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Blind Spot Thinking: Visible Personal Sacrifice Saves the World


“The world is in deep trouble. I’m going to do my small part to save it by [fill in the blank]. I’m doing my part. You should too. Then we will all be doing our small part, and the world will be a better place.”

This is Visible Personal Sacrifice thinking (VPS). For many people VPS thinking is the emotional core of solving various knotty problems ranging from resource exhaustion through animal rights to global warming. The heart of the thinking supporting VPS is, “Yes, this problem is big and scary, but part of solving it is for each of us to do our small part by making a sacrifice in a personal and visible way. So here, I’m doing my part. See!”

This is noble and good intentioned thinking. But it’s also instinctive, which means what it recommends as feeling like a good solution should be examined carefully using analytic thinking, or it will create waste not good results. When this careful examination is not conducted, we have blind spot thinking rather than a good solution to a serious problem.

Why is this important? It’s important because thinking blind spots lead to long-term wasteful activities. People undertake the sacrifices and then think, “See! I’m doing my part to save the world… and you should, too!” But the reality is that the sacrifices are not solving the root problem at all, and there can be huge waste caused by the misdirected attention that comes with solving problems using blind spot thinking.

So we have a new Roger Truism:

Blind spot solutions: They feel good, but they aren’t solving.

And there is a surprise connection: It is between VPS and fashion. What I see being promoted in fashion magazines as ways to look beautiful are ways of showing off VPS — sacrificing for beauty. Striving for beauty is as old as mankind, so this connection may explain why VPS resonates strongly with many people’s thinking.

Discovering this blind spot

The first inkling of this blind spot came to me years ago when then-VP Al Gore complained that companies advertising “X percent recycled” were often “cheating” because they included recycling that went on within the manufacturing plant. He wanted only what made it into consumers hands and then back again to be counted.

“Seems a bit strange,” was my thinking at the time, “Either way, it’s getting recycled,” then give it little further thought.

But over the past few weeks I have detected a new pattern, and that new pattern is the comfortable thinking VPS can bring to people who are supporting causes. When VPS is supporting a cause, supporting the VPS can become the center of attention, displacing really solving the problem. I notice this happening when VPS is connected with liberal causes fired by good intentions.

(Keep in mind that VPS is far from the only way to support blind spot thinking. Another common way is Pillar of Faith thinking, a style which more commonly supports conservative causes. Yet another common way is fear, such as “Save the Children” which supports moral panic thinking.)

The waste supported by VPS

As pointed out in the Al Gore example, VPS can support seeing-trees-versus-the-forest thinking. The ecology->environment->global warming movement of the past four decades is filled with examples of good intentions supporting wasteful solutions, so I’m going to use it as a backdrop.

Back in the seventies recycling to save our environment became a popular issue. This started the putting trash in appropriate receptacles movement and the “plastic or paper?” question at the groceries.

The inefficiencies that these VPS choices supported are:

o The first is inflexibility: What to recycle and who wants to buy it are constantly changing markets. Because of this constant change, recycling can best be conducted at a collection point: the landfill and the junkyard. The sorters at these locations can know on a day-by-day basis what is valuable to collect, and the consumers of recycled materials have a one-stop shopping spot.

o The second is poor analysis: Plastic and paper covered up and sitting in anaerobic conditions (as they are when buried in a landfill) both last centuries. An example: Read the articles about the delight archeologists have when they unearth centuries-old leather and cloth objects from middens and tannin-filled swamps. What this means is that for landfill-destined stuff weight is more important than degradability — which means that plastic bags, which weigh a tenth of what paper bags do, are better for the environment.

Following that campaign, the VPS environmentalist types decided that putting more renewable resource into gasoline would help save the world. Supporting farmers and resource conservation combined! Whew! An emotionally powerful combination! The Ethanol in Gas movement sprang into being. Nice… Noble… But over the last few decades this has become a textbook example of good intentions being highjacked by special interests.

It turns about that formulating gasoline from crude oil is an art even more flexible than gourmet cooking — how to do it well changes from refinery-to-refinery and from day-to-day as the mix of different kinds of crudes and refining technologies available changes. The good intentions of the VPS thinkers had the federal and California governments slap arbitrary, slowly-flexing limits on top of this fine, fast-moving art. And with time those limits became of much more interest to agribusiness special interests than to VPS types — the VPS types moved on to the next cause. The result: In the 2010’s we have news articles describing how US government-mandated ethanol corn production is raising global food prices — this is waste writ large.

And the 2010’s are introducing their own styles of environment-related VPS thinking. As the Great Recession of the late 2000’s unfolded, resource conservation became a big emotional concern again. (The Great Depression of the 1930’s was also a time of deep concern about resource exhaustion.) This time the concern was named the Green Movement and supported using sustainable resources in place of “Peak” resources that were more polluting and could be exhausted.

The question became whether to support fracking, nuclear, solar panels or windmills. The VPS types supported solar and wind mills, even though doing so cost jobs.

“But… But… Supporting these created jobs!” enthusiasts will argue. Yes, the subsidies created some green jobs, but many, many more jobs of all sorts were not created because the economy didn’t grow quickly. Once again, good intentions outweighed good results, and VPS became the important criterion rather than good analysis.

In sum, the wasteful result of the mistaken analysis is that job and wealth growth have been sacrificed to green in the US and Europe. This is a for-real sacrifice for all because it takes wealth to support green — lack of wealth is making all of us poorer and the world more degraded.

A Roger Truism from twenty years ago:

Technology can give back what it takes away [in ecological and cultural damage], but poverty plays for keeps.

Contemporary China is a good example. It has terrible pollution problems right now because it has chosen to industrialize. But the pollution will be reduced steadily and dramatically over the next decades because it now has more wealth and that wealth is steadily and dramatically rising. Because it has more wealth much more can now be spent on reducing pollution, and will be.

VPS and fashion

Once every few years I find myself sitting in a waiting room and I pick up a fashion magazine. The last time this happened I was surprised at the patterns I saw — the way these women were portrayed was thick with ritual. The one I remember most vividly was that every woman was wearing high heels… except those being posed on a beach… and every one of those was portrayed jumping so their feet could still be flexed into the high heel position! Whew!

I now realize that what I was looking at was VPS being used to portray beauty. Young women sacrificing for beauty dates back into pre-history — the details of the sacrifice change with each generation and culture, but the sacrificing does not. So the VPS thinking supporting various causes has a cousin in the VPS thinking that supports beauty. (I write a lot more about this in my books Evolution and Thought and How Evolution Explains the Human Condition.)

While many liberals are happy to point out that VPS in the fashion industry is a bad influence on impressionable young girls, they are equally happy to remain oblivious to the fact that steadily increasing manufacturing productivity inside factories is doing a lot more to save the world than bike paths and recycling bins. And that electric cars are not solving resource exhaustion and global warming problems until the power plants that charge their batteries are putting out less carbon than the internal combustion engines they are replacing.


These are the kinds of blind spots producing huge waste that VPS allows. This is why we need to be aware of it, and we need to be prepared to do a lot of analytic thinking as well as VPS if we really want to save the world.

VPS is noble, but if it is going to save the world it must be accompanied by hard-nosed analytic thinking which looks at the costs and benefits of choices being made.


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The Robert J.R. Graham Interview (Roger answers)

Robert J.R. Graham is the author of Seventh Journey and we have traded questions for our blogs.RobertColor21

Here are the questions Robert gave me:

  • Can you describe “Technofiction” and how it has influenced your writing?

Science fiction introduced me to the wonder of reading. This was back in the early sixties when I was in middle school. For years I was an avid fan. But in the seventies I noticed that I was reading lots of new stories that sounded awful familiar: by then I’d read a whole bunch about “This means the end of the universe!” Worse for me, the person saying that didn’t mean the end of the universe, they meant an end to life on a planet, or just human life on a planet. As my science understanding grew that kind of difference began bugging me more and more. In the eighties I started to do something about it: I started writing my own science fiction stories.2012-roger-06-400
At first I wrote for me and my web site, White World, which I started at the dawn of the Internet in 1994. In the 2000’s I started trying to reach a wider audience. That’s when I noticed that what I was writing was “different” from mainstream sci-fi, and as a result a lot of readers where saying, “Huh?” when I told them about my stories. It became clear that I needed some branding. So I came up with calling my writing Technofiction, and here’s what Technofiction is all about.
Technofiction is about stories with good science and technology as well as good characters. The science and technology doesn’t have to be real, in the sense of matching the reality we live in, but it has to be internally consistent within the story. It has to be well thought out, which means uncovering surprises uses as well as conventional ones. An example of inconsistency is moralizing on human social issues by showing aliens experiencing the abuses. These beings are aliens, for goodness sake, not discriminated-against humans!  For lots of specific examples, see my Technofiction Reviews on White World.


  • What inspires your writing?

During the eighties and nineties I worked in high technology marketing. An engineer would come up with a neat idea, such as a form of personal computer, and my job was to help people – the engineer and customers – figure out what this neat idea was good for in the real world. Personal computers turned out to be real good for word processing. That was expected. What was surprising was how good they were for spreadsheets (like Excel) and game playing. Those applications were what set the personal computer market on fire, but they weren’t the applications that were first thought of.
I write about this kind of surprise happening.63361-Tips-V1-100
The result is that Technofiction stories wander into unusual territory and the characters have unusual relations and backgrounds. An example: Earth sends of an intelligent war starship to battle aliens in another star system that had treacherously attacked Earth. But… this warship is intelligent. It thinks, a lot, because the journey takes years, and it decides that war isn’t the right solution to this problem. But the Earth designers had planned for this possibility. They… I’ll let you read the story “Intelitan the Destructor” in “Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol. 1” This is an example of unusual characters in a story that unfolds in an unusual way.


  • How many books have you written, and how many more are planned?

I have eleven out now. Some are science fiction, two are what I call Science and Insight, one is a business history, one is romance, and the first I wrote was a how-to book on word processing. Here is a list.
The science and insight books are the preludes to the science fiction books. I work up some interesting science implications and then mix in some characters and story line and I have a Technofiction book.
The next in line is another book set in the Child Champs environment – our future world fifty to one hundred years from now when the genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence revolutions are in full swing. Child Champs told one story in that setting, but there are a few more to tell about that wondrous time to come.ChildChamps


  • You have some very interesting ideas about evolution and human thinking.  What is the “Human Thinking Stack” and what can we do about it?

What can we do about the Human Thinking Stack? We can live with it. <grin>
The Human Thinking Stack is simply a way of modeling human thinking. Its goal is to provide better understanding of how humans think, and through that better predictive value. Just to be clear, the thinking stack is insight, not science.
The predictions that come out of it are impressive. I write about those many times a month in my Cyreenik Says blog. One of the most vivid is Panic and Blunder Thinking. This is when a person, or a community, gets really scared, and while they are so scared, do something really expensive, but think they are doing the right thing. (expensive as in: costs a whole lot but doesn’t help solve the problem one wit.)
The Thinking Stack is just one part of my insights on how evolution has shaped human thinking. I have two books out about that “Evolution and Thought” (the short version) and “How Evolution Explains the Human Condition” (the long version). Why_We_See_Beauty_2012_03.04.12
The basic premise of these books, and my insights, is that humans are evolved. This means that we are a high performance fit for living on Earth. (everything alive today is) Our thinking is also evolved and just as high performance. But… evolution takes time so it’s high performance for living in Stone Age conditions, not civilized conditions.


  • Blindspots are a double edged sword.  We don’t know about them, they hurt us, and even if we find one, we beat ourselves up over it.  What strategy have you come up with to deal with blind spots in your work?

First let’s define blindspots. Blindspots are axioms in our thinking. They are givens that we don’t think to question. Many serve us well, but not all. Those that work well save us a lot of time and thinking in our day-to-day lives. Those that work well in a reality different from that which we experience are expensive to maintain. (An example of two different realities on earth are living in the tropics and living in the arctic. Move from one to the other and some of your thinking will now contain blind spots.)
How to spot a blindspot? Be a careful observer. Look at what is going on around you. Look for “self-evident truths” that really aren’t true and because they aren’t true people are wasting a lot of time and resource. Harsh reality will point out blindspots when you pay attention. I cover this in detail in “How Evolution Explains the Human Condition”.


  • In your book “Evolution And Thought” you compare a scam artist to our perceptions of marriage, calling it the Human Condition.  How do we get ourselves into all this trouble? White_Book_Covers2

As I mentioned earlier, our thinking is well matched to living in the Stone Age, something I call the Neolithic Village environment. That’s because humans have lived in that environment for ten thousand generations. That’s long enough for genes to adapt well. We have lived in the Agricultural Age environment for five hundred generations. We have started adapting to that, it’s started to change our thinking, but the process is far from complete. The Industrial Age and Information Age environments are essentially brand new.
This means we civilized folk have to use a lot more learned thinking along with our instinctive thinking. But the instinctive thinking is still fast, easy, comfortable, and really, really wants to be used, so it sneaks in where it can.
Con artistry is the dark side of this phenomenon. The con artist strokes the victim’s instinctive thinking. Marriage is the good side, marriage, in all its various forms, helps produce stable communities that raise lots of healthy kids.


  • You mention that beauty aids us in our evolution, can you elaborate?

Beauty is thinking that has practical value in the Neolithic Village environment. It’s a signal to cooperate – to help out. When we see something beautiful our instinct is to help it out.
Originally this signaling was designed to help children and young mothers who were just learning the ropes of motherhood and could use all the support they could get.
But, as with many things evolution creates, other uses were found for this style of thinking and added to the basic purpose. And like any powerful tool, it has surprises uses, such as supporting fashion. I cover beauty in both of my Science and Insight books on evolution.


Thanks for the questions, Robert, it’s been fun answering these.


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The Mystery of the Rise and Fall of Boom Communities


History records the rise and fall of countless human communities. From the ancient Mesopotamia and the city of Ur, through the modern Rust Belt in the US Midwest, communities have boomed and become shining beacons, and then busted back into obscurity.

The mystery is “Why?” Why does every boom seem to carry in it the seeds of its own return to mediocrity? The people who create these booms are clever in the most practical sense. They are clever enough to create the boom in the first place, but they can’t seem to pass on the magic. They can’t seem to consistently teach their children or other successors how to be “boomers” like they were. What spoils the magic?

If life were different

Consider how different history would be if teaching booming was well understood. If that was the case today we’d be reading about the centuries of consistent glories that have sprung from Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and the Yellow River valley because these are places where the booming started and they’d never loose their lead. They would be the New York City’s, London’s and Shanghai’s of today as they had been since the early BCE’s. But this isn’t our history so the conclusion must be: Booming is not easy to teach.

Theories of declines and falls

I’m far from the first to notice this phenomenon and its been an interesting one for history writers for a long time. One of the more enduringly famous is Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. From the Wiki article: “According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become weak, outsourcing their duties to defend their Empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, had become effeminate, unwilling to live a tougher, “manly” military lifestyle.”

Just recently I read a 13 Oct 12 NY Times book review, The Self-Destruction of the 1 Percent by Chrystia Freeland, which reviews the book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. The article describes in fair detail how the Golden Age of Venice in the early 1300’s came and went. The thesis is that the plutocrats of Venice cut off their own continued growth by over-controlling the disruptive economy that was at the heart of their growing prosperous in the first place — after growing prosperous for a few decades, the “winners” of the day made up a list of winners, gave that list legal teeth, and that brought on an era of stability which ended the era of growth.

Roger’s Observations

First off, let me note that rises and declines come in many time and size scales. The Roman rise and decline took ten centuries, the Venetian rise and decline took one. Apple Inc.’s first rise took ten years, as did many other high tech leading companies of the 1980’s-2000’s. Cleveland, my favorite example, boomed from its founding in 1814 through the 1950’s. In 1920 it was America’s fifth largest city.

That noted, let’s break a memorable boom into three phases: boom, peak and post-peak. I will talk about communities. These are human organizations of any size from family up to cultural region.

Anatomy of a boom

In the beginning, a soon-to-be-memorable booming community is just one of many. It has lots of competitors and not much notable about it in its earliest days. Rome was just one of many competing tribes in Italy, Cleveland just one of many thriving cities west of the Appalachians in frontier America, Apple just one of many hopeful startups in Silicon Valley in the 1970’s.

As these communities are competing there is a lot of overall growth but there is weeding out happening, too, some communities are growing steadily, others are faltering. And there is consolidation happening, the winners are picking up people and resources from the falterers. This happens because the winners seem to be able to use those resources better than the falterers can. In the high tech environment people move from faltering companies to winning companies because the winners can afford them and the falterers can’t anymore.

As they continue their strings of success the winners become more noticeable. They become standards in their area of endeavor and a lot more surrounding people pay attention to them. Those noticing start asking, “What is your secret?”

Anatomy of a peak

While a community is booming a lot of tough choices are being made made. They are tough because they are expensive, and scary, and involve doing things differently than they were done before. This is the lifeblood of being a booming community, and making these choices well is what distinguishes the memorable boom community from its lost-in-the-noise competitors. Not all the choices made are right, but more of the important ones are chosen well than competitors do.

At the peak something changes. As the peak is reached the number of good tough choices made by the memorable community declines compared to competitors and its own recent past.

My theory is that the root of this transformation from above average to average is that what community members think about, what they think is important, changes. A new generation of decision makers emerges and that new generation doesn’t like supporting constant tough choices. When what the community thinks is important changes, the leadership will change as well. Historians tend to attributed such changes to the leaders, but my feeling is that leaders are much closer to their community’s feelings than that — they make choices that are compatible with what the numerous but less visible decision makers in the community want.

Two examples from the business world: At some point in the growth of many high tech companies there is a change in top management from “visionaries” to “managers”. This often happens as they grow from small to medium sized. In my book Surfing the High Tech Wave I write about how this happened at Novell nine years after its startup in 1989. The change at Novell precipitated an “organizational phase shift” which changed Novell’s direction of development. The second example is a common business truism that when a company grows to the point that it can move into its own building, as in, one built for it, the company culture will change and that change can be towards complacency — managers must be on their toes as the move happens. Both of these can be times when a peak is reached for the company and its boom times end.

So the peak is reached when many members of the community decide that the constant tough choices that it took to make the boom happen, and are necessary to sustain it, are no longer worth the effort.

This change of thinking is the “seed” that brings on the end of the boom and begins the post-peak era.

Anatomy of post-peak

Historians bemoan them but post-peak times are actually fairly comfortable times for most community members. At first there is a sense of relief from the constant change and uncertainty that are part and parcel of boom times and that is followed by comfortable complacency. Rules and regulations are enacted and life becomes much more predictable — people know their places. The article about Venice mentioned above talks at length about this happening in Venetian society; I witnessed it personally as I was growing up in Cleveland. In Cleveland in the 1960’s “being fair” became a much more important part of day-to-day business decision making than making things work better than they had before.

When the peak comes lots of people support this change to greater harmony, but the ambitious ones don’t. They chafe. And, if they can’t change the way things are done back to supporting tough booming choices, they will leave, looking for better opportunities. (Coming back to supporting boom sometimes happens. Apple is a company that came back when Jobs came back, New York and London are cities that have consistently come back to supporting boom.) A famous historic example of looking elsewhere to support a boom is Italian Christopher Columbus finding investors for his crazy idea in Spain rather than Italy.

In most cases the people who stay in the post-peak community don’t mind that glory is passing them by. Their day-to-day lives are comfortable ones. And so, the glory moves on. It goes to some other community that is still competing and still willing to support the tough choices that come with booming change. This seems to be very much the human way.


Booming is exciting and rewarding. But its not easy and the rewards are not necessarily those that the community values the most. Famous booms happen when a community supports tough choices and those choices turn out to be consistently good ones.

But boom times are both scary and full of change. When a decision making generation takes over that doesn’t like all the tough choices and changes, a peak happens. The way things are done changes to a more predictable style, and this style becomes a comfortable one for a lot of community members.

If the community doesn’t reverse itself, and support the tough choices again, then the ambitious will move on and take their ambition to some other community successfully supporting boom, and the community they leave will comfortably move into the obscurity of being average again.

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