“Their minds close and they turn around and go back to their lives.”


I did a site search on Seth’s blog for “fructose” (On how to do these and improve your use of Google Search) as I was curious if Roberts had seen any negative impact to using fructose in his Shangri-La Diet. I wondered this because fructose is apparently sweeter than glucose, which per the SLD theory that flavor/calorie associations spur weight gain, might imply that ingesting fructose would actually cause weight gain (I was trying to tie this all together into Stephen at WHS’s recent post about sugar). Alas, apparently sugar-water using nothing but fructose works fine on SLD. I forgot that plain sugar water is tasteless regardless of the sugar used (I don’t understand how sugar is sweet, but sugar water is not, but it’s true)

Anyway, in a roundabout way I got to reading Roberts’ interview with Taubes (Only read the last two parts out of fourteen: need to find the time to read the rest!). It was at the end of this interview that Taubes made a fascinating comment about how people in the scientific community react to his research on insulin and carbohydrates. Specifically, these otherwise intelligent and reasoning folk tend to close their minds as soon as Taubes drops the “C word:” carbohydrates. One word shuts them down as they write off Taubes’ immense research by way of invoking the “Atkins diet” or any number of other “low-carb diets” that were all the rage a few years ago.

And I couldn’t help but think how this mental shutdown is what I’ve seen countless times with any person of religion — people who otherwise may agree with any number of points you make will completely shutdown on the invocation of certain words.

This is a fantastic example of rational people utterly failing to apply reason, and it is exemplified by scientists and people of faith, alike. Indeed, the common thread here is simply dogma. Interesting.

TAUBES I think that’s true, but there’s this contrary effect that happens. I said this in my lecture. The science I’m trying to get across can be accepted up until the point at which I say the the word carbohydrate, and then people shut down, and they think “Oh, it’s that Atkins stuff again.” Their minds close and they turn around and go back to their lives. Anyway, I look forward to seeing the interview and getting your book and reading it. I enjoyed this. Again, I like nothing better than talking about this stuff.

Seth Roberts and the Shangri-La Diet

I cite Seth Roberts’ blog a great deal over at Linked Down. Seth is a Psychology Professor at Berkeley and an avid self-experimenter. I’ve learned a great deal from subscribing to his blog.

For those who don’t know, Seth Roberts created the Shangri-La Diet, which is a diet centered around reducing the association between flavor and caloric load. I haven’t read the book, so this is an approximation of how it works, but the gist is that the more correlated taste is to caloric load, the greater hunger can be, the harder it will be to cut calories, and the higher your body’s set point for weight will be. “SLD” hacks this relationship via ingesting flavorless calories within certain windows of time. These flavorless calories reduce the brain’s association of high energy density and high flavor. Interestingly enough, the macronutrient source of the calories may be unimportant: you can do SLD with oil, sugar water (so long as it is flavorless), or nose-clipping while eating protein. If you’re skeptical about this diet, I suggest taking a trip over to the SLD Forums and be prepared to see plenty of evidence that SLD works.

Even as I have not tried SLD, it is a fascinating idea and it seems that anyone who is serious about better understanding why we gain weight and what regulates hunger and adiposity must take it seriously enough to figure out how it fits into the big picture of human health. Barring that gargantuan task, it’s at a minimum another way to try and hack weight loss if your current regiment isn’t cutting it for you.

I mention all of this because I stumbled on a 2008 interview between Roberts and Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, which I’ve blogged about exhaustively. What a great thing to find that two people I admire had a thoughtful discussion and, even better, said discussion has been made available to me?

Blogging, science and the internet FTW.

Back to trying to understand how SLD fits into the grand scheme of human physiology. An interesting comment was made at the bottom of Part 13 of Roberts’ Interview of Gary Taubes:

I’ve thought a lot about how consuming tasteless food could supress hunger. My favorite theory is that it is similar to what happens when an animal is hibernating. The “magical” appearance of calories fools your body into thinking it is living off its fat and then it actually does so.

This comment reminded me of how the metabolic pathways while fasted are the same as when we consume a diet of only fat and protein. One effect of low-carb diets is appetite suppression. Could the common theme here simply be that both SLD and low-carbohydrate diets and/or fasting act to “trick” our bodies into switching to a non-hungry state?

Obviously that can’t be the entire picture because insulin is the storage hormone that is unleashed by carbohydrate consumption (though less so with fructose).

This issue is worthy of further thought.

Birthday Shoes dot com

As regular readers know, I have a pair of Vibram FiveFingers Classics (Reviewed last summer). I’ve gotten a lot of use out of my VFFs, having worn them for CrossFit, short runs, sprints, frisbee, world traveling, weight lifting, and for everyday uses like going to the grocery store or any number of other activities. Suffice to say that I think FiveFingers are a fantastic product and allow me the freedom of barefootedness.

So it was with great joy that I recently procured a pair of Five Finger KSOs via John at Kayak Shed, which I just reviewed yesterday. What’s that? You didn’t see my review? That’s because it’s not on justinowings.com. Rather, it is on my latest project, Birthday Shoes dot com, a site dedicated to being barefoot by way of consolidating information about the closest-thing-to-barefooted-footwear-available, Vibram FiveFingers:

Let me guess your thoughts. You think I’m out of my gourd to create a site about barefootedness, specifically one to support a product that is difficult to describe, a sock/shoe/foot-glove/ninja-shoe.

You might be right.

Five Fingers are just footwear: how great could this product be? Pretty extraordinary, actually. Why? Because they empower us modern hunter-gatherers to move about the earth and do things in accordance with our evolutionary design, which is to say, locomote a concrete, polluted and often trashy world wearing virtually nothing on our “birthday shoes” (Yeah, like “birthday suit!”) but a thin piece of rubber sole.

And though it might not be obvious at first glance, this is a very big deal. FiveFingers are important because they are designed to work harmoniously with our human nature. Sure, we all could entirely ditch any form of footwear, build up callouses on our feet, and roam the earth completely barefoot (Indeed, many do), but such a pure solution is also out of reach for most of us. By comparison, just as many pursue a “primal” or “paleo” diet by cutting out grains, sugar, heavily processed foods, and other modern food inventions, we still live in a modern world and aren’t hunting and gathering in a true sense, nor should we. There are fantastic benefits of modern technology; the trick is finding ways to marry our genetic hardwiring with our modern inventions.

FiveFingers go a long way towards that goal.

Birthday Shoes is an attempt to centralize information about Five Fingers, be a hub for different VFF experiences, display humans being human, barefooted or in their birthday shoes, and ultimately act as a sort of gateway-idea*, that can open the eyes of otherwise domesticated, corporate-dwelling, debt-servicing, and generally depressed people to a freer world, one more harmonious with our human nature.

In short, maybe I’m not that crazy after all, or at least, there is a method behind my madness. Check it out:

birthday shoes dot com

Recent posts at birthdayshoes.com:

* I’ve also called it a “trojan horse idea.” I can’t decide which way to describe VFFs is catchier. “Trojan horse” is kinda fun because the VFF is literally not unlike a mask or cover-up for our feet, hiding the reality of what is really going on. “Gateway idea” is nice because it uses the “gateway drug” definition — VFFs serve as a gateway or catalyst towards higher understanding about other things. Ah maybe I should just use both.

Acheiving the HGH Flush in a Workout


Rusty over at Fitness Black Book talks about how to know when you’ve reached a point where your workout intensity will have the lingering metabolism-boosting effect. The test is what he calls the “HGH Flush,” which is basically that point where you lose your breath and your skin is warm to the touch.

This is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. One, I think I’ve unwittingly been measuring my personal workout success by whether or not I reached this HGH flush state. I just hadn’t quite articulated it. Two, a part of this that Rusty mentions is not to do too much. It’s here that I think back to my CrossFit experience last summer, in which I put on muscle and lost some fat, as well. Any CrossFitter knows that the workouts typically result in an HGH Flush by design and also are completed in less then 30 minutes. In other words, they are very intense but also brief.

Comparatively, when I was making a concerted effort at additional fat loss earlier this year, I’d occassionally reach the HGH Flush, but overall, I just did more workout volume. Perhaps this is why I didn’t see noticeable results despite an ample amount of effort (in both IF, diet, and exercise).

How to Tell If Your Fat Loss Workout is the Correct Intensity?

I look for a thing called the “HGH Flush”. I forget who coined this term, but this is just an indicator of a good fat loss workout. If your skin is slightly red and hot to the touch and you are out of breath after your workout, then you have achieved the HGH flush. Remember your PE teacher in Junior High making you “run lines” or pushing you until you were out of breath and your skin felt like it was on fire? This is the HGH flush which is an indicator that your metabolism will be increased after your workout and that your body will release a bit more HGH than normal (your body’s fat burning hormone).

Learn by Doing, Then by Thinking

Danger: Hubris
Creative Commons License photo credit: toolmantim

Seth Roberts talks about his graduate school days and how he got into self-experimentation by way of the axiom that, “The best way to learn is to do:”

And then I was in the library and I came across an article about teaching mathematics and the article began, “The best way to learn is to do.” And I thought “Huh well that makes a lot of sense.” And I realized you know that it was a funny thing that that’s what I wasn’t doing: I was thinking. And I also thought to myself well I want to learn how to do experiments. And if the best way to learn is to do then I should just do as many experiments as possible as opposed to trying to think of which ones to do. And that was really a vast breakthrough in my graduate training and everything changed after that.

Quoted from a 10 minute presentation by Seth Roberts

Roberts’ goes on to apply these ideas to graduate students and professors, when he notes, “Grad students … worry too much about what to do. Professors often … do something more complex than necessary.”

This is a simple, but enormously important idea: we learn more by doing first than by thinking first. The idea lies at the foundation of empiricism. Despite its simple power, it seems that across all aspects of life, we show a clear preference for thinking over doing. Why?

One reason may be that we overestimate our ability to “figure things out” by thought alone—generally, this is hubris. Another reason for this preference for thinking is poor assumptions. For the novice, the presumption is that less experience, or fewer trials under your belt, must be supplanted with more reasoning and thought. Alternatively for the expert, the problem is reliance on accumulated experience to create a basis for reliable reasoning and thought.

Regardless of the “Why?,” thinking before doing causes problems. Specifically:

  • Thinking results in unnecessary complexity, which obfuscates our ability to interpret results,
  • Thinking sets expectations, biasing analysis towards certain results, and
  • Thinking is time-intensive, reducing resources that could be used doing.

These problems hinder our ability to learn—not just in scientific experiments, but in virtually every aspect of our lives. Here are just a few examples where I’ve seen the problem manifested:

  • Our education system is founded on thinking over doing. School boards think through what subjects students should learn. Even when choice is introduced such as in college, there are enormous costs to trying a lot of disparate subjects. Not surprisingly, students get locked into fields of study only to learn when it’s too expensive to do anything about it that they don’t particularly enjoy their chosen major. Conversely, look at blogging, which seems to result in a great deal of knowledge gathering, but is driven heavily by random curiosity.
  • More on blogging. Perhaps the triumph of blogging lies in the thoughtlessness of it. Sure, you put plenty of thought into a blog post as you are writing it, but unlike writing a book, the blog post is so much cheaper that you end up having many more iterations and much less “thinking” behind each individual post. Contrast blogging to the editorial thinking that is put into mainstream journalism. This thinking results in a lot of censorship — not in the classic “You can’t use that word” sense, but in the “I think your idea should be altered in X, Y, Z ways.” The result? More complex ideas. Fewer ideas. Bad ideas. (Added 4/17/09)
  • The same problem is seen with career choices. We think our way into a certain career versus learning what works and what doesn’t work by simply trying out different types of work. We try to think our way into figuring out our passions. It just doesn’t work.
  • Or apply the idea to William Glasser’s Control Theory. Glasser argues that it is difficult to impossible to change what we think or feel about something that happens to us. Thus, our best course of action is to simply do something.
  • Or consider another book: Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert makes the point that, “We insist on steering our [lives] because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of tour steering is in vain … because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.” Thinking through what we want is something we all do, yet it rarely is effective at leading to happiness. How often do we finally get what we want only to realize that the experience is not what we expected? This is a failure of thought.
  • Nassim Taleb harps on overreliance on thinking all the time. The Black Swan is essentially a book about hubris and the misguided belief that we can think through everything. As another example, Taleb doesn’t read the news because it formalizes thought, effectively handicapping our cognitive function by creating bias. In Nassim Taleb’s recent interview on EconTalk, he talks about “tinkering,” which is more or less just trying different stuff out and seeing what works, as a means to learn.
  • Or look at thinking over doing as it pertains to governments and political debate. Was there ever such an embodiment of preference for thinking over doing? Every government generally and every government program specifically is a thought-out experiment tested on a massive scale. Should it come as a surprise that governments and government programs are so dysfunctional? Observe how political philosophers consistently prefer thought to action, a la Folk Activism, dismissing attempts at trial and error or ignoring the importance of seeking new frontiers for experimentation, while arguing, “We’ve yet to see pure [ socialism | capitalism ]; therefore, you can’t say it wouldn’t work!”
  • I haven’t read Arnold Kling’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (Preface), but that’s at least partially because it hasn’t been published yet! In thinking about the question of children, two thoughts come to mind in relation to the doing/thinking problem (And both relate to Kling’s review of a study about how “Almost no one regrets having kids“:
    • Couples who choose not to have kids have overthought the problem and will almost certainly regret their decision not to have kids.
    • Parents who think they should only have two kids (for example) will likely end up wishing they had had more—it seems parents tend to think they should have more kids than they end up having!

    Having kids isn’t like waking up and making an omelette, so I realize that this one fits into the doing-vs-thinking paradigm a bit loosely, but nonetheless, it’s just another example of how thinking fails. (Added 4/17/09)

  • Life is the result of trial and error performed on a massive scale and is ongoing. As complex as a DNA molecule may be, the individual building blocks are simple. So here’s an example of doing (DNA replication) and simplicity leading to unfathomable complexity—life. Evolution is the triumph of doing and is clearly a thoughtless process. (Added 4/17/09)

As Seth Roberts realized in his graduate days, “I should just do as many experiments as possible as opposed to trying to think of which ones to do.” But why does doing first work better than thinking first? Perhaps it is because doing is fundamentally an iterative process: doing is trial. The idea of trial and error as a method of learning means making mistakes and learning from them. Making mistakes and figuring out what doesn’t work can also be desirable as evidence of absence. I further wonder if it is the sheer number of trials that spur the creation of knowledge. Could it be that the more experiments/trials/iterations, the greater the chance of winning the lottery and learning something truly worthwhile? Maybe so.

I can’t help but conclude that, regardless of the reasons, thinking should almost always be put on hold in favor of action. Stop thinking and start doing. Follow whims, opportunities, gut instincts, and curiosities. Observe as much as possible. Expect failure and realize that it is through innumerable failed attempts that one can stumble on success.

Nassim Taleb is no friend of academics


Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest from Opacity, no 114 titled “Where is the evidence?” launches into Nassim’s current interest in how we know things given the lack of evidence (That is probably summed up poorly, but it is a focus on the absence of evidence/evidence of absence problem and humanity’s gross ignorance. Taleb mentions the concept in the hour long podcast at EconTalk if you’ve got the time to listen to it).

Taleb’s admonition of academia is brutal — he basically says Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers are “arrogant, formal-thinking civil servants, and Ivy-league semi-retards.” Don’t pull any punches there Nassim!

I’m still not convinced the admonition about negative advice is exactly right, but why quibble? (See prior discussion on Nassim Taleb and Expert Advice)

Finally, I’ve ordered two books by John Gray, who Taleb cites as the “greatest living thinker.” And to think I hadn’t even heard of the guy.

Note: If you are like me, and wants to be updated on Taleb’s latest posts to his non-feed-friendly blog, feel free to use this change detection RSS feed I created: Taleb’s Opacity Change Detector Feed.

I leave aside the confusion absence of evidence/evidence of absence–and the misunderstanding of the very notion of “empiricism”. It is a fact that in the real world of our daily decision-making 1) we do not have much evidence of most relevant things, yet we need to take action; 2) in most situations, “true/false” is never symmetric (one side is more harmful than the other), so the burden of evidence is one-sided. Which is why once these fakes “doing science” lose their tenures after the endowments (and charity) run out of funds, they will be barely fit to do anything in the real-life ecology. I wonder what you can do with an unemployed, say, academic orthodox economist. You could do better with non-post-academic cab drivers. Clearly those the most fit at dealing with “just evidence” will be idiot savants outside their evidence domain.

And I can expect that with the SP500 about 20% lower than here, you will see tenures unexpectedly evaporating. The silver-lining of the crisis, perhaps, with the de-academification of society.

So let me take this into more interesting territory, and express my anti-social-planner views. Even more that in Hayek’s days, the ecology of the real world is becoming too complex for Aristotelian logic: very, very little of what we do can be safely formalized, meaning asymmetries matter more than ever. Which puts the Western World today at the most dangerous point in its history: unless we get the Bernanke-Summers crowd out of there, it will eventually be destroyed by the machinery of arrogant, formal-thinking civil servants, and Ivy-league semi-retards.

Finally, beyond the current mess, I see no way out of this ecological problem, except through that tacit, unexplainable, seasoned, thoughtful, and aged thing crystalized by traditions & religions –we can’t live without charts and we need to rely on the ones we’ve used for millennia.

Citizen Media Law Project covers IEHI’s New Hampshire Case


Many of you may not be aware of this, but my company IEHI, Inc. (I.e. the Mortgage Lender Implode-O-Meter) is involved in two lawsuits. Both are absurd in their own right and work to stifle whistleblowing activities. Both have cost our company a great deal of time and money to defend (And the lawsuits are ongoing).

I won’t go into the details of these cases here, but if you want to know more:

Our primary website ml-implode.com is a thorn in the side for many because it takes a sardonic view of the imploding mortgage industry. Ever since the site was founded, way back before most of us had even heard of “subprime,” ML-Implode has broken big news that has made CEOs cringe, often alerting employees to their own company’s impending demise before their managers had bellied up and let the cat out of the bag (a.k.a. “I’m sorry, but we’re all out of a job.”). As distasteful as this function may be to some, we side on getting quality information out as soon as possible so that people can make informed decisions. Sometimes that pisses people off. We do not do it lightly.

As it is, the financial implosion genie has long since escaped the bottle. It’s common knowledge that the world is in a recessioin/depression/stagflation/OMG!WTF!/YGTBFKM! situation, so the fact that a start-up financial news site is getting hammered on by lawsuits has been largely ignored. Fortunately, with the recent Goldman Sachs suing of blogger Mike Morgan and articles like the one from Citizen Media Law Project (excerpted below – read it in full!), there may be a glimmer of hope.

I’m posting all of these thoughts on my personal blog to spread the word that just as we are being sued for not shutting up, your free speech is being attacked. Financial considerations aside, simply being aware of these attacks is important to you. The Internet has made way for little guys to be heard; unfortunately, little guys are still squashed by the big companies who have thousands of dollars to throw at legal fees all in an effort to stifle criticism. First amendment rights are fantastic in theory, but if the rubber doesn’t meet the road in cases like ours, anyone who posts material on the internet (And with Facebook, Twitter, millions of forums and blogs, who doesn’t?) is susceptible to losing everything they’ve worked for to frivolous lawsuits funded by deep pockets (The very deep pockets used to lobby the government for bailout funds or new legal loopholes to exploit).

So take note, and spread the word. Thanks. And here’s The Citizen Media Law Project’s take on our New Hampshire case (which we are appealing):

A reader recently tipped us off to a troubling ruling from a trial court in New Hampshire: The Mortgage Specialists, Inc. v. Implode-Explode Heavy Industries, Inc., No. 08-E-0572 (N.H. Super. Ct. Mar. 11, 2009). In the decision, Justice McHugh of the Superior Court for Rockingham County ordered the publishers of the popular mortgage industry watchdog site, The Mortgage Lender Implode-O-Meter (“ML-Implode”), to turn over the identity of an anonymous source who provided ML-Implode with a copy of a financial document prepared by The Mortgage Specialists, Inc. for submission to the New Hampshire Banking Department. The court also ordered ML-Implode to reveal the identity of an anonymous commenter who allegedly posted defamatory statements about the company and enjoined the website from re-posting the financial document or the allegedly defamatory comments. …

Justice McHugh’s March ruling granted all of the requested relief. He issued an order: (1) prohibiting ML-Implode and its agents from “displaying, posting, publishing, distributing, linking to, [or disseminating] copies and/or images of [the] 2007 Loan Chart and any information or data contained therein”; (2) requiring ML-Implode to “disclose the identity of the individual and/or entity that provided it with the 2007 Loan Chart”; (3) requiring ML-Implode to produce all other documents concerning MSI that ML-Implode received from the source of the 2007 Loan Chart; (4) prohibiting ML-Implode from re-posting the “Brianbattersby” statements; and (5) requiring ML-Implode to disclose the identity of “Brianbattersby.”

Justice McHugh’s decision is troubling on so many levels that it is hard to even list them all, but I will start with its blasé attitude towards the whole matter. The court issued no detailed findings of fact or conclusions of law before issuing the injunction, held no evidentiary hearing (apparently the parties agreed to this), and failed to even specify what cause of action supported its decision to enjoin publication of the 2007 Loan Chart. This latter point is by no means clear, because N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 383:10-b looks like it creates no private right of action against non-government parties like ML-Implode. The court apparently regarded all this formality as unnecessary because MSI sought only injunctive relief not damages, but this is obviously incorrect.

But wait, it gets worse. In its filings with the court, ML-Implode argued extensively that the requested relief constituted an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech, sought information protected by New Hampshire’s qualified reporter’s privilege, and impinged on its users’ First Amendment rights to speak anonymously. The court brushed aside all of these arguments without anything I would characterize as legal analysis. Justice McHugh did not even address whether the New Hampshire reporter’s privilege, which was recognized by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in Opinion of the Justices, 373 A.2d 644 (N.H. 1977), applies to online journalism sites like ML-Implode, and, if so, whether MSI had made the showing needed to overcome the privilege. …

With respect to the allegedly defamatory forum comments, Justice McHugh failed to make any specific findings of fact regarding actual malice, falsity, or reputational harm, so it is hard to accept his ruling as a “final adjudication on the merits” that would justify injunctive relief. Moreover, the court failed to explain why MSI could circumvent the hoary principle that “equity will not enjoin a libel” simply by not asking for damages, and why section 230 of the Communications Decency Act did not block MSI’s claims for injunctive relief with respect to user-submitted content (not an uncontroversial proposition).

Justice McHugh’s opinion is also oblivious to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001), which casts serious doubt on the constitutionality of punishing the dissemination of truthful material relevant to a matter of public concern when the publisher (as opposed to the source) obtained the information in a lawful manner. True, Bartnicki addressed the constitutionality of imposing money damages for the publication of truthful speech, but enjoining truthful speech seems equally inconsistent with protecting our “‘profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open.'” 532 U.S. at 534 (quoting New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964)).

Instead of tackling all these difficult legal issues, Justice McHugh’s decision focuses its attention elsewhere. Throughout, it appears motivated by a conviction that MSI is not asking for anything unreasonable and that ML-Implode is not being very nice:

Then when [ML-Implode] was asked to disclose the identity of persons or entities that had provided it with unauthorized information and potentially defamatory information [ML-Implode] refused outright. One would have hoped that when a legitimate publisher of information was notified of the fact that certain unauthorized information was given to it which was then published, presumably in good faith, the publisher would, in order to maintain the integrity of its publication, willingly provide the wronged party with the information requested. Instead, [ML-Implode] exhibited a knee-jerk reaction.

This is not a view shared by publishers (big, small, offline, online) or by the law. Counsel for ML-Implode intends to appeal the judgment to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, and there is good reason to believe that the state’s high court will reverse. For now, the decision stands as an excellent example of why we need strong procedural safeguards for courts to follow when deciding whether or not to compel the identification of anonymous speakers, why shield laws that constrain judicial discretion are important, and why constitutional doctrine should limit judicial power to grant prior restraints to such a vanishingly small category of cases.

Peter Thiel responds to Folk Activism

Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal and the major donor behind Seasteading, responds to Patri Friedman’s article on “Folk Activism” (See here).

It’s always reassuring to find yourself in good company, and in Thiel’s response, he hits on the three frontiers I blogged about back on Freedom is Found at the Frontier. Yeah, it’s not like it’s hard to figure out where there’s no government, but then again, not many people are pointing this out, so I’m going to take this opportunity to pat myself on the back.

Now that I’ve done that, there’s one frontier that isn’t being talked about, and that is the frontier of day-to-day life that transpires outside the purveyance of Big Brother. Indeed, that is most of our lives, so this frontier is immensely important. Indeed, many, many people live most of their lives incredibly freely beyond the view of government. It should go without saying that one of the preeminent goals of any liberty-minded person would be to advance ways to expand this frontier and further shield life from government. And yeah, cyberspace can help do that, but we need more realspace solutions.


(1) Cyberspace. As an entrepreneur and investor, I have focused my efforts on the Internet. In the late 1990s, the founding vision of PayPal centered on the creation of a new world currency, free from all government control and dilution — the end of monetary sovereignty, as it were. In the 2000s, companies like Facebook create the space for new modes of dissent and new ways to form communities not bounded by historical nation-states. By starting a new Internet business, an entrepreneur may create a new world. The hope of the Internet is that these new worlds will impact and force change on the existing social and political order. The limitation of the Internet is that these new worlds are virtual and that any escape may be more imaginary than real. The open question, which will not be resolved for many years, centers on which of these accounts of the Internet proves true.

(2) Outer space. Because the vast reaches of outer space represent a limitless frontier, they also represent a limitless possibility for escape from world politics. But the final frontier still has a barrier to entry: Rocket technologies have seen only modest advances since the 1960s, so that outer space still remains almost impossibly far away. We must redouble the efforts to commercialize space, but we also must be realistic about the time horizons involved. The libertarian future of classic science fiction, à la Heinlein, will not happen before the second half of the 21st century.

(3) Seasteading. Between cyberspace and outer space lies the possibility of settling the oceans. To my mind, the questions about whether people will live there (answer: enough will) are secondary to the questions about whether seasteading technology is imminent. From my vantage point, the technology involved is more tentative than the Internet, but much more realistic than space travel. We may have reached the stage at which it is economically feasible, or where it soon will be feasible. It is a realistic risk, and for this reason I eagerly support this initiative.

On Nassim Taleb’s Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world


Nassim Taleb‘s latest from the Financial Times titled Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world provides a brief insight into what Taleb believes caused our current financial crisis and what might prevent a similar crisis going forward.

I’ve excerpted those principles below (pushing the fair-use envelope a bit, perhaps). All italics are NNT’s.

Before delving into Taleb’s ten, I’d like to suggest that NNT’s principles can be (and should be) boiled down to more simpler structural problems/observations. Taleb’s folksy expressions make for useful analogies, but they needlessly complicate some simpler realities:

  • Government-made negative externalities [1, 2, 7] — Legal constructs like corporations and limited liability companies are exploited to offload risk to the public. This subsidizes risks resulting in agents (CEOs, Managers, etc.) taking more and more chances with other people’s money. This is related to the principle-agent problem, which Taleb indicts in [4]. The Ponzi aspect of all of this is intrinsically tied to our leveraged financial system, which is inextricably tied to our centralized, fiat-“money” banking system. To me, this is the biggest point that I’ve yet to see Taleb make — centralized fiat currency is a fragile entity that is inherently leveraged (out of thin air) but can be used to build complex systems of finance. This won’t tend to break early (as we’ve seen). To kill the leverage you have to kill the source of it, which is our centralized non-robust banking system!
  • The Authority Complex [3, 4, 6, 9] — we need a great deal more skepticism in our system and we should not have such centralized power. The problem here is the authority complex — the so-called experts all pontificate to the “ignorant” masses. The masses are too busy or too confused by the magical words of the experts to deduce that the experts don’t know what they are talking about. And like any good con, the con-artistsexperts are able to trick the masses into giving them all the power. I would argue that NNT’s #9, which more or less argues that we should question authority and not trust experts, completely negates NNT’s #6, which suggest that we should be protected from ourselves. Well who is going to protect us when we can’t trust the would-be protectors? That is a problem.
  • Robust complex systems have simple base units that scale [5, 8, 10] — This is the biology angle that is exemplified by metabolic rate scaling over 27 orders of magnitude. A robust system requires simplicity at it’s base. Accounting is a good example of this. Accounting can get incredibly nuanced and complex but can always be brought back to debits and credits. The simplicity of this fundamental rule still enables incredibly complex book-keeping, but puts a governor on the system. You can’t make up assets without creating corresponding credits to the books.

    Compare this to our non-simple, non-robust banking system that holds as it’s core principle the notion of stability in prices and jobs while allowing for unlimited credit (money creation). Not simple.

    Simplicity lends itself to ease of understanding and puts a governor on shenanigans. It’s this fundamental simplicity that enables massive scalability and the emergence of complex systems that are robust.

I’m afraid I might have gotten overly complex in the above. I think what Taleb wants is an organic financial system, one that starts from real economic transactions between human beings and scales upwards from there. Thus, the solution is pretty simple. The base unit is the individual. Fictitious business entities that exist apart from owners are made illegal. No systemic credit structures, which fundamentally follows from the base unit being limited to the individual. This is because such a system would have decentralized banking that would evolve out of whatever needs such an organic economy would require.

This would be the (completely free) market solution, which incidentally most closely mimics biological systems. After all, where in biology do you see stuff created out of thin air (like Corporations or fiat currency)?

And life has been getting along fine for untold millions of years with a simple base units that are the molecules that make up DNA.

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become too big to fail. …

2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains. …

3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus. The economics establishment (universities, regulators, central bankers, government officials, various organisations staffed with economists) lost its legitimacy with the failure of the system. …

4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks. …

5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity. Complexity from globalisation and highly networked economic life needs to be countered by simplicity in financial products. The complex economy is already a form of leverage: the leverage of efficiency. …

6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning . … Citizens must be protected from themselves, from bankers selling them “hedging” products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.

7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”. …

8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains. …

9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement. …

10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs. Finally, this crisis cannot be fixed with makeshift repairs, no more than a boat with a rotten hull can be fixed with ad-hoc patches. We need to rebuild the hull with new (stronger) materials; we will have to remake the system before it does so itself. …

Then we will see an economic life closer to our biological environment: smaller companies, richer ecology, no leverage. A world in which entrepreneurs, not bankers, take the risks and companies are born and die every day without making the news.

Creating Communities (or Tribes)


Seth Godin points out that it’s the hallway impromptu meetings (and networking) at conferences that result in real value creation. In other words, the enumerated purpose of a bunch of people being in the same place — the conference, the Sunday church service, the political rally, etc. — is little more than a veneered excuse for humans to come together and socialize in real, meaningful ways.

I say “meaningful ways” because our enumerated causes are often incredibly shallow. I still have great friendships from my old days as a Christian (this was back in my teenage years) even though I am more an atheist or agnostic (whatever) today. Most Christians even within the same church body have vastly different beliefs and still manage to enjoy each other’s company. Why? Because the relationships are bigger than the beliefs. The beliefs are (mostly, or most importantly) just an excuse to get together with others.

I see this phenomenon of all the time, and I’ve often pondered the equivalent of Seth Godin’s question in his post. How do we create a central activity, like church, that ostensibly is the reason for people to gather around, but is in actuality just an excuse for us to get together, have fun, talk, share, build, etc. Religion functions fairly well in this regard but has some unfortunate side-effects (elitism, weird beliefs, dogmatism, true believers, etc.).

There are likely other solutions out there (outside of the dying corporate borg) — other ideas to build communities around — they just need to have a common purpose people can get behind that doesn’t result in too many negative consequences or take itself too seriously.

Hmm …

These tribes of people are arguably a more valuable creation than the fish that were caught or the physics that were learned, right?

And yet, most of the time we don’t see the obvious opportunity–if you intentionally create the connections, you’ll get more of them, and better ones too. If the hallway conversations at a convention are worth more than the sessions, why not have more and better hallways?

What would happen if trade shows devoted half a day to ‘projects’? Put multi-disciplinary teams of ten people together and give them three hours to create something of value. The esprit de corps created by a bunch of strangers under time pressure in a public competition would last for decades. The community is worth more than the project.

The challenge is to look at the rituals and events in your organization (freshman orientation or weekly status meetings or online forums) and figure out how amplify the real reason they exist even if it means abandoning some of the time-honored tasks you’ve embraced. Going around in a circle saying everyone’s name doesn’t build a tribe. But neither does sitting through a boring powerpoint. Working side by side doing something that matters under adverse conditions… that’s what we need.

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