The Doom Scrawl: April 1, 2023

Like a lot of other people these days, I sometimes get caught up in doom scrolling. This week I decided to summarize a few of the doomiest stories and make some probably-not-serious-enough comments on them, partly to entertain and partly to relieve some of my own anxiety.

As other bloggers know, sometimes writing about things at least gives us the illusion that we’re doing something about them, allowing us a greater sense of control. And, if we’re applying satire, maybe making fun of things allows us to take them a little less seriously. Gallows humor, and all that.

Anyway, here are a few items items from this week’s doom scrolling.

Death by Nuclear Knuckleheads
  • Russia has updated its foreign policy doctrine to reflect its increasingly confrontational relationship with the West and its perception of “existential threats” to its security and development from “unfriendly states.” The document names the United States as the main threat to international stability and driver of an “anti-Russian line,” but also seeks “peaceful coexistence” and a “balance of interests” with Washington.
  • The Russian Federation’s recent announcement of plans to station non-strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus represents the first “nuclear sharing” agreement made since the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons entered into force in 1970, the senior United Nations disarmament official told the Security Council today, emphasizing that — against the backdrop of the Ukraine conflict — the risk such arms will be used is higher today than at any time since the end of the cold war.
My Gratuitous Commentary

Mr. Putin is deep in a hole of his own digging and refuses to hand up his shovel. Russia is not under existential threat from anyone but Mr. Putin, but he alone may be enough to destroy it, and possibly the world, if we keep stupidly doing this dance toward nuclear apocalypse. We should have internationally banned, or at least vastly reduced the number of, those hellish devices decades ago. Let’s somehow make peace with this raging, narcissistic nutjob and move on with global nuclear nonproliferation. Soothe Putin’s aching, rotten ego. Pay him off. Whatever. Humanity has been walking this existential tightrope way too long and needs to get off of it. Man up, Biden, and get it done.

Extinction by Our Latest Favorite Smart Tech
  • A smart dude from an AI thinktank says we’re all definitely going to die, wiped out by the most popular technology since..well…ever. Eliezer Yudkowsky, who leads research at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, writes, “Many researchers steeped in these issues, including myself, expect that the most likely result of building a superhumanly smart AI, under anything remotely like the current circumstances, is that literally everyone on Earth will die. Not as in ‘maybe possibly some remote chance,’ but as in ‘that is the obvious thing that would happen.’ It’s not that you can’t, in principle, survive creating something much smarter than you; it’s that it would require precision and preparation and new scientific insights, and probably not having AI systems composed of giant inscrutable arrays of fractional numbers….Shut down all the large GPU clusters (the large computer farms where the most powerful AIs are refined). Shut down all the large training runs. Put a ceiling on how much computing power anyone is allowed to use in training an AI system, and move it downward over the coming years to compensate for more efficient training algorithms.”
More Gratuitous Commentary

First of all, respect for the line “giant inscrutable arrays of fractional numbers.” Well done. Second of all, Yudkowsky might be right. He’s certainly certain. If he’s right to be so certain, then our days are almost certainly numbered because the AI cat has already clawed its way out of the bag. A bunch of smart kids from Stanford just created a ChatGPT knockoff for a total of $600, which is about 1/6th of a month’s rent out in that part of the world.

Meanwhile, Meta’s AI–which is called LLaMa for Large Language Model Meta AI–was leaked and then shared on 4chan, where someone uploaded it via torrent. Just great. There was already one AI trained on 4chan so it became a toxic, hate-speech machine. That’s what we need: a super intelligence trained on the darkest dregs of humanity. At the very least, we’ll see some very nasty generative AI media coming down the pike .

So maybe we’re all doomed already. Regardless, the Biden Administration needs to weigh in soon because, well, Congress is busy with TikTok (no, seriously). Those old white guys haven’t a clue (and I’m quickly getting to be one, so I know). I figure our only hope for government action is some younger, brighter folks squirreled away somewhere in the West Wing who can convince old Joe that this AI thing is worth, you know, thinking about. But maybe they’re already deep into it. Maybe they’ve even got Yudkowsky on speed dial. Now if they can only reach him in whatever newly reburished-with-Faraday-caging 1950s-vintage bomb shelter he’s holed up in.

Are We All Crew on the Pequod Now?

We are all in the same boat, as the saying goes. But what scares me is that maybe that boat is ultimately as doomed as the Pequod in Moby-Dick.

On the Pequod and Spaceship Earth

I went to Disney World a couple of weeks ago. Although I didn’t go into the Spaceship Earth ride in the Epcot part of the park, I got a good look at it from a helium balloon in the Disney shopping district. A little while later, a Facebook friend posted the famous Earthrise photo.

The point is I’ve been thinking about the Earth as an astonishing and gorgeous spaceship that is, as far as we know, utterly unique in the cosmos. Is this spaceship a metaphor or fact? Well, the planet is moving around the sun at nearly 30 kilometers per second, which amounts to 67,000 miles per hour. But that’s not the only movement. Our whole solar system, gravitationally tied to the sun, is zipping around our galaxy at about 490,000 miles per hour.

So, yes, we are literally on a kind of spaceship.

At the same time, of course, I’m been writing about leadership lessons in the great novel Moby-Dick. I’ve been pondering whether or not there was any avoiding the tragedy of Ahab (spoiler alert) destroying the Pequod and killing every member of the crew (aside from our narrator Ishmael, of course).

On the Dark Obsessions of Ahab and Putin

Ahab spends a lot of time by himself obsessing. In fact, when we first hear of him, Captain Peleg tells Ishmael, “I don’t know exactly what’s the matter with him; but he keeps close inside the house; a sort of sick, and yet he don’t look so. In fact, he ain’t sick; but no, he isn’t well either. Any how, young man, he won’t always see me, so I don’t suppose he will thee.”

As of Chapter 21, we still haven’t gotten a look at Ahab, the only word being that “Captain Ahab remained invisibly enshrined within his cabin.”  In Chapter 23, we are told, “Captain Ahab stayed below.”

This reminds us of current events. The stories about Russia’s dictator, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, are eerily similar these days. We hear that “Putin himself was isolated, from other foreign leaders and from his own advisers and allies” in recent times.

Some of this isolation has been inspired by the pandemic, but it seems to have gone beyond that: “Questions have been raised over whether Covid-19 has fueled Vladimir Putin’s paranoia after claims emerged the isolated president spent time ‘stewing in his own fears’ after ‘withdrawing into himself’ during the pandemic.”

Some speculate that Putin’s psyche, already demented by his years in the KGB, has been further warped by his isolation in a bunker, where he has had a great deal of time to obsess about “the West,” perhaps in the same way Ahab obsesses about the great whale that has harmed him so.

On the Failure to Stop a Megalomaniac

In Moby-Dick, there are multiple failures to stop the tragedy. As we’ve noted, Peleg allowed Ahab to take the Pequod to sea even though he should have known better. Later on, Starbuck comes to understand how dangerous Ahab is, but he can’t bring himself to mutiny against his captain, and it’s not clear that he’d have the crew’s support if he did.

That leaves the crew itself. The crew members could have put an end to Ahab’s mad quest but they didn’t feel as if they had the power. That’s what a dictator does. He (and it is usually a he, with a few exceptions) makes others believe that he rather than they have the power, even if it’s based on an illusion. Dictators know how to divide and conquer and cast an aura of invincibility even though their deepest fear is that they will be exposed as the frail, vulnerable and all-too-fallible individuals that they are.

As I write this, there is no knowing how the current invasion of Ukraine will end. What we do know is that Putin himself has raised the specter of nuclear war. Of course, aside from not being a fictional character, Putin is no Ahab. He is being resisted on many fronts. Yet, sitting on the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, Putin has the potential to do untold damage to all the inhabitants of the ship called Earth. It’s as if we are all now crew members aboard the Pequod.

I don’t know if Putin is as obsessed and insane as Ahab. Maybe he’s a cold-blooded strategist rather than an emotional cripple, or maybe he’s somewhere in between.

Nor do I know if there’s any stopping him. Is there a Starbuck who could act against him in Russia? Could the Russian nation itself rise against him?

From what I’ve read, these are both long shots. There’s no telling how this will end.

What I do know is that it’s scary, at least from my perspective, that the fate of the planet rests largely on the shoulders of, again from my perspective, one very bad and possibly mad leader.

If we have the chance, we crew of the Spaceship Earth should do our level best to rid ourselves of the kinds of weaponry that makes it possible for one Ahab-like leader to so easily scuttle the vessel on which we ride though the star-studded seas. I’m afraid, though, that most of us can no longer even imagine the possibility of disarming our tripwire weapons of mass destruction. If so, then perhaps we have no more autonomy than the ill-fated crew of Melville’s tragic tale.

The Mysterious Leader

One in a series of blog posts about management lessons derived from the classic novel Moby-Dick

For better and worse, a lot of high-level leaders carry with them an air of mystery. This has its advantages, with the mysterious leader often seeming to be beyond ordinary human fallibilities.

Seldom has any leader in literature been more mysterious than Captain Ahab. For many long pages in Moby-Dick, Ahab is only an elusive character of legend. We hear opinions about him, and even have our spines tingled by the shrouded prophecies of Elijah. But, despite the fact that he is a main character –- no, he is the main character — we do not see him in the flesh until Chapter 28.

Is this just suspense-building on the part of Melville? Pshaw. This is the author who spends chapter after chapter on the arcana of the whaling industry. Melville can create suspense, but he cares little about its conventions, being more artist than craftsman. No, he is doing more than whetting our appetites; he is explaining, among other things, the nature of certain kinds of leaders.

I say “certain kinds” because mystery does not typically surround level-one supervisors or even most middle managers.  Like them or hate them, we at least think we know them and their foibles. There’s something about the person at the top that’s different. 

Maybe it’s that they are less accessible, as Ahab is throughout so much of the novel. Maybe it’s that they have all the power, or seem to. Maybe it’s because they do not want to be known. Being known means forging human bonds, and those bonds may make the leader weak in the face of hard decisions such as terminations, layoffs, discipline and the like. Or maybe it’s because everyone is projecting onto them so many abstracted emotions: hope, fear, envy, anger, and the rest. The top leader becomes less a person than an eidolon.

Even before he meets Ahab, Ishmael feels the mystery of him:

I … felt a strange awe of him; but that sort of awe, which I cannot at all describe, was not exactly awe; I do not know what it was. But I felt it; and it did not disincline me towards him; though I felt impatience at what seemed like mystery in him, so imperfectly as he was known to me then.

And, later, Ahab seems more a force a nature than person prone to weaknesses and self-doubt. This is by design. Although he is fearful and uncertain when encountering the white whale he seeks, Ahab is heard to mutter, “How valiantly I seek to drive out of others’ hearts what’s clinched so fast in mine!” This is part of a leader does at crucial times: project the emotions that will benefit the group rather than the emotions that may be secretly plaguing him or her.

It’s no wonder, then, that top leaders so often seem enigmatic. They are actors playing to crowds, stirring emotions, sending messages in bold letters. It is brutally difficult to be genuine and approachable under these circumstances.

As for Ahab, he doesn’t even try to be approachable or, indeed, anything less than awe-inspiring. Awe is what drives his crew. If he must become an icon to achieve his goals, so be it.

Melvillian Management Lesson: Every top leader must carry the mantle of mystery differently, but all should be aware that it exists. Sometimes it’s a tool that can be used, for good or ill, as Ahab uses it. But mystery often alienates as well, making it harder to relate to or trust the leader. When that’s the case, the leader should probably go out of his or her way to become more approachable. More active listening and “managing by walking around” are some of the more common prescriptions.

The last thing that any leader wants is to continuously expand the bubble that surrounds him or her. They can become alienated in their solitude, and this can send them in dangerous, ill-advised directions as they become disconnected from others and, indeed, reality itself.

As I write this, I can’t help but think of the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who has become notorious for sitting at the end of a very long table in his meetings (in part due to Covid-19 fears). One has to wonder whether the air of mystery and isolation he has long cultivated has helped shape him into an Ahab-like character. That might go a long way in explaining the senseless tragedy of the Ukraine invasion.

Featured image from Grahn; Japanese Noh theatre mask from the 17th century