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Albert Wenger

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Monday, February 24, 2020 - 12:40pm

We are continuing to see the COVID19 coronavirus spread around the world with a big flare up in Italy. Johns Hopkins maintains a good global map of the outbreak. There are now quite a few experts who believe that the virus may be impossible to contain and could result in a global pandemic. This is something the world is woefully ill prepared for.

The danger we are now finding ourselves in can be directly traced to our reliance on the market mechanism for allocating attention. A global pandemic is an example of the kind of tail risk for which prices cannot exist. This is a key theme of my book World After Capital and I have been using pandemics as an alternative example to the climate crisis (another, while we are at it, are asteroid strikes).

Now why am I saying this is about attention and not capital? Don’t we need way more hospital beds? Well, once a pandemic is in full swing yes we will be capital constrained for sure. But we had a long time before that to work on such things as detection and treatment. SARS, which occurred nearly two decades ago, was also a coronavirus. Since then we have had another reminder of the potential danger in the form of MERS about eight years ago.

I very much hope that the experts are wrong and that COVID19 can be contained. No matter what happens, we must learn to allocate attention to tail risk threats (and opportunities, eg. nuclear fusion) outside of the market mechanism if we want humanity to progress.

PS I also wrote a prior post that relates the virus outbreak to privacy and democracy (two other themes in World After Capital)

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 - 2:37pm

Today I am celebrating my 53rd birthday. I am fortunate to be doing so with friends and family and, knock on wood, in good health. This makes it all the more important to me to continue helping to fight the climate crisis. Susan and I have kicked off several projects to that end.

One of these projects has been to work with Climate Crisis Collective (CCC) to build better technology for decentralized climate movements, such as Fridays for Future, Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion. We realized that these movements are crucial to achieving the level of collective action that is required.

Below is a deck that walks in detail through what has been done so far. CCC has taken a user centric approach, observing organizers to understand their technology needs. From this have come a variety of projects, including big improvements to Action Network that have already shipped and are saving organizers a lot of time and resulting in better data quality. 

There is a long roadmap of additional features and pieces of software to be built. So for my birthday I am asking everyone to make a contribution to Climate Crisis Collective (tax deductible, in case you were wondering). Thanks!

Friday, February 7, 2020 - 12:38pm

I have written and spoken a lot about how technological progress is incompatible with privacy. One example I have used is someone bioengineering a virus in their basement. It turns out a much simpler example is what we are seeing today: a new virus that’s spreading. We cannot both have fast, easy international travel and also have privacy of travelers. If you travel and later come down with the coronavirus, we need to know where you went and who else may have been exposed. At a minimum society needs to be able to notify fellow travelers. Obviously in a situation like this we should also much more rapidly restrict travel than we have done.

At the same time the new coronavirus also perfectly illustrates why technological progress means we need well functioning democracies more than ever. Authoritarian governments always will suppress news that doesn’t fit with their preferred narrative, even when that news could save thousands or even millions of lives. The initial reporting of the new coronavirus by Li Wenliang was suppressed by the local government. Sadly, yesterday he himself passed away from the disease. Because of much improved internal travel within China the outbreak was able to spread further and faster than it would have in the past. The initial suppression of the news may well be the reason for why this outbreak potentially cannot be contained at all.

Here is a talk I gave at Blockstack Berlin a couple of years back that lays out some of these ideas:

Thursday, January 30, 2020 - 1:41pm

The Democratic primary is coming into focus and it is not a pretty picture. Essentially the choice comes in two groups: incrementalists (Biden, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, Klobuchar) and socialists (Sanders, Warren). The incrementalists want to go back more or less to the Obama years, while the socialists want to go back to the 1970s in Europe. For the incrementalists digital technology is nothing special and for the socialists it is mostly an evil to be fought.

Then there is the one exception, the one candidate who has a plan that recognizes we no longer live in the industrial age and that digital technology can be harnessed for broad wellbeing: Andrew Yang. Andrew’s platform builds around Universal Basic Income to develop a broad program that is beautifully captured by the campaign slogan of “Humanity First.” 

When he first announced his campaign, Andrew was roundly ignored. Then there was a fair bit of making fun of his candidacy. Then of course came the concerted effort by MSNBC and others to undermine Andrew’s campaign by simply not reporting on it. So we have been through the first three stages of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.“

Of course we don’t know yet what the fourth act of Andrew’s candidacy will be, but if you want to learn more, I encourage you to check out the campaign’s Youtube channel. Here is a great place to start:

And if you like what you see donate to the Yang 2020 campaign.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020 - 4:36pm

I have written previously about the need to regulate the use of facial recognition technology. The calls for regulation have become stronger in the wake of Kashmir Hill’s New York Times article about Clearview AI. It is extremely important to get this right. Here are a few more thoughts based on the article to add to my prior post.

First, it should be clear by now that it has become almost trivial to build a system like this. A lot of open source frameworks and neural networks have been made available that can be trained for face recognition. Clearview AI did not have to come up with some technological breakthrough, they just had to point existing technology at image sources (web scraping is also widely available).

Second, not surprisingly, the article mentions instances of the system being used successfully. Recognizing who someone is constitutes an essential part of investigative police work. If you live in New York, as I do, hardly a day goes by where there isn’t video footage of a crime such as a robbery show on television with a call to the public to identify a face.

What then does this mean? We have technology that can easily be built and that can readily help with legitimate police investigations. This are the good use cases. Then there are of course tons of ways to abuse this very same technology. For instance a police officer might use it to track down whom a former girlfriend (or boyfriend) is now dating. And by now we also have overwhelming evidence that the technology in its present state has big bias problems.

So the challenge is can we find a way to improve and apply this technology that maximizes its positive uses and minimizes its abuses? I believe this is possible. I also believe this will take time and deliberation. One idea is to set up a new agency specifically to deal with these kind of technologies used for domestic law enforcement. This could be at the state level. The law creating such an agency should focus on protecting due process (e.g. requiring a real court order, not something secret like FISA) and should set a high bar for transparency, such as how many requests were made in a time period as well as accuracy.

I am suggesting this because the existing agencies, including police departments, have all been set up before this technology has been available and have no legal safeguards and processes built in. Retrofitting them will be nearly impossible. And we shouldn’t try. We have seen what happens when we give new unchecked capabilities to police departments in recent years with equipping ever more police departments with SWAT teams.

PS What to do about individuals having facial recognition apps on their phones is a whole different story that I will write about separately. The reason to draw a clear distinction here is that individuals do not have the power of the state.

Friday, January 10, 2020 - 1:40pm

For any billionaire out there: fund nuclear fusion now! Consider this: the people who fund successful nuclear fusion are guaranteed a spot in the history books. And that spot will be immediately followed by spots for anybody else who spent serious money ($100 million+) and did not succeed. Why? Because clean electricity is absolutely crucial to fighting the climate crisis.

Is this realistic? Can we achieve nuclear fusion in our lifetimes? Having looked into the state of research, I believe it is entirely possible to get to deployed nuclear fusion within a decade provided that we take enough well funded shots on goal. We need to pursue many different technologies, including more attempts at inertial confinement using lasers.

The reason to be optimistic is that there has been important progress. Much of it has come from innovation in other fields that provide enabling technology. For example, something called REBCO tape, which was originally developed for MRI machines, allows for stronger magnetic fields which in turn makes much smaller fusion spaces possible. Similarly, inertial confinement approaches to fusion have benefitted greatly from the massive advances in laser technology. The Physics Nobel Prize in 2018 was in fact awarded for just this progress in laser intensity.

Now of course I would be delighted for governments to spend more here and pull together the equivalent of multiple Manhattan Projects. We absolutely need it. But at the moment governments are slow and hidebound and have focused all their fusion activity on a few mega projects, such as ITER. This is why people with a big checkbook have the unique opportunity of making an actual difference.

Added bonus for billionaires: you’d have something actually useful to point to as the discussion about wealth continues to heat up.

To make it easy, here’s a list of commercial fusion projects I am currently aware of (if you know of others please let me know)

- TAE Technologies
- General Fusion
- Helion Energy
- Commonwealth Fusion
- Tokamak Energy
- First Light Fusion
- Marvel Fusion

Disclosure: Susan and I are personal investors in Marvel Fusion

Wednesday, January 1, 2020 - 5:37pm

In yesterday’s post I summarized the 2010s as fighting past battles that keep us stuck in the industrial age.

The agenda for the 2020s should be about inventing the knowledge age instead. The suggestions here draw heavily on my book World After Capital

So without further ado, here are six key areas to work on in the 2020s.
 

1. FIGHT THE CLIMATE CRISIS

If we don’t get on top of the climate crisis, nothing else will matter, so I am putting this one first.

Read: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells; Facing the Climate Emergency by Margaret Klein Salamon (pubs in April, pre-order now)

Do: Join or support Extinction Rebellion, the climate movement with the clearest theory of change rooted in non-violent direct action.

Start or join a climate solution startup. There are many people working on innovative ideas, ranging from the here and now of tree planting to the moonshot nuclear fusion with lots in-between.

Offset your carbon footprint. The road back to 350ppm or less of CO2 in the atmosphere will be hard, but a start is to take your known emissions and help offset them, for example using Project Wren.

Fund: If you have lots of money, invest in nuclear fusion now. We need many shots on goal (separate blog post forthcoming). But lots of ways you can fund the fight against the climate crisis, including supporting Extinction Rebellion, and signing up for or even setting up community solar. As for venture funds, there is tons to back and we are starting to do so at USV (blog post on that coming soon). Finally, we badly need more geoengineering research and that is poorly funded at the moment.

2. DEFEND DEMOCRACY

Too many people seem to believe that we can accomplish major change only by reverting to some kind of autocracy. But even if democracy is messy, tyranny is never the answer.

Read: Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone by Astra Taylor; On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Do: Vote. Far too many young people are not voting and then are somehow surprised that the election outcomes don’t reflect their interests. If you are anything other than a lawyer, but particularly if you are a scientist, run for office.

Fund: Contribute to Andrew Yang’s campaign. He’s the only presidential candidate not stuck in the industrial age. Support Represent.us to get rid of corruption in US politics.

3. PROMOTE UNIVERSAL BASIC INCOME

Universal basic income (UBI) is a cornerstone policy for getting out of the industrial age into the knowledge age. UBI is no panacea but it breaks the job loop which currently has people trapped.

Read: Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman; Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King Jr. 

Do: Volunteer for Andrew Yang’s campaign. Andrew is the only presidential candidate supporting UBI.

Fund: In the US, you can support the Economic Security Project and in Germany Sanktionsfrei and Grundeinkommensbüro.

4. FOSTER DECENTRALIZATION

Read: Antifragile by Nassim Taleb; Bitcoin Paper by Satoshi Nakamoto

Do: Buy some bitcoin. Use or build decentralized apps (on systems such as Blockstack, Algorand, ARweave, Filecoin, etc.) Move away from Google, Facebook, Amazon wherever you can and use alternatives such as Duck Duck Go. Note to self: I should have used IndieBound links for all the books throughout this post.

Fund: Open source projects via Open Collective. The blockchain foundation layers are coming along nicely, now there is lots of need to invest in decentralized application development (for example, list of Blockstack apps).

5. DEVELOP MINDFULNESS

Read: The Conscious Parent by Shefali Tsabary (even if you don’t have children — just substitute parents or friends or employees); A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

Do: Develop your own mindfulness practice (if you don’t already have one). Doesn’t matter what it is – for some people it is yoga, for others running. Breathing exercises is what works for me.

Fund: Research into psychedelic drugs. This may seem like a non-sequitur, but it seems that these do offer a crucial shortcut to experiencing egoless states.


6. RESUME LEARNING

Read: Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto; Free Learning by Dani Grant

Do: If you have children, homeschool them. Commit to learning something new yourself.  If you are an entrepreneur, start a freelearning company – here is a list of ideas.

Fund: Support free content via Patreon, e.g. the amazing Numberphile videos on Youtube. Donate to University of the People, a tuition free US-accredited school run by volunteers.

On each of these I am excited for feedback from readers, including suggestions for what else to read, do, or fund. 

Of course there are many other things you could do to advance the knowledge age so please contribute those also – getting out of the industrial age is a massive multi generational project. 

Let’s get going!

Disclosure: many of the projects, non-profits and companies linked to throughout this post are ones that either Susan and I have backed or that are funded by USV.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019 - 5:37pm

On this last day of the 2010s here is a recap with a single theme: we are fighting the battles of the past instead of inventing the future. We are doing that at a time when humanity is facing an extinction level threat in the climate crisis that also represents our single biggest opportunity for transformation.

The ongoing debate about capitalism versus socialism is fundamentally caught up in the industrial age. It assumes that ownership and control of physical capital are paramount at a time when our attention is the real scarcity. 

The application of antitrust to concentrated digital power is like using a hammer to drive a screw. It harkens back to scale economies at a time when network effects are the true source of power.

The push for privacy legislation fails to recognize that advanced technology and privacy are incompatible (e.g., we carry a personal radio beacon at all times). The results, such as GDPR, wind up further ensconcing the power of a few corporations (and of the state).

The resurgence of nationalism comes at at time when all the big problems are global. The climate crisis, corporate taxation and infectious disease do not stop at borders but instead require nations to work together.

The debate about growth and whether productivity has stagnated are stuck on measuring growth by GDP at a time when digital goods are creating massive consumer surplus.

We are even expending energy on fighting over who gets to call themselves a man or a woman at a time when we can edit the genome.

We are effectively fighting over where to sit on the Titanic. These fights are as vicious as they are exactly because we are frustrated that the ship is going down and want to be right about something, anything. Eke out a victory, however small, to feel good, at least for a moment. 

Unlike the Titanic, we actually have the ability to save ourselves. But doing so will require embracing a new vision of what can be next for humanity, after we leave the industrial age behind. 

Tomorrow I will write about how to engage in the 2020s to help move us towards what I call the Knowledge Age.

(Follow up post: An Agenda for the 2020s)

Monday, December 30, 2019 - 1:38pm

I am spending the last two days of the decade cleaning up. We moved into our current place about 8 years ago and have accumulated a lot of stuff during that time period. It will be interesting to see how far I get but I am planning to at least sort out all my clothes and electronics. While I won’t go for a strict Marie Kondo approach, I tend to err on the side of getting rid of more rather than less. Thankfully the weather here in New York is being fully cooperative with cold rain that makes staying inside a rather pleasant option. Stuff tends to clog everything, including the mind, and so I look forward to increased clarity.

Here is a picture halfway through our bedroom – the two bags on the side will go to donation (perfectly good clothes but I just haven’t worn in a long time). Susan is also going through all of her things

Now if only we could get the kids to join the effort …

Wednesday, December 18, 2019 - 1:37pm

Today is the impeachment vote in the House of Representatives. It will be fascinating to see if any Republicans at all will support impeachment in the House. In an extraordinary display of abdication of any allegiance to the United States constitution, Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham have already indicated that they have no interest in conducting a fair trial in the Senate but will instead take all their cues from the White House.

The damage that the Republicans are doing here to our democracy is hard to overstate. Democracies work through the rule of law and the functioning of institutions. No matter how much you believe that this impeachment should not go to trial, once the House has decided on it, the Senate should live up to the oath of affirmation that the constitution sets out for this occasion (and this occasion only).

So the pre-announcement by Republican leadership that they have no intention of conducting a fair senate trial should further strengthen individual Republican’s to vote their own conscience, instead of blindly following leadership. Here is a beautiful speech from Larry Hogan before the vote on the Nixon impeachment

Sadly I fear that no Republican will find it in themselves to show that level of calm, dispassionate and independent reason.

Sunday, December 15, 2019 - 5:37pm

Last week I started digging into electricity as part of my posts the climate crisis. Today’s post continues that by looking at the potential increases in the demand for electricity from moving transportation to electric vehicles (EVs). To start with, it is quite difficult to wrap one’s head around just how much we drive in the US. In one year there are about 3.25 trillion (yup trillion) vehicle miles. I have found it difficult to find a recent breakdown of that by vehicle type, but in 2016 about 9% of that was trucks (I will use 10% as a first approximation) and the rest passenger cars.

There are fewer than 2 million EVs on the road in the United States today, which is less than 1% penetration. So again as a first approximation I will simply assume that all the vehicle miles have yet to be converted from gasoline to electric. So what does that look like in the US? An EV gets somewhere between 2.5 and 5 miles per kWh (Model X versus Leaf). I will use 4 miles per kWh. Now putting it all together for passenger cars:

0.90 * 3.25 * 10^12 miles / (4 miles / kWh) = 0.73 * 10^12 kWh

To move all passenger car traffic in the US to EVs we need to come up with an additional 0.73 trillion kWh hours of electricity. To put this in perspective we currently produce about 4.18 trillion kWh of electricity annually in the US, so we are looking at roughly a 17% increase.

Keep in mind though this was just passenger cars. Coming up with an estimate for trucks is a bit harder as there really aren’t any production electric trucks yet, so YMMV (so to speak) with the following. Based on the specifications of the Volvo FL Electric Truck, I am estimating 1km or 0.62 miles per kWh

0.10 * 3.25 * 10^12 miles / (0.62 miles / kWh) = 0.52 * 10^12 kWh

That’s another 12% or so increase in the total required electricity generation.

So together we are looking at about a 30% increase in electricity demand to move all of our cars and trucks away from fossil fuels. Not impossible at all, but also not easy. Now please keep in mind that, though that today our electricity production is still over 50% from fossil fuels

So that starts to give us a better handle of the true scale of the issue of getting away from emissions. And as we will see in an upcoming post, it doesn’t stop there, when we take into account electrifying building heating. Now to be clear, I am not at all suggesting all of this electricity for EVs needs to be centrally generated and distributed in the current model. Also, some EVs may use fuel cells. But it still paints a picture of the magnitude of the challenge.

Thursday, December 12, 2019 - 9:38am

In order to understand solutions to the climate crisis, including the potential role of nuclear energy, it is essential to understand our current and future demand and supply of electricity. There are of course entire books that have been written about just small subtopics of electricity, so please consider this post as a guidance.

Electricity is the most refined and concentrated form of energy available to us. We can adjust its use in extremely small quantities. We can store it. We can generate it directly from sunlight without moving parts. We can transmit it in automated fashion over long distances (admittedly with losses). We can use it to easily create light, heat, force, computation. We simply have no other form of energy that comes even close to it. Electricity is a fundamental aspect of nature (it is one of the quantum fields) and our abilities to understand and use are the result some of the most beautiful breakthroughs in science.

So where we use electricity today in the United States? Here is a breakdown by major category over time

image

Several points here are important. First, we have massively increased our electricity demand since the 1950s. Second, the demand has actually been flat for about a decade, but has just started to tick up. Third, industrial use is smaller than one might have expected but is still about a quarter of total. Fourth, transportation use is tiny so far.

Let’s double click for a moment on the residential consumption. What do households use electricity for?

image

As it turns about half is used for some form of heating or cooling. Lighting accounts for a paltry 6.2% and all other uses is a massive category of nearly 40%.

What about the commercial sector? It looks like this

Here the heating and cooling use cases add up to a bit shy of 40%. Lighting plus office equipment including computers make up about a quarter. Again the all other use category is quite big at over a third.

Now before going into why these demand patterns are likely to change, here is a breakdown of where electricity comes from in the US over the last two decades

While this a bit small one can see quite clearly that in the US the biggest components of electricity generation are still carbon based. Thankfully there is a big reduction in coal (the coal), much of that has been compensated by increases in natural gas. And while solar has been growing (the light blue line) it is still small. Nuclear, the yellow line has been flat, but is a meaningful component of US electricity production.

In the next post, I will look at why the demand for electricity will have to increase substantially if we want to emit less carbon. And as should be obvious from the chart immediately above, we have a long way to go to make cleaner electricity in the US.

Friday, December 6, 2019 - 5:37pm

The word “growth” has become one of the focal points of the climate crisis debate. There are those who are worried that pricing carbon will slow down economic growth. And there are those who believe that the only way we can overcome the climate crisis is through degrowth. I fear that most of those debates will be people shouting past each other as the word growth has come to capture entire philosophies of thought. And so instead of having meaningful in-depth arguments about what kind of society we want, we dig into entrenched positions that suggest there simply cannot be common ground between people who disagree about growth.

In my podcast episode with Jason Jacobs I said that we have to stop praying at the altar of GDP. That could be interpreted as putting me in the “degrowth” camp. I want to unpack what I meant and how I think about growth. There are many things that we could grow, some of which we absolutely need to and others which hare highly dubious. The problem with GDP as a measure is that it draws no distinction between these.

Things we absolutely need to grow

- Knowledge (e.g. how to build nuclear fusion)
- Infrastructure (e.g. transportation)
- Purpose (e.g. what each one of us is here for)
- Wellness (e.g. cheaper more accessible healthcare)

Things we can almost certainly stop growing or even degrow

- Time spent working dangerous, boring jobs (e.g., anything we can automate)
- Excessive consumption (e.g. living in McMansions, hundreds of pairs of shoes)

Things we definitely, urgently need to degrow

- Greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. actually reduce CO2 in the atmosphere)

This list is not supposed to be exhaustive, it is just meant to show that once you add some detail around growth you can get past the idea that you have to be either for or against growth.

Now I suspect that the one item on the list above that may strike some people as controversial is the “Excessive Consumption” one. Their objection will be: who gets to define that? In World After Capital, my answer is that I believe individuals can come to realize that this does not actually contribute to living a good life. That we can go back to drawing a clear distinction between needs and wants. And that we can build a culture that celebrates this kind of self limitation – which is incidentally what we have had several times before (on this point I recommend both Limits by Giorgos Kallis and How Much is Enough? by Edward and Robert Skidelsky).

Thursday, December 5, 2019 - 5:37pm

People who want to fight the climate crisis tend to agree on a lot of things, but nuclear power turns out to be a highly divisive issue. In this series of posts I will use nuclear power to refer to fission – I will write separately about the prospects for fusion

There are several reasons given by people who object to nuclear power, including high cost, risk of accidents and concerns about storage/usage of radioactive materials. Conversely, advocates of investing more in nuclear power point to the need to replace coal and gas plants in providing base load electricity.

Of course a great deal has been written about these questions by people far more knowledgeable than myself. So why write YMBP (yet more blog posts)? First, because writing is a way for me to wrestle down information so that I better understand it myself (and I also tend to learn new things from comments). Second, because there is always the chance that my posts will help elucidate the issues for at least some others as well. 

Let me state my current views upfront, so that you can know my biases while reading the posts: we need more nuclear power in the near term, to bridge into a future where we will not require it. If you have followed my posts on the climate crisis, you will already know that I consider it both the biggest threat and the biggest opportunity for humanity. As such, I believe that we need to use all the technologies available to us – including nuclear power – to their fullest extent, while also being mindful of the problems they each have.

My rough plan for this series of posts is as follows. I will start by looking at the supply of and demand for electricity in a scenario where we rapidly shut down coal and gas plants while simultaneously switching home heating and transportation to electricity. I will then discuss why other options (including wind and solar) are unlikely to be able to fill the resulting gap without additional nuclear power. I will then look at our understanding of radiation, which is central to many objections to nuclear power including high cost and examine those objections more closely. Finally I will suggest ways of furthering nuclear power.

I may of course switch this up depending on what I feel like when writing and based on feedback. So if you have suggestions or questions, please let me know. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2019 - 11:42am

I just nominated five candidates for the next election of the Harvard Board of Overseers as part of an effort organized by Harvard Forward. The school has made the process comically complicated by requiring that each nomination be submitted in a separate signed PDF (admittedly this could be explained by incompetence rather than malice but is not a good look in either case). A crucial goal is to have Harvard take a leadership role in fighting the climate crisis. If you are a Harvard grad and want to support this effort, head on over to Harvard Forward for instructions (warning: you will probably need half an hour of time). For everyone else, here is a great piece from Bloomberg about the push for divestment at both Yale and Harvard.

Monday, December 2, 2019 - 12:36pm

So far I have been writing about the climate crisis primarily as a threat, an extinction level threat for the human species. But the climate crisis is also humanity’s biggest opportunity. It is our opportunity to leave the Industrial Age behind and enter the Knowledge Age (that’s the term I use in my book World After Capital).

Expect a series of blog posts expanding on this idea, but to start things off I want to paint a picture of what that might look like:

I imagine clean air and quiet cities with lot of public transport options — serviced by electric vehicles on dynamically optimized routes.

I imagine a dramatic reduction in agricultural land use with huge areas freed up for biodiversity — enabled by a move to vertical farming right where food is consumed

I imagine reliable access drinking water anywhere in the world — through massive improvements in desalination and waste water treatment

I imagine abundant energy — powered by nuclear fusion

I imagine people finding their purpose in contributing to science, art, friends and family, community  — freed from drudgery by automation

How would be get there? We would have to be willing to dramatically retool our economies. It turns out that we have done that before. Most recently we did it during World War II. The mobilization of resources during that time in the singular pursuit of winning the war was extraordinary, including recruiting the most brilliant minds to work on crucial problems.

Leaders all around the world could rally behind such a vision. And just as with World War II, we can pay for it all as this simultaneously represents the biggest stimulus program for the economy. The Green New Deal is the closest we have at the moment to such a program but it is not yet sufficiently ambitious in its scope and vision. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019 - 5:37pm

A few weeks ago I started having a strange sensation in my right thigh. When I moved my leg, it felt as if something was slithering between my skin and my muscle in the marked area (these are not my legs, just a convenient image I found on the internet)

image

The feeling wasn’t painful, just a bit creepy. The creepiness probably being the result of having watched one too many Alien movies.

Following my main approach to all things medical – which I have learned from my amazing mother who worked in a pharmacy for many years – I ignored it. The idea being that the body is pretty good at fixing problems or at least routing around them. In this case though the symptom persisted. I tried stretching, foam rolling, massage, all with no improvement. As it turns out by treating the area in question, I was focused on entirely the wrong spot.

Eventually I decided to go see Keith Pyne, the genius doctor and physical therapist who helped restore my shoulder. I described the symptoms and he immediately said: oh, that’s easy, you have Meralgia Paraesthetica. What’s that? It’s an injury to the lateral cutaneous nerve of the thigh. That sounds, ahem, dangerous? No, not a big deal, I will open up the area where the nerve passes through your pelvis, you will do some exercises and it will all be fine. At that he proceeded with moving my leg and massaging my groin. Sure enough, I felt an immediate improvement.

image

But not so fast. Later the same day, the problem was back in full force. Was the diagnosis wrong? Was I expecting improvements too quickly? Well definitely the latter. So I proceeded with the hip flexor stretch that my therapist had recommended

Again, the stretching helped and yet after a bit my symptoms returned. What was going on? One day I wound up doing the stretch wearing not my gym clothes but my regular jeans and I had a massive “Duh” moment. Turns out that for several years I have been carrying my house key in the change pocket of my jeans

image

Mystery solved. Whenever I had been sitting down with the key in my pocket it had pressed up against the area in my pelvis that the nerve passes through. Sure enough one week after no longer carrying the key there, the problem has completely disappeared.

Leaving just one question: where to carry the key instead?

Thursday, November 28, 2019 - 5:38pm

I have written Thanksgiving posts in past years thanking entrepreneurs, teachers and my parents. Today I want to thank my immediate family: Susan, Michael, Katie and Peter. You are each amazing in your own way and bring so much joy to my life. Thanks for putting up with my overcommitment to work and various other projects. Thanks for letting me drag you onto steeper than you would like ski slopes and into windier than you prefer sailing days. Thanks for calling me out when I am wrong. Through you I have grown so much as a human. For all that and so much more I am deeply grateful. Now that you, Michael and Katie, are off to college (with you, Peter, not far behind), I cherish our getting together as a family more than ever. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019 - 5:42pm

These days I often feel as if I am living in a horror movie of the twilight zone variety. People appear to be under some kind of mind control, that seems to be emanating from the handheld devices they all carry with them. Here is how this manifests itself: I tell someone about how severe and imminent the climate crisis really is, usually using the Alien Invasion Analogy. There is a brief moment in which they appear genuinely disturbed. You can see in their eyes that they grasp the magnitude of the problem, that they see the world clearly for at least an instant. Then just a few minutes later – often after consulting their little handheld device – they are back to where they were before. Oblivious to an extinction level threat to humanity.

Now you might say: there’s nothing new here. Don’t you remember Cassandra? You might also say that this is just yet another instance of the post truth world we find ourselves in. And while both of these are good points, I think there is more going on here. Sure people don’t like to get bad news. And yes there’s constant misinformation undermining all narratives. But this is still more. It feels much more akin to a state of collective hypnosis. The closest comparison that I can think of is being personally spellbound during dotcom bubble and achieving clarity of thought only after it had burst.

All of this is massively disconcerting. Not just since it feels weird to be trapped inside a movie. But rather because so many of the strategies that people are talking about for combatting the climate crisis – or achieving other fundamental change for that matter – seem massively inadequate. For example, thinking that we can just iterate on messaging until we find the right language and then everyone will understand. It just won’t do. People do understand, if ever so briefly, but then go back into their hypnotic state.

I don’t really know what to do with any of this, but felt like sharing in case other people are living the same experience. Also, all ideas for what to do welcome!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019 - 11:38am

We had eight glorious years with Dori, our beloved Goldendoodle. Just seeing her in the street put a smile on people’s face. She was alway up for a pet from random strangers and could be trusted with the youngest of kids. She made the big move with us from the suburbs back to the city as a pup (not pleased at first with the lack of grass but then happy with all the play time with friends). We will remember many fond moments with Dori, such as sitting on the stoop and watching the world go by or running wild on an empty beach. We are thankful for everyone who took care of Dori over the years when we were not there. She had a large family indeed. We are making a donation to a shelter in her memory.

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Albert Wenger is a partner at Union Square Ventures (USV), a New York-based early stage VC firm focused on investing in disruptive networks. USV portfolio companies include: Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Etsy, Kickstarter and Shapeways. Before joining USV, Albert was the president of del.icio.us through the company’s sale to Yahoo. He previously founded or co-founded five companies, including a management consulting firm (in Germany), a hosted data analytics company, a technology subsidiary for Telebanc (now E*Tradebank), an early stage investment firm, and most recently (with his wife), DailyLit, a service for reading books by email or RSS.