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Steve Gilliard, 1964-2007

It is with tremendous sadness that we must convey the news that Steve Gilliard, editor and publisher of The News Blog, passed away June 2, 2007. He was 42.

To those who have come to trust The News Blog and its insightful, brash and unapologetic editorial tone, we have Steve to thank from the bottom of our hearts. Steve helped lead many discussions that mattered to all of us, and he tackled subjects and interest categories where others feared to tread.

Please keep Steve's friends and family in your thoughts and prayers.

Steve meant so much to us.

We will miss him terribly.

photo by lindsay beyerstein


Sara Robinson: "Kauffman's Rules -- Part III"

Rules for living

Thanks to Sara Robinson of Orcinus for her ongoing series on Kauffman's Rules - THANKS SARA!!!

The next installment of Kauffman's Rules: more stuff to think about,
and more to talk about.

15. High morality depends on accurate prophecy. You cannot
judge the morality of an action unless you have some idea of what the
consequences of the action will be. According to this point of view,
an action cannot be good if it has evil results, and everyone has a
moral obligation to try to foresee, as well as possible, what the
results of various decisions will be.

Another of my favorites. We don't usually think of good foresight as
being essential to morality -- but consider that foresight is nothing
more than forward-looking judgment; and we know that real- world
morality (as opposed to the synthetic fundamentalist product) has
everything to do with sound judgment.

This explains why double-highs (people who are high in social
dominance, and also in right-wing authoritarian traits) are unfit to
hold positions of political or cultural leadership. Double highs
don't look much farther ahead than their next chance to stick it to
somebody, or grab for their own glory; and common-good definitions of
morality have no place in their worldview at all. You might as well
put your future in the hands of a Class V hurricane rather than hand
it over to people who are constitutionally incapable of assessing or
accepting the results of their own decisions. (Oh….right. Never mind.)

16. If you can't make people self-sufficient, your aid does more
harm than good.
This usually comes up in discussing problems
of poverty or hunger, where temporary relief often postpones the
disaster at the cost of making it much worse when it comes. It is not
really an argument against helping, but an argument against half-way
measures. Ghandi said the same thing in a more positive way: "If you
give me a fish, I eat for a day; if you teach me to fish, I eat for a

Or, as another beloved freedom-fighting guru of a later generation
put it: Do or do not. There is no try.

Partial fixes that are focused one part of the system alone almost
always make the situation worse. They're usually just big enough to
throw the system out of balance, forcing it to adjust elsewhere to
compensate. And that adjustment, more often than not, creates a
bigger problem than the one your tweak was trying to solve. In other
words, the road to unintended consequences is paved with quick patches.

[Of course, as one commenter noted when this first ran at Orcinus:
"Teach a society to fish, and within a few years they'll have totally
depleted the local fish stocks."]

17. There are no final answers. As Ken Boulding put it,
"If all environments were stable, the well-adapted would simply take
over the earth and the evolutionary process would stop. In a period
of environmental change, however, it is the adaptable, not the well-
adapted who survive." This applies to social systems as well as
natural ones. In a time of rapid change, like the present, the best
"solution" to a problem is often one that just keeps the problem
under control while keeping as many options for the future as

I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who think that the way
things are now is the way they're always going to be. (Again, it's
probably a more common conservative habit of mind -- was it only a
year ago that the GOP was gloating they'd be running the show for the
next generation?) But the fact is that change is the only constant --
and there are a lot of serious people who think it's going to keep
coming at us faster and faster in the decades ahead.

The future belongs to those who know how to surf the waves of
constant adaptation. But people who allow themselved to be seduced
into thinking that it's all settled, and they can relax now, are
setting themselves up for disappointment. It's never been true, and
never will be. Life is flux. Get over it.

18. Every solution creates new problems. The auto solved
the horse-manure pollution problem and created an air pollution
problem. Modern medicine brought us longer, healthier lives--and a
population explosion that threatens to produce a global famine.
Television brings us instant access to vital information and world
events--and a mind-numbing barrage of banality and violence. And so
on. The important thing is to try to anticipate the new problems and
decide whether we prefer them to the problem we are currently trying
to solve. Sometimes the "best" solution to one problem just creates a
worse problem. There may even be no solution to the new problem. On
the other hand, an apparently "inferior" solution to the original
problem may be much better for the whole system in the long run.

Kauffman is foreshadowing my friend John Smart's Second Law of
Technology here: All new technologies are inherently dehumanizing in
their first iteration. (Think about it. It's true.) Whenever we step
beyond the limits of our current experience and understanding, we're
forced to guess. We're doing something that's never been done before;
we have no idea what the consequences will be; and so there's no real
way to prepare ourselves. All we can do is take the best precautions
we can, test small before going big, and remain open to the option of
turning back if it proves too dangerous to continue.

19. Sloppy systems are often better. Diverse,
decentralized systems often seem disorganized and wasteful, but they
are almost always more stable, flexible, and efficient than "neater"
systems. In Boulding's terms (#17), highly adaptable systems look
sloppy compared to systems that are well-adapted to a specific
situation, but the sloppy-looking systems are the ones that will
survive. In addition, systems which are loose enough to tolerate
moderate fluctuations in things like population levels, food supply,
or prices, are more efficient than systems which waste energy and
resources on tighter controls.

This is why central planning usually fails; and why small distributed
networks are a much better environment for almost everything from
moving data to moving food to ensuring economic risks are shared
rather than concentrated.

This rule is also the fundamental indictment of monopolies.

20. Don't be fooled by system cycles. All negative
feedback loops create oscillations--some large, some small. For some
reason, many people are unable to deal with or believe in cyclical
patterns, especially if the cycles are more than two or three years
in length. If the economy has been growing steadily for the last four
years, nearly everyone will be optimistic. They simply project their
recent experience ahead into the future, forgetting that a recession
becomes more likely the longer the boom continues. Similarly,
everyone is gloomiest at the bottom of a recession, just when rapid
growth is most likely.

Another example of that common fallacy: It's no different now than
it's ever been. Yes, it is. The question is: is the current situation
within the normal parameters of past cycles -- or are we headed into
uncharted territory here? You may recognize this frame as a favorite
of global warming skeptics, who still don't think there's anything at
all out of the ordinary about the fact that it's the first of March
and I'm writing this in a snowstorm in a city that never sees snow
after January 15.

21. Remember the Golden Mean. When people face a serious
problem, they tend to overvalue anything that helps solve it. They
mobilize their energies and fight hard to solve the problem, and
often keep right on going after the problem is solved and the
solution is becoming a new problem. When most children died before
their tenth birthdays, a high birth rate was essential for survival
and societies developed powerful ways to encourage people to have
large families. When the death rate is reduced, a high birth rate
becomes a liability, but all those strong cultural forces keep right
on encouraging large families, and it can take generations for
people's attitudes to change. Like the man who eats himself' to death
as an adult because he was always hungry as a child, people tend to
forget that too much of something can be as bad as too little. They
assume that if more of something is good a lot more must be better--
but it often isn't. The trick is to recognize these situations and
try to swing the pendulum back to the middle whenever it swings
toward either extreme.

I consider this a restatement of #20, but from a different angle. The
main caution here is: just because a tool always worked before, don't
expect it will continue to deliver the same results in the future.
Every situation's different, and deserves its own unique response.

All right: that's the third set. Stand by for the fourth and last
set. And thanks to those of you who've grabbed on to this and are
playing with it. These rules are delightfully simple stuff; but once
I started working with them, I found they made a sweet little shift
in how I approached people and problems that used to just drive me to
despair or annoyance. I found I could forego being annoyed at foolish
people (who usually can't be changed), and instead focus my energy on
foolish systems (which often can be).

And in these rough days, anything that gets us out of our stuck
places is worth looking in to.

- posted by Sara Robinson