The Vacuum Clap

Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.

–Saul Alinsky

Nature and politics abhor a vacuum.  The moment a newly formed vacuity opens the resulting space is filled with the first onrush of whatever commodity is directly adjacent.   If authority is missing from a power structure it will quickly be occupied by multiple players looking to occupy that power vacuum, almost always with intense and sudden conflict.  Why, after 12 centuries of relative safety, was Rome conquered by the the Goths, the Huns, and the Vandals all within 4 decades?  It was because of the sudden void created by the absence of Rome’s ability to project power.  I call this sudden destructive collision caused by unexpected power gap the vacuum clap.

The ramifications of these vacuum claps can ripple for a long long time after the initial cause.  How many of the current geo-polical problems are a direct result of the sudden “clap” that resulted from abdication of European imperialist influence.  Notice how the resulting fallout happens regardless of the justice or morality of the cause of the vacuum!  It doesn’t matter that imperialism legitimately HAD to end; there were going to be violent ramifications resulting from the sudden change for decades (and centuries) to come.

Regulation created your income disparity.  The removal of regulation created your financial crisis.

— Author Unknown

Where this comes to play most on the intra-national scale seems to be in the area of state regulatory policy.   The creation of laws (regardless if they are good or bad) create an artificial “scaffolding” around a pattern of behaviors.  Instead of behavior progressing natural based on mutual interaction (again, good or bad) the behavior is artificial.  This is exacerbated by incentives that may come into direct conflict with the intended behaviors creating black markets, legal opportunist, and artificial ancillary effects.  The spread of the car culture is as much a product of government profit regulation in the passenger rail market as it is the government construction of the interstate system.

So artificial vacuums created by regulation are a problematic, but then imagine the problems created by removing those controls.  When the “scaffolding” is kicked out, even if the scaffolding was an objective bad thing, the result is an almost certain crash.  In the normal ebb and flow of markets, a natural equilibrium eventually takes hold*  but removing bureaucracy always creates a vacuum that markets will suddenly (and often destructively) will try to fill.

This is one reason why even bad laws are difficult to remove.  When critics say that getting rid of regulation will cause havoc, they are generally correct.  Of course, most of the time the regulation is demonstrably bad and often even counter-productive to the intended purpose.**  This brings about the worst in government.  The endlessly expanding dregs of our failed attempts at law, never to be removed because the pain of pulling off the bandage is worse than the slow pain of infection.

Questions are never indiscreet, answers sometimes are.

–Oscar Wilde

How do we shorten the time it takes for a new equilibrium after the resulting void?  My gut reaction is that the better the feedback mechanism the faster a state of balance will occur.  On the macro level this can be exceedingly difficult.  Using the imperialism example from above, notice how feedback isn’t spread equally among all the constituents.  England was more concerned with the collapse of imperialism that its colonies were, but isn’t nearly as effected by the results of that debacle.

Ultimately the best solution is to never create such voids in the first place.  In the realm of intra-national regulation it is obvious to point out that our attempts at a solution are often worse than the original symptom,  especially in the long run.  In the area of international governments the way to preempt such voids is to limit the use of force on other peoples, countries, and nations.  Power never spent will not create a vacuum.***

Footnotes

*In actuality the ebb and flow always continue because nothing ever stays the same and markets are always trying to innovate.  Part of the problem with laws is that they never innovate.

** How many billions of tons of CO2 have been created by regulating ethanol production?

*** My favorite definition of injustice is “Injustice is the abuse of power; force used against the unwilling.  Using power or authority to take from others their life, liberty, dignity, or the fruits of their love or their labor”

Most people are other people

For love of history.  A massive quote dump from some of the books I have been reading lately.  Hope someone else will enjoy them or, even better, enjoy the books!


How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

“The ago old platonic fallacy equates knowledge with virtue.”

“The intellectual disciplines of distinction, definition, and dialectic that had once been the glory of men like Augustine were now unobtainable by readers of the dark ages.  A man no longer subordinated one thought to another with mathematical precision.  Instead he apprehended similarities, imbalances; types and paradigms; parallels and symbols.  It was a world, not of thoughts, but of images.”
“To be Irish is to know, that in the end, the world will break your heart.”
“The Irish are the only people who can not be helped by psychoanalysis.”
–attributed to Sigmund Freud

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume II by Edward Gibbon

“When a public quarrel is envenomed by private injuries, a blow that isn’t mortal or decisive can be productive only of a short truce which allows the unsuccessful compeditent to sharpen  his arms for a new encounter.”

“…but experience has proved the distinction of active and passive courage.  The fanatic who endures without a groan the torture of the rack or the state would tremble and fly before the face of an armed enemy.”

The Reformation (The Story of Civilization, volume 6) by Will Durant

“Your emphasis on faith as against works was ruinous and led to a religions who’s coldness of heart concealed behind the piety of it’s phrases.

For a hundred years charity almost died in the centers of your victory.

You destroyed nearly all the schools we had established, and you weakened to the verge of death the universities that the Church had created and developed.

Your own leaders admit that your disruption of the faith led to a dangerous deterioration of morals both in Germany and England.

You let loose a chaos of individualism in morals, philosophy, industry, and government.

You took all the joy and beauty out of religion and filled it with demonology and terror.

You condemned the masses of mankind to damnation as ‘reprobates,’ and consoled an insolent few with the pride of ‘election’ and salvation.

You stifled the growth of art, and wherever you triumphed classical studies withered.

You expropriated Church property to give it to the state and the rich, but you left the poor poorer than before, and added contempt to misery.

You condoned usury and capitalism but deprived the workers of restful holidays a merciful church had given them.

You rejected the papacy only to exalt the state.

You gave to selfish princes the right to determine the religion of their subjects and to use religions as a sanction for their wars.

You divided nation against nation, and many a nation and city against itself.

You wrecked the international moral checks on national powers, and created a chaos of warring national states.

You denied the authority of a church founded on your own admission by the son of God but you sanctioned absolute monarchy and exulted the divine right of kings.

Unwittingly you destroyed the power of the word which is the only alternative to the power of money or the sword.

You claimed the right of private judgment, but you denied it to others as soon as you could…

Meanwhile see what your private judgment has lead too. Every man becomes a pope, and judges the doctrines of religion before he is old enough to comprehend the functions of religion in society and morals and the need of the people for a religious faith.

A kind of dis-integrative mania, unhindered by any integrative authority, throws your followers into such absurd and violent disputes that men begin to doubt all religion, and Christianity itself would be dissolved and men would be left spiritually naked in the face of death were it not that the Church stands firm amid all the fluctuations of opinion and argument…

The world is supported by four things. The learning of the wise. The Valor of the Brave. The Justice of the Great. The prayers of the good.
A supreme and unchangeable faith is a deadly enemy to the human mind.”

“Men would try again to capture the spirit of Erasmus, and the Renaissance, and renew the long slow labor of enlightenment.

“Wherever Protestantism Advanced scholarship declined.”

“For men are, by nature, unequal and can be induced to share their goods and fortunes only by a vital and common danger.”

“The communism that was set up was a war economy as, perhaps, all strict communism must be.”

“Internal liberty varies with external security and communism breaks with the tension of peace.”

“A nation is born stoic, and dies epicurean”

“Liberalism is a luxury of security and peace.”

“Science gives man ever greater powers but less significance. It gives him better tools with less purposes.  It  is silent on origins, values, and ultimate aims. It gives life and history no meaning or worth that is not canceled by time and death.”

”Children were now luxuries which only the poor could afford.”

“No great nation is ever conquered until it has destroyed itself.”

“The class war had turned democracy into a contest in legislative looting.”

“…eternal vigilance is the price of civilization. A nation must love peace, but keep its powder dry.”

“For barbarism is always around civilization, amid it and beneath it, ready to engulf it by arms, or mass migration, or unchecked fertility”

“Man will sacrifice anything but appetite for health.”

“Wisdom seems always a reincarnation, or echo, since it remains the same through a thousand varieties and generations of error.”

“When the myth dies, only force is free.”

“Time is the greatest vandal of them all.”

“Energy directed at a unifying will is almost the definition of genius.”

The sum of all fears

Update 5/25/2017: This is a post I started over a year ago.  In the interim Ubuntu has officially dropped the plan on a convergent desktop.  Mark Shuttleworth might argue that convergence will eventually happen but ultimately that doesn’t matter.

“In business being early, or being late, is the same thing as being wrong.”

Outstanding article over at TechRepublic discussing the lack of momentum that Ubuntu has had as of the last couple years.  The basic rundown is that the author believes that the long term goal of “the convergent desktop” is causing other less important goals to slip.

For those who haven’t heard of the convergent desktop (or simply convergence) it is the idea currently being chased by both Microsoft and Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) whereby your phone/tablet can also be your desktop/workstation.  Sometimes this is associated with a seamless user experience that “transcends” both use cases (i.e. is the same environment on both platforms) but more often is based on some kind of modal shift when device size changes.  So for Windows 8, it become more Windows 8’y when on a phone, but feels a little more like Windows 7 when on a 22″ monitor with mouse.

Google is, of course, more concerned with turning everything into an extension of the web via Chrome and/or Android.  This means that they ultimately don’t care if it is a desktop or a phone running applications; as long as the data is stored in their cloud or provided by one of their services.  So what is Apple’s strategy concerning convergence?  Ahhh, now you get to the meat of the problem.

Apple, always laser focused on user experience, figured out a while ago that convergence SUCKS.  It really really does and here is a brief explanation why.

A great desktop experience is going to be focused on use cases where people are going to use desktop applications.  I call these users “creators” because they primarily use their computers for creative endeavors.  Think software development, editing photos, writing books, mixing music,  making spreadsheets, etc.

In this vein, the tools for creating are centered around the ability to produce new material.  Keyboards are spectacular input devices for creators.  I can type faster than I can write. Even though my ultra-book has a touchscreen, I never use it because my ten fingers are faster for creating things that a single pointing finger is.  When a fine grain control inside a two dimensional canvas is needed, a mouse is significantly better than either a touch screen or a touch pad.

A great tablet experience is going to be focused on use cases where people are not going to be creating.  I call these users “consumers”.  When using my tablet I am almost solely relegated to the role of consuming information.  Reading emails, watching Netflix, looking up receipts on Google, etc.  Consuming requires less functionality than production and added interface utilities for these edge usage cases would just take away from the user experience.

Now obviously most users spend some time during the day being both a consumer and a creator.  This is not a statement of the value of how a user uses their technology but an implicit realization that different use cases should be centered around how best to actually use their system.

It is hard to make a really functional sports car that can also be a useful pickup truck.  Trying to make one into the other generally causes you to have a tool that is good at neither.

The Measure of Who We Are

The older I get the more value I place on having timely and frequent feedback. It sounds like an insignificant thing but if you want what your doing to actually be useful it is paramount.

Never underestimate the power of an evolutionary process with a tight feedback mechanism.  –Linus Torvalds

Frequent feedback is so important because of the abundance of bad ideas that actually mask themselves as initially useful. Anyone who has done software development or design has had 100 people say “I have this million dollar idea I need you to implement.”  The reality is that most ideas are bad and seldom deal with the practicalities of reality.  Often their shortcomings are not obvious.

Good ideas (aka theories) are actually pretty uncommon.  We build these perfect structures in our heads and then begin to wonder why our dreams cannot also be truth.  Once we latch onto a theory we will remain “loyal” to it and will seldom surrender it easily until external facts force us re-evaluate them.  In actuality these ideas are not even theories but beliefs, which is what a theory really is until it has been tested.  A feedback loop is really a way to force us to test something with an external reference we cannot ignore.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. –George Bernard Shaw

One of the major changes in the structure of technology companies and their succeed has been the dissociation between a business BEING an idea, and a business trying an idea.  The new mantra in places like Silicon Valley is get actionable feedback, make a change, fail fast, and pivot.  Failing fast provides as much feedback as possible in the shortest period of time; so fewer resources are spent on bad ideas and thus increasing the likelihood of isolating good ideas.

On the macro level, the key to the effectiveness of capitalism has been the success of the market as a feedback mechanism.  Local government’s superior representation is a direct reflection of the ease at which local officials can be replaced.  The feedback loop for a City Mayor is quite a bit tighter than for the President of the United States.

Notice how, in the last example, by focusing on the feedback mechanism we can evaluate two systems that are superficially are identical but function dramatically different.  Why does progressive democracy work so well for Denmark and not for the US?  Because Denmark’s feedback loop is closer to Missouri’s than it is to the whole of the United States.

With genetic engineering, we will be able to increase the complexity of our DNA, and improve the human race. But it will be a slow process, because one will have to wait about 18 years to see the effect of changes to the genetic code. –Stephen Hawking

Feedback is so fundamental that systems that have weak or non-existent evaluation mechanisms are losing their authority overall.  We value academic disciplines by how consistent their feedback loops are.  Things like math, science, and engineering all have well defined and extensively tested methods to evaluating themselves and make corrections when shortcomings are identified.   Non-empirical disciplines like art, philosophy, and religion are suffering from the lack of reference available to the natural sciences, and their overall effectiveness is thus reflective.  Remember, at one time science and mysticism were one and the same until science formalized the scientific method, liberating itself (and humanity) from the confines of dogma.

“Science gives man ever greater powers but less significance. It gives him better tools and with less purposes. It is silent on origins, values, and ultimate aims.  It gives life and history no meaning or worth that is not canceled by time and death.”. –Will Durant

This is not to say that ideologies and theories are likely to disappear. On the contrary, as religion had demonstrated, systems that have no effective feedback loop are nearly impossible to remove entirely because there is no way to “prove” the shortcomings of their beliefs.  You cannot fail a test you’ve never taken.

Nor do I mean to suggest that systems lacking structured feedback methodologies are bad.  I strongly believe in the value of philosophy, art, and religion as part of making a full life; and I passionately love my liberal arts education.  The need for improvement isn’t an absolute and, contrary to popular belief, neither is the need for truth.  But, when the desire is to approach understanding, even if only asymptotically, there is simply no better system we know of then a quality feedback loop.