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A brief history of Christianity (part 4 of 4)

Based on the book Dominion by Tom Holland, this post covers the period of the Enlightenment c 1750 through to the modern Era

A Jewish student of Manasseh, Baruch Spinoza, expelled by the Jewish synagogue in Amserdam, in 1656, writes a book, his Theological-Political Treatise in defence of religious liberty. He brought a new philosophy, that God was not beyond the laws that governed the universe, but that God was the whole universe. He argued against many basic Christian beliefs such as the trinity, Christ’s divinity, the authority of scripture. He argued that that ministers of sacred things should not be allowed to make decrees or handle the business of government. But he argued very much in favour of the New Testament teaching of Paul when writing to the Galatians (5:22) the idea of true liberty found in the light and ‘fruits of love, joy, peace long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control’. By 1674 his book is banned and he is considered by many to be ‘the chief atheist of our age’.

Voltaire, frances most admired writer, baptised a Catholic and educated by nuns, views the Catholic church as an abomination. Denis Diderot, another philosopher, labels him admiringly as the anti-Christ. Increasingly he, with the foremost thinkers of the age view the church with its superstitions and unwarranted privileged as anethema. Despite admiring the tolerance in England, Voltaire is convinced Christian sects will always persecute each other. He still claimed worship God, but ‘a Just God whose acts are beyond human comprehension’, free of any particular religion.

Others went further claiming in blatant atheism, for example in an anonymous Treatise of the Three Impostors, also known as he Spirit of Spinoza, a mythical book title appropriated by several authors from the 13th to the 17th century, reappears in 1719 claiming that Jesus, Moses and Muhammed are all derided as impostors.

By 1753 people start popularising history as having distinct ages, referring to the Middle ages, that it was Luther who banished the shadows from the world corrupted by the Popery of the Catholic Church ushering in the Reformation. And now a new Age of Enlightenment lead by reason.

In 1783 George Washington hails the United States as a monument to enlightenment: ‘The foundation of our empire, was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than ever before’.

In America New England provided its model of democracy and Pennsylvania its model for tolerance. ‘That all men are created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we hold self-evident.’ These were built on fundamentally Christian beliefs. ‘The genius of the authors of the United States Constitution was to garb in the robes of Enlightenment the radical Protestantism that was the prime religious inheritance of their fledgling nation.’ No one represent this better than Benjamin Franklin, one of the authors of the US Declaration of Independence and the US constitution who was born in the Puritan homeland of Boston, New England and ran away to the city of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia with his lifelong admiration of Puritan discipline, his liberal theological views through to his publication of Benjamin Lays exhortations against slavery.

Along comes the French Revolution of 1789, enlivened by the Spirit of Enlightenment, France was to be ruled by new philosophers. Many wanted to sweep away Christianity completely, the counting of years was restarted at the start of the revolution and Sunday’s were to be swept away. ‘In the pagan world, a spirit of toleration and gentleness had ruled all. It was this that the sinister triumph of Christianity had blotted out. Fanaticism had prevailed.’ Now the revolution would change that. But the founding documents of the new republic were built on the example of the US and Christian thinkers : ‘the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.’ As much as the thinkers of this age claimed to harken back to the period pre Christianity, the democracies of Ancient Greece and Rome, their true foundations lay in Christian thinking from the Cannon lawyers of the Middle Ages about the value and rights of the individual. (This declaration also restored he rights of full citizenship to the Jews).

And even in their fervour to separate church from state, their violent actions harkened back to the same actions that the Church had taken in establishing its authority: Maximilien Robespierre leader of the revolution, once an opponent of the death penalty now lead a bloody revolution set on the execution of the king and the nobility, purifying the nation of all the taint of what had gone before in a very familiar pattern. In echoes of the slaughter of the Crusade against Beziers the revolutionaries marching to pacify the town of Vendee in 1794 are told ‘skew with your bayonets all the inhabitants you encounter along the way. I know there may be a few patriots in this region – it matters not, we must sacrifice all.’ A quarter of a million civilians end up dead.

Following on from the revolution there is much enthusiasm for pre Christian symbols: the revolutionary leaders model themselves of Cicero, and much like Ancient Rome, France ends up with a military dictatorship, with Napoleon modelling himself on Caesar, taking on the title of emperor (of France, not the Holy Roman Emperor) complete with laurel wreath and eagle banners.

In 1806 the last of the Holy Roman emperors Francis the II abdicates, bring to an end the lineage since Otto the Great as Napoleon disrupts Europe. By 1814 the monarchy is restored in France in the Bourbon Restoration, but this time as a constitutional monarchy, unable to roll back many of the changes wrought by the revolution and Napoleon. A monarchy continues until 1848, when the French Second Republic is formed under a President Louise-Napoleon Bonaparte (who then goes on to declare himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1852 until 1870) before the Third French Republic from 1870.

Slavery continues to be a key issue. The passages of the bible that appear to sanction slavery continue to be used by the southern United States , and the West Indies. But the tide is rising against it. To be a Quaker or a Baptist or an Anglican was to understand the Good News, that God was a not only the God of Justice but also of Love. ‘Slavery was ever detestable in the eyes of God’. In 1807 Britain passes the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, though other nations were slower to come around. In 1815, eight powers in Europe sign a declaration stating that slavery is repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality. Human Rights were increasingly the values that Europe promoted to the world.

Prussia had been key in defeating Napoleon and at the Conference of Vienna the focus is on redrawing the map of Europe. Frederich Wilhelm the King of Prussia, in the face of potential revolution in 1848 is forced to concede a constitution entitling male citizens to vote for parliament and granting equal citizenship to Jews.

An interesting concept that becomes more widely applied in contexts it had not previously been applied is that of the separation of religion and the secular. For example the Jews are now unified by a religion termed Judaism, rather than being a people where the religion and culture were not really differentiated. The Jewish Law was not the law of the countries they live in. This lead to the development of a split amongs Jewish thinkers with the Jewish ‘Reformed’ branch (emphasising faith over Law) and ‘orthodox’ branch (emphasising the definitiveness of Mosaic Law) (I am not very clear here on the exact differences in thinking that lead to this split). Similarly in India the people had no word or concept of religion, but the British imposed a separation between the state and the beliefs that they termed the ‘Hindoo religion’.

Despite the European attempts to halt Slavery it is an ongoing issue. In 1842, this is taken a step further when an American Diplomat defines slavery as a ‘crime against humanity’, the first time this term is used. While it is increasingly halted in the West, it is still common place in

Muslim countries had a different view. Slavery is licensed by Muhammed in the Qur’an and the Sunna, the Islamic collection of traditions and practices. There are more slaves exported from Africa to the Muslim world than were exported to the New World. The British continue to push Morocco and the Ottoman Empire to abolish slavery. In 1854, when the Ottomans need financial assistance due to a series of financial and military crises, the price is the abolishment of slavery and the jizya, the financial tax on Jews and Christians that reached back to the beginnings of Islam. Of course banishing slavery does nothing to dampen Britain’s expansionary colonisation policies, with the typical justification that the barbarians will be better off under their ‘civilising’ rule.

In 1861, the secession of the southern states of the United States from the Union to form the Confederacy over the issue of slavery leads to the Civil War. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln issues a proclamation declairing all Slaves on confederate territory to be free.

In 1859 Charles Darwin, the grandson of two prominent abolitionists, publishes the Origin of Species, promulgating the theory of evolution ‘One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, like the strongest love and the weakest die.’ Of course people were already struggling with the conflict between the age of dinosaur fossils versus the age of the world according to the scriptures. Now there was a direct challenge to the narrative that Man and Women were created in God’s image. In addition the very essence of natural selection of survival of the fittest was a challenge to Christian belief in part because of its contrast to Jesus’s teaching that there might be strength in weakness, victory in defeat and that the meek shall inherit the earth.

Thomas Henry Huxley is a huge champion of science ‘In matters of intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstratable’. This was what he described as the principle of ‘agnosticism’. As before thinkers of the new Age of Enlightenment attempted to paint the new thinking as a contrast to the previous thinking, picking out the example of Galileo that the Church had opposed all science and that some how in past more enlightened times the ancient Greeks and Romans had allowed science to flourish.

Also in terms of sexuality the new age started to rethink things. Homosexuality was a term first coined in 1869 in Prussian morality writing. Why in seeming defiance of Darwin’s law did some choose to sleep with people of their own sex? German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing studied sexuality. He came to the view that homosexuality should not be regarded as a sin but as an ‘immutable condition’, and that the correct Christian response should be one of generosity and compassion. He argued that sodomy should be decriminalised and that ‘homosexuals are no less familiar with the noblest inspirations of the heart than any married couple.’

Capitalism vs Communism vs Fascism in the 20th century

The theory of evolution led to some radical different concepts when different thinkers extrapolated what it meant for society.

Andrew Carnegie, Scottish immigrant, rose to dominate the American steel industry and become one of the wealthiest men alive. Applied evolution to capitalism, believing indiscriminate charity served no purpose but to subsidise the lazy and the drunk. ‘In days when men acted by ecclesiastical rules these prejudices produced waste of capital, and helped mightily to replunge Europe into barbarism,’ said Yale professor William Graham Sumner. But, in Carnegie’s view, that charity was only pointless if it failed to help the poor to help themselves. His objective was to help the poor become rich ‘The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise’. He went on to find many community libraries, schools, parks and endowments which last to this day. (There are many examples around London actually for example on the Isle of Dogs in east london a poor area, there is a library sponsored by Carnegie).

At the other end of the spectrum, was Karl Marx the grandson of a rabbi and son of a Lutheran convert, he was exiled from the Rhineland for mocking the religiosity of Frederich Wilhelm IV.

‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution as it applies to organic matter, so Marx discovered the law of evolution as it applies to human history,’ so it was said at his funeral in 1883. He believed that over time different classes of society had emerged. Exploitation become the norm. The struggle between the rich and the poor became an unforgiving tale of greed and acquisition. Under the likes of Carnegie it Capitalism became as pitiless as never before, workers were reduced to machines. Marx believed that ultimately this must lead to a great climactic class struggle inwhich capitalism would devour itself and there would emerge a class-less society. Within such a society there was no need for God. Religion was a mechanism of the exploitative class, a stage in the development of the human mind, a snake skin that could now be cast off. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ was the belief he developed, eerily reminiscent of the early Christian society in the Book of Acts. Throughout history the early church has inspired radicals looking for this holy society. While his theories sounded scientific they continually painted a picture of cosmic forces of a good communal society and an evil and greedy society based on capitalism.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, or Lenin, took up these beliefs most literally, believing that Capitalism was doomed to fail, the workers of the world or ‘proletariat’ were destined to inherit the earth as the gap widened between ‘the handful of arrogant millionaires who wallow in filth and luxury, and the millions of working people who constantly live on the verge of pauperism.’ Religion, the opiate of the masses, needed to be eradicated. Oppression had to be eliminated but his belief that the end justified the means split the ranks of Marx’s followers, with those following Lenin calling themselves ‘the Bolsheviks’ or ‘the Majority’.

In philosophy in 1882 Frederich Nietzsche proclaims ‘God is dead’. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor, a professor by 24, resigning at 34 and then having a mental breakdown and dying in 1900. Not well known during his life, his writings become more popular after his death. More than Spinoza, Darwin or Marx he is the bastion of atheism. He rejected not only Christianity but also some of their associated virtues: ‘such phantoms as the dignity of man, the dignity of labour. Concern for the lowly and suffering is a form of poison. Helping and caring for others, being of use to others, constantly excites a sense of power. Charity in Christendom had become a means to dominate.’ A society focused on the feeble was a society enfeebled itself. He believed that there was no truth, no value, no meaning in itself – and that only be acknowledging this would man cease to be a slave.

By the 1910 Prussia became the centre of a German Empire with a Kaiser (modelled on Caesar). France and Britain push back on the expansion of the Prussian empire and are mired in the standoff of World War One. In the battle of the Somme there are a million casualties.

In November to December 1917 in Palestine, the British win a battle against then Turks of the Ottoman Empire and take back Jerusalem. The British Foreign Secretary issues a declaration supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land, a development many Christians believed would herald the return of Christ.

At the end of the war the Kaiser abdicates. But in Russia in 1917 the Bolsheviks led by Lenin overthrow the monarchy and seize power. A quarter of the world’s Christians live in Russia under the Orthodox Church with its Byzantium lineage. Lenin is convinced ‘In practice, no less than in theory, communism is incompatible with religious faith.’ In 1918 churches were nationalised. Bishops were shot, crucified upside down or imprisoned. In 1926 a monastery is converted into a labour camp. In 1929 the responsibility for religious affairs is given to the organisation ‘the league of militant atheists’, their stated goal: to eliminate religion once and for all.

By the 1930s we have the rise of Fascism. Benito Mussolini’s reading of Neitzsche inspires him to become a new Caesar at the head of a new elite state. Similarly in Germany the rise of the National Socialists or Nazis under Hitler, in the belief of a state for the elite race in society, so superior to other races that it justified the extermination of inferior races, and the subordination of personal interests to a common good. This was rooted in Hitler’s interpretations of Darwin: that he had a responsibility to ensure the purity of the German race. Goebbels compares a young Nazi to Christ. By 1937 Hitler is envisaging the elimination of Christianity, largely due to the Churches objections to some of his policies like forced sterilisation. Many Christians hesitated to support the Jews given old emnities that condemned then as the murderers of Christ and in league with the Devil. In contrast some Christians were identifying themselves with Jews in the face of Nazi persecution: in Sept 1938 Pope Pius XI declared himself spiritually a Jew and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in 1933 saying Christians had an unconditional obligation towards victims of any social order, even when those victims do not belong to the Christian community. He was later executed in a concentration camp. Pius was later ciriticised for not saying enough though he does recognise the limits of his power ‘But the Pope cannot speak. If he spoke, things would be worse.’

The allies were also responsible for atrocities. The bombings of Dresden and Hamburg killed many civilians. George Bell, a british bishop and friend of Bonhoeffer’s spoke out ‘if it is permissible to drive inhabitants to desire peace by making them suffer, why not admit pillage, burning, torture, murder and violation?’ In the end many felt the end justified the means.

The country of Israel promised by the British in 1917, is finally founded in 1948. Communism grows to envelop much of Eastern Europe and the Cold War and proxy wars are fought across the globe. Korea, Vietnam.

Post World War 2 the United Nations is formed and with it a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement rises up against continued segregation and discrimination in America. The campaign for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s gave Christianity an overt centrality in American politics that it had not had in the preceding decades. The renewed spark of the abolitionists living on. Following his assassination riots break out and many push for less peaceful, more violent revolution.

In the 19th century Africa has been largely carved up by the European colonial powers. In the 20th century, despite the end of colonial rule, it became the area of fastest growth in Christianity.

In South Africa the doctrine of Apartheid was defended to the fiercely religious Afrikaaners, attributing incorrectly to Calvin a theology that claimed certain people were more likely to be saved than others. They claimed that separate development was needed for each race to come to God. Desmond Tutu and others worked to convince them this was not the case through forensic examination of Calvin’s writings. In the end it was Tutus words that allowed FW de Klerk to trust in a path forward for his people: ‘when confession is made, then those of us who have been wronged must say “we forgive you.”’ A promise Nelson Mandela was then able to execute on as power transitioned peacefully.

The late 1980s also saw the fall of communism.

Many secular countries have become skilled at repackaging Christian concepts for a non-Christian audience. The concept of human rights is far more likely to be accepted if its origins in Catholic cannon law is disguised. The insistence of the United Nations agencies on ‘the antiquity and broad acceptance of the conception of the rights of man’ was a necessary precondition for their claim to a global, rather than merely Western, jurisdiction. While Charle Hebdo attacks the ‘the myth of a God as architect of the universe, the myth of Mary‘s virginity, the myth of Christ’s resurrection’ it was easy to forget that secularism too was founded on a myths that are today accepted as orthodoxy. And today’s orthodoxy in secular society is to accept today’s liberal Western ideals, and expectations: freedom of speech, association and human individual rights.

Thus it appeared to many in the West that it was their own political and social order that constituted the ultimate, the unimprovable form of government. Secularism; liberal democracy; the concept of human rights: these were fit for the whole world to embrace. The inheritance of the enlightenment was for everyone: a possession for all of mankind. It was promoted by the west, not because it was western but because it was universal: It was no more Christian than it was Hindu, or Confucian or Muslim, so its proponents claimed.

The rise of militant Islam in the subsequent decades claimed otherwise. ‘Islam, as practised by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others,’ said George Bush. To fundamentalist Muslim clerics like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi , there was only laws authored by God. Muslim countries, by joining United Nations, had signed up to a host of commitments that derived, not from the Qur’an or the Sunna, but from law codes devised in Christian countries: that there should be equality between men and women; equality between Muslims and non-Muslims; a ban on slavery; a ban on offensive warfare. Islam was in his and those like him in need of a return to the Salaf, ‘the ancestors’, to be reformed. He orchestrated a car bomb targeting UN headquarters in Iraq in 2003. The lead to the attempt to set up an Islamic State across Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, reintroducing many of the original laws.

But for the vast majority of Muslims, many have come to accept some of these Protestant inspired ideals, in states where religion is separated from the secular, and religious beliefs are something private and personal.

On the other side of this, historically Christian European countries are struggling to grapple with an influx of refugees, many of them Muslim, and the implications for their cultures. Look no further than the Charlie Hebdo related violence in recent years..

Charlie Hebdo defines itself a ‘laic, joyful and atheist’, satirising popes and priests, Christ and the Virgin. And while Catholics have repeatedly been obliged to test their faith against the satire, blasphemy and desecration of the magazine, in 2011 Islam started coming under the same obligation: this is what it is, in a secular society, for Muslims to be treated as equals.

The tensions remain today. In 2017 millions of Evangelical Christians in the US voted for Donald Trump, a proven bullying ‘pussy-grabbing’ misogynistic philanderer because he claimed to stand for Christian values that they felt were even more important: family values, abortion, transgender rights (or against these) and immigration controls.

In the latest iteration in 2020 we are now focused on the current issues. #metoo, gender pay gaps, George Floyd, racism , feminism and the patriarchy. Any condemnation of Christianity as patriarchal and repressive derives from the framework of values that is itself is utterly Christian.

There will always be a tension in Christian people between the demands of tradition, scripture and the claims of progress, between the prerogatives of authority and structure and the longing for reformation, between the Christian supposition that every woman’s body is her own and to be respected by every man, and the rights of an unborn child to life, between the churches enthusiasm for monogamous relationships and its celebration of love, and the biblical condemnations of homosexuality. A retreat of Christian belief does not seem to imply a retreat of Christian values. To the contrary, even in Europe with churches far emptier than those in the United States, the trace elements of Christianity continue to infuse peoples’ morals and presumptions so utterly that many fail even to detect their presence.

And in the secular world, as in the days of Darwin and Huxley, so in the 21st-century, the ambition of agnostics to translate values into facts that can be scientifically understood is a fantasy. The wellspring of humanist values lies not in reason, not in evidence-based thinking, but in history. Securalism owes its existence to the mediaeval papacy. Humanism derives ultimately from claims made in the Bible that humans are made in God’s image; that the son of God died equally for everyone; that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.

Christianity has repeatedly sent its reverberations across the world. First it was the primal revolution preached by St Paul. Then the after-shocks: the revolution of the 11th century that set Latin Christendom on its course, then the revolution of the Reformation; then the Elightenment that killed God. All bore an identical stamp: the aspiration to create a world view, to reform and replace the old, the claim to universalism, and the claim that all human beings are born equal with human rights. While the foundation of its morality are a myth, a myth need not be a lie. As Yuval Noah Harari argues, our myths define our societies and allow homosapiens to achieve great things.

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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.

artifical intelligence · Big data · Business Culture · decision making · Investment · Learning · Maths · Statistics

The unrules by Igor Tulchinsky, founder and CEO of WorldQuant

Igor’s rules

  1. The UnRule: all theories and all methods have flaws. Nothing can be proved with absolute certainty is, but anything may be disproved, and nothing that can be articulated can be perfect.
  2. You only live once. Your time on earth is the only truly irreplaceable resource. If today was my last day, what would I be doing with it?
  3. Life is unpredictable. There are limits to planning; the key is to act. Foster opportunities, then take advantage of outcomes. If you have to decide and you can’t, flip a coin. If it’s the wrong action, you will feel it and reverse course. Actions have a compounding effect; it’s bad to deliberate for too long.
  4. Establish concrete quantifiable goals and always go from A to B. Concrete things are attainable. Abstract and nebulous wishes are not.
  5. Develop willpower and persist. The most important limit is how much ability and persistence you have. Age means little.
  6. Play to your strengths, don’t compromise. Weaknesses can only be improved marginally, but strength can be improved more.
  7. Obstacles are information. If you can’t get something to work there is a reason. Learn adjust and attack it again.
  8. Aim for the anxious edge, the point of mild anxiety
  9. Arrogance distorts reality. Arrogance makes you perceive the environment in the way that maximises your ego. Environment does not exist for you, so your perceptions turn into fiction. You make bad decisions by chasing illusions. This gets harder after success when hubris slips in.
  10. Make everyone benefit
  11. Opportunity is unlimited, ideas are infinite
  12. Blame no one else. Minimise regrets.
  13. There is a virtue in economy of expression. Efficiency implies clarity and economy of thought. Pretend you have a fixed number of words in your life. The sooner they are all said, the sooner you’ll die.
  14. Value diverse and competing methods. Because all theories are flawed, the best approach is to collect as many of them as possible and use them all, in as optimal a fashion as you can devise, simultaneously.
  15. Value multiple points of view.
  16. Make everyone benefit. Align your endeavours with everyone around you and you will create your own tail wind.

Quotes and other insights

  1. To be successful in this investment business you have to think about it all the time. Thomas Peterffy
  2. Keep losses small. Profits will take care of themselves. Izzy Englander
  1. Don’t get emotional about your trades. React instantly to bad news. If it’s scary run. Take aggressive risks but manage losses. Aggressive behaviour forces your environment to react to you, rather than the other way around. You’re in control; you have the wider array of options in a higher probability of success. You need an exit route if it doesn’t work out.
  2. In systems with a high degree of interactive complexity, multiple and unexpected interactions of failure are inevitable.
  3. A good business runs itself. And create this by choosing the right people. A lot of time should be invested in that activity. Optimal compensation schemes are vital.
  4. Minimise bureaucracy. Time is money; time is scarce. Bureaucracy wastes time and money. If you have the right people, right systems and the right compensation scheme you can scale without adding bureaucracy.
  5. What makes a good trader? Intelligence, focus, action orientation, and the ability to learn from errors; economy of words and thoughts, honesty, and a strong sense of self; the ability to take risks, compartmentalise, and handle setbacks without ego getting crushed.
  6. What makes a good researcher? Creativity, tenacity, attention to detail, intelligence, relentlessness, follow-through, and top-level programming skills.
  7. What makes a good manager? Empathy, intelligence, creativity, relentlessness, and follow through.
  8. In their view, quantity of alphas is far superior to quality. Quality cannot easily be defined. They seek to maximise exponentially the number of Alphas they pursue.
  9. If data increases exponentially, predictability should improve linearly.
  10. They key to testing ideas is to have good simulation software.
  11. As complexity increases so will the number and frequency of non linear events will also increase (ie many std dev events – rogue waves, schrodinger equation)
  12. Power laws very common in nature. In some systems the largest entity often brakes scale invariance, ie. it is even bigger than predicted eg. In network systems, dominant player much bigger.

WorldQuant online university in financial literacy worth checking out.

artifical intelligence · Business · General · Learning · Philosophy · Psychology · Science

Books of 2018

As I don’t have time to do full write-ups on everything I get through, here is just a brief few comments on the books I chose to read in 2018 and the key things I want to remember of them. Roughly in the order I would recommend them for general consumption…

  • 1. Man’s search for meaning by Victor Frankl
  • (See the separate blogpost on this) This is the book I would most recommend you read, it addresses very deep and meaningful challenges we all face, particularly suffering. It’s a short and easy read, but very powerful.
  • 2. Poor Charlie’s Almanac, Charlie Munger

    An amazing read, in echoes of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richards’s Almanac, full of down to earth wisdom and common sense, not to mention that this should be compulsory reading for anyone in the investment field.

    The single biggest concept is the idea of being well acquainted with the core mental models used in a wide variety of disciplines, and then be able to apply those in other situations in a methodical way. This is perhaps the best articulation of the multidisciplinary approach to which I aspire.

    The incredible moments for me are his insights into psychology. Many of these are now better understood with progress in modern behavioural economics, but Charlie Munger was years ahead in figuring out a lot of this for himself. He also makes some astute observations about the current state of psychology which, relative to many other sciences, seems in its infancy.

    3. The biography of Benjamin Franklin: an American Life by Walter Isaacson

    I had no idea just how prolific a thinker, scientist and statesman/politician Benjamin Franklin was. This book gives a real sense of that. Standout thoughts for me:

    • He was in many senses the ultimate pragmatist, choosing what was useful over ideology over and over again
    • His basic industriousness and strong drive towards practical daily work
    • His own awareness of his fallibility, while striving towards this industrious ideal
    • His role as a scientist and his curiosity about the natural world, including much around an understanding of electricity, inventing descriptions such as battery, positive, negative, charge etc.
    • His role as a printer, the power of the media in influencing society’s direction and thoughts
    • His passionate forming of societies to further all sorts of ends, and his ability to network
    • The interplay between aiming to find a diplomatic solution versus knowing when to take a stand. The role he played in the founding of America and its independence from Britain was quite incredible – from diplomacy to the leading of militias. And while this happened over much of his life, he achieved the majority in his last 10 years from the age of 65 to around 75.
    • He was instrumental in writing of, and was the only common signatory to the Declaration of Independence, the peace treaty with Britain (and with France) and the US Constitution. He was instrumental in forming a governance system that would bring the various independent states, into one United States, and in creating the two chamber structure of the Senate and the House.
    • The contrast between his pragmatic beliefs in “salvation by works” and a frankly not very deep religious conviction, versus Jonathan Edwards’ thinking, a leading Christian spiritual thinker of the timewho emphasised salvation by grace and grace alone, which I find spiritually curious.
  • Takeaways for myself: to be more industrious, pragmatic, and turn to action when needed, to be more outgoing in fostering connection (which is possible in a very different way in today’s internet-centric world) to continue to be curious, broad ranging and diplomatic.
  • It’s a fairly easy read, quite long and a bit repetitive at times but definitely worth pushing through. The second half of the book, which concentrates on the last 10 years of his life and many of the political developments between the US and Europe, is very interesting.
  • 4. Consilience by Edward O. Wilson

    His key concept is the unification and “consilience” of all fields of knowledge, the natural sciences, social sciences, art, spirituality and religion, with a scientific underpinning. The book was helpful to me in several ways:

    • In furthering this idea that what are traditionally thought of as separate fields of enquiry, are in fact highly related; and understanding one, may lead to deeper understanding of another.
    • Along side this, is the observation that most people become specialists in one area and few are the generalists making connections across what are considered separate areas of expertise. There is great opportunity for those willing to span the fields.
    • The idea of deeply rooted genetic origins to some of our cultural- and spiritual practices, and that our minds grow in a cultural context as part of a communal mind.
    • He was quite prescient in his insight that it would be the development of our understanding of the mind, that would become a connecting force across many of these areas.
    • The idea of social- or collective-Darwinism, the importance of culture in creating cohesion, that group cultures can evolve and individuals may subserve their needs to the group in order to ensure its survival.
    • This then leads to discussions of the social sciences from evolutionary biology to economics to psychology and hence onto art, ethics and religion.
    • While many may disagree, I found he had a positive light on spirituality and religion in the sense that, it is necessary for the effective organisation of our cultures
    • He is again prescient in looking forward at issues like gene therapy and environmentalism

    This is an intellectually exhausting read, with many concepts tightly packed and demanding language, so I would recommend it if you are interested in the idea of reconciliation as the basis for all forms of human knowledge; but be prepared to put the effort in.

    5. Deep Work by Cal Newport

    An easy read and some good practical advice too which I will be applying in the coming year to try and improve my productivity and general focus. (I have put out a separate post summarising my takeaways on this book.)

    6. The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin

    This book has been hugely helpful in understanding our family’s internal motivations and drivers. The world can be split into two types of people: those who believe in personality types and those who don’t! Jokes aside, personality types can be useful mental models. Rubin develops a mental model of what motivates people: are we driven by what others expect of us, or are we driven internally by our own expectations, do we balance other people’s and our own expectations or do we reject all expectations – those arising from within and those of other people? Which of these types is dominant, has a great deal to say about how we approach life, and what approach in work or relationships will be effective in motivating in specific situations.

    In our experience her mental model was highly descriptive of the different members of our family. Each of the four different ‘types’ she describes is a good fit to one of the four of us. It’s been very helpful in understanding what approach to take in working with one another. Recommended for anyone in a relationship or parenting, struggling to make things work better.

  • 7. Life and Work Principles by Ray Dalio
  • I am a huge admirer of what Dalio has achieved at Bridgewater having followed their investment thinking for many years. He is possibly one of the most systematic of thinkers and this book of his Principles does exactly that, starting from elementary components and building up. The book also gives a good insight into him as a person and family man which round out a view, if you know him only as an investor.
  • There is too much to distil into one summary but a few of the key highlights and takeaways for me include:

    Life principles

    • What I have seen is that the happiest people discover their own nature and match their life to it.
    • Two worthy life goals: meaningful work and meaningful relationships
    • Embrace reality, see it as it truly is, and deal with it
    • Love your mistakes and learn from them. pain plus reflection = progress
    • Weigh second- and third-order consequences when making decisions
    • Have good mental maps (to help you understand the world), humility and open mindedness (to know you don’t have all the answers and be open to other’s solutions)
    • Understand your own ego barrier, preventing you from understanding or accepting your weaknesses and blind spots, versus your executive function, a higher level ‘you’ that wants to make the right decision – these are in conflict.
    • A concept of believability: weighted decision making I think is very powerful – weight the opinions of those with proven track records and who are most expert. This is a better model than either consensus decision making or dictatorial decision making. One of the most important decisions you can make is who you ask the questions of.
    • Other people genuinely see the world very differently from the way you do. Sincerely believe that you might not know the best possible path. You must suspend judgement and empathise to properly evaluate another person’s perspective.
    • Decision making is a two step process. Take in all the relevant information, then decide.
    • Thoughtful disagreement is an art: how to be both open minded and assertive.
    • Everything looks bigger closer up, and ‘new’ is overvalued relative to ‘great’.
    • Navigate levels effectively, high, intermediate, detailed. Synthesis requires back to the big picture, not getting lost in the detail. Simplify. It takes a genius to make it simple.

    Work principles (a few of the many he suggests)

    • Organisations consist of people and culture
    • An idea meritocracy = radical truth + radical transparency + believability weighted decision making
    • You have to be able to put your honest thoughts on the table, have thoughtful disagreement and abide by agreed-upon ways of getting past disagreement
    • Be loyal to the common mission, not to anyone who is not operating consistently with it
    • Create a culture where it is okay to make mistakes but unacceptable not to learn from them
    • Get in sync
    • Don’t leave important conflicts unresolved
    • Once a decision is made everyone should get behind it, even if individuals still disagree
    • Who is more important than what, hire right: for values, then abilities (ways of thinking and behaving), then skills (learnt tools), pay attention to track record
    • Don’t tolerate problems
    • Diagnose problems and get to their root cause
    • Evolve the machine
    • Have good governance

    My suggestion for using this book in a business context (after you have understood the big principles and concepts) is, if you have a specific set of challenges you’re facing there will probably be a section of his book that applies to that. See if applying them in your situation would be helpful. There is way too much to hold it all in mind, at once.

  • 8. 21 lessons for the 21st century by Yuval Noah Harari
  • I have wanted to read this author for some time (his book, Sapiens in particular). This one touches on most of the major themes that I think will be hugely important trends over coming years. In some ways it is a short cut covering many of the topics in both Edward Luce’s Demise of Western Populism and Kasparov’s Deep Thinking, including
    • Politics and the rise of populism
      The rise and impact of Artificial Intelligence
      Issues around education, truth and fake news, power
      The development of secular spiritualism
      The workings of the mind and our understanding of it
  • One key perspective that he brought through for me was the power and centrality of the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves and our tribes, that this is both a defining feature of humanities success and our own greatest chains and shackles.
  • (With all it covered and some great quotes, there is a separate blogpost on it.)
  • 9. Deep Thinking by Gary Kasparov
  • I put out a separate post on this book too picking up on the themes of Artificial Intelligence and its increasing impact on work and the world, and on decision making psychology. A relatively accessible read with a bonus for anyone interested in the chess itself.

    10. The retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce

    (Again, one I have done a separate blogpost on.) Articulate, and well-written, this is an excellent read for anyone wanting to understand the changing political landscape and rise of populism.

    11. The Psychology Book (published by DK)

    Psychology and the way our brains work has been an increasing area of interest for me both professionally and personally. I believe that psychology and the mind is going to be greatest and most important frontier on which we will make progress over the coming decades. I see its relevance everywhere: in interpersonal relationships between adults, both personal and professional; with children, as parents; in the aged; in the rise of interest in meditation and self help, in the rise of mental health issues amongst friends, colleagues and our community, and in my own self. I think mental health will become bigger than physical ailments as the frontier to address of human suffering. And compared to many of the other sciences it is its infancy, only just emerging from the dark ages. The subject it is studying is the most complex machine ever devised, the human brain. And studying cognition as opposed to the physical brain, is one of the most difficult things to do scientifically because most of it is happening in our heads, which to date are not terribly transparent to scientific inquiry.

    However as one approaches this subject it’s inevitably starts off as very confusing, with lots of different terminology and theories, and everyone appears to think that their theory is the perfect one to address your current situation. In the words of Charlie Munger, “to the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. In an attempt to try to make some sense of the cacophony of theories and approaches I am trying to get a more global picture of the field of psychology, this book by DK has been immensely helpful. It summarises the key ideas that each major psychologist contributed to the field and its helping me create a mental map of the different approaches and lineages we know of to date.

    12. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

    This was my fiction read of the year, a wonderful yarn combining the modern history of cryptography from World War Two through to today (slightly before the advent of crypto currency). It’s a bit long and some descriptions of less relevant facts can go on for a while but it’s a good nerd’s adventure, and he certainly knows his facts when it comes to cryptography.

    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.
    artifical intelligence · Computer Science · decision making · Learning · Philosophy · Psychology

    Deep Thinking by Garry Kasparov

    This book covers the rise of computers and AI over the period Kasprov’s chess career. But for me the interesting insights are into the rising impact of technology on our lives, and the roles of psychology in decision making.

    In my comments I have focused more on the takeaways I think are more widely applicable rather than on the chess focused aspects. I have replicated lots of wonderful and insightful quotes from the book:

    Chess

    It gives a fascinating insight into how much chess is a game of psychology at the elite levels.

    • Emanuel Lasker – chess is not a science or an art – it is a fight. Play the man and not the board – play the move that makes your opponent feel most uncomfortable. It’s a psychological game.

    It also gives insight into how someone like Kasparov is not just looking for the next best move but is aiming to develop an overarching strategy that he aims to adapt and customise to his understanding of his opponents strategy, be that opponent human or machine.

    He summarises the rise of Chess playing computers as a timeline: Thousands of years of status quo human dominance, a few decades of weak computer competition, a few years struggle for computer supremacy. Then game over. For the rest of human history machines will be better than humans are chess. This is the unavoidable one-way street of technological progress in everything from the cotton-gin to manufacturing robots to intelligent agents.

    The impact of technology on our lives, work and education

    • It’s far easier to tell millions of newly redundant workers to retrain for the Information Age than to be one of them or to actually do it.
    • The machines have finally come for the white collared, the college graduates, the decision-makers. And it’s about time.
    • It is callous to say that all who suffer the consequences of tech disruption should be ignored and just get over it because, in the long run, this suffering won’t much matter. The point is that when it comes to looking for solutions to alleviate that suffering, going backwards isn’t an option. A corollary is that it is almost always better to start looking for alternatives and how to advance the change into something better instead of trying to fight it and hold on to the dying status quo
    • Romanticising the loss of jobs to technology is little better than complaining about antibiotics putting too many gravediggers out of work. The transfer of labour from humans to our inventions is nothing less than the history of civilisation.
    • Educating and retraining a workforce to adapt to change is far more effective than trying to preserve that workforce in some sort of Luddite bubble.
    • We aren’t competing against our machines, no matter how many human jobs they can do. We are competing with ourselves to create new challenges and to extend our capabilities and to improve our lives. Inturn these challenges will require even more capable machines and people to build them and train them and maintain them – until we can make machines that do those things to, and the cycle continues.
    • If we feel like we are being surpassed by our own technology it’s because we aren’t pushing ourselves hard enough, aren’t being ambitious enough in our goals and dreams. Instead of worrying about what machines can do, we should worry more about what they still cannot do.
    • The desire for service wins out over a vague desire for privacy. Technology will continue to make the benefits of sharing our data practically irresistible. Our lives are being converted into data.
    • The trend cannot be stoped so what matters more than ever is watching the watchers. The amount of data we produce will continue to expand, largely to our benefit, but we must monitor where it goes and how it is used. Privacy is dying, so transparency must increase.
    • Kids thrive and connections and creation and they can be empowered by today’s technology to connect and create in limitless ways. The kids to go to school is it in brace this empowerment most able will thrive. That our classrooms still mostly look like they did 100 years ago isn’t quaint; it’s absurd.
    • The world is changing to quickly to teach kids everything they need to know; they must be given the methods and means to teach themselves. This means creative problem-solving, dynamic collaboration online and off, real time research, and the ability to modify and make their own digital tools. They are aided by how far we have come in making powerful technology easily accessible. A room full of kids can assemble their own digital textbooks and syllabus in a few minutes of drag-and-drop on a tablet collaborating from the very start.
    • Wealthy nations are approaching education in the same way the wealthy aristocratic family approaches investing. The status quo has been good for a long time; why rock the boat? I have never seen such a conservative mindset in any other sector. Not only in the administrators and bureaucrats but the teachers and parents as well. Everyone except for the kids. The prevailing attitude is that education is too important to take risks. My response is that education is too important not to take risks. We need to find out what works and the only way to do that is to experiment. The kids can handle this. They are already doing it on their own. It’s the adults who are afraid.
    • Many jobs will continue to be lost to intelligent automation, but if you’re looking for a field that will be booming for many years, get into human machine collaboration and process architecture and design. This isn’t just user experience, but entirely new ways of bringing machine-human coordination into diverse fields and creating new tools we need in order to do so.
    • To keep ahead of the machines, we must not try to slow them down because that slows us down as well. We must speed them up. We must give them, and ourselves, plenty of room to grow. We must go forward, outward, and upward.
    • We can never go back to the way it was before. No matter how many people are worried about jobs, or the social structure, or killer machines, we can never go back. It’s against human progress and against human nature. Once tasks can be better done, cheaper, safer, faster, by machines, humans will only ever do them again for recreation or during power outages. Once technology enables us to do certain things we never give them up.
    • He ends with a discussion around super intelligence and general AI. And seems to favour an argument that that is some time away, but we have lots of real challenges with the rise of AI in everyday situations today that we have still to grapple with properly.
    • This is not a choice between utopia dystopia.It is not a matter of us versus anything else. We will need every bit of our ambition in order to stay ahead of our technology. We are fantastic at teaching our machines how to do our tasks, and we will only get better at it. The only solution is to keep creating new tasks, new missions, new industries that we don’t even know how to do ourselves. We need new frontiers and then we will explore them. Our technology excels at removing the difficulty and uncertainty from our lives, and so we must seek out ever more difficult and uncertain challenges.

    Philosophy

    • The mind goes beyond reasoning to include perception, feeling, remembering, and, perhaps most distinctively, willing – having and expressing wishes and desires.
    • Pablo Picasso “computers are useless. They can only give you answers.“
    • Dave Ferrucci “computers do know how to ask questions. They just don’t know which ones are important.”
    • To know which questions are the right questions, you have to know what’s important, what matters. And you cannot know that unless you know which outcome is most desirable.
    • To become good at anything you have to know how to apply basic principles. To become great at it, you have to know when to violate those principles.
    • Larry Tesla says that “intelligence is what ever machines haven’t done yet”
    • Joseph Weizenbaum quotes: Machines can decide but they do not choose. Why does the machine do what it does? Every mechanised decision can be traced back – eventually it reaches the inevitable conclusion of “because you told me to”. For humans this is not the case and the new destination is instead “because I chose to“. With in that simple phrase lies human agency, human leadership, human responsibility, and humanity itself.
    • Better technology, smarter technology, does not change human nature. It empowers us, for better and for worse. Good people will use it for good. Evil people will use it for evil. That is why we must remember that becoming better humans will always be more important than creating smart machines.
    • Kasprov argues that our technology can make us more human by freeing us to be more creative, but there is more to being human then creativity. We have other qualities the machines cannot match. They have instructions while we have purpose. Machines cannot dream. Humans can, and we will need our intelligent machines in order to turn our grandest dreams into reality. If we stop dreaming big dreams, if we stop looking for a greater purpose, then we may as well be machines ourselves.

    Psychology, and behaviour and decision making

    • Bill Gates “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”
    • Leaving your comfort zone involves risk, and when you are doing well the temptation to stick with the status quo can be overwhelming, leading to stagnation
    • No matter how much you love the game, you have to hate to lose if you want to stay in top. You have to care, and care deeply
    • A simple lack of self confidence results in decision-making that is slower, more conservative, and inferior in quality. Pessimism leads to watch the psychologists called “a heightened sense of potential disappointment in the expected outcome“ of one’s decisions. This leads to indecisiveness and the desire to avoid or postpone consequential decisions.
    • Intuition is the product of experience and confidence. It is the ability to act reflexively on knowledge that has been deeply absorbed and understood. Depression or self doubt short-circuits intuition by inhibiting the confidence required to turn that experience into action.
    • We rely on assumptions and heuristics to make sense of the complex world around us. We do not calculate every decision by brute force, checking every possible outcome. It is inefficient and unnecessary to do so, because generally we get by pretty well with our assumptions. But when they are isolated by researchers, or exploited by advertisers politicians, and other con artists, you can see how we could all use a little object of oversight, which is where our machines can help us. Not merely by providing the right answers, but by showing us how idiosyncratic and easily influenced our thinking can be. Becoming aware of these fantasies and cognitive blindspot won’t prevent them in entirely, but it’s a big step toward combating them.
    • We suffer from similar irrationalities and cognitive delusions at the chessboard as we do in life. We often make impulsive moves when careful analysis refutes our plans. We fall in love with our plans and refuse to admit new evidence against them. We allow confirmation bias to influence us into thinking that what we believe is right, despite what the data may say. We trick ourselves into seeing patterns in randomness and correlations where none exist.

    Strategy and Decision Making

    • What separates him from other strong players? Experimentation and adaptability. The willingness to take on new challenges, to keep trying new things, different methods and uncomfortable tasks
    • Hard work is a talent. The ability to push yourself to keep working, practising, studying more than others is itself a talent.
    • Focusing on your strengths is required for peak performance but improving weaknesses has the potential for greatest gains
    • Kasparov speaks regularly about the difference between strategy and tactics, and why it’s essential to first understand your long-term goals so you don’t confuse them with reactions, opportunities, or mere milestones. The difficulty of doing this is why even small companies need mission statements and regular checkups to make sure that they are staying on course. Adapting to circumstances is important, but if you change your strategy all the time you don’t really have one. We humans have enough trouble figuring out what we want and how best to achieve it, so it’s no wonder we have trouble getting machines to look at the big picture.
    • Computers use an exhaustive search algorithm. Humans use a very different heuristic when making plans. Strategic thinking require setting long-term goals and establishing milestones along the way, leaving aside for the moment how are your opponent, or business or political rivals, might respond. There are no calculations involved yet, only a type of strategic Wish List. Only then do I begin to work out whether it’s actually possible and what my opponent might do to conunter it.
    • When it comes to big innovations you have to start earlier. The earlier on in the development tree you look, the bigger the potential for disruption is, and the more work it will take to achieve. If we only rely on our machines to show us how to be good imitators, we will never take the next step to become creative innovators. If everyone imitates, soon there will be nothing new to imitate. Demand can be stimulated by incremental product diversification for only so long. It’s called innovating at the margins.
    • While using your phone isn’t cheating in real life, you might develop a cognitive limp from an over reliance on a digital crutch. The goal must be to use these powerful and objective tools not only to do better analysis and make better decisions in the moment, but also to make us better decision-makers.
    • Checklists and goalposts are vital to disciplined thinking and strategic planning. We often stop doing these things outside of a rigid work environment, but they are very useful and today’s digital tools make them very easy to maintain
    • You have to be brutally honest at objective self-evaluation. If you’re truthful and diligent when collecting data and making your evaluations, you will find you get better and better making correct estimations.

    Follow ups to read more on: Oxford Martin School, Nick Bostrom, Ian Goldin, Google’s Peter Norvig, Bridgewater’s Dave Ferrucci and of course Douglas Hofstadder.

    Learning · Science

    How do our brains work?

    There are a lot of reasons I am interested in this question:

    1. It’s probably the most complex machine nature has evolved. Yet it runs on the power of a 20watt lightbulb when an equivalent computer would require 24 million watts of power!

    2. My dad has dementia. There is a whole lot of research going on into what causes this and what we might be able to do to prevent or even help with it in the future. Too late for him but hopefully in time for my children.

    3. We are fast developing various forms of Artificial Intelligence and understanding the way our brains work will form the basis for some of the modelling of how “computer brains” may work.

    This WaitButWhy post by TimUrban I am linking to is a monster: it’s very long and addresses several big topics. But as usual for Tim it sets things out in a sensible understandable way. It’s overall focus is on what Elon Musk’s Neuralink enterprise is hoping to achieve with Brain/Machine interfaces. But different components of the piece are in themselves so interesting that I feel like I should really just share pieces of it, each of which can pretty much be read as stand alone treatise.

    So the first bit I am going to recommend is actually the second and third part of this treatise, which is the piece on how our brain works. Tim manages to pull together and summarise in quite a simple way, our current understanding of the brain, and I found it quite fascinating.

    Here is the link Part 2: The Brain. Read part 2 and also part 3 which starts to talk about the challenges of creating Brain, Machine interfaces.

    Some of the fascinating pieces that amazed me:

    The three main components of the brain: reptilian (the part that keeps our bodies functioning, eg. Hearts and lungs pumping), the limbic system (the Paleo-mamillian system), our primitive survival system of instincts where we get our emotions along with a whole lot of other functionality and some memory functions, and the neo-mamillian outer cortex where we do all of our rational thought, processing and emotional control functions. Things like Daniel Kannehman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow is all about the interaction between these second and third parts of the brain.

    The structure and nature of neurons, the basic building blocks of our brains and how they connect and trigger each other is also explained. Did you know that they basically function a lot like a binary computer either sending a signal or not sending a signal? Their activation functions and connections are non linear but their firing is either on or off. I expected something much more analogue!

    There are around 100 billion neurons in our brains. (Around about the same number of stars as there are in our galaxy to an order of magnitude – a number that always blows my mind. Think about that for a moment vs the 7bn people we have on earth. And that’s just our galaxy, one of an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Anyway back to earth and your brain…) Your thinking cortex is about 15 to 20% of that total number of neurons and is present only in the outer two milimeters of your brain! (The bulk of the brain below that is taken up with the connections between the axon of each neuron and the others). Each neuron can have synaptic connections (connections that can carry its signal) to between 1000 and 10,000 other neurons! And it’s the restructuring of these connections that gives us our ability to learn. Now that makes a seriously complex machine! Tim does a wonderful illustration scaling up the brain to the size of a few city blocks to try to describe its complexity in a way we can comprehend.

    If you have the stamina then read the whole thing, you will need to go back to Part 1, which will be the topic of my next post. If not I am sure to pick up on many of the topics in future posts!