Thursday, December 15, 2011

They're All a Bit Crazy, But...

Andrew Sullivan endorses Ron Paul for the GOP presidential nomination. He's for Obama in the the general election, but has some good points.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Whither Our Technological Utopia?

At fairly regular intervals it seems I stumble across someone writing about the importance of the humanities--and that math and science and economic growth are muscling their way into everything, to the detriment of human flourishing. This thesis was best articulated by C.P. Snow in his classic essay The Two Cultures, and more recently Mark Slouka's spectacular essay Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School. The trouble, we're told, is the jettisoning of humanistic study for its own sake in favor of economic growth and national competitiveness as the sole ends in public life.

Yet in the past few years I've noticed something strange. More and more math, science, and technology advocates are making essentially the same argument for their own side: that the monolithic goal of economic growth is stripping from the world the intellectual justification of their pursuits. The wonder of science and technology has always been felt most strongly through big, paradigm-shifting advancements, and for whatever reason their frequency has declined lately. Peter Thiel addresses some of these issues in his sprawling essay The End of the Future; Neal Stephenson, in his essay Innovation Starvation, bemoans the loss of inspirational national projects and critiques the current mood in science fiction.

A recent Scientific American article suggests that NASA, with its vague ambitions and neutered horizons, should repurpose itself to identify dangerous asteroids and develop defenses against them. While this is certainly a worthy goal given the costs and benefits, such a change would give me pause. Must NASA have a specific, clearly measurable goal? Is a vague and open-ended mandate not what inspires and defines the agency? Perhaps I'm just a softie--a big asteroid project might be better than no project at all.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Power Players: Daniel Kahneman

Most of us are probably familiar with behavioral economics, which studies how and why human behavior deviates from the assumptions held by classical economics (e.g. the rational actor). Probably fewer are familiar with Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who, along with Amos Tversky, helped launch this interdisciplinary field. Despite having tremendous influence, most of his ideas have been interpreted and popularized by others. The demands of marketing and originality have thus built up a rather large corpus of Kahneman-boosting material, each highlighting a specific facet or application of his work. All the more enticing, then, when his first book for the lay public, Thinking, Fast and Slow, was released in late 2011.

Instead of simply identifying some small gap in the popular literature, Thinking, Fast and Slow is essentially a grand synthesis of behavioral psychology and economics: Nassim Taleb's focus on randomness and biases in epistemology (The Black Swan), Roy Baumeister's research into self-control (Willpower), Ian Ayres' thoughts on intuition and expertise (Super Crunchers), Cass Sunstein's theories on risk assessment (Risk and Reason), and Richard Thaler's conclusions about the normative implications for public policy (Nudge) all receive attention. Kahneman weaves these aspects together with storytelling, experimental accounts, and interactive games to articulate one simple theory: that human decisionmaking is governed by two systems, one fast, emotional, and unconscious, the other slow, calculating, and deliberate. Even with a high level of familiarity with these topics, Thinking, Fast and Slow is a great book to read, if only because it's written by the master himself. The few biographical bits scattered throughout the book are really interesting, describing Kahneman's work as a young psychologist working for the Israeli military.

Check out a great interview with Kahneman here, his fantastic TED Talk here, and a superb book review by the great Freeman Dyson here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Quote of the Week

In his “Republic,” Plato put forward the ideal of a state ruled by intellectuals who combined comprehensive theoretical knowledge with the practical capacity for applying it to concrete problems.  In reality, no one has theoretical expertise in more than a few specialized subjects, and there is no strong correlation between having such knowledge and being able to use it to resolve complex social and political problems.  Even more important, our theoretical knowledge is often highly limited, so that even the best available expert advice may be of little practical value.  An experienced and informed non-expert may well have a better sense of these limits than experts strongly invested in their disciplines.  This analysis supports the traditional American distrust of intellectuals: they are not in general highly suited for political office.
But it does not support the anti-intellectualism that tolerates or even applauds candidates who disdain or are incapable of serious engagement with intellectuals.   Good politicians need not be intellectuals, but they should have intellectual lives.
Gary Gutting, from a superb blog post at The Stone.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Imagining a Maker Revolution

This week's Economist magazine has a fantastic overview of "makers", describing some of the key technologies and businesses involved in this potentially paradigm-shifting (or destroying) movement. Sharing many similarities with open-source software, the maker movement is essentially open-source manufacturing, and is often grouped together with nanotechnology, synthetic biology, quantum computing, fusion power, and environmental sustainability as a potential tech trend that could lead the developed world out of its current innovation stagnation.

So what might happen if a huge chunk of consumer goods suddenly shifted production from factories to individual households? First let's consider the cultural response. There's no doubt free-market cheerleaders praise the Schumpeterian idea of 'creative destruction'--in the abstract. But when it comes to the individual industries at risk of being 'creatively destroyed', they tend to fight tooth and nail for survival: protecting themselves with political concessions and acquiring regulation, and by insulating themselves from competition through collusion and creating barriers to entry for new firms. We see a great example of this currently with the battle over SOPA, a proposed internet censorship bill.

Now, I'm certainly no strong adherent to communist philosophy, but parts of its critique of capitalism explain pretty well the elite response to disruptive innovation. Most new technologies or business practices might eliminate small industry segments, but nothing more. In these cases free market cheerleaders stay relatively passive. But if there are changes on the horizon that threaten big moneymaking in any systemic way, we see opposition. The internet was successful in changing the world in part because of its rapid development, and also because no one saw it coming. Economic revolutions that are obvious and occur slowly (environmental sustainability, say) provide plenty of time for capitalists to defend the status quo.

So let's bring it back to the maker movement. I could see a big backlash occurring by elites: "it will crash our consumption-based economy because people won't have to buy stuff anymore! Not to mention the job losses in retail and manufacturing! And has anyone really considered the threat to national security! Terrorists could be making guns and bombs right down the street from where your kids have little league practice!"

On the other hand, I'm not so sure small-scale distributed manufacturing would really be as disruptive as many predict. Even with a 3-D printer in every home, I doubt a very large proportion of people would tinker and design much. Outside of a small core of devoted amateurs, most of the blueprints for stuff would probably still come from big-name brands. Does anybody really think Lego would disappear if it wasn't manufacturing its own plastic blocks? Among rich-world companies, the shift away from manufacturing to ideas and marketing has been occurring for some time due to globalization. At this point it doesn't really matter where stuff gets made; high schoolers will always be willing to pay a little extra to print out hoodies with the trademarked Abercrombie logo on it (intellectual property rules would become really important under a maker revolution, but that's a topic for another blog post).

But this brings me to my last digression: a maker revolution's impact on developing countries. If the rich world no longer needs anyone to make its stuff, then what happens to the developing world? There are two likely development paths. First, the collapse of labor demand might arrest growth for some time (natural resource extraction would still be a source of growth, although with distributed production various cradle-to-cradle resource streams would likely develop in the rich world). Second, the developing world could chart a novel development path. When a country develops necessarily affects how a country develops, and just as Africa has leapfrogged on telecommunications using cell phones, so too might distributed production allow poor households to jump directly into relative material wealth. I'm not sure what will become of this intriguing movement, but generally the easier it is for creative people to turn ideas into tangible reality, the better.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Inside the Black Box

I recently saw Margin Call, a new film offering a fictionalized account of the 2007 market collapse. The movie takes place almost entirely within the Manhattan trading offices of a faceless financial institution presumed to be a major player in the unregulated mortgage-backed securities market. The action starts when a junior risk analyst discovers that the company is exposed to catastrophic losses, setting off a crisis mode within the management team. With disaster imminent, the firm faces two awful choices: be the first to sell off as many toxic assets as possible (directly causing a crash but ensuring the company's survival), or doing nothing and waiting until some other firm sees the danger and starts its own fire sale. As you may have guessed, there's not much of a choice.

The film is technically well-executed, with a great cast and an energetic pacing, but its main strength is in the sheer number of interesting questions and concepts packed into each scene. Chiefly among them is the inherent tension between the interests of the company and its employees. Throughout the film, there are two distinct narratives: one concerning the survival of the firm, and the other focusing on the economic "survival" of the individuals working there. The former is a linear narrative unfolding over the course of the whole movie; the latter is more interesting in that each major characters' precarious situation is only revealed gradually and in sequential order, moving up the layers of corporate hierarchy.

We start with the lowly risk analysts and traders. Then on to the department and floor managers. Then the division heads and VPs. And finally, after an artful build-up, the almost mythical CEO is revealed. At every level, the higher-ups are portrayed as living embodiments of the corporate will. Only after the attention shifts up a level do we see their very human predicament and the harsh incentive structure forced upon them which induces such misanthropic behavior. If the institution needs something to be done and an employee won't do it, then they're out. And someone new comes in who will.

Margin Call seeks to muddy the moral waters of the 2007 crisis in a most delightfully challenging way--by confounding the culpability of the rich one percent banksters we love to hate. To cite a classic example: assume one manages to balance a pencil straight up on its eraser. Obviously it will be precarious, and will soon topple. How shall we best assess causation in this example? In one approach we could  identify the particular wind gust that finally tipped the pencil from its perch. In reality, however, this situation is best explained by stating the obvious: that the pencil was tenuously balanced and obviously would soon topple, in one direction or the other. To blame a particular wind gust would be foolish. Its the system that counts.

Other topics explored include equality, the moral deserts of Wall St. traders and executives, and the work/play balance of life. It's a great movie, check it out.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Information Cocoon of U.S. Politics

In a new opinion piece, the German newspaper Der Spiegel eviscerates the current Presidential crop, and U.S. political culture more generally. A translated excerpt and summery can be found here. What is striking to me about this sharp critique isn't exactly the fact that it comes from Europe, although that is mildly terrifying (it means word is spreading about our Republican Party). Rather, it is the fact that I find Der Speigel's appraisal of our campaign so novel at all. Political coverage in the U.S. has chugged along this cycle quite oblivious to the unprecedented changes that have occurred over the last two years. The Republican Party is radically more conservative, it's presidential contenders are plumbing new depths of  puerility, and huge swathes of the population are openly disdainful of science and rigorous thought--notably on climate change risk assessment.

Maybe it's the media's craven policy on ideological balance, or perhaps it's the entanglement of media and government by way of money and manpower. Surely journalists' desire for their work to go viral plays into politicians' calculation that any publicity is good publicity, especially for amateurs with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Whatever the cause, it seems clear that the craziness of our politics scales with the looseness of our media, creating some quite noxious incentives. It's heartening that the rest of the world does not share our political rot, and yet horrifying that our news media knows it not.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Let's Have a Jubilee Year for the Tax Code

The federal tax code in this country has some problems. It's inefficient. It's regressive. It reduces national competitiveness (high corporate tax rates). It's out of touch, rewarding old industries and technologies while inhibiting innovation. It punishes productive behavior (income) while rewarding less productive behavior (renting real estate) and sometimes arbitrarily shifting economic activity from one thing to the other (buying bonds over stock, or purchasing health care through employers). It's also insanely complicated. Decades of new laws granting tax credits, exemptions, or special rates have narrowed the tax base and reduced revenues. On a sort of meta-level this complexity has increased the tax code's regressivity: richer taxpayers can afford accountants that navigate the arcane landscape of loopholes and deductions, effectively lowering their tax liability.

Of course, all this is nothing new. Washington has been talking about simplifying the tax code for decades. Yet legislators continually compound the problem by passing new tax credits and exemptions for particular groups at a steady pace. If you're in Congress and want to help out a certain group (demographic population, interest group, whatever) why take the heat in next year's election for creating a new Washington spending program (with all it's bureaucratic inefficiency) when you can simply add a targeted tax credit?

It is an unavoidable pattern that over time, democracies will add more laws than they repeal. Elected officials' legacies are measured in no small part by what sorts of new institutional commitments they get passed and implemented. A good example is George W. Bush creating the Department of Homeland Security. A more mundane, yet still significant example is President Obama adding a daily economic briefing to the existing national security morning briefing. The point is that keeping the status quo tends to be easier than changing it, and even though passing laws is difficult in our political system, once a law is passed it tends to stick around. How long will it be until a President receives a daily environmental briefing on top of the other two? Jonathan Rauch, in his aptly titled book Demosclerosis, explores this phenomenon and how it has contributed to a gradual calcification of our government, especially the tax code. Each tiny little tax credit is defended vigorously by the narrow group that benefits most from its continued existence, thus nobody wants to start a fight over something so insignificant in the scheme of things.

So what can we do about this incremental malaise? Obviously, passing some good tax reform laws would help tremendously. It's probably within the realm of possibility that sometime in the near future Democrats and Republicans will come together and make the technocratic fixes we've all heard about, broadening the tax base by eliminating worthless tax credits, reducing rates and increasing revenues and all that. But no matter how good a one-off fix might be, it still fails to address the deeper structural and institutional forces that push the tax code to become increasingly sclerotic, calcified, and complicated over time. So here's my thought: why try to fix them at all?

It's pretty clear that some things in Washington just wont change, and the ratchet of inefficiency is one of them. Lawmakers will always try to get reelected, reward particular groups, and establish a legacy of accomplishments. So what we really need is some sort of reform that channels these inner demons of our democracy into something good--or at the very least manages them. So I propose applying an idea that's been around for quite some time to the problem of our tax code: the Jubilee Year.

In biblical times, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah observed a tradition whereby every fifty years, a special "Jubilee Year" compelled a universal remission of sins, debts and prison terms for households and individuals. The practice was later picked up and formalized by Christians in 1300 under Pope Boniface VIII. Since then, symbolic festivities have replaced the original economic and political basis for the cyclical tradition.

The central idea of the Jubilee Year--a periodic wiping clean of economic and political commitments--is exactly what our tax code needs. Every fifty years, the federal tax code should scrub clean and revert to some minimal and simple core, wiping away all the special deductions, credits, loopholes, and targeted rules that have accumulated. After each Jubilee Year, legislators can get right back on with their business of rewarding interest groups and establishing a legacy, now with the added comfort of knowing that their policies aren't contributing to the long-term problem of bureaucratic inefficiency and loss of government dynamism. With good implementation and a little bit of luck, a Jubilee Year for the tax code might just stave of institutional senility for years to come.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Better Kind of Pundit

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post is one of the best political journalists and bloggers currently operating, mostly because he injects wisdom from political science into his commentary and analysis. Most political journalism is terrible because it makes no attempt to separate important details from unimportant ones. Nowhere is this more apparent than with presidential politics. For many reasons--not least it's easier to report and explain--journalists obsess over things like leadership, campaign minutiae, personalities, style, etc. Unfortunately, that stuff just doesn't matter very much when compared to deeper structural and institutional forces like Congress, the fed, macroeconomic trends, or voting systems.

In a recent debate with columnist Matt Miller over the prospect of third-party candidates, Klein articulates his position:
But I want to be really clear here. My answer is super unsatisfying. It is horrible. It is depressing. It makes you think nothing will happen for a long time. But that’s because that’s true. I mean, when you say what’s your answer, I don’t have an inspiring answer. I don’t have a something easy to get up and give a beautiful speech on. I’ve heard politicians give beautiful speeches. And I am sure — I’ve now looked at the literature to back this up — I am sure that those speeches are not going to bring change. Not the sort of change that you want, not the sort of change that I want. I am sure that if your guy got elected, he or she would come in and go to Congress and say, I want $50 billion for universal pre-K, and I want a transaction tax for the financial industry, and I want to make our health care system more like Singapore’s, and I want an energy tax that moves the corporate and payroll taxes over to carbon. And Congress would laugh at them, and that would be that. Because the president is not a king and he’s not a dictator.
And so my answer is that unfortunately, we have to do this hard, unpleasant, incremental work of making things better piece by piece, 5 percent, 10 percent of the time. And you know what? If that’s not equal to the scale of our challenges, well, the reality is that our institutions are unequal to the scale of our challenges. And that’s a hard thing to explain. But that’s why I spend so much time trying to explain it, and why I fight efforts to tell people that a third-party president can sweep in and solve our problems.
Reinforcing his point, Klein's fantastic review of Ron Suskind's Confidence Men is definitely worth checking out, as is this super-long breakdown of the economy since Obama took office. The blog post, 'Shrinking the Presidency Back Down To Size' also offers a nice summary of Klein's hobby horse.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Over-Analyzing The Obvious

There's been absolutely tons of commentary about the Occupy Wall Street protest from bloggers and journalists, much of it concerned with the apparent lack of specificity and cohesion regarding its goals. Will Wilkinson's two cents pretty much hits the nail on the head for me:
Set aside for a moment the question of the efficacy of protests and mass demonstrations as engines of social and political change. Isn't the efflorescence of spontaneous, meaningful community cheering in itself? Generally, I think it's a mistake to see phenomena like Occupy Wall Street or the tea-party movement as immediate inputs to reform. If one insists that this sort of thing must "make a difference" in order to justify one's support, it is possible to see protests, rallies, gatherings, be-ins and so forth—with or without intellectual or strategic cohesion—as investment in "social networking" and the inculcation of ideology and activist identity that may eventually pay dividends through conventional channels of reform. But that's boring, and life is too boring already, which brings me to my point. When life is both boring and lived within a matrix of maddening institutions, why not get together with thousands of like-minded folks, scream about it, screw up traffic, get arrested, whip one another into a frenzy of self-righteous indignation, spit on some people, provoke the jackboots, and maybe even wreck some stuff? Why is that not a good idea?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Patent Pending: The Ultimate Chase Scene

Lots of action movies have elaborate chase/fight scenes, often involving comical or remarkable settings and props. The popularization of parkour has made these scenes even more intense. Here's my suggestion: a chase scene occurring within a fictional modern & conceptual art gallery. The sheer number of possible hilarious and interesting visual devices would make this a joy to watch.

Characters could engage in high-flying, ariel acrobatics over hanging installations. Thugs could be dispatched with novelty and humor by utilizing bits of sculpture. Improvised weapons drawn from art materials would encourage wild and creative choreography. Not to mention the humor and instant marketing potential of destroying countless replicas of famous pieces in ironic or funny ways. Blood splatter disappearing into a Jackson Pollock painting, or marring the pure solid color fields of a Mondrian. A nose gets broken or an eye blackened as a Picasso painting slides into frame. Anish Kapoor's wax cannon leaves little to the imagination. Many sculptures spark emotion and thoughtfulness in their audience precisely because of their off-limits, no-touching status. Seeing an installation comprised entirely of ordinary cleaning supplies get knocked over, for example, would be existentially cathartic. Examples abound.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Quote of the Week

"Imagine you are on a boat docked in calm harbor and you want to quickly carry a brim-full cup of water across a stateroom without spilling. Now imagine the same situation but with the boat in rough seas. In harbor, the solution is simple: just walk quickly, but not so quickly that the water spills. At sea, speed is a secondary concern; now the real challenge is to maintain balance on an abruptly pitching floor. The solution now is to find secure handholds and footholds and to flex your knees to absorb the roll of the boat. In harbor, the solution is a simple optimization problem (walk as fast as possible but not too fast); at sea the solution requires you to enhance your ability to absorb disturbance--that is, enhance your resilience against the waves.
"Since the time of the agricultural revolution, the problem of environmental management has been conceived to be an optimization problem, like the example of carrying the water on the boat in the harbor. We have assumed that we could manage individual components of an ecological system independently, find an optimal balance between supply and demand for each component, and that other attributes of the system would stay largely constant through time.
"But, as we learn more about ecological and human systems, these assumptions are being shattered. Ecological systems are extremely dynamic, their behavior much more like the analogy of a boat at sea. They are constantly confronted with 'surprise' events such as storms, pest outbreaks, or droughts. What is optimal for one year is unlikely to be optimal the next. And, the structure and function of the systems continually change through time (and will change even more rapidly in the future as global warming becomes an ever-stronger driver of change).
"Quite simply, the basic framework underpinning our approach to environmental management has been based on false assumptions. In a world characterized by dynamic change in ecological and social systems, it is at least as important to manage systems to enhance their resilience as it is to manage the supply of specific products. In other words, we must apply 'resilience thinking' " 
From Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World by Brian Walker and David Salt (page x-xi)

Power Players: Paolo Bacigalupi

Identifying current trends in technology and culture and projecting them into the future has always been a big part of science fiction, and author Paolo Bacigalupi does this better than anyone with respect to the Earth's environmental conditions. Over numerous short stories (most collected in the spectacular anthology Pump Six) and a full-length novel (The Windup Girl), Bacigalupi describes human civilization trudging along through a bleak environmental dystopia, placing the reader at variable stages of collapse. Most of his short stories focus on one particular environmental facet, but taken as a whole a creepy sense of continuity emerges. Among the horror scenarios detailed are: peak oil, genetically modified food, transhumanism and naturalness, climate change refugees, biological warfare between agribusiness conglomerates, overpopulation, and water politics in a drought-devastated Southwestern U.S.  I recently read The Gambler, a fantastic novelette about near-future internet news coverage and environmental journalism. Check it out here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Incisive News Analyst

The newest Rap News video has been released, and it's definitely further outside the box than previous episodes:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What I've Been Listening To

I've noticed that in the basket of mediums that comprise my information stream (blogs, books, magazines, websites etc.), podcasts play a surprisingly large role. As such, I think they deserve a nifty new sidebar to accompany my other lists. A quick rundown of some of the podcasts that I attempt (in vain) to keep current with:

Math Mutation: A fantastic little podcast that covers a wide variety of math-related topics. It's short and read from a script, which usually entails tons of awkward but endearing jokes that fall utterly flat. (2-5 minutes, monthly)

On Point With Tom Ashbrook: The single greatest current-events interview show ever. Covers everything, with an emphasis on policy, authors on book tours, and trends. I get a lot of reading list ideas here after listening to interviews with the author. Definitely worth checking our regularly. (45 minutes, weekdays)

EconTalk: GWU economist Russ Roberts interviews economists about their specialities, with an emphasis on epistemology and the limits of economic inquiry. Roberts, who also blogs, is a fairly ardent libertarian but manages to keep the interviews mostly impartial. (60 minutes, weekly)

Scientific American: This magazine has a number of super-short factoid-podcasts that I absolutely love. There's one for psychology/neuroscience, earth sciences, space exploration/astronomy, health/medicine, and technology. It's probably the single best way to stay updated on interesting new scientific research papers. (60 seconds, weekly)

Science Friday: An interview show covering obscure topics in science. It's fun because it's probably the only major public exposure for many scientists (outside of the 'ol academic journal, that is), which means everybody is always super-excited. (100 minutes, weekly)

It's All Politics: My guilty pleasure, and a political scientist's nightmare. This podcast is devoted solely to horserace politics and predicting outcomes. (23 minutes, weekly)

Political Gabfest: This politics podcast is actually really terrible, and I only listen to it in order to remind myself of the importance of rigorousness in studying political topics. (50 minutes, weekly)

Surprisingly Free: A great interview show about the economics of technology. Associated with the Technology Liberation Front, a great blog. (30 minutes, weekly)

Philosophy Bites: Interviews with academic philosophers about their specialities. Sometimes it's great, but more often than not I walk away thinking many contemporary philosophers are excellent wordsmiths, but end up saying very little. Rarely does a guest argue against accepted public wisdom on any topic of importance. (20 minutes, monthly)

What The Solyndra "Scandal" Says About Government and Innovation

It's pretty clear that the Solyndra bankruptcy has been blown out of proportion by Republican politicians looking for a great attack line. But this extremely minor event is interesting because it helps us understand the conflicting incentives faced by many government programs. As many commentators have pointed out, the bankruptcy is no big deal: firms like Solyndra receive federal assistance precisely because their footing in the market is (at least initially) shaky. In fact, a company that exists at the limit of technological innovation going out of business could even be seen as a positive indicator; a sign that government is taking risks.

Critics are not without a point, however. As a general principle, wasting millions of dollars is never a good idea, and sinking $535 million of loan guarantees into a company that goes bankrupt provides a pretty decent prima facie case for asserting a government boondoggle. But consider the implications of jumping immediately to criticism. Are we really prepared to say that government should never, ever, spend money on stuff that might fail miserably, even when there's a chance of a massive positive outcome?

All organizations must manage the tension between cost-effectiveness (which encourages conservatism and status-quo practices) and innovation (which increases productivity and encourages experimentation). This tension is especially vexing for government because criticism is so intense in both directions. If government doesn't innovate (or use cutting-edge technology), it's a calcified mass of bureaucratic inefficiency. But when new programs or institutions fail (as they necessarily will), spendthrift government squandered our money on ridiculous pipe-dreams. Generally the second outcome is perceived as worse (it certainly makes a bigger media splash), which breeds an unhealthy level of risk aversion among politicians and civil servants.

So what can we do? Well, unfortunately there's no real solution on the level of a single organization, but there are ways to get around the problem using a more systems-minded approach. The free market innovates because one big success can more than make up for several past failures. But this solution only works because failures disappear pretty quickly, which frees up capital for new experimentation.

Government's real problem is not that it loses some money on bets that don't pay off (like Solyndra); the potential rewards are well worth the risk and on the whole public support for innovation is a good idea. The problem is with businesses like Solyndra who receive government assistance and don't go bankrupt. Zombie assistance programs that continue to draw resources with no probability of big future rewards are the real culprit. Unfortunately it takes time to identify such programs, by which time vested interests have entrenched themselves around the new status quo.

Still, this gets to the core of the solution: government programs should be more willing to subsidize research and innovation, but--critically--be more willing to cancel funding once a program's long-term survival ability without government support becomes known.

There are exceptions, of course. If the magnitude of a potential reward is large enough, more loyal assistance programs might be called for. Nuclear fusion energy research is a great example: the joke that fusion is 30 years away and always will be is true--until it's not. The point is that for innovation, government should adhere to the principle of cost-benefit analysis, but only in the aggregate and only in the longer run. So don't complain about government boondogglery when one subsidy program proves to be a waste of money. It's the system that counts.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Total War of U.S. Politics, PA Edition

A few months ago I commented on Ronald Brownstein's fascinating (and horrifying) observation about the changing nature of U.S. politics. He puts it best:
American politics increasingly resembles a kind of total war in which each party mobilizes every conceivable asset at its disposal against the other. Most governors were once conscientious objectors in that struggle. No more. 
During the health care debate it became clear that the courts, in addition to governors and state legislatures, have increasingly become players in national policy disputes. This political homogenization (eliminating political diversity in favor of party identification, e.g. political parties are the only coalitions) has in fact been occurring for years. The Senate and House have historically been dynamic institutions with ever-shifting coalitions based on multiple identities (region, state, gender, etc.), but lately political rationality based solely around national political parties has become the main driver of public debate.

So what are the limits to this ever-widening political total war? Nick Baumann reports on the latest attempt to bring new firepower to the fight: changing select states' electoral college vote apportionment rules from winner-take-all to a roughly proportional method based on congressional districts. Nebraska and Maine already split their electoral votes (Obama got one vote from Omaha in 2008), but if specific battleground states unilaterally make this change, it could be devastating for Obama's reelection prospects.

This plan hatching in Pennsylvania (also applicable in other Republican-controlled purple states like Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin) is a great test of how far down in the layers of federalism the partisan total war goes. That's because such a move on the part of Pennsylvania's Republicans would be explicitly favoring a political boost to national Republicans at the cost of local and state power. Let me explain.

Historically, states employed all types of different methods for selecting their electoral college votes, but over time they discovered that a winner-take-all system (like the one found in most states today) affords the most power and influence during the election contest. By grouping all their electoral votes together, a state maximizes its prize, forcing candidates to pay attention to it in the form of campaign visits and policy concessions. So by shifting away from winner-take-all, Pennsylvania would help the Republican presidential nominee at the expense of influence and attention. Just ask yourself, why would Obama (or his opponent) sink scarce resources into Pennsylvania when at most they might shift one or two electoral votes from the suburbs.

So it's clear that in the realm of presidential politics, there exists a major trade-off between state power and national party rationality. But Pennsylvania's boat-rocking doesn't worry me too much. I find it hard to believe that very many low-profile state politicians are willing to severely reduce their state's power in order to help out their national party. Just look at their actions on the related issue of presidential primary contests, where many states have pushed to move their nominating date earlier and earlier in order to garner influence and attention, all while drawing strong rebukes and threats from national party leaders. Although Pennsylvania's plan probably won't take off on a national level, it does seem like total-war true-believers are popping up in more and more local offices, and it might only take one state to swing the race in 2012.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Some Straight Talk on Obama's Jobs Speech

Ezra Klein gives a biting analysis of Obama's upcoming jobs speech:
Obama’s speech will achieve nothing. It will go nowhere because it has nowhere to go. A speech can rally the base, and maybe even temporarily change the topic in the news. But it can’t change the fundamental fact of politics right now, which is that the two parties disagree on the most profound question in Washington. It’s not: How do we fix the economy? It is: Who should win the next election?
As far as mainstream reporters are concerned Ezra Klein, with his emphasis on political science, provides the most accurate diagnosis of our country's political problem: perverse incentives due to bad institutional structures. Take the filibuster, for example. The minority party wins when the majority loses face publicly (say, by not proactively addressing national problems), and the minority has the power to make the majority lose. Political parties used to be internally diverse, with many ever-shifting coalitions based on regional geography, culture, religion, etc. But now party identity is the only thing that matters, which means we've basically got a parliamentary system without majority rule institutions!

The first president to bully the senate into changing its rules might be temporarily labeled a tyrant, but will quickly make up for it by passing lots of creative and meaningful policy. Even if those policies end up being terrible, voters will at least know who to hold accountable and can punish them in the next election. That would be a welcome development going forward.

The High Art of Entertainment Marketing

Everybody loves movie trailers (which are often better than the movies themselves), and it seems like the medium is popping up more and more among a wider set of industries. Video games long ago matured to the point where artistic narrative and immersive settings became the main focus for some titles, and now the marketing is catching up. This trailer, for a newly released dystopian sci-fi game, really shows how far they've come. The low costs of creating and distributing high-quality short videos also opens up new opportunities for fans previously confined to writing fan-fiction. Just check out this amazing short film based on the popular puzzle game Portal.

Shorts with sufficient quality and originality sometimes get picked up by major movie producers and made into full-length movies: 'District 9' was an adaptation of this short film, and the animated film '9' originated here. Even book marketing is getting in on the action, although finding the money for higher production values might be a challenge. It will be interesting to see where this trend leads.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Information Nexus

1. The New Bipartisanship
2. Tyler Cowen Answers Your Questions
3. This Truly is an Amazing Idea
4. This is a Really Popular Class at Harvard
5. Al Gore's Getting Frustrated

Quote of the Week

Philosophers Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl on group agency:
It may seem strange to consider things like corporations or nations or mobs or social classes as agents, but the issue often arises in reflections about whether one should make judgements that attribute collective responsibility. People did speak of the guilt of the German nation and demand that all Germans contribute to war reparations after World War I. When the government of a truly democratic nation goes to war, because its policy in some sense expresses "the will of the people," the country arguably acts as though it were a kind of single agent. People also, of course, speak collectively of the responsibilities of the ruling class, corporations, families, tribes, and ethnic groups. Because human life is populated by collectives, institutions, organizations, and other social groupings, agency can sometimes be dispersed or at least seem irremediably unclear. These "gray zones," as thinkers like Primo Levi (The Periodic Table, 1975) and Claudia Card (The Atrocity Paradigm, 2002) have called them, make determining agency in areas like sexual conduct and political action exceedingly difficult.
There are three ways of understanding how we talk about collectives as agents. One is that it's just mistaken and that collectives cannot be agents. The second is that collectives are agents in some alternative, perhaps metaphorical sense – that they are like real agents but not quite the same as them. The third is that collectives are as much agents as individual people, who are themselves perhaps not as singular, cohesive, and unified as many would like to believe.
From The Ethics Toolkit: A Compendium of Ethical Concepts and Methods.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Impossible Conundrum: State Secrets and Journalism

Intelligence Squared is out with its newest debate, asking the question: should freedom of the press extend to state secrets? This is one of these impossible "gray-area" questions that has no empirical answer because it deals with a tricky philosophical trade-off. Of course governments (and businesses, for that matter) need some level of secrecy to operate effectively. But clearly decisions regarding what stays secret should not be made solely by the organization in question, because their individual incentives (social status, turf, etc.) might not line up with what's best for society. It's a complex question with a lot of dimensions--perfect for this format.

The debate gets pretty spicy near the end, but never loses its intellectual heft. Enjoy:

Social Science for the Masses

I try to listen to podcasts fairly regularly, because I love the medium. They tend to be short, snappy, and can fill previously unused time with rewarding intellectual stimulation. I also get a lot of my book recommendations from podcasts: many non-fiction authors will do radio shows as part of their publicity process. It's fun to hear thinkers engage in verbal thrust and parry as well; too often writing is the only means of communicating information for academics and public intellectuals.

Recently I've discovered a fantastic new podcast: EconTalk hosted by Russ Roberts, an economist at George Mason University. Episodes consist of incredibly substantive interviews of scholars discussing social science topics. The podcast manages to snag lots of eminent thinkers (past guests include Gary Becker, Cass Sunstein, Nassim Taleb, and William Easterly) as well as more obscure researchers who have lots to say but access to few popular communications mediums (besides perhaps blogging). The quality of the interviews is probably the best I've ever heard (sorry Tom Ashbrook), and despite the host's strong libertarian leaning, the intellectual discourse is fair and sincere.

Archives on iTunes go back several years, and they're definitely worth combing through to pick out topics of particular interest. Philosophy Bites, a similar podcast dealing with philosophical questions, is also a fascinating way to hear academics share their insights.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Patent Pending: Syllaberry

By now some of us might be familiar with Bananagrams, a simple Scrabble-like word game that for some reason has a banana theme. Because of its success, several other fruit-themed word games have popped up: Appletters and Pairs in Pears. I won't comment on the quality of the game mechanics, but I will say that 'bananagrams' is a very clever name. 'Appletters' is much clumsier, and 'pairs in pears' is just plain rotten. Here's my suggestion/prediction for the next fruit-themed word game: Syllaberry (a play on syllabary). Instead of having an alphabet-based game where letters are the basic unit, Syllaberry could involve manipulating syllables in some way. Just a thought.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Heavyweight Non-Fiction

Most non-fiction books that cover conceptual topics (like science or social sciency stuff) can usually be split into two groups, those written by experts (like academics) and those written by non-experts (like journalists). Over the past six months or so, I've noticed a trend in my non-fiction book selection: I've become less and less discriminatory regarding the author's level of expertise. I've pretty much been selecting books based solely on how much the topic interests me. Once I realized this, I reflected a bit on which books really affected me and which ones didn't. My conclusion? Academic heavyweights write better books. [note: I'm only talking about widely-circulated popular non-fiction books; real academic textbooky books are in a different category altogether]

Experts writing about a topic within their field of research start off with an initial stock of credibility in my eyes, while journalists or other lightweight non-fiction writers have to earn that trust. Heavyweight authors tend to fill their pages with more original and creative ideas, probably because they have actual academic contributions from which to draw on. Lightweights, by contrast, are not direct knowledge-producers and must restrict themselves to analyzing and synthesizing existing research. Often this results in more novel topics and book titles for the lightweights (they've got to find the gaps), but it also means the topics are less ambitious and more marginal.

Malcolm Gladwell might be the best example of a lightweight author: great writing, clever and fascinating topics, tons of cool little analyses and observations. But if I compare his books with those written by actual experts in the research fields from which he draws upon, there's no comparison. Nudge by legal scholar Cass Sunstein and economist Richard Thaler gives a much better overview of behavioral economics and unconscious decisionmaking than does Blink, while Bursts by graph theorist Albert-Laszio Barabasi provides a much deeper and more rigorous understanding of social cascades than does The Tipping Point

I recently finished The Information by James Gleick (a lightweight), and I was stunned by the complete lack of creativity and original thinking. Marketed and publicized as a deep inquiry into the concept of "information," the book was merely a cobbled-together assortment of different scientific histories (a chapter on linguistics, one on logic, electrical engineering, early computers, etc.). The Hidden Reality by physicist Brian Greene delivered in a single chapter the most fascinating and unorthodox expression of the concept of information I've ever read. So don't be seduced by clever topics or good newspaper coverage (journalists surely promote their own). It's time to get picky and get smart. Read heavyweight non-fiction.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some Thoughts on BitCoin

There has been a lot of buzz lately about BitCoin, a new alternative "currency" that exists entirely online and without any sort of central authority. Previous electronic currencies have been hindered by theft and double-counting, but BitCoin seems to have solved these problems by using a clever peer-to-peer interface. The Economist has a pretty comprehensive description of some of the technical details of BitCoin, but to get the basic gist here's a totally biased marketing video:

Although BitCoin is certainly an interesting idea, it has some pretty massive flaws:
Bitcoin does not have a central bank capable of printing and lending bitcoins; it has an "algorithm" which through some convoluted mechanism allows bitcoins to be "mined". Essentially it randomly allocates bitcoins to early adopters. This is a very good system for early adopters (free money!) It is a nonsensical system for a real currency, not to mention being obviously unscalable (what happens when everyone tries to mine bitcoins all day long?). To solve this second problem, the supply of bitcoins is algorithmically limited, which is again good for early adopters. But that brings us to...
The macroeconomic qualities of BitCoin make it extremely vulnerable to a depression-like collapse of demand, where everyone wants to hold onto BitCoins and not spend them. Add to that the riskiness of convertibility (exchanging BitCoins for U.S. dollars, for example) and the notion of BitCoin-as-a-game-changer seems ridiculous.

But many critics (and supporters) are getting too sensationalistic about BitCoin's scope and prospects. If you look at BitCoin in the context of other alternative currencies it's clear that this asset exists merely to promote and foster certain social or philosophic values. Some alternative currencies, like Ithaca Hours, promote local community. Some have built-in time horizons for spending or rapid value-loss in order to limit saving and boost consumption. BitCoin is merely an experiment that fits nicely into the quickly-emerging anti-authoritarian, tinkering, globalized, open-source anonymous internet civilization. Although fascinating, ultimately BitCoin is not nearly as important as the political fight to keep all internet transactions (denominated in major currencies) tax-free.

Check out this great EconTalk podcast about BitCoin.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What's Your Ideal Country?

Check out this fascinating tool by the OECD that matches your preferences over big life categories (quality of health, quality of government, community, etc.) to countries doing well in those areas. I got Canada, but the test didn't include a climate dimension, which would shift my results dramatically (towards the equator). There also isn't any sort of freedom dimension (economic, political, religious, etc.), which seems to be a pretty important value for most people.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Neologism Watch: Spandrel

Okay, so this isn't really a true neologism, but every so often I'll run across a word or idea that instantly clarifies something I didn't even know I was confused about. Typically this means unifying some set of diverse concepts, or providing a crystal-clear framing of some complex theoretical notion. A good example is the idea of the meme. Recently, I've observed a concept popping up that is potentially quite epic in its utility and scope: the spandrel.

Originally an architectural term for the triangular-shaped space between the outside of an arch and some other boundary (corner, pillar, another arch, etc.), spandrels were appropriated by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and geneticist Richard Lewontin in a fascinating (and quite readable) 1979 paper on evolutionary biology. In it, they define spandrels as "the class of forms and spaces that arise as necessary byproducts of another decision in design, and not as adaptations for direct utility in themselves." A casual observer might see the highly ornamented spandrels of a Renaissance cathedral and conclude that they were designed and constructed specifically for artistic reasons. In fact, the space was simply left over by architectural necessity, and later endowed with purpose.

Although employed primarily in evolutionary biology, other fields can clearly benefit from a succinct and clever term for forms arising as byproducts rather than as adaptations or from planning. Are dreams a neurological spandrel? Did language arise as a cultural spandrel? Are the 10 (or 11, or 26, or whatever) dimensions proposed by some models in theoretical physics just mathematical spandrels? In evolutionary biology, certain species' maladaptive characteristics that had long confounded trait-based theories were easily explained using spandrels. What other sorts of behaviors or characteristics might be best conceptualized as spandrels?

One of the most interesting theories explaining the human predisposition toward magical thinking and religion involves spandrels. It goes like this: as a human, you have access only to your own consciousness (and nobody else's). That means determining which objects in the external world are also conscious (endowed with agency) is in principle impossible. As young humans develop, they learn to distinguish between inanimate objects (like rocks) and objects with agency (like other humans, or animals). For those objects with agency, we project the sensation of consciousness onto them. Usually this works out pretty well, but sometimes mistakes are made. Because the psychological machinery for projection exists, it occasionally misfires and we accidentally project consciousness onto inanimate objects or phenomena. So when a fire destroys the village but spares your hut, or when lightning destroys your hut but nobody else's, God didn't do it; rather that gut reaction is just an unfortunate byproduct of human psychology. A cognitive spandrel.

Start looking, and you'll begin to see spandrels everywhere. More often than not you'll walk away with some fascinating original insights.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Information Nexus

1. A Science of Morality?
2. A Tree Farm is Not a Forest
3. The Future of Medical Diagnosis
4. News Hour on The Great Stagnation
5. Wait... What!?

The Airline Industry

Richard Posner analyzes the industry's woes:
The airline is providing a bundled or “one size fits all” product to most of its customers, and unbundling can increase demand by enabling a better matching of price to consumer preference. But except for the tiny sliver of flyers who can afford private planes, the cost structure of the airline industry, rooted in airliner design, prevents significant quality differentiation. 
The crux of the issue is this: airlines want desperately to differentiate their products so as to compete on the basis of services (food, customer experience, etc.) instead of simply ticket price. Two factors make this difficult: 1) technological constraints (airliner design largely determines the parameters of service) and 2) a huge set of travelers who care only about price (magnified by small, low-cost carriers). Consequently, this homogeneity (and commodification) of air travel has resulted in a decline in service quality. The new Department of Transportation consumer protection regulations set minimum requirements for service but, perversely, further entrench the air-travel-as-a-commodity trend.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Friday, May 13, 2011

Quote of the Week

Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer on risk literacy:
"Simply stated, statistical thinking is the ability to understand and critically evaluate uncertainties and risks. Yet 76 percent of U.S. adults and 54 percent of Germans do not know how to express a 1 in 1,000 chance as a percentage (0.1%). Schools spend most of their time teaching children the mathematics of certainty — geometry, trigonometry — and spend little if any time on the mathematics of uncertainty. If taught at all, it is mostly in the form of coin and dice problems that tend to bore young students to death. But statistical thinking could be taught as the art of real-world problem solving, i.e. the risks of drinking, AIDS, pregnancy, horseback riding, and other dangerous things. Out of all mathematical disciplines, statistical thinking connects most directly to a teenager's world.
Even at the university level, law and medical students are rarely taught statistical thinking — even though they are pursuing professions whose very nature it is to deal with matters of uncertainty. U.S. judges and lawyers have been confused by DNA statistics and fallen prey to the prosecutor's fallacy; their British colleagues drew incorrect conclusions about the probability of recurring sudden infant death. Many doctors worldwide misunderstand the likelihood that a patient has cancer after a positive screening test and can't critically evaluate new evidence presented in medical journals. Experts without risk literacy skills are part of the problem rather than the solution."
The quote comes from Edge's annual question, which brings together some of the top minds in the world to submit answers. This year's question was 'what scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?' Heady stuff for sure, but definitely worth checking out.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Greatest Supervillains of All Time

From time to time it's fun to take a step back from the seriousness and gravity of daily world events and  enjoy the insights available to us from fictional domains. In this spirit, here's a list of some fascinating imaginary rogues:

1. Apocalypse: (X-Men) Born in ancient Egypt, he was the world's first mutant. Conquering in the name of a twisted Darwinian creed, technology from the future makes this time-traveling techno-tyrant the ultimate supervillain.

2. Ra's Al Ghul: (Batman) Hailing from ancient Arabia, this alchemist discovered the secret to immortality and used his long life to build a global organization intent on halting ecological destruction at any cost. The ideal eco-terrorist.

3. Lex Luthor: (Superman) The quintessential mad scientist, businessman, and politician. A prolific genius, Luthor exists to destroy Superman, thereby showing humanity it doesn't need alien saviors to decide its fate.

4. Magneto: (X-Men) This Nazi concentration camp survivor fights to protect the mutant minority from institutionalized bigotry and slavery around the world.

5. The Emperor: (Star Wars) He created the greatest military force the galaxy had ever seen, and nearly succeeded in exterminating the Jedi. One bad galactic tyrant.

6. David Xanatos: (Gargoyles) Machiavellian businessman obsessed with obtaining immortality. A curiously thoughtful self-made man, this supervillain is perhaps the most complex.

7. Hush: (Batman) A childhood friend of Bruce Wayne's, Hush secretly coveted the death of his parents and the resultant wealth and freedom. When Wayne received this blessing instead of him, Hush swore vengeance.

8. Q: (Star Trek) The archetypal trickster god, this omnipotent intellect delights in manipulating the Enterprise crew.

9. Alpharius: (Warhammer) The youngest of his bio-engineered brothers, this planet-conquering general takes a resilience-based, ecological approach to combat strategy. Sometimes disappearing for weeks at a time simply to test the individuality and adaptability of his lieutenants, Alpharius is a man of secrets.

10. Mr. Sinister: (X-Men) Originally a human geneticist in Victorian England, Mr. Sinister made a Faustian bargain with a higher power resulting in the loss of his family. He now exists to destroy that which created him.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Paradox of Wilderness Intervention

Let's face it, wilderness managers are damned if they do, damned if they don't. When it comes to designated wilderness areas like state parks, active intervention (fire suppression, invasive species control, etc.) means injecting artificiality into systems where artificiality is anathema. On the flip side, however, lack of intervention means important values like native biodiversity, ecosystem function, and ecosystem services, could be lost forever. In Beyond Naturalness: Rethinking Park Wilderness Stewardship in an Era of Rapid Change, editors David Cole and Laurie Yung look at this problem through the lens of several competing wilderness management approaches.

Historically, early approaches to management focused around the notion of "naturalness," but this concept proved to be too vague. Early laws enshrined the language of "naturalness" and caused havoc: its many definitions meant implementation was often arbitrary and ill-coordinated. Additionally, new anthropological research into the impact of early human cultures demolished the idea of a historic "primitive state." Modern ecology, with the adoption of dynamic equilibrium models, destroyed the notion that nature exists in a "natural" equilibrium or climax state. Add to this the global reach of human impact and it's very unclear what our specific management goals are regarding wilderness areas.

Four "post-naturalness" approaches attempt to categorize the different facets of "naturalness":

1. Hands-Off Approach: This is just what it sounds like: not taking any conscious action that manipulates, controls, or hinders the conditions (e.g. habitat), components (e.g. species), or processes (e.g. fire) of an ecological system. Let nature roll the dice. This approach is an alternative to being locked into managing a rapidly-changing system not fully understood. It encourages scientific humility, eliminates the risk of unintended adverse consequences (of intervention), and provides unmanipulated control data. However, this approach may increase the risk to specific elements of biodiversity, and result in the loss of cultural resources (archeological sites, etc.) and property.

2. Ecological Integrity Approach: In this approach, managed intervention is justified in order to maintain ecosystem health, biodiversity, sustainability, etc. Managers must set up specific goals such as: retaining a large population of native species, selecting and monitoring viable indicator species, mixing disturbance regimes (fire, herbivory) over time and area, and ensuring productivity and decomposition operate within limits for system persistence (not too much entropy, example: clear-cutting, bark beetles). This approach is very dependent on the effective operationalization of goals (measuring the right things).

3. Historical Fidelity Approach: Maintain a connection to the past; pass legacy of natural and cultural heritage. Restore past conditions wherever possible. In this approach, species that were historically the most abundant, iconic, or charismatic are the species most critical to ecosystem function (as opposed to keystone species or species that are least redundant). In addition to cultural and philosophical justifications, animals have evolved to fit niches and thus their survival potential is reduced if future environmental conditions deviate too much from the past. A challenge to this approach concerns the inherent dynamism of ecosystems.

4. Resilience Approach: This approach targets an ecosystem's ability to adapt to change, specifically "the capacity of a system to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes." Instead of pursuing specific landscape or ecological objectives, managers should focus on the core goal of sustaining functional, adaptable systems. Ecosystem qualities that typically enhance resilience are diversity and modularity (ecosystem sub-systems are coherent and loosely-connected so that if one fails, others can persist and rebuild).

Each approach has a certain naivete, yet also an understandable appeal. By being so narrow in scope, the trade-offs between approaches are revealed, making comparisons much easier. Clearly some mixture of all four approaches is currently being implemented, by design or by default, which is warranted. However I do believe the resilience framework shows the most promise considering the level of global ecological decline.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Power Players: Amartya Sen

Check out this great interview by Al Jazeera English:

Amartya Sen is a true polymath whose intellectual contributions are quite possibly unmatched by any other living person. A Nobel laureate, he made major headway in incorporating normative concerns (like poverty and gender inequality) back into the economics discipline. He is a giant among political scientists for his contributions to social choice theory (a quantitative subfield concerned with preference aggregation, example: voting). Lately he has focused on philosophy, probably establishing himself as the most important contemporary philosopher since John Rawls with his capabilities approach to measuring justice.

(Caps) Lock-In

The idea of path dependence (or lock-in) is an incredibly useful concept that explains many of the ridiculous technological conventions currently in use by society. Best conceptualized as a sort of historical inertia for technology, path dependence is basically a symptom of incremental progress in innovation. Most technologies improve slowly over time, with peripheral modifications gradually adding up that never change the core ideas. Often this results in inefficient or inferior technologies persisting through time. Rockets are a great example, as is the "three-box" configuration of automobiles (engine compartment, cab, trunk).

Often the only way out of lock-in is to think big: General Motors' Hy-Wire concept car builds all the essential components (engine, fuel storage, system controls, crush zones, etc.) into a six-inch wheeled platform, thus allowing designers to snap on top any number of unconstricted car designs.

Probably the most famous example of lock-in is the qwerty keyboard. Originally designed to accommodate engineering limitations in typewriters, this preposterous technological dinosaur drastically limits the speed and convenience of our typing. A related absurdity is the caps-lock key: how often does the average person use it? (hint: not much) Now compare that with the frequency of accidental activation and the case for its continued existence disappears.

And it's happening: Google's new laptop replaces the caps-lock key with a search button. Many smartphone keyboards have an '@' key, which is a great idea, and I've also heard of a push to create an internet history eraser button. If you start looking, you'll see examples of path dependence everywhere. Let's start innovating from the ground up.

Question: does internet remix culture increase or decrease path-dependence?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Usefulness of Bubbles

Businessweek is out with a great article on the current tech bubble. The article asserts that this bubble, built around social media and online advertising, is wasting a generation of talent and channelling innovative capitol towards a category of technology whose social benefits are ambiguous.

An economic bubble is basically a localized trend of inflated asset prices. Since prices are the conventional measurement of a thing's social utility, inflated prices result in misallocation of productive forces, like money, talent, or even social prestige. Most bubbles quietly deflate before anybody notices, but sometimes they continue to grow and end up popping suddenly. This usually causes financial turmoil and triggers broader economic hardship.

On the surface, this article's premise is straightforward: bubbles are terrible for the economy, and the current tech craze is exhibiting disturbingly bubble-like behavior. Thus the current tech craze is terrible for the economy. I generally agree with this logic, but it does paint diverse economic situations with a very broad brush. Within the framework of "bubbles are bad," what's the best way to compare potential bubbles (e.g. bubble A is worse than bubble B)?

Magnitude is important, but if we're looking at potential bubbles instead of past bubbles, this can be difficult. Given the extreme uncertainty of future economic events, I'd argue that one good test would focus on a candidate bubble's social usefulness. All bubbles, in varying degrees, maul the economy and ruin countless lives. Yet when the dust settles, they always leave behind certain new technologies or structural changes. Even if we can't predict how damaging a bubble will be, we can still ruminate on and compare these after-effects.

Think about it: after the financial crisis of 2007-8, what were we left with? Tons of arcane financial "instruments," ridiculously flawed arbitrage markets, and lots of cracked-out quantitative risk models. Some legacy, huh? Now consider the railroad bubble of the 1880s. When it popped, the U.S. economy was badly damaged. But we were left with a massive intranational network of railroads, establishing the infrastructure base for future development and growth.

Consider an environmental technology or energy efficiency bubble. It might pop and crash the economy, but at least we'd have made enormous social progress. By the same token, some people have suggested that we're currently in a higher education bubble, with the cost of college ridiculously high relative to it's value. That may be, but at least colleges and universities are building awesome new facilities and research infrastructure that has tons of lasting value. All bubbles hurt, but it's nice to know that, at the end of the day, our economy's persistent drunken crazes are at least doing something useful.