Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Links of the day

A TED talk on the power of the Paleo diet.

Sarah Blakely, the inventor of Spanx hosiery, is an Atlanta legend. All entrepreneurs will find her story of hustle inspiring.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Power of the Possible

Our work is constrained by our beliefs about what is possible. We can only create what our minds can first conceive. So when we encounter something that lies outside our mental limits, it is an incredible event. We can think thoughts that we could not think before and create what was previously inconceivable. It is like a painter living in a black and white world who discovers color for the first time.

People that have the capability to do creative work outside the limits of what is currently believed to be possible are rare and important. They have a powerful catalytic effect on human progress. Once a boundary is breached it triggers a wave of exuberant productive energy. New fields of art, science, and technology are launched. Creators delight in discovering that their belief in some limit was wrong and eagerly explore the fresh world of new possibilities.

In the computer industry, Steve Jobs was known as a creative genius, and with good reason. His work in human-computer interaction at Apple Computer corp. revolutionized personal computing. The iPhone is one example of Apple's pioneering work.

Before the iPhone, smart phones looked very different. They were clunky devices with tiny screens and big keyboards. GUIs were activated with styluses. The few applications available for them were crappy and expensive. The programming environment for these phones was atrocious. Due to their limited capabilities and high price, the ownership of smart phones was restricted primarily to large corporations which gave them out to highly paid employees so they could keep up with their email. The devices were good for little else.

Fast forward two years after the iPhone’s release. Now most phones are composed of a beautiful rectangle of glass, controlled by touch. With their large, colorful screens, they provide an excellent web browsing experience and they are doubling their share of global website visits each year. They offer cheap or free programming environments that are a joy to use, generating a burgeoning ecosystem of hundreds of thousands of innovative applications. Phones are now the fastest growing category of gaming devices. A vast crowd of new smart phone owners were created - even my computer-challenged father owns one. In 5 short years the smart phone has revolutionized the web, business, and gaming, and its influence on society is still growing at an exponential rate.

The pivotal point for the cell phone market can be traced to Jobs announcement of the iPhone at WWDC. The effects of that talk spread outward like ripples on a pond until the whole industry was changed forever by Jobs' creative vision. His presentation is rightly considered one of the best technology demos of all time. It is the moment when Jobs' new ideas about what a phone could be were introduced to the world.

For the last week, I’ve been raving about a presentation given by Bret Victor at the CUSEC conference. Aside from Jobs’ presentation of the iPhone and The Mother of All Demos, it is the best technical presentation I have ever seen, and certainly the best to come from a single individual’s creative efforts.

Bret Victor - Inventing on Principle from CUSEC on Vimeo.

Bret's talk is divided in two remarkable halves. The first part is a mind-blowing technical presentation that presents new kinds of user interfaces never before seen. After watching his talk, I can conceive of possibilities for software that were previously outside my comprehension, like I grew a new sense.

The second part is Bret’s creative manifesto. He lays out an explicit philosophy that guides his work, enabling him to push beyond the boundaries of current software. Few innovators have such self-awareness and none so clearly lay out their methodology for others to follow.

Bret’s passion and idealism recall images of Steve Jobs in his prime. Like Jobs, he has the air of a technological prophet, preaching his gospel. Like any good prophet, Bret hooks us with the miracles before proceeding to the sermon. He promises that if we follow his teachings, then we too will be capable of miracles. It's an enticing offer.

Watch it. It’s one of the best hours of video I’ve ever seen.

Favorite Links

This is the best technical talk I've ever seen. Brett Victor, author of mind-expanding essays at worrydream.com, gives the clearest exposition of his philosophy in a talk at CUSEC while demonstrating some mind-blowing experiments in user interface. It is up there in quality with Steve Jobs' presentation of the first iPhone and the Mother of All Demos.

Bret Victor - Inventing on Principle from CUSEC on Vimeo.

More thoughts to come on why it is so good.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Ethics and Wisdom - what Atheists can learn from Religion

Morality/Ethics is about how we should treat other people. On the other hand, Wisdom is the art of living well and thriving in our personal lives. Both subjects interest me, but few people in the secular world study them in a serious or systematic way. The exceptions I know of are academic philosophers and the small hyper-utilitarian demi-cult centered around Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Religions have a lot to say about Ethics and Wisdom. Since religions survive and spread by serving the needs of the human psyche, we should expect that we can learn something from their approach to two topics so vital to human interests.

Many religions, including Christianity, have the peculiar habit of conflating ethics and wisdom together. They transform the art of living well from an individual choice into a moral duty. This is accomplished by inserting a second person, God, into our private lives. Private actions thereby gain an ethical dimension since they now effect a third party with an interest in seeing us thrive. In the secular world, a similar thing happens when we enter into a romantic relationship.

This explains the phenomena of religious prohibitions on vices, such as smoking or drinking - activities that hurt nobody but ourselves. Religions also push followers to observe positive virtues, such as staying loyal to their spouses, being thrifty, or working diligently at their jobs. Extensive interference in people’s private lives gives religions a pushy quality, and many people find this attractive. They want a third party to force themselves, and their children, to live well. Others are repulsed either because they disagree with religion’s conception of the good life or they simply dislike having their personal life choices audited by an external authority.

I like the idea of being responsible to someone else for living well. My moral feelings are stronger than my will to act wisely. If an action or inaction hurts only myself, I am far more likely to succumb to it than if it also hurts another person. The secular person is by default a lonely creature, and it is hard for a person to live well when nobody is watching and judging. But a religious person always has someone with them.

Atheists resent the old prejudice that one has to be religious in order to be moral. These prejudices go too far, but it is true that religion offers its followers a powerful infrastructure to help them be moral that atheists lack.

The first way atheist moral practice fails is by lacking an explicit moral code. Our ethical principles are absorbed piecemeal from the art, literature, and philosophy we consume over the years and by osmosis from the culture surrounding us. This serves well under normal circumstances, but we are lost when faced with difficult moral trade-offs or high-pressure situations. Religious morality is better codified. When emotions run high, religious people have explicit aphorisms, principles, and parables that their minds can latch on to.

Next, religions teach us that ethical and moral principles are not merely mental facts, they are skills. Like any other skill they must be practiced and honed over time. Just as you cannot read a book about ballet and then perform a perfect dance, you cannot merely read about morality and then expect to behave morally. Religions know that we need regular reminders for moral principles to sink in, so they schedule weekly rituals where their codes of conduct are reinforced. Service events are scheduled to give followers the opportunity to practice altruism.

Lastly, we can learn from religion's understanding of human social psychology. If there is one fact that has become abundantly clear in the age of social networking, it’s the powerful influence that a person’s friends have on his taste’s, beliefs, and actions. Religions have long been aware of the power of social pressure and they surround the believer with a community of faith to help them all live up to their shared standards.

Atheists practice their morality as atomic creatures, lacking a community of like-minded practitioners. They are more likely to stray from their principles and revert to the mean of the world around them.

The combination of 1) explicit morality, 2) regular reminders, and 3) peer pressure creates a powerful incentive for religious people to behave morally. Over the years, many small groups of atheists have recognized the advantages that religions have in propagating ethical behavior and wisdom and have attempted to organize atheist analogues of churches and community groups. None have been spectacularly successful. But we shouldn't stop trying.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Some favorite links

I love this post from Less Wrong - Generalizing from One Example.

Also, this interview from Nassim Taleb on the Economist podcast. 8 audacious minutes of Taleb at his mind-blowing best.

On the topic of favorite things, Hayek's essay The Use of Knowledge in Society was a big influence on me.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Aphorisms for the Moral Economist

  • Treat other peoples' utility functions as your own
  • In the long run, the long run is all there is
  • Contribute more to the commons than you take away

Can you think of any others?