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Caves all the way down

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Do psychedelics give access to a universal, mystical experience of reality, or is that just a culture-bound illusion?

By Jules Evans

Read at Aeon

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  The Syrian Civil War 2018: Chaos is a Ladder    Is anybody...

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  The Syrian Civil War 2018: Chaos is a Ladder

    Is anybody else interested in a way to end the Syrian Civil War and make the threat of WWIII go away for a few more years? 

    Surely, I'm not alone here unless I'm some kind of sociopath.

   Let's call me an optimist said nobody ever but I've became one these hopeful idealists over the last few months because I think I've figured out a way to end a potential world war. And it doesn't involve a radical solution. 

   How about we just let Assad win the Syrian Civil War? 

   You want peace? You want ISIS dead? You want an end to the refugee crisis that has displaced 14 million people and killed 600,000 in cold blood?

  If so, Assad is your man. He has already practically won his war. His forces have gained most of Syria back. It's a kind of peace treaty they'll never advertise on TV because it's called victory. Victory NBC, CBS, SKY and all of the other corporate media cannot say because fuck you.

   Yes, there are a few outstanding pockets of "Sunni groups", "Kurdish opportunists", Turkish encroachments, Israeli consolidation of the contested Golan etc and still more "moderate rebel" Islamic front groups funded and receiving money and weapons from the US/UK/France/Saudi Arabia but, in spite of all of this foreign aid, with Russian and Iranian intervention, the mild mannered eye doctor Bashar al-Assad has won the war anyway.

   In 20 years the historians will write about it honestly.

    Here's a man, Bashar al Assad, an eye doctor,  who never really wanted the top job in Syria but got it anyway because his older brother Bassel, groomed for the job by his father offed himself in a car crash because rich kids and a supercharged Mercedes rarely mix. The Assad father Hafez, the Middle East strongman on par with Gaddafi and Saddam who 'eliminated' enough people via whatever means necessary to secure his lineage chartered a career path for his sons. Bashar may not have been the first choice but fate is fickle, sometimes cruel and often lays waste the best laid plans of mice and dictators. And so here the lispy eye doctor sits, the face of evil on Western media and Trump is telling you weakly on Twitter without much  conviction that this is the bad man, Assad is "animal" dictator that must be destroyed. 

    Why exactly?

    Because using gas kills children unfairer than indiscriminate artillery strikes?

    We all know now that those gas attacks never happened.

    Then as now, so what?

    Apparently all you've got to do to survive a gas attack in Syria these days is be male. If you're a woman or a child you're fucked. If you're a child you're getting badly administered CPR, a water hosing and you're going on the Internet. Social media it seems, has transformed 21st century warfare into battle via dead baby. It's not new but it's instant and wars by emotional manipulation of your populace means that that very conflict is suspect.

    The gas argument fallacy has been deconstructed all over the Internet. So I won't even bother here. The moral case for these strikes is a mainstream media construction. US and UK media claim it's punishment for gas. The gas used was chlorine. We have no independent verification but lets take the TV talking heads at their word. Chlorine is bad. It was used on the Somme in 1917. Yet a trip to your local hardware store will yield you a gallon of bleach and ammonia for twenty bucks that can release a lot of gaseous chlorine. (PS never attempt or do this.) However the question must be asked, with the surveillance state in full effect, are we all now potential mobile chemical weapons facilities on our drive to Home Depot?

    There's an argument circling the Earth that even if Assad didn't 'barrel bomb' the chlorine bomb he still deserves the standoff missile attack because of who he's allies with. Russia, somehow, has been ginned up by US media as the "enemy" because Hillary Clinton didn't win the election. "The Russians did it" buys into a fear a lot of older post war baby boomers have (older people who actually vote) and see this narrative as plausible because the Cold War was their youth and death via nuclear fire was a very real thing. The legacy media are selling them an idea of Syria being the bad guys because chemical weapons cross a red line. Never mind the fact that the leader of the county there (Assad) is destroying ISIS along with Russia and winning the war against (ISIS/Al-Qaida) but this is bad now because gas?

   Yes, it's all very confusing.

   Gas in war drives civilian populations insane. It's a trigger word. If your child in a war zone dies by air burst artillery (a common occurrence in Aleppo or Damascus) that means such munitions pepper your child with ball bearings travelling at Mach 3. Fucking horrible and unthinkable. You'd think. But let the enemy open a barrel that spreads some weaponized Clorox and now you've got an international casus belli on your hands. Civilian populations in the US/Europe hate gas irrationally because they've never been under fire via bullets or kinetic blast energy (correction: Las Vegas shooter, Paris Bataclan attack, Manchester Ariane Grande bomber etc etc) but the usual response is to wheel out a piano, have a street musician sing "Imagine", have a candlelit vigil for the dead, post it on Facebook and go home and forget the chaos. Even after you add up the actuary tables on war deaths in Syria you soon realize that chlorine or sarin gas is about the most ineffective way to kill people in a war since Zeppelins.

Assad's 'barrel bombs' are evil because Raytheon did not manufacture them. GBU-28 is the sanctioned baby killer.

    But enough of this. Lets get to the geopolitics.


    Damascus is critical. Saudi Arabia has Mecca and Medina and the Israelis have control of the Dome of the Rock (technically) and these are the three most sacred places in Islam. But I'm with T.E.Lawrence here in my belief that Damascus is the capital of what's left of the Arab world. If unification of the aggrieved Arab peoples could ever be achieved, it'd happen in Damascus. It'll never occur now in our post modern world and the Assad family were no help, running a police state against dissenters and all citizens. And yet Damascus, a true multicultural city consisting of Sunnis, Alawites (Assad's ruling tribe), Kurds (the largest minority), Christians but also Armenians, Circassians, Shia and a small Greek Orthodox community is the diverse city the Euros crave.  If Assad (the strongman) falls like Gaddafi did in Libya, those who have not fled understand that the Islamic sharia horde at the gates waiting will not be sympathetic to them. The nightly news will become a steady stream of gore porn. If it's ever even shown. Nobody on TV shows the open air slave markets happening right now in Libya after what NATO did by deposing Gadaffi.

   This is why the Syrian Army fights like patriots. Not for Assad. Not even for Syria. But because the alternative is an enemy willing to go medieval on them and their families. No man in a trench dies for his country, he dies for the guy next to him. Ghouta is the last suburb in Damascus the Syrian forces have not taken. Why? Because urban combat is a shit show with at least a 3 to 1 kill ratio in favor of those holed up in fortified buildings. Why assault if you don't need to? It's far easier for the Syrian Army to surround the pocket and wait. Yes there is fighting but time is the true enemy of the besieged going all the way back to Caesar at Alesia. Why force the issue with gas now and turn the world against you when entropy is your friend and calories make an army?

   Sometimes in war all you need to do is wait for victory.

Siege is the oldest act of war. Risk in battle is for young men and fools. Great generals know the ultimate weapon.
     TRUMP / USA

    Easily the most interesting President since... since nothing you or I can remember. A reality star and a knife fighter in the NYC real estate market. Also, an insufferable narcissist, a natural showman and a gifted salesman. He campaigned on a populist agenda, wrecked the Republican party line by charisma alone and promised some simple, straight up honest values that most traditional Americans felt in their gut made sense. Chief among them was the dismantling of surplus US military bases, no foreign wars, a policy of America first, a return of American manufacturing, a southern wall to stop the influx of cheap labor into the US that undermines the US working class, repeal of NAFTA to stop Mexican sweatshops dumping $5 sneakers and jeans into US stores for a 5000% mark up and a renegotiation with China on trade deals that have flooded the US with cheap sweatshop Walmart plastic that made China rich in return for subsidizing the American working poor. For profit.

   Globalism in a nutshell right?

  The Trump campaign promised a return to tradition for a lost Americana and his voters hit the like button. Of course, none of it happened. Trump is a political neophyte with no knowledge of the the world outside the cut throat Manhattan real estate market and his narcissism led him down a very dark path. He learned on day one that the US Presidency is not a power position like a CEO. It's a PR job for a guy in a suit and it's been turmoil for him since day one. The 'deep state' is a term being bandied about a lot these days but as with everything, there's an element of truth to it. Trump has no clue of geopolitics, nuance, international relations, political science and the judicious use of American power. His ghost written "Art of the Deal" book is about as useful to him now as a compass on a desert island surrounded by cannibals. Who cares where true north is? He and the people around him have fired just about everyone who engineered him into the Oval Office and now John Bolton, arch neocon, is his national security adviser. Trump is in above his head now and if he doesn't want to get JFK'd, he's going with the neocon agenda.

    And to stop the constant bad press, the Mueller investigations, to prove he's not a Russian agent, to appease the hostile press and to mitigate whatever dirt they've found after the raid on his lawyer's offices that could ruin him and the Trump brand; he's obviously had to sell out his base and make a deal.

    And so the Tomahawks flowed on some Syrian airbases.

    To be fair, the attacks was pure theater. Even less damaging than the last one. It's biggest effect was to light up the Syrian AA grid which around Damascus is the fifth largest AA defense in the world. Though a lot of it is mobile, the intel on those static radars is useful to the Israelis who are already complaining that the attack was a fraction of what was needed.


Possibly the worst optics for a US President since the Zapruder tape.


    Let's face it, Israel wants Assad gone. Assad is the last surviving member of a now defunct political movement known as the Ba'ath Party. Nationalism these days has become a dirty world everywhere and pan Arab unity has been crushed from North Africa to Mesopotamia. 

      The strategic analysis of Syria for Israel is clear. They feel under threat and much of it is their own fault and a result of their own hubris. Iran is their real enemy. When they get their nuke, theater parity will have been achieved with Israel's 200+ nukes. The Iranians will never use it of course because for one, they'd be glassed back to the Stone Age, but it's very existence is the balance in the region the Israelis cannot accept. An Iranian nuclear weapon would be Iran's Fleet in being ;not for use but for theater denial.

    But we've jumped ahead here, let's step back a bit.

    Post 9/11, Iraq was Israel's bogeyman. Saddam Hussein was paying $20k to the family of every Palestinian suicide bomber. Hussein fired Scud missile at Tel-Aviv during Gulf War I. So the Israeli K Street lobbying wing in Washington and their US media operation went into overdrive post 9/11 and linked Iraq to the Trade Center attacks and pushed the WMD narrative on the news networks 24/7. And with the Bush cartel in the White House, it was easy pickings to sell a war in the desert.

     The irony of this is that though Saddam was dug from a hole and hung in a basement on the Internet what was the geopolitical gain? The law of unintended consequences did a number on these neocons that basically handed over, after 5 years of US public war fatigue and hundreds of US soldiers dying in IED attacks, the diplomats/Obama Administration ended up handing over Basra and Baghdad to Shia leaders in the name of peace and withdrawal of US forces. All of these leaders Iranian agents and financed by Tehran. The Israelis, in their zeal to rid the world of Saddam and using the US military to do it for them, inadvertently handed over half of Iraq to Iran. And the result now is a supply route from Tehran, across Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

   In military terms, this is called encirclement via the northern flank.

   With Assad's victory in Syria, the supply route is assured. And this is no small thing. In 2006 the IDF got their nose bloodied trying an incursion into Lebanon but Iranian supplied Hezbollah held back that attack with entrenched heavy infantry and the latest shoulder mounted anti tank and anti air weaponry. That was 12 years ago. Think for a minute what Hezbollah might have today? Do they have a two stage missile like the Iranian Shahab I/II that can easily hit Tel Aviv but why bother with soft targets? What about if they launched everything they've got at the Israeli nuclear plant at Dimona? A bunch of fanatics in Southern Lebanon could theoretically, via a lucky but successful shot, turn southern Israel into Mad Max: Fury Road.

   Of course, we're talking WWIII by this stage but remember WWI started, ostensibly, because an Archduke's driver took a wrong turn down a side street.

   For the Israelis, the fear is real and they will do anything to perpetuate the war in Syria until Assad dies. For them, chaos in Syria is a ladder not only to break hostile encirclement but also to permanently annex the Golan Heights and secure the drilling rights via Genie Energy for the oil that has been discovered there.

   Ever notice too how ISIS, the hardcore fucks that behead people on camera, throw gays off buildings in front of crowds, chop children's hands off for stealing an apple from a market, and drive around in new Toyota trucks supplied through a myriad of shell companies and international shadiness. Who pays for all this? Where does the money trail lead to where it all came from?

   Ever wonder why ISIS has never once tried an attack on Israel which is next door to Syria and the sworn enemy of all Muslim fundamentalists? Ever wonder why Israel gives medical care to these people? ISIS, more often than not, seems to create chaos and destabilize countries and regimes hostile to Israel, Mossad and CIA interests. 

   To conclude, for Netanyahu and the hard right in Israel, Israeli goals are simplen not secret and published in Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post Op Eds weekly.

  • Assad must fall to prevent northern encirclement of Israel via Lebanon.
  • North Korea must fall so they don't sell a nuke to Iran or give them one for chaos' sake
  • Iran must be degraded, sanctioned and locked out of the international financial system (SWIFT) before they make their own nuke by themselves
   For Israel, total chaos in the Middle East is good.

   Stable, prosperous and cohesive countries are bad.

   And Syria is but a single rung. Because chaos is a ladder. 

Latest live map here.


   Russia has multiple geopolitical aims in the preservation of Assad and the cohesion of Syria. But let's keep it simple. Russia wants their Mediterranean naval base at Tartus and in 2015 signed a 50 year lease on the air base at Khmeimim outside Latakia giving them permanent air strike ability in the region. Russia under Putin is a product of Soviet era realpolitik and along with China wishes to contest NATO's idea of a unipolar world order.

   Syria is the nexus point at which Russia can contest NATO at the least possible cost.

   In Russia's estimation, NATO broke its gentleman's agreement with Russia in the 1990s not to encroach into Eastern Europe in exchange for German unification and "peace". But then, from the mid 1990s onward NATO, sensing weakness and knowing Russian leader Boris Yeltsin was drunk most of the time and barely survived a coup, encroached into Eastern Europe, and allowed Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania all to join NATO thus kicking the Russians while they were down. 

   Putin, a product of KGB era 70s/80s Soviet dominance (he would call it pride) never forgot this. For him, and Russian elites generally, Ukraine opening talks to join NATO was the final straw. Nothing in the Russian soul could allow this. The vast and endless grasslands that held back Napoleon and Hitler from European aggression have always been Russia's buffer zone. NATO in Ukraine on their doorstep was the final straw. And so Putin took Crimea because it could be taken, buffered zoned Donetsk and moved tanks to the border. And won. And NATO could do nothing because who wants WWIII over a Black Sea port and Sevastopol, a second rate holiday seaside town?

  Syria presented Putin with a chance to drive a knife into NATO and twist it into the heart of Western attempts to consolidate the mess they made in the Middle East after Iraq. He had bases in Syria, Tartus especially, and the Syrian leadership has been a consistent buyer of Soviet/Russian military hardware for decades. So he decided to allocate some aircraft and special forces and destroy ISIS, something the US, UK and France had been claiming to be trying to do since 2012.

   The Russians did the job in a matter of months with 30ish aircraft, most of them 3rd and 4th generation Cold War era machines. That's all it took to send the idiot beheaders in Toyota trucks back to the desert. It makes you wonder what the Obama Administration and Israelis were doing with all that high tech drone weaponry from 2012 to 2016 v ISIS while achieving nothing except the occasional wedding party massacre.

   And finally, there's the financial aspect.

   It always comes back to the money right?

   If Syria were to fall under the control of Sunni/ISIS mercenaries on the Saudi payroll with CIA backing, they could be persuaded via financial incentives to swap their Toyota trucks for swimming pools and harems; then, during the relative 'peace' a rival natural gas pipeline could be built from Qatar's South Pars gas claim (Iran contests this claim) in the Persian Gulf, through Iraq and Syria into the Mediterranean. This would destroy Russian owned Gazprom's monopoly on the European natural gas market and wreck Russia's economy worse than lower oil prices and sanctions already did since 2015.

   The longer the Syrian Civil War continues, the safer Russian energy exports shall remain.

   Because chaos is a ladder.


   Iran's goal right now is to stay off the front pages of Western newspapers, supply its allies in the region, improve its air defenses around its critical infrastructure (with Russian equipment), play nice with the Europeans and maintain the nuclear deal they made with the Obama Administration that has driven the Israelis insane. The nuclear deal did not touch the Iranian missile program and every neocon in the Trump Administration is scouring the fine print looking for a way to tear up that nuclear and put military strikes back on the drawing board. This may happen in May when the deal comes up for review.

   But it won't be easy.

  Since the lifting of sanctions, the Iranians and Europeans have made oil and energy deals that are near impossible to tear up without international arbitration through the WTO.

   Iran is also involved in a bitter proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen and it's driving the Saudi royals insane. Iran is supplying the Houthi rebels there with Russian ATGMs that are wrecking the Saudi military's tanks and APCs. In return the Saudis are starving Yemen to death. No pictures of starving kids on the nightly news of course. No grainy videos of women getting beheaded every weekend in stadiums in Riyadh for the crime of adultery. I'll spare you the LiveLeak videos. Suffice to say, war is hell and people die every time you fill up your gas tank and you might think you give a fuck but you can't because you're late for work.

   Welcome to the oil business.

   The purge of the Saudi royals went almost unnoticed in Western media last November. Those disappeared princes included major shareholders in 20th Century Fox, Citibank, Apple, Twitter and Lyft. The new Crown Prince bin Salman is on a roll of power consolidation and he's got the backing of the US and Israel and $350 billion in new war toys. He hates Assad, is on board with supplying the "moderate rebels" with arms and is playing bending ball with the West better than Beckham. And yet he still can't decisively win in Yemen because money can buy you fancy tanks but never zeal. That's a price only soldiers know. And his captive population do not make for a good fighting force.

   Iran meanwhile, despite its sanction induced economic woes has one of the highest educated populations per-capita-income in the world. For the Saudi royals, infinite wealth can buy you only so much and therefore their new leader has done the unthinkable. He has aligned himself with the Jews. This is something his population would never accept and only constant police state brutality will maintain order and contain this sentiment. 

   If the Houthi rebels can start landing missiles at Saudi Aramco which they recently did then we're looking at darkness beyond the scope of this article. Not least because of the disruption to oil tankers Yemenis could be called on to attack if Iran where to come under attack. In fact it is Iran's unconventional forces from Lebanon, to Syria and Iraq that allow the Ayatollah both plausible deniability and instant strike capability.

  Of course, Iran is playing a dangerous game here. But so is everybody else.

  Chaos is not a ladder in the Middle East.

  Chaos is the snake.
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7 days ago
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If You Say Something Is “Likely,” How Likely Do People Think It Is?

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People use imprecise words to describe the chance of events all the time — “It’s likely to rain,” or “There’s a real possibility they’ll launch before us,” or “It’s doubtful the nurses will strike.” Not only are such probabilistic terms subjective, but they also can have widely different interpretations. One person’s “pretty likely” is another’s “far from certain.” Our research shows just how broad these gaps in understanding can be and the types of problems that can flow from these differences in interpretation.

In a famous example (at least, it’s famous if you’re into this kind of thing), in March 1951, the CIA’s Office of National Estimates published a document suggesting that a Soviet attack on Yugoslavia within the year was a “serious possibility.” Sherman Kent, a professor of history at Yale who was called to Washington, D.C. to co-run the Office of National Estimates, was puzzled about what, exactly, “serious possibility” meant. He interpreted it as meaning that the chance of attack was around 65%. But when he asked members of the Board of National Estimates what they thought, he heard figures from 20% to 80%. Such a wide range was clearly a problem, as the policy implications of those extremes were markedly different. Kent recognized that the solution was to use numbers, noting ruefully, “We did not use numbers…and it appeared that we were misusing the words.”

Not much has changed since then. Today people in the worlds of business, investing, and politics continue to use vague words to describe possible outcomes. Why? Phil Tetlock, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied forecasting in depth, suggests that “vague verbiage gives you political safety.”

When you use a word to describe the likelihood of a probabilistic outcome, you have a lot of wiggle room to make yourself look good after the fact. If a predicted event happens, one might declare: “I told you it would probably happen.” If it doesn’t happen, the fallback might be: “I only said it would probably happen.” Such ambiguous words not only allow the speaker to avoid being pinned down but also allow the receiver to interpret the message in a way that is consistent with their preconceived notions. Obviously, the result is poor communication.

To try to address this type of muddled communications, Kent mapped the relationship between words and probabilities. In the best-known version, he showed sentences that included probabilistic words or phrases to about two dozen military officers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and asked them to translate the words into numbers. These individuals were used to reading intelligence reports. The officers reached a consensus for some words, but their interpretations were all over the place for others. Other researchers have since had similar results.

We created a fresh survey with a couple of goals in mind. One was to increase the size of the sample, including individuals outside of the intelligence and scientific communities. Another was to see whether we could detect any differences by age or gender or between those who learned English as a primary or secondary language.

Here are the three main lessons from our analysis.

Lesson 1: Use probabilities instead of words to avoid misinterpretation.

Our survey asked members of the general public to attach probabilities to 23 common words or phrases appearing in random order. The exhibit below summarizes the results from 1,700 respondents.


The wide variation of likelihood people attach to certain words immediately jumps out. While some are construed quite narrowly, others are broadly interpreted. Most — but not all — people think “always” means “100% of the time,” for example, but the probability range that most attribute to an event with a “real possibility” of happening spans about 20% to 80%. In general, we found that the word “possible” and its variations have wide ranges and invite confusion.

We also found that men and women see some probabilistic words differently. As the table below shows, women tend to place higher probabilities on ambiguous words and phrases such as “maybe,” “possibly,” and “might happen.” Here again, we see that “possible” and its variations particularly invite misinterpretation. This result is consistent with analysis by the data science team at Quora, a site where users ask and answer questions. That team found that women use uncertain words and phrases more often than men do, even when they are just as confident.


We did not see meaningful differences in interpretation across age groups or between native and nonnative English speakers, with one exception: the phrase “slam dunk.” On average, the native English speakers interpreted the phrase as indicating a 93% probability, whereas the nonnative speakers put the figure at 81%. This result offers a warning to avoid culturally biased phrases in general and sports metaphors in particular when you’re trying to be clear.

For matters of importance where mutual understanding is vital, avoid nonnumerical words or phrases and turn directly to probabilities.

Lesson 2: Use structured approaches to set probabilities.

As discussed, one reason people use ambiguous words instead of precise probabilities is to reduce the risk of being wrong. But people also hedge with words because they are not familiar with structured ways to set probabilities.

A large literature shows that we tend to be overconfident in our judgments. For example, in another survey we asked respondents to answer 50 true or false questions (for example, “The earth’s distance from the sun is constant throughout the year”) and to estimate their confidence. More than 11,000 people participated. The results show that the average confidence in answering correctly was 70%, while the average number of questions answered correctly was just 60%. Our respondents were overconfident by 10 percentage points, a finding that is common in psychology research.

Studies of probabilistic forecasts in the intelligence community stand in contrast. More-experienced analysts are generally well calibrated, which means that over a large number of predictions, their subjective guesses about probabilities and the objective outcomes (what actually occurs) align well. Indeed, when calibration is off, it is often the result of underconfidence.

How do you set probabilities intelligently?

When the odds are ambiguous, unlike in a simple gambling situation (where there’s a 50% chance of heads or tails), you are dealing with what decision theorists call subjective probabilities. These do not purport to be the correct probability, but do reflect an individual’s personal beliefs about the outcome. You should update your subjective probability estimates each time you get relevant information.

One way to pin down your subjective probability is to compare your estimate with a concrete bet. Let’s say that a competitor is expected to launch a new offering next quarter that threatens to disrupt your most profitable product. You are trying to assess the probability that the introduction doesn’t happen. The way to frame your bet might be: “If the product fails to launch, I receive $1 million, but if it does launch, I get nothing.”

Now imagine a jar full of 25 green marbles and 75 blue marbles. You close your eyes and select a marble. If it’s green, you receive $1 million, and if it’s blue, you get nothing. You know you have a one in four chance (25%) to get a green marble and win the money.

Now, which would you prefer to bet on: the launch failure or the draw from the jar?

If you’d go for the jar, that indicates that you think the chance of winning that bet (25%) is greater than the chance of winning the product-failure bet. Therefore, you must believe the likelihood of your competitor’s product launch failing is less than 25%.

In this way, using an objective benchmark helps pinpoint your subjective probability. (To test other levels of probability, just mentally adjust the ratio of green and blue marbles in the jar. With 10 green marbles and 90 blue ones, would you still draw from the jar rather than take the product-failure bet? You must think there’s less than a 10% chance the product won’t launch.)

Lesson 3: Seek feedback to improve your forecasting.

Whether you’re using vague terms or precise numbers to describe probabilities, what you’re really doing is forecasting. If you assert there’s “a real possibility” your competitor’s product will launch, you’re predicting the future. In business and many other fields, being a good forecaster is important and requires practice. But simply making a lot of forecasts isn’t enough: You need feedback. Assigning probabilities provides this by allowing you to keep score of your performance.

Opinion writers and public intellectuals often talk about the future, but typically they don’t express their convictions precisely enough to allow for accurate performance tracking. For example, an analyst might speculate, “Facebook will likely remain the dominant social network for years to come.” It’s difficult to measure the accuracy of this forecast because it is subjective and the probabilistic phrase suggests a wide range of likelihoods. A statement like “There is a 95% probability that Facebook will have more than 2.5 billion monthly users one year from now” is precise and quantifiable. What’s more, the accuracy of the analyst’s forecast can be directly measured, providing feedback on performance.

The best forecasters make lots of precise forecasts and keep track of their performance with a metric such as a Brier score. This type of performance tracking requires predicting a categorical outcome (Facebook will have more than 2.5 billion monthly users) over a specified time period (one year from now) with a specific probability (95%). It’s a tough discipline to master, but necessary for improvement. And the better your forecasts, the better your decisions. A few online resources make the task easier. The Good Judgment Open (founded by Tetlock and other decision scientists) and Metaculus provide questions to practice forecasting. Prediction markets, including PredictIt, allow you to put real money behind your forecasts.

The next time you find yourself stating that a deal or other business outcome is “unlikely” or, alternatively, is “virtually certain,” stop yourself and ask: What percentage chance, in what time period, would I put on this outcome? Frame your prediction that way, and it’ll be clear to both yourself and others where you truly stand.

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14 days ago
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The War Nerd: Anglo-American Media’s Complicity in Yemen’s Genocide

Yemen starves....and why the Western media looks the other way.
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38 days ago
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The Amish understand a life-changing truth about technology the rest of us don’t — Quartz

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May 18, 2018

The Amish have negotiated a pact with modernity. Whereas much of the contemporary world sees technological progress as inevitable, even a moral imperative, the Amish ideal lives in the past, circa 1850.

It’s not that the Amish view technology as inherently evil. No rules prohibit them from using new inventions. But they carefully consider how each one will change their culture before embracing it. And the best clue as to what will happen comes from watching their neighbors.

“The Amish use us as an experiment,” says Jameson Wetmore, an engineer turned social researcher at the Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “They watch what happens when we adopt new technology, and then they decide whether that’s something they want to adopt themselves.”

After observing a given technology’s effect on outside society, Wetmore explains, each Amish community can vote on whether to accept or reject it. If a person is seriously ill, checking into a hospital is acceptable. So is accepting a ride in a Ford F-150. But the Amish refuse to own television or automobiles because they’ve decided those technologies erode their community and neighborliness.

For the rest of us, the cost of technological convenience may be coming due. Wetmore, who has studied the Amish intensively (pdf), suggests that contemporary society needs to take a new approach to technology—one that weighs the value of our new tools before welcoming them into our lives. Quartz spoke with Wetmore about the lessons that the Amish, a religious group of just 200,000 in the US, hold for the rest of the world.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: What have you noticed about Americans’ relationship with technology, and how that’s changing?

One of my favorite stories is about the World Fair in the 1930s. The motto of the 1933 World Fair in Chicago was “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.

It was really a very prevalent idea that technology was going to save us all. Basically, we needed to worship it if we were going to have any chance of survival. This was just out of the Great Depression. There were a lot of really destitute people. Governments and companies were saying that technology can lead us out of this. It may not always be comfortable, but we have to ride it out.

That is the clear push coming into the 1930s and into the 1940s and 1950s. Household technologies are all the rage. When you hit the 1960s and 1970s, there is this shift. I think the hallmarks of that shift are the dropping of the atomic bomb, and then of course you have Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, and you also have Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Any idea that technology is an unmitigated good begins to be questioned.

I think today Americans have a much more nuanced view of things. I think the number of people who think technology is an unmitigated good is continuing to shrink. At the same time, I think most of us haven’t abandoned the idea that we have a lot of problems out there and technology is certainly going to have to play a role in solving them.

I have a very different reaction to, say, break pads or air conditioning than technologies such as social media. How do you categorize technologies?

Technologies are always part of bigger systems. If you abstract out a small artifact, then you’re really not understanding the role of that technology. I think you’re right, most people don’t think about brake pads, but that’s also sort of like saying people don’t think about the on-off button of their television set. If you were to think about the role of car transportation in our lives, that’s enormous. It plays a hugely significant pivotal role akin, I would say, to television or social media.

It’s interesting that the Amish have different districts, and each district has different rules about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Yet it’s very clear there are two technologies that, as soon as the community accepts them, they are no longer Amish. Those technologies are the television and the automobile.

That’s fascinating.

They particularly see those two as having a fundamental impact on their society and daily lives.

What would you characterize as the common thread between those two technologies?

I think a huge part is that they shape our relationships with other people. The reason the Amish rejected television is because it is a one-way conduit to bring another society into their living rooms. And they want to maintain the society as they have created it. And the automobile as well. As soon as you have a car, your ability to leave your local community becomes significantly easier.

You no longer have to rely on your neighbor for eggs when you run out. You can literally take half an hour and run to the store. In a horse and buggy, when you don’t have your own chickens, that’s a half-day process.

You’ve said before that technology is “value-laden.” What values do you believe are inherent in technology that the average iPhone user doesn’t think about?

There has been a concerted effort to say that technologies are value-free. That they are simply piles of metal and wire and computer chips, and really the only thing that matters is the people who use them. This is sort of debunked. When any technology is designed, it is usually designed with purpose and goals. Values underlie those purposes and goals.

Think about the origins of Facebook. This was not a value-free technology. The goal was to connect people. That’s a value a lot of people held and a lot of people flocked to it because they shared that value.

 When any technology is designed, it is usually designed with purpose and goals. Values underlie those purposes and goals. But technologies also change the equation. We have this long-running conversation about whether people kill people or guns kill people. It ends up being the person with a gun can kill a lot more people, a lot faster than a person without a gun. I’m not saying that the person involved doesn’t play a role, but it is the combination of the two. The value system changes when technology enters into it.

And the other thing is we don’t think about the impact technology might have on our lives beyond the initial big idea. So the automobile was sold to us with this idea of a freedom we never had before. It wasn’t necessarily sold to us with the idea of significantly increasing teenage pregnancy. And I don’t believe it was designed for that purpose in mind. But it allowed the value of premarital sex to be much easier to pursue, and, as a result, people pursued it. A big part of the sexual revolution was just the fact that young people could escape their parents with a car in ways they never could before.

So can we anticipate unintended consequences way the Amish do, or are these systems just too complex to go much beyond first-order effects?

The Amish use us as an experiment. They watch what happens when we adopt new technology, and then decide whether that’s something they want to adopt themselves. I asked one Amish person why they didn’t use automobiles. He simply smiled and turned to me and said, “Look what they did to your society.” And I asked what do you mean? “Well, do you know your neighbor? Do you know the names of your neighbors?” And, at the time, I had to admit to the fact that I didn’t.

And he pointed out that my ability to simply bypass them with the windows closed meant I didn’t have to talk to them. And as a result, I didn’t.

 “I asked one Amish person why they didn’t use automobiles. He simply smiled and turned to me and said, ‘Look what they did to your society.'” His argument was that they were looking at us to decide whether or not this was something they wanted to do or not. I think that happens in our society as well. We certainly have this idea of alpha and beta testing. There are people very, very excited to play that role. I don’t know if they always frame themselves as guinea pigs, but that’s what they are.

So how do the Amish decide on new technologies?

For the Amish, there are no rules prohibiting new technologies. So typically what will happen is one member of the community will say, “You know, I’m fed up with axes. I’m using the chainsaw.”

So maybe he goes out and begins to use a chainsaw. You might get some stern looks from neighbors, but officially it’s not prohibited. Every six months, the [Amish district councils] sit down and discuss. People are beginning to use chainsaws in our communities: Is this what we want? And then they have a conversation about it.

They discuss the values, but they also discuss a little bit about the person already using it: whether or not it’s something they think would be beneficial for their society as a whole. There are times where they decide absolutely that this is a new technology we need.

The classic example is that the Amish value farming as a job. More than anything else, the ideal Amish person is a farmer. And when the US government local government begin introducing regulations about milk safety in the 1960s and 1970s, all of a sudden [their milk] didn’t meet those regulations. The Amish technique didn’t allow it. [The rules required dairy producers to constantly agitate the milk, chill it to a certain temperature and deliver it once per day to the local milk distributor.]

The Amish sat down and thought long and hard about this. Some Amish communities said: Nope, we’re done. We can’t interface with these English people anymore. And they began to make cheese. Other Amish communities said, No, we want to make sure we stay in milk production. This is really important to us, so we’re going to create some systems a little different from everyone else, but we’re going to create some refrigeration systems that run on propane so it won’t hook up to the electrical grid.

But the Amish said the Sabbath was something they would not change. They would not compromise their day of rest. They worked with local milk wholesalers and arranged to have their milk picked up early Saturday and Saturday night, so they would have Sunday free. They were willing to compromise and they thought about their values.

I’m trying to imagine an analogy in our society for something like Facebook. Is it the process, or is it the values behind that process that matter?

I think it’s both. One thing it’s taken me awhile to understand is that I don’t think the Amish believe in progress. I don’t think the Amish believe there is a perfect world in the future. I think that is something that drives a lot of our society: the idea there must be progress and there is a place we need to get to.

[For us], I think we’re willing to do a lot more experimentation and have a lot more failure, to be fair. It’s pretty crazy if you stop to think about it to realize that car travel is so important to us, that were willing to sacrifice 30,000 to 40,000 lives a year for it.

Even I can’t imagine a world without that.

What do you think is the real clear downside to the approach the Amish have adopted of dealing with technology in the modern world?

We have to admit, regardless of whether you’re really frustrated with technology or even call yourself a Luddite, technology has done some incredible and amazing things to our world. All things being equal, it’s hard to say decreasing infant mortality and radically increasing the life expectancy of people isn’t in some ways good.

I think if you’re like the Amish, it’s not a goal you are going to be working for. You’ll be satisfied with much lower life expectancies. At the same time, they benefit from the risks we’ve taken in our society. For the most part, they’re not going to run to the local doctor for a cold. But if one of their people gets a nasty disease or develops cancer, they will use the latest Western medical devices and approaches in order to help cure that. To some extent, they got a little bit of the best of both worlds.

They have the ability to keep themselves separate, and try to enjoy a much slower lifestyle than us. At the same time, they can jump into our world occasionally when there are big problems.

Do you think the opposite is happening where people in our society want to jump into their world? Not become Amish per se, but people are trying to replicate some of those characteristics.

I wrote an article a couple years ago that we’re all becoming a little bit more Amish. Again, the Amish don’t always simply reject a technology, but they have very specific rules about how it is to be used.

What really fascinated me over the last few years is the number of people who have developed rules about their cell phone usage. The federal government doesn’t really regulate cell phone usage at all. Some state governments regulate whether you can use it while driving, but nobody says you are not allowed to use your cell phone at the dinner table.

 The Amish don’t always reject a technology, but they have very specific rules about how it is to be used. Yet it’s very hard to find a person who hasn’t at least considered making a rule for themselves and, of course, sometimes for their family, that dinner time is a time for direct family communication. That communication is more important, at least for that time period, than mobile phone communication.

And so people have constructed their own rules to make sure that they really prioritize what they value which is that time to be together, face to face.

And this is our way of negotiating with technology. Rarely do we as individuals outright reject technology, but we carefully calibrate the role that it plays in our lives.

I sometimes do a poll. I hold up my mobile phone and ask how many people love this technology. I usually get 75% of the people raise their hands. And I say, who hates his technology. And I usually get 75% of the people raising their hands. The overlap is definitely there.

It’s clear that our lives are changing. Where do you think we’re going to end up in the next ten or even 50 years in terms of our relationship with technology?

I would urge people to to read this amazing science fiction short story by EM Forster called “The Machine Stops.” It was written in 1908.

In the story, basically everyone is online 24 hours a day, and everyone lives underground in their own little caves. Nobody interacts physically with anyone anymore. It’s the story of one young man who wants to break out of this.

It is really disturbing that someone over 100 years ago predicted what we might do with the technology. That they could see the kernels of that. Now, I don’t think we’re going to end up where this is, but the fact that you can see the shapes of it today is still amazing to me.

One of the things I’ll be curious about is that there there seem to be people who are much happier online than interacting with people face-to-face. If that kind of communication becomes privileged, if it becomes that you can make more money that way, if it’s cheaper that way, then more people may be drawn to that kind of life.

You see trend lines moving in that direction?

I’m less interested in making predictions about the future, more interested in noting that there are different scenarios possible and encouraging people to consider what is the role they want to live in.

At the beginning of the age of the automobile, nobody said, All right: 30,000 people a year are going to die. Is that a decision we want to make? What did happen is a very intense discussion about whether a car should be allowed on the road and who should be at fault when a car drives over a four-year-old in the street.

In the 1930s, we ended up as a society deciding that four-year-olds should be the one to blame. We began to train people even before they began to speak about how to cross the street and how to avoid it in the street. We redesigned our world to be safe for automobiles and dangerous for children.

Those are the conversations we’re having today.

I never thought about it that way.

In 1915, the safest place for your kid was the street. That’s where everyone played in New York City. Strangers might come and go, but there was always a neighbor looking out the window. We had parks, of course, but the proliferation of city parks came after we decided an automobile should be allowed to take over the streets, and we had to find a place to take our children. So we redesigned our cities to make them safer for automobiles.

So how are the Amish faring in the modern world?

The Amish go through this period called rumspringa, or running about. Between 15 to 20 years old, your community will choose to turn a blind eye if you go out to explore the English world. Maybe you get a job at McDonald’s. Maybe you even buy a used car. You may still live at home, and maybe have your car behind the family barn, so you don’t embarrass your parents. Basically, the Amish are given a chance to explore our world. They are making an informed decision. In a sense, when are they truly deciding to become Amish, they are rejecting our world.

 In the 1960s and 1970s, 75% of Amish children would decide to become Amish adults. The most recent statistics show that’s up to 95%. Sociologically, it’s a really important part of their culture that they allow young people to spend some time in our world. They have to decide: Am I going to become Amish? It’s an incredibly important decision because if they choose not to become Amish, they can come and go as they please. They probably can’t live in their parents’ house anymore, but they’re welcome to come back and celebrate birthdays with her family.

If they choose to become Amish and then leave the Amish church, then they are shunned. They’re no longer allowed to come and go. Nobody in the community is allowed to speak to them ever again. That’s true with your parents and siblings and everyone else who were in the Amish church. And this is their way of saying: Look, you’re either going to make a commitment to us or not, but that commitment has to be complete.

When sociologists were really diving into the Amish culture in the 1960s and 1970s, 75% of Amish children would decide to become Amish adults. The most recent statistics show that 95% are now choosing to join the Amish Church.

More and more Amish kids are spending time in our world and deciding that’s not what they want. I suspect at the heart of a lot of it is the pace of change, and the perhaps to some extent the value system of our world becoming even more distant from the Amish world than it was just 20 or 30 years ago.

Does that surprise you?

You know, I always find that number surprising. Even now, it’s hard to fathom. Yeah, you’ve grown up Amish all your life, but there’s a lot of amazing things in our world. To decide to not be a part of it, I would think there would be more that would want to join our world. To some extent, it’s a bit of an indictment I think.

The Amish have always rejected our world, but now they’re doing it in record numbers!

You mentioned that the Amish can have their cake and eat it too because they move in and out of the modern world. Can we have our cake and eat it too, to some extent, if we’re careful at making decisions about new technologies?

To understand what’s going happening with technology, we will always have to experiment. And we’re always going to have to experiment on real people.

This is an issue that hits close to home here. Less than a mile from where I’m standing [in Phoenix, Arizona], Elaine Herzberg was killed by an autonomous Uber vehicle. I fully recognize the only way we’re going to automated vehicles is running in this world is to test them on city streets. Now, if we were to sit back and think about the values of the society here, we might say that testing those vehicles at 10 PM at night outside of a concert hall where a huge amount of alcohol had been served was not the best place to be testing. Perhaps testing in a school zone when children are present is not the best place to test an autonomous vehicle.

But those are decisions that local people here did not have the chance to make. There are better and worse ways to do it. It doesn’t have to be tested on everyone all at once.

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33 – Things no one tells you before an Antarctic expedition (2015)

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