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New Yorker book review: progress ratchets

Sunday,  04/02/17  11:50 AM

progress!<musing optional=entirely>

If you don’t know me well, here are two things to know: I am conservative, and yet I like reading the New Yorker.

One of the joys of a Sunday morning home after travel is perusing the stack of magazines that arrived during the week.  I’m a digital guy and I read on my Kindle all the time, but I’ve tried reading magazines on my iPad and it just doesn’t have the same … something.  I like the paper versions.  Maybe it’s because the wind on my balcony flutters the pages and my cat attacks them.  Anyway.

My favorite part of the New Yorker (well, next to the cartoons) is the reviews.  The reviewers are smart, entertaining, thought-provoking, and occasionally even point the way to an interesting book, movie, or band.  Adam Gopnik is a feature writer but often takes his turn on book reviews, and so it was this week, in a review entitled “The Illiberal Imagination”.  (The online version is titled “Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?”, a more accurate but less imaginative recasting.)

In this review – it takes several table-setting paragraphs to discover – three books are reviewed; Pankaj Mishra, “Age of Anger”, Joel Mokyr, “A Culture of Growth”, and Yuval Noah Harari, “Homo Dues”.  And while the books are indeed reviewed, and well, they merely provide three views of a common theme, Gopnik’s true aim: an introspection into why different cultures make progress at different rates.

Is liberalism the best approach?  (In the classic sense of fostering and enabling changes, not in the current political sense of government-funded pseudo-socialism.)  Or is conservatism, in the classic sense of resisting changes and doing things a prescribed way.  Or – and this is Gopnik’s thesis, with which I agree – is the best approach a mixture, in which the change of liberalism exposes new things, and conservatism then “locks in” the ones that work.  Philosophical Darwinism.

What makes science so successful – in the sense of this article, the sense of “progress” – is that scientific progress monotonically increases, with new theories being propounded, new ways to validate them, and new ways to build on what has come before, but always moving society forward.  The side note to the discussion of all these books is that the scientific method works best for cultures too, even if they don’t explicitly acknowledge it.  Quoting Mokyr in “Culture of Growth”: “the true elite of modern societies is composed of engineers, mechanics, and artisans – masters of reality, not big thinkers.”  That seems exactly right.

This jibes nicely with some recent reflections on venture capital and startup culture, triggered by a recent trip.  Startup culture is inherently liberal, always looking for change, better ways, different things, and new opportunities, somewhat regardless of risk.  Venture capital is inherently conservative, locking in the best changes, the ratchet which monetizes progress and makes it possible – and in fact provides the motivation for those taking on the risk.  It’s a circle of life – today’s LPs investing in VC funds are yesterday’s successful entrepreneurs.  The job of culture is to make this productive dance possible.

This applies in all areas, for example, when considering how best to improve the practice of medicine and the economics of healthcare, it seems best to try fostering this type of progress – the interplay of liberal change and conservative locking in of improvements – rather than forming a panel of thinkers to dictate improvements.  Throughout the world governments have locked in suboptimal systems, and the solutions to the sub-optimality are often prescribed rather than evolved. Taking a step back and letting many things happen seems better.

A recent Forbes story, about doctor burnout, is a classic example, and illustrates the light at the end of the tunnel: in it, a beleaguered "Dr X" and his partners were able to innovate by starting their own direct-pay clinic.  In fact, having read them more or less consecutively on the same morning, the Forbes story and the New York Times book review seem to be about the same thing: Which cultural models are best for enabling people to work cooperatively and make progress.

These models work for computers too.  Two weeks ago my company InTouch hosted Jeff Dean of Google, who subsequently gave an inspiring talk at UCSB about the progress being made in machine intelligence.  The approaches which work best are neural networks, which are not rules-based or prescriptive; instead, they “discover” solutions iteratively, by processing lots of data which feed back into the network.  At first the a neural network is open – liberal – but as data flow through it becomes more closed – conservative – as it “locks in” the best inference paths.  This model works, and it even works on a meta level; neural nets are now being used to optimize themselves as well as to accomplish specific tasks.

This is a long musing – even for me, you are thinking – but one more data point to note.  Last week my Engineering team held a hackathon; it broke itself into ten five-person teams, each of which had a little over one working day to create a “hack” with the theme “Expanding the Network”.  I was blown away by the cool ideas which surfaced; the liberalism of engineering!  Hopefully we can “lock in” some of those ideas and convert them to products; the conservatism of business :)

That’s how we make progress.

</musing>

 

(NY 11/20/16) private plane

Sunday,  04/02/17  12:02 PM



I have thought this myself, many times :)

 

 

Sunday,  04/02/17  12:07 PM

Day two of reblogging, still just possibly back.  Thanks for the "welcome back" emails though, very nice.

Economist: Trump golf coverThese are tough days at the Economist, who have seen Brexit, Theresa May, and now Donald Trump all happen in opposition to their wishes; they are apparently going the way of the New Yorker, doubling down instead of trying to understand.  Sad, actually.

Spengler (David Goldman): Fake News, Failed States, and 'America First'.  "One would have thought that a 90-day suspension of immigration from seven countries with minimal economic ties to the United States would be minor news.  It has to be the best thing an American president has done since Ronald Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, because all the people I dislike have gone bat-guano crazy."  Only thing is, in my case a lot of the people I like have gone there, too... (not to mention a couple of the magazines I like...)

Did you know?  A guide to Trump's first 17 executive orders.  If you read the Economist you might not know it, but he's doing what he said he would do.

Including this: Nikki Haley puts U.N. on Notice: U.S. is 'Taking Names'.  About time.

Jeff Bust: I am deplorable, and I am happier with my vote every day.  Me, too.

Daniel Dennett, Philosopher of the SoulBut this is why I still read the New Yorker: Daniel Dennett's Science of the Soul.  Dennett is one of my very favorite authors, going all the way back to The Mind's I, and including Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Consciousness Explained.  A great article.

Daring Fireball reports Upcoming is back.  So be it.  An interesting restart; they were launched in 2003 (before Facebook), acquired two years later by Yahoo, and shut down in 2013.  And now they're back as an independent.  Yahoo must have done this to tens even hundreds of little businesses, so sad.

Dutch hyperloop team's experimentExcellent!  Dutch team wins Elon Musk's SpaceX Hyperloop competition.  The embedded video is a must-watch... how cool.  Elon and the things he's started are amazing.

I haven't been blogging, but I noted Apple's crappy year in 2016, did you, too?  Of course they are still an amazing company with amazing products, and one of the most valuable in the world, but they did not release a lot of interesting stuff.  That might mean they've lost their mojo, or it might mean the next iPhone is around the corner :)

However, Jean-Louis Gassee thinks the iPad turnaround is coming.  We shall see.

Ringling Bros: the end of the elephantsWhile I was out: The circus is over.  It appears that the long decline was hastened by elimination of elephants; a key draw, but one which raised the ire of animal activists.

A.I. vs M.D. - the nature of diagnosisIn the New Yorker: A.I. vs M.D., a musing on the nature of diagnosis and the prospects of machine intelligence, from Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies, about cancer, which won the Pulitzer Prize.  It defies TL;DR-ing but I think you will find it worth a read. 

While I was away, and ongoing, there has been a debate in the blogosphere about blogs and blog-like sites such as Medium and Tumblr.  In the background of this, to tweet or not to tweet, and the role of Facebook.  John Battelle thinks we got it right the first time, and then we fucked it up.  I agree, but who is "we", John, some of us have kept right on blogging :)

Although I have admit I have dabbled in Facebooking instead of blogging - not the same.

Related, from Danny Sullivan, 10 big changes with search engines over my 20 years of covering them.

floating hotel roomWow, this looks like one for me: Amazing floating hotel allows guests to sail away in their own private yachts.  Who's with me?

Philippe Gilbert wins Flanders in a solo attack with 55km to go!And finally, congrats to Phillipe Gilbert, who won today's Tour of Flanders in a blazing solo attack with 55km to go!  Unbelievable, a race for the ages, with "everyone" present - Peter Sagan, Greg van Avermaet, Tom Boonen...  nobody wins with a 55km attack, ever.  Wow.

 

 
 

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