will as being composed of material entities interacting in chains of causality. And that means it is in some sense determined. The choices we consider, the motivation for choosing, the limits on our ability to work through options are all determined in the way that material process must be.

What I am contending is that, without that ‘Free Will’ component of our mental processes, we would not take the same actions. Snipping it out would radically change the process. Free Will as we experience it is precisely the physical process by which some action is guided.

To insist that Free Will has to be an unconstrained non-material process to be meaningful is residual religious thinking.

Part 2 is here.

My 2 cents on the compatibility of Science and Religion are here.

Free Will: A Thought Experiment in Three Lunches – Part 2: Models

A few notes on Predictability and Determination.

(Part 1 is here.)

We have learned over the last few decades that a process can be ‘determined’ as a physical processes but not necessarily predictable. Weather, for example, may be inherently unpredictable beyond a certain rough level of precision given the theoretical limits on computation using systems made of matter. Human behavior modeled as the interactions of humans within a given physical and cultural environment might be equally complex and hence only partially predictable.

Three models: is there no such thing as a Free Lunch?

I’ve found it useful to work through the following thought experiment to tease out the various threads of meaning that I commonly see operating in discussion of Free Will. More complex examples might ultimately be more nuanced but I think the gist of can be captured with a very simple look at three versions of lunch.


The constant – lunch.

1) Model 1: Direct. Imagine a buddy suggests lunch. I suggest a place. We meet for a burrito. This is simple meaningful behavior. I have made a choice to go add nutrition and some social interaction to my day. (This simple assumption will be called into question in Part 3.)

2) Model 2: Random. Imagine I now decide to add a randomizing element to the model above. I step outside the door and roll a 4 sided dice. Each of the 4 numbers is a direction and, if it is rolled, I walk in that direction to the next intersection. If a particular direction is blocked, I reroll until I get one that’s open. I do this until I have found a lunch spot. (My neighborhood is more or less a grid with lunch in all directions so this should work. As a failsafe, I limit this to 100 dice rolls and pack an emergency backup burrito.)

A few points —

  • This has made me significantly less predictable. One could build a probability map of my possible locations but my exact location could not be predicted with any further certainty. If our definition of Free Will is behavior that cannot be precisely predicted in advance, I’m free! Also, notice I could introduce random elements at any level of seriousness… from what I have for lunch to whether to have a child, say, or jump off the bridge. These choices would have a more or less significant impact on my personal life and potentially human history. Call it Schrödinger’s life planning.
  • At the same time, the process is completely a material processes.
  • Theoretically, I guess, one might even be able to predict the outcome of the dice rolls by modeling muscles, dice shapes, and air currents if one had the right tools and computing power (which may be, as noted above, outside the theoretical limits of computation on a material substrate.) This observation is, of course, irrelevant inside the experiment because I couldn’t make that prediction myself when assigning pathways to dice outcomes and hence exert deliberate or unconscious control of the process. At the level of my ability to shape the outcome, once I commit to the game, my movement is random.
  • The important observation is that this behavior is much much less meaningful than my actions in Model 1. If I don’t pack a backup, I may not get lunch at all.
  • This raises an interesting point, I think. It is possible that, in a certain sense, paths may be more meaningful the more predictable they are! Less predictability would mean a disengagement from the essential concerns of my existence or making sub-optimal choices. In Model 1, I could go for unpredictability and lunch somewhere else ditching my friend… and have a less meaningful lunch.

3) Model 3: The uber-rationalist. 


  • I have decided to attempt life extension via calorie restriction. Since I am very concerned with the calories in a meal, my aim is to get essential nutrients with a minimum of calories.
  • But, because both exercise and socializing are keys to long-term mental agility, I don’t want to stop my routine of walking out for social lunches.
  • To compensate, I have gone so far as to survey most restaurants in the neighborhood and have built charts of meals by restaurant rated by nutrition over calories. (This example would seem less outré to me if I hadn’t had a friend that routinely pulled out a scale and weighed parts of his lunch.)
  • My friend suggests Emily’s Spaghetti Shack. I suggest a sushi place a bit further down the street. We compromise on a Vietnamese place and meet for lunch.

Now, this outcome might be totally predictable, perhaps even more so than Model 1.

However, given the objectives I’ve set for myself, I am successfully exercising non-illusory Free Will to maximize meaning in my behavior. Meaning, in this case, is bringing lunch into line with a long-term goal and program.


It seems clear to me that predictability and meaningful choice are separate descriptive axes and the Free Will operates along the meaning axis. Predictability, or the lack thereof, is more or less irrelevant. In all three case, we’re dealing with embodied Free Will, i.e. ‘determined’ physical systems of particles interacting in chains of cause and effect. I don’t see a way to make that component illusory without ridiculous descriptive contortions.

Privacy Pt 1: Youth Wants To Know

UC Berkeley Sit-in with scattered nudity
Discussion of privacy on the Internet, and, in particular, in social media, hit a local maxima a short time ago in the nym wars on Google+ against a background of increasing public concern.  Pronouncement by pundits and officials, some informed and most ignorant, rocks steadily on. None of that had pushed me to add my 2 cents to the mix.

What finally took me over the edge was hearing yet another 20 year old explain that his generation doesn’t have the same concern for privacy that we old folks so quaintly maintain. The implication is that, because they’re from a younger generation, the young are better adapted to current conditions.

There is another possible explanation, however. It follows.

First, let me get my on geezer persona.

Allen Ginsberg's Exorcism of the Pentagon

Now there, youngsters, I’m from a generation that routinely showed up naked in public and engaged in such low profile activities as chanting to levitate the Pentagon. This was dropped onto an America barely emerging from the 50’s and massively less receptive to living publicly. Nudity was performance art aimed at letting some sunlight into the cloister.

Allow me to assure you that my concerns are not an attachment to some arbitrary, bygone, meaningless convention like, for example, not ending a sentence with a preposition. They are, instead, the result of years of observation and balanced analysis…primarily of the government. More on that later.

You kids may have a different concept of the value of privacy but that concept is not different from the concept I held as a kid. Experience, one of a few advantages of aging, has made me wiser.

I’d argue that privacy concerns come down, not to how you feel about living in public, but how you feel about powerful institutions– governmental organizations, primarily, but any institution large enough to have significant information gathering resources–being able to have easy access to your life’s details.

I think providing that access is dangerous.

Rather than get into point/counter-point or personal biography, I’d like to perform a thought experiment.

Draw a axis of government benignity. Start in, say, Amsterdam and end in Pyongyang. Route it through 6 or 8 cities you think span the spectrum of openness. (Let’s pick Berlin, Beijing, Lagos, Sao Paulo, Moscow, San Francisco, Tehran, Istanbul, and London for the purposes of this experiment.) Put them on the axis wherever you think they belong. Now, imagine yourself in living a Amsterdam. Assume you and your tribe share thoughts, interesting books and websites, music, purchases, shops and restaurants via a social media or two. Sometimes you flirt; sometimes you trade ideas and opinions; sometimes you blow off steam.

(Exclude for the purposes of this experiment the information streams created by your cell phone and credit card.)

Move the slider along until having all that information public becomes a significant threat to your well-being…until you cross a line where your behavior is now suspect and where simultaneously you have revealed who you associate with and much of your daily routine. If you get comfortably all the way to Pyongyang, you need to get a life. Commonly you’re in danger of loss of income, harassment, discrimination, imprisonment, or disappearance at some point midway along the line for any of multiple reasons.

Of course, you say, you’re not in Pyongyang but near Amsterdam on the line…safe perhaps in San Francisco with me, and these concerns aren’t appropriate. Or are they?

At issue? These media are primarily built here but deployed globally. What seems benign locally becomes a tool for the police state with a slight shift of context. Regardless of local comfort, our systems would better be measured on a global yardstick.

Specifically, as the creators, early adopters, critics and evangelists for these systems, we have responsibility to take predictable consequences quite seriously as we design, create, implement, and sell. We are building history, brick by brick, and broad current flow through us and our shapings.

We need to take that seriously.

At least now and then.

It will be of general benefit if we lay down cover for our brothers and sisters that are under genuinely under siege. Perhaps they want to practice Qi Kung in Beijing or discuss their Armenian heritage in Istanbul…or draw political cartoons in Amsterdam.

The issues aren’t necessarily easy to engineer. We need to wrestle, for example, with the interface between criminality and dissent, and the interplay of persona and authenticity. But it’s up to us to do that rather than ignore complexity and the likely paths into the future. I have some ideas that might help in this discussion. Probably you do, too.

I’m urging us to design and discuss privacy in a wider scope–spatially, temporally, morally–and remove it from a discussion of personal preference.

In Brian Eno’s terms, we need to think in a broader here and a longer now.

Privacy Pt 2: Python Politics: the Economics of Knowledge Accumulation
Privacy Pt 3: Is there an Engineer in the house?

PS – A few notes in passing.

The US is not necessarily a safe haven.

Consider http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/23/washington/23habeas.html?ref=us in light of the recent National Defense Authorization Act. Or police raids to preemptively undermine protests at the 2008 Republican convention: http://www.salon.com/2008/08/30/police_raids/

You may not be a Judi Bari (they arrest you and search everywhere you hang out after someone bombs your car) or organizing widespread protest in Minneapolis (the show up the week before and take all your stuff) but note: systems integration is changing the game for law enforcement everywhere. It might not be J edGar Hoooover you need to worry about but some local middle-aged portly DA with too tight shoes, a sullen teenager, a nasty mortgage, and a depressed spouse that’s pissed off because some 20 year old is driving a car that costs his yearly salary

Finally, here’s a bit of gratuitous Chuang Tzu – the topic is gathering up treasures for thieves : http://oaks.nvg.org/zhuangzi10-.html

Privacy Pt 2: Python Politics: the Economics of Knowledge Accumulation

clothed man arrested by naked guys
“A constricting snake like a boa or a python kills its prey by suffocation. It uses the momentum of its strike to throw coils around its victim’s body. Then, it squeezes. Every time the prey exhales, the snake squeezes a little more tightly. Soon, the victim can breathe any more.” ref

Essentially, then, constrictors kill not by crushing but by taking in the slack and not giving it back. I view this as relevant to the topic at hand.

History: the Internet Wants to Be Free.

We seem to have generated a cultural lock-in that demands a free Internet. This is the result of a combination of factors: successful initiatives, ideological leanings (sometimes based on the semantic ambiguity between free as unregulated and free as without cost), and significant self-delusion.

There is a component of this freedom that is real. The freedom exist in a commons collectively built and shared. It exists in the group effort to build standards and protocols to connect us and to share and display information. It exists in the collection of individual visions, not always mutually compatible, that maintain and extend this effort. It exists in our ability to design technical hacks to undermine systems of control.

Wikipedia is a good exemplar of this Internet.

Beyond that, it’s not free at all.

Our vision is embodied in components all of which have both capital and maintenance costs.

The initial freedom was built on simple design hacks and the low bandwidth required to move text around. It sat on top of large computing projects in academia and government and survived on crumbs snatched off the table. You might have to pay a bit for your hook to the the infrastructure but content was provided mostly without cost. This was the world of bulletin boards, irc, usenet groups, email, text based MUDs.

This model has been extended with increasing elaborate ‘free’ content and services: Google, youTube, Flickr, facebook, Pandora,  Spodify, Twitter and so on. Meanwhile, temporary successes in the paid model, eg AOL, generally seem to erode back to free.

This apparent continuity masks a simple fact: the old model didn’t scale. We benefit from increasing costly products. A new funding source…advertising, of course…by and large pays the bill.

Google is the exemplar, here.

Which brings us to the common wisdom: if the product appears free, then you’re the product.

The true coin of this transaction is information about us individually and collectively.

The economics of targeted advertising is pretty simple conceptually. Information is gathered on you to give you advertising you’re likely to respond to. Or perhaps to provide you a more tailored service that will make you more engaged and hence bring you to the advertising more frequently.

With Google this was an add-on that went from humble beginnings. Now the business plans of start-ups are often designed specifically to elicit information. Products are built around data mining and targeting advertising.

We gain significant benefit from this model and here we, perhaps, become complicit.

 This march toward greater public visibility has generated other elements of common wisdom which are more suspect.

You often hear the following: “Privacy is dead. Things are different than in the past. We need to get over it and adjust to new realities. Privacy is already fairly illusory therefore upset is unjustified; just look at the targeted direct mail of the past” And so on.

To my mind, an appeal to the hopelessness of implementing change regardless of that changes desirability somehow lacks punch. We live in a world that’s changing all the time. We live in a world in which an improved technical solution or compelling idea can turn things upside down in considerable less than a decade. And we are inventing that technology every day.

There is a danger that I think it is our responsibility to recognize and attempt to address.

My argument is —

  1. There’s an unremitting economic pressure to create a higher and higher resolution picture of you, what you do, and what you might potentially consume.
  2. We’ll hit a point (and are there already in some locations) where you’ll stand out as suspicious by not being transparent. Given this fine grained picture, not being highly visible will become increasingly suspicious. The blurry individuals then stand out as very likely criminals or revolutionaries.
  3. The most likely to succeed in hiding from scrutiny behind a false front is the deliberate criminal with a carefully constructed public identity. The most likely to fail is the accidental revolutionary…the well meaning public citizen that is compelled to move into some sort of rebellion.

Here’s the NYRB on Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi:

Fang’s path through life observed a pattern that is common to China’s dissidents: a person begins with socialist ideals, feels bitter when the rulers betray the ideals, resorts to outspoken criticism, and ends in prison or exile. Liu Binyan, Wang Ruowang, Su Xiaokang, Hu Ping, Zheng Yi, Liu Xiaobo, and many others have followed this pattern.


Let’s return to a police action in Minnesota cited in the PS to Part 1.

I suspect that these raids proved highly effective in disrupting the protest and that it would have been less so had the naive folks raided been up to actual criminal activity and taken steps to keep backup materials and tools hidden away somewhere. In other words, if they had been the folks that justified a disruptive police action then that action would likely have been ineffective.

Is there an Engineer in the house? How about an ESL Instructor?

We are building, brick by brick, a consolidation of power through an increasingly  fine-grained consolidation of data. We live in a world where a major portion of the US security apparatus has disappeared behind a curtain and is accountable, apparently, mostly to themselves. And a world where the idea of individual political rights to speak, meet, and organize are not widely acknowledged. The result of that intersection creates a problem that is not, I think, insignificant. The constraint on oppressive regimes has often been reach and we, in our work on information technologies, are eliminating some significant constraints.

What’s the solution? Is there one?

Privacy Pt 1: Youth Wants To Know
Privacy Pt 3: Is there an Engineer in the house?

Asabiya Part 1: Introduction

Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War is one of my favorite sort of books: those that dig into my thoughts and continues to influence them by providing a perspective to work with…or sometimes against. I find his analysis of the patterns of history intriguing and I believe he throws a light on our political landscape.

This will take on much of the flavor of a book report. In fact, it will look much like a bad book report in which I substitute long quotations for my own reactions and analysis. So be it. There is a direction. I am building to an open ended point…some questions I find interesting… which does contain the seeds of a thesis but tries not to narrow down to too fine a point. My format will be to add a skeleton of an outline to frame up material from the book and then add some observations that spark off Turchin’s work.

  •  The anchor for Turchin’s analysis is social cohesion.

Following the fourteenth-century Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun, I call this property of groups asabiya. Asabiya refers to the capacity of a social group for concerted collective action. Asabiya is a dynamic quantity; it can increase or decrease with time. Like many theoretical constructs, such as force in Newtonian physics, the capacity for collective action cannot be observed directly, but it can be measured from observable consequences

  • Social cohesion => successful societies. Essentially, the groups that do the best job of cooperating are the most successful in competing with other groups. Turchin’s interest is in the creation and collapse of historical empires and he proceeds in his analysis by gathering case histories.

“Generally, in a struggle between two groups of people, the group with stronger norms promoting cooperation and the most people following such norms has a greater chance of winning.

  • Inequality erodes social cohesion. Successful societies have, in the past, built empires which then erode social inequality leading to the eventual collapse of the empire.

The phase of the secular cycle also determines the trend in social and economic inequality—whether it increases or decreases. This aspect is of particular interest because of the corrosive effect that glaring inequality has on the willingness of people to cooperate, which in turn underlies the capacity of societies for collective action

  • Turchin uses history as his laboratory and makes the following points about contemporary politics:
    • One can’t necessarily generalize his pattern of empire going forward. We may be in a post Imperial world (witness the EU vs historically warring states in Europe.)
    • But one can understand the development of historical societies and something about current societies since they are the result of their history.
    • Turchin uses Italy as an example because it provides two matching societies:
        • North Italy vs South Italy  – He makes the point that, if Italy was divided between north and south, we would have one of the best and worst performers in Europe.

      The disparity in economic development between the Italian north and south is striking. Today the south is rural and poor, whereas the north is urban, industrialized, and wealthy. Few people realize just how well off the Italian north is, because when we see economic statistics for Western Europe, they are typically broken down by country, rather than by regions. Italy as a whole is in the middle of the pack, but its northern regions, such as Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna, are at the very top of the list. The overall rank for Italy is pulled down by its poor Mezzogiorno.

        • He sees this disparity as rooted in societal function vs dysfunction
        • First,  he cites a study that took a sustained look at possible measures of social cohesion

      In 1993, Robert Putnam published Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. “Social capital,” as Putnam explains, “refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.” 

      How can one measure “institutional performance,” that is, how well regions are governed? Asabiya (or social capital) is the key. However, capacity for collective action is a complex, multifaceted property of society, and therefore we cannot expect a single way to measure it perfectly. Putnam and his co-workers, however, came beautifully close. They chose 12 indicators, ranging from measures of operation efficiency such as bureaucratic responsiveness and budget promptness to a quantification of services provided to the public, such as the number of daycare centers and family clinics.

      When Putnam and co-workers finished estimating the institutional performance for each Italian region, they saw a remarkable pattern. There was very strong north-south gradient in how well regions were governed. The regions in the Po Valley such as Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia were consistently at the top of rankings in institutional performance, whereas southern regions, such as Campania (the region around Naples), Calabria (the “toe” of the Italian boot), and Sicily were at the bottom.

        • Putnam’s study is a picture of effective function but the flip side is a picture of dysfunction

      Well before Putnam, and even before the Italian experiment in devolution of powers to regional governments, anthropologists knew that something was wrong with the society of the Italian south—the Mezzogiorno, as it is known in Italian. A particularly interesting study is that by the American anthropologist Edward Banfield, who spent a number of years in a southern Italian village during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1967, he published a book detailing his findings, The Moral Basis of the Backward Society. Banfield describes the extreme atomization of the southern Italian society, in which all cooperative efforts are limited to the smallest possible societal unit, the family. Relations even to such kin as cousins, and sometimes even grown-up siblings, are rife with distrust and lack of cooperation. Community-level cooperative efforts are virtually impossible. Banfield called this type of society “amoral familism,” and defined its basic philosophy as this: “Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise.”

        • Turchin believes the root of this society lies in the far past in Roman slavery.

      Millions of slaves, captured during the wars of conquest, flooded Italy during the second century B.C. Because slaves had no human rights, and legally could hold no property (in practice, some masters allowed them to accumulate funds to buy themselves out of slavery), their presence in massive numbers made the Roman society during the late Republic even more unequal than is usual in pre-industrial states

      The distinction between slaves and freemen is perhaps the most extreme form of social inequality. Thus, widespread slavery must be a very corrosive influence on the society’s asabiya. In fact, empirical evidence shows slavery has a deep, and lasting, negative impact on “social capital.”

      It was, thus, the rise of inequality and especially of its ugliest form, slavery, that began corroding Roman asabiya during the second century B.C.

      …southern Italy—the core region of the defunct Roman Empire—was an asabiya black hole.  <> Peninsular Italy, including Sicily, remained an asabiya black hole from the collapse of the Roman Empire to this very day

  • He does not, of course, believe that southern Italy remained a static society. He believes that it is a damaged and ineffective one. One that has never managed to heal itself from a persistant legacy of poverty, feud, and bad government.
  • With the issues phrased this way, it’s hard not to draw some parallels to the US. That will be the topic of contemplation next post. For now, here’s something that caught my eye recently and sparked this whole train of thought

You are looking at a map of violence based on an analysis from an NGO, the Institute for Economics and Peace, based in Sydney Australia. Red is bad. Blue is the best. The rest range in between, color coded as you’d expect.