Inception’s Ending

Just a quick note: Inception is, at its heart, a parable about reality. When Cobb stops looking at his top at the end of Inception, the important thing isn’t whether or not the top falls over or not. It’s completely irrelevant.

The top is the story’s moral focal point. Is reality “real” or not? Only the top knows.

But by the end of the film, Cobb has stopped caring whether reality is “real” or a dream within a dream. He’s finally happy. He doesn’t care.

The film is saying (as opposed to the Matrix, which says the exact opposite) that it doesn’t matter if you’re a brain in a jar, as long as you can experience joy.

After all, who cares if the world is a hologram when you’ve just gotten a new puppy?

Secrets

The holy scriptures tell us that every secret thing will be revealed, that what you’ve whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops.

It doesn’t say that we’re going to celebrate the people shouting our secrets, or even like them very much.

This is my experience, anyhow.

The Wikileaks diplomatic cable leak is just another secret thing whispered behind closed doors. Wikileaks itself may or may not be a virtuous organization; it doesn’t really matter either way.

Whether Wikileaks is good or evil is irrelevant. Whether they have a vendetta against the US is irrelevant. Whether its leaders are particularly decent people is irrelevant.

The US government is at fault here. Not because they couldn’t keep a secret, but because no-one can keep a secret and they didn’t realise that.

Perhaps an ongoing solution would be not to say nasty things about other people behind their backs. Just a thought.

This Isn’t The Way It Was Supposed To Turn Out

It’s not quite entitlement, but it looks like it, this idea that life is “supposed” to be something.

You don’t deserve anything. You’re lucky to have what you have. Stop ignoring the things you have, and stop looking at the things you don’t.

The default position of your life is difficult. Being alive is hard. When those moments of ease hit, you can be that much more grateful: you understand which is the exception and which is the rule.

Dear Blog Designers

When you’re giving your readers a chance to dig into older posts on your blog (assuming, of course, that your blog is in the majority and sort chronologically), don’t use the phrase “next page” or “previous page”.

“Previous page” is ambiguous. Are you talking previous page in order of browsing or of posting? Some people are browsing backwards through your blog. This means that the “previous” page is actually full of newer material.

Use the words “newer posts” and “older posts” instead. I know which direction (chronologically) I’m traveling in. You just need to give me signposts. That’s all.

Too Big To Fail, Redux

How does a society solve the too-big-to-fail problem?

This is a much more genuinely interesting problem (to me) than diagnosing the problem, which seems (again, to me), to be pretty obvious.

Commentators on this issue seem divided along two lines: regulatory means, and free market means.

I can see both points, really, and wish there were a third option (I know I say there’s always a third option, but if there is one here I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is).

Regulatory and free market approaches both fail because people aren’t very good at knowing what needs to be done.

Regulations fail because they can be short sighted and create bureaucracies; not only that, but regulation tends to only address the past. There are few visionaries in government interested in creating a framework to address the system as opposed the symptoms. The odds of the government deciding that the ship’s hull needs replacing instead of patching seems desperately low. The odds on top of that the we’ll pick the right hull seem lower still.

I would like to think that I’m wrong. I would like to, but don’t.

Free markets fail (as they always do) because they’re predicated on rational actors, and there are no rational actors. Unless they’re forced to, banks will simply hide all their risk off the balance sheet and make money hand over fist until the day they disastrously and (apparently) suddenly go bust. Shareholders will accept the record dividend when times are good, and accept that the bankers are geniuses at making money. But they’ll lose their shirts when times are bad and accept that the bankers, too, are victims. Bonuses will be paid, the fraud with be perpetuated, and voters will bear the brunt of the pain.

So how to stop it? I want to say “let the banks fail”, but I’m afraid what the consequences of that would be. I want to say that we should break up the banks into smaller and less-entangled components and disallow the insane M&A activity going on in that sector, but I don’t know if that would really work. I want to limit the obscene bonuses given to those who effectively shoveled the entire world into a mini-depression, but that amount of government control over business troubles me.

I guess I just have to admit I don’t know. But then it seems no-one does, so I’m not in that bad of company.

Two Narrative Themes From LOST

Here are two fantastic narrative themes from LOST that deserve our attention:

Society in isolation: What happens when a random (or as it turns out, not-so-random group of people is marooned or somehow separated from the herd?

Of course, this idea isn’t at all new; look up Lord of the Flies, for one recent example, or the Swiss Family Robinson.

There’s something fascinating about that what-if. What if I were separated from my family and friends and had to rely on my own ingenuity plus the kindness of strangers? What would I be like? Stripped of my civilizing influences, what might I do?

A fragile oasis of tranquility: On one end of the Island, there’s an encampment surrounded by a sonic fence. It keeps the monster out. If the Island is an allegory, this is an allegory within the allegory.

We innately feel (at times) the fragility of our circumstances. What if the artifice came crashing down? What might the monster do?

Again, this isn’t a new idea. But it’s potent.

Financial Ecology

Too big to fail isn’t just a buzzphrase. It’s a thing. It really is.

Real-world ecologies solve this problem by abhorring overly large systems in favour of small, replaceable parts. Or to put it another way, you have to kill a lot of whales before you endanger all the whales.[1]

Financial ecology has been drifting away from small, replaceable systems for quite a while now. Every time a bank or financial institution merges with another, the financial ecology becomes more fragile. Or to it another way, you only have to kill one bank to endanger all the banks.

I’m not sure how to reverse this trend. I’m not sure it could be done with legislation (seeing how getting around regulatory restriction is a fun party game for Wall Street types), but then I’m not sure it could be done any other way either.

The idea that any one institution should be too big to fail should be anathema to anyone seeking to design or promulgate design on a system, particularly a system where you want to encourage innovation but also limit the damage innovation can cause.

If I were to pick a system designed with failure in mind and redundancy built in, I’d pick either nature or the internet. That said, the internet still relies too strongly on backbone and several large bandwidth providers. Even endpoint delivery is dominated by a select few corporations.

The reality is we can pick optimization or we can pick redundancy. We can do both. I’m sure Chomsky meant in another way, but we can pick hegemony or survival. We can’t do both.[2]

[1] The fact that we’ve killed enough wales to endanger all the whales is a sickening tribute to humanity’s short-sighted drive for profit. If we can’t properly steward the oceans (which are essentially, in international waters, an unregulated free market), how can we be expected to design a financial system that doesn’t occasionally and sadistically punish its stakeholders?

[2] I’m ambivalent about small-government ideas. But at this point, the US government in particular is approaching the too-big-to-fail point. Perhaps the original framers of the US constitution saw it from a different vantage point, but I think they came to the right conclusion: Powerful states, weak federal government.

Sure, you can try.

If you start a question with, “Can I ask?”, I want you to know that I dislike you. It’s nothing personal. It’s just that in my experience you’re probably a bit of a weasel.

You’re embedding a question in a question. You probably found this technique in a book called “Getting To YES” or something similarly gag-worthy. The book explained that the “Can I ask you to” phrase short-circuits the brain into answer in the “Can I ask” question instead of the real question tacked on to the end.

Now, reading this book in and of itself isn’t such a bad thing. I’ve read some pretty stupid books in my time that gave some pretty stupid advice.

But you thought this was a good idea. That’s what separates you from normal, amiable people. Not ambition (which I can get on board with), but douchbaggery (which I obviously can’t).