Links - October 16, 2017
I read a bunch of stuff this weekend. Most of the things I read were about the interactions between tech and policy. There is a strange techno-skeptic somber mood that makes me feel weird about the future, and I am trying to read and write a lot about it to clear my thoughts.
I’m part of a generation that never knew the world before the internet. Did it always feel like we’re in a dystopia?
- The Transaction Costs of Tokenizing Everything Elaine Ou - Elaine's Idle Mind
As I’ve mentioned again and again, the value of ICOs, tokens, and cryptocurrencies is in the new economic structures they enable. In her post, Ou goes through some late 90s/early 00s history of failed protocols and ideas which are now actually possible thanks to blockchains. However, the point of her post is that the potential benefit of the introduction of blockchain comes hand in hand with an increased friction in the form of transaction costs. Whether the benefit of deploying these ideas is greater than the friction introduced remains to be seen, and that is what will make or break each of these crypto projects.
- The Political Awakening of Silicon Valley Vauhini Vara - The California Sunday Magazine
I have long held the view that governments operate with relative ignorance from what their constituents want - not because of nefarious reasons, but because humans are humans and communicating our needs and desires is individually really hard, and nearly impossible at the collective level. The Silicon Valley mindset has its blind spots, but the fixation on experimentation and short feedback-loop iteration is something that could improve policy decisions. It is good to see the top brass realize some changes need to happen outside of the market.
- The scale of tech winners Benedict Evans
Today, unlike in the past 50 years, there isn’t one big tech company at the helm directing the path of technology a-la IBM/Microsoft. Instead, incessant competition between the big four means these companies are always on their toes, and that they are always thinking of how to reinvent themselves. This is a point that Evans has been making a lot lately, and which makes me optimistic about the future of technology. However, these companies are huge, and growing bigger day by day in a way we have not experienced before. The implications of that are not clear. Pardon me the long quote, but it’s too good to pass up:
There probably won’t be a technology that has 10x greater scale than smartphones, as mobile was 10x bigger than PCs and PCs were bigger than mainframes, simply because 5bn people will have smartphones and that’s all the (adult) people. There will be something, though, and though ’something will change, but we don’t know what’ is an unfalsifiable point, so is ‘nothing will change’, and I know which side of that argument I find more likely.
- The real roots of early city states may rip up the textbooks Ben Collyer - New Scientist
I started reading Scott’s book, Seeing Like a State, and found it super dense, but also super interesting. I need to finish it, and then also read his new book, which is covered in the article. The origins of the state, and the coercive systems that come with it are fascinating. At some point people agree that the overall benefit from these institutions is higher than any alternative, but the state machinery quickly becomes a self fulfilling prophecy - path dependence is real. Upending our understanding of how states came about could really change what we consider as possible paths forward, which is what’s most exciting about understanding them in the first place.
- The only job a robot couldn’t do Daniel Carter - The Outline
A highly dystopian article. The presentation of this gig economy company as a consumer education platform is frightening. The fact that a team of engineers is building this, consciously, makes me upset. This is not an algorithm pulling the wrong thing into a feed, or acting upon the biases in a training dataset - these are people building the infrastructure for an ominous future. Why watch Black Mirror when non-fiction reads the same?
- Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend Noam Cohen - The New York Times
The article was really good. However, it’s something that the average person outside SV does not find problematic. People think of FB/Google/Amazon/etc as benign - we use them because they’re better than alternatives. The problem is, the more we use them, the more they become irreplaceable. Network effects/economies of scale here are a strange loop. Google is good because it has all our data, it’s bad because it has all our data. There’s a lot to be worked out here. How much of it is narrative, versus actual skepticism.
- Becoming a Steelworker Liberated Her. Then Her Job Moved to Mexico. Farah Stockman - The New York Times
With in depth stories like these, it is clear that the NYT is working hard on showing more stories of Trump’s middle-America. There are many interesting topics here: identity and the meaning of work, the decreasing role of labor unions in US businesses, the politics and incentives of health care, the education system, race, gender, otherness, etc. What I was least expecting were the direct comparison between the Mexican workers and the Midwesterners - one’s perception of the other as rich with their multiple-times higher salary, and the other’s misconception of what things are like outside their geographic bubble. This is good reporting.
- Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies Paul Krugman - The New York Times
With this blog post, Krugman seems to have forgotten some of his pre-election punditry. Nevertheless, he makes a number of great arguments, backed by data and peer reviewed studies. Since most of you won’t click through, here’s the TLDR (all these are lies being fed to the American public):
- America is the most highly-taxed country in the world
- The estate tax is destroying farmers and truckers
- Taxation of pass-through entities is a burden on small business
- Cutting profits taxes really benefits workers
- Repatriating overseas profits will create jobs
- This is not a tax cut for the rich
- It’s a big tax cut for the middle class
- It won’t increase the deficit
- Cutting taxes will jump-start rapid growth
- Tax cuts will pay for themselves
- Meet The CamperForce, Amazon's Nomadic Retiree Army Jessica Bruder - Wired
I knew that Amazon employed a ton of seasonal workers, but I had no idea of the extent of the program, nor the fact that most of the laborers were retirees. Bruder does a great job in this exposé, giving us a window into the dystopian labor conditions that her protagonists endure. Most interesting is the fact that for a non-insignificant group of the population, the pangs of the financial crisis are still very much alive. I also read a review of her book in the NYT, where the reviewer pointed out a fact I kept thinking about as I read the column - this is all about old white people. A big error of omission in an otherwise great read.
- From boiling lead and black art: An essay on the history of mathematical typography Eddie Smith - Practically Efficient
Technology is also interesting sometimes, not just dismal and apocalyptic. The printing press is a good example, and Smith starts his story there, leading all the way to today’s tooling. A somewhat misleading title, as it actually covers way more than just mathematic typography.
- The Crowbar Crowded Cities
To close on a good note, here is a cool project - training crows to collect cigarette butts, with computer vision and creativity!
Links - October 14, 2017
- What Facebook Did to American Democracy Alexis Madrigal - The Atlantic
A great summary of how social media’s influence creeped into the political landscape. Madrigal’s account is more thorough than I could even imagine. Perhaps the most interesting point about his piece - one that I had not seen made this clearly elsewhere - is that the 2016 election was not so much about blind-siding, but frog-boiling.
- Cryptocurrency Incentives and Corporate Structures Elad Gil
The reason cryptocurrencies, and the technology behind them, are exciting for me is not their insane returns, but the economic and political implications of creating totally new incentive systems. Matt Levine has a good summary of how these differ from the traditional VC backed company in yesterday’s Money Stuff, but Elad Gil’s post goes much more in depth into what kinds of corporate structures are enabled by crypto.
- Trustworthy Networking Ben Thompson - Stratechery
The notion that Trumpism arose thanks to the 2017 equivalent of a DDoS attack, or an SQL injection on social media has been going around for a while. Here, Thompson makes a good analogy between Facebook today and Microsoft in the early 2000s, and exposes the dangers of assuming people’s good intentions on your platform.
- Trump and Stocks: What Gives? Justin Fox - Bloomberg View
A lot of people are asking themselves how is it that the market is doing so well, when the political environment and various economic indicators make it seem like it should not. Many people predicted that with Trump as president, the US economy would not do well - myself included - so what’s going on? Fox argues that a good chunk of the growth is coming from increased consumption abroad, that investors expect Trump’s business friendly policies to be good for the market, and that maybe we’re just looking at the wrong metrics. One point he doesn’t make, and which I have not seen elsewhere, is that the dollar itself is losing value (nearly 6% since election day), so the bull-market is not actually as strong as it seems.
- When is a Dollar not a Dollar? Leo Polovets - Coding VC
I initially thought this would go in another direction, i.e. money from different VC firms comes with different kinds of strings attached, giving different investment dollars different real values. However, Polovets pleasantly surprised me with a list of how changes in the various lines on your balance sheet have very different effects, and how startups could make better decisions by keeping that in mind.
- I wanted to understand why racists hated me. So I befriended Klansmen Daryl Davis - The Washington Post
Racism is about ignorance, and this story is just one more example of it. I insist that all of politics distills down to applied otherness. Once you remove otherness, and you can see, um, others, as equals, it is much easier to agree on what a government should or should not do…
- Let Them Eat Paper Towels Paul Krugman - The New York Times
…and on that note, here’s Krugman showing how the administration, and a good chunk of the population, don’t see Puerto Ricans as Americans.
- The Athletic Brassiere (podcast) 99% Invisible
It is always strange to hear about how much thought and effort went into the development of products that I don’t use and totally take for granted. One of the things I like the most about Roman Mars’ podcast is that it exposes me to stories that I would never wonder about on my own.
- Suitable for Children (podcast) This American Life
More on race, history, and immigration.
- Flood Money (podcast) Planet Money
An explanation of the insane insurance system that allows people to live in flood-prone areas in Houston, and elsewhere in the US. Through the National Flood Insurance Program “one percent of homes have been responsible for more than 25 percent of the claims,” which is kind of the point of insurance - except when you stop and think that if this incentive system were not in place, people would just not live there! By insuring these homes at subsidized rates, the government is incentivizing dangerous behavior (living in a flood-prone area) out of tax payers’ pockets.
- Tim O'Reilly on What's the Future (podcast) EconTalk
An unusual EconTalk, where the topic is a mixed bag of technocracy and an optimistic outlook of the current technological revolution.
- The Super-Aggregators (podcast) Exponent
In case the Stratechery post above was not enough, here’s Ben doubling down. Aggregation theory paired with politics. Towards the end of the episode there is a discussion on how, via regulation, increased transparency in the decisions made by algorithms could enable journalists and citizens to openly review the outcomes of machine learned systems, which in turn would change the behavior of the advertisers and scammers. Overall, a good way to spend an hour.
A long short month September 30, 2017
September flew by. Somehow I did not post a single article, or photo in the whole month. I got a lot of things done, but it still feels like it was an intellectually unproductive period.
On to the next one. More...
Links - September 29th, 2017
September has been a long month. Moving apartments is both mentally, and physically taxing, and the process is extremely time consuming. These have been sitting idle in the draft box way too long, so here goes:
Flash Boys, a short review August 30, 2017
If you’ve ever taken an economics class, you probably know about arbitrage: exploiting the price differences of an asset on different markets by buying low, selling high, and pocketing the difference. I recently finished reading Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys, a book that sheds light on the many faces of arbitrage in the 21st century. Flash Boys is a story about the extent to which Wall Street banks, hedge funds, and other financial institutions apply high frequency trading (HFT) techniques to gain an edge over other players in the most competitive financial markets. Continue reading...