KDD 2019 September 6, 2019
I had the opportunity to go to KDD in Anchorage this past August. Since my team has incrementally moved our systems away from Python as our main language, I asked my manager whether it’d make sense for me to go to PyCon again (see my notes from 2016 and 2018), or if there’d be a more relevant conference that I should look out for this season. She suggested a few options, and KDD was one of them. I didn’t know much about it, but its focus on analytics meant that there would surely be pieces that were relevant to my day to day, and since it was Apple’s first year sponsoring it, there was extra motivation to attend. Continue reading...
Schelling Model Explorable July 4, 2019
I’m excited to be collabrating with Dirk Brockmann again, this time as part of his Complexity Explorables project. We built an interactive visualization of Schelling’s model for geographical segregation of human communities.
Check out the explorable visualization, and keep an eye out for others like it soon!
Thinking in Systems, a Short Review March 7, 2019
We know models to be untrue, but if they are close enough to reality we can use models to learn, imagine potential futures, and make better decisions. Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems is a study of models, and the ways in which seemingly different problems in various settings can be understood using the toolset of stock and flow analysis. Continue reading...
Books read in 2018 February 14, 2019
This is the third time that I re-cap every book I read in the preceding year. I guess this makes it a tradition. Like last year, I did not write as I read, so a lot of the nuance and the detail that I would have liked to include in this post was lost to some unreachable corner of my brain. Hopefully that part doesn’t become a tradition. Continue reading...
Links - December 25, 2018
- Here Comes The Downturn Jon Evans - Techcrunch
Merry christmas, shit hit the fan.
- How China’s Rulers Control Society: Opportunity, Nationalism, Fear Amy Qin and Javier C. Hernández - The New York Times
Another piece in this great series on China by the Times. There’s so much packed in here and in the rest of the series that I don’t even know what to highlight. Just go read it.
- On-Chain versus Off-Chain Computation, Turing Completeness and Zero Knowledge Proofs Albert Wenger - Continuations
In this piece, Albert explains an unresolved with smart contracts. He asks, “will a new smart contract cause any existing smart contract to misbehave?” This is a problem I hadn’t thought about until now, and it made me wonder, what are some blockchain projects trying to solve for this?
- Central Planning as Overfitting Vitalik Buterin and E. Glen Weyl - RadicalxChange
There are many reasons to dislike central planning. Most people arguing against it usually point to the economic calculation problem and the fact that even if the required data could be collated, which is on its own impossible, we wouldn’t have the compute power to make optimal decisions, so instead we should offload this process to markets. In this piece, Buterin and Weyl make an analogy to a common failure mode in statistically inferred systems (not necessarily machine learned) that is even easier to accept. I had not thought about it before, and found it very insightful. In short, they argue that systems with simpler designs, particularly those with less knobs for bureaucrats to fiddle with, are better. Our experience of highly complex systems don’t generalize well, so we should aim for less parameters to tune. This in turn also has the advantage of making systems less prone to corruption, since it is harder for the person behind the wheel to hide their actions behind the complex interaction effects of the system. Lastly, they discuss the differences between simple and familiar systems, and how a lot of the structures that organize our lives are actually quite complicated, but we’re used to them. You can consider the essay a proposal to apply Occam’s razor to political economy.
- FOSS is free as in toilet Geoffroy Couprie - Unhandled Expression
A play on the usual “free as in beer” of open source software, denouncing the tragedy of the commons implied by the organization system as it is today. “Let’s own up to the absurdity of talking about a personal freedom that depends mainly on hidden people working for free.”
- Thinking Ahead To 2019 Fred Wilson - AVC
It is interesting to think about how tech IPOs will interact with the bear market of the past few weeks. Here Fred argues that it’s about time for the private and public markets to sync up once again, and that the startup sector is well positioned to make things work. I’m not so sure.
- Messy desks and benign neglect allow ideas to grow Tim Harford
“Neglect is undervalued” - a good short piece. This idea applies to family life, to office productivity, and even urban design. If a space is too controlled, there’s no room for emergent behavior.
- Do I Deserve What I Have? Russ Roberts
Isn’t redistribution more just/fair than our current system? What kind of perverse incentives does it introduce? How do we avoid free-loading? And how do we make sure that redistributive taxation doesn’t deter innovation and entrepreneurship? As usual, Russ does a good job of asking the big questions and answering them smartly, with simple words. Don’t miss out on Part II, while we wait for the third installment.
- "When You Get That Wealthy, You Start to Buy Your Own Bullshit": The Miseducation of Sheryl Sandberg Duff McDonald - Vanity Fair
A strong critique of the cult of the MBA. This is not really about Sandberg, who sadly is just the scapegoat, but about the ethics of business, and the problems that arise from the antinomy of objective profit-seeking and subjective value-judgement. The author blames the great man theory as rehashed by HBS for many of the woes of the industry. I disagree with a lot of what’s said here. In the end nothing gets done without someone making decisions, and I don’t think the case method pretends to have The One Objectively Correct Answer, but it’s good to think about how respected institutions can improve.
- Facebook, Dynamite, Uber, Bombs, and You. Lana Brindley
“How could I use this product to do harm? […] Can I use this platform, this API, this plugin, this app, this feature to do something that, as reasonable moral human beings, we feel a little uncomfortable about?” These questions matter. The author’s point is these things shouldn’t exist, but instead that there are trade-offs in building them. We should think more about trade-offs.
- The Architecture Interview Susan Fowler
I’ve been interviewing a lot of people, and a few weeks ago I was asked to cover architecture for the first time. I had never built a distributed system until I started working at Apple. Sure, I’d used Heroku with a Redis instance and a Postgres DB, but all of that was totally abstracted away from me. Reading this was an eye-opener as to how much I’ve learned in the past few years, and it made me reflect on some of the interviews I had while switching teams - even two years ago I already felt skilled at systems design, and that experience is rare. Working at a place like Apple can really distort your perception of what’s normal.
- The Anti-Bill Gates Adam O’Neal - The Wall Street Journal
I first learned about William Easterly when one of my econ professors handed me his book, The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics. I read that a few years ago, and by now have forgotten many of its anecdotes, but its key point resonated with me and shaped a lot of my intuition behind economics. Essentially, Easterly shows that the classic top-down technocratic solutions that make up foreign aid tend to backfire in unexpected ways because they’re full of perverse incentives for businesses, bureaucrats, and individuals alike. The headline, and part of the article, opposes his views to those of Bill Gates which is gimmicky and click-baity, but the content is substantial. For a deeper dive into Easterly’s thought, check out his Econtalk episodes, or obviously check out his actual work EQG is a pretty easy read.
- Decentralized Identity Trilemma Maciek Laskus - maciek.blog
Your decentralized system can allow for (1) Self-sovereignty, (2) Privacy-preservation, (3) Sybil-resistance. Pick two.
- “Janesville” and the Costs of American Optimism Joshua Rothman - The New Yorker
I read this because Sean posted about it on Twitter. Turns out his family comes from there, which I didn’t know until after I read the article and told him I was adding this to my to-read pile. I have a very hard time understanding company towns. This book will be a good start.
- Anywheres vs Somewheres: the split that made Brexit inevitable Andrew Marr - New Statesman
I don’t really know much about Brexit, but this divide between “any-wheres” and “some-wheres” is an interesting one. For a while, I’ve been making a similar argument about the cosmopolitan urban elites vs secluded rural communities elsewhere in the world.
- The Yoda of Silicon Valley Siobhan Roberts - The New York Times
I never got into the Knuth cult, I have not read his books, and don’t pretend to know much about his research, but I know he’s a highly influential figure who changed the field of computer scince again and again in the last ~60 years. Reading about him, and how he spends his time these days was fascinating.
- China as No. 1 Economy to Reap Benefits That Once Flowed to U.S. Noah Smith - Bloomberg
Here, Noah points out what has been clear to many for a while: China is already the main world power, and the trend says that’s not gonna change. Still wrapping my head around the obvious implications & struggling to understand 2nd/3rd order effects. It made me think of this piece by Brian Brooks, the chief legal officer of Coinbase. If the replacement of the USD as the world reserve currency is a real worry near-term, it would be a good strategy for the US to push for a non-sovereign-backed currency instead of ceding the position to China. It’s like a kid, who knowing he’s lost the game, grabs the ball and takes it home with him early.
- GE Powered the American Century—Then It Burned Out Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann - The Wall Street Journal
This ~12k word story of the downfall of GE is crazy. I’m sure someone has studied it well, but don’t conglomerates go totally in the opposite direction of Coasian theory of the firm? Odd that the paper it comes from was written in the golden era of conglomerates. The section on GE Capital overtaking the industrial “real economy” branch of GE has a lot of echoes of Braeburn Capital. Odd to think of the financialization of industrial giants.
- I Used Gmail Auto-Complete, and Now I Know I’m Worthless Derek Thompson - The Atlantic
Perhaps I’m too much of a cynic, but I welcome these little time saving technologies. They help me more than they make me doubt my humanity. Thompson says near the end that “to see these technologies in action is to be confronted with the fact that we are not so very special or unique.” Good, someone had to break it to us.
- Bibi Was Right Ben Judah - The Atlantic
I used to follow Israeli politics quite closely, and Judah’s reflections here echo a lot of my own opinions. I remember grasping, as a 15 or 16 year old, for the first time grasping that Israel can’t be both democratic and Jewish in the long run, and how that realization changed so much of my world view. The world is going in a strange direction.
- The Itsy-Bitsy, Teenie-Weenie, Very Litigious Kiini Bikini Katherine Rosman - The New York Times
At first glance, this did not seem interesting at all. I only read it because several people I respect brought it up on Twitter as a great read, and it was! TL;DR this is a crazy story about a turkish woman who started a fashion company that sold a ton of really high end bikinis, then a bunch of companies like Victorias Secret and Neiman Marcus started copying her, so she sued them over it. In the end, she settled with VS, but it turns out she had copied the design herself from a woman in Brazil who sells bikinis at the beach, and there’s a whole legal shit-show about what copyright is supposed to be surrounding this case. Super interesting.
- What Is Glitter? Caity Weaver - The New York Times
This industry seems unnecessarily secretive, but this piece was pretty fun. It’s good science writing, although, I have to say, the self-deprecating tone felt a bit out of place for the NYT. I had never really thought about how glitter is made, and had always assumed it was some kind of shredded/pulverized metal. I guess it makes sense that it’s mainly plastic, since that’s much cheaper, but, again, I’d never thought of it.
- The World through the Eyes of the US Russell Goldenberg - The Pudding
A really simple visualization that says a lot. The author combed through 741,576 section front headlines since 1900, looking for which country got the most mentions in any given month. It’s pretty amazing how much attention Britain was given early on, and how much reporting about wars takes up the front page. Germany and then the Axis take over during the world wars, then there’s Russia during the cold war, followed Vietnam and Iraq. The fact that China takes up so much of the last ten years is also telling. This is a great project, I just wish the articles were linked, too.
- Marchel (Podcast) Heavyweight
Three seasons in, and I still don’t know how to describe Heavyweight. Jonathan Goldstein somehow manages to create amazing stories where I can initially see none. This time around, he tracks down the single guy who blew it during the filming of Russian Ark, an experimental single-shot full-length movie I had never heard of.
- Negative Mount Pleasant (Podcast) Sruthi Pinnamaneni - Reply All
An unusually political and not very internetty episode for this show, but still a very interesting listen about the interactions between local governments and corporations. It pairs nicely with this Planet Money episode about Amazon and NYC.
- Ancient Dreams of Technology, Gods & Robots (Podcast) Adrienne Mayor and Hanne Tidnam - a16z
A fun conversation about how humans thought about technology thousands of years ago, and how little some things have changed. I had never heard about Talos and especially liked that part of the podcast.
- Building Crypto, from Vision to Reality (Podcast) Brian Armstrong, Chris Dixon, and Sonal Chokshi - a16z
I really like the idea of cryptography enabling the “building blocks” style tech that Web 2.0 companies had promised many years ago. Today, no one wants to build on top of other people’s platforms, because historically, platforms end up screweing developers - just ask developers who built on top of Twitter. Crypto might finally lay out the right kinds of incentives, and lead us to a place where tiny services can actually ride on others’ rails. It’s still early days…
- Building Picks and Shovels (Podcast) Patrick O'Shaughnessy and Hunter Walk - Invest Like the Best
This was one of the most interesting episodes of Patrick’s podcast recently. Origin stories are always cool, but especially so when they’re so eclectic. Learning a bit about the decisions behind 2nd Life’s and YouTube’s early economies was fun, but what I found most insightful (by far!) was “is it a value or is it a tactic?” towards the end of the episode. We need to remember why we do the things we do.
- A Computer of One’s Own - Pioneers of the Computing Age Florencia Grattarola, Sebastian Navas, and Alvaro Videla - Medium
This isn’t a link to a single article, but to 24. Through this advent calendar, these three decided to tell the stories of 24 women who, as they explain, “made today’s computing industry as amazing as it is.” The whole set is awesome, but I especially enjoyed reading about Kathleen Booth and Wendy Carlos.
- Poland in the 80 Through the Lens of French/Swiss Photographer Bruno Barbey Bruno Barbey - Imgur
This set of photos from Poland in the 80’s is just 👌 Have you seen other similar photo sets that capture a culture at a single point in time? I’d love to see them!