Posts tagged with 'SocialDynamics'
Sep 9, 2014
Consensual hells: Geopolitics for individuals

My third guest post at


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Apr 9, 2014
Consensual Hells: The legibility tradeoff

My second guest post has just been published over at, on the subject of building capture-resistant organizations. Tl;dr - constrain individual discretion at the top, and empower it on the fringes. But the direct ways to do that won't work. What will? Read on →


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Feb 12, 2014
Consensual Hells: From cognitive biases to institutional decay

I've just published the first of a series of guests posts over at Check it out.


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Dec 19, 2010
What do Moody's and the patent office have in common? [0]

They're in the business of fielding complex applications from just about anybody. They can't just pick the best ones—they must accept or deny every last application.

This is a really bad situation to be in. To understand why, put yourself in the shoes of an employee at the patent office[1] who must judge these applications.


Each application you see has its own deep complexities and needs time and expertise to understand, perhaps even expertise you don't have and experts you must track down. But when you're done understanding one application you haven't learned anything that helps you process the next one faster. Your supervisor is shielded from these complexities and inevitably judges you on the basis of one metric: number of applications processed.

Inevitably, employees in this situation employ a heuristic: they try to race through the simple applications, and half-ass the complex ones. There's now an incentive for poor applicants to craft complex applications; if your idea stinks a simple application is certain to be denied, while a complex, weighty-looking application has some chance of randomly being granted. Meanwhile, genuinely complex applications now face more randomness and may be undeservedly denied.


Over time applicants complain, usually the deserving but complex ones. Everytime you the employee catch heat for such a complaint you loosen your constraints. Complex applications get handled more and more perfunctorily.[2] Instead you spend more and more time with the simple applications, probing them intensely for weaknesses, ‘bike-shedding’ them in more and more adversarial fashion, looking for the vaguest of undeniable reasons to deny applications. After all, the acceptance rate is going up in that complex pile. The denials have to come from somewhere, lest you stand out in somebody's metrics.

Predator vs Prey

Over time applicants start to notice that even genuine applications have more chance of being granted if they are large and complex and seem weighty. As more and more applications grow complex, standards change. What was complex 10 years ago is now considered simple, and more likely to be denied. Nothing's being read in any sort of detail anymore. Every applicant wants to end up in the complex half of the pile. They aren't antagonistic to the application process anymore, but to each other. You the employee are now in a position of power, like a lion in the savannah, culling the herds of their weakest, least weighty-seeming applications. Your prey isn't trying to convince you of anything anymore, just to outgun some other application.

Red Queen

It starts being taken for granted that ‘you have to spend a month on the application,’ no matter how clear and deserving it is at the outset. “Standards” go up. You have to pay a lawyer to craft it. The number of lawyers, the expense of the lawyers, the armies of paralegals, everything's spiralling up, until not everybody can afford a patent anymore. Like the Red Queen, everybody is running as hard and as fast as they can just to stay in the same place.

Well, not everybody has managed to stay on the treadmill. The one thing that's been lost is the line in the sand showing a good patent application.

Zoom out

This dynamic has played out throughout history. It is how bureaucracies are created. To some extent it is inevitable; humans don't yet know a better way to deal with complexity. If you're planning an application process, be aware of these pitfalls. Consider ranking rather than judging, so that you don't have to grow your employees with the number of incoming applications. Consider some sort of limit on application length and complexity so that you don't have to grow your employees faster than the number of incoming applications. Think hard about how your employees will judge applications. Consider bounties for finding misjudged applications. Any of these ‘outs’ will help you avoid the worst-case scenario: high costs, which grow faster than incoming applications.


0. Thanks to Walter Chang for the conversation that got me to write this.

1. Two other examples: financial regulators and the US EB1 green card process.

2. Sure, processes will grow up around them, but less and less of the process will be devoted to actually reading them.


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Oct 24, 2010
The anti-roles of Romanticism paraphrasing Morse Peckham

The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century weakened the grasp of the church over society, and tried to replace authorities like God, church and king with critical thought. Enlightenment led to the Age of Revolution, primarily the American and French. But the French revolution seemed to expose the failure of the Enlightenment's worldview, one that could cause both utopian liberation and tyrannous oppression. It felt like a new Fall of Man. The world lost its value; life lost its meaning; the individual no longer had grounds to reason about right and wrong. Those who articulated this dissatisfaction were the early Romantics, and they ushered in a new artistic, literary, and intellectual movement. In the process they created several iconic anti-roles that we still recognize in popular culture.

The Byronic hero

The Byronic hero appears as the wanderer, the outcast, the Wandering Jew, the mysterious criminal whose crime is never explained. The tremendous appeal of Byron's poems throughout Europe and America shows how widespread was the feeling of malaise.

The Visionary

Caspar Friedrich,
“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog”

The Visionary was the first stage of recovery and the first positive Romantic anti-role. The word often used at the time was “mystic.” The Visionary tries to observe the world so intensely as to get to the essence outside of all mental categories. It was felt to be the special task and privilege of the artist and poet to communicate that experience.

The Bohemian

The Bohemian is perhaps the most modern of the anti-roles, characterized by a fascination with alcohol and drugs and sexual experimentation as ways to shift and change consciousness, put the mind through permutations of perceptions which are impossible for the square who is boxed in by his social role. Similar is the interest in non-bourgeouis modes of living, in indifference to middle-class standards of dress, furnishing, and cleanliness.

The Virtuoso

The Visionary avoided role-playing; the Bohemian defied it; the Virtuoso and Dandy transcended it, the one by fantastic mastery, the other by irony. Paganini was the first great Virtuoso and for decades the anti-role model and ideal. Other examples are Richard Burton the Virtuoso traveler and translator of the Arabian Nights, and the Virtuoso mountain climber who performs sublime feats of superhuman effort “because it was there.”

The Dandy

The Dandy transforms the role not by excess but by irony. The role of the highest status in European society is that of the aristocratic gentleman of leisure. By willfully playing this role better than those born and trained to it, the Dandy reveals the pointlessness of the socially adapted. The social type with the highest status spends his life in play and pettiness. The Dandy instead offers perfection and elegance without content, without social function. By stealing the clothes of society, he reveals its nakedness. He demands a greater exquisiteness and perfection than society can achieve. This explains the irritation of society with the Dandy, its efforts to deprive him of his ironic authority, the moral nastiness with which England relished the downfall of Oscar Wilde.


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Feb 20, 2010
Thinking critically about the ideal of a techno-utopia

Technology can compromise resolve. East Germans who watched West German television were paradoxically more satisfied with life in their country. The fact that Dresden—where the 1989 protests started—lies too far and too low to have received Western broadcasts may partly explain the rebellious spirit of the city's inhabitants. While we fret about the Internet's contribution to degrading the civic engagement of American kids, all teenagers in China or Iran are presumed to be committed citizens who use the Web to acquaint themselves with human rights violations committed by their governments. For the vast majority of Internet users, increased access to information is not always liberating. With their endless supply of entertainment, Twitter and Facebook might make political mobilization harder, not easier.

Technology empowers all sides equally. We cling to the view that all non-state power in authoritarian countries is good, while state power is evil and always leads to suppression. Not all opponents of the Russian or Chinese or even Egyptian state fit the neoliberal pattern. Nationalism, extremism and religious fanaticism abound. Facebook and Twitter empower all groups—not just the pro-Western groups that we like.

Technology drives decentralization; demonstration requires centralization. Thanks to the decentralization afforded by the Internet, Iran's Green Movement couldn't collect itself on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. It simply drowned in its own tweets.

Technology increases noise and misinformation. We assume the Internet makes it easy for citizens to see who else is opposing a regime and then act collectively based on that shared knowledge. In the age of the Spinternet, cheap online propaganda can easily be bought with the help of pro-government bloggers. Add to that the growing surveillance capacity of modern authoritarian states—greatly boosted by information collected through social media.

Technology shines a harsh light. Diplomacy is, perhaps, one element of the U.S. government that should not be subject to the demands of "open government"; whenever it works, it is usually because it is done behind closed doors.

Paraphrasing Evgeny Morozov


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Jan 23, 2010
Tyranny of the majority, or regulatory capture? Just be more agile.

Plato, de Tocqueville, et al.: In a democracy, the greatest concern is that the majority will tyrannize and exploit diverse smaller interests.

Mancur Olson: Narrow and well-organized minorities are more likely to assert their interests over those of the majority.

Neil Freeman: Just redistrict the states after each census.[1]

me: Can this idea be generalized? Minorities can be oppressed or powerful; strive to so intertwine motivations that minorities are eliminated. Track minority power and standard deviation of group size as a quality metric for democracy.

But maintain diversity. And don't allow collusion to foster bubbles.

[1] Credit: James Fallows. Related comments: Hacker News


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Jul 10, 2009
Cities and slums

Mike Davis: More than half the human race now lives in cities. Mostly in the squalor of slums and squatter cities.

Kevin Kelly: The city is a wonderful technological invention which concentrates the flow of energy and minds into computer chip-like density. In a relatively small footprint it generates a maximum of ideas and inventions. Slums are the skin of the city, its permeable edge that can balloon as it grows. Discomfort is an investment. In the favelas of Rio, the first generation of squatters had a literacy rate of only 5%, but their kids were 97% literate.

Michael Balter: In Anatolia nine thousand years ago, a stone-age civilization lived in high density without cities or slums for three thousand years. (via Ken Macleod)


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Jun 15, 2009
Rethinking America's prisons is cheaper than rethinking incarceration

  • We punish people with architecture. The building is the method.
  • New prison construction is parceled out to a handful of large and anonymous firms, discouraging innovation.
  • American prisons are built in the countryside. Rural prisons need no public face. It need articulate no sense of communal pride or civic justice.
  • Convicts tend to come from cities; guards do not. Culture clashes inevitably arise.
  • Convicts tend to come from cities; their families often can't afford to travel to visit. Rehabilitation becomes difficult.
  • Guards serve "lifetime sentences 8 hours at a time." Guards and prisoners often want the same improvements.
  • Prisons that look pleasing suffer less vandalism.
    Jim Lewis


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  • Apr 9, 2009
    Children even as young as three and four years old often know that stealing is wrong, even without being explicitly told by adults. They don't need us to define the goal. That's easy. The problem is actually living by those values day to day. We need to help them develop a deep, abiding commitment to these values, a commitment that can override other needs and goals. The hard part isn't moral literacy; it's moral motivation."
    Richard Weissbourd


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    Making the big picture easy to see, in software and in society at large.
    Prose (shorter; favorites)