Links - May 10th, 2018
- On Radical Markets Vitalik Buterin
Coordination problems are fascinating, and this review of Posner and Weyl’s new book gives a taste of their ideas on political economy, with a nice dose of crypto. From immigration, to private property, to the gig economy, the authors seem to have controversial but well founded solutions on how to tackle some of the hardest coordination problems facing society today. Game theory and technology are a great pairing, and one that I don’t think has been explored enough. I can’t wait for this EconTalk episode to come out.
- The Disturbing High Modernism of Silicon Valley Cal Newport
Having read Seeing Like a State earlier this year, this article resonated a lot with me. It takes James C. Scott’s message of being wary of authoratitave states bearing technology and good intentions, and applies it to Silicon Valley companies’ good intentions. Some technology companies are governments in their own way, and many of these web services are larger and more powerful than many nation states, allowing them to deploy large projects that affect the lives of millions of people. Unlike sovereign states, which in theory have aligned incentives with their citizens, companies have a series of other constituents with their own interests beyond that of their users. Our lives are starting to be permeated by these services, and, much like nation states, their grip is starting to become inevitable as more and more aspects of our lives are mediated by them.
- Time And Money Fred Wilson - AVC
Every business decision is at its core an exchange of time for money and vice versa. This is not just the case of a founder picking a VC, or investors picking startups, but also of employees deciding where to work, and average Joe thinking of where to put their savings.
- Don't Blame Airbnb for Rising Rents Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
Gotta love when economic analysis beats bad arguments.
- The Scientific Paper Is Obsolete James Somers - The Atlantic
There were a bunch of things I love reading about here. There’s history, there’s complexity science (that’s how I got into CS in the first place), there’s python, there’s UX, and more. If you’re interested in the future of education and the spreading of scientific knowledge this is a must read.
- Facts vs hand-waving in economics Chris Dillow - Stumbling and Mumbling
Most traditional economic models are based on bad assumptions: full information, rational agents, etc. Dillow uses the Modigliani-Miller theorem as an example of how this quickly breaks down, and uses it to argue for better undergad education. I mostly agree that there should be a higher emphasis on empiricism.
- The inefficiency of large, infrequent transactions Eugene Wei - Remains of the Day
And speaking of perfect information and economic assumptions that make no sense, here’s one that’s ususally ignored altogether at the undergraduate level: symmetric information. This post discusses the problems of infrequent transactions (think a company going public, or a person buying a house) and how one side of this market has a clear advantage over the other.
- Conceptual Compression David Heinemeier Hansson - Signal V. Noise
This is a wonderful post about how computer science concepts are abstracted over again and again, making it much easier to build things without knowing the details of what happens under the hood. It made me think of Alfred North Whitehead’s quip: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” It also reminded me of an essay about constraints in programming and how over time we’ve decreased the surface of what a programmers can do, enabling them to do what they actually want to do more easily.
- Like the Ancients, We Have Gods. They’ll Get Greater. Robin Hanson - Overcoming Bias
Everyone has been talking about Hanson for other reasons recently. Here he makes an interesting argument about modern celebrities and human nature.
- Trade Wars, Stranded Assets, and the Stock Market (Wonkish) Paul Krugman - The New York Times
If you believe in specialization, you should believe Krugman’s argument on trade wars. He basically says there’s two reasons for the stock market’s current drop re the potential trade war: 1) Efficiency loss imposed by artificial costs on international trade, which undo specialization (tariffs). 2) Stranded assets, which are worth more on paper than on the market. I’d say there’s a third thing in play here: behavioral overshooting. In any case, the stranded asset thing is interesting. It isn’t just the soon-to-be unproductive factories in China that lost value, but also their counterparts in the US, like real estate owned by foreigners.
- The Many Traditions of Non-Governmental Money (Part I) Nick Szabo - Unenumerated
Sadly, Szabo has not yet released the second part of this series yet. He argues that we’ve forgotten that money used to exist outside of the State’s purview, and it is implied in his argument that cryptocurrencies are just a reversion to older models of money without state intervention.
- The Thing I Love Most About Uber Bill Gurley - Above the Crowd
Obviously Gurley is biased about this company, but he makes some really great points about the gig economy, and Uber’s role in kickstarting it. If there’s a single thing that we should thank Kalanick and the company he’s built for, it’s the availabilty of flexible work options.
- The Suicide of the West (Podcast) Russ Roberts and Jonah Goldberg - EconTalk
EconTalk has been killing it lately with their interviews. I usually don’t agree with most conservative arguments, but Goldberg makes some really interesting points in this episode. Especially interesting was his point about celebrity (related to Hanson’s from above) and how tribal thinking has overtaken the republican party.
- The Tyranny of Metrics (Podcast) Russ Roberts and Jerry Muller - EconTalk
An hour long conversation of what essentially is Goodhart’s law. Clearly the focus is on policy and social cooperation, but a lot of this conversation can be applied to software engineering and entrepreneurship.
- The High Price of Cancer Drugs (Podcast) Russ Roberts and Vincent Rajkumar - EconTalk
A great conversation on the economic tradeoffs of healthcare. I recently discussed this with a good friend who’s dad is going through sever medical issues and is in need of a transplant. It is easy to discuss these things in the abstract, but when you put a face to the problem then discussing whether society should cover the cost of medication that could extend someone’s life for another year or two gets way harder. It’s a tough conversation, but one worth listening to.
- Border Trilogy Part 1: Hole in the Fence (Podcast) Radiolab
This series on borders is full of maddening stories of how people treat each other at borders. Parts 2 and 3 are also totally worth listening to.
- The Rational Madness Of The Used Car Salesman (Podcast) Planet Money
I have never understood the American model of car sales.
- Principles and Algorithms for Work and Life (Podcast) a16z Podcast
This interview with Ray Dalio was great. His management philosophies are very controversial, but his success running Bridgewater speaks for itself. Describing the reasoning behind his book, Dalio discusses how he tries to boil everything down to pattern matching. Since most things have some similar precedent in the past, you can look at previous instances and act according to what history tells you will be the successful decision. Essentially, it’s real life Duck Typing. If you define ahead of time what your principles are, and how you’d behave in a certain situation based on your knowledge of previous experiences, then nothing is surprising. Importantly, you have to be a student of history for this strategy to work.
- Feedback Loops — Company Culture, Change, and DevOps (Podcast) a16z Podcast
This conversation tries to showcase philosophies and practices from the software engineering world to a less technical audience, but does end up going in the weeds. The main idea behind dev-ops is one I subscribe to: empowering engineers to not only be in charge of designing and building a new feature, but also of deploying it, measuring its reliability, and owning its delivery throughout its life. By virtue of having one group of people responsible for the whole life cycle, there is an alignment of incentives that leads to more reliable, easier to deploy software.
- Improv’ing Leadership (Podcast) a16z Podcast
Dick Costolo is an unusual guy for Silicon Valley. This interview gives a window into his background in theatre and improv comedy, and how those experiences changed his management style for the better. About halfway through, he made a great remark: “As a leader, it’s not your job to prevent mistakes from happening, it’s your job to correct them when they happen.” I could not agree more. When you’re trying to prevent errors, everything slows down, and innovation stops. It’s the opposite of what you want.
- Random Acts of History (Podcast) This American Life
Teaching requires empathy in order to figure out how to transfer knowledge that has already been synthesized in their teacher’s head to the student, who has a very different set of anchor knowledge than whatever the teacher already does. To put themselves in the shoes of the student, and make a new idea accessible to them in known terms is what makes teaching hard. Good museums, movies, and books, are built by people who recognize that fact. The first act, where a group of black kids are innocently brought to the movies to watch Schindler’s list was fascinating, precisely because the protagonist teacher had not considered that those kids would have no anchor to understand the movie.
- Python Environment Randall Munroe - xkcd
Links - April 03, 2018
Here I am, keeping my promise, and posting less links, more often:
- For VCs, Your Thesis Is Your Portfolio Page, Everything Else is Just Hopes and Dreams Hunter Walk
This is definitely targeted at someone, but I can’t figure out who. Over the years I’ve realized that VCs, are not really gatekeepers, and they follow the same patterns of competition as everyone else. This post by Walk is an example of that dynamic. I like the idea of the VC portfolio page as a lagging indicator of what the VC wants to invest in.
- How referendums break democracies Tim Harford
A thousand times yes. The average citizen knows nothing, is easily manipulated, and does not consider second and third order consequences. The 95 percentile citizen is not that different either. We outsource policy decisions and let politicians take care of things not because people are dumb, but because understanding the nuances of policy takes time and effort. Modern society believes in specialization and, by extension, if we let politicians be politicians while dentists take care of teeth and farmers take care of farms, everyone is better off.
- Trade and the Cities (Wonkish) Paul Krugman - The New York Times
Krugman discusses how running a deficit vs. a surplus is about math and accounting and not about winning or losing, but just plain accounting. Then he goes on to compare international trade to inter-state trade. Inter-state and inter-city interactions are super interesting. I’ve always wondered why there isn’t more research along these lines. Made me wonder whether there is a dataset that could be used to replicate the methodology of Dirk Brockmann’s research on mobility and effective communities, but capturing trade instead of commerce.
- We Need Mandatory Enduser APIs for Social and Search Systems Albert Wenger - Continuations
An extension of Albert’s well known idea of bot representation. For most people “bot representation” is too abstract, but his rephrasing to “any system with 1 million+ users should by law be required to issue users with personal API keys” is quite clear. Brings up questions about the boundary of one user’s data and the next user’s data (ie, MY post on YOUR profile), what constitutes enough APIs to meet said standard, and who gets to decide these terms. These systems do things on many layers, not all available via UI. They’re different per user and change over time. The data that the API consumes and produces today looks different than it will tomorrow. The software engineering side would be a nightmare. But that can be solved with incentives. The more interesting question is whether we get access to the derived data, or just the raw. Am I only allowed access to my data points, or also the aggregates computed over time and in relation to other users? It’d be awesome to see something like this implemented.
- The Death of the Newsfeed Benedict Evans
A discussion of how we consume information, and the cyclical nature of how we share things online. Evans’ comparison of the number of items in your news feed to the number of invitees to a party is a clever analogy (kinda like Big O!) but the essay is fraught with uncharachteristically bad assumptions. Stories are less so about “units of content” than about market segmentation. Stories are a news feed, even if in a different format, and don’t solve the oversharing problem - you still get N*M pieces of content.
- Facebook's Ideological Imperialism Robinson Meyer - The Atlantic
This problem has existed for ages. Technologists and scientists work on things because they are cool, and because they want to push science forward, regardless of the implications. The debate about whether technology is inherently good or not will keep going.
- The many traditions of non-governmental money (part I) Nick Szabo - Unenumerated
When people in 2018 think of money, they think of it much like we think of the nation state - this is how things work in the world, we are all citizens of some country, and that country issues its state-sponsored currency. Most people don’t consider that history has followed different paths, and that we’re not at the end of history. Within our lifetimes these institutions will probably shift shapes.
- It's time for an RSS revival Brian Barrett - Wired
I still use RSS daily. It aggregates the tiny blogs that produce content at a very slow rate, which I have no motive for visiting between posts, as well as socially ranked content from sites like Hacker News. The volume that I consume is relatively high, but the top of the funnel is limited on purpose, in ways that maybe it shouldn’t be. Going back to Evans’ post above, I think that having something with levers and knobs would be amazing, but I know I’m part of the fringe. The closest I’ve gotten is RSS.
- Is Python interpreted or compiled? Yes. Ned Batchelder
This is one of those topics that confused me for a long time about Python. Ned’s post is more of a description of the lay of the land than an explanation of how and why things work the way they do in Python, but it has inspired me to go and dig through those bytecode talks he linked to, and learn more about Python internals.
- Everything I know about life I learned at Al's Deli Kate Bernot - The Takeout
If you went to Northwestern, Al’s was a staple. I walked in front of the shop daily, on my walk from home to school, and I probably had their sandwiches at least once a week while I lived in Evanston. This essay made me nostalgic about college life, and now I’m craving their croissant with baked ham and swiss.
- Evolving Alien Corals Joel Simon
An amazing procedural generation piece. The fact that it is both 3D, and animated, makes it all the more interesting.
SF Cityscapes March 30, 2018
I have been making an effort to carry my camera with me whenever I take public transit to work in the morning. I usually bike, but a couple of weeks ago, my bike got stolen. The result? An upset Avy. The other result? More city photos from downtown San Francisco. More...
Links - March 26, 2018
I have been awful at sharing links lately, and I haven’t quite figured out why. Partially it is because my consumption patterns have changed. I’m reading more books on paper, spending more time reading tweets, and devoting many many hours a week to listening to podcasts - according to my phone’s stats, I’m spending 8 hours per week on Overcast (at 1.5x, not counting smart speed!) and another 4 hours per week on Twitter (plus however long I spend scrolling on my laptop). That’s a ton of content, and sifting through to decide what’s worth sharing is tough.
I’ll try to go back to sharing a bunch of smaller posts instead of these huge lists going forward. We’ll see how that goes.
Anyway here they are:
- Let’s Get Better at Demanding Better from Tech Cory Doctorow - Locus Magazine
This column asks questions about the future of technology, and which technologies are worth supporting. As you’d expect, it brings in some “marginal cost of 0” ideas, along with questions about what the structure of society should be, and what should be the role of corporations in a financialized world. Ultimately, it pushes us to remember human agency. Being a cog in one of these machines, I can tell you how easy it is to forget we have that.
- Dorm Living for Professionals Comes to San Francisco Nellie Bowles - The New York Times
These are re-branded and remodeled SROs, but people on both sides are doing mental gymnastics to convince themselves otherwise. On the one hand, you have the residents, signaling that their (probably annoying) neighbors are their best friends, and on the other you have the developers who are selling the renewal of these buildings as a good thing for the neighborhood (which I agree with) and a good thing for the residents (which, eh…). Honestly, I was suprised that the NYT was not more critical of this. It adds another layer to San Francisco’s patina of dystopia.
- Pierre Menard, Inventor of LISP Alvaro Videla
If you haven’t read Borges’ Pierre Menard (that’s the original, for an English translation, click here), you should. The text provides amazing commentary on authorship, creativity, and intellectual property. In his piece, Alvaro takes it a step further - Pierre Menard’ing Menard, and rewriting the story as an allegory of computer science in the spirit of Borges. It’s just amazing.
- The DACA and immigration debates are about whether Latinos are "real Americans" Will Wilkinson - Vox
In these days of political craziness, it’s good to remember history. “Trump supporters who thrill to the idea of a ‘big, beautiful wall’ on the border largely fail to grasp that the ancestors of many of the people they want to keep out have been here all along, and that people cross back and forth over the border in part because the border crossed a people.”
- Doctors, Revolt! Rich Joseph - The New York Times
Reading this reminded me of this piece on measuring surgeons’ skills and making decisions on who gets to perform surgeries based on that. Medicine is a very tricky industry (is it even ok to call it an industry? or is that healthcare?), where we don’t set up incentive systems that we know lead to better outcomes because it’d reveal that we don’t really trust our doctors. Doctors are people, and if we give them something to optimize for, they’ll optimize for it. Let’s pick the right thing: patients.
- How is the world ruled? Branko Milanovic - globalinequality
Bottom up or top down? I think neither. Lately I’ve been really conflicted about this idea of whether single humans can effect change in the world, and how.
- Batching Mental Transaction Costs Elaine Ou
This post describes one of the reasons why “micropayments” just don’t work. Yes, I’m in theory willing to pay a cent to read some article or blog post, and I could spend $N/month on content, but having to think about whether or not I want to pay for something or not adds significant friction. This is also why you’d rather open Netflix and scroll for ten minutes through bad content instead of opening the iTunes Movie Store and scroll for two.
- Fitter, Happier, More Productive... and other fantasies of millennial life. Slightly Marxist Founder
A good essay on productivity and lifehacks, and the stories we tell ourselves about human life in 2018 through the lens of Radiohead’s Ok Computer. The accompanying art is worth it on its own, too.
- The Moral Life of Babies Paul Bloom - The New York Times
I took a psychology/philosophy class on the moralities of everyday life on Coursera, and out of all the research that was presented this was one of the more interesting projects. Bloom, who taught the class on Coursera, presents evidence to show that babies are not really clean slates, but instead come with a built-in genetic morality. From a really young age, kids understand empathy, and can discern good and evil. This innate morality is limited, but it appears in babies across cultures, which is just mind blowing.
- The War on Reason Paul Bloom - The Atlantic
Another one by Bloom, from the same class described above. I didn’t even remember having read this one, but when I put it in Pocket I got a little star next to it, which warned me that not only had I read it, but I had really liked it. It brings up great arguments for and against determinism, moral objectivism, and free will.
- The Brain on Trial David Eagleman - The Atlantic
And yet another one that I got from that same class.
- Nothing Is "Standard" Fred Wilson - AVC
The realization that things are the way they are because of path dependence has become more and more prescient in my life lately. This anecdote is a good example of someone side stepping inertia.
- Who Gets to Graduate? Paul Tough - The New York Times
I recently signed up to volunteer with Scholar Match. Their intake process is long, so I have not yet done any actual volunteering yet, but I did have to read this piece for their training. It’s about leveling the field for incoming freshmen in college who come from underprivileged backgrounds via mentoring and tutoring programs. According to the article, the research was quite positive with their test groups, so much so that they extended the process to include the whole incoming class to U.T. that year, which is about to graduate now. I wonder what those numbers look like.
- It's still hard for beginners to get started with Python Vicki Boykis
I constantly remind my team to try to get into a beginner’s shoes when writing documentation, and to think carefully of every word they’re using when documenting code. My go to is “What would you think if you read that on your day 1 at the office?” Thinking about this problem at a more macro scale (i.e., all people learning python, not just seasoned engineers learning the ins and outs of a large system they’ll help develop) makes for an interesting change of perspective.
- World After Capital Patrick O'Shaughnessy, Albert Wenger - Invest Like the Best
On a previous episode of Patrick’s podcast, the conversation turned to the role that attention plays in consumption. Naturally, that led to talk about Albert’s book, World After Capital, and how we’re shifting to a world where the scarcest asset is human attention. I tweeted back saying I’d like to hear them discuss further, and they did!
- Economics for the 21st Century (Podcast) Russ Roberts, Arnold Kling - EconTalk
Most economics taught in school is based on ideas that are hundreds of years old. In most colleges,(including my own) courses at the undergraduate level are focused on the theory, and the idealized models that describe the interactions between firms, labor, and widgets, which don’t really apply to our reality today. In many ways, this is related to the conversation between O’Shaughnessy and Wenger linked to above. Our world is full of intangibles. Our economics education should evolve to deal with them.
- The Case Against Education (Podcast) Russ Roberts, Bryan Caplan - EconTalk
When I took a class on public finance in college, we devoted a total of an hour and a half to this topic. From the minute I heard about signaling theory, I was completely convinced. If you are at all interested on education, and how people make decisions about their lives, listen to this.
- The Enemies of Modernity (Podcast) Russ Roberts, Helen Pluckrose, and James Lindsay - EconTalk
Yes, a third EconTalk episode. Sorry, not sorry. I have to confess I have not yet read the manifesto, but I soon will. Pluckrose and Lindsay make a strong argument to embolden science, reason, democracy, the rule of law, and moral progress. It’s crazy that these are things that need to be argued for, but we live in strange times.
- Bijlmer (City of the Future, Part 1) (Podcast) 99% Invisible
Lately, Roman Mars and his friends at 99PI have been doing great work explaining the evolution of cities, urban planning, and state sponsored development projects. This one on CIAM’s Bijlmer project reveals a lot of the problems of modernist architecture. Having just read Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Scott’s Seeing Like a State, made this extra interesting. Don’t miss part two.
- Fordlandia - (Podcast) 99% Invisible
This one, about Henry Ford’s failed project in Brazil was also fascinating. It’s packed with great tid bits of economics, culture, and incentives management. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something similar happening with American corporations setting out for a modern equivalent in China today.
- Networks, Power, and Chaos (Podcast) Sam Harris and Niall Ferguson - Waking Up
I’ve been on a Sam Harris binge lately, and it all started from this podcast episode. I’ve been meaning to read Ferguson’s work for years, and this discussion of his latest book gave me an even stronger reason to do so. At first I was interested because of the analysis of power networks and institutions throughout history, but when I realized that the use of the word network was not casual, but actually referring to network science, I was totally sold. I’ll make a big effort to read it this year.
- Rigging The Economy (Podcast) Planet Money
Protectionism and lobbying are staples of the American economy. Here, more so than in many other countries, the government is structured in a way that incentivizes this. In this episode, Lindsey and Teles, come together from different sides of the political spectrum and show why the captured economy is a problem. For a more academic in-depth version of this, you can also check out the EconTalk episode interviewing the same two guys.
- P Is For Phosphorus (Podcast) Planet Money
Everyone needs food to live. Most food comes from fertilized fields. Most fertilizer is made with phosphate, which is derived from phosphorus. Most phosphorus comes from Morocco. Morocco is a monarchy. How insane is it that the future of humanity is so tied to a single person’s whim, and no one knows about it?
- The Evolution of Payments (Podcast) a16z
Stripe is a really interesting company, and hearing John Collison talk about where it is going is fascinating. First, he talked about the idea of pitching a company for customers that don’t yet exist, which is kind of crazy, but by definition visionary. Then, they also discussed being seen as a value-add or a toll-taker. I’ll probably re-listen to this one in a few years, just like this other a16z episode on marketing and positioning. Neither is relevant to my current role, but eventually they will come in handy.
- Five Women (Podcast) This American Life
Hannah listened to this before me, and insisted that I had to hear it. I truly don’t understand how this has been acceptable behavior for so long.
- The Walls (Podcast) This American Life
Episodes of TAL are divided in several acts, and for the most part the various acts are of similar quality in any given episode. On this one, act one knocks it out of the park with a story of immigration into Europe via two tiny Spanish enclaves in Africa.
- Voyages in sentence space Robin Sloan
I work in a tangential field to NLP, and constantly deal with experts in the field, whose explanations can go over my head. Any time I’m pointed to good resources on the topic, I get happy. This is one of them. Additionally, for a good intro to word vectors in general, and how to compute them, you can check out Understanding word vectors, a Jupyter notebook by Allison Parrish.
Q1 Hikes March 25, 2018
A collection from the last few months around the Bay Area.
Friends moving to SF, family members visiting, and great weather are all good excuses for day trips around here. More...