Dreamland — A Quickie Review

Sea kayaking, off the coast of Espiritu Santo, La Paz BCS

I’ve written a little about my upbringing in a modest size community in southern Ohio — Portsmouth. For the most part, my family lived in Portsmouth while I was growing up – there’s a more complicated trajectory of the reasons why we moved, from inside the city, to a small hobby farm outside, which did matter in the development of my mental perspective. Living in Portsmouth was largely a classic suburban existence, albeit far more violent than most people in the US in that socioeconomic class typically experience. Living in the countryside, though, broadened dramatically my exposure, and understanding of rural poverty in Midwest America. It was hard-core Appalachia outside the city limits, and there was more than one night riding the school bus home after dark where kids would be having sex in the rear of the bus.

At any rate, the confluence of conditions of a profound lack of opportunity in my hometown, coupled with my desire to live in the western U.S. and pursue whitewater sport, caused me to leave Ohio when I was 20. After working at J&L Steel in Cleveland, I moved to North Carolina and Duke University, and really never look back. That was in 1983.

Just because you leave a place, though, doesn’t mean it decides to freeze itself in time. And Portsmouth, even in the mid ’70s, was an iconic community starting the process of unraveling. Never known for its social cohesion, railroad strikes were known for boxcars off the tracks and burning police cars. Empire-Detroit Steel Corporation, with their antiquated open hearth furnaces, and wire and rail mills, started the process of collapse through major closures of parts of the mill around 1976. And it never did get better — the shoelace factory closed, and the shoe factory, and so on. They were never replaced, but created one of the first post-industrial landscapes in the U.S.

And though we were north of the Mason-Dixon Line (Kentucky was just across the river) there was no let-up in the chronic racism that African-Americans experienced. De facto segregation corralled almost all the black folks in one part of the city with a swath of public housing, and the black kids had their own pool to go to as well. I can’t remember the name of that pool, but it wasn’t the one where I worked as a lifeguard, courtesy of a family friend and swimming instructor.

That pool was called Dreamland, and it was a big one. It was a nexus of the white trash community, and I have many fond memories of hanging out with single moms watching their kids playing in the water, and 13-year-old girls. By this time, the idea of 16-year-old girls hanging out by the pool all summer had already faded into the sunset. To be a teenager in Portsmouth meant summer work in a fast food joint, or laboring on a garden or road crew. I supplemented my own lifeguard earnings with literally backbreaking labor throwing hay on nearby farms, mostly at my parents’ insistence. I didn’t want the money (the pay was $2/hr.) but the farmers were friends and needed the labor.

It was with a certain fascination that I picked up Sam Quinones’ book ‘Dreamland’ — a book about the opioid epidemic. I knew that Dreamland, the pool, had long been filled in and ceased to exist. But I was tied to this place — and while I maintained some friendships with old high school classmates, largely, I had left.

Why should anyone interested in the topics on this blog read Quinones’ book? Because it is an amazing piece of generative complex systems adaptation after social collapse. Or rather, it documents what happens during a process of social collapse, as ingrained information regarding functioning social structures morph and change to adapt to new norms.

The short timeline behind all this is as follows. The factories providing revenue from outside the community fold. That lack of money/energetic support ceases to exist, and formerly proud and effective social structures also start collapsing. The center of the town is abandoned, replaced by some version of Walmarts, which then form the new nexus of economic activity.

But these also are poorly supported, and the area and its inhabitants fall into depression. This depression creates the need for a caregiver community to start prescribing (and exploiting) the population using opioids. This legal channel works in combined ways, some bad, but not all, until it grows to the size the exploitation is so bad, it must be stopped. A few doctors build amazing fortunes on providing the drugs — Margie Temponeras, one of the doctors not mentioned in the book, but a literal next-door neighbor whom I grew up with. She was recently convicted and sentenced under federal drug trafficking laws for singularly providing millions of pills from her pain clinic in Wheelersburg, an adjacent town to Portsmouth by about six miles. What Temponeras did was terrible and inexcusable– but I also have to wonder about the lack of empathy toward her victims, and the trauma roots of all this, as her brother was killed working under a car around the time we were in high school.

Even after reading Dreamland, it’s unclear exactly to me when the legal pills stopped distribution in Portsmouth, and the black tar heroin dealers from the state of Nayarit in Mexico started flowing. There was obviously a parallel confluence of the two sources. But the system dynamics are unmistakable. What happened with the Nayaritos, in the face of a community living in depression and pain, was they evolved a parallel economic ecosystem involving dispensation of black tar heroin in small balloons, containing .1 g of heroin, throughout Portsmouth, as well as ‘underserved’ communities across the Midwest.

What was different about the Nayarit strategy was that instead of having a centralized drug house, where people who might be addicted would have to go to buy their hit of drugs, the bosses put clean-cut Mexican young men in nondescript cars, like Toyota Corollas in a decentralized distribution system pre-dating Uber Eats by almost two decades. If you wanted your fix, you’d page one of them on your pager, and they would bring the hit to you. If you were out of money, they’d understand, and front you your fix until you found the money.

And if you couldn’t find the money, well, the Nayaritos would have a list of goods you could steal for payment. From Walmart — to the point where if there was a disagreement with your drug delivery boy, you both could call Walmart for a price check. This phenomenon blossomed to people specializing in stealing certain categories of goods. Some folks might specialize in baby clothes, or stereo equipment, and even set up these types of stores in their apartments. The demand for American goods was strong back in Nayarit, and the mercantile ecosystem of thievery would adapt. Quinones writes in unflinching detail about all of this from a true complex system perspective. It is mind-boggling.

After reading the book, some of it was so unbelievable I had to start calling old friends to find out how much was hyperbole and how much was truth. The sad reality I was exposed to was that many of my high school friends’ kids had also been victims of the epidemic and gotten hooked on opioids — either the legal or illegal varieties. Any “it couldn’t happen to decent people” thoughts were quickly disabused by my old friend, who will remain anonymous, as she listed the various people that I would know that had to deal with this crisis. I subscribe to my hometown news feed, and while there is some positive news every now and then, most of the region reels under the crisis of naked addicts writhing around in parking lots, and an unusually high number of chronic petty thefts and automobile accidents. It’s like the whole area has St. Vitus Dance, the Appalachian name for Huntington’s Disease, where the hapless victim shakes themselves to death quietly.

If there’s any lesson from all of this, especially in a time where more and more of the country is experiencing this kind of economic dislocation, is that mirror systems will appear regardless of protestations of morality from others saying to withhold aid. In the case of Portsmouth, the Nayaritos provided the social care system in the absence of a more formal, prosocial variety. Nothing gets better, of course, because it can’t.

It’s not like the drug dealers, nor the cops on the take, nor the last newspaper editor running anti-Muslim propaganda on his own Facebook page have a bigger view of the world. And so one sees a distorted web woven of dysfunctional relationships springing up, alternately making new modalities of functioning, like methods for quick mass theft of goods from Walmart, coupled with legacy modes borrowed from the past — like setting up a store with indexed pricing of stolen consumer goods. Like pictures I’ve seen of the webs woven by spiders exposed to psychedelic drugs, the long-term evolutionary characteristics are doubtless nonviable. But they work well enough in the present so that the spider can catch a few flies.

My recommendation? Quinones’ book, which has received accolades from many quarters, should be high on anyone’s list who cares about the fate of our country. Liberals in particular need to read this book, and realize that many of the forces that put Trump into power have not gone away. And short of secession, we are going to live with the legacy of places like Portsmouth’s collapse for a long time. Because people will adapt to their circumstance. And it won’t be pretty.

A tip of the hat to my wife, Chia-Chu Hu, for the insight that when you don’t set up a social services system, one will basically become emergent and find its way for people in need. And those people may be heroin dealers from Nayarit.

Quickie Post — Young Prodigies Usually Do Not Turn into Paradigm-Shifting Geniuses

My swimming partner — a 30′ whale shark, La Paz, Baja California Sur

A nice, bio-sketch piece from the BBC came flying across my Twitter feed from fellow educational pioneer, John Hagel (tip of the hat — John goes through a TON of content, sorts it, and posts it on Twitter!) This one, titled Child prodigies: How geniuses navigate the uncertain journey to adulthood, narrates the journeys of a number of prodigies who mostly either finished college early, or in other ways became known at an early age for musical performance. The piece was probably spurred by the recent mini-controversy over Laurent Simons, the Belgian prodigy who looked to break the record for earliest college graduate (his major was in electrical engineering) at the age of 10. He was, depending on your perspective, thwarted/didn’t cut the mustard/whatever! by the university he was enrolled in. And in light of that, his parents yanked him out to attend school in the United States.

The more interesting part of the piece is really NOT the idea that a 10-year-old can graduate from college, or play concert-level violin. Neuro-differentiated youngsters, possessing brains that run at the functional computer equivalent of increased clock rates, are going to show up on the tails of various intelligence measure distributions. They’re going to finish college faster because their brains in isolation are going to run faster.

What’s more fascinating is that they, through the process of their innate capacity, along with learned specialization, usually do NOT turn into creative geniuses. As I’ve discussed extensively on this blog, empathetic interaction is far more likely to yield creative solutions that leaving one, ungrounded person with their own thoughts. So it’s no surprise that these young people specialize in things requiring knowledge sophistication — and race through universities, also dedicated to exactly that same type of thought pattern/value set. Creative genius is almost always cross-paradigmatic, borrowing from different perspectives, than the narrow, parthenogenesis of further refinement that happens inside universities.

Here’s the picture I’m fond of using showing the difference between evolution and complexity, and sophistication, for your reference.

Evolution vs. Sophistication in Knowledge Structures

If you key into one part of this graph, consider the “reliability vs. validity” aspect. A prodigy violin player can practice over and over a particular sequence so they play it perfectly — thus emphasizing reliability. But even the best young player requires coaching from a master in order to deliver nuance in their playing, or communicate through their music moods expressed in the composition, such as loss of a loved one, or Alexander Nevsky beating the Livonian Order on the ice in Prokofiev’s masterpiece. A young person simply doesn’t have the life experience, and must rely on mirroring empathy. Their master must provide the grounding validity.

Limiting cases, such as these talented young people are especially useful for generalized insight into sentience. Not because of their externally validated accomplishments, like graduating from Oxford early. But because what they cannot do points to ways we must change, and establish behavior reward. The future, if we are going to have one, and the answers to the big questions are going to rely on connected thought, across disciplines and people. It will be empathetic.

Making Ethical AI and Avoiding the Paperclip Maximizer Problem

Sea Lion craziness, off Isla Espiritu Santo, Baja California Sur

On my Twitter feed, there are multiple threads going at any one time regarding ethical AI. While the work is specific and sophisticated, it lacks any larger framework, like Spiral Dynamics, that actually shows how values evolve, or are placed in sets. And true to the social structure of organizations that create this kind of knowledge — mostly Legalistic/Authoritarian hierarchies — it’s no surprise that we have lots of esoterica flying around about specific mathematical strategies, as well as ad hoc philosophical solutions.

As I’ve said before, there is absolutely nothing morally wrong with this kind of thinking. But one can’t expect any of it to be complete, or perhaps better said, cover the value space. You can’t attempt to cover a space that you don’t know exists. If you’ve got a bunch of Dead White Philosophers in your secret ghost army to support your hypothesis, odds are you’re thinking you’re going to protect Minas Tirith from Sauron. But more likely, you’re going to just end up in some chaotic version of one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, like Curse of the Black Pearl, that I just happened to watch on the airplane.

Yesterday, in the middle of some Twitter discussion, with Thought Grandfather, Mel Conway, he brought up the AI thought puzzle called Paperclip Maximizer. The short version of this trope is this:

  1. We create an AI whose goal is two-fold — maximize the number of paperclips it has created, and give it as well the job of improving its ability to maximize the number of paperclips it CAN create.
  2. We turn it loose, and in the process, it potentially kills us in its desire to fulfill the inexorable demands of its objective function.

It all SEEMS like a reasonable problem, and in his book, Human Compatible, Stuart Russell, noted Berkeley computer scientist reasons around this by making AIs pleasantly subservient to humans through individual adaptation to their masters — kind of a riff on the Communitarian value set.

But there’s a better, and more systematic way to get at all this. How? By understanding the Value Set of our Paperclip Maximizer, and then making sure we have provided enough scaffolding in the programming of our AI to make sure that it doesn’t make paperclips out of the entire world. Naturally, this is predicated on the assumption that Sentience is Sentience is Sentience, a classically unprovable postulate, though I’m issuing a friendly challenge to anyone showing some thought or piece of knowledge actually lies outside some construction from the canonical knowledge structure set in this piece.

To start, what is the Value Set/V-Meme set of the Paperclip Maximizer — let’s call him Mr. Clippy –in the first place? If Mr. Clippy is solely concerned with a.) its survival, b.) its emotional state of fulfillment upon making more paperclips, and c.) utilizing some developing heuristic set of methodologies to make paperclips, it’s pretty much all on the ‘I’ side of the Spiral. Here’s a handy little diagram that makes this point.

The Basics

Of course, one can think of more behaviors that would be generated by the different value sets/v-Memes — and if Mr. Clippy is more diabolical, we’re likely to see higher v-Meme borrowing. But the basic fact is that Mr. Clippy is egocentric, and given an objective function that prioritizes his own success through measurement of paperclip production, it’s entirely possible that he’ll dream of world domination and offing his human creators. And that will be dependent on the sophistication AND evolution of his learning strategies.

Fascinatingly enough, we now might start to see how empathy and its development play into Mr. Clippy’s development. With limited or no empathy (let’s assume that Mr. Clippy has access to mirroring strategies) — if he sees another AI — Ms. Clippy? — making more paper clips than him, he may indeed be able to copy her. But he’s pretty limited on getting any feedback on his obsession, and it’s not long until he’s what I’ve called “collapsed egocentric” — which means he’s on his way to full-on psychopathy, with fuzzy, or limited boundaries between the consumption of the world and his desires.

The social structure of his creator also starts showing up. Mr. Clippy may be able to collect data and form new empirical relationships and laws — classic Legalistic/Absolutistic value set knowledge formation. But if Mr. Clippy is tied to his objective function by his creator, he’s going to lack the agency to evolve. Remember, he’s got to keep making clips, and while he can sort the various algorithms and potentially change algorithms to make clips faster, he can never question “Why” he’s making the clips in the first place.

And since he’s disconnected from all other realities except the metric of increased paperclip production, he simply CAN’T evolve. His objective function has frozen him, or rather his sentience, like a bug in amber. He can’t connect, and as such, unless there are some explicit overrides in his program to gather information and interact with others, he is simply incapable. The computer-y way of saying all this is he has no access to, nor ability to change other agents’ states. He has no developed empathy.

What if Mr. Clippy had empathy, and as such started receiving feedback from other AI agents (like Ms. Clippy) or humans out there? One can start seeing that Mr. Clippy might start developing longer timelines of actions — especially if he was equipped with a longer term memory. Mr. Clippy might whack a few humans on his way to higher paperclip production, but perhaps one of those humans he whacked might have held a secret Mr. Clippy discovers later to have the ability to up his paperclip production even more. Now Mr. Clippy might start reflecting on the wisdom of whacking humans, as that would interfere with his Prime Directive. And so on.

By adding value sets/v-Memes on the ‘We’ side of the Spiral, we can start seeing that connection really matters. And Mr. Clippy has to start also being aware of his own actions, and how they affect others, or else we’ll be back in the “Mr. Clippy as Pennywise the Clown” trope once again. Most importantly, we can start understanding how to add scaffolding to Mr. Clippy’s objective function so he can make more paperclips, as well as prevent killing off all humans. Maybe Mr. Clippy will end up setting up supply chains! Who knows?

Scaffolded Mr. Clippy

I could go on with this, of course. But hopefully, if you’re interested enough in SD, this has made you happy. And if you’re into AI, but haven’t heard about SD, there’s enough to pique your interest.

But before we leave Mr. Clippy behind, and the larger issue of coding value sets and behaviors, let’s just take a minute and back up and consider who wrote about Paperclip Maximizer in the first place? The fundamental thesis of Mr. Clippy is that, given an objective function and NO deep understanding of value sets and how they work, this thing is gonna make paperclips and run away and kill everyone. Because it’s SO SMART.

Yet any performance grounding from around the world tells us basically all manufacturing items rely on complicated supply chains for efficiency. These supply chains have negotiated contracts and commitments to specialization for all supplies, from zinc-covered wire, to bending machines and such. Where we’ve REALLY been had is by Mr. Clippy’s creator, who obviously is an Authoritarian, and believes that even with a single objective metric, # of paperclips, that the best way to do it is to be an obsessive psychopath.

SD and understanding value sets can help us with ethical AI. There’s no question about that. And yeah — there might be a runaway paperclip AI that with little evolution, destroys the world. But maybe our real problem is a lack of understanding where we get these stories in the first place. Maybe the real moral of the Mr. Clippy story is that we’re not going to have very advanced AIs until we understand intersubjective understanding and independent agency. In other words — we better bone up on empathy, if we really want complexity.

Why do The Gods only Talk to Some of Us?

That’s me in the little blue boat… 2019

One of the things that has always bothered me about any developmental theory is that inevitably, it gets coopted by the status-conscious as a way of justifying their ostensible superiority. What happens next is an outflowing of the usual bile from those claiming the mantle of enlightenment — “those people” don’t love, they don’t care, or have feelings. And THEN the next action, at times in history, has been to kill them. Any theory of the übermensch has the dark problem of highlighting human superiority turning into a tool for psychopaths. It’s no surprise to me that Crazy Uncle Friedrich (Nietzsche) would wax operatically about the Spartans, whom I’ve written about before. It makes my mind reel to think people would wax heroic about a nation based on pederasty. Sorry.

I’ve told amalgamated friend Hanzi Freinacht that what we need to do is move to a stage-based theory that embodies instead of a hierarchy of status, a hierarchy of responsibility. If you’re more enlightened, well, that’s all well and good. Now here’s a big, old serving of duty for fixing what ails the world.

The Zen Buddhist monks got all these concepts in spades. One of my favorite stories, from Paul Reps’ curated 101 Zen Stories is below, that captures this sentiment.

Soldiers of Humanity

Once a division of the Japanese army was engaged in a sham battle, and some of the officers found it necessary to make their headquarters in Gasan’s temple.

Gasan told his cook: “Let the officers have only the same simple fare we eat.”

This made the army men angry, as they were used to very deferential treatment. One came to Gasan and said: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country. Why don’t you treat us accordingly?”

Gasan answered sternly: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers of humanity, aiming to save all sentient beings.”

The bottom line of all this is that all people (at least those without broken brain circuits) feel things like love and attachment, or sorrow in loss of love. It is unfair to say that a poor person, or a person from a different culture, doesn’t feel some version of love. But the way, and the triggers for that emotion, naturally vary wildly dependent on that person’s background culture, as well as stage of development. I remember reading an account of the Coptic Christian massacre by Daesh/Islamic State in 2015, where IS killed 21 construction workers in the name of revenge for an alleged failed conversion of a Copt woman to Islam. A reporter had traveled to the town in Egypt, where many of the workers were from. Expecting to find a devastated community, instead they found families honored by their sons’ martyred sacrifice. So there is indeed range in human response — but it’s important to understand that the joy and pride were a response to their love. Not an abnegation of it.

Another great example I’ve used to build my empathy, that maps really well to the development of humanity, is understanding the characters in the documentary about the construction and filling behind the Three Gorges Dam — Up the Yangtze , by director Yung Chung. Chung covers the plight of the poorest of the poor — a farmer and his wife living along the banks of the river, and soon to be displaced by the rising flood waters backing up behind the dam. Their material condition is extremely poor — you have to watch the documentary to appreciate it, and I was raised in the hills of Appalachia. Yet there is an obvious bond between the old farmer and his wife. I find myself working to understand their bond — what constitutes, to the wife, the idea that she married well, and as such, serves as a devoted partner to her husband. Instead of doubting that those different from us feel emotion, it’s a useful point of growth.

But back to the main question. If we’re fundamentally all the same, yet different through some lens of personal development, why do the gods only talk to some of us? They certainly don’t talk to me. Is there an evolutionary reason that we can understand why the gods don’t talk to me, but do talk to others, that’s explainable in the four dimensions we have in the here and now?

With a tip of the hat to Carlos Perez, who writes extensively on AI, and recently covered my concept of Structural Memetics as a route toward understanding AI development, I’m obviously not the first person to consider this question. What I’m going to discuss is Julian Jayne’s Theory of the Bicameral Mind. Written in 1978, Jaynes argued that consciousness is a learned behavior, and in the long context of human history, relatively recent. Ulysses of the Odyssey really WAS told what to do by the gods — in particular, the goddess Athena, who was said to resemble him the most in that she was also the goddess prone to tricks.

We both know tricks, since you are by far the best among all men in counsel and tales, but I among all the Gods have renown for wit (metis) and tricks.1

Ulysses is not the only mythic, or semi-mythic figure trotted out with a thin version of a conscience. He did end up in Dante’s lowest level of the Inferno for a reason. For those of Abrahamic religious persuasion, it’s worthwhile to note that Abraham himself was told to sacrifice his oldest son, Isaac. He was just about to do it until Yahweh issued a stay of execution. In lots of places in the Bible, especially when the Hebrew pastoralists were cruising around in the wilderness, Yahweh does some serious talking. As well as producing some artifacts that have large-scale consequences, like the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. It is both metaphorically, and oddly enough, v-Memetically fitting that in The Raiders of the Lost Ark, after the Nazis are melted by opening the Ark of the Covenant, attempting to access magic they had no deeper birthright to, the whole Ark is then buried deep in a bureaucratic nightmare of government storehouse. The Legalistic v-Meme can even suffocate the power of Magical Divine Authority.

But back to development. Unlike others, like Kegan and Piaget, I’ve posited two axes for increase of neural complexity — either complicatedness/sophistication, and complexity/evolution.

And here’s the key. In order to evolve, one must develop enough agency through self-examination and development of empathy to self-separate from other’s imposed reality. That means you recognize that other’s interpretations of reality is outside your noggin.

And you then cross-reference your own neural inputs and sensations through your experiences to spin all those parts through a reflecting hippocampus to create autobiographical narratives. That little hippocampus spinning wheel in your limbic system seems to be key in creating those narratives that are assembled from lots of different parts floating around our brain — but most importantly, in your prefrontal cortex (PFC). And certainly one of the threads that gets woven into all this, IF you have this self-separation from other’s emotional reality, is the idea that you have a unique voice in all this — that your free will and agency actually matters, at least a little bit.

So as you go through life, this grounding wire through your PFC feeds important information back into your system as far as both paying attention to your world, as well as the people in your world, realizing they have an important role in creating your own narratives. And as you add people to your world, your grounding feed grows, and grows — through developed empathy.

But what happens if you don’t have that grounding wire through other people, and your PFC? What happens if you don’t have that large network of others’ realizations, as well as a conscience and the time to know yourself?

It IS possible that your brain might get frozen in time, and you just stop growing. But now it’s informative to return to the notion of how other emotions might grow in lieu of an experientially-based relationship. Just like the farmer’s wife, other modes of developed attachment from cultural and other symbolic vocabularies might reinforce your experience. In short, that little voice in your head just might be your God talking to you. With some serious external, cultural reinforcement — like sacrificing your favorite pet goat.

But here’s the key thought. That grounding wire, instead of reaching out into a data-driven world, instead remains locked, self-referentially, through your limbic system. It keeps feeding back the same beliefs over and over into your stories, reinforcing whatever fixed mental models you have. No wonder its turtles all the way down. All you’ve got are those damn turtles.

And as you turn more and more cycles in the old CPU, those thoughts become part of the larger, threaded narrative of your life. And your view of the world becomes a more magical place. Coherence is generated through more and more complicated connections, flowing from the same iconic symbol set. Ravens show up and get hooked to everything. Or owls. Or crosses.

What’s interesting is that the larger irrational perspective might have, historically, fueled innovation and global change, before we were all actually connected with any real information. All you have to do is read a couple of conquistadors’ stories, and you might just start believing that God wanted you to show up on Atahualpa’s (the Incan leader at the time of collapse) doorstep after a major military defeat. Stranger things have been perceived.

And now we can loop back around to some things I’ve said about how social structures low on the empathy scale also are pretty poor in metacognition as well. You don’t get to be a leader of the faith by saying “I don’t know.”

But all of it is one crazy way to innovate — by sailing off across the ocean convinced everything’s just going to be alright. A little blind faith might not be a bad strategy for the holiday football pool – or sailing to the New World in 1492. But it’s a concept worth reconsidering and re-evaluating when it comes to tipping points for global warming.

For me personally, while I can appreciate, and sort of embrace Jayne’s bicameral brain, I’m still not going tell you the Universe has any particular plan for me. There’s been no god of any sort talking to me. I’ve always figured I’ve gotten this far by saying “I don’t know.” That metacognitive survival strategy has worked pretty well up to this point.

What’s the takeaway? At some level, other people in our life help figure out which pathway we’re going to use. If they’re all like us, with the same belief sets and mental models, all we need is that warm fuzzy feeling to feel safe, and our PFC remains relatively dormant. The world doesn’t change much, there isn’t much reckoning for getting stuck, and we also get to tell people that over time, we’re closer to whatever god we’re granted by our church, our family, or NASCAR racing team. And the devil literally take the hindmost if someone attempts to change our mind. A self-referential limbic loop makes that basically impossible, though our thinking will lead to a more sophisticated view of our deity. It becomes our touchstone.

But if folks are different, we have to start paying attention — with cognitive empathy. Which then rakes our PFC into the brouhaha, which gets us wondering, maybe a little, whether we heard them right, or something, so we can connect to them. And so, as we march through our lives, building both consciousness, an independent conscience, and a larger, diverse social network, our PFC gets one helluva workout. And then it has to reckon with all the empty space in there. Which leads to wisdom.

As we relate, so we think. Who woulda thunk?

More Societal Implications of the Obesity Epidemic — Insulin Resistance, Epigenetic Preloading and Obesity Showing Up in Mortality Stats

Braden, outside his favorite sandwich shop in the world — Florence, Italy

A recent article in the Washington Post, by Joel Achenbach, came sliding across my feed, interesting (pathologically) because it is backing up with data one of the predictions I’ve made regarding the appalling state of our overall health. That prediction is that our awful diet that excludes saturated fats, and gives a pass to sugar and refined carbs, is combining with epigenetic preloading of insulin resistance and driving obesity in our young people. This earlier expression of insulin resistance, leads to earlier onset of Type II diabetes, and the incumbent Western diseases that flow from that. And that will lead to an increase in All-Cause mortality at younger and younger ages, leading to an enormous public health crisis.

From the article:

The report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was immediately hailed by outside researchers for its comprehensive treatment of a still-enigmatic trend: the reversal of historical patterns in longevity.

Despite spending more on health care than any other country, the United States has seen increasing mortality and falling life expectancy for people age 25 to 64, who should be in the prime of their lives. In contrast, other wealthy nations have generally experienced continued progress in extending longevity. Although earlier research emphasized rising mortality among non-Hispanic whites in the United States, the broad trend detailed in this study cuts across gender, racial and ethnic lines. By age group, the highest relative jump in death rates from 2010 to 2017 — 29 percent — has been among people age 25 to 34.

The scientist in me, ever-cautious (really — I know I am fond of far-reaching predictions, but my brain has been trained!) wants to wait for more data. But the systems thinker in me finds all this shocking. According to the article, 1/3 of the accelerated deaths are in a handful of states — Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. One can look at the obesity maps from the CDC and see that the states affected are almost in the bullseye, though there are other states with roughly equivalent obesity rates. Here’s the map.

Obesity rates by state, 2018, CDC

From the article, it seems like there is little separation between the dark red states and the lighter red states anyway. Why would Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Kentucky be the worst for youth all-cause mortality? I’d venture that it’s the combo of stress and obesity that are really teaming up in the Midwest. If you’re fat and happy, or really, less stressed, that might provide some marginal differentiation. But when you can’t support yourself, and you’re a step away from homelessness, the cumulative effects just add up

Not surprisingly, it is dominant in working class people, while those with 4 year college degrees are less affected. According to the CDC website, obesity was highest for those with no college degree (~35%) while those with a college degree rang in ~25%. The university community, ever reaching for more dollars, want to claim responsibility for this benefit. I’d argue it IS true that someone with a college education very likely has access to better information on diet, as well as flexible employment potential. But I know for a fact we don’t teach nutrition to all our students at most universities, and if we did, it would very likely be the messed up, low-fat version still prevalent in the nutrition community.

And then there are articles like this one, in the Chronicle for Higher Education, portraying the situation in the impoverished Bootheel of Missouri, that are deeply depressing. They push a narrative that we need more classical education, rather than job training for skills enhancement, customized for the area. What’s really wild is the documentation, through photos, of the obesity and incumbent diabetes crisis. Though obesity is not even discussed, almost all the photos included in the article show people who are morbidly obese. The kicker is the one healthy person in the story resisted his doctor’s advice and put himself on a de facto ketogenic diet. Nothing in this story really points to higher ed. as the answer to any of the immediate problems these people are having.

The Washington Post article highlights a comment by Prof. Ellen Meara, a professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice on the report. The report reveals a broad erosion in health, with no single “smoking gun.”

“There’s something more fundamental about how people are feeling at some level — whether it’s economic, whether it’s stress, whether it’s deterioration of family,” she said. “People are feeling worse about themselves and their futures, and that’s leading them to do things that are self-destructive and not promoting health.”

I’m inclined to cut her some slack for the moralizing, but it still presents the issue as one of moral fiber, instead of a profoundly unhealthy environment. And guns have multiple parts, Prof. Meara.

The article does go on to show a modestly more empathetic view from others inside the academy. Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton, whose prior research on the issue highlighted increased suicide rates in these areas, characterized the areas as “a sea of despair.” That seems more apropos.

When I originally read this piece, I definitely filled in the blanks with a more contemptuous view of the academics consulted in the piece. Upon re-reading, they are getting some of it right. The viewpoints offered are still siloed, but there is acknowledgement that at least the dominant symptoms are driving all-cause mortality. Prof. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noted the rise in obesity rates among young people, and also said that there would be long-term repercussions. So there is a gradual waking-up that is happening .

But still precious little systems thinking is going on. Each of the experts are on their island in Intellectual Flatland, and aren’t inclined to speculate. I get that — they have professional reputations on the line, and the social structure of the academy, as I’ve written about over and over, is about cautious reliability. And you can’t really tell if the journalist writing the piece knows a lot about the downstream/causal effects of stress and obesity.

Even the basic concept of diet as a metabolic destabilizer — the real phenomenon going on here — is not understood. It’s not surprising. We still count food in terms of meaningless calories, instead of the most powerful medicine we ingest regularly into our systems. The problem with the whole issue of metabolic destabilization is that it drives diseases that are well-recognized, like cancer, with their own pathologies and entire industries set up to treat. Few scientists or physicians are talking about how to prevent cancer in the first place. It’s not that these people are evil — with rare exception (like cigarette smoking) the causal thought just doesn’t occur to them. Like the AIDS virus that destabilized its victims’ immune systems, leading to contracting all sorts of diseases one normally has resistance to, metabolic destabilization runs under the surface of the epidemic. Out of sight, out of mind.

And that, dear readers, is a function of the social structure that is investigating the problem. Medical and dietary research organizations are just not set up to investigate root cause.

While we walk around seemingly perplexed, but safe from an information reliability point of view, stress, obesity, and the insulin resistance that affects it, are locked in a deadly statistical positive feedback loop. We can never run an experiment that can capture with empirical data more than a small snapshot of data. Empiricism is simply not the way to solve this problem — no matter how large the data set.

What is the way to understand this is to posit causal mechanisms, look at case studies, and reward people who look broadly across multiple fields and engage in debate. That is going to require quite a different research organization than currently exists — as well as researchers with broader empathy who can make the complex connections required.

And yeah — there’s probably some of my own confirmation bias in that approach — which is what I do in this piece, linking diet and a growth in authoritarianism. What’s interesting is the author links this to political outcomes as well. The states most affected are swing states looking for reversals of their fortunes, because their people are suffering.

The point of all this is still the same. We better get with dietary modification fast. I thought that it would take until the 2030s to really see some effect. As the data shows, I was wrong. The bell is tolling now. There is no happy note to end this on, either. There is a Perfect Storm scenario in all this that no one is discussing. And it’s this –if younger person effects of all-cause mortality get coupled with the other crisis happening on the other end of the age spectrum — Alzheimers Disease, which some have called Type III diabetes– we will have a compounding civilization-altering event.

Space Aliens or Killer AI Robots? Which ones are gonna get us?

Tamandua, a small anteater, Pantanal, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil

I’m listening now to a super-fun book from my Audible account, that’s right up the alley of all kinds of fans of this page. It’s called Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control, by Stuart Russell . I highly recommend it. Russell is a full professor at UC-Berkeley, and constructs measured rational arguments about the need for AI regulation, instead of defaulting to his authority, of which, as an internationally famous scholar and Oxford grad, he has plenty. Further, he’s implicitly an evolutionary thinker — his solution for the problem of out-of-control AI is adding some self-doubt to the AI, with a reverential response to individual human preference, which is exactly one v-memetic/value set click up, with different scaffolding, than the current objective-driven AIs that we have out there now.

Caveat: I don’t have the hard-copy — just the audio book — but I do still recommend this book. This piece may get a couple of details wrong, but most of what I’ll write is conceptually pretty solid. I also have not finished the whole book — and may update this piece when that happens.

Russell frames the problem of whether we should worry about super-intelligent AIs, no matter how far out in the future they are, by equivalencing to the question “what if we knew space aliens were going to show up 50 years in the future?” His short answer is this — we better get prepared.

And while I don’t disagree with his premise — he’s RIGHT — we should get prepared — for those that understand the empathetic implications of this work and how Conway’s Law would dictate the structure of an AI, this is not the best way to start the book. Any super-intelligent civilization that finally travels to Earth is expanding the temporal and spatial scales of their own consciousness, as well as mastering maintenance of their personal ecosystem over potentially millions of years, as well hundreds of light-years. More importantly, they are doing this sentient development OUTSIDE our human system.

And since I’ve made the case multiple times that sentience is sentience is sentience, it’s safe to assume that such creatures are far more evolved than we are, and operating from a much more connected, wise and evolved v-Meme/value set. No one’s going to fly interstellar distances to do something as stupid as mine our planet for rare earth metals. Or stop by Earth for a billion-or-so people snack. That’s an egocentric projection out of our own deep Survival value set. For those that want to see all that unpacked, and why you shouldn’t believe people like Stephen Hawking, this is a super-fun piece that I wrote, and don’t cringe when I re-read it. (Not true for everything on this blog!) Short version — interstellar space aliens are already likely enlightened.

But evolutionary AI is an entirely different problem. AI is something we create, and as such, will reflect us, dependent on both the social structure of the group creating the AI, as well as its v-Meme/value set. That’s the implication of Conway’s Law — the design of the system maps to the organization that creates it. And that nasty bit of reasoning, The Intermediate Corollary, that states that social structure maps to knowledge structure before it gets to instantiation in the design, is a bugger when it comes to AI. Like it or not, we intrinsically are going to transfer SOME value set into our AIs. And that value set, whether we understand all the implications or not, without deliberate attempts at growing empathy, is going to be a low empathy solution.

And this is where Russell’s analysis shines. He frames the development of AI around the fact we will create AIs to reach goals, (Performance/Goal-Based value set/v-Meme) and while he doesn’t have an explicit value evolution structure like the work on this blog, he calls out the scaffolding that’s going to mess us up — namely Authoritarian/Egocentric value set concentration by the AI wanting to replicate itself, as well as the fundamental Survival v-Meme/value set desire by the AI to survive. And that needs to worry us. If we build a cognitive engine strong enough to reach certain goal levels, there’s no telling what that AI’s neuroplasticity will come up with as far as that Survival strategy.

We’re already seeing what folks in the aerospace industry call “lack of configuration control” in algorithmic search, which is a form of AI in itself. We often cannot tell exactly why a given search routine does what it does — it just “does” it. Implicit in this is that unspecified dynamics are programmed in, whose results are unanticipated. In the world of aerospace, every structure on an aircraft is supposedly isolated, or exists with defined coupling, to every other part. When unknown coupling between parts produce unpredictable behavior, the plane design is said to “lose configuration control.” It is no different for software systems, and this is a pressing problem as we develop more complex algorithms.

For those that like talking historically about the progress of philosophy, Russell provides (not surprisingly – he’s an Oxford scholar) a lot of details, as he very gingerly places them under the bus. They’re not quite sufficient, and of course, he’s right. I just wrapped up listening to a long discourse on Utilitarianism and how it’s not up-to-snuff. No single philosophy can be, because current philosophy is Authority-driven. And no matter how profound someone can be, if they’re like any normal philosopher, they’re still stuck on Intellectual Flatland, with a limited range of perspectives.

Russell does a fair job of dismissing the various Pollyannas of AI, that say we have nothing to worry about, or that we should worry about the presence of a super-intelligence when it shows up. He criticizes many developers in the AI field actually from a value-set perspective, accusing them of Tribalism! So cool! He’s off by a v-Meme click — it’s actually a mapping into the low-empathy Authoritarian v-Meme/value set, but he correctly dismisses their arguments as belief-based, In-group/Out-group conflicts, and fundamentally not data-driven.

One of the things he kind of alludes to, but a point that needs to be made, is that there’s nothing that says folks that develop AI are the ones that really are best suited to understanding the implications of their work. In fact, we shouldn’t really expect it at all. Experts are going to stack in hierarchies, be it research labs or university campuses, and while they might succeed with very complicated/sophisticated thinking, their silos are still real, and their social system will inevitably fail to develop most of them in the ways of both broad and deep consequential thinking. It’s not that a familiarization with the technology doesn’t matter — certainly understanding current AI techniques and capabilities ground one in the possible/cognitive. But in many ways, they do not open the door to the metacognitive — knowing what you don’t know. If all our researchers were as wise as Sai Wong, the old Chinese man whose horse ran away, we’d be in a better world. Good news, bad news, who knows?

And it’s not like turning to philosophers, or social scientists, is going to necessarily provide answers either. They suffer from the same low evolution/high sophistication thinking that the researchers suffer from.

I’m loathe to criticize Russell’s analysis, because it’s such a good one. But there are some things I hope he considers. Submerged in his own Legalistic hierarchy (albeit an international one!) he does praise rationality, or really perfect logic, as the unachievable, but desirable goal – a rather low value set/v-Meme goal, though he does rescue himself with his solution. Evolution has given us fuzziness and heuristics because that turns out to be a deep Survival strategy, especially for the collective. Having freaks isn’t a bug — it’s a feature, and a way of storing low probability-of-use information.

He also fails to consider that maybe we might generate the ultimate super-intelligence, but we would still be unlikely to listen to it, especially if it required us to do something to facilitate its success. We might be game to help it solve cancer, but when it comes to global warming, or any other complex problem, the same political forces will resist change of our energy infrastructure.

And then there’s the inevitable inability of humans, dependent on their developmental level, to even understand what a super-intelligence might be saying. Sentience is sentience is sentience, and the same ceilings of understanding are going to be in play with humans relating back to the AI itself. Going back to the Space Alien problem, I’m convinced that if a group of friendly aliens showed up, we likely wouldn’t understand their solutions for us except through the lens of magic. And needless to say, I’m not the first person to have that perspective.

One thing to dump into the debate that Russell peripherally alludes to, but is integral to an empathy-oriented analysis, is temporal and spatial range of action. Russell does start talking about the value of altruism, with an example of creating an AI that is so altruistic, it takes off for Somalia to help ostensibly starving people on the other side of the globe. Here’s hoping he takes a look at understanding how an AI might be coupled to a human master, not just in examining preferences, but in optimizing the behavior of itself, with restricted sidebars (we call them laws!) across a person’s social network.

And, of course, Russell doesn’t spend much time understanding networks of agents, and how they might work together. Here’s hoping he reads some of my stuff on structural memetics. The idea of a networked collective intelligence isn’t broached, though it is actually inevitable. Computers in a stand-alone fashion weren’t much. But once we got the Internet, well we all kinda know what happened next.

One framework that Russell doesn’t capture very well is the cognitive/metacognitive risk of powerful AIs. While most of the book directs itself toward wondering and warning about unpredictable, emergent behavior — a very real danger, and one that must be taken seriously — there’s also the problem of deliberate construction of AIs that map value sets that are quite terrible from their creators. And while I absolutely do not want to be dismissive of the threat from the former, I’m more worried about perfecting the technology explicitly that lets small and medium robots go out and hunt people. This is a function of power and money, and we cannot escape our own need to evolve. As the old Bedouin saying goes, “Some people fear the future. But I fear what has already passed.”

So — get his book. I think it’s a great one for a book circle. And weave some of the v-Meme-y, goodness in there. Then you can appreciate the foresight of the author, as well as help us all iterate our deeper concerns as we plunge into this unknown space.

Raising Kids — the Empathetic Basics — The First Rule – Pay Attention

Brother Chasing Brother

My wife, a trauma psychologist, and I are collaborating on a new project — a set of short pieces on raising children, that she can translate into Mandarin for both the Taiwanese and Chinese markets. The hook is around raising a child to be an entrepreneur. My own son is one — he’s 21, and didn’t want to go to college. So, after a short stint working for in programming a UAV autopilot, and a brief attendance at L’Ecole 42, he and a buddy punched out and founded what is now Unstoppabledomains.com. They relatively recently closed their Series A round, so they’re on their way. 

His brother, two years younger, is a little more typical, but even he has no problem standing up a small business. I never taught them any of the business stuff — so trust me when I tell you it’s not that.

Will they be successful? They’re doing great! Statistics say 25% of all companies making it this far survive, so we’re still pretty far from a successful exit. But he’s on the journey, and there are numerous things he and his brother did learn along the way that I’ll write about. 

Point of order — I’ll repeat this header for all these pieces. And yes — they are much simpler than most of the typical material on this blog!

The First Rule – Pay Attention

Starting Age – 3

Lifetime Practice

In order for children to be successful in life, let alone entrepreneurism, they must be aware of their surroundings.

But in order for your child to be aware of their surroundings, YOU have to first be aware of your surroundings.  You have to practice.  

How do we practice? Everyday life. The best element to practice on, though, are other people.  And they are available everywhere.  In shopping malls.  On sidewalks. Places where children play. Recognize other people.  Learn, and say their names.  Children will pick up on the notion that you can recognize other people in venues other than just the home.

Give yourself a test – how far do you look around when you sit down in a restaurant?  Practice keeping an awareness distance of 2 meters. Don’t obsess – just look around before you sit down. Play a game.  Ask the child if they saw the person two tables away was wearing a red scarf, or other noticeable item.  Expand the distance as they get older.

With your child, a great place to start learning to pay attention is in the grocery store.  Have your child help you find items you wish to buy. If they make a wrong choice, do not scold the child – instead, take the item, and communicate to the child while you evaluate it.  Take their input, and play-act perhaps a little, that you’re considering their judgment before returning it to the shelf.  Creating them as an agent, and extension of your awareness will feed their desire to look outward.

Learning how to ride a bike is a great opportunity for the child to learn how to self-regulate while under stress and paying attention.  Find a bike path that is uncrowded, and ride at a pace in front of the child not so far that the child feels unsafe, but must look around.  I used to take my two boys chasing me at carefully selected times on city streets, when they were deserted (but the boys didn’t know.)  It was high adventure following their father in a place they had become accustomed to seeing danger, and knowing they were partially responsible for themselves. Chasing a parent in a safe-in-reality, but differential environment for a child teaches coordination with others, as well as situational awareness.  Runs through forests and trees make the child aware of their need to keep up, as well as how they must adapt to changing circumstances. After they follow for a while, make them lead.

Regardless of who comes to your house, if your child is in the vicinity of that purpose, they should greet that person, even if they only immediately exit back to their playtime activities.  The older the child, the more formal and appropriate the greeting.  This is something I notice that we have lost from our protocols. 

Part of paying attention is realizing that there are consequences for not doing so.  One of the rules I implemented early on in my parenting strategies was called ‘Talk the talk – walk the walk.’  One of the ways young boys especially get hurt later in life is playing games of ‘dare’ with other young males.  There is a tree that really shouldn’t be climbed, or a jump into the water that is not safe.  Responding to peer pressure, the young male takes a chance to prove himself to his peers, in an uncontrolled environment, and ends up severely injured or dead.

I realized that the reason this happened to kids was poor emotional self-separation with others in a peer group, as well as no training in evaluating risk.  I was especially concerned with diving, as I had escaped serious injury or possibly death in a diving accident myself when I was 16.  

How did I do this with my boys?  First was understanding the need to interrupt the positive feedback cycle of people daring more and more dangerous things.  The way one does this is actually counterintuitive.  You make a rule where, in a given situation where risk is involved, if the child swears they will do something, you force them to follow through.

This is AFTER, of course, you’ve decided the activity is safe in the first place.  If the child expresses a desire, ask them to evaluate the situation for safety.  “Pay attention” is the first phrase out of my mouth.  If the child then commits, you do not allow them to back out.

If this practice is started when they are very young (I started doing this with my sons at age 5) the jumps are small.  But they will build assessment into their thought process, so when you are NOT there, they will end up in an emotional, ratcheting spiral that could end  in tragedy.

A story – we were floating down the Lower Salmon on a multi-day family raft trip with a close friend of mine, George, that does stand-in as the boys’ uncle.  Conor was 4, and Braden was 6.  There were a series of rapids where the adults consider it safe to swim down through the waves.  Conor had heard us talk about this, and had told us he wanted to jump off the raft and swim through the waves.  I told him that he could consider it, but first, he would have to look at the rapidand make his decision there.  

We approached the rapid. Of course, all was safe.  But the decision was his – I asked him.  “What do you think?”  He said that it looked good.  “Do you want to do it?” I asked.  He said “yes.”  I said “Talk the talk, walk the walk!”  He agreed.

We floated another 100 m downstream.  He was sitting on the edge of the raft.  “I changed my mind,” he said.  George looked at him.  “You know the rules,” he told Conor.  Conor got a long look on his face, and then immediately bailed off the back.  

And there is another deep, inner lesson.  Do not act, or NOT act, out of fear.  Act out of assessment and your rational experience, or others’ rational experience.

When Conor swam the rapids, he had a great experience.  But the lesson was learned.  Now Conor is a high-expert skier, taking big jumps and hucking 30’ cliffs at speed. But he slows down, and assesses unfamiliar terrain.  He does NOTHING on a dare.  It is a lifetime practice to master the First Rule.  But he is on the path.

Very important, as you move into this rule, is understanding children’s developmental limits.  A child below the age of 8 can see mountains, but they cannot truly process mountains – objects past a distance of 20’ are meaningless. Ask a young child about the bug on their shoe.  That is something they can understand.  

Time periods matter. Asking a young child to maintain focus for too long is also cruel.  During all your training, you must pay attention to the child as well!

Through all the practice, you are working on the child’s brain so that you stating the rule is not nagging. It is tied to the child’s larger experience, and triggers a richer set of responses than just “do what you’re told!” You must be creative yourself, though. You must think of situations where it appears that you might lead, but in reality, the child must navigate correctly.

And by doing so, you are laying in the deep foundation of entrepreneurship. You are giving the child the confidence to pay attention to their surroundings, which will be the business environment they find themselves in, and act.