Sunday, February 22, 2015

Hollow Horses: Janet's Apollonian Curse


"I'm afraid of Greeks even those bearing gifts."

Laocoön in Virgil's Aeneid, Book II

Before she was raped and murdered, King Priam's daughter Cassandra was allegedly seduced by Apollo with the proposition that in exchange for sex she would receive the capacity to prophesy.  Through some twist of chastity, Apollo got upset with her spurning of his affections and cursed her with the fate of being right but never believed.  So, when she advised the Trojans that the large wooden horse was actually the agency of their downfall, they neglected her warnings and the rest is history.  Her miserable life ended as the assassinated concubine of King Agamemnon of Mycenae.  How's that for a tough dose of reality!

There's more than enough Greek tragedy to go around this week and everybody's got a little case of the Siege of Troy going on.  The Germans and the French are sick and tired of promises of Aegean austerity being met with populist protests which lead to Greek political accommodation.  The IMF is frustrated and doesn't see a path forward that doesn't include massive political and social upheaval.  And let's face it: this is not a great time to incite the oppressed classes in any country into revolt.  Before long, you could have all kinds of things going wrong and there are already enough things off the rails.  

If you try to trace what's gone on in Greece since the run up to the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 (you really don't want to pull back the curtain on that if you want to live in blissful ignorance of what's happening in the Middle East right now), you'll note that there have been over €300 billion pumped into Greek economic support packages none of which have a reasonable expectation of being repaid.  In a recent article, Princeton University's Professor of History and International Affairs Harold James attempted to unpack the populist message in Greece reminding creditor-in-chief Germany that it still owes Greece an unpaid debt from the end of World War I.   "When democracy" [the pro-labor stance that says that Greek pensions should be untouched and that austerity is too austere] "is used to justify shifting a country's burden onto its neighbors, integration becomes impossible - and both democracy and the international order may be jeopardized.  Just as financial contagion can spread market uncertainties through neighboring economies, so, too, can political contagion spread the adoption of a zero-sum mentality."

Whew!  I'm so thankful that I'm living in America where we don't have any of these… I'm sorry, what is that?  Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is about to address Congress on Tuesday to discuss U.S. interest rates.  Oh, no worries, unemployment is down, oil prices are low which should boost consumer spending.  Right?  Nothing to see here - back to the EU paroxysm… right?

Well, kind of… almost… not quite. 

As I sought to untangle the bailouts and refinancings of the Greeks, I thought I'd check in on the lovely U.S. of A. and see how we're doing with our post-2008 financial house.  For that, I pulled up the February 19, 2015 H.4.1. - a document that I find deeply informative and more Greek tragedy than I'd like.  It's always mind bending to see that in a country where we have about $1.3 trillion in circulation, the Fed holds $1.7 trillion in mortgages, $2.5 trillion in Treasury securities and other assets totally about $4.5 trillion in reserve funds.  Over the past week, it picked up another $14 billion in mortgage-backed securities just to beef up a health economy!  Well done.  But footnote 17 - you know the one - at the bottom of the footnote section where you never actually go to read is that pesky little line item "liability for interest on Federal Reserve notes due to the U.S. Treasury" which currently sits at $65.4 billion. 

Four years ago, through a technical accounting gimmick, the Federal Reserve created a mechanism whereby it could never show a capital loss.  Let's examine this more closely.  The Federal Reserve is required to send its profits to the U.S. Treasury and, given their amazing investments in things like AIG's Maiden Lane, Mortgage Back Securities and the like - this amount should be sizable.  As long as interest rates stay anemically low, the Fed's ability to earn income in excess of interest paid on bank reserves is totally cool.  However, if the Fed ever had to sell assets - like mortgages and other securities - at a loss, it would lose money, right?  Not so fast!  Now, if the Fed loses money on saleable assets, it reports it as a negative interest due to the U.S. Treasury.  In other words, if the Fed loses money, such losses will be offset against future remittances to the Treasury thereby making the Fed incapable of having a negative capital position.  And clearly, smart people who are watching our economic interests care, right?  The ultimate anti-Cassandra clarity award goes to Bank of America's Ralph Axel who stated that: "We will not make too much of a fuss over this accounting change, but the overall theme of reduced government credibility is strengthened by it."  Wow!  The theme of reduced credibility is strengthened…. beware of bank executives and their beguiling Fed double speak. 

So here's a puzzle.  If Yellen signals a rise in interest rates, it's going to effectively devalue the "assets" held on its own balance sheet (which it bought during a period where Quantitative Easing mandated buying assets others didn't want).  But that's cool, right?  Because she'll be able to pick up the benefit of a negative interest on obligations due the Treasury and so she'll actually suffer no loss.  However, if the Fed doesn't suffer a loss, doesn't someone have to pick up the tab?  Ummm…

Greece, the U.S., and the E.U. all have the same problem.  During the end of the siege from 2008-2011, some clever soldiers got together and left a horse outside the city gates.  It had the name Quantitative Easing hung around its neck.  And, failing to heed the voices of the Cassandras who said that if we take the horse into our debauched celebration of economic recovery, bad things might come out and stab us in our sleep, we drug the colossal gift into our balance sheets.  And now, realizing that the horse was loaded with our undoing, we've decided to shift attention on the Greeks and their incapacity to be fiscally responsible in hopes that no one ever reads the footnotes in our financial statement.  Because if they did, they'd see that our problems are an order of magnitude bigger and, as Harold James put it, "both democracy and the international order may be jeopardized".


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rage and the Machine


First off, there's no secret to my success or effectiveness.  I don't have a 12-step program.  When it comes to the 7 steps to wealth or 5, 7, 12 or more habits of successful people - bupkis!  And at some point, it may dawn on people who are pretty sure that I've got some insights worth sharing that I come in one size.  Me.  And that's the raw, unedited, unplugged, fully living in analog dynamism, Me.

Some really caring, empathetic individuals came up to me a few days ago and in hushed tones thought I should know that some people found my language offensive, my tone too harsh, and the dynamic range of my passion in presentation "unsettling". 

"You could be so much more effective if you softened your edges," one said.

"I don't really think you mean to come across as angry," stated another.

Now let's put this in context.  I've been asked to contribute to a series of gatherings lately where my experience in business and foresight have been explicitly solicited.  From post-modern, pseudo-spiritual Jungian "shadow work", to the Jaworski, Scharmer & Senge "Presencing" and Theory U, to the Robinson, Blank & Ries "minimum viable product" orthodoxy, to Swammerdam cum Chopra's "imaginal cells" (ironically first used to describe fruit flies - sorry all you feel-good butterfly enlightened ones!), to Prahalad & Ramaswamy's "co-creation", I've been asked to collaborate with purveyors of theories developed by others which are barely recognizable in the manifest deployment thereof.  And while each of these theories served an elucidation function for their progenitors' impulse to communicate, their unconsidered promulgation as a catechism for social engagement is revolting.  Having read an essay or attended a workshop may be suitable for voyeuristic intrigue but it does, my no means, elicit mastery.  Put another way, being able to quote the works of an "anticipatory design scientist" does not a geodesic dome construct. 

Appealing to the sweeping generalizations endemic in Occidental religious dogma regarding the essential nature of humanity and its defiled state, Jung was able to ride a secular wave with his "all have shadows" proclamation.  Theory U presupposes ubiquitous "blind spots".  MVP favors velocity and illusion over momentum and mass.  Imaginal and co-creative impulses perpetuate historicism errors dependent on a linear evolutionary ascent model.  And each of these methods seek to impose mean reversion on a population and its constituents rather than elucidating conditions in which the wild-type mutagenicity is fostered.

If we presuppose the First Law of Thermodynamics which stipulates matter and energy exist in persistent, transitive phases and states (neither created nor destroyed) in a closed system, we can readily conclude that all animation and agency we need is present in our ecosystem.  If we layer onto that presupposition Auguste Comte's positivism - the deterministic "natural order" - we find ourselves in a space that diminishes our capacity to fully engage the abundance that is in our field.  Heisenberg's observation that positivism requires us to "pass over in silence" that which doesn’t fit our model of reality concludes that positivism is a, "pointless philosophy, seeing that we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing."

After being told that my presentation material and style was abrasive and offensive, I decided to enter into a deep observation mode.  I noticed that those most offended by my style were most engaged with copious alcohol consumption at breaks and in late evenings.  I noticed that the purveyors consensus theories of incrementalism promulgated to promote the illusion of "doing something" were engaging in activities clearly evidencing disdain for personal integrity.  And all the while I reflected on why my rage against prima facie fallacies promoted to seduce aspiring entrepreneurs into the jaws of a system that devours all it contacts was somehow deemed offensive while ethanol-induced analgesia was embraced with no critique.  How does a hydroxl linked saturated carbon atom get permission to impair human potential while precise, verbal and aesthetic cognitive stimulation get indicted for being too intrusive? 

And then it dawned on me.  I live in an unconstrained analog system optimized for highly varied operations in acoustic, light, thermal, positional and pressure conditions.  I've chosen a path that has preserved the perceptive amplitude of all my awareness never seeking to deaden pain, escape emotions, transcend the present, or dismiss the unfamiliar.  My opening proposition with any being or any experience is one in which I love to test signal responses across the entire range of energy.  I love operating across dynamic ranges and fall madly into intimate fellowship and partnership with those who fully engage their full amplitude.  And when I encounter those who either constrain their own capacity by socially imposed normative ranges defined as "acceptable" or "nice", I am deeply saddened.  But more than that, I also am cautious.  If one has deadened the capacity to feel and perceive what is considered to be "abnormal" or "negative", then discernment is impaired.  If one has closed the aperture of perception to only engage the normative, than radical mutations that could unleash massive consequential shifts in individual or collective experiences will be ignored.  When one limits their own views and inputs, I'm truly saddened.  When one seeks to impose limits on others - I'm truly angry.  And here's the deal:  if you really want to make an impact on a system optimized for mean reversion and consensus, you're going to piss a few people off.  But that's fine.  Because what they're truly experiencing is an indictment of their own lost dynamism and, with any luck, a little jolt to the system might remind them of their true purpose for living and, who knows, they might come back to reality.

While contemplating suicide and in painful alcohol fueled despondency, Buckminister Fuller reported being told by a white light:

"You don't have the right to eliminate yourself.  You do not belong to you.  You belong to the Universe.  Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others."

He went forward from that moment, harnessing the full amplitude of his life's experiences and served the "highest advantage of others".  Live Fully and Unconstrained.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

How Shall We Sing the Lord's Song?


At the Third International Conference on Creativity and Innovation at Grassroots, I had the great fortune of meeting the luminous Catherine A. Odora Hoppers, South African Research Chair in Development Education at the University of South Africa.  In her presentation, "Epistemology of Hope" she articulated the vital importance of emancipating the language of and social models for "development" from the implicit and explicit influences of colonial hierarchical values.  As her animated presentation captured the audience at the Indian Institute for Management at Ahmedabad, I kept hearing the echo of Boney M's Rivers of Babylon in my mind.

"When the wicked carried us away in captivity;
Required from us a song,
Now how shall we sing the lord's song in a strange land?"

Somewhere between the song and musing whether Catherine was channeling the wisdom of Gregory Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, I reflected on my presentation the day earlier.  During the Doctoral Colloquium, I made the observation that many of the terms that were being used in the conference: "development", "economy", "knowledge", "innovation", "creativity" and the like have a phenotypic neutrality that belies the energetic framework from which they arise.  And in their unconsidered use and propagation, there is a chance that we may enter into double binds where what we aspire to promote is in fact impaired by an implicit ontological dissonance. 

Let me offer an example.  A young lady in the audience stated that she was involved in "human resources" management at a government sponsored innovation center in India.  Much to her surprise, I asked her if she could give me the Sanskrit word for "human resources".  She looked puzzled.  Those around her had various expressions - some smiled, some shook their heads, and other looked entirely perplexed.  One of the students offered what those around him seemed to concur was the best approximation.  Not familiar with the word, I asked for it's literal translation.  The consensus response centered around a meaning that was basically "humans as tools".  I asked the young lady if she felt that her colleagues would warmly receive being treated as tools or implements to which she recoiled.  "Of course not, Sir," was her response.  "So is there a chance that your title, if altered, could impact your work and the experience of colleagues?," I queried.  What if her job was a purposeful productivity optimization facilitator?

Raghubir, another participant in the Colloquium took the example a step further.  He shared that "economy" in Hindi and Sanskrit is "arthashastra".  He explained that artha is a term describing meaning and purpose while shastra is a term for a body of knowledge.  Would we speak of "economic development" in the same way if what it involved was expanding the base of knowledge around meaning and purpose?  No!  We would need to actually focus on knowledge rather than the propaganda derived from the Adam Smith intoxication which has led to massive resource extinction and wealth disproportionality.  To the Greeks oikonomía (from which our word "economy" was derived) was the management or administration of a household.  Would we use the same language we do around markets and money if we were speaking in reference to how we engage our own families?  Don't answer that one!  Just think about it.

As we were told, "You are what you eat," so too is it the case that the lexicon you use or adopt should be considered carefully.  If you want to perpetuate the system that is dominant, use its lingua franca.  But if you want a different outcome, it may be prudent to consider being more precise with the words we choose.

Rather than exploration in which we the intrepid "explorers" forge our way into unknown lands or fields of inquiry, could we adopt a more suitable posture of education where we are explicit about our own ignorance thereby allowing the unknown to inform?  Rather than discovery where we use old frameworks of familiarity to isolate within, could we adopt a stance of observation in which we see perspective and context?  Rather than conquest in which we lay claim to ownership of what we reduced to description, could we consider integration where we place ourselves into the expanding network of utility?  Rather than colonization where we impose frameworks upon what we shortly before didn't know, could we contribute what we have to build out a more complete experience for ourselves and others?  Rather than commoditization where we exploit and extract to extinction, could we consider fruitful cooperation in which we experience without extermination?  And rather than innovation in which we separate and make special the individual who adapts matter and energy for efficiency, comfort or utility, can we celebrate integral perception in which our focus is on the action giving rise to the artifact?  Sure, these terms won't count on scorecards of development and GDP but who's keeping score?

Note:  For regular Inverted Alchemists, I will be off-line next week in Antarctica and will be back in two weeks.  So, next weekend, share your favorite post with your friends and I'll see you soon!


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Of Pots and Kettles - MLK Day 2015


If you were in Goshen Indiana 55 years ago this past week and had two bucks rattling around in your pocket, you could have gone to see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak on "The Future of Integration".  If you were on a tight budget, you could get the cheap seats for $1.25.  In the Union Auditorium you would have encountered a number of passionate northern college students deeply committed to address the scourge of racism that was wracking the country.  With any luck, you would've met my dad there.

This past week I was asked to address Rev. Jesse Jackson's RainbowPUSH Wall Street Project conference in New York City.  This event - part of Rev. Jackson's on-going effort to highlight the absence of minority participation in the economy with a special focus on the tech sector - was about as diverse as the Union Auditorium would have been in 1960.  And, regrettably, though the pages of the calendar have long faded in oblivion, the Sheraton Time Square was not filled with evidence of the giant strides we made as a society to eradicate ethnic bigotry.  Instead, it was an echo of aspiration to access that is still denied humans by virtue of capricious contempt and toxic xenophobia.

The phenotype expressed through pigment is still an agency of social division no matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise.  Access to capital, interest rates, access to business opportunities, access to education, access to housing, and access to many other opportunities are still mediated by the wavelength of reflected epithelial light.  This is as wrong now as it was 55 years ago in Indiana.  And our approach to addressing this human rights abuse (that's right, the U.S. is still a supporter of human rights abuses) is potentially more harmful today than it was 6 decades ago.  Why?  Well let me answer the question and then unpack my perspective.  By thinking that we're doing something - like the Congressional debates on 49 U.S.C. § 47113 regarding "minority and disadvantaged business participation" - we are confirming our unwillingness to have a zero tolerance policy for any form of bigotry and racism.  And worse, by the persistent use of "set-asides" and "accommodations", we allow racists to persist in their bigotry by imposing a participation tax where minority businesses are seen as a necessary social cause rather than a valued player on an equivalent field.  Sure, we'll grant minority and women owned businesses 5-10% of our government procurement or corporate supply chain but we'll do nothing to provide the capital infrastructure to let that glass floor ever be breached.

President Richard Nixon established the Office of Minority Business Enterprise with his Executive Order 11458 and with it formalized the access agenda.  This unleashed the formation of many acronym-laden committees, councils and boards all with an aim towards…, um, well, apparently, conversations about how access should be equivalent.  But with 20% of the U.S. population identified as Black or African/American and roughly half of the population women, it's clear that we are not serious about the access "aspirational goals" to say nothing about representational mandates.  As recently as the past two years, we still define economically disadvantaged individuals and businesses as, "those socially disadvantaged… whose ability to compete in the free enterprise system has been impaired due to diminished capital and credit opportunities as compared to others in the same business are who are not socially disadvantaged."  But the same Congress that defines disadvantage in the past tense also recommended limiting sole-source contracts to "disadvantaged businesses" at values capped at $4 million and construction contracts at $65 million.  In short, what we have done in 55 years is opened the door ajar to afford a modicum of access but we've insured that no one actually makes it into the ballroom.

In 1969 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that there were about 163,000 black-owned and 100,000 Spanish-speaking minority-owned firms.  You read this correctly.  One wave-length of light and one cultural acoustic discrimination.  The same survey taken in 2007 reported 5.8 million minority-owned firms.  And to be sure, the MBDA, NMSDC, RainbowPUSH, and others have done an amazing job of getting more businesses into the foyer of enterprise.  But, the idea that the next tech IPO, the next financial services innovation, the next social media tsunami will be led by someone categorized as "minority" is as remote at the RainbowPUSH conference as it was in Goshen.

I don't know what it is about the Sheraton Times Square in NYC that gives me that "minority feeling".  Several months ago, I attended the Emerging Women's Summit to absorb the wisdom of my dear friend Sera Beak.  Being one of the only guys in the room, I was acutely aware of being the one that stands out.  This week, I was one of the few appearance-minority wave-length reflectors of a particular hue.  In both instances, I had something to add to the conversation.  And in both instances, what I had to share was indecipherable against the backdrop of segregation.   We The People are not merely the wavelength of light our skin reflects.   We are not merely the genitals which grace our loins or the fat deposits which adorn our chests.  Or the hair that some of us have!  Our experiments fueled by reflexive revulsion to our pathetic impulse to separate and segregate have morphed the impulse towards access into an anemic accommodation.  We're willing to tolerate each other on the best of days.  But as we are not engaging conversations or experiments in integrated activation leading to emanating productivity we are destined to aspire to much and achieve very little. 

This is not a U.S. phenomenon.  Segregation and the violence it engenders shows up in religious, political, class and gender illusions the world over.  It comes in the form of ethnic and gender adjective-laced population generalizations, colonial "development" bribes to usurp landowner and citizens of the rights and resources, impulses to "development", "poverty eradication", "Aid", and other insidious social schemes to reinforce disintegrated illusions to reinforce power delusions.  And it's as likely to show up harming and diminishing communities of persistence from the Lakota and Navajo to Bougainville and Amazonia - all justified by the appearance of "the other" at the expense of their explicit engagement by those who wield the agencies of power and domination.

So rather than lament the hopeless state we're in, we're actively changing the game.  Working with my amazing friends and colleagues Theresa Arek, Lawrence Daveona, Rodney Woods, Tracy McGrady, Michael Redd, Josh Childress, Duane and Kim Starks, Pam Cole, Robert Smith, Progress Investments, Valerie Mosely, Michael Lythcott, Jennifer Carter-Scott, Dustin and Michael DiPerna, Leo Burke, Colleen Martin, Pieter Fourie, Jimmy Smith, Katie Martin, Karen Knowles and dozens of others, we're answering the questions that Martin Luther King Jr. posed 55 years ago this week.  We're not waiting for a future - not tenaciously holding onto a dream.  We're forging a path defined by integrity and character - not by any agency of division.  We are deploying a technology in the social media space which will include a diversity ownership structure.  We have launched and are launching sophisticated investment platforms and products not available from any "majority" owned firm.  Silently placing fulcrum under systems of oppression and segregation, we're beginning to introduce a wobble that sees the vision articulated from the mountaintop and raises it to a whole new level.  And who knows?  Maybe we will, in so doing, form a More Perfect Union!  And it might not take us another 55 years. 

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2015, let's wake from the Dream and start living!


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Killing The Artist


I recently facilitated an event organized to provide participants with a set of tools with which they more deeply access and engage the abundance that is around them.  As it happened, the event's launch coincided with the gruesome murders of aesthetic commentators in Paris and overlapped the violent end of the ensuing hostage taking.  While it is my custom to directly engage the events that were unfolding half a world away in an explicit fashion, the first day's experience with the group gave me an idea. 

One of the participants, a young woman, was note-taking in illuminated doodles and images which were quite elegant.  Rather than directly offering verbal commentary on the Paris events, I decided to conduct an experiment and conscripted the artist on the second evening.  "Would you," I asked, "be willing to open tomorrow's event by quietly going up to the board and drawing an image that represents whatever impulse you'd like to share?" She was delighted to do so.

At 9 am, the same time we'd started our sessions on the previous two days, we exchanged glances and she proceeded to begin her expression.  I sat conspicuously away from the front of the room deeply enthralled in her forming images.  She drew a man, then spectacles, then a woman veiled with a head-scarf enveloped by a globe prominently featuring the African, European and Asian continents, and then a string of people with interlocking arms standing next to the world - the person next to the globe placing a hand on the world and the person at the end of the line raising a hand as if to alert others to an idea.  The image creation took about 17 minutes.  During her drawing, there were a number of responses.  About 5 members of the group were deeply engaged in watching the art unfold.  A few more were glancing between the board and their fellow table-mates' conversations.  Most were engaged in small group conversations paying little attention to the art - some wondering "when we were going to start".  A few of the latter impulses would occasionally look my way as if to inquire if I was aware of the time. 

With the image complete, I went to the front of the room and expressed my frustration and anger for the insensitivity evidenced by most of the group while pointing out the deep honor and respect I had for those who were fully entering into the engagement.  For the next 45 minutes I sparred with several participants who were quite put out by the fact that I had not fairly alerted them to the sequence of events I'd orchestrated.  "I've completely turned you off," one participant bluntly stated as I explained the callousness evidenced by the majority of the group.  Suggesting that anyone exposed to a workshop aimed at expanding awareness and sensitivity to everything in the ecosystem had "failed the test" of expanded awareness and sensitivity was "unfair" on my part as I hadn't imposed the awareness of the exam.  When invited to offer her perspective on what she intended to convey in her drawing nearly 30 minutes after the deconstruction was underway, the artist smiled and stated that she was delighted to have contributed to such a dynamic process and learning activity and then went back to her drawing.

By the end of our critique of the morning's exercise, several people got pieces of the learning and several apologized to the artist for their callous neglect of her participation.  A few others were deeply moved by situations elsewhere in which they recalled their own neglect of awareness for artists sharing of themselves over the din of conversations and rudeness.  One or two were so absorbed in their sense of violation of decorum in my facility to access anger and frustration in a directional manner that they checked out entirely.  But ironically, I didn't hear anyone get the real point of the exercise.

While we were assembling, aesthetic commentators had been gunned down for expressing themselves with images that were deemed "offensive" reportedly by those who had no obligation to see them.  And there were, as we've been conditioned to do, marches and protests against violence and promoting free speech.  Yet when I invited an artist to open the event with an aesthetic expression in which she explicitly included a veiled woman suggesting a woman of Muslim engagement, no one in the room got the point.  She had demonstrated remarkable generosity in putting herself on the spot to create a performance piece and she was largely unseen.  She had rendered a beautiful image of a world in which diversity is celebrated and that insight was likely entirely unseen - certainly not rising to the level of being worthy of comment.  Why?  Because in a room full of would-be conscious people, there was a waiting for response rather than an awareness of and engage with presumption.  Was she too young?  Was her communication too abstract?  Was she not worth listening to?  Was she a she? 

No!  The problem was endemic to our modern expression of humanity and worse among those who delude themselves with "consciousness" and "sensitivity".  And, by the way, just because we don't shoot the artist - in this case - we kill the innovative, generative energy when we succumb to the illusions of credentialed power


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Imitation Game and the Human Enigma

On Christmas Eve, I was invited by Colleen and Katie to see the limited showing of The Imitation Game.  This biographically inspired film (directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore) of the tormented life of English mathematician and cyberneticist Alan Turing served as a poignant epitaph on the passage of this year.  Morten Tyldum, a 47 year old Norwegian born director, provided ample space for the audience to enter the crucible of Turing's unconventional childhood which served both as canvas and oil for the artistic isolation of a man who saw what others cannot begin to discern through the fog of consensus-imposed illusions.  When Turing died just before his 42nd birthday, the public his work served and the lives his efforts saved knew about as much about him then as we do now:  basically nothing.  Moore, 33, wrote the screenplay for The Imitation Game in 2011 when it landed on the Black List of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood.  His refrain throughout the film is a gentle admonition long lost on most of humanity.

"Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can image."

Alan Turing's Bombe - the German Enigma deciphering device - was a physical manifestation of his graduate thesis postulate of "effective calculability".  In contrast to preceding theoreticians, mathematicians and philosophers, Turing sought to understand functions that could be described through purely mechanical processes rather than seeking to reduce observations to some generalizable set of assumptions.  He spent as much time in his graduate work describing conditions in which his approach did not work as he did describing his primitive recursive models of machine deduction.  He concludes his thesis with the following observation.

"One would prefer a non-constructive system of logic based on trans-finite induction rather simpler than the system which we have described.  In particular, it would seem that it should be possible to eliminate the necessity of stating explicitly the validity of definitions by primitive recursions, since this principle itself can be shown to be valid by transfinite induction. … We have therefore to compromise between simplicity and comprehensiveness."

Unless you cheat.  Which is precisely how the Bombe succeeded in deciphering the German Enigma.  By introducing a deduced analog variable - weather forecasts and Hitler's desire to have his ego reinforced by the chain of command - the code breakers at Bletchley Park could figure out where and when the Germans were going to attack supply lines and troop movements. 

After the war, Turing continued to pursue his Turing Machine, Oracle, and ACE computers relentlessly seeking to demonstrate the power of primitive recursive logic to match the cognitive performance of most humans.  The ultimate enigma - can a machine think like a human? - was entrapped in the more profound question:  can humans think at all or have we reduced ourselves to linear, recursive, efficient logic devoid of the capacity to handle analog complexity with grace and comprehensiveness?  Drawing from the theoretical work of Charles Babbage (the progenitor of conditional logic computers in 1834) and Michael Faraday (the progenitor of electromagnetic devices in 1831), Turing synthesized the best deductive logic to place into electromechanical devices what the physio-electromechanical neural network call the human brain does.  And what he demonstrated is that we can, indeed, build devices that out-think us if we choose to reduce thinking to the speed of processing primitive recursive processes.   He studied the work of Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson and sought to examine the logic of morphogenetics providing some of the foundation for observations that underpin modern molecular biology, genomics and the like. 

It seems fitting that at the end of an entirely predictable and predicted year - both mere confirmations of the sophomoric uselessness of regression in human behaviors and interactions - we could reflect on the two hundred years of logical machine pursuits and at least contemplate emancipation from the mechanization of our hybridized species.  In a year in which "fear" was justification for police executions of citizens and the expansion of a camera-on-every-cop surveillance state; "conservatism" was the façade for wealth managers to rob athletes' wealth; "patriotism" was the veneer used to justify the rise of Nazism and xenophobic Fascism from Scandinavia to the halls of Congress; "consumerism" was the panacea for a U.S. economy that still can't figure out what it means to constructively deal with the big issues confronting the global economy; it seems fitting that The Imitation Game is quietly inquiring into the nature of the humanized machine or the mechanized human. 

This year's come to an end.  I can place on one hand those moments in which I saw the fully humanized human show up this year and have extra fingers.  Maybe it's my age - 47 - which is associated with perseverance, integrity, discipline and mysticism that gives me pause.  I find myself spending inordinate amounts of time seeking to activate the humanized human I see in others who seem to persist in varying degrees of primitive recursive mechanized states.  But, in keeping with my year-end tradition, I thought I'd do the one thing that I've relentlessly held for each year: my expression of gratitude. 

And unlike year's past in which I recite a long list of those who have lit the beacons that I've used to navigate the year, I've chosen a diversion for this year.  I want you to know about a few people who are, in my estimation, evidencing humanity in human form.  These are individuals who, like Turing, Faraday, Thompson and others could contribute in relative anonymity unless they're called out for their contributions.  So here goes.

Jack Chopin was introduced to me by my dearest friend and colleague Bob Kendall (who enjoys my deepest gratitude each year).  Jack has a degenerative condition which has made activities of daily living exceedingly difficult for him and his wife Diana.  Jack has lost what most of us take entirely for granted - the dexterity that comes from fully functioning myoneural junctions.  But together with his brother in law Ron, he decided to do something only analogue humans do.  He developed and deployed a simple device which allowed him to feed himself.  That's interesting.  But what makes Jack great is the fact that he, Ron, and Diana didn't just make the E-Z Eat for himself - they set up an enterprise to make these devices for others.  Machines solve linear logic problems.  Humans have the audacity to realize that the known experience of one is common to unknown others and by addressing the challenge faced by one, the lives of others can be made quantifiably better.  Take a look at this video.

Julio De Laffitte - Rio de Janeiro born uber-Australian - saw the government of Queensland and New South Wales entering into conversations about how to survive tough economic times.  He participated in events where "leadership" was cowardly discussing ways to shrink and diminish the assets around which growth and development would be possible.  He knew that the sclerotic smallness of thought would harm the country he loved and chose as his home.  So, he decided to act - not react.  He decided to charter a voyage - a great metaphor for a country colonized by those born on the waves - to Antarctica where, on the 26th of January (Australia Day commemorating the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet) about 100 visionaries who care for the future of Australia and the world will spend several days dedicated to manifesting a future that works for everyone.  Machines are designed to solve problems based on the algorithm with which they've been coded.  Humans have the audacity see the dysfunction of the algorithm and engage the ecosystem with intrepid enterprise.

We The People will benefit greatly from choosing to learn from the Faraday - Babbage - Turing - Chopin - De Laffitte proposition: to see the self-evident nature of the universe we can apprehend and then engage it for the benefit of ALL - neither individual nor collective - but an entirely integrated whole.  And for those who thus engage, the passage of the year is an illusion of little consequence.  Because this impulse is timeless, dimensionless, persistent, generative and infinitely orthogonal. 

Here's to a New Day, again.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sieges, Assassinations, and Other Great Terrible Ideas


Some day someone will make a movie that will go something like this.  A country with a massive ego will begin to comprehend that its relevance on the global stage has been crippled by political pettiness at home.  Flourishing federated fiefdoms of patronage so desperate to pander to their benefactors that they can no longer keep an ear on the vox populi and its growing dissatisfaction with wealth asymmetry and race and class police state human rights abuses proliferate and strain to raise their identity above the cacophony of trivial indifference.  Citizen complicity is secured through manipulation of consumer prices and energy but the half-life of apathetic tolerance is minimal.  The protagonist country has a monetary system that is entirely exchanged on vulnerable digital clouds where records of debits and credits fly across Rackspace and EC2 Elastic Clouds.  And then the country - realizing that it's gotten ahead of its own illusions - decides that it needs to create a plausible self-destruct mechanism so that, should its citizens or debt holders ever come calling to redeem the promises it has made, records of exchanges past can be erased and a giant reset can be manipulated.  The less verifiable the self-destruct, the better.  The more anonymity, still better. 

So the country innocently hires two popular Generation Y-not actors to create a film about the assassination of the most unverifiable antagonist on the planet.  Now it's not just any antagonist.  This one has to have the plausibility of the necessary self-destruct button outlined above.  And that self-destruct button happens to be the ability to detonate a nuclear device over - I don't know - let's just say a massive cloud server installation on the west coast of our protagonist country.  Not a property-incinerating surface 20 kiloton yield - just a gamma and electromagnetic pulse emitter that has a solar maxima production sufficient to take out $2 trillion of power grid infrastructure and conveniently erase the records of what the protagonist country owes its investors.  And to top it off, our protagonist country places into its own legislative record a SHIELD Act  that details the script for the attack only to have it killed by Senators who suggest that a cyber-attack is more risky.  So the protagonist country winds up acknowledging - and doing nothing about - its own single point catastrophic vulnerability. 

And then, lo and behold (there, how about a little literary suck up to the season), said film is made; said protagonist country names said antagonist as was foretold in the script in 2010.  Within a few days of being named the cyber aggressor and slapped with a UN resolution calling said antagonist to be referred to the International Criminal Court for alleged human rights abuses said antagonist responds with a threat to "bolster its nuclear capacity." 

Obviously the paragraphs above would be the fantastical illusion of conspiracy theorists, right?  Or, has anyone actually had the audacity to consider that maybe we live in a time when conspiracies, hijinks, tomfoolery, and heinous crimes and torture actually happen?

I found it amusing that President Obama elected to normalize relations with Cuba - admitting to the abject failure of our 1960 embargo - while expanding his arrogant posture with Russia, deepening his vitriol regarding North Korea, and looking sideways at an expedient apathy regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran in the interest of uniting and arming common allies against a contrived for 24 hours news black flagged enemy. 

About 2,600 years ago, Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon decided that his empire would regain relevance to the growing influence of Egypt by laying siege to Jerusalem.  He used inconsistent embargo and siege policy to rapidly erode any semblance of the moral authority that had been built by his predecessor Hammurabi - the source of considerable inspiration for the United States' own Thomas Jefferson.  That strategy worked for a few short years until Cyrus the Great of Persia poured through the impenetrable walls of Babylon in a bloody torrent washing the Babylonian empire into oblivion to never rise again.

Sieges and assassinations have been variously and ineffectively deployed across the course of human history and - Newt Gingrich's insistence notwithstanding - they don't work.  Whether it was Temujin (aka Genghis Khan) crushing the Jin Dynasty in Beijing 800 years ago while in the same year, King John was commencing the First Barons' War at the Siege of Rochester only to lose the castle a year later to the French, or the Ottoman's knocking off the Mamluk Sultanate in Cairo, sieges, embargoes and dramatic executions have been the desperate infantile reflex of despots across humanity and they have not become better with age.

Napoleon used the genius idea of siege and embargo on Great Britain in retaliation for the carnage wrought at the Battle of Trafalgar.  This great idea saw Britain's economy grow nearly 2.5X and the cost of maintaining the ill-conceived blockade actually drained the coffers of France and Europe. 

We didn't lose the Cuba standoff this past week with President Obama's announcement.  In fact, having a giant petroleum refinery anchored off the southern U.S. coast so that we can drain the vast oil reserves under the Gulf of Mexico is likely a protectionist move that will unintentionally enrich some Democrats and Republicans quite nicely.  We lost our moral high ground when we chose the embargo in the first place.  And then, we bloodied any shred of credibility by maintaining our off-shore, not-so-out-sourced torture chamber at Guantanamo Bay.  Human rights abuses in North Korea and China?  Really!  Did any one read the redacted accounts of only those tortures sterilized enough for Fox and CNN? 

See the problem here is actually not that complicated.  Using the monotony of our perceived economic might - an illusion created in the vacuum of a devastated Europe and Japan at the end of the Second World War - and vigorously enforcing freedom and liberty at the barrel of a gun or from Rudolph-the-Red-Nose MQ-1 Predator - paid for by a complicit public trained to fear everything that isn't like us, we've come to the end of our grisly theater production.  Our outrage doesn't sound credible because we're the hypocrite.  Our morality lies bleeding on our streets at the hands of justice.  Our Great American experiment - our "City upon a Hill" - burned in the conflagration of witch trials unleashed by the very Puritan John Winthrop sermons which gave us the metaphor in 1630.  We The People have never been our best when we surrogate our values and morality to the realm - no matter the realm, no matter the period of history.  And the only path We The People can tread that will not be the tired recitation of each wilderness past will be one where WE take responsible stewardship for our lives and the lives we touch. 

And as for the coin of the realm… well, watch for a solar flare - of either solar or manufactured origin.  Whether it’s a belching sun or a provoked villain manufactured for prime-time we'll pay the price for our digital reality soon enough.  And then, We The People can actually start all over again and maybe try a path untaken which, in fact, might make all the difference.