Post-Truth Politics and Parenting

Some of you might have noticed that there’s some kind of voting thing taking place in the US today. And as ever there’s a battle raging to mobilise supporters of both persuasions to get out today and vote since whoever gets the voters out, wins the election. It’s easier said than done. But’s it’s kind of the way things work…

But a couple of things to consider. Let’s start with Time Magazine’s Word of the Year for 2016, ‘Post-Truth’. We’ve already seen Twitter take action in deleting 10,000 bot accounts and Facebook has blocked, er, 115 accounts that were attempting to influence the results. But if all that is happening is that you are managing to get people out to vote who have been misinformed by fake news, then does that ultimately deliver us a better world?

It’s become a real issue and yet another thing to add to the list for any parent as they try to guide their offspring into a world that is vastly different from their own experience of youth. Surveys have shown that often it’s the youngest who can be attracted to populist positions (see cynicism, authoritarianism, nativism and xenophobia) and it’s obvious that the YouTube algorithms will reward the most extremist views in front of anyone, not just the young.

Without going in over my head into the depths of political science, I did find this idea of continuous voting by Steve Randy Waldman fascinating. Part of the problem is that elections are predictable – you know they’re coming and that gives the power brokers the ability to attempt to manipulate the narrative by crafting a variety of high-profile and factually inaccurate media stories in the run-up which reflect favourably on a particular candidate.

This thought experiment suggested having 5% of the electorate vote each month on candidates; then the results of such elections only being delivered according to the random flip of a virtual coin resulting in heads. Put simply: no politician knows when he or she may be replaced, which encourages each one to work with his or her constituency to provide value over the long terms, rather than focusing on the more superficial ‘marketing sprints’ that we tend to see in democracies around the world these days near election time.

Bitcoin and the Lindy Effect

Last week Bitcoin celebrated its 10th anniversary. At least in terms of the  original White Paper which was released all the way back on October 31st 2008. Of course, there’s a strong argument that the date of the Genesis Block is the true birthday – but that doesn’t really matter for these purposes.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the Lindy Effect. Like many, I originally came across this idea in both of Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s books ‘Black Swan‘ and ‘AntiFragile: Things That Gain From Disorder‘ but last week the phrase popped up again whilst reading Ryan Holiday’s ‘Perennial Seller‘.

The Lindy Effect is a simple heuristic that states the longer something has survived, the more likely it is to survive for at least the same period of time again. So the rate of mortality actually decreases with each additional year of life passed. Taleb has a good post explaining the concept in some detail but this quote sums it up nicely:-

“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years.”

“This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “ageing” like persons, but “ageing” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!”

It seems to me that Bitcoin as a non-perishable technology is a prime candidate for the Lindy Effect. And in surviving a decade without collapse or fatal security flaw, the signs are good that it very well still by the time October 2028 rolls around.

(As an aside, I’ve just realised I’ve been writing about Bitcoin since 2013. 5 years ago. Does that mean I’ll still be writing about it in 5 years’ time?! I suspect so. Not sure that can be said to qualify as the Lindy Effect though…)

Running and Listening (Or Thinking?)

There was a clear winner for the biggest consumer tech news over the past couple of weeks (sorry new MacBook Air) – at least in my eyes. It was the announcement that some Garmin watches were now supporting Spotify.

In other words: running evolves into simply checking your bluetooth earphones are charged and away you go. No mobile required. It’s just like the good old days of running. Except, er, you’re probably still carting somewhere north of £600-worth of equipment about on you (not to mention all that essential highly performant runner-specific clothing and shoes of course).

Few things can match the original impact of that first iPod I bought back back in 2003 (freeing up as it did the passenger seat of my car from its only use until that point which was to store my CD’s). But this one comes pretty close. Or at least would do if my particular Garmin model was supported.

But I was reading this article today and it’s making me think again. Peter Sagal makes a strong case for leaving the headphones at home all together. As he puts it:

“Your brain is like a duvet cover. Every once in a while, it needs to be aired out”

I’ve been running for 20 years now. That’s a somewhat sobering thought when I realise that the fastest marathon time I had my first, back in the third of those years. But during that time, I’ve pretty much done everything when it goes to listening. From being an earphone-free beginner, to being heavily music-dependent, I now tend to enjoy those long meandering runs with book and podcast runs. I save the running playlists mostly for races and bribery when it’s most required

Running brings its own particular kind of focus. It’s one that you can find in very few other places. And now I’m starting to remember all those times that I ended up running without any auditory crutch (generally as a result of bad forward-planning when it came to that curse of modern 21st-century life – i.e. failing to remember to charge your gear). On those occasions, I inevitably ended the run with more positive ideas in my head than I left with – and with any more destructive ones drowned once again under the swell of endorphins. Or as Sagal says:

“Our sport seems mindless only to people who never run long enough for any thought other than, ‘When can I stop running?'”.

Maybe it’s time to step away from the headphones after all. I’ll end up ‘reading’ far fewer audiobooks. But at least it’ll save me all that money from not having to buy a new Garmin.

Swearing and the Inevitable Decay of Society (Or Not)

How damaging is bad language? Do the words that we hear (or utter) have a negative influence on our lives, or those of others?

Apparently the local council near Finsbury Park in London is putting its foot (collectively, presumably….feets?) down and enforcing new rules that forbid the use of bad words by musicians during such festivals in the park like the Wireless Festival. It sounds like an idea that’s doomed to failure from the start.

After having lived through the ridiculous aftermath of Tipper Gore’s Parental Advisory sticker crusade against all those US rock band albums consumed in my formative years, I’m pretty convinced that the language had no negative effect on me. Perhaps that’s because used well, it seems to enhance the music in many cases, bringing some kind of emotional punctuation that goes beyond the range of all other instruments.

Given that I spend a vast amount of my time reading a lot of words, it’s never been an issue that I’ve spent any time thinking about before today. So today’s rabbit hole involved asking: are we getting ruder in society when judged by the words that we use?

Spoiler alert: I have no real evidence – and the answer is probably yes – but who cares?

There’s definitely been a change, at least since the olden days when I was young. I can’t really remember seeing books like Mark Manson’s  or the subtle bedtime stories of Adam Mansbach in those days. And I found some research that certainly this up, showing that there’s been an increase in the use of swear words in American Books between 1950-2008.

But simply on the basis of the words we choose to deploy in person as we go through our day, are we getting ruder across society as a whole? And if so, does that show us becoming lazier in some way when it comes to our language? Could this be a leading indicator that’s warns of (shock, gasp) an imminent breakdown in civilisation? After all, in the years before the media exploded, the BBC (in the UK at least) always acted as guardians of the youth’s moral standards in the form of the Watershed. With this interweb thing having taken off, anyone can say what they like to everyone, right?

There’s so many sides to this. For a start – what classifies as a swear word? With key themes replicated in different cultures around the world, swearing does seem to be a universal part of the human experience. And it’s not even just humans – chimps are at it as well. The definition of what constitutes a swear word fills books in itself. And then we start to look at its use in art. To me, standup comedy is the creative pursuit which has the strongest feedback loop there is, requiring constant evolution of language every single time an act is performed – understandable where the addition or omission of certain words (at the right time) can be the difference between success and failure. And I can’t go on without pointing out that there are inherently funny words in our language (of which a subset are most definitely if not swear words, inspired by profanity). As Wikipedia puts it:-

The funniest nonsense words tended to be those that reminded people of real words that are considered rude or offensive. This category included four of the top-six nonsense words that were rated the funniest in the experiment: “whong”, “dongl”, “shart”, and “focky”

But back from that tangent…is the move towards swearing a bad thing, as Haringey Council seem to imply? Well, it’s indisputable that most societies have shifted decisively towards more individual freedom of expression in the past few years. And it’s clear that swearing carries out a purpose for us beyond simply signalling our own lack of imagination. Interestingly, swear words remain accessible to those suffering from the latest stages of Alzheimers and dementia, even after most of the rest of the vocabulary is gone.

The jury’s out. It’s probably for the most part a generational thing in any event. But good luck Haringey Council at next year’s Wireless Festival. I’m sure a crowd of drunk music fans will support your every effort to remove swearing from the event….

Life Is Short (But Let’s Ignore It)

The web’s a wonderful place (most of the time). Every so often you come across a blog post that makes you stop and reconsider. A good example of that was ‘The Tail End’ on the consistently brilliant ‘Wait But Why’ site.

We all talk about how little time we have to do the things we love (we all have the same). We all keep putting things off for a later date (and never do them). And one of the characteristics of most people that keeps us sane is that we kind of assume we – and those we love – are invincible. Sure, we know that can’t be the case on an intellectual level. But most of us don’t live each day expecting it all to end.

I’ve read a fair bit of stoic philosophy over recent times (right there’s a phrase I would never have imagined my younger self uttering). Everyone should at some point read Seneca’s letter On The Shortness Of Life. And I personally think there’s a real benefit from adopting the memento mori approach.  Perhaps you think it’s morbid – this constant reminder that all things come to an end (yes, including you). But that’s very much missing the point. It’s about perspective, balance and humility, removing the fear of losing physical possessions and generally just learning to reflect, instead of reacting.

But that’s for another day…Today I wanted to share two images from that great post. The first is one perspective on a human life with each year represented by a square:-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second is a similar visualisation but showing roughly how many days of life the writer Tim Urban had spent living with his parents – and how long might be left to spend time together.

He writes:

It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.

His lessons? Live near the people you care about. Prioritise those you care about above all else. And always go for quality time.

I read it a few years ago and it stuck in my head. I hope it does the same for you.

He also did a TED talk ‘Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator’ a few years back that’s worth a watch.

The Tasks & Tools of Procastination

Task lists, tools, other weapons of mass procrastination……what is it with software? The collision of our ever-growing lists of incomplete tasks and new shiny web toys is truly a nightmare forged in the dark recesses of the mind for all but the very worst of project managers.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve tried the lot over the past ten or fifteen years. Perhaps you started on the journey with one of Stephen Covey’s quadrant-based task prioritisation, which acted as the gateway drug into the military rigour of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology or the mythical nirvana of Inbox Zero.

Then, as the tools and team interdependencies became more critical for the nation as we collectively spent more of our sedentary working days working up our screen tans whilst emailing our colleagues across the desk, the focus shifted from methodologies to tools. Yes, that’s right – the answer to productivity and teamwork was nothing other than – more software! Ideally entirely customisable and brightly coloured. I, for one, just couldn’t get enough – from ToodleDo, Wunderlist, Todoist, Asana, Trello…the list was endless.

Not yet satisfied, I then discovered that no, what was really missing was having software that connected everything for me – automatically! So by a combination of IFTTT and Zapier, I managed to concoct a dastardly set of triggers. In a scene reminiscent of the systemic failures during the financial crisis of 2008, the simple act of starring an innocent message in Slack would leave catastrophic devastation in its wake – auto-posting updates to ten different platforms, each with a selection of messages, reminders, notifications, emails, phone calls, kettles boiling, hoovers emerging autonomously out of the airing cupboard….you get the picture……..Welcome to Digital Armageddon.

Yet through all that, I had one nagging thought. Throughout my career, without fail, the people who always seemed to get through the most work seemed to have an amusing reliance on paper. Imagine! Nothing fancy mind you. Maybe a notepad. Perhaps a simple postcard, replaced each day. Whatever form it took, an ever-present medium, tattooed with ink as and when required.

Hmmm….

Me, I’m a list person. But writing out long lists by hand, striking things off and then having to rewrite them regularly sucks. So I was delighted to discover probably the simplest yet most deceptively powerful tool yet: WorkFlowy.

I almost don’t want to describe it. It’s that good, I don’t need to sell it. Just try it.

In essence though it’s a way of making lists – that can be nested inside other lists until eternity decides to call it a day (apparently). Sounds boring huh? But you can tag and share lists for others to collaborate – who don’t even need an account or have to login!

I’ve never downloaded a trial of any software that I knew nothing about and ponied up for an annual subscription in under ten minutes. None. So take it from me – that’s a good sign. But anything that takes the time out of organising your tasks and gives you it back to actually do them? That’s a win in my eyes.

I can’t say any more other than this: it rocks.  Give it a go.

A Few Thoughts from Web3 Summit 2018

Gavin Wood of Parity Technologies presenting at Web Summit 2018 (Funkhaus, Berlin)

(Reposted from Medium)

There’s a saying that history never repeats itself — but it does rhyme. And as I return from the inaugural Web3 Summit in Berlin — a gathering of projects and innovators who are all working on driving forwards this new concept of Web3 — it seems more relevant than ever before.

The message is clear. Whilst we face the greatest opportunity that civilisation has ever seen to build technology to power a new world that is based on the foundations of improved global collaboration, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. And the promise of breaking new ground is only exceeded by the risks of failure if we get it wrong.

With the SAFE Network, we’re building a vision of this new decentralised, inclusive future that is, I would argue, more extensive than most. But there remains a significant overlap in vision with many of the projects in attendance. The devil, as ever, is in the detail.

Centralisation: Distribution of Messages

The venue itself was stunning, located as it was within the old DDR building in Berlin from which propaganda was spread across the radio. This symbol of the old world’s dependence on centralised, controlled and restricted communications acted as the perfect foil for the thousands of individual conversations that took place during the three days about the future of the world that we’d like to live in.

Web3 Summit, Berlin, 2018

Web3: A Recap

At its core, Web3 is all about control — but by the individual as opposed to centralised authorities. The focus is on ownership of personal data (in its many guises) combined with architectural resilience in the face of entrenched traditional powers. In days gone by, monolithic state infrastructures would have played those roles in isolation. Today, however, that definition of power has been extended to include our new technocratic overlords, in the form of GAFAM etc.

But tomorrow? That is where we have a choice.

With the promise of that data ownership will come new opportunities — for individuals to choose if and when to share and even if they’d like to monetise their data moving forwards. And an opportunity to end to the broken commercial model that drives the internet today — the advertising that drives a pay-per-click model and clickbait, with platforms pushing the content that angers you, as they seek to engage you for longer on each page that is paid for by a company that requires eyeballs to serve up to advertisers.

To recap, Web 1.0 was all about placing static content online. Web 2.0 (a term coined by O’Reilly Media in 2004) gave us a revolution in the form of the read-write-publish web — an opportunity to interact with content online by taking part in social conversations, wiki’s, blog publishing and community building. A huge step forwards but with one vital flaw. As more and more data and information flooded online, the shadow of platform risk hung over society’s activities — the chance that any third party could decide to remove your content at will.

Remember Geocities? If you grew up on the Net in the 90’s, you’re likely to remember the collection of user-generated webpages — and how it disappeared when Yahoo shut it down. The future can’t be one in which human endeavour and creativity is simply lost to the world if it doesn’t dovetail nicely with a specific commercial model (although thanks to the Internet Archive, many of these were preserved).

So Web3 should ensure that this data will be distributed and no longer reliant on single insecure central parties. I’m in two minds about the term Web3 myself. The community needs a rallying phrase to assemble around, I’d agree. But I think there’s a risk that it focuses attention on the front end, the user experience of this new paradigm — whilst underplaying the significance of the changes that are taking place under the hood. Because a significant part of this new world doesn’t simply come down to where the data is stored. Today, we can also now move forwards on the basis of a new trust that the data we receive has not been falsified, a reassurance that doesn’t rely on the intentions of those traditional third parties.

Web3: The Challenges Ahead

Clearly, technical challenges still exist. Some believe that the answers lie in blockchain technology. Others, like MaidSafe, believe that different structures are required if we are to build a next generation web. But either way, it’s clear that there is much more that needs to be worked on than ‘simply’ breaking new ground in computer science.

Take governance, for example. How are decisions made in a decentralised system? Who can take part and how do you deal with those who disagree? After all, what one side finds desirable is, by definition, disliked by everyone else. The topic is inherently political — as shown by one panel session at the conference which started with the organisers handing out popcorn to everyone in the packed room in anticipation of the sparks that would fly…

A Sense of History

But what I really liked about the Summit was the fact that much of the techno-utopian hype was tempered by the insightful comments from those with broader experience of where we’ve been.

The internet was built for connectivity — not for security. However, the Web today fails in achieving even that basic aim. Because Web3 is not a new term. It was previously used to describe the Semantic Web — the dream of connecting data between the platform silos that was originally championed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee amongst others. And on today’s web, data portability is little more than a dream.

And whilst there is an overlap between the two communities (crypto to web standards), it’s not a perfect fit and those are many conversations that need to take place between the groups. It’s a key reason why we at MaidSafe are working to build ensure that TBL’s SOLID project is compatible with the SAFE Network, for example.

Because the reality is that the first attempt to decentralise the web failed. Partly due to technological constraints admittedly. But that doesn’t tell the full story.

History shows that a focus on technology alone is rarely enough. Caused in part by the short-sightedness adoption of the techno-centric ‘field of dreams’ approach (i.e. build it and they will come), led many to simply assume that adoption would be guaranteed if you simply build the best technology. It wasn’t. Instead the atmosphere of the Internet community changed radically with the vast influx of capital into the technology sector. And as technologists insisted on championing their own competing standards and bodies, the only ones that ultimately benefited from the chaos were the large Internet startups who managed to solve the only question that mattered in Web2.0 — how to turn data into money.

So we watched as technical breakthroughs were commandeered and ultimately powered Google’s sign-in process and Facebook’s Social Graph, for example. So moving forwards, it’s naive to assume that there will not be attempts to capture and influence the future direction that any technology takes.

And so it remains today. Even within the decentralised Web3 community, the risks of corporate capture loom large.

A key message here is that ultimately all new technology mirrors the attitudes of its creators. For good. Or bad.

The Way Forward

As Sir Tim Berners-Lee has pointed out, what makes the web important is not that the fact that web pages exist — but that each of those web pages represents a real human at the other end who is creating value for others around the world. This time we need to lock the web open. The Web3 Summit was tangible evidence of the huge enthusiasm for the opportunity that faces us all to advance human civilisation in a way that has never before existed. But as important as cryptocurrency has proven in the incentivisation of disparate interests around the world, a sobering reminder comes from engineer and inventor Douglas Engelbart, who once wrote: the Internet isn’t about making money; it’s about augmenting our intelligence.

It’s a vision that benefits everyone. But it’s important that everyone — and not just a bunch of predominantly Western developers in their early twenties — gets involved. The stakes are far too high. Because this isn’t just about making improvements.

Today, we stand at a fork in the road. One path leads off to the creation of what many believe will be a fairer, more just, decentralised society. Yet if we choose to do nothing, instead continuing along the current path — or perhaps we simply fail to coordinate our efforts in collaborative way — the road we travel may very well lead only to a dystopian surveillance society with little personal freedom. A world in which we ultimately become powerless to do anything as our data is consumed by the insatiable appetite of machine-learning and AI algorithms, as they relentlessly build and optimise the tools of the state.

Today is not a time for idealism. Realism and collaboration must win the day. But only if we find a way to overcome our differences and self-interest.

The software is open source. The community is growing. And the door is open. But not forever. It’s up to us — every one of us — to roll up our sleeves and get involved. The future depends on it.

When Safety Sucks

Safety is good. Except when it’s not.

Most of the time, we equate making something safe with making things better. But what if that isn’t the case? What if we’re actually making things worse?

Greg Ip has a number of examples that force you to re-examine your assumptions in his recent book ‘Foolproof. Like the stats that prove car drivers with snow treads consistently drive faster as the weather gets worse. Not unlike the crew of the Titanic who sailed fearlessly through icy waters, believing it to be invincible…

The theory of Risk Compensation suggests that people adjust their behaviour in response to the perceived level of risk. They take more care where they sense greater risk – and less if they feel more protected. Take American Football as an example: the players wear helmets yet the sport appears to suffer from more frequent serious injuries than other comparable contact sports, such as rugby and Aussie rules football. It’s the same line of thought that led to the removal of headguards in amateur boxing in recent times. In some ways it’s similar to the recent stories about the school playgrounds that are intentionally creating more dangerous surroundings for kids, in order to give them the opportunity to learn.

The problem is that we consistently fail to take into account the feedback loop. In other words, how does our behaviour change when new measures are introduced?

Now, individual risks are one thing. But across an industry, they become far more significant and become systemic risks. Take life insurance as an example. It works because not all policyholders die at the same time. But of course that needs to be wrapped up into a different package to be palatable. That’s seen by the fact that industry markets itself to appeal to emotions and feelings, instead of accurately selling itself on the basis of probabilities. Yet as modern life becomes more complex, we face big problems when risks become correlated. And that situation deteriorates rapidly if that correlation is only visible in extreme situations.

Predictably the financial services industry leads the way in providing us with a powerful example of how things can go wrong. The global financial crisis of 2007/2008 had many causes. But in reinforcing an industry with a belief that others would step in to support organisations because they were ‘too big to fail’, it’s certain that risks were taken that shouldn’t have been. That’s exactly why the decision to let Lehman Brothers fail had such an impact – because it shattered the belief that existed at the time about the invincibility of financial institutions. And by definition, that wasn’t a risk that was seen as likely at the time.

We often take out insurance to guard ourselves against existential risks – whilst forgetting the fact that by definition, no system can ever insure itself against total collapse. So, can we blame the insurance industry? After all, the whole point of insurance is that someone else bears the cost if things go badly.  Does insurance actually just encourage others to act in a riskier acting way?

After all, flood and earthquake insurance enables more people to live in areas where those events are likely. And the constant stream of financial insurance products make it easier for more investors to pile into markets. The result? The bad events that we’re insuring against become both more likely and severe.

So should we be dismantling some of these safety barriers? In many cases, it depends on your own motivations. Unfortunately, the reality in the City is that the greatest rewards are returned to those who pursue the greatest risks. Somehow we’ve created a system where those who pursue higher (leveraged) risk make the most money.

But the question should be posed in many different situations. Take forest fires as an example. Man has tended to view fire as an event that should be suppressed. And yet it has become increasingly clear in recent times that teh opposite is often true: we need regular fires in order to clear away some of the lower levels of vegetation that accumulate. So by making things ‘safer’, when the inevitable fires do come, we’re now seeing them turn far more quickly into unstoppable ‘megafires’ – because they have far more fuel to burn.

So we need to ask: should we actually be chasing a good disaster now and again to reset the system? Perhaps. But most times, that’s not a decision that’s politically acceptable for a whole number of reasons.

Take flying as an example. Flying is now so safe (the highest risks are at takeoff and landing) that there are fewer opportunities for pilots, regulators and others in the industry to ever learn from accidents. It’s a ‘problem’ that’s compounded by the fact that with the more mundane incidents recognisable and under control, any accidents will increasingly be of the truly mysterious, unimaginable variety (e.g. 9/11, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines 370 in 2014).

And how many people would be happy with ‘a few more crashes’ to help us improve. As an aside, it’s worth looking into how the aviation industry has become so safe. As the book explores, the industry is interesting because it’s full of ‘high reliability organisations’ (which have a preoccupation with failure).

Ultimately, the somewhat counterintuitive result is that any efforts to make the surroundings safe triggers behaviour that frustrates those efforts. So lenders who expect to be bailed out in a crisis will lend more cheaply – but that in itself encourages more investment.

There’s no easy answer here. Perhaps things will become clearer as we gain more visibility about connections between systems work in the modern world. I doubt it though. It feels like the world is becoming even more complex. And the fact that very few saw the financial crisis in 2008 is indicative. As Ip writes in the book, the Dutch who have a history of a thousand years of building dams to prevent their country from flooding have an expression: “There are two types of levees: those that have failed. And those that will“.

More people globally are now living and working in areas that are either risky or unsuitable due to a range of reasons. As a result, environmental disasters (such as floods) are now more destructive than ever before.

If we accept danger, does it make us ultimately more prosperous and safe? If so, perhaps we shouldn’t be working to prevent these things happening. Perhaps this is the price that we pay for living in desirable and productive places. Maybe the focus is better spent on minimising the damage when they inevitably do.

The SAFE Network in The Guardian

Great piece in The Guardian newspaper on 1st February all about the SAFE Network and our work at MaidSafe in building a new decentralised, autonomous data and communications network for the world. John Harris really dug into the subject and it’s a well-considered piece.

It’s been fantastic to see the response across the growing SAFE community to this kind of coverage and chat with so many new people over the last week as a result. If this is the first time you’ve come across the SAFE Network and what it represents, I’d urge you to sign up to the Forum (https://safenetforum.org/). Then download the Alpha 2 software at https://maidsafe.net/ to take a look at what the start of a new internet, with privacy embedded by default, is going to look like.

It’s going to be quite a journey.

MaidSafe and the SAFE Network in The Guardian

 

2017 in Books (Non-Fiction Edition) 

I’ve read a pile of great books in 2017. More than one a week on average throughout the year for the first time in ages. I track everything on Goodreads and there’s something undeniably satisfying about looking back at a long list at the end of a year. 

To me, reading is something that you just have to make time forLike so many (e.g. Seth GodinNaval Ravikant), I’ve always seen books as one of the most powerful and valuable technologies in the known universe. Because it only takes one book to change your life entirely, setting you spinning off down a new and exciting path in life. So there’s little chance I’ll voluntarily choose to address my current book addiction anytime soon.

Looking down the list, 2017 has brought a good mix of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and a few scripts. It’s amazing how the few words in a book title can catapult you instantly back to a time and place when a new idea made its mark. Some on the list left little trace but thankfully the letdowns were few and far between. More interesting to me is the fact that only a small proportion of the content was actually published this year.

These days, I avoid a daily diet of ‘breaking’ news as far as possible. There’s too much going on, in so many areas. Viewed through the window of our ever-present smartphones, the world is now so visibly complex to each one of us that an addiction to the news translates to a life wasted on the minutiae of global chaos that you’re mostly powerless to influence. Sometimes we need to carve out solid blocks of time and take in the bigger picture. In a similar way, a book often needs a few years to pass before you can really assess the quality of its ideas. And so, for me, it’s some of the oldest, forgotten books retrieved from the depths of bookshelves during a move this year that have brought the greatest rewards.

So instead of attempting to share a list of the top books of the year, I thought I’d instead share a few quotes that grabbed me. Make of them what you will – but if they’re here, they’re worth reading in my opinion. 

1. The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age – James Dale Davidson & Lord William Rees-Mogg

A book written back in the mists of time (1997) that was recommended to me a few years ago by a couple of people in the cryptocurrency scene. If anything, the passing years have only made the content more prescient. It foretells the death of the nation state as it comes under attack from networked technology over the coming century. If even 50% of the predictions in this book (their third) come true then the seismic changes that we’re facing in our near future are way beyond those that most people could ever be prepared for (or in some cases, will be willing to accept).

“Private competing currencies circulated in Scotland from early in the eighteenth century until 1844. During that period, Scotland had no central bank. There were few regulations or restrictions on entry into the banking business. Private banks took deposits and issued their own private currencies backed by gold bullion. As Professor Lawrence White has documented, this system worked well. It was more stable, with less inflation than the heavily regulated and politicised system of banking and money employed in England during the same period….Michael Prowse of the Financial Times summarised Scotland’s free-banking experience. “There was little fraud. There was no evidence of over-issue of notes”

And just maybe we’re focusing too much on goals…

“For human beings, it is the struggle rather than the achievement that matters; we are made for action, and the achievement can be a great disappointment”

2. Lying – Sam Harris

Read this book and the next time your nearest and dearest asks you to tell them whether they look good, you’ll find your mind flashing back to this extended essay from Sam Harris.

“In many circumstances in life, false encouragement can be very costly to another person….False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy and motivation that a person could put toward some other purpose”

“When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives – about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he should know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance”

3. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century – Timothy Snyder

Wouldn’t it be nice to think that we’ve finally reached Peak-Trump? Nice, but delusional. So this book, pulled together only a few hours after the 2016 US Election result filtered through by a renowned historian, lists a few early warning signs from history to look out for seen in other countries that slid towards disaster after falling under the power of demagogues.   

“What the great political thinker Hannah Arendt meant by totalitarianism was not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of the difference between private and public life. We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us, and in what circumstances they come to know it”

“You might one day be offered the opportunity to display symbols of loyalty. Make sure that such citizens include your fellow citizens rather than exclude them”

4. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

In a nutshell: a book that demonstrates just how wrong humans are so often about so many things. One with interesting connections to the Black Swan and definitely one to reread.

“Declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true”

“The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling, has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilised and more equal society. It is useful to remember, however, that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgements”

“Our mind is strongly biased toward causal explanations and does not deal well with ‘mere statistics’. When our attention is called to an event, associative memory will look for its cause – more precisely, activation will automatically spread to any cause that is already stored in memory.

And perhaps all those success stories that sell so many business books focused on ultra-successful tech entrepreneurs are somewhat misleading, to say the least. 

“Although hindsight and the outcome bias generally foster risk aversion, they also bring undeserved rewards to irresponsible risk seekers, such as a general or an entrepreneur who took a crazy gamble and won. Leaders who have been lucky are never punished for having taken too much risk…A few lucky gambles can crown a reckless leader with a halo of prescience and boldness”

5. Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

A great overview of where we’ve been, I read this one mainly because I wanted to read his follow-up (Homo Deus) about where we might be going. 

“Despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles – but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before but have very little idea what to do with all that power…Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

6. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill – Alone (1932-1940) / The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill – Visions of Glory (1874-1932) – William Manchester

A number of weeks this year were spent on the first two 1,000 page volumes of William Manchester’s magisterial biography of Churchill. It’s a work that justifies the word ‘epic’ in every sense of the word, making it impossible to quote – and I’ve not even made it to World War II onwards yet. Looking forward to diving into Volume 3 in the New Year.

“In the House, he spoke frequently, with wit and apparent ease – few know in those, early days of the excusing rehearsals in Mount Street, the infinite pains that went into each polished performance…Already he was displaying a puzzling contradiction which would endure throughout his public life. He could not address the House without intensive preparation. Yet no member could be quicker on his feet. He said ‘Politics is like waking up in the morning. You never know whose head you will find on the pillow’.” And of politicians, he once said, ‘He is asked to stand, he wants to sit, and he is expected to lie”.

One of the areas that fascinates me about Churchill is his prodigious work ethic as a writer. The quantity of written content that he produced for publication (on top of his political work) was frankly incredible, and at one stage (pre-WWII) he was possibly the best paid writer in the world. Hence the late nights – every single night – spent writing (more accurately, dictating before an audience). 

“Most writers regard the act of creativity as the most private of moments, but for Churchill it is semipublic; not only is the staff on hand, but any guest willing to sacrifice an hour’s sleep is also welcome”

7. How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big – Scott Adams

The Dilbert creator often splits opinions but there are some real nuggets of wisdom in this semi-autobiographical book that are well worth taking onboard. 

“Another huge advantage of learning as much as you can in different fields is that the more concepts you understand, the easier it is to learn new ones. Imagine explaining to an extraterrestrial visitor the concept of a horse. It would take some time. If the next thing you tried to explain were the concept of a zebra, the conversation would be shorter…Everything you learn becomes a shortcut for understanding something else”.

“Dealing with experts is always tricky. Are they honest? Are they competent? How often are they right? My observation and guess is that experts are right about 98% of the time on the easy stuff but only right 50 per cent of the time on anything that is unusually complicated, mysterious or even new”

8. The Death of Expertise – Tom Nichols

I loved this book. Short and to the point, it rails against the trend in modern society to shut down any hint of reasonable debate online and the fact that we’re building a culture which values the opinions of armchair Wikipedia skimmers as somehow being of equal value to career experts. On top of that, not only do people believe they now know more about more topics, they’re happy to revel in their ignorance (check out the parallels to the Dunning-Kruger Effect).      

“…the protective, swaddling environment of the modern university infantilises students and thus dissolves their ability to conduct a logical and informed argument. When feelings matter more than rationality or facts, education is a doomed enterprise”

“To faculty everywhere, the lesson was obvious: the campus of a top university is not a place for intellectual exploration. It is a luxury home, rented for four to six years, nine months at a time, by children of the elite who may shout at faculty as if they’re berating clumsy maids in a colonial mansion”

And, in the age of Trump:

“As the writer Susan Jacoby put it in 2008, the most disturbing aspect of the American march towards ignorance is “not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge”

Boom.

“This fusing of entertainment, news, punditry, and citizen participation is a chaotic mess that does not inform people so much as it creates the illusion of being informed”.

9. The Complacent Class – Tyler Cowen

I’m a big fan of Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog. But I’d never actually read one of his books before. In this one, he argues that, far from being in a period of unparalleled dynamism and innovation, Americans are in fact working much harder than ever before to either postpone change or to avoid it altogether. Meanwhile society is becoming ever more homogenised as algorithms increasingly try to match every aspect of our life (Spotify, dating, and many others) to things that they believe we’ll like – whether we like it or not.

“That said, ‘better matching’, for all its pleasures and virtues, is also in some regards uncomfortably close to the concept of ‘more segregation’ as we will see. Very often we match to what we already like, or what is already like us”

“A lot of our biggest social problems, such as unemployment, are in large part problems of matching….That said, the gains from matching are distributed very unevenly, and they accrue mainly to people who are better at using and handling information, a group whom elsewhere I labeled infovores…Some people are simply not so good at manipulating and interpreting digital information, so they don’t gain nearly as much from the internet and the matching capabilities it gives us”

10. The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I’ve written about this before and, whilst it’s hard for me to name a book of the year, this unquestionably hits the top 3 for me. Here’s a couple of quotes to whet your appetite:-

“If you want a simple step to a higher form of life, as distant from the animal as you can get, then you may have to denigrate, that is, shut down the television set, minimise time spent reading newspapers, ignore the blogs. Train your reasoning abilities to control your decisions…Train yourself to spot the difference between the sensational and the empirical”

“We grossly overestimate the length of the effect of misfortune on our lives. You think that the loss of your fortune or current position will be devastating, but you are probably wrong. More likely, you will adapt to anything, as you probably did after past misfortunes. You may feel a sting, but it will not be as bad as you expect”

“Professions that deal with the future and base their studies on the non-repeatable past have an expert problem”