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!
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