Hall’s Law: The Nineteenth Century Prequel to Moore’s Law

For the past several months, I’ve been immersed in nineteenth century history. Specifically, the history of interchangeability in technology between 1765, when the Système Gribeauval, the first modern technology doctrine based on the potential of interchangeable parts, was articulated, and 1919, when Frederick Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management.

Here is the story represented as a Double Freytag diagram, which should be particularly useful for those of you who have read TempoFor those of you who haven’t, think of the 1825 Hall Carbine peak as the “Aha!” moment when interchangeability was first figured out, and the 1919 peak as the conclusion of the technology part of the story, with the focus shifting to management innovation, thanks in part to Taylor.

The unsung and rather tragic hero of the story of interchangeability was John Harris Hall (1781 – 1841), inventor of the Hall carbine.  So I am naming my analog to Moore’s Law for the 19th century Hall’s Law in his honor.

The story of Hall’s Law is in a sense a prequel to the unfinished story of Moore’s Law. The two stories are almost eerily similar, even to believers in the “history repeats itself” maxim.

Why does the story matter? For me, it is enough that it is a fantastically interesting story. But if you must have a mercenary reason for reading this post, here it is: understanding it is your best guide to the Moore’s Law endgame.

So here is my telling of this tale. Settle in, it’s going to be another long one.

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Peak Attention and the Colonization of Subcultures

Coded, informal communication — significant messages buried inside innocuous messages — has long interested me.  I don’t mean things like “NX398 VJ899 ABBX3” that the NSA might deal with (though that’s related). I mean things like this:

You: let’s get coffee sometime

Me: Sure, that’d be great

We both know that the real exchange was:

You: let’s pretend we want to take this further

Me: yeah, let’s do that

The question of how such coded language emerges, spreads and evolves is a big one. I am interested in a very specific question: how do members of an emerging subculture recognize each other in public, especially on the Internet, using more specialized coded language?

The question is interesting because the Web is making traditional subcultures — historically illegible to governance mechanisms, and therefore hotbeds of subversion — increasingly visible and open to cheap, large-scale economic and political exploitation. This exploitation takes the form of attention mining, and is the end-game on the path to what I called Peak Attention a while back.

Does this mean the subversive potential of the Internet is an illusion, and that it will ultimately be domesticated? Possibly.

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How the World Works: Part II

Last time, I did a quick comparative scan of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political OrderPankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0 and David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years, and covered Fukuyama’s book in more detail.

Let’s tackle World 3.0 next.

Ghemawat’s book is a tour de force of quantitative synthesis. Let’s start with an annotated version of the 2×2 that anchors World 3.0 (cleverly rotated by 45 degrees; I don’t know why other 2×2 inventors don’t do this)

This 2×2 is almost the only major piece of conceptual scaffolding in a book that is otherwise an empiricist’s delight. Everything is argued with numbers, and what cannot be argued with numbers is mostly not argued at all. It makes for a book with a lot of narrative potholes wherever the data gods to not smile, but where there is data, the book is extremely solid. It’s a refreshing change for me to read something that stays away from data-free speculation.

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How the World Works

If you want to seriously level-up your thinking about how the world works, you might want to try reading 3 very ambitious books together: Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0 and David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years. All three are from the reading list that I posted in August, so I am hoping at least some of you have been attacking them.

It’s worth reading them together because they attempt to tell the same story, towards the same purpose — explaining how the world works in some sense — drawing on roughly the same body of raw material. It is illuminating to see the surprising ways in which the stories agree and disagree. All three books are also particularly valuable for me personally, since I hope to take a stab at telling the same story some day.

My version will of course be the definitive one when I write it, but let’s take a look at the versions of the story on the market today.

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The Evolution of the American Dream

Remember the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm and their sloganeering? In the beginning of the story, when they overthrow the humans, they lead with the chant, “four legs good, two legs bad!” By the end, they’ve  become human-corrupt, and lead the chant, “four legs good, two legs better!”

Just one word changed, and the new and old words both begin with b, bolstering the illusion of continuity and natural evolution.

Let’s call such a slowly shifting narrative, simple enough to be captured in a slogan, and designed to help a small predatory class dominate a larger prey class, a Pig Narrative.  The American Dream is a Pig Narrative. For the record, in case you are immediately curious about my politics, I think this Pigs-and-Prey structure of the world is the natural order of things. You can mitigate its effects, but not change it in any fundamental way. If I had to pick, I’d side with the pigs.  Moving on.

You can compare Pig Narratives on the basis of the degree of prey liberty (or conversely, predator control) they represent, allowing you to plot the evolution over time. If you plot the course of the American Dream through its many rewrites (9 so far by my count, each associated with a major coming-of-age event that defined a generation), you get something like the picture above.

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Three Deep Videos and a Roundup

I am not normally a big consumer of online video content, but in the last couple of months, I’ve watched three very significant videos that together have turned my mind into silly putty. They are incredibly fertile, thought-provoking and demanding without being merely stimulating in an infotainment/mindcandy sense. This is protein, not sugar.

They total about 6 hours, but if you choose to invest a clear-brained morning or afternoon, you will not be disappointed. You should find that you’ve leveled-up your thinking about a lot of stuff that we talk about frequently.

I am also posting a roundup of the last couple of months, since I am now blogging on enough different venues to justify some periodic aggregation.

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The August Reading List Freeze

August is always a bitch of a month for me, to the point that I agree with David Plotz of Slate that we should get rid of it entirely. It seems to be my de facto annual planning month, though I have no reason anymore to be on an annual planning cycle. In August, I always seem to have far too many things in early stages of development, and too few leaving at the other end. I am currently in the early stages of several rather ambitious blog posts, a couple of new consulting projects and a couple of new personal projects. This year, thanks to my summer travels (I am back in Las Vegas now), I also have piles of unprocessed raw material from stuff I researched on the road, to write about.

So that’s a long, whiny excuse for rather sparse output over the last several weeks. I think I’ve hit my August trough though, so I can only build up momentum from here. But in the meantime, I assume many of you are on vacation, or planning to go on vacation, so I thought I’d share my current reading list, if any of you want to read along. Some of this will show up on the blog, some will not. My reading list piles up so fast that I’ve decided to be brutal. This list is it for the rest of the year. I will not be adding more books to the queue until I am done with these.

  1. Titan by Ron Chernow: Multiple people have recommended this Rockefeller biography to me.
  2. Tycoons by Charles Morris: Seems like a good overview of the Robber Barons
  3. The First Tycoon by T. J. Stiles: A biography of Vanderbilt, probably the founding father of the Robber Baron era.
  4. The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama: Don’t let the vague neocon associations dissuade you. There’s a reason this guy is so famous. If he writes a history of political order, you need to read it.
  5. World 3.0 by Pankaj Ghemawat: As meaty as Friedman’s The World is Flat is not. I suspect it’s going to become the definitive textbook introduction to globalization for those who actually care about getting the details and numbers right. The title is unfortunately rather uninspired, but the contents are solid gold.
  6. Fixing the Game by Roger L. Martin: Haven’t yet started it, but seems like a really intriguing premise: applying the lessons of the NFL to figuring out how capitalism should be fixed to avoid the kinds of messes we seem to keep getting into.
  7. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson: I rarely read fiction these days, but everybody keeps telling me to read Stephenson, so I finally caved, especially since it seemed to go well with the rest of this list.  This is the first volume of the Baroque Cycle. If I have time, I may attempt to finish all three volumes this year.
  8. Debt: the first 5000 Years by David Graeber: I like ambitious reframings of everything from a new perspective, and this certainly qualifies. An attempt to rethink all of civilization and society as a manifestation of debt. If you want to sample before you decide, Julio Rodriguez at Wild Intent has attempted a valiant assault on this Mt. Everest scale book (ambition, not raw size).

Yes. There’s a definite theme here. No, the theme won’t take over the blog. I may even decide not to pursue it at all.

Mostly I am trying to flesh out the thinking around this year’s summer blockbuster hit, A Brief History of the Corporation to figure out just how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Though I hate to admit it, that piece did share some rather unpleasant characteristics with Michael Bay’s movies, so I am trying to think through some Oscar-season type follow ups.

Here’s to all of us seeing this beast of a month through. I’ll be in Hawaii over Labor Day weekend, so there is that to look forward to.

A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100

On 8 June, a Scottish banker named Alexander Fordyce shorted the collapsing Company’s shares in the London markets. But a momentary bounce-back in the stock ruined his plans, and he skipped town leaving £550,000 in debt. Much of this was owed to the Ayr Bank, which imploded. In less than three weeks, another 30 banks collapsed across Europe, bringing trade to a standstill. On July 15, the directors of the Company applied to the Bank of England for a £400,000 loan. Two weeks later, they wanted another £300,000. By August, the directors wanted a £1 million bailout.  The news began leaking out and seemingly contrite executives, running from angry shareholders, faced furious Parliament members. By January, the terms of a comprehensive bailout were worked out, and the British government inserted its czars into the Company’s management to ensure compliance with its terms.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it shouldn’t. The year was 1772, exactly 239 years ago today, the apogee of power for the corporation as a business construct. The company was the British East India company (EIC). The bubble that burst was the East India Bubble. Between the founding of the EIC in 1600 and the post-subprime world of 2011, the idea of the corporation was born, matured, over-extended, reined-in, refined, patched, updated, over-extended again, propped-up and finally widely declared to be obsolete. Between 2011 and 2100, it will decline — hopefully gracefully — into a well-behaved retiree on the economic scene.

In its 400+ year history, the corporation has achieved extraordinary things, cutting around-the-world travel time from years to less than a day, putting a computer on every desk, a toilet in every home (nearly) and a cellphone within reach of every human.  It even put a man on the Moon and kinda-sorta cured AIDS.

So it is a sort of grim privilege for the generations living today to watch the slow demise of such a spectacularly effective intellectual construct. The Age of Corporations is coming to an end. The traditional corporation won’t vanish, but it will cease to be the center of gravity of economic life in another generation or two.  They will live on as religious institutions do today, as weakened ghosts of more vital institutions from centuries ago.

It is not yet time for the obituary (and that time may never come), but the sun is certainly setting on the Golden Age of corporations. It is time to review the memoirs of the corporation as an idea, and contemplate a post-corporate future framed by its gradual withdrawal from the center stage of the world’s economic affairs.

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Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia

This is a guest post by Stefan King.

In 1990, the art historian Camille Paglia provoked feminists and post-modernists with her controversial book Sexual Personae.  Paglia’s goal was to show the pagan patterns of continuity in western culture, and to expose feminist ideals as misguided wishful thinking. Now, two decades later, it is time to dig Sexual Personae out of the cultural compost heap and see if something interesting has grown there. Paglia has a highly sensitive intuition about great works of art, and she is a talented psychoanalyst of artists. The value of the book lies in those intuitions, which we can now study with the benefit of hindsight.

The Venus of Willendorf

The grand narrative of western archetypes, or “sexual personae” as Paglia calls them, starts with the Venus of Willendorf, a small statuette from the Stone Age. It is a faceless lump of feminine flesh, possibly a fertility talisman. It contrasts perfectly with anything civilized: there is no line, no shape, no stillness, and no Apollonian light. In those times, nature’s domination of humanity was total.

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The Russian Fox and the Evolution of Intelligence

This is a guest post by Brian Potter of  Coarse Grained. It explores a different aspect of some of the ideas in my post, The Return of the Barbarian, and Paula Hay’s guest post, Cognitive Archeology of the West. If you are interested in guest-posting, email me.

Consider the following experiment (the Wason selection task):

You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a colored patch on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 3, 8, red and brown. Which card(s) should you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?

The correct answer is “8” and “brown”, but very few people get the correct answer – between 10-25% depending on the exact formulation of the problem. Even when its expressed in more familiar terms, such as “If a person goes to New York, then he takes the subway”, success rates remain extremely low.

However, consider the exact same problem, rephrased slightly:

You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a statement on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 16, 25, ‘drinking beer’ and ‘drinking coke’. Which card(s) should you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if “If you are drinking alcohol, then you must be over 21”?

Phrased like this, success rates shoot up to around 75%. But what makes this form different than a question about riding the subway?

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