Podcast Notes: Seminars about Long-Term Thinking (May 2017)

Frank Ostaseski: What the Dying Teach the Living – April 10, 2017

On the afterlife: “My father used to say, ‘It can’t be so bad because nobody has come back to complain.’ Talk to the Buddhists about that.” -Frank Ostaseski (1:25:45)

“I had this grandma. She was a Christian Scientist. She was so ready to die, 90 years old. She just wanted to lay herself in the lap of Jesus. And her granddaughter came to see her. Very well meaning, she said, ‘Grandma, when you die, you don’t have to worry because everybody who has died before you, they’ll be there to meet you. They’ll be there. They’ll welcome you.’ And Grandma became terrified. Because the secret that she never told her family, but she told me, was that Edgar, her husband who died 5 years before, had been beating her most of her life. And now the idea of spending eternity with him was terrifying to her. So I don’t impose my ideas on other people. I find out from them what’s true for them and I see how I can support that, but I don’t try to give them my beliefs.” -Frank Ostaseski (1:28:50)

Bjorn Lomborg: From Feel-Good to High-Yield Good: How to Improve Philanthropy and Aid – March 13, 2017

“Every year the world spends about $200 billion to do good. That’s about $135 billion from public spending, and about $65 billion from philanthropy spending, so about $200 billion. This might do, at $7 [per $1 spent], $1.4 trillion worth of good. If we did it smartest, we could do $6.4 trillion worth of good. We could have done $5 trillion better every year.” -Bjorn Lomborg (49:55)

Steven Johnson: Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World – January 4, 2017

“We didn’t have typewriters until the 1880s, but we had keyboards, musical keyboards for 2,000 years before that. The Romans had organ keyboards.” -Steven Johnson [Considering music as a form of coding/programming] (29:52)

David Eagleman: The Brain and The Now – October 4, 2016

“When you’re in a life-threatening situation where everything is really hitting the fan, there’s this other part of the brain called the amygdala which comes online. And this is essentially your emergency control center. It focuses all the attention on the situation at hand and it essentially acts like a second memory track. You’re laying down memories through the amygdala. What this means is you’ve got much denser memories about what happened. And when you read that back out, it seems like it must have taken a longer time.

So in other words, time and memory are intertwined. When you’re in a car accident and you remember all these issues—the hood crumpled and the rearview mirror fell off and I was watching the face of the other guy and so on—it’s because you’re laying down this density of memories on this secondary track. And when you read that back out, even immediately… the way that we judge the passage of time has something to do with the density of memory. So when you read that back out, your only conclusion is that must have taken a much longer time because I have so much more memory about it.” – David Eagleman (40:37)

“Prospectively, if you’re paying attention to time, things seem to take a long time. But it’s exactly the opposite retrospectively. You know, when you get off an airplane and the ride seems so boring, it seems like its taking forever. But looking back I think the whole thing disappeared, like that. I don’t even remember it because of this memory issue.” -David Eagleman (50:10)

The reason that you lay down more memory during an emergency event is because that’s what memory is for. You really need to write it down when things are hitting the fan. ‘To learn from later?’ Exactly right. That’s when you need to write it down.” -David Eagleman (53:10)

Kevin Kelly: The Next 30 Digital Years – July 14, 2016

To more accurately reproduce your actions in virtual reality, VR devices need to capture a lot more data about you… where your eyes are looking, facial expression, etc. Someday, that data could be used for other purposes. (38:54)

Brian Christian: Algorithms to Live By – June 20, 2016

“Homes are sold via single price auctions. The person who writes down the biggest bid wins and they win at the price they wrote down. So it creates this incentive to get inside the head of your competitors. Figure out how many other people are bidding on the house and—what’s called shade your bid—figure out the maximum price you’d be willing to pay and figure out the appropriate amount less than that to bid such that you still win the house but you save money. It just requires an awful lot of strategy. You want to try to suss out how many other people are in the auction. What do I think they think I think and so forth. And it turns out this is all really unnecessary. There’s this really wonderful mechanism called a Vickrey auction where everyone writes down their bid and the person with the highest bid wins but they pay the price of the second highest bid. And it turns out that the Vickrey auction is what is called, to game theorists, strategy-proof, which is, there’s absolutely no better way to play the game than to just write down your exact valuation of the house. The game optimizes for you.

“So that to me is a specific example, but I think it’s a powerful example of this broader theme. In game theory, this is called the revelation principle. It’s that any auction that involves this sort of recursive ‘I’m trying to get into your head’ process can be replaced with an auction that has different rules in which the best thing you can possibly do is just be totally honest, and the house will go to the same person for the same price on average as in the strategic version. So that to me gives me this almost utopian view that there are these opportunities, this kind of low-hanging fruit, to change the world in ways to just eliminate these costs.” -Brian Christan (48:36)

In game theory, and what’s called mechanism design, strategic behavior is anything other than doing what you really think.” (50:52)

“How do we articulate what it is that we really want? How do we create an objective function that actually does capture the things we have in mind? … If you look at utilitarianism, there are a bunch of these paradoxes in utilitarianism that are called the repugnant conclusion. The idea here is that these very simple naive ideas like, ‘let’s just maximize total happiness across all people.’ That sounds great. Well, you may end up in a world in which you have severely overpopulated the Earth and everyone is infinitesimally happier than zero and there’s just so many people that your objective function tells you that’s a better world. That’s what you asked for: the sum total of all human happiness. So then you think, ‘Ok that’s not what I really meant. What I really meant was optimizing for the mean human happiness.’ And then you get these crazy scenarios where there’s this caste of permanently indentured or tortured people. Just as long as everyone else is made more happy than those people are made miserable, then this is the world you’ve asked for. You’ve optimized for mean happiness. You say, ‘Well, that’s not really what I meant.’

“So for me, I’m interested in the sort of current cultural moment with respect to AI because it sort of puts these things in the crosshairs in a way in which these utilitarian paradoxes have been discussed in philosophy departments and these white papers for x number of decades just like it was with prime numbers. People studied prime numbers for a long time and then they suddenly became extremely useful and extremely important. And I think some of these similar things are happening in utilitarianism where some of these paradoxes seemed completely abstract and just like mind games for philosophy departments—all of the sudden now it’s a big problem that we can’t define the world that we want.” -Brian Christan (1:18:15)

Philip Tetlock: Superforecasting – November 23, 2015

Normally, expressions of belief are expressions of loyalty to your ideological tribe. They are not attempts to understand the world and make accurate judgments.” -Philip Tetlock (53:36)

Peter Warshall: Enchanted by the Sun: The CoEvolution of Light, Life, and Color on Earth – November 28, 2012

“The top of the beetle, it actually transfers this heat from the back part of its body and can detect forest fires at 50 to 60 miles. It then changes that heat into some kind of visual image and flies and lays its eggs in the still glowing embers on the sides of trees.” -Peter Warshall (51:08)

Carl Zimmer: Viral Time – June 7, 2011

“Viral time is so fast that the viruses are actually adapting to your body. They are evolving to fit you, your niche.” -Carl Zimmer (11:15)

Phillip K. Howard: Fixing Broken Government – January 18, 2011

“There is nothing left in playgrounds for a kid over the age of four. Nothing. There’s no see-saws, jungle gyms, climbing ropes, merry-go-rounds are banned and gone, there are a few diving boards left but not many, not very many high boards. Why is that? They all involve not just the risk but the certainty something might go wrong. They also happen to attract kids to the playground so they don’t get fat and die of obesity.” -Phillip K. Howard (1:06:10)

If you make people believe that they have to justify their decisions in a kind of legalistic way—’Can you prove that Jonny threw the pencil first?’ if you’re the teacher or whatever—you make people make worse judgments. You drive them from the smart part of their brain where they’re focusing on ‘how do I make something happen?’ to this kind of thin veneer of conscious logic where people are saying, ‘How will I justify that I did this?’ ” -Phillip K. Howard (1:25:15)

If you make somebody self-conscious they actually can’t, in many cases, use good judgment.” -Phillip K. Howard (1:26:00)

Lera Boroditsky: How Language Shapes Thought – October 26, 2010

Different languages orient time and space differently. In English, we typically order things from left to right with things in the past being on the left, the present in front of us, and the future to our right. Some languages always order time from east to west to follow the sun. (34:52)

“The idea is this: if language really shapes thought, you should be able to teach people a new way of talking, and that should change the way they think. And that’s exactly what these studies have done, and that’s exactly you find. Teach people a new way of talking, and that inadvertently also changes the way they think.” -Lera Boroditsky (1:08:45)

Wade Davis: They Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World – January 13, 2010

“There is no better sign of human genius than the ability to survive in a harsh environment on a technology that was limited to what you could make from the cold. The Inuit didn’t fear the cold, they took advantage of it.” -Wade Davis (1:12:30)

“They told me a story of the dark days of Canadian history when we forced the Inuit into settlements in the 1950s to establish our sovereignty in the arctic. And this man, Oliak’s grandfather, refused to go into the settlement. Fearful for his life [that the Canadians would kill him for refusing to join the settlement], they took away all of his weapons and all of his tools [thinking he would have no choice but to join the settlement]. So what did the old man do? He slipped outside into the arctic night, pulled down his caribou hide and sealskin trousers, defecated into his hand, and as the feces began to freeze, he shaped it into the form of a blade. As the implement made from human waste took final form, he put a spray of saliva along the leading edge and when the ‘shit knife,’ as it’s known, was finally created from the cold, he used it to kill a dog. He skinned the dog, improvised a harness with the skin of the dead dog, improvised a sled from the ribcage of the dead dog, harnessed up an adjacent living dog, and—shit knife in belt—disappeared into the arctic night.” -Wade Davis (1:13:30)

Sander van der Leeuw: The Archaeology of Innovation – November 18, 2009

“In the case of [french word], humanity is compared to nature. The cohesion of nature, it’s unknown aspects, and it’s strangeness and force are amplified. The confusion and the handicaps of humanity are accentuated. Humanity is passive in a natural environment that is active and aggressive. Change is attributed to nature and people have no other choice but to adapt to that. So natural changes tend to be viewed as dangerous because they are beyond the control of humanity.

“Now look at the other perspective that inverts the two, the society and the environment, and there nature is compared to humanity. The cohesion and the strength of nature are diminished and it’s known aspects are emphasized. The cohesion and strength are accentuated in humanity. Humanity is active and aggressive in a natural environment that is passive. Humanity tends to be viewed as the source of all change, people as creating their environment.

“And over the last 50 years, we’ve actually gone through both those stages. But right now we’re at a point where we’re beginning to look at their interaction. And the interesting thing to my mind is that these two opposite perspectives reinforce each other in one particular way: that natural dangers are exaggerated and those of human intervention are systematically underplayed and undervalued so that we intervene more and more in our natural environment because we think that we thereby reduce our risks. But what we don’t know and we don’t realize is that we’re also only changing the spectrum of risks. We’re not in any way reducing the risks. So ultimately, society loses control because the more it transforms its surroundings, the less it understands them.” -Sander van der Leeuw (50:55)

You think you stand with your face towards the future. You don’t know the future, so you’re standing with your back towards it. All you’re trying to do is you’re trying to keep some sort of a course going there that you actually calibrate on what you see in front of you, which is the past.” (1:24:33)

Michael Pollan: Deep Agriculture – May 5, 2009

“I think we need to move toward a system where there will be a second barcode on every product—I know I’m crowding these labels—and that you can run that barcode under a scanner at a kiosk in the supermarket and there would come an image of the farm where that chicken actually lived. This is no longer expensive at all. And then you press another button, you see the diet. What did that chicken eat? What pharmaceuticals went into that chicken? And then you press another button and you see the slaughterhouse. And nothing would clean up those awful places faster than cameras broadcasting through the web to eaters on a 24/7 basis. So we should be fighting for transparency. The principle of the glass aperture, the glass wall in the slaughter house will be more powerful than any regulation you could dream up.” (52:20)

Daniel Everett: Endangered Languages, Lost Knowledge, and the Future – March 20, 2009

“I remember telling them about Jesus one time and they said, ‘So Dan, Jesus, is he brown like us or white like you?’

‘I don’t know. I haven’t seen him.’

‘Well what did your dad say because your Dad must have seen him?’

‘No, he never saw him.’

‘Well what did your friends say who saw him?’

‘I don’t know anyone who saw him.’

‘Why are you telling us about him then? Why would you talk about something you don’t have evidence for?’

“Of course we do that all the time. Now, I shouldn’t make them sound like saints because one of the great functions of this suffix to say ‘I saw it with my own eyes’ is to lie. It works. They do lie. I remember once taking a story about how they killed their babies—infanticide. I was really getting into it. I was taking this whole story down, infanticide, then they all started laughing. I said, ‘What are you laughing for?’

‘Who would kill their babies?’

“The difficulties of being an anthropologist.” -Daniel Everett (27:44)

They don’t have any numbers in this language. They only have ‘a little’ and ‘a lot.’ (29:00)

Iqbal Quadir: Technology Empowers the Poorest – May 21, 2008

“If you produce electricity—let’s say through a very nice engine that is quiet and doesn’t need very much maintenance; produce it at your home because you have a gas supply or something—then the heat that comes out that you would otherwise throw away at a central plant, you can use it to warm up your house. So with that the energy utilization goes up to 80% so that’s a much better way of reducing carbon emission.” -Iqbal Quadir [as opposed to losing 50% to 70% of the fuel energy to heat for a central plant] (44:30)

Paul Saffo: Embracing Uncertainty: The Secret to Effective Forecasting – January 11, 2008

“Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” [Cowboy saying] (23:30)

“The real lesson here is about uncertainty. When the Delphy skipper hit the rocks along with those nine other destroyers, it happened because he narrowed his cone of uncertainty at the very moment that the data was screaming to widen it, to hedge his bets, to hold off and just see what the future would bring. And his mistake is memorialized on this chart for all the rest of us.” [Referring to destroyer rock where 9 destroyers hit the rocks due to a navigation error.] -Paul Saffo (51:55)

If you really want to understand uncertainty, the lesson, above all, is this: Embrace uncertainty. In all of its complexity and the gut-wrenching portent of change, uncertainty is our friend. Uncertainty is opportunity. And the last piece of advice is to really understand uncertainty you must face change head on.” -Paul Saffo (53:15)

On a coin tip jar at a coffee shop: “If you fear change, leave it in here.”

Rosabeth Moss Kanter: Enduring Principles for Changing Times – November 9, 2007

“Nelson Mandella was held in such high esteem that my MBAs, when I asked them my typical opening question, ‘Are there things he could have done to be more effective?’ they’re silent. When I asked that question to the executives from the Middle East they immediately had several things to improve upon in Mandella. And the major one was: ‘He was not tough enough on his enemies.’ And I immediately felt I understood a great deal more of the culture that has led some people to say there’s a clash of civilizations. I happen to think that kind of dualistic thinking (either you’re for us or against us) is the wrong kind of thinking for our times.

… “In any situation, yes, there are your allies, there are your opponents, but there’s a vast group in the middle that you reach. But this particular group wanted him not to include and forgive and find common ground. They wanted him to be really hard, to retaliate hard on those who had oppressed his people. They wanted revenge and revenge is not a motive that builds a productive future. Revenge might feel good in a particular moment, but it doesn’t move you forward in a positive and progressive way.” -Rosabeth Moss Kanter (51:50)

Juan Enriquez: Mapping the Frontier of Knowledge – October 12, 2007

There’s the kind of competition in war or in sports where, basically, the two sides of that competition become more and more like each other. They have to in order to compete. They’re going for that slight advantage to win in that particular game. But ecology and evolution tend to work in the direction of what’s called the competitive exclusion principle where instead of going dead at the competition, you figure out a whole different niche and carefully avoid competition and that’s how you survive. But it’s also, in a sense, a form of competition.” -Stewart Brand (1:09:23)

Alex Wright: Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages – August 17, 2007

“The Art of Memory was a particular technique that was taught at certain monasteries that enabled monks to memorize incredible amounts of information. By some accounts, people who mastered this technique could memorize something like up to 200,000 pages of information. There were people who claimed to have memorized the whole Bible, every point of the canon law, all kinds of legal documents, and they apparently performed these incredible feats of memorization. The way they did that was by these complex visualizations. A lot of the technique has been lost, but from what we understand, the way they did it was they would create these kind of memory palaces that they would visualize. And within each palace, there would be a series of rooms. And within each room, there would be a set of objects that would have a particular meaning that they would memorize. And somehow those objects would then be strung together into words and text that could be memorized. Very involved technique. It took years and years and decades to master. But what was interesting about it is that it somehow invoked a kind of spatial memory. We think of memorizing as just sort of memorizing rows and rows of text, but it was a very different way, a kind of three-dimensional way of invoking memory.” -Alex Wright (51:00)

The Mundaneum was sort of an early (1910!) computer concept that attempted to organize the world’s information. It was forgotten when the Nazi’s took over. (1:05:36)

Francis Fukuyama: ‘The End of History’ Revisited – June 28, 2007

If you compare the nature of American society between the years 1850 and 1900, and the years 1950 and 2000, which of those produced greater changes in the way that Americans lived? I think without question it was that earlier period. In 1850, the majority of Americans lived on farms in isolated places without good national communication. By the year 1900, they were living in cities in industrialized circumstances, mass education, all sorts of really important social changes brought about by, essentially, industrialization. If you look at between 1950 and 2000, of course, there’s the internet and information technology which has had a big impact, but we’re still living in a carbon based set of energy technologies. Many other things we have more of—the rise of female empowerment, diversity, a lot of other big social changes—but in many respects, I’m not sure that those collectively were as great as the ones experienced a century before.” -Francis Fukuyama (1:02:10)

John Rendon: Long-term Policy to Make the War on Terror Short – July 14, 2006

We need the parents in the countries to believe, because it is true, that the American people care more about their children and their children’s children than the governments in the countries in which they live. If we don’t start thinking about the people in these countries, we’re going to miss an enormous opportunity.” -John Rendon (16:01)

Chris Anderson, Will Hearst: The Long Time Tail – May 12, 2006

I think as long as you have network effects you’re always going to have a power law shape. Network effects tend to amplify inequality, so if you have variety and inequality, as long as you have network effects, you don’t get straight lines, but will instead get exponentials.” (1:00:48)

Kevin Kelly: The Next 100 Years of Science: Long-term Trends in the Scientific Method – March 10, 2006

A really good question in science will unleash 20 or 30 other new questions. If you’re really doing science well, you’re expanding the field of what you don’t know. In fact, the field of what you don’t know is expanding faster than what you’re learning.” -Kevin Kelly (1:12:19)

Sam Harris: The View from the End of the World – December 9, 2005

Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? If occupation were enough, if being conquered by an outside power and being hauled off to jails and tortured were enough to so derange a society that it would form a death cult, like we see brewing in the Muslim world, we should see Tibetan Buddhists blowing themselves up on Chinese buses. We should see Tibetan Buddhists thronging in the streets, calling for the death of Chinese noncombatants. We do not see this and we are profoundly unlikely to see it. Tibetan Buddhists believe a lot of wacky things about the nature of the universe. They don’t believe those wacky things that you have to believe to form a death cult.” -Sam Harris (21:43)

Esther Dyson, Freeman Dyson, George Dyson: The Difficulty of Looking Far Ahead – October 5, 2005

“I think it could be a disaster. The worst thing that could happen is if these doctors find a cure for death. This is something that is actually quite likely. I don’t know how we’ll deal with that. If the old people just hang around, they’ll be no more room for young people. First of all, it will bring an end to science and it will bring an end to all kinds of good things. That to me is one of the real black clouds on the horizon. I hope it’s not going to happen, but I don’t see much chance of avoiding it.” -Freeman Dyson (1:31:43)

Stewart Brand: Cities & Time – April 8, 2005

What I’m proposing is the fast stuff—the fashion, the commerce—is always learning things and proposing things. And the slow parts, their job is to dispose what’s good and not so good, and to remember the stuff that’s worth remembering or worth going back to.” -Stewart Brand (23:30)

Most of the stuff that you see is about the fast stuff. That’s where all of the attention is—the newspapers, the magazines, and the books. But the actual power, and I learned this from ecology, is in the slow things. The butterfly does not drive the forest. The trees drive the forest and the butterflies go along on the sufferance. That is the case with many of the relationships between these slow and fast parts of a dynamic system like civilization.” -Stewart Brand (25:13)

James Carse: Religious War In Light of the Infinite Game – January 14, 2005

“Evil—if I use the terms of the game language—would be an infinite game that becomes absorbed utterly in a finite game, where infinite play is ended for good [permanently].” -James Carse (21:26)

“A belief, understood that way, is the point where your thinking ends. It’s a boundary situation. You’ve come right up to a certain point and you stop with this kind of certainty and don’t dare to go beyond that.” -James Carse [Referring to strong beliefs, the kind you would die for] (24:37)

“In a way, what a true believer believes is not in a long now, but a right now that stays forever.” -James Carse [They are fixated on the current circumstances of the world. They are not open to the possibility that things will change.] (27:13)

Danny Hillis: Progress on the 10,000-year Clock – September 10, 2004

“In order for something to be an interesting experience for someone, they have to want to do something. They have to want to go visit the clock for some reason, or go see the Taj Mahal, or visit the pyramids. They have some picture in their mind of what it is they’re going to accomplish. So whatever it is, it has to have a picture associated with it. So the reason that everybody wants to visit the Taj Mahal but nobody wants to visit Ellora caves in India, is not because the Taj Mahal is more interesting than the Ellora caves—in fact, it’s not—but because there’s a very clear sort of postcard. Everybody knows what it would be like to visit the Taj Mahal and so you can sort of hold it in your mind. And so it’s very important that whatever it is has that kind of iconic quality that you can kind of hold it in your mind, that you sort of know what to expect.” -Danny Hillis (39:00)

Bruce Sterling: The Singularity: Your Future as a Black Hole – June 11, 2004

“And then you have the passive singularitarians, kind of rapture of the nerds contingent, ‘Well, it’ll happen and I’ll just watch.’ ” -Bruce Sterling (42:12)

James Dewar: Long-Term Policy Analysis – February 13, 2004

“That plan is predicated on a variety of assumptions. Now I want to go look for:

A) What those assumptions are, and

B) Which of those assumptions are vulnerable and load bearing. So vulnerable in the sense that they could break and load bearing in the sense that if they do, the plan goes with it. And once you’ve found those vulnerable, load bearing assumptions, then

C) You want to try to setup sign posts to tell you if those assumptions are breaking

D) You want to try to take shaping actions to keep them from breaking, and

E) You want to setup hedging actions in order to best prepare yourself in case they break anyway. … It’s very easy to come up with 85% of your assumptions, but the devil is in those last 15%.” -James Dewar (51:29)

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