The Battle for God

I read this introduction to the book The Battle for God, By Karen Armstrong, and thought it was very insightful. It appears to be taking a balanced historical view of the causes of religious fundamentalism. What I thought was particularly interesting was the tension between Mythos, those things that give life meaning and Logos, those things that help us to understand our world. Over the years I’ve been occasionally concerned that our ability to understand and manipulate the world around us is getting far ahead of our ability to cope with these capabilities. It doesn’t mean those capabilities are bad, but it might mean that we’re out of balance.

The more recent systems, typically religious systems, that provided us with meaning and purpose aren’t working for us anymore. When the foundations that support these belief systems diverge sufficiently from what we have learned to a point that denial is necessary to maintain them, we get pretty stressed. This can make us angry, which can lead to violent behavior ranging from nasty comments on Facebook to racism, bigotry and beheadings. We apparently went through this during the agricultural revolution as well eventually adapting our belief systems to our new found technological circumstances 2015.02-Wales-0578with its resulting wealth and relative leisure. All of the gods that were required to make everything work and each needing to be appeased in some way were replaced by a more simplified and easier to manage monotheistic approach (at least in the west). We still had a god as the explanation of last resort and someone we could claim to be accountable to in order to justify our actions. This turned out to be much more successful than the old polytheistic approach and those who didn’t get it were marginalized, persecuted, and eventually became novelties and oddities or died out completely. The struggle, of course, took several generations with a lot of intermediate belief systems being developed in the process and a lot of violent disagreement between those with different points of view.

We’re at a point now where the god notion isn’t helpful at all as an explanation. St. Mary's University Church MartyrsThere are no little men and women inside making things go as in the pre-agricultural days nor is there a need for a puppet master with his fingers in everything to make things work. What we’re able to observe and extrapolate from those observations seems to be a sufficient explanation for why things do what they do. It doesn’t mean that that those prior systems were bad, they were quite useful, it just means that we’ve found better ways to explain things1. But this isn’t enough. It’s only half of the value provided by these beliefs. It answers “how” questions very well, but doesn’t answer “why” questions well at all unless you’re satisfied with “because that’s the way it is”. In the system we’re evolving from “why” was answered by “because it’s God’s plan”. That worked for a long time. It made us feel comfortable. It helped us understand our role. It made life easier because there were a lot of things that we didn’t have to expend energy thinking about. We could just be soldiers and let the general do all the heavy lifting. It’s a good life.

It turns out that there may not be a plan or a general. We now find ourselves in a situation where we may have to take more responsibility for our lives and actions than we thought we did. ColossusOh no! Now what? We’re now accountable directly to each other and directly to the only world and universe that we’re aware of. No pushing the blame and responsibility to someone else. This is terrifying for a lot of people. It’s why they resort to violence in order to try to go back to the days when they didn’t have to be responsible. There’s no going back and wishing or anger or denial won’t help, on either side. The discussions about how to be accountable to each other will continue. The debate around how to treat our LGBT friends is an example of this. The discussions about how to be accountable to the world we live in will continue. The debate around climate change is an example of this. As with all changes, we’ll either figure it out or die trying. It will be a struggle and there will be a lot of casualties, but I’m hoping we get there. What alternative do we have?



A system is considered to be intelligent if it more or less reliably produces a desirable outcome from a range of unexpected circumstances. A system is considered to be a machine if it more or less reliably produces a desirable outcome from a range of anticipated circumstances. Continue reading “Intelligence”


Time and System Design

Note to self (sort of obvious).

In system design time is an assumption it’s not feedback.

The proof of this is trivial. No matter what your system does or even if it exists, time marches on. Time doesn’t depend on your system in any way.

For example, if I design some sort of whiz bang toothbrush and I build an alarm into it that goes off after five minutes indicating you can stop brushing then I’ve made and assumption that five minutes is enough time to brush. No portion of my system has actually measured how clean your teeth are. I’ve only built an assumption into the system.

It may have been an informed assumption. For example, studies may have shown that on average brushing for only three minutes is not enough for most people and brushing for six or seven minutes doesn’t substantially improve how clean your teeth may be. In the real world however there will be circumstances where three minutes was plenty of time to get your teeth clean or seven minutes wasn’t nearly long enough. Outcomes are distributed and I’m building an informed statistical assumption into the system, but it’s still an assumption.

There are a lot of assumptions we build into systems, not just time based. In the toothbrush example, what is clean enough? Is my definition of clean enough the same as yours? My assumption may be based on long term dental health. Yours may be based on how your smile looks and your breath smells. If I know about all of these needs, how do I prioritize which is most important? Your priorities may be different. When cleanliness was measured in our experiments, how was it measured? If it wasn’t comprehensive in some way then there’s room for error. System design is a bet and is very subject to judgement. The objective of system design is to create a system that works often enough. It’s not to create a system that works all of the time.

It’s good to remember this because I often forget and get frustrated when something doesn’t do what I expected it to do. To avoid some kinds of frustration it can be good to ask yourself, “Does this system seem to work most of the time for most people?” If the answer is yes, then let go of the frustration. For me I either need to change my expectations or I need to stop engaging that system.

Interestingly, we arrive yet again at the basic equation …

stress = expectation – reality

This is another reminder.


Asset Transformation

I’ve been toying with the notion that business, for certain, and possibly life in general is all about asset transformation. Basically, taking one or more assets and transforming them into other assets. We transform our skills and time into money by means of a job. We transform our charm and other personal characteristics into friendships by means of social engagements. Google transforms the audience it develops from web searches into money by means of providing space for advertising. It goes on and on.

The key elements of an asset transformation include the source assets, the resulting assets and the process of transformation. It’s really interesting how well this maps onto the basic planning pattern; Step 1 – Figure out what you want, Step 2 – Figure out what you have that’s relevant, Step 3 – Figure out how to get from what you have to what you want. All planning has these elements though when performed out of sequence it often results in poor planning.

Within this are also the notions of growth and consumption. Consumption is probably the easiest to think about. If you have a fixed, finite asset and you apply a process that consumes that asset in the transformation to another asset then eventually you run out of the supplying asset. Sometimes this ok or at least necessary. Consider the asset of time as it relates to your life. Until we reach Kurzweil’s singularity it’s fixed and finite for each of us. Efficiency, of course, is all about how much resulting assets you can get from the supplying assets. Lots of people have opinions about how to make life more efficient.

If that’s a little to abstract, just think about the gas in your gas tank. It’s an asset you use to get from point A to point B by means of a car. Eventually it runs low or out and you have to get more by transforming the asset of cash into the asset of gas by means of a service station.

Growth is more interesting. It seems like there might be at least two types; feedback growth and forward growth. Feedback growth occurs when a supplying asset is also a resulting asset. It doesn’t necessarily need to grow. Catalysts for example aren’t consumed by a process but are assets necessary for the process and are effectively products of those processes. Systems with network externalities do grow based on feedback, these do need to work in concert with other assets that are consumed. For example, social networks grow as a function of the number of participants, but this is at the expense of the pool of people who are not part of the social network yet. When that runs dry the process stops.

Forward growth may be just feedback with a longer loop. For example, when you are young opportunities (an asset) are relatively few, but one of those opportunities is to get a good education. Having a good education provides you with many more opportunities that you had otherwise many of which aren’t further education but also weren’t available before you got your education.

The notions of investment and profit apply to these growth modes as well.

If you were to say that this is just another way of looking at dynamic systems, then you’d be right. The relabeling though, seems to help me to identify opportunities that might be hidden. It’s certainly interesting to look at business opportunities through this lens.


Pondering Bill Cosby

A friend recently posted an article on Facebook regarding the rape allegations against Bill Cosby. There are enough women who’ve come forward that are saying they were assaulted by him to make it look like more than just someone taking advantage of a celebrity. If these things are true then it looks like he’s done some very bad things in his life. If they’re not true then we’ll forever need to look skeptically at anyone claiming a celebrity has assaulted them. This isn’t just tabloid fluff.

There’s layer upon layer of consideration here. As usual I visit as many as I can think of. The first and most obvious is how I feel about rape. It’s unambiguously abhorrent. Rape converts a person with all of the value and potential that they bring into an, often disposable, object. It violates our most basic social mechanism; our ability to trust others to let us act in the ways we see fit and to experience the joy that this brings. In other words it converts trust into fear. For me, as a father, a grandfather and a friend, it transcends rational and becomes visceral; both pain and anger. I’ll just leave it at that. In my value system it doesn’t have any positives.

Given the significance, deciding how much I believe the allegations is no small matter. While some seem to like to get caught up in the euphoria of the crowd and media, I prefer to own my conclusions. We all have public and private personas that are to a greater or lesser extent compartmentalized. Over time it’s usually to a lesser extent as the boundaries wear thin. For a celebrity their business is their public persona. Bill Cosby has had more than one extremely well managed public persona over the course of his career1. The most recent seemed to bring a lot of good to our society. Public personas have the benefit for us of being public record. Pretty much everything done in that persona has been witnessed by large groups of people, have been recorded or both.

Private personas are another matter. These are the things that few have seen and little is recorded. To learn about them you often have had to have been there or have had to know someone who was. The rape allegations are about at least one of Bill Cosby’s private personas. We can only indirectly know what really happened. If only one woman had come forward it would have been a tough battle for her; her word against his and a planet full of people who’ve learned to trust him. But many women have come forward and there doesn’t seem to be any connection between them other than Bill Cosby. This tilts the story strongly in their favor. An argument is being made that it took a long time for them to come forward and that this should tilt the story back in Bill Cosby’s direction. Given that one of the accusers talked to a reporter (who didn’t do anything about it) in the early 1980s, perhaps they didn’t wait so long afterall 2. This can never be conclusive, but the weight isn’t in Bill Cosby’s favor at the moment.

The next layer of consideration is that from a social perspective Bill Cosby is a complex person. If the allegations are true then he did some very bad things, but he also brought a lot of joy into people’s lives and a positive influence for many others as well. Are the things that he said and did now bad because he behaved badly during some less public moments in his life or do those things stand on their own regardless of who delivered them? The laughs from the Bill Cosby show were enjoyed in the moment. It’s possible that they changed the lives of a few in ways that I can’t speculate on. Unfortunately after this thinking about Bill Cosby going forward may generate feelings other than joy and in a way this cancels those earlier moments out. The positive influence is another matter. For those that “own themselves” that influence remains positive because it changed the way that they think and behave. For others the positive influence he provided may have only tentatively constrained what they viewed as acceptable. There’s risk of them believing that they now have permission to behave badly. These are some of the extended consequences that come from the choices you make in your life.

There’s also the matter of how to think of Bill Cosby as a person. Few of us can claim that we didn’t do many foolish things in our younger days. If these allegations are true then it goes well beyond merely being foolish. All that being said, what kind of person is he now and how does this matter to me? As an extreme example, it kind of relates to trying to figure out how I should feel about the death penalty. Are people who have done really bad things hopeless and irredeemably dangerous or are they recoverable and able to add future value to our lives? Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. In this case I don’t know enough, but the likelihood has been diminished.

To leap to a much more extreme layer, how should I think about this given the possible structure and nature of the universe? In some interpretations the universe was just created complete with memory and history. Nothing ever actually happened. It’s just that all the right bits are in the right places to make us believe there’s some continuity from some earlier time. Another interpretation is that there are an infinite number of universes. This means that all possible things that could have happened have happened in some universe. In some universe Bill Cosby never raped anyone, in some he did and never got caught, in some he did and did get caught soon after the fact, in some he was accused but the allegations were later proved to be false, and on and on. If this is true then what I’ve discovered is that I may just have been in the wrong universe at the wrong time. I’m pretty sure that I don’t know how to wrap what’s left of my head around that.

I do feel a sense of loss due to these events. Had I known more I may have chosen a different universe, but this is the one I ended up in. Why should it be easy when it can be hard.