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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Distributed Systems: The Antidote to Greed

Tonight I watched a documentary about Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway. Actually, Kamen is an inventor of many things. Look it up...I’ll wait. So, now you know (maybe) that Dean is a pretty impressive guy. He spoke about something near and dear to my heart - the evolution of distributed systems. In this case, he was talking about potable water.


Over 50% of all global fatalities from disease are caused by a lack of clean water. Building large water treatment plants in remote third world areas is not practical. So, he built a self-contained small unit that can service about 100 families. It costs about $2,000. What’s clever about this is that there is no central authority. Once the system is in place, it just works. He’s also trying to improve the design so that it’s easy to fix and at least some replacement parts can be improvised.


The powers that be in our global control system don’t really like these sorts of distributed systems. They remove central control and central control always goes to the most powerful people. Since by now we all know that power corrupts, the best way to serve “we, the people” is to take power away from the powerful and distribute it. We already talked about water. Let’s go down the list.


Money: central banks control the money supply. They manipulate it to ensure their interests are served first. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are distributed. There is no central authority and once there is widespread acceptance, it cannot be manipulated by powerful interests. You can read more about this one here.


Energy: utility companies are regulated by the government. This sounds good in principle. In practice, they work in partnership to ensure their interests are served. The cost of home solar and wind systems have been dropping rapidly. We are almost to the tipping point at which it is cheaper to power your home with one of these systems. There’s still a ways to go on battery technology, but we are extremely close. The utility companies have been doing everything in their power to ensure that distributed power systems are not on a level playing field with their product. Eventually, they will lose this battle, but they will fight it as long as they can. Once we each generate our own power, that’s one less thing that they can hold over us.


Food: Agribusiness has a dirty little (not so) secret. They are taking lots of unhealthy shortcuts in order to cheaply feed the masses. They, too, have a deal with the government that allows them to remain in tight control over their destiny. The local food movement is starting to cut into this a little, but there is a long way to go. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) are starting to catch on, but we need a lot more of them. These are small local farms in which community members pay a subscription fee that ensures that the farmer’s produce is funded regardless of the effects of weather, which can devastate other types of commercial farmers. The community shares the risk of a failed crop. They also begin to untether themselves from corporate food sources. Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) hate these guys. They bring frivolous lawsuits against them to bleed them financially until they go under. They need our support, so that they can eventually win out over the power brokers. Hey! Don’t forget to grow your own food if you have some land. We grew lots of veggies in a 4’ x 8’ plot. It doesn’t take much.


Information: Once upon a time, the media and the government worked very closely together to craft the message and life was simple and good. Our government worked for us and it was run by righteous and good people...or so we thought. The reality is that they lied to us and withheld important information from us. We did not know all the bad things they were doing. They continue to attempt to do this, but smartphones and the Internet are making it increasingly difficult to keep secrets. These two things represent a massively distributed information system that puts the power of information distribution in the hands of “we, the people.” The government and media hate it, but they can’t put the genie back in the bottle, so now we know what’s going on - good and bad. We still need to figure out what we’re going to do about it.


Medicine: the medical insurance industry is doing its best to reduce health in this country and they are getting it done. It is an artifact of history that the medical insurance industry was started back when healthcare was inexpensive and businesses could offer to pay for their employees’ health as a perk. It was a good deal for everyone back then. Unfortunately, as more and more testing and treatment options have become available, healthcare has become unaffordable for all of us. The system is designed to enable large corporations who have many employees to gain a huge financial advantage over individuals. You buy your own auto insurance, your own homeowner’s insurance, and your own life insurance. Why not medical insurance? Because the insurance companies don’t want to insure a bunch of sick people who can’t work. So, if companies pay, they don’t need to worry about the unemployed sick people. We need individual health insurance policies. Obamacare has tried to do this, but it is built on top of the corporate paid insurance scheme, which needs to be dismantled.


If insurance companies had to sign up each individual separately and they could only have one rate per plan type, given that they can’t refuse anyone, they would be forced to focus on the cost side of the equation. This would encourage them to pay for things that drive good health like fitness club memberships and dietary supplements. These things are cheap, but since insurance companies are in bed with healthcare companies that make money from sick people, there’s no incentive under the present system. Distributing insurance down to individual families would fix all of this.

Wherever you find a social problem, look for a distributed system for the fix. Consolidation of power and control is an artifact of human greed. Greed is part of our nature and it will likely take many thousands of years of biological evolution to work it out of our psychic composition. The best way to mitigate its effects is to disburse power and control. As it stands now, a very few people have consolidated massive amounts of power and control over the lives of people throughout the world. They will not give it up without a fight, but they have learned to avoid direct confrontation. Their insidious strategy is to create systems the inherently support their objectives. By seizing individual choices that favor distributed options, we can wrest control away from them in the same non-confrontational manner.
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