Author Archives: Mitch Ratcliffe

Where systems and worlds collide you’ll find politics

Over at Doc Searls’ excellent VRM list, there is a discussion about “governance.” Some like the word, others hate it — the concept is naturally troubling for engineers who generally ignore abstractions. But this is an inevitable crossroads for any large-scale systems development. It’s the Technologist’s Bane: We still have to do society, there’s no building successful systems that will ignore social priorities. That’s what we are arguing about here – the “governance” of the Net, the organization, the partnership all need at every level to be negotiable within a reasonable range in order for transactions to have novel outcomes not reinforcing of previous models.

Government served this function, as the setting for negotiation and enforcer of rights, but we’ve hit the limit of governmental flexibility and responsiveness – thank you, Congress – when crossing the national-transnational boundaries that the Net naturally crosses with impunity. Here, where people’s lives are shaped and reshaped by the system, we cannot shrug off the hard problems because of a distaste for politics, allocating them to the future, so we can “figure them out later.”

This is where trust meets the road, where the cogs have to be aligned, where our initial agreements will be born. Right here is where VRM must say “the battle of all against all” is over and a new alternative exists that can be understood easily and intuitively by all while producing novel socio-economic outcomes.

While working with Dee Hock’s Chaordic Alliance, which worked to establish organizational models that could be adapted, and adopted to specific needs, I repeatedly saw the governance argument derail implementation of a new organizational model. Concerns parochial often won out, preventing organizations from changing too drastically, undercutting the Chaordic model that emphasized self-organization and shared governance to ensure ongoing transparency for NEW members in relation to the founding members. Without the inflow of new members, there is no growth and the system will become moribund.

Rather than reject governance, we need to find a new respect for the nuance of social interaction involved in negotiation and decision-making so that systems can be engineered on standards that include sufficient flexibility for a wide range of experimentation within the model. Instead, people tend to either reject governance or monopolize governance by making the process opaque. Then the system becomes either an ongoing battlefield that quickly destroys the value of the system or it results in a hegemony by the early participants, who know how the system “really works,” which is just another way of saying we’ve found a way to facilitate bald political power in a new environment and you, new people, are on the outside.

This will be the hardest mountain for VRM or any variation on these ideas to overcome. It killed the Chaordic Commons. Tom’s call for analysis and reflection on the existing system and the proposed new system is the only viable next step. Some parts of the old models will still be valuable, represented here by the concepts of private property and fungible value, the ability to engineer a transactional environment in order to profit from facilitating the transactions, among others.

It’s time for experimentation and pragmatic debate.

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Hobby Lobby ruling: Back to the middle ages

Except for Dred Scott v. Sandford, today’s Supreme Court ruling allowing “closely held companies” such as Hobby Lobby to decide what forms of birth control may be available to employees, is the dumbest, most backwardly venal decision by a group of men (all male majority in the case) in the history of the Supreme Court. At least, like Chief Justice Taney, all these men will eventually die and be remembered for this kind of crony capitalist decision, which will be humiliating to live with until it is overturned.

We’ve put women in the back of the medical care bus, a man at the wheel, and decided to close our eyes to gender bias and the influence of money on health care in the United States. Too bad that the conservatives on the Court did not listen to the advice of another conservative Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, who wrote a memo while clerking for Justice Jackson in 1952, when Brown v. Board of Education ended the Scott decision’s influence on public policy by striking down the segregation of schools: “Scott v. Sandford was the result of Taney‘s effort to protect slaveholders from legislative interference.” Taney ignored basic facts to ensure a system of human slavery was sustained, the Court’s majority today is ignoring medical advice to accommodate profit combined with bigotry.

In the meantime, join me in taking a pledge:

I will not shop at any store that places the owner’s religious beliefs above the employees’ freedom to choose medical treatment. America is great when we can each choose a personal path based on our own values, not when it enforces the values of any group, majority or minority, male or female, straight or gay population, regardless of religious affiliation, on the rest of population.

We’ll always have the reversal of the decision to look forward to, which could come with just one more woman on the Court, but we have to wait for it, for now. Hopefully, not for as long as the Scott decision to be tossed out,which took more than a century.

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#Fit@53: How to get started

My pursuit of the Ecuadoran volcanoes has to start at my gut, which has been hanging out with little exercise for the last four years. If I am going to walk up to 20,000 feet (3.78 miles above sea level), I need to be able to run mostly uphill for at least twice that distance several times a week down here on Puget Sound. Strength training, especially in my back, neck and shoulders, in addition to core- and leg-strength, will be my other priority. If you’ve ever had to belay someone who is unconscious down a cliff face, you’ll know it’s not a cake walk.

At 53 years, the first step toward conquering my gut, extending my endurance and increasing my strength without hurting myself is to do an inventory of my initial response to exercise. Stuff in your body no longer works reliably at my age and starting to exercise is like trying to spot the lemons when you walk onto a used car lot.You need to get down on your knees and look under the chassis. Take your time and watch out for tell-tale signs the transmission’s going to go soon.

Mapping my aches and noisy joints proved an eye-opener to me. One of my knees creaks like a door in a haunted house. I’ve got noisy shoulder — the one I have not have surgery on — and I can tell you exactly where I have bone-on-bone grinding in my L1 disc. It’s on the left side of my body as you face me. David Churbuck‘s advice to get an AbMat for situps was a godsend. It enforces full movement of the back that relieves my degraded discs.

I laid out a workout baseline to grow from, establishing over the course off the first week of training my single-set maximum number of situps (45), pushups (1, and I cheated), squats (25), dips (7) and average pace walking and running (3.1 and 4.2 m.p.h. respectively — I walk a lot more than I run), as well as the number of reps in various weight-lifting categories with which I will not bore you here. My focus is on reps, not weight at this point. Older men shouldn’t just go to the gym like they are 20 and start to workout hard. Do more with less. It applies with weights and life.

It took several days to give myself the initial tests, then I increased the training pace to the point where I was and still am muscle-sore at every extremity by the end of the day. There are lots of points of view on muscle soreness, and I tend to find it good in the long run. I hurt, but it is not like I am trying to wake the dead here. I just haven’t used a lot of these muscles for a long time. They are sleepy, complaining as my knees do first thing every morning. My knees get over it, so my muscles will too. I freely acknowledge a perverse logic is in play here. It takes commitment approaching the religious to undertake this kind of project, so consider the gods of perverse logic invoked in my defense.

After a week, I’ve seen an increase in distance run with ease and the frequency of sprints I can sustain. A week ago, on my first run in the hills, I covered about 2.1 miles with about 220 feet of climbing. Today I covered 3.8 miles with 516 feet of climbing in just 10 minutes more than my first time. I’ve lost 3.9 pounds in the week.

I thought that after this assessment I might be ready to cancel the climb for this year. Surprising myself, I think getting into this kind of shape in the time that I have if I want to go to Ecuador this November, is a tremendously difficult challenge. It is not, I’ve concluded, insurmountable. The first peak climbed was overcoming my own self-skepticism. Not that I dislike skepticism, but when I looked myself in the mirror last week after making the reservation to climb the reasons for doubt were legion. The data says it’s doable, with a dose of faith in the gods.

Next, I tackled the question of what I ate, which I’ll write about soon.

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When will the OED get the web?

I love the Oxford English Dictionary. When I bought my copy of the Compact Edition about 15 years ago for $299, I began poring over it using the magnifying glass provided for that purpose. Since then, I’ve watched for the online version to become a reasonable proposition. It hasn’t.

Today, one can buy a year’s individual online access to the OED for $295, four dollars cheaper than the print Compact Edition cost me a long, long time ago. In fact, the print Compact Edition has increased to $380 over that time. The online edition is still the same price as a print product 15 years or so ago.

Granted, the definitive source of information about the English language isn’t cheap. The OED’s authority is  partially a function of its ability to define the language. Why has the OED remained stratospherically expensive in digital form? It seems obvious that the company could go down market with the price and drive both more sales and, with existing customers like me who have never had the print copy fail us, get ongoing revenue for providing updates in real-time.

The cost of fulfilling a digital order — one order, not the infrastructure — for access to the OED is microscopic in comparison to the print version. The cost of Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite and everything else has fallen while the OED sits tight on a small institutional market with some dedicated wordies like me picking up print editions.

The OED should be $29.95 a year, not per month. They could get $99 a year easily. I’ll pay that price right now, just give me the opportunity.

The lack of a lower-priced product makes no sense, when the OED could literally wipe out the competition with a reasonably priced web service based on its brand. At minimum, please open an API for developers and allow others to innovate on search and presentation while focusing on its linguistic excellence. Let them sell the subscription as part of their app cost and take a share. Give me my words in more places — apps, platforms, contexts, such as embedded in other applications as an up-sell — and I’d consider $199 a year. The magic price is south of $100, I believe.

What got me started on this topic today? My copy of the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary app, the closest I can get to a digital OED for $29.99, asked me to rate it. My response was to look for a way to get the real OED, even if it cost me more. No one would reasonably pay the same price for the digital service as they did for a book they may replace once a decade or less often, if they ever replace a book.

Digital books are revenue streams. Tap into it, OED.

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A higher goal. 20,000 ft. higher, in fact.

Antisana approach CotopaxiYears ago I was a climber and hiker, and it was a challenge from a friend just a few days after my 53rd birthday that made me realize I was excusing myself from the kind of work needed to climb a big mountain. I’m acting older than I am, time to flip the bit on aging. Rather than retire I’ve decided to climb two volcanoes in Ecuador this winter (Ecuador’s summer). Cotopaxi and Antisana, pictured above, are my targets.

Now I need to get into shape. Mountains require a good deal of respect. If I am not ready this year, I’ll go next year. For now, I am an older fat guy with 50 lbs. to lose — and a lot of strength to rebuild — before I can venture to the 18,000 ft. – 20,0000 ft. peaks of these Ecuadoran volcanoes. Pleural edema (bleeding into the lungs) at altitude will be my biggest challenge, as I live and train at sea-level. The opportunity to acclimatize, while working and remaining an engaged father and husband, is the hack I need to figure out as I start training.

It is very easy to die climbing mountains and I don’t want to creep or freeze off this mortal coil. I do want to see things from the top of the world. It’s the moment you reach a summit and turn to look at what you climbed and the view around, that makes mountaineering worthwhile. Except for all the rigorous exercise and your climbing partners, the ascent is something that each climber has to get themselves through largely on their own in order to be a good team member. My getting in shape is what I owe the people I’ll climb with, or I will not go. I’m no Into Thin Air kind of guy; I like to win and stay alive.

Today, I did my second hike to prepare, a three-mile run over a largely hilly, albeit at sea-level, route. I climbed about 400 feet. It wasn’t exhausting. I’m sore. Coming on the heels of a five-mile walk with my son yesterday, it feels like this year’s climb may be doable. Either way, I will lose a lot of weight and be ready for a climb this year or next.

With the disasters on Everest and Rainier this season, it may seem a strange time to decide to climb. I was on Rainier in 1980 when the biggest ice fall collapse in history killed 11 people on the mountain. This year’s Everest tragedy, which claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas, was very similar in terms of the kind of sudden failure of a glacial body that killed so many people in 1980. The unexpected is to be expected while on a mountain. I can only prepare to see if I’ll be able to make the trip this year. If one is smart about mountaineering, giving nature the respect required to survive nature on its worst days, the worst outcome for this new goal is: I lose a lot of weight, get in shape, strengthening my degenerative back in the process, to add maybe more than a few years to my life.

Onward, to Cotopaxi and Antisana.

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New poem: Spring Evening Cycle

Imagine me happy. Imagine, me happy. Imagine me, happy at last.

Imagine me, happy at last. Imagine me happy. Imagine, me happy.

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Picketty, Rifkin and the future of prosperity

Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is drawing much deserved praise. I’ve also been reading Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society, an envisioning of a post-Capitalistic collaborative commons, which deals with a scenario Picketty describes but cannot project in his economic analysis, because it assumes unlikely progress in clean energy and technological gains that, even after all we’ve seen in our lives, may not be plausible. Rifkin’s vision, which proved extremely compelling in The Third Industrial Revolution and his popular writings on the impact of the Internet, may be an important element of the future economy. Picketty’s analysis suggests we need that vision if we are to sustain anything close to the prosperity we are used to in the West as economic opportunity spreads.

Picketty’s findings that inequality is a structural feature of capitalistic societies suggests that, if we do not put policies in place to modulate the level of inequality, the economy will eventually collapse in social unrest. Equality of opportunity — access to knowledge, education, and the basic requirements of life — is the soundest foundation for an unequal but fair outcome. I wholeheartedly agree with Picketty that the U.S. in particular has failed to continue to invest in providing that fair start to its citizens.

In Rifkin’s model, the cost of producing the next copy of virtually anything, except for the cost of materials, will be negligible in the future, because of the increased efficiency of production, logistics and support systems due to digitization, transportation and communications innovations. Meanwhile, the cost of inventing the next new thing will remain high, and it is in that innovation space that fortunes will be made, as investment and risk are part and parcel of any innovation. So, someone may discover a new drug at a very high cost, but the cost of reproducing that drug, once it is discovered, will be very low. Wealth will be made in volume, so to speak, selling lots of copies of that initially expensive design for the drug in the form of pills or injectables, a little each time the product is delivered. The paydays for those innovations happen before the wealth is actually earned, as the startup is sold to the public, which can harvest the projectable, but still uncertain, profits of distributing that innovation.  Sounds very much like what we have today, right?

But it is not, it represents a segmentation of economic activity into innovation and reproduction. Rifkin’s innovators will continue to have huge paydays, the copiers of innovation — even within the company doing the inventing — will be living on marginal improvements in their income and what they can reap in terms of improved standard of living and buying power due to the efficiencies. A new organizational model, the collaborative collective, in which costs and benefits are shared, sometimes literally in the sense that a purchase may be shared by many people, will fill in the “gap” between wealth and sustenance. Think car-sharing or serial re-use of products. I would call this “public hand-me-downs” as a kind of shorthand for the idea that someone buying a car may pass it along in a structured agreement to others; one may buy a new car every year for the enjoyment of it, but the car comes with a built-in sharing network that will distribute the residual value of the vehicle to others as the first buyer moves on to the next car.

Here’s where Picketty’s findings come back to present the real challenge. If inequality is a structural feature of markets — and it is, Picketty shows as incontrovertibly as an economist can — the innovators will increasingly separate themselves from the other citizens of their countries in order to increase the efficiency of their capital investments — they will seek out low-tax or special tax situations for physical plants and ethereal innovative thinking will no longer have a home in a nation. Vast differences in pay today will continue to translate into growing inequality in the future. Rifkin’s notion of a collaborative commons co-existing with an innovation economy describes what will happen to the ordinary person in any country: They’ll be left to fend for themselves as the wealthy pursue innovative opportunities anywhere on the planet. In those local lobes of the Marginal Cost Society, poorer citizens will have to share goods they could not afford alone. I think Rifkin’s projection of the collaborative commons is a picture of the post-national capitalism that will give the wealthiest people a perpetual and increasingly closed range of options that others do not share, even if that is not his intention — he’s simply projecting the economic model that is emerging in response to pervasive inequity. The new transnational aristocracy  will get these options without sharing their fair share of the cost of sustaining a nation, its legal system, its rights and the burdens of citizenship.

Wealth is going trans-national, beyond the control of any organizational model. Picketty’s inequality leads to the necessity of Rifkin’s  collaborative commons, because everyone in today’s upper middle-class down to the poorest of people will be competing only for a fraction of the marginal cost of production while innovation becomes the province of the super-wealthy. The gains from innovation will continue to accrue to the wealthy and economic mobility will be a very rare phenomenon.

Some of you will be screaming “Marxist” or “Leftist” by this point, but I want you to suspend that for a moment. I am not calling for any particular program to respond to this phenomenon, rather I am saying we need to recognize it and factor it into our thinking. If reasoning based on well documented historical data is not allowed because it suggests an ideology, we’re never going to make any progress. We’ll just argue over ideological ghosts. Communism was a spent notion before the Soviet Union, even if it seems to be threatening to rise again in the Age of Putin. Put that behind us and begin to reason about how to establish a fair foundation for competition from any economic level of society, which will increase economic and mobility, and you have a chance to stem the tide if inequity. Why?

Because inequity can eventually destroy our societies. The Economist argues effectively for aiming for a measure of overall material well-being, as it both acknowledges inequity and dismisses the inevitability of revolution due to inequity. I think the editors at The Economist are being a bit glib about the impact of inequality; our memories are conditioned by extraordinary progress in technology, organization, energy production and much, much more, and they minimize what it would be like to recognize stark inequity in one’s own life. But stark inequity is what all but the top .06 percent or so of the population experience as a growing reality in their lives. Yes, the quality of our lives may be improving overall, but the disparities are increasing, too. An accurate measure of material well-being, even one predicated on the buying power of a population relative to the value of their currency, as Picketty suggests, would be a far better basis for policy analysis.

In the long run, we’ll all be dead, Johnny Depp’s transcendence notwithstanding. But I worry for my children and children’s children that, if inequality continues to expand from today’s near-historically high levels, they will be relegated to something similar to slavery. They will have choices, but they will be property of the innovators’ influence, having to endure the kind of capricious and arbitrary exercises of power and wealth that we are familiar with today. Donald Sterling’s an example of it — because he has money, he feels entitled to denigrate blacks without remorse. Fortunately, the NBA did not grant him a pass, as he has been granted during thirty-plus years of documented racism. This time, inequality was not rubber-stamped. However, we see this kind of personal expression of indifference to the values of anyone with less money across society. Sterling, or the idiotic pro-slavery rantings of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who succeeded in avoiding payment for use of public property but thinks blacks would be better off if they were still slaves, down to the local bigotry of the Boy Scouts against gays, and calls for the wealthy to have a greater say in politics than others (one-dollar-one-vote and venture capitalist Tom Kleiner’s ridiculous arguments that the rich are persecuted) to the imposition of religious tenets on the employees of private companies, which is headed to the Supreme Court in the case of Hobby Lobby, where the owners insist everyone should live by their moral decisions; all these are not isolated examples of poor judgment or bad taste. They are evidence that inequity is rising and the most fortunate of today’s families are seeking to ensure they are always on top of the economic pile. Surely, that’s rational at one level, but when it becomes ideology it becomes poison to society.

The crisis will come when wealth divorces nation, building its own systems for enforcing contracts and seeking to avoid any cost not directly related to the product they want to invent or manufacture. At this point, national investment in opportunity, which is one of capitalism’s greatest features, will be undercut completely. High personal wealth will exist extra-nationally and we’ll hear howls about the unfairness of paying any taxes at all, but wealth will still want everything it can get for free from the nations where it chooses to do business. The only logical solution is policy that establishes a baseline of opportunity, with completely free access to education and information for anyone at any stage of life, because, as capitalism has proven, we never can predict where the next great idea will come from. This is not an argument for life-long welfare, just lifelong education, which is a tenet of post-industrial civilization. Policy can ensure opportunity is (more) equally distributed, that it not retreat to become the playground of a very few families. If we fail in this effort, we would complete our return to pre-Industrial life, but with television to entertain us.

Read together, Piketty and Rifkin paint a range of potential economic outcomes we may see in the future, but it is certain that the disappearance of inequity in opportunity will not come to pass without the political courage to stand up for an equal start, even as we accept unequal outcomes. Bully for the innovators, who should profit from their hard work. Yet  let’s remember that Teddy Roosevelt, a conservative, finally had to recognize and stand up to the inequality of his time in order to lay the foundation for a century of unprecedented growth with less inequality than at any time in history.

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