Posts Tagged ‘society’

The no obnoxious rich people paradox

by Hang

I said to a friend last night that the first thing I would do when I became rich would be to hire someone to walk around with me and write down every word I uttered and then ritually burn every page as soon as it was filled. Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t do that if I were actually rich. You wouldn’t do it either but you get why it should be done. Now, I could intellectualize about how it’s all about male dominance rituals and signaling relative status but the truth is that if you don’t understand this on a gut level, you might as well move on, the rest of this post is going to be nonsense to you.

In ancient times, it was practically expected that the emperor would have a harem. After all, what was the point of power if not the ability to impregnate many fertile women? And yet, just 10 years ago, the most powerful person in the world almost got impeached for engaging in an act of non-procreative sex with a not particularly attractive woman. The power of life and death over slaves got morphed into the power of hiring and firing of servants which morphed into the worry that perhaps the domestic assistants wouldn’t be fully self actualized if you weren’t on a first name basis with them. Even the glutton is gone; as recently as 1917, you had the likes of Diamond Jim Brady who represents himself admirably in the gallery of great historical gluttons but who today could fill his generously sized shoes? The conspicuous consumption that remains today has sublimated into a form of simpering conformity that’s oh-so-dull to watch. Houses, Private Jets, Watches, Art & Wives… yawn (or, if you’re black or secretly want to be black: Cribs, Bitches, Bling & Cred). None if this inspires the poor to feel the visceral self-loathing of inadequacy nearly half as well as the obnoxiously creative rich of the past. Where did the panache and the admirable fuck you attitude go?

Understanding the no obnoxious rich people paradox may be the key to also understanding the no evil geniuses paradox. In both cases, the paradox is that it’s so easy to imagine these people existing that it’s difficult to imagine them not existing. Why, the only difference standing between you and an obnoxious rich person (apart from the money, duh) is your innate goodness and lord knows innate goodness is in short supply. So where did all the obnoxious rich people go?

Here’s my new stab towards an answer: Wealth used to represent a certain kind of freedom that it doesn’t now. A rich person today can usually get around most of the controls put there by society but a rich person in the past could also get around all the controls that we put on ourselves. In short, wealth allowed for one to enable the purest expression of the id. The reason why you can even imagine the obnoxious rich person is because, deep down, your id is kind of a douchebag. If you were a rich person in the past, you would have not only the desire but also the permission to act on your douchebag impulse. Fortunately, modern society has been set up so that even if you are rich, you’re not allowed to express your douchebag id in an unadulterated form. Instead, rich douchebaggery is channeled safely into much more innocuous channels such as fraternities which encourage conformity, not experimentation.

In short, the proles have won the invisible war that neither side was even aware they were fighting. It might have been possible, a long time ago to imagine an organized conspiracy by the powerful but today, it properly belongs only as a paranoid fantasy used by those who don’t want to take responsibility for their own failings. We, as a society, have managed to turn the rich from a bunch of hard nosed bastards into a set of navel gazing neurotics, largely harmless to everyone, except in their clumsiness.

March 13 2009

The rate limiter on innovation

by Hang

I’m a huge tetris geek and so when I discovered Torus, my first reaction was “That’s so obvious, why the hell didn’t I think of that?” which lead me to thinking about how almost every person has their own personal theory about how they think innovation happens and yet they are so rarely inclined to put that theory under empirical scrutiny.

Some people believe that innovation is technology limited and that as soon as a new product becomes practical, someone will build it. Often, the critical technological factor might not be the most obvious one. Looking at torus, their reaction would be that sure, it would have been technically feasible 20 years ago but such a variant never would have spread without the viral power of the internet. Because there’s so many entrepreneurs working on so many different approaches to the problem, one of them is bound to hit on a good idea eventually.

Other people believe that innovation is a matter of luck, talent and persistance. MP3 players as good as the iPod and search engines as good as Google were perfectly possible well before they came out but it took the genius of the designers at Apple/Google to finally show people what an MP3 player/search engine could be.

There are still others who believe innovation is a social process driven by fads and fashions. People innovated in social networking because social networking was what’s hot. Now, they’re innovating in iPhone apps. Driving innovation is largely a matter of pushing trends.

In truth, all of these explainations are more or less valid in different areas and every sophisticated person holds a complex mix of all these views but I think it’s interesting and useful to articulate your own view so that you can determine whether it’s correct or not.

February 27 2009

Open vs Closed

by Hang

Geeks have been so used to hearing about how open systems beat out close systems that they seem surprisingly blind to what I see is an obvious evolution in the web into which closed systems are winning. The 90’s were all about tearing down of walls and openness and standards ruling the roost. The Internet beat AOL, Bittorrent beat RIAA, reddit and digg are beating the New York Times. It’s easy to conclude from this that, on a long enough timeline, open systems always prevail.

But what I see is a shift in the opposite direction in which we increasingly depend more on facebook, the iPhone and other closed, managed services. I’m not quite prepared to stake my thinking on a single answer at this point but it seems to be based a lot on a closed service’s greater ability to create a compelling user experience and a shift in technological maturity which has made this a greater selling point.

I had the chance to use a Windows Mobile phone for 2 weeks and the user experience was absolutely shockingly abysmal compared to my iPhone. When I talked to Windows Mobile defenders about this, they inevitably raise the ability to use it as a wireless AP and as a turn by turn navigation device and have background programs and as a freaking multimedia message sender but I think such concerns are becoming increasingly more irrelevant to a larger proportion of the population. What’s compelling about the iPhone is that the things it can do, it does beautifully and that it has the fortitude to do what it took to make that experience compelling. Unfortunately, compelling user experiences are sometimes at odds with freedom.

Freedom also means the freedom to be mediocre and there’s frankly a lot of windows mobile apps which are shockingly poorly made. Freedom also means freedom to build complex things which require a complex abstraction to support them. Apple’s decision to have one program running at a time is restrictive but it also means it never needs to expose manual memory management to the user.

As a developer, I’m appaled at the arrogance and tone deafness that Apple treats the developer community but I also recognise that these are some of the eggs Apple has to break to make a compelling user experience omlette. Other phone manufacturers still seem to be missing the point and are now bending over backwards to emphasize how open and free they are without realising that’s precisely why people abandoned such platforms as unusable.

February 11 2009

The shadows of history

by Hang

A post on the O’Reilly Radar mirrors some thoughts I’ve been having. We have passed over a distinct phase shift in history from when only some things were remembered to when everything is rememebered and in the future, this distinction is only going to get more and more stark. In the future, every single edit in wikipedia will be preserved, every tweet and every livejournal entry, we’ll have more information on a 3rd rate reality tv star from 2005 than most presidents and this is going to radically alter the way future generations interpret the past.

The curious thing is that phase shift happened a long time before anyone thought there would be a phase shift. I estimate the phase shift to be at the point of the first world war. Everything before then will cross into a vague sort of blur, Greeks, Romans, Renaissance, Industrial Revolution. Events spaced 100s of years apart. But after that point, it’ll be WWI, Depression, WWII, Cold War. Events spaced 10 years apart.

However, the very nature of this enormous amount of data also casts a certain shape on how we understand our past. Already, I’ve noticed there are certain things which are very hard to Google for. For example, material about a person/thing before it got famous. Finding out what the world was like 10 years ago through Google turns out to be surprisingly difficult. Another rather curious quirk of Google is that it’s almost impossible to find out anything about Wikipedia. Any search you do only results in Wikipedia articles.

When most people think about the future, they map their own notions of significance onto future generations. But they often fail to account for the vagaries of time and fashion and how the future will project it’s own inevitable biases on us as we do on our past.

February 8 2009

Storage costs

by Hang

4 years ago, a 100Gb Hard Drive was around $100 which lead me to the observation that it was now cheaper to videotape a lecture than to print out the notes and bring them to class.

Now that prices for hard drives have now falled below $100 for a Terabyte, that same hour long lecture, recorded in high definition compressed video costs roughly the same as printing out a single piece of paper…

December 15 2008

The state of Australian ecommerce

by Hang

While cooking dinner last night, I accidentally broke the handle off of my pan and so I thought I would get myself a new one as an early Christmas present. Looking online, I was confronted full force with the sheer retardedness of the current state of Australian online ecommerce.

Let us currently review the state of the online offerings of the 4 largest department stores in Australia:


November 29 2008

Dominant categories

by Hang

If you cross a camera with a computer, you’ll end up with a computer. If you cross a car with a computer, you’ll end up with a computer. If you cross a phone with a computer, you’ll end up with a phone.

Communication trumps computation as the dominant category.

Nov 1st (day 20): “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Just because we shouldn’t, doesn’t mean we won’t”

by Hang

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Just because we shouldn’t, doesn’t mean we won’t

It seems slightly curious to be how public debate on various technology issues fall neatly on two sides:

  • This is technologically inevitable and therefore, we should embrace it as progress for mankind
  • This is socially corrosive and so therefore we should fight as much as possible to combat it

These lines are relatively similar regardless of whether the debate is about music piracy, biofuels, strong encryption, ad blocking software, transhumanism or biotechnology. The obvious missing argument is: “This is technologically inevitable and also socially corrosive”.

It seems entirely reasonable to me that music piracy will be harmful to most artists, strong encryption will be used by terrorists more than “freedom fighters”, ad blocking will severely hamper the ability to monetize the internet and transhumanism will lead to humans being kept as pets of intelligent AI. Such a view is not popular because it presents no solutions, only a slow grind towards inevitability. What’s more, it’s in contrast to the standard stories about progress and the long steady march towards the future.

Bill Bishop in The Big Sort talks about how people are increasingly segregating themselves into more intelectually homogenous communities since the 70’s. What’s even more disturbing, the more educated you are, the less change you have of meeting someone who disagrees with you. The proximate causes of this are easy to explain, as our society has gotten more wealthy, “lifestyle” factors trump all else in the choice of where to live and people self-segregate into homogenous social groups.

I would consider myself as someone who actively works to meet people who disagree with me and yet even I’m no exception to the rule. On the eve of the 2008 election, I can count a total of two people within my social network who I know to be voting for McCain. Every single other person, I’m almost certain is an Obama supporter. What does this hold for the future or reasoned political discourse?

We’ve given people choice, we’ve given people liberty and diversity and the right to pursue wealth and happiness but the result is a stultifying, homogenous echo chamber. This wasn’t a bug, it’s not something that can be engineered out, it’s what people want.

October 3 2008

Access and world views

by Hang

One of the increasingly dismaying things I see in the world today is an increase in political cynicism. A sense that not only are the rich/powerful/republicans/liberals out to get you, that their entire purpose in life is to out to get you. I have a hard time taking on this world view because, inevitably, at every level of society I meet, most people genuinely believe that they are doing good. They’re aware that other people might hold different views of them but they believe that they’ve been misunderstood and they’re doing the best job they can.

I believe the fundamental difference is one of access. There’s a feeling of powerlessness and alienation when you view a group that you oppose as “the other”, a society in which you will never gain access. To many people, it’s simply become inconcievable that they could have anything to do with a investment banker or a neo-conservative power broker. These levels of society are locked out to them. On the other hand, the belief that you could gain access to any level of society radically changes how you view the forces of power. This is not to say that I could pick up the phone and call the sultan of brunei or anything but that I’ve met the people who have met the people who are reputed to hold the reins of power in many fields and the consistent message is that there is no conspiracy. It’s simply a tragedy of good men trying to do the best to uphold what they believe.

It’s so easy to blame societies problems on evil forces lurking in the hearts of powerful men. The solution then becomes simple, remove the powerful men, destroy the evil and the world will be a better place. It’s much harder to understand how people who think of themselves as good could end up doing what you think of as evil.

October 3 2008

Collaborative job interviewing

by Hang

Why don’t we apply the collaborative filtering approach to finding the right job candidate?

Here’s a simple model of how it could work for say, a network engineer:

Any and every potential candidate is invited to submit potential questions to ask which they think could seperate out a good network engineer from a bad network engineer over the course of a 24 hour period.

Once these questions are accumulated, all candidates are split into two groups and given one hour to use a collaborative voting system to determine which questions they feel are the best ones.

Each group gives the top n questions to the other group and they both have 3 hours to complete the test.

Each group now collaboratively marks the other group. A right answer is one which concurs with the answers of those who got the most right answers. In the end, the top 5 people with the highest score from each group are selected for a in depth interview.

Is this approach better than the typical HR keyword search based weeding approach? Is it robust enough to efficiently weed out the poor candidates while pushing the good ones to be great? It seems like an interesting experiment to me.

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