Elon Musk’s Government

“How do you envision humans governing a separate planet?”

Elon Musk answered the above question when speaking at Stanford recently by saying that because a Martian government would be built on a clean foundation, it would probably be something closer to a direct democracy (in which every member votes on laws and policies directly) rather than a representative democracy (like what we find in the Western world today).

In the past, such direct democracy was infeasible. There was no tool or engine by which everyone could vote on everything. Communication was only as fast as a horse and illiteracy was prevalent, so it was rational to have elected representatives voting on behalf of their constituents. The absence of technology and education made it so.

Of course, today this isn’t the case — so Elon gave three intuitive ideas that could apply to a new Martian government (or simply a terrestrial upgrade).

Legal Limits

“If you can’t write the law in 1,000 words then it probably shouldn’t be there.”

Elon credits Google co-founder Larry Page for the concept of legal limits. The idea is that laws be limited in size by a simple mechanism like word count. Currently we have 1,000-page laws which nobody has read. “If you can’t write the law in 1,000 words then it probably shouldn’t be there. We shouldn’t have a single law passed that’s the size of Lord of the Rings and literally not a single person in Congress has read the whole thing.”

Legal Sunsets

Laws, by default, have an infinite lifespan. Elon suggests that laws be given a sunset period such that when their time is up, laws must be actively renewed to remain in place. Those that can’t continue standing on their own merit simply expire. Placing the burden on renewal would create a naturally recurring “opt-in” legal system.

Legal Destruction

In the same vein, Elon looks at our current legal system and sees that over time “…the body of law just gets bigger and bigger and bigger.” So, in addition to the natural sunset period, perhaps laws should be easier to remove than to put in place. For example, it might take a 60% vote to instate a law but only a 40% vote to remove it.

He did mention that ultimately the workings of a government on Mars would be up to the future Martians (and he certainly counts himself among them).

You can see Elon’s full Q&A here — though admittedly I think the above is the most interesting part. He gets into Martian government theory after the 50:00 minute mark.

I originally published this post on Medium here.


The True Cost of Ownership

Minimalism has taken many forms these days. It’s even become a pop-culture trend. I suspect it is partly related to the economic downturn, a newish need to make more from less. For me, minimalism can be broken down into several parts. Maybe some of this will resonate with you. Some write off minimalism as hippy-foo-foo bullshit. Well, let me appeal to minimalism with reason.

By deciding to bring some new thing into your life, you have to calculate whether the gain will offset the cost. This mental process sounds like a pain in the ass, but most of you already do this when making a purchase. That’s how you decide whether the new pair of pants or coffee table or samurai sword is worth the advertised price.

The problem is that, usually, the only cost in this mental exercise that is weighed against the reward is a monetary one. The cost of owning a physical item does not end at the checkout. It echoes forward in time for the entire duration that it’s in your possession.

Here are some examples of forgotten costs accrued when making a purchase:

  • Time/effort required to get to the store
  • Time/effort required to transport the item to its final location
  • Assembly/Activation/Setup
  • Space cost (assuming it’s not digital, it will take up space)
  • Maintenance/Cleaning
  • Relocation/Removal/Disposal (The item is your responsibility until it’s not)

For instance, say you buy or rent a living space. You go a little bigger than you really need because you get a good price on it. Now you have unfurnished space. So you buy a coffee table and a lamp and a chair and call it a reading area or whatever. That’s nice, reading is really good for you, but say you only read at night before bed. In fact, the only time you go into your reading area is to give it a brief cleaning. Years later, you decide to move. Whether you go bigger or smaller, those items must be moved or sold or donated.

From the top down, the costs of owning that extra space is equal to the expense of the additional square footage (including increased rent/mortgage/insurance/property taxes), the added utility cost of heating/cooling the area, the amount spent on the furniture, the time to purchase the furniture, the time spent cleaning the area and its furnishings, and finally the time or money spent on ensuring that the furniture be moved, sold, or donated.

I was once the type of person who bought things because they were a good deal. This led me to buy things I wouldn’t otherwise buy, things with only a single use, and things bought on impulse. I’m pretty sure I’ve even bought DVDs of films I could watch on Netflix just so that I could have them on my shelf. A lot of media shelves are just trophy cases. I once ventured onto eBay and, in a moment of carnal male weakness, bought multiple sets of throwing knives.

There is a psychological cost to ownership as well (beyond the guilt of buying weaponry on eBay). You may experience buyer’s remorse. Items you own must be protected from theft, insured against destruction, perhaps kept away from pets or children. They must accurately represent your personality to friends and guests. If you stop liking an item in your living space, it must be removed and maybe replaced.

My relationship with possessions has slowly evolved and each time I travel I’m reminded of how little I actually need. That is why, the last time I was “home,” I made an active effort to rid myself of all my possessions. Not everything, of course, but I wanted to be able to fit my life into a couple backpacks. Beyond the psychology and wasted resources, fewer things, for me, equated increased mobility.

So a great eBay and Craigslist adventure began, and I sold off everything I could, slowly but surely, over a period of four months. What couldn’t be sold was gifted. And what couldn’t be gifted was donated. I was planning another escape, though in the beginning I didn’t quite know it. I can say first hand that the process was liberating. With each thing that left my possession, I felt lighter, freer, even cleaner. I realized I had been acting as the manager of all of these things. On some subconscious level, they were on my mind, a part of me in some way. And then they weren’t.

Photo credit: Martin Gommel

How We Killed the Universe

One summer a I found myself on a Colorado bluff with an elevation of about 11,000 feet. As blue skies turned to gold, my friends and I built a fire, boiled ramen noodles, and pulled the cork from a bottle of wine. We passed the bottle as the Earth turned its back on the Sun, pulling us into shadows.

You can face east at sunset and watch darkness rise. The darkness climbed higher and soon specks of light began popping out for us from across the oceans of time. The Milky Way hung above us and we became very, very small. Our pasts and our futures seemed to shrink before us and vanish with a wink.

It is a powerful tool to be able to zoom out so far that one’s entire life simply vanishes. If any one experience can be said to put life in perspective, it is most certainly gazing at the starscape above us. I have come to realize the unfortunate truth that many of us are not often afforded this lens. The advent of electricity brought light pollution and in the span of a few generations we have mortally wounded the night sky and with it our window to the universe.

There was a time when every human was given a nightly reminder of their own smallness. For city dwellers, which now make up around 80% of the population for most developed countries¹ (and probably 99% of the world’s decision makers), it has become all too easy to forget that we are just the inhabitants of a living rock orbiting a star in a universe we barely understand.

Additionally, it has been discovered that thinking about distant things makes humans more creative. It seems like a safe bet that gazing at the stars would fall into this category. As we pile into cities under blankets of light are we reducing some of our original, internal insight?

I’ve become curious as to the psychological effect of our new bright nights. We have made some wonderful advancements as a species but I fear that conquering the night has left us with some unintended consequences.

Losing the beauty of darkness has been a subtle but strong ally in a disturbing perspective shift. A shift inward. We are beginning to lose nature’s cadenced transition between night and day. The metronome is developing an arrhythmia and as fewer naked-eye astronomers look up and ponder the cosmos, fewer still may question our place in it.

Have you ever experienced an emotional or intellectual breakthrough when gazing up at a star-filled night sky?

Further Reading:
Check out the International Dark-Sky Association

Images courtesy of Hubble and c@rljones via photopin cc
¹ Population data from World Resources Institute


Would You Invest in the Netflix for Toys?

Imagine your otherwise batshit crazy neighbor comes up with a big idea. Really big. The type of idea that could become the next Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or maybe just the next Coffee Joulies – how much would choose to invest? Let’s say you’re feeling restless and want to invest $1,000. Your neighbor thinks his idea is worth $50k. He’s willing to give you 2% equity in his idea/company if you put your $1,000 toward getting it started. He wants to go online and find 49 other investors. Today, as far as I can tell, there is no legal framework in the United States that allows this. You save $1,000 and you neighbor goes back to drinking bourbon and spying on lawn gnomes.

Jobs Act

President Obama, in the interest of gnome privacy, is preparing to sign the JOBS Act into law on Thursday (April 5, 2012). Once this happens, startups will be able to raise up to $1 million in funding from non-accredited investors (read: regular people). This appears to accomplish two big things:

  • It increases the total amount of money available to startups (theoretically should increase the number of startups that…start)
  • It gives the common citizen the ability to invest a small amount in an early-stage company

There are a few clear problems that come with this Act. Namely among these is the potential for fraud and the reality that these are very high-risk investments and those seeking funding might downplay that risk (or those doing the investing might be blind to it). For startups acquiring crowdfunding the failure rate could climb as high at 90%. Despite these drawbacks, I predict this change will be a net positive for both entrepreneurs and for the US economy.

I would really love to see a Kickstarter-esque platform grow out of this. Individuals would be charged only after the funding goal was reached and each investor would receive equity instead of (or in addition to) “rewards”. Using this platform investors could keep tabs on the various companies in their portfolio and companies could easily communicate with their numerous shareholders.

What are you thoughts? As a non-accredited investor, would you consider investing in a brand new company? Add your comments below. As for the title, sorry, that already exists.

EDIT (4/7/2012) – Toygaroo closed just a few days after I posted this article, reportedly because “the growth…experienced was simply too fast and [they] were not able to secure the additional investment needed” to sustain that growth.

Image stolen from The Huffington Post – Go read their stuff too.