artifical intelligence · Big data · Computer Science · Culture · Economics · Fiction · Film · Learning · Psychology

Ready Player One: a vision of the future

If you haven’t watched it, stop now, go and rent it, and watch Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One“ (RPO).

The movie is set in “the Stacks”, a high density city of container homes situated in Columbus Ohio in 2045. It is a world where everyone spends most of their time online in Virtual Reality world called the Oasis. It centres on a group of video gamers including our hero Parzival (Wade Owen Watts in the real world), who spend their time playing different computer games in this virtual world. The Oasis was created by a geeky tech programmer, James Halliday and has made his company, Gregarious Games, the world’s most valuable business.

It always surprises me how little known this film seems to be beyond the circles of science fiction fans. And yes, for science fiction fans it’s a great film. But I think it’s more than that: I think it is a prescient vision of what the real future may well look like. I am not talking about the storyline itself or the fairytale ending, but about the vision of how our future world might operate socially and economically.

I am going to describe how and why I think this film is such a prescient a picture of our online future.

I will structure this as 3 sections

1. Why is Ready Player One a likely vision of our social future?

2. The idea of online virtual economies, and some of my own speculations of how these might develop in future

3. The interaction between those online virtual economies and real world economies

1. The vision of a virtual social future

Let me state my hypothesis: that an online virtual world is going to be the future of the majority of our social interaction.

Already some of our children spend more time interacting with friends that they meet online, than they do with the friends from their own school.

Why? Because those friends they meet online have by definition the same interests: they are playing the same game. It’s unlikely you are going to find 5 people in your local neighborhood with the very specific interests you have, but online you can find your “tribe” of 50,000, amongst the millions of players out there all brought together by the phenomena of online social gaming.

For many it is easier to connect in the virtual world. In the words of James Haliday: “I created the Oasis because I never felt at home in the real world. I just didn’t know how to connect with the people there.”

Just like in the movie, the beauty of online is that your avatar can be whoever you want – you can choose how you want to portray yourself to the world. The ultimate version of “how you choose to identify” in an age of gender fluidity. You can choose to identify as a beautiful girl when in reality as H says, “‘she’ could be a 300 pound dude who lives in his moma’s basement in suburban Detroit. And her name is Chuck.”.

In this online world you will gladly pay real world dollars to buy a fashionable cloak or “skin”, and to get the upgrades and artefacts. Just like real world fashion, this is the price to be “in” with your tribe, to communicate who you are and provoke the envy of your peers.

In the words of Parzival, “People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be”

Beyond the ability to self identify, why are virtual worlds so alluring? In psychology, the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is “self actualisation”. This is what we most aspire to as humans. Online games offer an quick way to a superficial level of “self actualisation”: players learn new skills as they master a game; they create new art and architecture in Minecraft. They post a video of it that is admired by many on YouTube, and if it goes viral they get their 5 minutes of fame. These are things that give people a sense of value and contribution and potential aspiration. And anytime they get bored, there is always the option of starting on some new game.

The film depicts an evolution from today’s gaming, which we are already starting to see: it is not about a single game, it’s about a virtual online platform on which many games are hosted. These different games are available on the platform, perhaps created by different developers. Players can jump around between games in the same virtual environment.

It’s not just computer games that will be hosted in this virtual world. Think of the real world places that we go to socialise such as bars: would you members of the Curiosity Club fancy having our next meeting at the Moss Isley Bar on Tatooine, or the Distracted Globe in the Oasis?

It will also host real world events like concerts, and music festivals. Hopefully you had the chance to Have a look at the recent virtual music concert by US rapper Travis Scott, attended by 12.3 million people live, simultaneously on the Fortnite platform. Compare that to the largest physical concert ever, by Jean Michel Jare, in Moscow in 1997 with an estimated 3.5m live audience. Having watched the music show, you can now buy a Travis Scot “skin” for only 2500 V Bucks in game, real world price $25.

Beyond social interaction we are also likely to see many real world business services in these online worlds. Healthcare consultations, meeting your insurance broker or banker, may all be far more efficient than meeting face to face in the real world.

So the future of our social interaction it seems, will be predominantly virtual!

Which brings us to point 2, the economies within these virtual worlds

What is particularly interesting to me is that these games are creating online economies. These virtual gaming economies are already exhibit many, but not all, of the characteristics of a real world economy.

In RPO people are out to collect coins, and artefacts (clothes and weapons), which they can lose if something happens to their avatar in a game.

At the moment most games have some form of currency. Just like Fortnites VBucks. This virtual currency is typically earned through game play, or purchased with real world dollars in order to speed up game play and enjoyment.

Players can get paid for work they are prepared to do. In RPO, H is building an Iron Giant and repairs other peoples broken artefacts. He has skills that are valued and paid for in the virtual world.

Games like Minecraft already enable players to work with each other , and for each other, in virtual worlds. My son will often offer to help out some other player building an “iron golem farm” (don’t ask) on a Minecraft server, in exchange for some online compensation like “enchanted diamonds.”

In Online Minecraft servers, the prices of virtual commodities like “red stone”, “wheat” and “enchanted diamonds” fluctuate with supply and demand created by other players. You can execute sophisticated real world strategies to make “money” in these games. For example, my son has figured out, entirely on his own, time zone arbitrage: buying goods cheaply in the morning in Britain when there are fewer players and less demand, selling the same thing more expensively in the evening when the American players come online and demand increases. In real world financial markets, arbitrageurs routinely engage in these sorts of strategies across time zones.

And there are all the real world characteristics that come with this virtual commerce: both the good: creativity, deals, alliances, productivity, and altruism, and the bad: cheating, reneging on promises, and stealing.

So all of this already exists today. If you will permit me, here are some of my speculations of how these online economies might develop in future:

I anticipate we will start seeing forms of virtual currency being created that are interchangeable between games.

Just like in the real world perhaps different games on the same platform exchange different currencies, and there are exchange rates between the currencies of the different games. Exchange rates set not by the game developer but by the community of players based on supply and demand.

And more importantly there will also be two way exchange rates between real world and virtual currencies. Thats when it starts getting really interesting economically speaking: When you can quantify the value of an hour of virtual world work in real world dollars.

How do these virtual economies differ from real world economies?

One of the challenges in these virtual economies is that the game designer is god. They could at any point modify the rules of the game, and reset everything. That could be unfair both for players and for any businesses that develop in the ecosystem around the game. I anticipate that in time there will need to be governance systems developed for these online virtual worlds in order to keep users and virtual businesses engaged, invested and protected.

Successful real world economies are built on a sense of “trust” in the governance of the economic system. How can this be created in these virtual worlds? More sophisticated games in future will no doubt allow the formation of virtual legal contracts between players, or between players and virtual businesses (including the games creators), for the delivery of virtual goods or services.

Block chain technology (the technology behind cryptocurrency like BitCoin) could be part of the answer. This technology could be used to guarantee ownership, to manage currency creation and secure other other forms of contracts in these virtual worlds. This might form the equivalent of “rule of law” in an online economy, creating the necessary framework and stability for a flourishing of these economies.

Might we see virtual independent central banks that have power over the supply of virtual currency to these worlds? There will quite possibly be a virtual world reserve currency… perhaps that will be Bitcoin?

3. Finally what about the real world Economic implications of these virtual economies?

Economically speaking, in the real world the biggest beneficiary of course will be the owner of the platform.

The gaming platform can create new virtual goods at zero marginal cost, target demand and charge real world money for your latest invisibility cloak or light sabre. All of this supported by AI algorithms that are designed to exactly optimize these experiences based on realtime feedback from millions of users, for that perfect dopamine hit; to keep us predictable human beings coming back for more and more and more…

We are already starting to see the idea of gaming platforms hosting multiple games with the likes of TenCent providing a gaming platform for developers and companies like Epic Gaming, the creators of Fortnite talking about making it into an online platform that hosts different games.

The power of social network platforms is the size of the social network. Network economics are exponential. The more people using one network, the more people are drawn to using that network, the more powerful it becomes. As they say in RPO ”Except for eating, sleeping and bathroom brakes, what ever people want to do, they do it in the Oasis. And since everyone is here, this is where we meet each other, this is where we make friends”.

So it’s very natural that there will be only a handful of dominant companies like james Haliday’s aptly named Gregarious Gaming, and Innovaitive Online Industries, their rivals.

Just as Facebook, Google, Alibaba and TenCent are dominant in today’s world because they have the network effect and they own the data. It’s not the AI algorithms that are valuable, it’s owning the data of the network on which they operate.

I am a bit of a pessimist when it comes to future real world employment. I think AI automation is going to replace a lot of menial jobs, and a whole lot of not so menial jobs. We will need coders, data scientists and medical scientists and so forth, but they are not going to be needed in such volumes as to replace the jobs lost in the real world. Even tasks like computer programming are going to become far more automated.

There will be many new jobs created in these online worlds and a new generation will find their job opportunities in these virtual worlds. Just as today Search Engine Optimisation has become a career option, virtual world optimisation will likely be a career choice in the future. No doubt many new online businesses will be created in these virtual worlds, making their creators wealthy.

The challenge is going to be the exchange rate between the real world and these virtual worlds. It’s very unlikely, in my opinion, that an hour of work in a virtual world is going to provide anything like minimum wage in the real world.

These platforms are built around classic network effects. A handful of gamers, or artists, gather the largest followings and are our future celebrities. They live in symbiosis with the platform. They get huge publicity, and their real world wealth builds as they get more followers, endorsements and marketing power. Just as in today’s social networks, the wealth is distributed across a very steep exponential pyramid, with very few at the top getting fabulously wealthy, a few more behind that making a decent living and a multitude beyond that being hopeful but earning only a pittance.

Given the diversity of special interests across the globe, there is plenty of opportunity for smaller chieftains to emerge, people who become the leaders of special interest groups because of their passion and their ability to sell themselves online as an expert or influencer to the 50,000 people interested in “that one thing”. But in every tribe the structure is the same, a few at the top of the exponential pyramid reaping relatively large rewards compared to a large base of fans who put in more than they get out.

To illustrate: my younger son explained his calculations to me this week: Mumbo Jumbo, his favourite Minecrafter, gets about 1.5 million views per video, he posts two videos a week, and therefore earns, from YouTube, between £2000 and £4000 per week. This all seems to be common knowledge for today’s 11 year olds. “So you can make a lot of money being a YouTuber”. My reply to him was, “yes you can, and you and approximately 1.5million other kids watch and want to be Mumbo Jumbo twice a week. That’s a lot of competition for that top spot…”

So as in RPO, in the real world we might end up living in a distopian world, with very large swathes of the population scraping together what they can in the real world from very low paying virtual world jobs. Their aspiration may we’ll be to afford just enough to buy that new VR headset or suit that allows them to experience their next virtual vacation.

In this virtual world we will see all the same tendencies and deviancies we see in the real world, but amplified in this online world.

Those with compulsive gambling tendencies are sure to be easy targets for AI algorithms, as demonstrated by Rick, Aunt Alice’s loser boyfriend who bets all their home deposit savings on upgrades for a game he was sure to win if he just had the right pair of gloves. People are likely to be met with scammers and charlatans. Policing, fairness and justice will all be big challenges.

Here I hope that RPO is not a prescient vision of the future. In the movie many people work for IOI in “loyalty centres”. They are forced to work to repay loans advanced by IOI to them. IOI also make money in the movie by selling Virtual Reality hardware (haptic suits, gloves, omni-directional treadmills) to people in the real world; but as our evil arch nemesis Nolan Sorento says in the movie “debt services dwarfs hardware”. And of course they make their money like our tech giants do, “selling up to 80 percent of a players visual field [to advertising] before inducing seizures”.

One of the things I am very concerned about is the burden of debt in this future world. In a world where real world income is shrinking, debt will be the killer.

In the movie it is Art3mis’s dad who, having borrowed gear, built up debt, got sick and could not afford to pay off his debt. He died in an IOI loyalty centre trying to work off those debts. Then IOI purchase and consolidate all of Art3mis’s (Samantha’s) debt and remand her to an IOI loyalty centre until her debts are paid off.

Just as in RPO, many individuals in the real world will likely have substantial debt burdens, from student loans, credit cards, medical bills and possibly, in game obligations. Add to that governments that are currently as heavily indebted as at any point in history, made even worse by the recent COVID19 crisis, will need taxes to pay that off. All of that Real world debt needs to be paid for with real world income.

Already as society we are starting to see a questioning of whether the tech behemoths are contributing to society fairly for the profit they extract. It’s likely that tax changes will occur to ensure that both these companies and the wealthy few who benefit from them pay a substantial portion of the tax burden. Solutions will have to be found to tax where revenue is generated in these global ecosystems.

Another possible development is the idea of a Universal Basic Income: a social safety net whereby everyone receives a certain minimum income from the state, presumably afforded by taxing the tech companies. Andrew Yang, one of this years early Democratic presidential candidates in the US, championed the idea of UBI as an antidote to automation lead job loss.

On a bleak note, I am afraid I don’t expect to see RPOs fairy tail ending. In particular I think it’s relatively unlikely that we will end up with a benevolent “High five” set of idealistic gamers in charge of the greatest profit generating business in the world. And I don’t anticipate that they will close it on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We are going to have to find the will power within ourselves to tear ourselves away from the virtual world.

So in summary, my speculations are

1. In future the majority of our work and social interactions will happen in online virtual worlds

2. Those virtual worlds will have virtual economies and there will be exchange rates between the virtual world currencies and real world currencies. They may have to develop forms of governance and virtual legal contracts to enable those virtual economies to flourish.

3. Because of automation and the pyramid nature of the online world we might see even more inequality in society with large swathes of the population enjoying themselves in the virtual world but scraping together a minimal income in the real world. How will society adapt to these challenges?

Is it all doom and gloom?

The luddites beleived technology would destroy jobs and they were wrong. The Prometheus myth has always instilled the fear that steeling fire (inventing new tech) will draw the wrath of the gods destroying human-kind but it’s never been the case. On that basis these fears may be overblown, perhaps we just don’t have the imagination to know how we will adapt to this new world.

All is not lost: In the words of James Haliday at the end of the movie: As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place that you can get a decent meal.

And that’s not about to change any time soon.

Because like James Haliday said, “Reality is the only thing that’s real.”

Culture · Evolution · Genetics · history · Learning · Science

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

A fascinating read about human evolution from c 12000 bc by a scientist anthropologist with tremendous real world experience. He hypothesises about the key driving forces that have really made the world as we know it today, a world largely dominated by Eurasian societies and provides compelling evidence in support of those hypotheses.

This book has been recommended on numerous podcasts and one the Pulitzer Prize. I think it connects well with some of Edward O Wilson’s themes from Consillience and I suspect, though I have not read it it should connect through to Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari which is still on my reading list.

Jared argues persuasively that the differences in human development across the globe come not from innate differences in the cleverness or superior culture of one group of individuals versus another but really due to a few simple overarching realities of human development driven ultimately by geography. I like it because it really addresses and decimates some of the common rather racist views of cultural superiority that tend to be espoused.

He traces the dispersion of humans from Africa through Eurasia, to New Guinea and Australia, to North and South America and to the islands of the Pacific.

In the end he argues that there are several very basic key determinants of human development:

1. The development of agriculture through the domestication of plants and animals which allowed a move from simpler hunter gatherer clans into more complex societies. Agriculture allowed specialisation with some members feeding more than just themselves, allowing others to become crafts men, warriors or politicians. This also lead to our more familiar societal structures with leaders and hierarchies, and tax and tribute and the need for collective narrative like religion and culture to keep those societies working effectively together. Effectively in almost all instances globally, agrarian societies displaced hunter gatherer societies.

2. That the domestication of animals lead to us being exposed to many of the germs from to those animals that created many of our common disease: measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, flu, whooping cough etc. The more domesticated animals, the more diseases. This lead to greater immunity via natural selection in those communities who first domesticated these animals. Later contact with communities who had not domesticated as many animals or the same animals resulted in massive devastation by the germs carried in by those with immunity eg. The Spanish and European invasions of America introduced these new diseases with devastating consequences.

4. That it was pretty much evolutionary luck across the globe as to which particular areas had more plants or animals that could in-fact be domesticated, with the Fertile Crescent and Eurasia happening to be particularly lucky in this regard.

5. That simple Longitudinal geography makes a huge difference. The Eurasian/North African east west landmass along similar latitudes made it possible to have rapid transmission of technology, agriculture and germ immunity across that land mass with similar enough climate conditions. It was much harder to move North South, the Tropics have very different diseases to the temperate regions, very different cultivatable plants, hence transmission of agriculture and technology along north south continents like from North Africa to Southern Africa, or North to South America, or North Asia to Australia was far slower.

4. That cultures with head starts in agriculture then developed further technological advantages, from metal working, first copper, later iron, to boats and sea-faring, to writing as a means of organising and transmitting knowledge, to eventually guns allowing the further consolidation of power ultimately into empires.

He covers developments of all parts of the world in fascinating detail including China, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific islands.

This book has really brought home to me the power of evolution over long periods of time to completely transform societies. Also very relevant today as we face new viral pandemics to understand that and the innate connection between humans the contacts we have with animals.

Overall I found the book fascinating but it is a long read where he argues and seeks to prove his hypothesis and it can feel a little repetitive in places. Still I enjoyed it immensely.

Culture · Fiction · history

Mythos by Stephen Fry

A wonderful introduction to Greek mythology which I have always been curious about but never found a really accessible read.

For my own remembrance I am just going to summarise some of the key characters and relationships here:

The First Order – primordial deities – often the idea of the god and the thing they represent are mixed together

  • Chaos gives birth to
  • Erebus – darkness
  • Nyx – night
  • Who couple and give birth to :
  • Hemera – day and
  • Aether – light
  • Chaos also gives birth to
  • Gaia – the earth, hence words like geology and geography
  • And Tartarus – the caves beneath the earth
  • Gaia gives birth to Pontus the sea and Oranus, the sky (hence the planet Uranus in Latin, all the planets are named after Roman gods, and the word Uranium)
  • Herma and Aether couple and give birth to Thalassa, the female sea

Nyx also gives birth to

  • Moros- doom and destiny
  • Apate- deceit (Romans called her Fraus, from which we get fraud and fraudster
  • Geras – old age (hence geriatric) but also wisdom and dignity (in Latin Senectus – hence senile, senior and senate)
  • Oizys – (in Latin Miseria) hence misery, also depression and anxiety
  • Momos – personifying mockery, scorn and blame

Nyx and Erebus also give birth to further dark progeny

  • Eris (Discordia in Latin) – strife
  • Nemisis- fateful retribution
  • Charon- ferryman of the dead
  • Hypnos – sleep ( hence hypnotic)
  • The Onerio – beings who bring dreams, such as Phobetor, bringer of nightmares and Phantasos, fantastical dreams
  • Hypnos has a son Morpheus who shifts shapes in dreams (hence morphine and morphing and metamorphosis)
  • Thanatos – is death himself hence euthanasia (good death), in Roman Mors, hence mortals, mortuary and mortified

And three lovely daughters, the Hesperides, nymphs of the golden hour of sunset, heralding their parents, darkness and night.

The second order – the Titans and others

Gaia earth, and Oranus the sky god give birth to 12 Titans (the striving ones),

6 male

  • Oceanus – the seas and oceans
  • Coeus
  • Crius
  • Hyperion
  • Iapetus
  • Kronos, the youngest

6 female

  • Theia
  • Themis – justice and wise council
  • Mnemosyne – memory, mnemonics,
  • Phoebe – prophesy
  • Tethys – the sea
  • Rhea

Three Cyclopes, one eyed giants

  • Brontes – thunder
  • Steropes – lightning
  • Arges – brightness

Three Hecatonchires, fifty headed 100 handed monsters,

  • Cottus the furious
  • Gyges the long limbed
  • Aegaeon or Briareos the sea goat or vigorous one

All of whom who disgusted Ouranos and he banished them back into Gaia’s womb

  • Tethys and Oceanus give birth to
    • Clymene lover of Iapetus
      Metis, who is clever and wise
      Nilus the Nile
      The Oceanids – sea nymphs

    Theia and Hyperion give birth to

    • Helios the sun
    • Selene the moon
    • Eos the dawn

    Crius and Pontus give birth to

    • Eurybia – flint hearted

    Clymene and Iapetus give birth to

    • Atlas
    • Epimetheus
    • Prometheus

    Gaia and Tartarus give birth to

    • Typhon a monster (hence the words typhoid and typhoons)

    Gaia turns to Kronos to punish Ouranus for what he did to the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes, making him a sickle/scythe made from adamantine, with which to arm himself. Kronos gelds Ouranus who curses him with “May your children destroy you as you destroyed me”

    From where the blood of Ouranus touched the ground (Gaia) sprang up:

    The Erinyes or Furies, nicknamed Eumenides (ironically the “kindly ones”)

    • Alecto – remorseless
    • Magaera – jealous rage
    • Tisiphone – vengeance

    The Gigantes, hence giants, gigantic, (having arisen from Gaia, the earth)

    Kronos then releases the Cyclopes and Hecatonchires from Gaia’s womb, and takes them together with Ouranus down to Tartarus, the depths of the earth

    Other spirits that come into being include the Gorgons, children of Phorcys and Cato, themselves son and daughter of sea god Pontus and Gaia, with hairs of snakes and who will turn you to stone if you make eye contact

    • Sthenos
    • Euryale
    • Medusa

    The Moirai or Fates, daughters of Nyx were

    • Clotho, who weaves the thread of life
    • Lachesis, who measures its length and
    • Atropos who chooses when to cut it short

    The Keres, the carrion daughters of Nyx, spirits of violent death.

    The nymphs are female deities:

    • Oreads look after mountains, caves, and islands
    • Nereids descendants of Oceanids, love in the sea
    • Naiads, look after fresh water lakes and streams
    • Leimakides love in meadows
    • Dryads and Hamadryads love in woodlands and trees
    • Meliae are ash wood nymphs

    Atlas fathers 7 daughters with the Oceanid Pleione called the Pleiades, which we know as the meteor shower and the constellation of 7 sisters. The eldest is Maia.

    The Third Order – the Olympian gods

    Gelded Oranus’s gonads fall into the sea and from their arises Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans), goddess of love who first makes landfall on Cyprus.

    Kronos takes his sister Rhea to be his wife and they have children. However Kronos fears his fathers curse that his children will turn against him, and so he swallows each of them as they are born: Hestia, Hades, Demeter, Poseidon, Hera until at the last Rhea tricks him into swallowing a magnetite stone, which he thinks is another child, and she goes on to give birth to Zeus in hiding on Crete. Zeus is raised by a she goat called Amalthea (from whose horn we get the Horn of Plenty or Corncupia), and taught by Metis, the wise. Rhea, Metis and Zeus make a potion which Kronos drinks, causing him to vomit up his children and the magnetite stone.

    Thereafter comes a ten year war called the Titanomacy between the gods (Zeus and his Siblings and two of the Titans: Clymenes sons Prometheus and Epimethius who side with him) and the Titans lead by Kronos. Metis advises Zeus also to release the three Cyclopes, and the three Hecatonchires that Kronos had imprisoned in the underworld. The Cyclopes crafted Zeus’s thunderbolts for the fight and the Hecatonchires hurl rocks with their hundred hands, and help the gods defeat the Titans.

    Zeus punishes the Titans who opposed him:

    • Atlas he sentenced to hold up the sky for eternity
    • Kronos he sentenced to measure every day, hour, and minute of eternity, with his scythe he becomes “old Father Time”, from whence we get words like chronograph, chronicles, synchronised and chronic. The Romans called him Saturn, and he hangs in the sky between his father Uranus (Ouranus) and his son Jupiter (Zeus).

    And he rewards those who fought with him. The Cyclopes become Zeus’s armorers, the Hecatonchires become guardians of Tartarus, and Prometheus becomes his confidant.

    Zeus goes on to father many children!

    With Mnemosyne (memory), Zeus fathered the 9 muses

    • Calliope – epic poetry, the beautiful voice, and mother to Orpheus, the musician
    • Clio – history
    • Erato – lyric and love poetry (symbolised by the lute, golden arrows, turtle doves and myrtle)
    • Euterpe – joyful music
    • Melpomene – all tradegy (music, poetry, drama etc), mother to the Sirens, sad mask
    • Polyhymnia – hymns, praise and sacred music
    • Terpsichore – muse of dance, mother of Sirens
    • Thalia – comedy and idyllic poetry, happy mask, ivy, a bugle and trumpet
    • Urania – muse of astronomy and the stars, universal love

    With the beautiful Oceanid Euronyme, daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, he fathered the three beautiful Charities or Graces

    • Aglaea – spleadour
    • Euphrosyne – mirth
    • Thalia – cheerfulness

    With Themis, embodiment of law and justice he fathered the Horai (the Hours, embodiment of the serendipitous moment)

    • Auxesia – summer
    • Carpo – winter
    • Thallo – bringer of flowers, spring (Flora to the Romans)

    And

    • Eunomia – law, legislation
    • Diké – justice and moral order (Justitia to the Romans)
    • Eirene- goddess of peace (Pax to the Romans)

    And so we are introduced to the Olympian gods:

    The direct children of Kronos and Rhea

    • Zeus, leader of the gods, Jupiter to the Romans
    • Hestia – Vestus to the Romans, hospitable center of hearth and home, celibate and attended to by the Vestal Virgins who keep her flame alight in a bowl.
    • Poseidon – Neptune to the Romans, god of the sea. The Cyclopes forge him his trident. Horses are sacred to him. He marries Amphitrite, daughter of Oceanus and Tethys (perhaps), and creates a dolphin for her as a wedding present. She is mother to Triton, a merman. Poseidon, is father by other mothers of numerous monsters, demigods and human heroes including Percy Jackson and Theseus.
    • Hades – Pluto to the Romans, god of the underworld Tartarus, and therefore not actually one of the gods on mount Olympus, (hence plutocrat and plutonium), becomes lord of Nyx, Erebus and Thanatos. The river Styx (hate) is daughter of Tethys and Oceanus, flows in the underworld. Charon ferries the souls over the Styx. The Furies live there too. And Hades acquires the three headed dog Kerberos (Cerberus), and Hydra, the many headed sea monster guards the entrance.
    • Demeter, goddess of the harvest, Ceres to the Romans hence words such as cereal. With Poseidon she has a daughter Arion, a speaking horse.
    • Hera – Junoesque to the Romans, is the haughty, proud and jealous wife of Zeus. Goddess of marriage and symbolised by the peacock and cow.

    We have Aphrodite who is furthered by Ouranus and the ocean

    • Aphrodite, Venus to the Romans, goddess of beauty and love, particularly sensual love.

    Then gods whom Zeus himself fathers

    • Hephaestus – the first son of Zeus and Hera, is ugly and diminutive and his mother throws him down from mount Olympus when he is born. He makes a throne as an anonymous wedding present for Hera at her wedding to Zeus, the Throne traps her and will not let her go until Hephaestus commands it. In exchange he asks for Aphrodite in marriage. Hephaestus, god of fire, artisans and blacksmiths becomes the smith of the gods, assisted by the Cyclopes, fashioning their weapons. To the Romans he is Vulcan, hence volcano and vulcanise.
    • Ares – second son of Zeus and Hera, Mars to the Romans, god of war, lover of Aphrodite (Venus) before she marries Hephaestus. His form of war is strength power and violence rather than tactics which belong to Athena.

    Zeus seduces his tutor Metis (at his wedding feast to Hera). Afterward Metis metamorphasises into a fly, Zeus into a lizard and he eats her. Some time later Zeus then gets a massive headache. After some time and various plans put forward by Triton and Prometheus, eventually Hephaestus fashions a double edged axe which he uses to cleave open Zeus’s head, from which proceeds fully clothed in armour and with a spear, his and Metis’s daughter Athena, after which his head heals up. Metis infact allowed herself to be swallowed and she lives on in Zeus’s head, counselling him and checking his reckless excesses.

    • Athena (Minerva to the Romans) is goddess of wisdom, statecraft, handicraft, and strategic warcraft and tactics, law and justice. Idealised beauty, and aesthetics are hers as are ideals of platonic love. She is symbolised by an owl and by a serpent, and the olive tree is sacred to her. She remains celibate, the Greek word for virgin Parthenos is often associated with her, hence the Parthenon in Athens dedicated to her.

    Zeus also seduces the Titaness Leto, daughter of Phoebe and Coeus. Hera, jealous bans her from giving birth on land and she bears her children, twins, on the floating island of Delos:

    • Artemis, (in Rome Diana) a girl, silver is her colour, with a silver bow and arrows made by Hephaestus, goddess of the moon, mountainsides and forests, hunting, hunting dogs and stags and childbirth. She remains celibate. Her tree is a Cyprus.
    • Apollo, (in Rome also Apollo!) a boy, golden in colour, with a golden bow by Hephaestus, god of the sun, lord of mathematics, logic, reason, poetry, medicine, rhetoric and enlightenment. He was also god of prophecy and in charge of the oracles at Delphi, who’s priestess was called the Sibyl. The python is sacred to him – he kills the original serpent Python sent by Hera soon after he is born, to kill Leto, him and his sister with Hephaestus’s golden bow and arrows – as is the laurel tree, the dolphin and the white raven.

    Finally with Maia, daughter of Atlas and Pleione, eldest of the Plaiedes sisters, Zeus fathers

    • Hermes (Mercury to the Romans) As an infant barely a day old he kindles fire, herds Apollo’s cattle, and invents music and the Lyre, which he then gifts to Apollo to avoid being punished for steeling and slaughtering two of his cattle. He is quick of mind and foot and so he became the messenger of the gods. Hephaestus fashions his winged boots, the Talaria, a winged helmet he Petasus and a silver staff with wings entwined by two snakes called a Kerykeion, the symbol of medicine. He is god of rascals, thieves, liars, sportsmen and story-teller, commerce and tradesmen, herdsmen, science and medicine. And his symbols of the lyre cockerel. The element quicksilver/mercury is named after him and we get words like mercurial from him.
    Business culture · Culture · Learning · Relationships

    Team of teams by General Stanley McChrystal – leading teams to work effectively together

    The book has a few essential ideas which are worth while but it takes quite a lot of background to get to them. Below are my key takeaways.

    The context for McChrystal was trying to get specialist units in very different parts of the military, who each worked incredibly effectively in their specific area, to form a cohesive whole to adapt to rapidly changing situations in Iraq Eg. Getting Army Rangers, working with Navy Seals, with airforce, with the NSA and with the CIA. Each branch tended to create its own cohesion creating tightly knit teams but resulting in territorial behaviour and collectively failing to complete their missions.

    The basic message is that in the the 20th century progress was made through industrial efficiency with perfectly planned production processes around complicated problems but with perfectly predictable outcomes that engineer can solve. In these structures vertical command and control management worked effectively with each team operating efficiently but limited need for close interaction between teams.

    In the 21st century, in modern organisations, we face problems of complexity, networked systems where small perturbations can lead to unpredictable outcomes. To operate in complex problems we need to be able to function with much greater flexibility and adaptability, connecting disparate information, and making quick decisions with dynamic and changing plans. To do this requires a very different management style for our organisations.

    His prescription is three fold

    1. A need for complete information sharing across all teams to create contextual awareness across teams and a “shared consciousness”

    2. A need for strong trust between teams with multiple connection points, to create a team-of-teams type operating mentality

    3. The need for the right type of leadership creating an environment of “empower execution” , where the leader is focused on culture and prioritisation to drive the team dynamic

    Taking each of those in turn

    1. The need for information sharing across teams

    • “In a domain characterised by interdependencies, what ever efficiency is gained through silos is outweighed by the costs of “interface failures””
    • Emergent intelligence between teams can be achieved in larger organisations willing to commit to the disciplined deliberate sharing of information
    • Fuse generalised awareness, “shared consciousness” with specialised expertise
    • To achieve this there needs to be common purpose.
    • Emphasis on group success to spur trust, cooperation and common purpose.
    • To do this they created a daily common forum, using technology, like a global video conference where everyone called in from all of the world. Anyone from any team could participate, everyone had access to all the information with almost total transparency.
    • The success of this depended on it being quality useful information rather than beautifully dressed up rehearsed message sending.
    • The update piece from a team outlining their facts would be short eg 60 seconds, then there would be 2 to 3 minutes of open questioning and conversation from leadership. Key is active listening and real exploration, potentially followed by some perspective or framing from the senior team, but then letting the individual team decide how they would proceed. Allowed all teams to see problems being solved real time and the perspectives of senior leadership team. This gave teams confidence and permission to solve their own problems, rather than having to have decisions come from the top.
    • Think about the physical space and the way you go about doing this information sharing carefully, but also about your decision making procedures.
    • Information was shared widely without constraint. As information was shared, it encouraged others to share.

    2. Creating real trust and collaboration between teams

    • The key issue is that good collaboration between teams requires sacrifice (of resources or achievement in one area) on behalf of each team for the greater good. This happens any time there are scare resources, eg engineering resources working for something good for one team or something else for another team.
    • In Game theory the prisoners dilemma type problem illustrates a situation where the individually dominant strategy (betrayal, taking the resource to further your own ends) is suboptimal to the collectively dominant strategy (cooperation but sacrifice of the resource to the greater good). Even with wholistic awareness of the situation the prisoner still has to take a leap of faith in trusting the other party.
    • The dominant strategy in a multi round game is to start with cooperation and then to always follow what the other person did in the previous round. If they betrayed you, you betray them in the next round as punishment. If they cooperate you continue to cooperate. The punishment only lasts as long as the bad behaviour continues and stops as soon as there is cooperation. A track record of cooperation at a certain point then becomes the norm and trust builds.
    • Leaps of faith are only possible when there are real relationships of trust between individuals on the different teams.
    • To build trust they encouraged individuals from one unit to spend a secondment with another unit, to be a liaison officer with that unit. And they encouraged the teams to send their best people on these assignments. People capable of building relationships even in an initially hostile environment on another team, people with low ego. They encouraged the units “if giving up this person does not cause you pain, you are sending the wrong person”
    • They supplied the liaison officer with continued intelligence and information that would be useful to the unit they were in, and gave them access to the senior team so that when a liaison officer called in a favour, they could deliver value to that team.
    • This built a system where teams got more out of accepting these liaisons and were then willing to commit their own best people to do the same in reciprocation.
    • When it comes to sharing scarce resources, if teams can understand why and how their resources will make a difference somewhere else they are much more willing to make the sacrifice of giving up that resource.

    Together, the strong sharing of information around a common shared purpose, and a strong bond of trust and mutual cooperation at multiple levels between teams create the ground for “shared consciousness” across teams. Hence the books title team of teams.

    3. The role of leadership

    So their aim is coordinated operations that exhibit an emergent adaptive intelligence, decentralised control with empowered decision making built around a shared consciousness and information. The role of leadership is to enable all of that.

    • The role of a leader is to build, lead and maintain a culture that is flexible and durable.
    • Don’t misinterpret empowerment. Simply taking off constraints can be dangerous
    • It should only be done if the recipients of new found authority have the necessary sense of perspective to act on it wisely.
    • Team leaders and members can be free to make decisions as long as they provide full visibility under the “shared consciousness” model. They have to provide sufficient clear information to leadership and other teams about what they are doing.
    • It’s an “eyes on – hands off” model of leadership.
    • The objective is “smart autonomy”, not total autonomy, because everyone is tightly linked in a shared consciousness with the same purpose.
    • The role of the senior leader is “empathetic crafter of culture, rather than the puppet master”. It’s a gardner creating the right environment rather than the heroic leader or chess master taking all the big decisions.
    • The leader should be taking fewer decisions, but should be keeping the organisation focused on clearly articulated priorities.
    • This leadership comes from consistently explicitly talking about what the priorities are but also demonstrating the way the team should operate, leading by example,
    • Less is more, focus on only a few key messages and repeat them consistently. Nothing is learned until it’s been heard multiple times, and it’s only sunk in when it’s echoed back in the words of others.
    • Your strongest form of communication is your own behaviour.
    • Eg. Information sharing sessions never cancelled and attendance mandatory
    • The rules for any meeting are established more by precedent and demonstrated behaviour than by written guidance.
    • Be clear on your central role as a leader. To lead, to inspire, to understand, to guide, to prioritise
    • Watch the small behaviours. If you look bored, if you are unprepared you send a message. Interest and enthusiasm are your most powerful behaviours. Prepare, ask questions, demonstrate you have really listened, compliment work publicly, suggest improvement privately, and say thank you often.
    • Get the balance of reporting information vs active interaction right for the meeting. Get the right level of candour through the way you interact.
    • Think out loud, summarise what you have heard, how you process the information, outline your thoughts on how we might proceed, ask the team members what would be an appropriate response and what they plan to do. Ask for opinions and advice. Admit when you don’t know. Empower them to take the decisions.
    • Develop the art of asking good questions. Questions that help people arrive at the answers and see errors for themselves.
    • Be careful of overcommitment on your schedule, when you cancel people get disappointed, work done preparing for meeting with you is wasted.
    • Avoid a reductionist approach, no matter how tempting micromanaging a situation may be. The leaders first responsibility is to to the whole, to the big picture, no matter how good they may be at the particular situation.
    artifical intelligence · Culture · decision making · Learning · Philosophy · politics · Psychology

    21 lessons for the 21st century by Yuval Noah Harari

  • The book picks up on several themes that I think are very important for understanding where the world is trending over the coming years.

    Politics

    • Disillusionment picks up on the rise of anti ellitest autocratic and populist rulers (connections to The Demise of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce).
    • Issues of identity, nationalism clash with global problems. Identity and the definition of your tribe are themselves changing rapidly in today’s world.
    • Immigration also poses growing challenges in many parts of the world, both to the countries from which people are departing and those to which they are aiming to immigrate to.
    • Traditional democracy offers no solutions to the global technological disruption and ecological challenges we are facing.
    • All the existing human tribes are absorbed in advancing their particular interests rather than understanding the global truth.
  • Many are writing about the potential impact of AI on jobs in future (connections to Deep Thinking by Gary Kasparov). Yuval draws out some interesting insights:
    • In the past machines competed with humans in raw physical abilities, while humans retained an immense edge over machines in cognition. AI has the potential to change that.
    • In the future machines will become better at analysing human behaviour and predicting human decisions. (Already happening with social media’s ability to draw and captivate us). AI May out compete us in jobs that require intuition about other people, it may be able to more accurately assess people’s emotional states.
    • AI gets its power and ability to outcompete us not from replacing a single human but through integrating the experience of millions in a single network. AI cars will have far more driving experience than any human. AI doctors similarly. Healthcare could become far better and far cheaper.
    • What jobs will be more immune from relegation? Jobs that require a wide range of skills and an ability to deal with unforeseen scenarios. Human care for young, sick and elderly will probably remain a human activity. Human creativity is often lauded as the area AI will least impact but there he argues as AIs get to understand what touches human emotion they will start to impact this.
    • The idea of human being augmented by machines in all of these areas will inevitably be correct, hopefully greatly improving productivity but continuing the acceleration of change.
    • What do we do to try to create enough new jobs? Will governments create effective retraining programs? How will we cope with the psychological challenges of having to retrain multiple times in our careers?
    • And what happens if job losses far outstrip job creation? What if we get to the point where a large portion of society just don’t have much of a relevant role to play in the work that is economically valued and paid for?
    • What sort of changing social policies will we need eg. Universal Basic Income and what sort of tax policies if the value creation is owned by a few large data owning corporations?
    • Will we start recognising the enormous value of jobs that are not currently paid for such as careers and parenting?
    • Can we envisage a society where work is not where most people find their meaning and purpose? How will we pay for that?
    • Human happiness depends less on objective conditions and more on our own expectations, and how we compare our condition to those of other people. How will we adjust our expectations in this new world.

    The other big questions he raises

    • How do we regulate the rise of big data and protect freedoms, who owns the data (see Kasparov’s comments about us sacrificing our privacy for service willingly, and the need for transparency from the big data owners)
    • What does terrorism look like in future?
  • On spirituality, ethics, secularism and religion
    • The future of spirituality, our concept of God, the contradictions between religions preaching individual humility but exercising collective arrogance in its exclusive demands. Marrying this with secularism and science, a seeking of objective truth, the development of secular ethics around concepts such as compassion, equality, freedom, courage.
    • “Questions you cannot answer are usually far better than answers you cannot question.”
    • But even secular movements repeatedly mutate into dogmatic creeds, especially in times of war or economic crisis where societies must act promptly and forcefully. Eg. communism’s of capitalism both become dogmas. Even the right to freedom can become a dogma against all censorship. At some point in time a search for objective truth is circumvented by the desire for expediency and simplicity.
    • “Every religion, ideology and creed has its shadow, and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow and avoid the naïve reassurance that ‘it cannot happen to us’.”
  • On truth and power
    • Ignorance: you know less than you think. “People rearely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like minded friends and self confirming news feeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.
    • Providing people with more and better information is unlikely to improve matters. Most of our views are shaped by communal groupthink rather than individual rationality, and we hold these views out of group loyalty. Bombarding people with facts and exposing their individual ignorance is likely to backfire.
    • “If you want to go deeply into any subject you need a lot of time, and in particular the privilege of wasting time. You need to experiment with unproductive paths, to explore dead ends, to make space for doubts and boredom, and to allow little seeds of insight to slowly grow and blossom. If you cannot afford to waste time you will never find the truth.”
    • Power inevitably distorts the truth. Power is all about changing reality rather than seeing it for what it is.
    • Power depends on creating and believing fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.
    • For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s toolkit. By bringing people together religious and cultural creeds make large scale human cooperation possible. The power of human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction.
    • As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it – and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it.
    • How to avoid fake news? If you want reliable information, pay for it. If some issue seems exceptionally important to you, make the effort to read the scientific literature on it.
  • On education
    • You will need to reinvent yourself again and again in order to keep up with the world.
      To survive and flourish in such a world you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. Unfortunately teaching kids to embrace the unknown and keep their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them a physics equation.
      People don’t need more information, they need the ability to make sense of the information, to tell the difference between the important and the unimportant and to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.
      What should we teach: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity
      To do this you need to work hard on knowing who you are, and what you want from life, know thy self.
  • How do we usually get to know ourselves? The power of stories
    • We usually do this by telling ourselves stories to give meaning to our lives. My story must give me a role to play, and it must extend beyond my horizon, giving me an identity and a meaning to my life by embedding me in something bigger than myself.
      However when you believe a particular story, it makes you extremely interested in its minutest details, while keeping you blind to anything that falls outside its scope.
      Often we want our personal story to carry on beyond death, either through religious reassurance or through something tangible in either cultural or biological form.
      Why do people believe in these fictions? One reason is that their personal identity is built on the story. By the time their intellect matures they are so heavily invested in the story, that they are far more likely to use their intellect to rationalise the story than to doubt it. Most people who go on identity quests are like children going treasure hunting. They find only what their parents have hidden for them in advance. Second, not only our personal identities but also our collective institutions are built on the story. Once personal identities and entire social systems are built on top of the story, it becomes unthinkable to doubt it, because its collapse will trigger a personal and social cataclysm. Once you suffer for a story it’s usually enough to convince you that the story is real. And in following our own story we may even inflict suffering on others. We do not want to admit either that we are fools or villains and so we prefer to believe that the story is true.
      Throughout history almost all humans believed in several stories at the same time, and whenever absolutely convinced of the truth of any one of them. This uncertainty rattled most religions, which therefore considered faith to be a cardinal virtue and doubt to be amongst the worst possible sins. With the rise of modern culture the tables were turned. Faith looked increasingly like mental slavery, while doubt came to be seen as a precondition for freedom.
      Modernity didn’t reject the plethora of stories it inherited from the past. Instead, it opened a supermarket for them. The modern human is free to sample them all, choosing and combining what ever fits his or her taste.
      One common modern story is the Liberal story. Like all of the cosmic stories, the liberal story to start with a creation narrative. It says that the creation occurs every moment, and I am the creator. What then is the aim of my life? To create meaning by feeling, by thinking, by desiring, and by inventing. Anything that limits the human liberty to feel, to think, to desire and to invent, limits the meaning of the universe. Hence liberty from such limitations is the supreme ideal.
      In order to understand ourselves, a crucial step is to acknowledge that the ‘self’ is a fictional story that the intricate mechanisms of our mind constantly manufacture, update and re-write. There is a storyteller in my mind that explains who I am, where I am coming from, where I am heading to, and what is happening right now. And like government Spin Doctors, the inner narrator repeatedly gets things wrong but rarely, if ever, admits it. My inner propaganda machine builds up a personal myth, with prized memories and cherished traumas that often bear little resemblance to the truth.
      We humans have conquered the world thanks to ability to create and believe fictional stories. We are therefore particularly bad at knowing the difference between fiction and reality. Overlooking this difference has been a matter of survival for us.
  • Philosophy and the final frontier: our minds
    • In Yuval’s view the big question facing humans is not “what is the meaning of life?” But “how do we get out of suffering?” (Vs Victor Frankl who looks to find meaning even in suffering). He believes “suffering is the most real thing in the world”.
      He goes on to discuss how he can, as a sceptic still wake up cheerful in the morning.
      He turns inward on himself in mindfulness meditation.
      How does one study the mind? The only mind I can directly observe is my own. If I cannot observe some external thing without bias, how can I objectively observe my own mind? But the only tool available is meditation: the direct observation of one’s own mind.
      “The most important thing I realised was that the deepest source of my suffering is in the patterns of my own mind. When I want something and it doesn’t happen, my mind reacts by generating suffering. Suffering is not an objective condition in the outside world. It is a mental reaction generated by my own mind. Learning this is the first step towards ceasing to generate more suffering.”
      Serious meditation demanded minutes amount of discipline. If you try to objectively observe your sensations, the first thing you notice is how wild and impatient reminders.
      We had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us.