Big History

Today’s post will feature another veering-off into a pet interest of mine.

Roughly 75,000 years ago, one of the earth’s most massive “supervolcanic” eruptions ever occured. It’s called the Toba Event by researchers today, and while its potentially dramatic effects on the human race are still debated, its staggering impact on the planet is not. Toba’s ejection was powerful enough to cover all of South Asia in up to 6 inches of volcanic ash. Toba’s resulting crater lake can clearly be seen from space. The gases and ash it sent into the atmosphere probably cooled the entire planet significantly, and possibly accelerated a larger global cooling trend that lasted almost 1,000 years. The global climatic effects of Toba had a major effect on where early humans (and other hominids, like the Neanderthal and Denisovans) migrated, how they interacted, and which populations survived (or didn’t). Earlier research suggested that Toba’s eruption even caused a genetic bottleneck for early humans, dramatically altering our very evolution as a species (though that theory is still controversial).

Yet despite being arguably one of the most important events in the history of the human race, most people have never heard of the Toba volcano. And that’s bonkers.

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Four boring ways to regulate Big Tech

For a couple of weeks a while back, there was a brief bubble of media personalities pressing the case for “breaking up” Big Tech. In a current events cycle dominated by news of Russian hacking, institutions under siege, “fake news” and the like, the GAFA companies’ ascent to global dominance is now seen by some as a precursor to an episode of Black Mirror, rather than the sunny tech-optimistic future we all enjoyed in the mid-aughts.

But when you get into the details of what such a “breakup” might actually entail, things get murky very quickly. What would breaking up Google or Facebook actually look like? Amazon is not AT&T; Google is not Standard Oil. A breakup based on, say, geography is nonsensical on face for an internet company. Moreover, these consumer-facing companies are dominant mostly on the basis of consumer choice, not simply lock-in, like a Microsoft Windows/Internet Explorer sort of scenario. (No one uses Google Maps because Apple Maps just isn’t accessible. Google’s product is just demonstrably superior.) In any case, public support for breaking up Big Tech isn’t very high anyway.

Instead, a more practical, and probably effective, approach to protecting consumers, citizens, markets, our political system and society at large would be through plain, old, boring regulatory action, both through existing statutes and feasible new ones. Here are four possible ways to do that.

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Everyone is getting rich except you

In the last several weeks, we’ve seen an enormous amount of chatter about market valuations. The Dow hit a record 26,000 points the other day, only two weeks after hitting a previous record of 25,000. Bitcoin traded above $20,000 not long ago, then crashed to somewhere less than half of that, and has since partially recovered. If you work anywhere remotely connected to the tech industry, you’ve probably heard a lot about all of this. It’s impossible not to notice the large amounts of money sloshing around out there.

I started writing a post about Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies, but then realized that what I was really talking about was the weaknesses humans have for risk. The pernicious thing about bubbles – whether in the stock market, or cryptocurrency or elsewhere – is that they create a lot of overnight geniuses out of early speculators. They also spawn a class of Explainers, who shape and evangelize a bullish narrative out of every bubble with a clear logical conclusion: to invest, now. You see this happening on CNBC every single day, as well as in the legion of private “crypto” chat groups popping up all over the place.

But first, indulge me in a little story about craps.

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Cameroon

Note: I’ve written bits and pieces of this post over several weeks. The other day, our President made his “shithole countries” comment, by which he presumably was referring to Cameroon, among others. It saddens and incenses me that our nation is led by such a disgraceful human being.


Back in 2005, I made one of those big choices in my life from which everything else has since flowed: I decided to join the Peace Corps rather than pursue a career in politics (as an operative, not candidate). My old boss, Lt. Governor Tim Kaine, was running for Governor of Virginia, but I’d had enough of the political grind and wanted to plunge into international development instead. I was accepted into the Peace Corps and sent to the Central African nation of Cameroon as a Health and Water Sanitation volunteer.

I think about Cameroon often. Last fall was the ten-year anniversary of my return to the States, and I wrote a little about it then, but I wanted to talk a bit more about the Peace Corps in particular, and how it’s changed my perspective.

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What little companies don’t get about big ones

I frequently see discussion about/advice for startups about dealing with big companies (“BigCos”). Hunter Walk at Homebrew has this great, widely-shared piece on how startups can avoid wasting their time with big companies, and Steven Sinofsky has tips on competing with BigCo (and he would know). This is all very smart advice, but the way “BigCo” is often presented also struck me as somewhat unfamiliar, especially in that idiosyncratically Silly Valley way.

I’ve spent most of my tech career at big companies, not at startups, and I think a lot of startupland lacks an appreciation for the “BigCo” perspective on things. This is unfortunate, since many of those startups aspire to either (1) get bought by one of the BigCos they spend so much time complaining about, or (2) become a BigCo themselves. So here’s a few things I wish they understood.

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Heuristics

Short one today. This is just about some tools I use for thinking.

The world is a complicated place and constantly presents us with problems that often contain many more layers of complexity than appear on the surface. This has been the human condition since we crawled out of the trees and stuck our heads above the grass on the Serengeti. Yet in the modern age, our lives – our communication, identities and especially livelihoods – are increasingly based on abstract constructions, rather than tangibles. We live in an age of symbols, and symbol manipulation, that require forms of abstract reasoning to really understand competently.

The problem? Abstract reasoning is hard, and it’s not really taught at all. The closest I ever got to it in my schooling was in philosophy classes (which, although ultimately valuable, were also mind-numbingly boring) and, more practically, on the college debate circuit, where it’s weaponized for advantage. Around that time, I realized that I tended to fall back on a list of certain heuristics – basic frameworks for conceptualizing an issue or problem – to understand and communicate about the facts around me. These heuristics aren’t always suited to every situation, but they tend to reveal much more truth than they conceal.

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The year in review

2017 has been a big year here. It was our first full year in New York. We got a lot accomplished. While the year has been filled with a lot of negativity for our country/world as a whole, it’s actually been pretty decent on a personal level.

Lots of people have different strategies for setting, making plans and achieving their goals. I tend to settle on very specific personal goals and then not talk about them much. This year, I managed to hit most (but not all) of the goals I set.

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What people really want

The controversy-du-jour roiling tech this week has been, if you can believe it, how extremely wealthy Silicon Valley tech investors (virtually all white men) feel oppressed. Lots of these guys have been complaining of “censorship” of late, evidently not knowing or caring why that term doesn’t really apply to their situation; but then Sam Altman unburdened himself of his own hurt feelings in a cringe-worthy post in which he explained, evidently without irony, how much freer he felt in the less “restricted” environment of… Beijing.

I don’t mean to dunk on Altman, or the other (wealthy, white) dudes in tech who I’ve heard complain about not being “free” to say whatever they want without consequence. I would only refer them to xkcd, which has, per usual, the most succinct clarification of this issue around, as well as Anil Dash’s excellent rebuttal.

Rather, it’s more interesting to examine the growing popular ennui with the tech-utopian-visionary schtick that I, too, have noticed. It does seem that people are less in thrall to the “crazy, audacious dreaming” thing of late, and are increasingly likely – in the tech press, twitter and elsewhere – to encounter it with frustrated exasperation. I’ve begun doing this more, too.

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