Here and There

I finally got around to writing a new short story and like many of my stories it can be best classified as Sci-Fi, Dystopian, and Absurdist. It's about a science reporter who investigates a new Quantum technology, getting himself invited to a secret testing base but finding his investigations might be dangerous. It's meant to be read with some of my other stories such as "The Smell of Sauerkraut", "When Information is Bliss", and "The Before the End of After". Anyway, it's still very much a draft, but it is good enough to post. It's approx. 5000 words, but 3000 if you don't read the footnote.

Here And There

Pradeep Pandit made the last turn as his vehicle approached the sprawling, walled-in executive park. Although it was midwinter, with the sky overcast and the trees bare, green grass seemed to creep under the surrounding fence. The facilities of the Scientific Center for Advanced Research and Development were nestled deep in the woods two hundred miles northeast of Boise, Idaho. It had taken Pradeep a few hours to reach it from the city, and he was scheduled to meet someone there soon, although he couldn’t remember exactly who and when. He hadn’t really slept in days, anxious over the call he received from the Center’s public relations department concerning his recent article in the National Syndicate. Pradeep wasn’t naturally a fearful person, but an event and a series of decisions slowly eroded his confidence and raised his anxiety level. His meteoric rise from fact checker to Chief Science and Technology Reporter for the National Syndicate had left him feeling a little inadequate. His wife and kids believed that he had earned the position, that his rise was due to his great ability to write investigative pieces about emerging technology and cutting edge science, not to mention his years of service for the Syndicate. But deep down Pradeep knew he was just the only guy left in line—a vacuum created by the recent exit of the top talent to retirement, sabbatical, or extended holiday. And then there was his creative license, which made his anxiety that much worse. His stomach turned.

“Play ‘The Data Alligator’ again,” Pradeep said to the EsTHER.

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Seeing Isn't Always Believing

The written word can be illusory very much like an optical illusion, albeit word illusions are much harder to notice. Today, for example, I read an email and took it to mean "x" and later when I re-read it and thought more deeply about it, I took it to mean "y". The change in perception felt very much like how one feels with the puzzle where you see only a young lady; then suddenly, a witch. Which one is it? Both? I was amused at first but soon became deeply disturbed. "I can't even trust myself", I thought.

So now the rationalization. I think electronic media induces these types of written illusions because:

1) more people are less clear in their writing (possible causes: (a) smaller input devices make it more difficult to write, (b) auto-correct features on said devices replace mispelled words with the incorrect words, (c) poor quality education i.e., people haven't been taught to write properly, (d) more people with a,b, and c)

2) there are more instances of (1) given the increased number of written communications (email, texting, social media, e-docs)

3) given (2) people receiving message speed read in order to process the increased amount of incoming information and

 4) people in (3) respond and create a type II written illusion guilty of both repeating (1) AND responding to the message based on what they misread.

I might need to reconcile all of this with a short story. But first, I need to post my thoughts on Ergodicty (more to come on this in the coming days).



Lost in the Library

As I finish my months long Borges digression (his non-fiction is as superb as his fiction), I think my sentiment of his works can be summed up with this bit of short prose (or is it verse?):

A young man picked up a book to read and was piqued by a footnote on the first page. He turned to the endnotes and jotted the source. Curious still, he arose to search the stacks. Many books and many years later, upon his death, it was recorded in the stars that the young man still hadn't finished the book. Perhaps next time.

Vergil Den


Good Reads

Recently I came across Nassim Taleb’s lecture notes/syllabus from 2005. It can be found here. The notes are fantastic but the links to the papers and other materials covered in the notes are broken in the pdf. So I spent a few days tracking them down and was able to find many of them. Below is the list with links and grouped based on the sections in the lecture notes. (Note: If you decide to print the materials many contain mathematical formulas or are scanned in versions of the originals, so be prepared for it to take some signifcant time to print.)

Module 2
Unskilled and Unaware of It
Tiesska-Zielonki (just an article on)
herding by prominent econophysicist Bouchaud

Module 3
Data-Snooping Biases in Tests of Financial Asset Pricing Models:
A Reality Check for Data Snooping:
Data Snooping Technical Trading Rule Performance, and the Bootstrap:

Module 4
How the Finance Gurus Get Risk All Wrong:

Module 5
Kahneman’s Nobel lecture:
Thaler’s mental accounting:
Lowenstein & Prelec Neuroeconomics:
Caveman Economics:

Module 6
On the nonobservability of probability:
Coval & Shumway: “Expected Options Returns
Why are Put Options So Expensive:
Risk Aversion or Myopia:,d.b2I

Module 7
The Economics of Superstars:
On a Class of Skew Distribution Functions:
Cumulative Advantage as a Mechanism for Inequality:
Talent and the Winner-Take-All Society:

Module 10
“long tail” article by Chris Anderson:

Module 12

Module 13
Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit

Appendix 1

Barabási, A.-L. and R. Albert. 1999. Emergence of scaling in random networks,

Barabási, Albert-László and Eric Bonabeau. 2003. Scale-free networks,%2060-69%20(2003).pdf

Faloutsos, M., P. Faloutsos, and C. Faloutsos. 1999. On Power-Law Relationships of the Internet Topology

Lotka, Alfred J., 1926. The Frequency Distribution of Scientific Productivity–%3D-YUefx%2F0auEG8%2B29U7Cdc&N=Lotka+1929.pdf&T=application%2Fpdf

Merton, R. K., 1968. The Matthew effect in science

Mitzenmacher, Michael. 2003. A brief history of generative models for power law and lognormal distributions

Price, D. J. de Solla, 1965. Networks of scientific papers

Price, D.J. de Solla. 1976. A general theory of bibliometrics and other cumulative advantage processes

Watts, D. J., 2003. Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age

Simon, Herbert A., 1955. On a class of skew distribution functions. Biometrika 42:425-440

Vogelstein, Bert, David Lane and Arnold J. Levine, 2000. Surfing the p53 network.

Willinger, W., D. Alderson, J.C. Doyle, and L. Li. 2004. A pragmatic approach to dealing with high variability measurements.

Yule, G. 1925. A mathematical theory of evolution, based on the conclusions of Dr. J. C. Willis



Short Story: Something Doesn't Smell Right, Right?


The Smell of Sauerkraut


“I haven’t seen them since. Just these four walls, nothing else,” Mr. Johnson rambled.

“Mr. Johnson, please, we need to—”

“Maybe you can get a message to my family—maybe just let them know I’m all right. Is that something you can do?” He fell to his knees, pleading. “You have to help me!

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Short Story: The Before the End of After


The Before the End of After

As he lay prone, a boot pressed against the back of Jim’s neck. His right arm was badly shattered: dislocated at the elbow and broken at the wrist. He was in great pain but it had moved south, from his arm to his legs. The truncheons beating against his calves, hamstrings, and buttocks were working as designed. He struggled to rise, but the knees of the officers pressing into his lower back proved overwhelming for just one arm, one man.

“Tell me who’ve you collaborated with,” a man shouted, which momentarily stopped the beating as the officers waited for a response.

“No one,” Jim groaned. He was being truthful. Technically, he had committed the crime alone but he couldn’t last much longer in his casuistry. Pain, and the terror of more pain, was making it difficult to maintain the subtlety of the lie and he feared that either he would confess the names of his accomplices or he would die from sheer bludgeoning before he could give them up. He thought he had no other options, but he was wrong. The beating did finally stop, and neither had he confessed nor was he dead. He had one other option, at least temporarily.

“Get up!” the same man shouted, as the boot eased from his neck and the knees from his back.

Jim couldn’t move his legs. They, too, had gone completely numb. He struggled with his one good arm and was able to raise his head and chest a few feet from the floor. He wasn’t certain what happened next, but he was knocked unconscious. He realized only later, while lying in a pool of spit and teeth, that he had been kicked in the face.

He awoke in a dark cell of unknown size and location, where he had been for a period of time that, to him, could have been a second or an eternity. He didn’t know the date or time he had arrived, and the dark, windowless room gave no indication of day or night. Time doesn’t really exist when there are no fixed points to measure against—there is only movement and his knowledge of this movement was his growing weakness, as if life was literally being slowly drained from him.

As he weakened, he started drifting, and it wasn’t clear when his clear thinking changed from conscious thought to visions or perhaps dreams. But as he lay there, in his mind’s eye, he stood before a chamber. To the left and to the right, behind and in front, as far as the eye could see, were other chambers, each identical to the other. He entered the chamber directly in front of him.

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Short Story: A Parable of Sorts

This story has gone through a number of revisions… actually full rewrites. It’s ended up as a 700 word parable: the interpolation of a mouse so to speak and an homage to the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson and the great Kafka.

The Moment In Between 

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mrs. Cat asked her little mice students. The students waved their hands vigorously in the air, “oohing” like monkeys. Mrs. Cat pointed to Ricky Mouse, the smallest mouse in the class but the most eager to answer.

“I want to be me!” he squeaked confidently.

Mrs. Cat laughed. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “You have to be something.”

Ricky simply stared at his teacher. Clearly, he did not understand her. 

“Well, for example, you can be a firemouse, an astromouse, a policemouse, or really anything. Whatever it is you want to be, you can be. You just need to do well in school and work hard at becoming whatever it is you want.”

And so Ricky Mouse put his mind to it. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to be but he had the formula. He did very well in school. He always finished his homework on time and excelled on the standardized tests. His parents were proud because Ricky was on his way to becoming successful.

Ricky graduated high school at the head of his class and attended a top-ten university, according to a business magazine that ranks such things. Ricky took to the Mousemanities and also loved numbers, so he decided that he’d become a banker. He worked studiously, graduated summa cum laude, and went on to get advanced degrees in accounting and business administration. Ricky’s teachers were proud because his success validated their methods—it is, of course, the goal of education to develop successful individuals.

After graduation, Ricky found a good job at a prestigious bank and began to earn a respectable living. The state was proud because Ricky, who was now known as Richard, was a successful citizen—which meant he always paid his taxes.

Richard Mouse became one of the bank’s best and most valued employees. He generated more cheese and bread on an annual basis than any of the other bankers. The bank was proud, because the point of a successful employee is to be productive, and Richard was certainly productive.

Richard was proud of himself too. When asked “What do you do for a living?” he would respond portentously “A banker.” He had become what he had set out to be.

After many good years with the bank and becoming fantastically wealthy, it came time for Richard to retire.

“But I don’t want to retire,” Richard said to Mr. Rat. “I’m a Banker.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Mr. Rat. “You’re Mr. Richard C. Mouse, and an old mouse at that. Go relax and do what you’ve always dreamed of doing.”

And so Richard retired. He was a lost mouse. He didn’t know what to do now. He had to become something else. He spent his days wandering through Mouseville and sitting on a bench in the park, usually alone.

One summer day, a little mouse sat next to him.

“Hey, mister, watcha doing?”

“I’m sitting here not sure of who I am. I used to know, I think, but not anymore.”

The little mouse giggled. “You’re a pig, silly.”

“I’m not a pig.” He said. “I’m a mouse.”

Cheeks flushed, the little mouse asked.  “Oh, so what’s the problem?”

The two sat silently. Richard felt an overwhelming despair. He knew the answer to the problem. It came down to simple math. The zero property of multiplication applied to him. That anything multiplied by zero is zero. That everything he had accomplished, that all his collected credentials and the sum of all of his wealth amounted to nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s as if he didn’t exist. “Perhaps on this calm summer’s eve when other mice are coming home from a day of earning cheese and bread,” he thought, “what if old Richard C. Mouse should put a bullet into his little mouse head? What would it matter?”

“Madeline, it’s time to go”. Richard looked up; before him stood an older looking mouse. She smiled at him as she gently tugged the little mouse’s hand. “It’s late and if we don’t go now we’ll miss supper.”

Richard returned the smile. His heart, silent for all these years, finally spoke to him. “It’s not too late ol’boy. Become what thou art.”



A Student's Assessment

I received an email from a student who recently finished a social science course called “Masculinities”. The student chose The Simple Man’s Burden as the primary text for his/her final paper and attached it to the email for my edification. Although I don’t agree with some of the assertions in the paper, I think the conclusion is fitting.

“Conclusion and thoughts about social change

Through Vergil’s first hand experiences and those of the characters discussed in the other texts, there is a revelation of the myriad of ways men are self-destructive either in their pursuit or resisting of hegemony or in the perpetuation of it. The actual men in power who perpetuate hegemony reward men for artificial signs of success rather than true fulfilling deeds and moral character. This creates a culture void of meaning, morality or quality. The men trying to achieve the hegemony will ultimately fail to live up to it and in the meantime sacrifice the things in their life that would have brought them true happiness, success and meaning… Male success should be redefined by the measure of his good character and kind deeds, and positive contributions in multiple areas of his life. It should not be defined by measurement of his production in one isolated area of his life. Neither should the number of rungs on a constructed ladder he has ascended measure it nor by the amount of men and women he is capable of suppressing.”




Short Story: The Creativity of Nature


 The Recurrence of Henry Edward Jr

Four months, two weeks and today – the day Henry and his wife would know with medical certainty if their unborn child was a boy or a girl.

 “Honey, you almost ready?” Henry yelled from the kitchen to his wife upstairs.

“Ten minutes. I need to dry my hair”.

Henry mumbled something inaudible from under his breath, looked at his watch and paced the kitchen. He turned his attention to the living room table where a medium sized package, having arrived the day earlier, sat unopened.  It was addressed from the estate of the renowned, but now deceased, Dr. Samuel Pritchett.

Dr. Pritchett had grown to national fame by treating the children of the privileged but became a national hero when he broke patient/doctor confidentiality and provided authorities information on the whereabouts (a shallow grave) of one Mary Katherine, a woman who had gone missing years earlier. He also provided the name of her killer, one John R. Denney, who police found incarcerated in Fishkill Correctional Facility for other crimes. Against protocol, the authorities allowed the Doctor a private session with Denney, who afterwards, summarily confessed not only to the murder of Mary Katherine but to the grisly murder of an additional twenty young men and women, providing sketches of the precise locations of all of their graves. Denney committed suicide in his prison cell a few days later.

The facts aren’t clear, but Dr. Pritchett was himself under some kind of review by the authorities to disclose who exactly was the patient that provided the information on the whereabouts of Mary Katherine.  It is said that Dr. Pritchett disclosed that his patient overheard the story of Mary Katherine during his outpatient drug treatment reform group; but the Doctor would say no more “on the grounds of principle”. The authorities probably would have pressed the case further but given the public outcry against the Doctor’s interrogation (it is also assumed that his friends came to his aide), the matter resolved itself, so to speak.

Henry had been under the care of the esteemed Doctor from the ages of seven to ten and during that time, his late mother told him, was treated for a mild case of autism.  Henry didn’t remember much from that period or anything for that matter before the age of seven. It was as if the Doctor’s treatment cured him by erasing the memory of his past entirely. Since his remission, Henry had only met with Dr. Pritchett intermittently to discuss his recurring nightmares which the Doctor attributed to the natural unconscious workings of the mind, but he added, if Henry desired, he could also use the terrible dreams as a didactical instrument, in that the symbols from the dreams could be used to teach important lessons of what not to do.

Henry opened the package. Enclosed was a letter from the executor of the estate that obliged him under data privacy and disclosure laws to provide Henry with his case files and other personal artifacts that were in the custody of Dr. Pritchett.  With a desultory curiosity, Henry began emptying the box. He thumbed through the many manila folders that contained the Doctor’s case notes. The last of the items in the box was an unopened letter and a rusted silver pocket business card holder. The silver object grasped Henry’s attention: he felt a queer affinity with it, a feeling of nostalgia and oddly, of sexual arousal. He smiled and opened the holder. Inside was a driver’s license of one Mary Katherine. Confused, Henry turned his attention to the letter. It was unopened with “Return to Sender” stamped across the address. Henry unsealed it and read the contents:

“Dearest Percival,

I hope this letter finds you well. I have tried to contact you using more modern and timely media but I have failed miserably in each of my attempts. It wasn’t until a chance encounter with your wife that she informed me that you have once again sequestered yourself to write the next great novel. I should have known when I was unable to reach you that you had tuned out the world in the name of literature. Your creative spontaneity is admirable, but I must confess your silence nearly put me into despair. I am, however, eternally grateful that, like all great men of the pen, you have chosen to continue to receive letters.

Now to the point of this brief yet most important letter. I am in urgent need of your counsel. I have stumbled upon some serious misfortune; no, not the kind that afflicts a man’s purse or pecker – something far worse. You see, my dear friend, in the science of the mind that I have dedicated my life’s endeavors to, truth is indeed stranger than fiction. This I know you can appreciate and, as you will see, it is why I have sought your advice.

Before I ask you what I seek, I beg of you to keep this correspondence in complete confidence. Given our long friendship, I presume that you accept, so let me begin by providing the context of my situation. About a fortnight ago at Reginald Monroe’s reception (which by the way was where I also had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of the most dreadful Port), I was accosted by one Mrs. Sara Edward, whom you may know better to be the wife of our esteemed Governor H. James Edward. She had heard of my pioneering work in the field of psychology and discreetly requested that I evaluate her youngest son Henry Edward Jr. She believed the boy to be somewhat socially inept and wanted my professional opinion as to a diagnosis. I probed her in order to get a better sense of the signals that triggered her suspicion, but she offered me little in the way of valuable information. I was skeptical to say the least, but she persisted, and as the spouse of the seat of power, she persuaded me that I must see the boy. Although my caseload was heavy, I humbly obliged and scheduled an appointment for the next morning.

My first impression of Master Edward was that he was in every way a normal boy. I performed the standard diagnostics to determine if there were any abnormalities in the boy’s communication, social interaction or behavior. Over the course of the day, I observed nothing abnormal. He was at first shy but soon perked up and was gentle, social and sprite. My first impression was indeed the correct impression. What I did discover was that the boy had a very high IQ. Perhaps the boy was not being academically challenged. This may have been what the mother was sensing.

I sat down with Mrs. Edward at the end of the day and provided her my observations and expert opinion. It was then that she finally came forth and provided me with the information that I was searching for the previous night. On occasion, when they were alone, she confessed that the boy would say the most unusual things – things that no one knew but herself. It was as if the boy could read her mind. You see, my dear friend, the powers she believed the boy to have were ESP. Specifically, she believed the boy to be telepathic. As you can imagine, I was somewhat taken aback by this. Obviously, given my professionalism, I did not exhibit the slightest skepticism. But although my skeptic alarm was ringing, I was also at the same time both curious and intrigued by the socialite. Perhaps it was not the son who required an evaluation, but the mother. It would take some time, but I would get her in my chair. So needless to say, I cleared my calendar again and scheduled another appointment with the boy for the following afternoon.

I ran another series of tests on the boy to determine whether or not he had ESP. As you can probably guess, the boy did not exhibit any powers of extra sense outside of what is statistically normal. I thought for certain that it was indeed Mrs. Edward who had the mental disorder. I sat in my office with the boy as I summoned the mother and prepared to confront her. It was then that the boy handed me a note.

I must add that it was more than just a note. It was more like a sketched map with coordinates that intersected in the wooded park near my home. My dear friend, you know of this park. It is the park that you and I have taken slow walks together in. The park that in the springtime has the most beautiful Japanese cherry blossoms.

So the boy handed me the note and looked at me with his blue eyes. Again and again I inquired as to what he had handed me – yet he said nothing and continued his gentle stare. There was silence between us until he broke it and said, “I know things.” It was then that the mother entered the office. Startled, I simply told her that we needed to run additional tests and that they should come visit me again the following morning.

Upon their exit, I asked my secretary to cancel any remaining appointments I had and tell my patients I wasn’t well. I immediately left my office and returned home. I fixed Toby to his leash and we headed straight to the park. Fortunately it was still light out, so when the map directed us off the trail and into the woods, we could continue the search. It was at the intersection point on the map, approximately two hundred yards from the trail, that I found it. Even though it was only an inch below the surface, it took some time to find – first Toby, scratching through the layer of new leaves, then the old leaves and finally me, pushing soil aside. What I uncovered was a silver pocket business card holder. Obviously, it wasn’t silver in color. It had oxidized and looked more bluish gray. But I digress. It was sealed closed by time and required some effort to unfasten. Opening it revealed three letters, JRD, etched on the inside cover, and a driver’s license for one Miss Mary Katherine.

Toby and I quickly returned home. Who was this Mary Katherine? I spent the better part of the evening researching until I got my answer. Mary Katherine was a prostitute who had disappeared in the neighboring city some ten years earlier. She was one of those low priority missing persons. I suspect it was assumed she was a transient and had just moved on. What was her driver’s license doing in the park? And what was the significance of the silver pocket business card holder with the letters etched inside? And the boy, how did he know?

It was at that moment that I began to reassess the efficacy of my diagnosis of the boy. Perhaps he did have ESP. Perhaps it was not telepathy but clairaudience. Perhaps the boy could speak with the dead. Certainly that would help explain the mother’s suspicions and the map. Perhaps she was not crazy after all.

My dear friend, you may be reading this and questioning my own sanity. But please bear with me. You know that these strange matters – these matters of the paranormal – are something that I am highly skeptical of, and although I have entertained these ideas (as any open-minded skeptic would), I certainly would not believe them without further empirical testing.

And so, that is what I sought to do. The following morning, Mrs. Edward left her son with me to continue the evaluation. Before heading to the playroom, the boy and I sat in my office. We sat there for a few minutes while I observed the boy play with a small toy he had brought with him. I did not want to directly ask him how he had mapped the location to a missing woman’s driver’s license. Goodness knows what other secrets a bit more probing of the soil would have revealed that day. Instead I decided to engage the boy in small talk. I asked the boy, “So, how is your father doing?”

It was then that the boy’s playful demeanor changed. He dropped his toy, turned to me and began to talk to me as if he were a man, fully articulating his words with a vocabulary beyond what any child should know – as if he were a puppet and an invisible man were the puppet master. The boy said to me, “Doctor, are you referring to the governor or to my biological father, because I know very little about the Governor but I know very much about my biological father.” And I replied, “Well then, please tell me about your biological father.”

My dear Percival, the boy told me its name, the name of the voice that was speaking, and then began to describe to me events of stalking – stalking of both young men and women. And in each case, these events led to the most horrific and atrocious acts of savagery and sadism that I have ever heard. Acts so vile that they would chill even the most seasoned medical examiner. The acts weren’t against the boy. The boy spoke from the first person point of view – from the point of view of the killer – not the victim. The boy talked as if he had been there – not as a witness, but as if he had committed the acts himself! I know what you may be thinking; but the boy knew beyond what can be coached or rehearsed. The boy knew the feelings of the madman. Who was this boy’s father and how did this child know?

And my dear friend, this went on for the better part of the day – the details of the horrific events so lucid in this boy’s mind. And when he was finally through with his inhumane diatribe, he climbed up upon the couch and removed my framed doctoral degree from the wall. He briefly looked at it and threw it to the ground. He grinned and chuckled as it smashed on the floor. He then climbed down and proceeded once again to play with his toy.

I know, with the utmost certainty, that the boy could not have committed these crimes. He wasn’t alive when they had occurred. And even if they had occurred yesterday, he wasn’t physically mature enough to successfully execute them. Therefore, my friend, I have witnessed in this boy either the proof of the devil living in the flesh or the first case of a human inheriting not only the physical characteristics of his parents but also the nonphysical characteristic like memory. Could it be that this boy was passed the collective knowledge of his mother and father up to the point of conception – dark knowledge from a father who is a brutal serial killer? Could this boy represent the speciation of the human race, an evolutionary break from old to new, a break that hasn’t occurred since the human ape found reason? I am well aware that neither of these hypotheses is reasonable, but what I witnessed was not from a place of reason.

Percival, now you know why I seek your counsel. I am in quite the conundrum and I need a way out. If I go to the authorities with this story, I sound like a madman – and perhaps I could even be mistaken for the killer. I have the driver’s license of one of the victims and the knowledge of the location of the unmarked grave. And who would believe me over the boy – a boy so shrewd and clever? My story sounds so obscene: the Governor a cuckold and his son the bastard child of a serial killer. What am I to do?

I suggest we meet in person to discuss this in greater detail. If you could either respond to this letter with your own, or pass to your wife the details of how best we should proceed, I would be greatly indebted. I apologize profusely for disturbing you but this matter is of the greatest importance. I look forward to our meeting.

Warmest regards, your dear friend,





Against Dawkins

Coincidently, over the last several weeks I’ve received a few queries about why, on my About page, I crossed out Richard Dawkin's name as someone I admire. I’ll keep it short and sweet - consider the following:

  • Dawkins is fooled by randomness (expected of journalists, not acceptable for scientists)
  • Dawkins inability to see that most of what is referred to as science is doing more harm than religion.
  • His atheism has become a pseudo religion.
  • Idea of “selfish gene” is an idea of Robert Trivers often attributed to Richard Dawkins (per Taleb communication with Trivers) See reference in Antifragile Page 459



Short Story: When Information is Bliss



 When Information is Bliss

“I think in the future holograms will be solid just like us. That way, we’ll be able to walk together and hold HOLI’s hand.”

“That’s a great prediction, Mary. I think we’ll actually see that happen in the near future. Good thinking.”

Mary blushed.

“Who’s next? Michael?”

“I think there’ll be a way to make food out of nothing. Now we need to make our food or take a pill to eat, but in the future, we’ll just be able to tell HOLI what we want and it’ll appear.”

“That’s another great idea and it’s close to being realized too. The Department of Science is working on it now. They’re on the verge of being able to create chemical reactions at the end of a data stream. They call it Digital Nano Alchemy or DNA Technology. It’s not exactly out of nothing but who knows, maybe all of our meals will come from HOLI soon.”

The class looked at Mr. Barclay with wide eyes. “No more broccoli,” he proclaimed. The class laughed.

Class 6345A was made up of fifteen students between the ages of ten and twelve who were classified by genetic markers and other criteria as being predisposed to learning problems. A wide array of ethnicities and races were represented in the class. The children sat in three rows of five at individual, three-legged, boomerang-shaped desks with laminate tops, flat with no cubby or drawer space. Mr. Barclay stood at the front of the classroom; a large, flat-paneled screen that used both touch and sound to operate called the Symbol Board hung behind him. Not in use at the time, it displayed a scenic view of rolling hills, covered by a lush green forest in late spring. Large floor-to-ceiling windows lined the adjoining walls that presented the same tableau; together with the Symbol Board, they formed one connected, complete panorama.

“Okay, one more. Who’s next?” Mr. Barclay scanned the room. Students raised their hands, many of them so eager that they bumped up and down on their seats and made low-sounding, chimpanzee, ooh, ooh, ooh sounds to get his attention. But Mr. Barclay focused on a student in the back who didn’t raise his hand. “Billy, what do you think? You must have some idea of what the future will be like – some prediction.”

Billy was one of Mr. Barclay’s most difficult cases. From the records, Billy’s learning disability score was the highest in class 6345A. In other words, Billy’s potential to learn was very poor. Other schools had given up on Billy, but Mr. Barclay was determined to help him. 

“My idea’s stupid, Mr. B.”

The class laughed.

Mr. Barclay cast a reprimanding glance about the room. “Children, no idea is stupid. Billy, we’d love to hear it.”

“Well, okay, I guess.” Billy paused. “I think that in the future . . . I think that . . . well, I’ll be dead. Like, no one can live forever. So that’s kinda like a prediction, right?”

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Starbucks Doesn’t Care about your Health

Over the weekend, Starbuck enacted a policy at its US and Canadian stores whereby smoking is prohibited within 25 feet of its store premises (not just the front door or outdoor eating area, the entire perimeter).  According to a Starbucks’s spokesperson “The intent is to provide a healthy environment for our customers in the outdoor seating areas of our stores."

Many have applauded this measure citing SB’s commitment to its customer’s health, a sign of its continued commitment to corporate social responsibility. Unfortunately, corporate social responsibility is a euphemism for a type of marketing approach and so Starbuck’s doesn’t really care about your health.  Like all public companies, what matters is shareholder value, or in other words, the health SB cares about is that of its balance sheet. 

Let’s dissect this: If SB cared about their customer’s health, they would have banned smoking within 25 feet of its stores at all of their approximately 17,000 locations globally (not just most of the 3,000 franchise stores in the US and Canada). According to SB, they also serve customer is in: Argentina, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hong Kong/Macau, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Oman, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates.

So if the health of its customers is not driving this, then what was the impetus to this new policy? Here are four possibilities:

1. Listening to Customers: SB is listening to its customers in the US and Canada many who are non-smokers. Ok, if that’s true, then why 25 feet? Is second hand smoke such a concern “outside” the SB store and that far away from the store? I don’t think so and my guess is that most people don’t care enough to voice their concerns to SBs about some smokers outside the store - not letter writing campaigns. Complaining is easy but there is a general lethargy amongst most when it actually comes to doing something like voting or drafting a letter to the CEO (particular lethargy in the US based on the amount of abuse it citizens are willing to take from government and corporations). Sure a few ardent customers sent letters to SB  - probably former smokers who, based on my experience, have the most visceral hatred for anything tobacco - but not enough to elicit change.

2. Employees Breaks: This policy was aimed at changing employee bad behavior: Too many SB employees smoke and they were taking too many smoking breaks. Certainly this policy would make it inconvenient for them but this is unlikely the reason for the policy. There are other less public and more effective measures to keep employees from smoking such as increasing the cost of health insurance for smokers or simply enacting a employee policy that prohibits the behavior.

3. Cost of Cleanliness: Cigarrette butts are garbage and it was costly to keep the storefront clean. This is unlikely because storefronts need to be swept regardless; moreover my guess is that 15 of the 25 feet is the street (public sanitation is responsible for cleaning).

4. Marketing: I think the most plausible reason is that this is propaganda in a good disguise. SB can feign it cares about the health of its customer even if they don’t. The press on this has mostly been positive from what I can tell and people actually believe SB cares about the health of its customers. People have taken the bait and are arguing about how SB is a good corporate citizen by tackling the second hand smoke menace. This marketing strategy redirects the conversation away from SB products many of which are unhealthy by any standard (and not to mention that they sell these products to kids too – think Frappuccino). The outdoor second hand smoke argument is a BS arguement as well – I mean this is a ban *outside* the SBs store – 25 feet away from it. The outdoor second hand smoking argument is intellectually dishonest and conflates a mouse with an elephant.   I won’t get into the details on this as it should be common sense.

So what’s the cost of this marketing effort for SB?  Probably not more than the paper for the press release. There isn’t any cost for enforcement because this policy isn’t enforceable. SB can’t keep people from smoking in the street even within the 25 foot perimeter. They can’t keep the owner of an adjacent store from smoking within his store. They can’t keep people from smoking inside their cars while they are parked enjoying their Sausage & Cheddar Classic Breakfast Sandwich. So unless there is a related local law that has this prohibition, SB can’t call the cop or chase away smokers with a broom. SB is aware of this policy overstepping: "If it's public space and something we do not have control of, and the law allows it then we can't enforce it.”. Well then, why didn’t they simply make the ban effective on their premises, both inside and out, instead of the seemingly arbitrary 25 feet rule?  Simple: shock value. In other words, the press wouldn’t have picked up on this story if this was just a point of clarification of an existing policy. Certainly I wouldn’t have (which raises the question: have I fallen for the bait too?)

I hope this clears this up a bit. And if you ever want to have a stogie but are concerned about violating SB policy - whether inside the 25 feet limit or inside one of its stores - just travel outside the U.S. and Canada where SB cares less about the health of its customers. You’ll certainly find an accommodating SB franchise.



The Seemingly Peculiar Property of Projects

I recently drove over the Henry Hudson Bridge that connects the Bronx (Riverdale area) to Manhattan. It looks very much like it did five years ago – that is, that it is still under heavy construction.  My guess is that it’s over-budget and should have been completed a few years ago. These sights are not the exception, they are the norm.  Take the Freedom Tower in downtown Manhattan:  it was supposed to be completed in 2003. Now ten years later, it’s still not complete. Or the recent deployment of New York City’s Upgraded 911 System (which by the way has been experiencing periodic crashes since it recently went live) is $1 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule.  These incidents aren’t isolated to government run projects. Anyone who’s worked in a corporate job knows that projects frequently run over budget and rarely finish on-time as planned (or even as re-planned). What is going on here? Why do projects seem to always live longer than expected, sometime so long that the only way to stop them is to kill the project entirely?

There are a number of theories that try to explain this phenomenon. They’ve never satisfied me and are as follows:

  1. Talent: The wrong people were on the project
  2. Buy-In: Not sufficient support from senior stakeholders (managers)
  3. Incentives:  Individual rewards were not  aligned to project objectives
  4. Project Management: Undisciplined project management methods were employed

I’ve seen it too many times where all four of the above were not present and yet failure occurred. Less "consultant" theories on planning failures include personal bias/psychological issues and inherent uncertainty in predicting the future.  But I don’t buy these either.  If they were the case, there would be an equal distribution (or more equal distribution) between projects that go over budget and projects that go under budget.  In short, these reasons are project platitudes (or failure triggers at best, but certainly not causes). There is something else going on that until recently escaped me. Projects fail not because of any of the reasons above. They fail because 1) they are projects and 2) projects are typically structured incorrectly.

Let’s address the first point: projects fail because they are projects. To understand this, let me refer to the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Like many things, projects are susceptible to the effects of random events. But for projects, the impact from random events is asymmetrical in that it favors negative results.  In other words, things that go unexpected on a project tend to have a negative consequence for the project rather than positive.  For example, when random events are introduced into a project (say an entire business unit was overlooked and not included in setting requirements), the project doesn’t get completed sooner; it goes over budget and off schedule. This effect is similar in non-project domains. Take for example air travel: random events (e.g., mechanical difficulties) tend to delay a flight rather than accelerate it and the delays tend to be more severe then acceleration benefits by orders of magnitude  (delays often last for hours whereas accerlations may be only a few minutes). This leads to my next point.

Not only do random events introduced into a project carry with them negative impacts, but those negative impacts are scalable.  Here’s an excerpt from NNT’s seminal work The Black Swan that helps to explain this concept of scalability:

“Like many biological variables, life expectancy… is subjected to mild randomness. It is not scalable, since the older we get, the less likely we are to live. In a developed country a newborn female is expected to die at around 79, according to insurance tables. When, she reaches her 79th birthday, her life expectancy, assuming that she is in typical health, is another 10 years. At the age of 90, she should have another 4.7 years to go. At the age of 100, 2.5 years. At the age of 119, if she miraculously lives that long, she should have about nine months left.  As she lives beyond the expected date of death, the number of additional years to go decreases. This illustrates the major property of random variables related to the bell curve. The conditional expectation of additional life drops as a person gets older.

With human projects and ventures we have another story. These are often scalable, as I said in Chapter 3. With scalable variables… you will witness the exact opposite effect. Let's say a project is expected to terminate in 79 days, the same expectation in days as the newborn female has in years. On the 79th day, if the project is not finished, it will be expected to take another 25 days to complete. But on the 90th day, if the project is still not completed, it should have about 58 days to go. On the 100th, it should have 89 days to go. On the 119th, it should have an extra 149 days. On day 600, if the project is not done, you will be expected to need an extra 1,590 days. As you see, the longer you wait, the longer you will be expected to wait.

Let's say you are a refugee waiting for the return to your homeland. Each day that passes you are getting farther from, not closer to, the day of triumphal return. The same applies to the completion date of your next opera house. If it was expected to take two years, and three years later you are asking questions, do not expect the project to be completed any time soon…This subtle but extremely consequential property of scalable randomness is unusually counterintuitive... But let us say for now that they are central to our misunderstanding of the business of prediction. “

So for a project, a random event extends its life expectancy and every day that passes without completion exponentially increases the project’s life expectancy.  This scalability helps to explain the old adage referred to as Hofstadter's law: a project will take longer than you expect even though you know that it will take longer than you expect (or for you techies, the 90% Rule: The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.)

Random events are unpredictable so the answer is not trying to better predict. Although this is common sense, many project managers are asked to predict tasks and milestones months (sometimes years) in advance and to stay the course the entire way. These often are those projects with a status of “green” until a few weeks before a critical milestone date when suddenly the status goes “red” and management wonders WTF just happened. Expecting project managers to predict and not allowing deviations from plan only leads to surprises. Talent, Buy-In, Incentives and Disciplined Project Management are not the answers either – they are tertiary to project proclivity and as we will see, project structure.

Projects cannot be monolithic. They cannot be command and control. They need to be structured to take advantage of tinkering. I covered tinkering in an earlier post, but in short tinkering (also known as organic, grass roots, agile, along with a slew of other names) is the process of unplanned trial and error – of experimentation – to see what works and what doesn’t and then move forward with what does (or perhaps move forward with what doesn't if it turns out to be better).  Tinkering is inherently about smallness and components and projects structured to take advantage of it work for a number of reasons.

  • Failure avoidance: Allows for changes to be made before the failure occurs. Accepts small errors over total failure.
  • Loss management: Allows for changes to be made before significant costs are incurred. Accepts small costs associated with tinkering over risk of total loss.
  • Results realization: Incremental approach reduces latency between expected and actual results.
  • Discovery exposure: Increases the chances of accidental discoveries (i.e., serendipities).
  • Random event mitigation: Impact from random events can be isolated to individual components. Accepts small delays per component rather than larger systemic delays. This is critical because each day a project goes over expected timeline, the longer it can be expected to take to complete. If projects delays can be isolated to units and distributed across those units, delays run in parallel as opposed to serially.

The challenge with adopting a tinkering approach is that errors are more frequent, which gives the perception that things are going wrong all the time.  Delays too are more frequent as negative impacts are addressed on small cycle times rather than once at the end of the project.  There are often frequent change requests which give the perception that requirements weren’t properly gathered. There are apparent redundancies in processes (e.g., multiple small iterative releases instead of one big one) which increase upfront costs (big projects that don’t use tinkering always look cheaper upfront but cost more overall). Results are incremental and are subject to the dilettante's "yeah, so that's all you have to show?" Finally, with complex projects, more components working in parallel are needed which is unmanageable in a command and control environment. In order for tinkering to work, control needs to be decentralized into the hands of individual teams. Although large projects fail in a command and control environment, the perception while managing in this structure, although illusory, is control.

For more on this see the wikipedia entry on the Lindy Effect.

Vergil Den



Consider the Animals

Frank returned home to find the small house in disorder. His wife had left the lights and television on and had failed to clean up after the kids. Frank thought he would really let her have it when she came home. He barreled his way through the living room to the kitchen, and in his haste, tripped on the toys scattered on the floor. Somehow he managed not to fall and drop the two brown grocery bags he carried. “Now she’s really going to pay,” he cursed.


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A Fine Line



A Man Not There


You can't make the dead look like the living, Kennedy thought, regardless of how much makeup they wear. She didn’t like wakes – particularly the open casket kind.


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Naïve Intervention and Humanity


Things Great and Small

Ray and his wife Amelia came home after a night that included dinner at a trendy Latin-Asian fusion restaurant followed by drinks at a romantic little wine bar. Now that their daughter was a teenager, they felt free to spend an evening out, as if they were dating again. Years had gone by and they hadn’t done anything for themselves; their sole focus was on Gabby. But now she was older, and they began to let go. Recently, they had been spending their Saturday nights sampling the restaurant scene. So much had changed over the years, and they were eager to catch up.

They were in a giddy mood, acting like teenagers themselves. Ray opened a bottle of Cabernet and poured two glasses. They toasted and indulged in a tender kiss.

The phone rang.

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Effects of Forced Cohabitation

  Shared Remunerations 

Matthew: When I woke up in the hospital, I had a screaming headache. I remember seeing the doctors around my bed and thinking that they’d make me better. I had no idea that what he’d done to me would be permanent. Thank goodness I have disability insurance because I can’t work anymore. Sure, I can still draft a briefing and read case law; the problem is not with my mind. It’s that I can’t hold a conversation anymore. I’m a social outcast. Still, I don’t hate him. How can I? Although I didn’t know it at the time, now I understand that he’s mentally ill. If I had known it earlier, I wouldn’t have taken the job.

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Another Run-In with Corporate Bureaucracy 


The Policy

            Joe arrived at 8 AM sharp. He gazed at the pictures of his kids and their surreal artwork of flowers and rainbows that was scotch-taped to the glass-walled office partition. He did this every day to remind himself why he spent most of his waking hours sitting in front of a computer screen in the LEED-certified building of CGE GlobalCorp. At least it was Friday. He took a deep breath, sat down, and waded through the emails that had accumulated overnight from Asia and Europe. The last email he opened was the email. It was from the Office of the Chief Compliance Officer.

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Core Principles of Freedom and Maintenance of Liberty

Absent a moral code, I’ve been wondering what exactly are the fundamental principles to a practical code of Freedom.  I’ve compiled a list of what I think are these key principles. I collected them as fragments from a number of thinkers including Popper, Hayek, Socrates, etc. They may exist elsewhere as a whole, but I’ve been unable to find them (Update: I came across the Non-Aggression Principle

Principles of Freedom

1. Do no act to harm a man or woman. 

2. It is better to suffer an injustice than to do an injustice.

3. If Principle 1 is violated, the victim (or their proxy) has the right, but not the obligation, to exact a punishment of equal or less measure on the individual(s) who violated Principle 1.

4. If men and women choose to come together in mutual cooperation for the purpose of protection against physical violence and fraud or more generally, the enforcement of the Principles 1 and 3 (collectively "defense"), the system that they design should not seek first what is best, rather, they shall seek first what can easily be dismantled without violence.

5. The men and women that have come together for the purpose of defense can exact a tax on one another only in order to cover the expenses required to enact and maintain (collectively "implement") the system of defense.

6. If the system of defense or any system that is implemented violates Principles 1 and 3, an individual has the right and the obligation to restore adherence to Principles 1 and 3 using non-violent means against the system.

7. If the system of defense or any system that is implemented violates Principles 1 and 3, and all non-violent means to restore adherence to principles 1 and 3 have been exhausted and principles 1 and 3 continue to be violated, an individual has the right and the obligation to use violence against the system to restore adherence to principles 1 and 3, even if it violates any of the aforementioned principles.


Principle 1 is the rule of Freedom and asserts that one can do as one wishes as long as one does not actively hurt another in the process.  It is important to note, however, that if one hurts another through an omission, Principle 1 is not violated. In other words, a free person cannot be forced to act, even if it means someone is hurt by their inaction. To assert otherwise is a rule for a moral code.

Principle 2 is a rule for Justice and it is important because without it, one can assert a violation of a principle even if one isn’t certain that it was violated and by whom (it must come before Principle 3)

Principle 3 is a rule of Justice and without it; freedom is tyranny (see Paradox of Freedom). It asserts that one can seek justice if someone acts and hurts another. Justice can only be in proportion to the action, and whether or not to seek it is at the discretion of the victim. Indeed if one kills another and commits suicide during or after the act, justice is served.  Principle 2 must come before Principle 3 as it is necessity to offset erroneous capital punishment (see Albert Camus’ essay Reflections on the Guillotine for support).

Principles 4 thru 7 outline the maximum amount of government that can support Freedom and the recourse afforded the individual in the event the government violates an earlier principle. In extreme cases, an indvidual has the right and the obligation to restore freedom through violence even if they must violate earlier principles.






The Illusion of Progress

Karl Popper wrote extensively on a number of topics, most notably on objective knowledge, the fallacy of historicism, and the enemies of an open society. There is a common theme through these works – that is, in order for there to be progress, there must be free and open discourse.

In the following exposition, I attempt to deconstruct Popper’s argument supporting this contention. Furthermore, by doing so, I hope that it becomes clear why ‘too big too fail,’ the expert problem, and other modern complexes present significant risks.

Truth vs. Untruth

Fundamentally, progress is synonymous with solving problems, leading to improved knowledge. To understand this, first, we need to understand the concept of truth and untruth. The difference between truth and untruth is not binary – in other words, a proposition isn’t either true or not true. There are gradations of truth. So think of truth as a bull’s eye and untruths as the circular bands around it. The nearer the proposition is to the bull’s eye, the closer that proposition is to the truth (or less untrue, however you like it). The farther from the bull’s eye, the farther from the truth it is (or more untrue it is).  The objective of improved knowledge is to move closer to the truth (note the word "improved" as this distinction will be important).

Schema of Knowledge

So the growth of knowledge is all about problem solving.  Popper has a problem-solving formula, or schema as he calls it, that is characterized by the following expression: PS1 then TT1 then EE1 the PS2

First, there must be a problem PS1. In order to solve the problem PS1, one must formulate a Tentative Theory TT1 (e.g., proposition, conjecture, etc.).  How this theory is formulated is not relevant. It can be established through induction or intuition or quite frankly through any means – even from a dream.  It doesn’t matter. The point is that it should be a solution to a problem.

Next, the tentative theory TT1 must be tested. This is called Error Elimination EE1. This is perhaps the most crucial element in the schema. The process of error elimination should be as rigorous as possible through falsification, i.e., proving the tentative theory to be false.  Examination of TT1 will show that 1) it is proven completely false, 2) it is proven partially false, or 3) it is not proven false at all. The better the theory is at surviving the refutation process, the more “fit” the theory is. However, although it is more "fit," it is not necessarily more true as we shall see later.

If the theory survives, either partly or wholly, one or more new problems are raised (PS2) which are more complex than the predecessor problem (PS1), and the evolutionary cycle repeats itself with the new problem (PS2) at its base.

The Growth of Knowledge

So the growth of knowledge is evolutionary in that, if the tentative theory survives, other new problems and theories arise from it like children, and if they survive, they have children, and so on and so forth. The crux of the issue should be more apparent now. That is that the growth of knowledge is a progression – however, to my earlier note, there is a distinction between improved knowledge and worse knowledge (i.e., ignorance).

Ignorance grows in the same way and therein lies the problem.  Ignorance is knowledge that moves farther from the truth or becomes less true with each successive cycle of Popper's schema.

For example, a problem is addressed with a tentative theory. The theory, however, is either not tested or not rigorously tested, so it survives the error elimination process with a multitude of errors. It then spawns a new set of erroneous problems, each more complex than its predecessor, and the cycle of ignorance continues.

The error elimination phase of the schema is most critical because it determines survival.


Rigorous error elimination is performed by critical argument. When critical argument is hindered, then the process is not as rigorous. There can be no constraints as part of an argument, and freedom of expression is so important. But it is deeper than simply a government provisioning this freedom. One needs to be free in all things. As Nassim Taleb pointed out in his aphorism, it is “Only he who is free with his time will be free with his opinion.”

For example, a man’s opinion is inhibited if he can’t argue freely because he doesn’t want to lose his job, or he has a conflict of interest with the one who owns the tentative theory he is arguing against. Think of the agency problem such as the incestuous relationship between regulators and bankers, or the relationship between researchers and corporations.  Only freedom can ensure that the error elimination process can run its course.

‘Too Big to Fail’ and the Expert Problem

It should be clear now why ‘too big to fail’ and the expert problem are such issues. The process of error elimination was running its course during the financial crisis in 2008, but instead of allowing it to run its course, it was replaced by the bank bailouts. The U.S. federal government allowed these financial institutions to survive when they shouldn’t have. Instead of having one set of problems to deal with that would have risen from the failed banks (problems that lead to improvement), we have another set of problems, a worse set, based on the bailed banks.

The same concept applies to the expert problem. Experts often act as the sole error eliminators of a tentative theory. Often an expert can propose a theory, and because of the standing of that expert, it is presumed that the theory is correct and no critical testing is necessary. There are entire institutions that have developed from this expert problem and are built either upon fallacious foundations (e.g., economics) or on fallacious reasoning (e.g., healthcare).

Modernity Retrogression

This is the fundamental argument for the failure of modernity or why there has been little progress (or even that there has been retrogression) in modern times. Unless you understand the argument presented, it is hard to appreciate why this is the case. People have confused increased complexity for progress. They also assume that the future will only bring progress – as if time and improvement were in lockstep. This is the illusion of progress.

Modernity is building on ignorance and fallacies that with each successive cycle worsen the situation because of new erroneous problems and increased complexities that successive problems bring. We are not improving our knowledge; rather, we are increasing our ignorance. We are moving farther from the truth.

“Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made. “ --Franz Kafka