A Civilization Is at Stake Here

March 4th, 2015

We can’t defeat “global extremism” without discrediting the ideology behind it, T. Greer argues:

At the turn of the twentieth century, China, Japan, and Korea saw vast changes in the shape of their society because the old Neo-Confucian world view that had upheld the old order had been discredited. In Europe both communism and fascism rose to horrific heights because the old ideology of classical liberalism that had hitherto held sway was discredited. As a global revolutionary force communism itself withered away because the events that closed the 20th century left it discredited. If Americans do not worry about communist revolutionaries anymore it is because communism was so thoroughly discredited that there is no one left in the world who is willing to pick up arms in its name.

We cannot “win” this fight, in the long term, unless we can discredit the ideology that gives this fight teeth.

Luckily for us, this does not require discrediting a fourteen hundred year old religion held by one fifth of the world’s population. It is worth reminding ourselves that the ideology we seek to discredit is a comparatively new one. It was born in the sands of Najd shortly before Arabia became “Saudi,” crystallized in its present form only in the 1960s, and was not exported abroad until the late 1980s. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict excepted, almost all “Islamist” terrorist attacks can be linked directly to this new Salafi-Jihadist ideology and the madrassas and proselytizing media used to spread it. It is an ideology that directly threatens the sovereign rulers of every country in the Near East, and one whose interpretations are not only opposed by the majority of Islamic theologians, but have little relation to the way Islam was practiced in most places a mere 30 years ago.

That an ideology is new or rebels against established world views does not make it less dangerous. Novelty also says little about a movement’s future success–once upon a time Protestantism was a novel ideology. I encourage people to use this analogy. Think of these Salafi reformers as you do the first wave of Protestant reformers back in the 16th century. The comparison is apt not only because the goal of the Salafi-Jihadists is, like the original Protestants, to bring religious practice back to a pure and original form, or because the savagery displayed by many of the Protestant reformers was quite comparable to ISIS at its worst, but because this comparison gives you a sense of the stakes that are at play. This is a game where the shape of entire civilizations are on the table. The Salafi-Jihadists want to change the way billions of people worship, think, and live out their daily lives. ISIS’s success in the Near East gives us a clear picture of exactly what kind of society the Salafi-Jihadists envision for the Ummah.

I will not mince words:  humankind faces few catastrophes more terrible than allowing Salafi-Jihadist reformers to hijack Islamic civilization. Theirs is an ideology utterly hostile to human progress and prosperity, and their victory, if attained, will come at great human cost. The Protestants secured their Reformation with one of the most destructive wars of European history; there is little reason to think Salafi-Jihadist victories will be any less disastrous. Not every ‘great game’ of international power politics is played for civilization-level stakes. But that is exactly what is at stake here. We must plan accordingly.

Obstacles Increase Flow

March 4th, 2015

Placing an obstacle in front of a crowded door slightly increases the flow rate and, more importantly, reduces the duration of clogs:

The Most Insightful Management Training Film Ever Made

March 4th, 2015

Ben Horowitz was facing a particularly tricky management situation, where two excellent organizations within his company went to war with each other, when he happened to watch the most insightful management training film ever made:

The very next day I informed the head of Sales Engineering and the head of Customer Support that they would be switching jobs. I explained that, like Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris, they would keep their minds, but get new bodies.

However, after just one week walking in the other’s moccasins, both executives quickly diagnosed the core issues causing the conflict. They then swiftly acted to implement a simple set of processes that cleared up the combat and got the teams working harmoniously. From that day to the day we sold the company, the sales engineering and support organizations worked better together than any other major groups in the company.

Two Types of Machine Learning

March 3rd, 2015

Games are to AI researchers what fruit flies are to biology. A new AI has mastered many classic video games by combining two types of machine learning:

The first, called deep learning, uses a brain-inspired architecture in which connections between layers of simulated neurons are strengthened on the basis of experience. Deep-learning systems can then draw complex information from reams of unstructured data (see Nature 505, 146–148; 2014). Google, of Mountain View, California, uses such algorithms to automatically classify photographs and aims to use them for machine translation.

The second is reinforcement learning, a decision-making system inspired by the neuro­transmitter dopamine reward system in the animal brain. Using only the screen’s pixels and game score as input, the algorithm learnedby trial and error which actions — such as go left, go right or fire — to take at any given time to bring the greatest rewards. After spending several hours on each game, it mastered a range of arcade classics, including car racing, boxing and Space Invaders.

Only games with a simple and timely relationship between actions and score were amenable to reinforcement learning.

Thanks, Price Controls!

March 3rd, 2015

Alex Tabarrok shares his (and Tyler Cowen’s) latest video, on price ceilings:

When Smart People are Bad Employees

March 3rd, 2015

In tech, intelligence is an important quality, but it is not the only important quality, and this was a difficult lesson for Ben Horowitz to learn:

I felt that it was my job to create an environment where brilliant people of all backgrounds, personality types, and work styles would thrive. And I was right. That was my job. Companies where people with diverse backgrounds and work-styles can succeed have significant advantages in recruiting and retaining top talent over those that don’t. Still, you can take it too far. And I did.

For instance, you can’t allow the heretic to continue blaspheming:

Any sizable company produces some number of strategies, projects, processes, promotions, and other activities that don’t make sense. No large organization achieves perfection. As a result, a company needs lots of smart, super engaged employees who can identify its particular weaknesses and help it improve them.

However, sometimes really smart employees develop agendas other than improving the company. Rather than identifying weaknesses, so that he can fix them, he looks for faults to build his case. Specifically, he builds his case that the company is hopeless and run by a bunch of morons. The smarter the employee, the more destructive this type of behavior can be. Simply put, it takes a really smart person to be maximally destructive, because otherwise nobody else will listen to him.

Why would a smart person try to destroy the company that he works for?

  • He is disempowered.
  • He is fundamentally a rebel.
  • He is immature and naïve.

His example of the flake takes the archetype to another level:

Some brilliant people can be totally unreliable. At Opsware, we once hired an unequivocal genius—I’ll call him Roger (not his real name). Roger was an engineer in an area of the product where a typical new hire would take 3 months to become fully productive. Roger came fully up to speed in two days. On his third day, we gave him a project that was scheduled to take one month. Roger completed the project in 3 days with nearly flawless quality. More specifically, he completed the project in 72 hours. 72 non-stop hours: No stops, no sleep, no nothing but coding. In his first quarter on the job, he was the best employee that we had and we immediately promoted him.

Then Roger changed. He would miss days of work without calling in. Then he would miss weeks of work. When he finally showed up, he apologized profusely, but the behavior didn’t stop. His work product also degraded. He became sloppy and unfocused. I could not understand how such a stellar employee could go so haywire. His manager wanted to fire him, because the team could no longer count on Roger for anything. I resisted. I knew that the genius was still in him and I wanted us to find it. We never did. It turns out that Roger was bi-polar and had two significant drug problems: 1. He did not like taking his bi-polar medication and 2. He was addicted to cocaine. Ultimately, we had to fire Roger, but even now, it pains me to think about what might have been.

3D-Printed Replica Ring Sword

March 2nd, 2015

Norway’s National Museum of Art asked Nils Anderssen — a game developer and school teacher with a passion for re-creating historical artefacts in his spare time — to 3D-print a replica of its sixth-century sword:

The museum is in possession of a particularly fine sword — a golden-hilted ring-sword, probably used only by kings and nobles. The ring affixed to the hilt is believed to be the symbol of an oath.

Ring Sword Replica Hilt Front and Back

The instruction that the museum gave Anderssen was that the sword should look and feel exactly like the original would have done when it was new. This would allow museum visitors to have hands-on time with the sword, as a complement to admiring the relic safe in its glass case.

Anderssen has no experience in blacksmithing or goldsmithing, but he does know his way around 3D-modelling software — namely 3D Studio Max.

Ring Sword 3D Studio Max Rendering

Using photographs of the real sword to gauge the dimensions of the hilt, Anderssen modelled the shape into basic polygons before working on carving out the fine details of the intricate design. Then he sent the finished model to i.materialise to be printed in bronze. When the finished print arrived, he cleaned up the details and had the pieces gilded and fitted with wooden inserts for stability before being attached to the blade.

Ring Sword Original and Replicas


10% Less Democracy

March 2nd, 2015

Garett Jones suggests we try 10% less democracy and see how that works out.

Politicians behave differently near the end of their term, when they play more to voters’ irrational biases, including their anti-market bias, make-work bias, anti-foreign bias, and pessimistic bias.

Jones cites an unusual source — Jennifer Hochschild, Professor of Government and of African and African-American Studies at Harvard — on epistocracy:

Three uncontroversial points sum to a paradox:

  1. Almost every democratic theorist or democratic political actor sees an informed electorate as essential to good democratic practice….
  2. In most if not all democratic polities, the proportion of the population granted the suffrage has consistently expanded, and seldom contracted, over the past two centuries….
  3. Most expansions of the suffrage bring in, on average, people who are less politically informed or less broadly educated than those already eligible to vote….

Putting these three uncontroversial points together leads to the conclusion that as democracies become more democratic, their decision-making processes become of lower quality in terms of cognitive processing of issues and candidate choice.

Jones recommends six-year terms for the House and more autonomous agencies like the Fed.

Management Debt

March 2nd, 2015

When you borrow time by writing quick and dirty code, you incur technical debt. When you borrow time by making easy management decisions — or none at all — you incur management debt. Ben Horowitz shares an example he calls putting two in the box:

What do you do when you have two outstanding employees who logically both fit in the exact same place on the organizational chart? Perhaps you have a world-class architect who is running engineering, but she does not have the experience to scale the organization to the next level. You also have an outstanding operational person who is not great technically. You want to keep both in the company, but you only have one position. So, you get the bright idea to put “two in the box” and take on a little management debt. The short-term benefits are clear: a) you keep both employees, b) you don’t have to develop either because they will theoretically help each other develop, c) you instantly close the skill set gap. Unfortunately, you will pay for those benefits with interest and at a very high interest rate.

For starters, by doing this you will make every engineer’s job more difficult. If an engineer needs a decision made, which boss should she go to? If that boss decides, will the other boss be able to override it? If it’s a complex decision that requires a meeting, does she have to schedule both heads of engineering for the meeting? Who sets the direction for the organization? Will the direction actually get set if doing so requires a series of meetings?

In addition, you have removed all accountability. If schedules slip, who is accountable? If engineering throughput becomes uncompetitive, who is responsible? If the operational head is responsible for the schedule slip and the technical head is responsible for throughput, what happens if the operational head thrashes the engineers to make the schedule and kills throughput? How would you know that she did that? The really expensive part about both of these things is that they tend to get worse over time. In the very short-term you might mitigate these effects with extra meetings or by attempting to carve up the job in a clear way. However, as things get busy the mitigation will fade and the organization will degenerate. Eventually, you’ll either make a lump sum payment by making the hard decision and putting one in the box or your engineering organization will suck forever.

His other examples are overcompensating a key employee, because she gets another job offer and having no performance-management or employee-feedback process.

Mr. Money Mustache

March 1st, 2015

I happened to revisit Mr. Money Mustache‘s site last night and then woke this morning to see Tyler Cowen apparently missing the point about MMM’s philosophy. The Vox interview he cites lays it out pretty well:

DK: What’s the most common mistake you see people making with their money?

MMM: You could probably sum it up as taking a very short-term view on money and life: “I have $5 in my wallet right now, so I can afford this coffee,” or “I make more than $399 per month, so I can afford to borrow money for this car.”

Instead, I try to get people to think of things in 10-year chunks at a minimum and then move on to a lifetime perspective. For example, spending $100 per week on restaurants equates to a $75,000 hit to your wealth every ten years, compared to keeping that money and just investing it in a conservative way.

Instead of thinking of income as a temporary stream of cash that keeps you afloat, think of every dollar as a potential permanent lifetime employee that will work for you as long as you keep and invest it. But once you spend it, that particular dollar is gone.

DK: I really appreciate that you phrase your philosophy on money in terms of happiness. What’s a good way to put that into practice, though — if I’m standing at the store and thinking, “That dress would make me happy,” what can I ask myself to figure out if I really should buy it?

MMM: The first trick is to remind yourself that buying something — pretty much anything — is very unlikely to improve your long-term happiness. Science figured this out for us long ago, but not many people got the memo. Go to your junk electronics drawer and look at your old flip phones or your dusty iPad 1. Look at the clothes you’ve recently pruned from your closet that are now headed to the Goodwill. You traded a lot of good dollars for those, not very long ago at all. Are they still making you happy today?

Then think about what would really make you happy. For me, it was the freedom to choose how I spent my days, with no worries about money for the rest of my life. Again, every dollar that you keep for yourself will immediately start paying dividends towards this freedom. Your stress about money drops away, and you can walk away from a job or a boss you’re not fond of — the options start to open up with breathtaking speed as you step away from the financial cliff.

DK: What do you and your family splurge on?

MMM: I feel that we splurge on everything. For example, we live in a house that looks like it came from the pages of a modern architecture magazine, overlooking a park and within walking distance of downtown. I have not just one car, but two of them, which we never even use because we also have six bicycles between the three of us. We also eat ridiculously fancy food at home and take some pretty exotic vacations. Everything seems really over-the-top, considering the fact that we could be just as happy with much less.

But for other people, my life might seem like the opposite of a splurge: “What? Three people live in only 1,500 square feet? Their cars are from 2005 and 1999? That sounds like a really extreme life of frugality!”

The key to all of this is to zoom out a bit and put things in perspective. Both my life and your life are ridiculously abundant and safe compared to almost every human who has ever lived before you in the history of this planet. If we can’t be happy in this incredible place of privilege, we need to punch ourselves in the face and try again.

DK: How did you get started in the area of personal finance? And what informs your views here — did your parents talk money much with you growing up?

MMM: I was born as the stereotypical engineer kid, which means I was always interested in optimizing everything. Money was just one of those things.

It was only after I turned 30 and had enough money to retire from real work that I started getting these incredulous comments from friends and coworkers, like “What do you mean you are retiring? How will you get the money to pay your car loan and your mortgage? I’d be sunk within a month if I lost my job.”

To me, their stories were much more amazing than my own story of early retirement. They were the same age as me or older, and had equal or higher salaries. I couldn’t imagine having a shortage of money in such amazing conditions. Then I looked even higher up the income scale and found the same phenomenon. It turns out that humans are capable of blowing almost any amount of money, without realizing they are doing it.

I do agree with Cowen on one point though:

I’ll note in passing that my “dusty iPad 1″ gave me an enormous amount of pleasure, as does my later iPad.

The Unnatural Skill Set of Management

March 1st, 2015

Giving feedback turns out to be the unnatural atomic building block atop which the unnatural skill set of management gets built, Ben Horowitz says:

Being CEO requires lots of unnatural motion. From an anthropological standpoint, it is natural to do things that make people like you. It enhances your chances for survival. Yet to be a good CEO, in order to be liked in the long run, you must do many things that will upset people in the short run. Unnatural things.

In fact, even the most basic CEO building blocks will feel unnatural at first. If your buddy tells you a funny story, it would feel quite weird to evaluate her performance. It would be totally unnatural to say: “Gee, I thought that story really sucked. It had potential, but you were underwhelming on the build up then you totally flubbed the punch line. I suggest that you go back, rework it and present it to me again tomorrow.” Doing so would be quite bizarre, but evaluating people’s performances and constantly giving feedback is precisely what a CEO must do. If she doesn’t, then the more complex motions such as writing reviews, taking away territory, handling politics, setting compensation and firing people will be either impossible or handled rather poorly.

Horowitz’s keys to effective feedback:

  • Be authentic.
  • Come from the right place.
  • Don’t get personal
  • Don’t clown people in front of their peers.
  • Feedback is not one size fits all.
  • Be direct, but not mean.

Thoughts with Cookie Monster

February 28th, 2015

Me admit, me like thoughts with Cookie Monster:

The Dark Science of Interrogation

February 28th, 2015

Five years ago, President Obama created the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which has funded studies into the dark science of interrogation:

Not too long ago, as part of a test designed by psychologist Melissa Russano, a young woman in a tank top sat at a table with a look of growing apprehension, hunched protectively over her handbag. A student, she had just taken an exam, and a test administrator was accusing her of cheating: Her answers, he said, matched up with those of another student. The administrator said he had just called the professor running the study and reported that he was not at all happy. “He may consider this cheating, I don’t know,” the man said, with sympathy. “I’m sure you didn’t know it would be such a big problem to be sharing. I probably would have done the same thing if I were in your shoes…. It would ease my professor up if you were seen to be cooperating.” He slid a piece of paper toward her with a confession written on it.

“I don’t think I should sign it. I didn’t do anything,” said the student. Shaking her head, her face pursed in disgust, she signed. As it turned out, she was innocent.

A decade ago, Russano, a professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, set out to design a study that would replicate the social and emotional dynamics of a real interrogation in the lab, where conditions could be controlled. And where, unlike in the messy world of actual cases, the truthfulness of confessions could be easily evaluated. Her study had subjects take a cognitive ability test in a room with another student. Half the time the second student, who was actually working for Russano, would ask for help. The test subjects knew it was against the rules, but most would willingly share their answers. Later, after the test administrator had ostensibly looked over some of the results, he would come back, say there was a potential issue, and leave the subject to stew alone in a room for five minutes. Then some version of the interaction above, taken from a video of one subject, would unfold.

Russano was interested in testing what have long been the twin poles of interrogation styles: “minimization” and “maximization.” They’re forms of coercion that correspond, roughly, to “good cop, bad cop.” Minimization plays down the significance of the crime and offers potential excuses for it — “you just meant to scare her” or “anyone in your situation would have done the same thing.” Maximization plays it up, confrontationally presenting incriminating evidence and refusing to allow any response except a confession. The two are the most widely used tools in the American police interrogator toolkit. The Army Field Manual, which governs all military interrogations, lists approved maximization methods such as “Emotional Fear-Up” and “Emotional-Pride and Ego-Down.”


“Guilty people are more likely to confess” when minimization and maximization are used, she says. “The problem is, so are innocent people.” Minimization alone nearly doubled the number of cheaters who confessed in her studies. But it tripled the number of noncheaters who falsely confessed. The videos of those false confessions make for fascinating viewing. Some are angry, some resigned. One young woman keeps her composure until the test administrator leaves the room with her signed confession, then dissolves into tears.


Russano is still running versions of that first interrogation study, changing the script to see how it affects the outcome. In one iteration, she explored whether minimization could be purged of the implicit offer of leniency. She had her interrogators be sympathetic, even flattering — saying things such as, “I am sure you are a good person, and no one wants to be accused of cheating or breaking the rules” — but without playing down the seriousness of the offense or its potential punishment. They got just as many true confessions that way, but far fewer false ones.

Research has also found that the biggest difference between professional and amateur lie detectors is that professionals are much more confident in their abilities — despite the fact that they’re no better at it.

Weaponized Teen Soldiers in an Intergalactic War

February 27th, 2015

When you remake a beloved children’s TV show, you make it darker and edgier.

Cult Anarchy

February 27th, 2015

As the chaos of the Cultural Revolution deepened, and the cult of personality surrounding Mao spread, the Party lost control over its symbols and entered a period of cult anarchy:

Different factions of Red Guards started using Mao’s image and words in incompatible ways, and new cult rituals emerged from the grass roots, sometimes from the enthusiasm of the genuinely committed, sometimes seemingly as protective talismans against the uncertainty and strife of the period. Everybody appealed to Mao to signal their revolutionary credentials, but there was no longer anyone capable of settling disputes over the credibility of these signals. Mao himself wasn’t much help; whenever he spoke at all, his messages were often cryptic and didn’t really settle any important disputes. The cult was now a “Red Queen” race of wasteful signalling, rather than a carefully calibrated tool of mobilization or discipline, driven by a complex combination of genuine desires to signal loyalty and identity and fears for one’s security. (Leese notes that failure to conform to the arbitrary protocols of the cult put people at risk of being sentenced as an “active counterrevolutionary” and documents many cases in which minimal symbolic transgressions resulted in incarceration or even death).

By 1967, for example, statues of Mao first started to be built, something that CCP leaders, and Mao himself, had discouraged in the past, and still officially frowned upon. The statues were typically built by local factions without approval from the central party, and they were all 7.1 meters high and placed on a pedestal that was 5.16 meters high, for a total height of 12.26 meters. (26 December = Mao’s birthday, 1 July = the Party’s founding date, 16 May = the beginning of the cultural revolution. People arrived at this precise convention for the statues without any centralized direction, merely through a signalling process). Later “Long Live the Victory of Mao Zedong Though Halls” were built on a grand scale, again without approval from the central party. Billions of Chairman Mao badges were produced by individual work units competing with each other, which were themselves subject to size inflation (“[a]s the larger size of the badges came to be associated with greater loyalty to the CCP Chairman, … badges with a diameter of 30 centimetres and greater came to be produced,” p. 216); Zhou Enlai would grumble in 1969 about the enormous waste of resources this represented. Costly signalling demands kept escalating; some people took to pinning the badges directly on their skin, for example, and farmers sent “loyalty pigs” to Mao as gifts (pigs with a shaved “loyalty” character).

New rituals and performances emerged too: Leese discusses the “quotation gymnastics,” a series of gymnastics exercises with a storyline based on Mao’s thought and involving praise of the “reddest red sun in our hearts,” and more bizarrely perhaps, “loyalty dances,” which, like the quotation gymnastics, was “a grassroots invention” designed to physically signal loyalty, and which spread “even to regions where public dancing was not part of the common culture and thus led to considerable public embarrassment” (p. 205). People wrote the character for “loyalty” everywhere and developed new conventions for answering the phone that started by wishing Mao eternal life. One of the most bizarre and interesting stories in the book concerns “Mao’s mangos:” the story of how some mangos that Mao gave to a “Propaganda Team” became relics beyond the control of the Central Party.

The Mao cult went through about six different stages:

The first stage can be characterized as one of “controlled inflation,” lasting from the initial building up of the cult in the late 1930s and early 1940s to Stalin’s death, more or less. At this time, the cult was fostered by the entire party leadership and served primarily a mobilizing function, though the party was careful to prevent excessive praise of Mao; we might say that the initial cult building project shifted the base level of flattery upwards, but did not yet produce powerful inflationary pressures on the growth of flattery. The second stage, lasting from Stalin’s death to the failure of the “Hundred Flowers” campaign, more or less, can be characterized as one of slight flattery “deflation.” At this time, a number of events, including Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, prompted a certain amount of liberalization directed from above that led to a slight lowering in the level of flattery and a relaxation of inflationary pressures. With the failure of the “Hundred Flowers” campaign, the cult enters a stage of “sustained inflation,” and control over the cult shifts to Mao and his close associates, who promote it primarily for disciplinary purposes. This stage lasts until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, when they lost full control over the symbols of the cult. At this point (stage four) we have “runaway inflation”, driven by the need to signal loyalty in factional struggles and avoid punishment. By 1971, however, the party had regained some control over cult symbols, Lin Biao had fallen from grace, and the party engaged in some flattery deflation, helped somewhat by the death of Mao in 1976. (Interestingly, there was not a great deal of spontaneous public grief at the time; as Leese notes, most people were probably rather cynically disenchanted with Mao by then. The old rituals of the cult had lost their emotional power). Finally, one may add the resurgence of something like a posthumous Mao cult after 1989. Here cult practices are driven by many motivations – “disillusionment, nostalgia, renewed national pride, the incorporation of religious traditions, and commercial interests” (p. 262) lifting the background level of flattery from its nadir in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but incapable of sustaining runaway flattery inflation in the absence of encouragement from the CCP Center, which can’t live with Mao, and can’t live without him.