4 from 2014 (links)

I periodically revisit the links at the bottom of my reading list (managed by pocket) to see if I can either dump them from the list unread, leave them there for reading at an unspecified future point or ideally read them and push them to my archive.

Having done this recently these 4 links from 2014 stood out. All of them talk about the way the world is today, and are particularly interesting to me as they could all just as easily have been published this year (with some small changes no doubt).

The Economist challenges the principle of driving shareholder value and notes that since it became a corporate mantra the value of a CEO’s remuneration has increased 8-fold, which most certainly was not the point. Please remember the quote that follows is from 2014 when no-one thought Brexit or Trump likely to come to pass….

And that trend, which has spilled out to the rest of the developed world, is leading to the growing anger of  voters and the resistance to globalisation which may eventually cause even more damage to business and investors.

This link is a guide to Shenzhen, almost certainly out of date in some regard (I’m no Shenzhen expert), but the reality of the Chinese tech markets is fascinating and although it took me nearly 3 years to read this I’m still glad i did.

A good overview from the Guardian about progress made by ‘robot’ writers. The primary example here is a quick news story about an earthquake report, in this case some gentle tremors. Published and approved by a human, but written by a computer. This was in 2014, I can’t help but imagine this is more widespread today.

Hammond was in the limelight recently, having claimed that by 2025 90% of the news read by the general public would be generated by computers. “That doesn’t mean that robots will be replacing 90% of all journalists, simply that the volume of published material will massively increase,” he explains. “Take the example of small amateur baseball games. They don’t interest the media, but several dozen people follow each one. Quill collates data on thousands of these games and can produce thousands of articles almost instantaneously, one for each match, in a style similar to sportswriters, who are easy to imitate.”

The last link is about the nature of the global clothing industry, although the article concentrates on the Korean impact on LA’s Jobber market.

How did this neighborhood become what it is? The answer lies in a 50-year process of migration and generational progress—one that has recently reached a kind of critical mass.

A well written and good exploration that reminds us that even in these times of incredible and fast change the slower moving trends driven by demographics and migration still hold some sway.

 

 


Linkdump: The Trump/Bannon administration

I’m more than slightly fed up with the huge amount of writing about the US administration that has been dominating my reading sources since the trump election. It’s understandable, of course even fundamentally important actually, and I’ve been duly consuming a lot of it to try and keep up, but I just want to get some texture back into my reading.

So, to that end this linkdump is an attempt to draw a small line under the one topic I’ve been reading more about than anything else since November 2016. I’m not signing off completely, but I am trying to re-balance what I’m reading. You’ll be able to form a quick opinion about where I sit on the question of Trump and Bannon from the sources, let alone the content of these pieces, but there are also a number of well written essays/articles here that I think are sincere and informative regardless of which side your opinions trend towards.

The Economist tries to be even handed in a high level view of the Trump administration recognising the potential for improved domestic economics while worrying about the fragility of the western world order built by the US since WW2, and largely, of course, built for the US also.

Politico offers up an overview of the kind of secrets that will now be available to Trump. Very interesting and slightly scary, regardless of who holds power.

The United States has invested trillions of dollars to ensure that its president can know more than anyone else on Earth—knowledge meant to be deployed to the country’s advantage in trade negotiations, military posturing and a thousand other ways big and small

There are a bunch of pieces raising the alarm about Steve Bannon. Some are focused on where he comes from, politically, and what he has previously claimed to be his political goals, others worry specifically about his elevation to the National Security Council.

In 2015 Bloomburg called him the most dangerous political operative in America

From the Washington Post, The danger of Steve Bannon on the National Security Council

Michael Mullen, who served on G W Bush’s security council is concerned about the potential for the NSC to become politicised.

The security council was formed in 1947 to serve a unique role in our government. It facilitates and coordinates, providing a forum through which federal agencies discuss and debate policy and, ultimately, provide counsel to the president about how best to keep the American people safe. At N.S.C. meetings, representatives from the State Department, the Pentagon, the Treasury Department, the intelligence community and other agencies speak freely and critically about the full breadth of options available to the United States. Those discussions can get heated at times. They can certainly get territorial. But they seldom get political — nor should they.

Foreign Policy puts together a really good piece about how incoming administrations commonly make structural changes and how a raft of seemingly innocuous decisions can be massively important. It holds the view that the Trump/Bannon setup isn’t great but the real value here is to understand the underlying reasons and history of these kind of changes. As the headline suggests understanding these things helps us to answer the question of who is the power behind the throne.

This from the New Yorker is in similar territory

And its almost certainly true that an examination of who the most powerful people in Trump’s inner circle are would be incomplete without some kind of summary of Jared Kushner

Kushner imagines his role as managerial, not policymaking. “I’m not political,” he told the audience, not entirely credibly. In D.C., as Reagan’s adage goes, “People are policy,” and no person, other than Trump himself, has been as politically instrumental in advancing the new president’s ambitions.

And Ivanka

When she was appointed to the board of directors at Trump Entertainment Resorts, at age twenty-five, the situation was “stacked all the way against me.”

This link is included almost entirely because it uses the phrase “Javanka”

There has been quite a lot of comment about whether we are seeing a slow structural dissoultion of democracy and a move through populism to autocracy. I’ve included this essay because it is laying down some markers, before the event, that we can monitor easily enough, that can help us worry, or hopefully help us to not worry.

10 ways to tell if your president is a dictator

Finally, because it’s important to be aware of the whole picture if possible, I include this from Politico. I imagine their readership to be fairly anti Trump, so it’s worth taking this on board.

Donald Trump might be more popular than you think

 

 

 

 


20 links

I’ve not been posting much, November last year was the last time I got anything out, but I have been reading a lot. So I figured I’d put up a bunch of links, all of which I think are worth reading. In no particular order…..

 

Eigenjesus and Eigenmoses

Instead I asked myself: “what other ‘vicious circles’ in science and philosophy could one unravel using the same linear-algebra trick that CLEVER and PageRank exploit?”  After all, CLEVER and PageRank were both founded on what looked like a hopelessly circular intuition: “a web page is important if other important web pages link to it.”  Yet they both managed to use math to defeat the circularity.

 

 

Confessions of a Sociopath

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of my confidence is the way I sustain eye contact. Some people have called it the “predator stare.” Sociopaths are unfazed by uninterrupted eye contact. Our failure to look away politely is also perceived as being aggressive or seductive. It can throw people off balance, but often in an exciting way that imitates the unsettling feeling of infatuation. Do you ever find yourself using charm and confidence to get people to do things for you that they otherwise wouldn’t? Some might call it manipulation, but I like to think I’m using what God gave me.

 

Airport runway markings

Another thing to keep an eye out for? Markings that have been blasted away. The FAA keeps strict rules about how paint or marks are removed—they’re absolutely never to be painted over, since the decay of the new mark might wear away to reveal conflicting information. Instead, airports have to sandblast or power wash the old paint away and re-do it.

 

Common sense regarding the Apple watch…

And yet, the panel seemed perfectly comfortable speculating for over an hour on what features in the Apple Watch would be delivering a great user experience and how users would find the Watch valuable. This really surprised me because the panel of experts was speculating about features that are available to test run today…on Android Wear.

 

Oh, regulators…such fun

Silva related how the top bankers in the nation were asked to contribute money to save Lehman. He described his disappointment when Goldman executives initially balked. Silva acknowledged that it might have been a hard sell to shareholders, but added that “if Goldman had stepped up with a big number, that would have encouraged the others.”

“It was extraordinarily disappointing to me that they weren’t thinking as Americans,” Silva says in the recording. “Those two things are very powerful experiences that, I will admit, influence my thinking.”

 

The Economist talks sense about online advertising

Essentially their model — a lot of seem to be reliant on “eventually we hope AOL or Yahoo will buy us, and then it’s their problem if we don’t make any money.” So they’re doing some really good journalism, but I think there’s a problem there.

 

Charlie Munger …you’d best read this if you like hearing how the really successful guys do things 

When I talk about this false precision, this great hope for reliable, precise formulas, I am reminded of Arthur Laffer, who’s in my political party, and who is one of the all-time horses’ asses when it comes to doing economics. His trouble is his craving for false precision, which is not an adult way of dealing with his subject matter.

 

It took some time but people are finally looking at apps in a more instructive way

By comparison, news-related applications do not requires a lot of phone resources. They collect XML feeds, some low resolution images and render those in pre-defined, non-dynamic templates. They use a tiny fraction of a modern smartphone’s processing power.

 

This explains why we have security theater in the post 911 world

Yet the attack involved not merely the towers, but two other actions, in particular a successful attack on the Pentagon. Why is it that only a few people take proper notice of that? If the 9/11 operation had been a conventional military campaign, the Pentagon attack would have received most of the attention. In this attack, al‑Qaida managed to destroy part of the enemy’s central headquarters, killing and wounding senior commanders and analysts. Why is it that public memory gives far more importance to the destruction of two civilian buildings, and the killing of brokers and accountants?

 

The sharing economy – a critical assessment

What triggers a mutation? Schumpeter insists that this evolution is disciplined above all by new consumers’ needs combined with the new institutional forms that must be invented to reliably meet those needs.

 

That point where you go…ah its all bulls**t

Venture capitalists may remind founders not to get carried away because they may need to raise money again soon, perhaps in a less-favorable market. Fundraising at a lower valuation is known as a “down round.” It’s a major Silicon Valley no-no in terms of perception, and it can have negative effects, depending on the other stipulations of the agreement.

 

You should probably just read everything this guy writes, just for fun

In Yemen you don’t really talk while eating. This makes the heavily-armed diners staring up at me from their carpets seem even more menacing. The wait staff, on the other hand (at least I assume that’s what they are) run round shouting at the top of their voices. Almost everyone has already purchased a bag of qat, which they’ll start chewing after lunch. The qat is leafy and kind of bulky, and comes in a colored plastic bag. Some men tuck it under their shirt, so it hangs over their belt like a paunch. Others carry it in their hand. The effect is to make everyone look excessively health conscious and obsessed with salad.

 

Who knew agile was a labour movement..

The fifth principle asks that managers trust developers and create a pleasant work environment that motivates good work. The eleventh principle advocates for self-organizing teams—giving developers autonomy and freedom to choose the projects and features that most interest them and avoiding a dictatorial style of management.

 

Always bet on text

It can be indexed and searched efficiently, even by hand. It can be translated. It can be produced and consumed at variable speeds. It is asynchronous. It can be compared, diffed, clustered, corrected, summarized and filtered algorithmically. It permits multiparty editing. It permits branching conversations, lurking, annotation, quoting, reviewing, summarizing, structured responses, exegesis, even fan fic. The breadth, scale and depth of ways people use text is unmatched by anything.

 

So, music is in a good place…

I’m sure it happens every day – that a kid in one of these far-flung places can find a new favourite band, send that band a message, and that singer of that band will read it and personally reply to it from his cell phone half a world away. How much better is that? I’ll tell you, it’s infinitely better than having a relationship to a band limited to reading it on the back of the record jacket. If such a thing were possible when I was a teenager I’m certain I would have become a right nuisance to the Ramones.

 

A view on where London is heading, might explain why the conservatives are so complacent about a Brexit

In order to gain the position of a global financial super-hub, and potentially that of world financial capital, the City of London has been making an effort to attract Chinese and Islamic finance, both in rapid expansion.

 

Context collapse, women and the internet

We no longer know what neighborhood we’ve wandered into, we don’t know the shape of the building, or the condition of the room. We don’t know what other people are wearing — our first and most profound way of signaling cultural affiliation and social-economic status.

 

How it all began

“But as time went on, every time there was a problem in the camp, he was at the centre of it,” Abu Ahmed recalled. “He wanted to be the head of the prison – and when I look back now, he was using a policy of conquer and divide to get what he wanted, which was status. And it worked.” By December 2004, Baghdadi was deemed by his jailers to pose no further risk and his release was authorised.

 

There’s something about medium that causes me to pause but I still like what is being said here…

That’s why, internally, our top-line metric is “TTR,” which stands for total time reading. It’s an imperfect measure of time people spend on story pages. We think this is a better estimate of whether people are actually getting value out of Medium

 

We need more people to burst these bubbles

I, personally, want to put a gold chain on my phone, pop it into a waistcoat pocket, and refer to it as my “digital fob watch” whenever I check the time on it. Just to make the point in as snotty and high-handed a way as possible: This is the decadent end of the current innovation cycle, the part where people stop having new ideas and start adding filigree and extra orifices to the stuff we’ve got and call it the future.

 


3 short links

It seems to be an unavoidable truth that just before economic bubbles pop, trading confidence and bullish sentiment is likely to be at a significant high. Whereas some of this is undoubtedly definitional (a bubble can’t build without aggressive bullish sentiment) it always leaves me asking why people don’t see the inevitable coming. The short answer is that actually they do, or at least some people do. Provenance is important here. There are commentators that do nothing apart from forecast doom laden futures, and they spend a large amount of their time being wrong (even if they claim it is only the timing they are missing, it still feels to me, like the stopped watch which tells the time correctly twice a day). When the warning signs are being broadcast by the bankers themselves however, I feel we should take note. It won’t change any behaviours of course, bullish pre-burst behaviour is as much about herd tendencies as anything else, so these charts are for those of us without our fingers on the so called pulse.

From Schroders – The record amount being borrowed by investors is a worrying sign

 

 

Apparently 30 miles up from the surface of Venus is a sweet spot for human habitation, with Mediterranean temperatures and ideal barometric pressures. This article outlines the discussion about the real world feasibility of colonising Venus with floating cities. Its a somewhat Hemingway-esque life that’s described, where men really are men. Not for me, but I’d love to see the movie.

Venus is not for the timid, or people too afraid to shove a fat bird out the airlock and let the harsh laws of thermodynamics do the work. Venus is for men. Men who like to eat meat – cooked in fire and acid and seasoned with the Devil’s own mix of volatiles boiled up from the pits of hell.

The surprisingly strong case for colonising Venus

 

Finally back to more mundane earthly matters we have this interesting, recently discovered feature of Google maps. In parts of the world where there are visceral border disputes Google shows different boundaries depending on where the map request is made from. Does this fuzziness likely promote more comfort for those involved in the dispute? I must conclude that it is the only sensible option Google can take, delivering the map each territory expects to see. In this regard this is no different to the maps that would have prevailed 200 years ago. The really interesting thing though is derived from imaging what would happen if Google decided not to bother and simply presented one version, and by such a process taking a role as an arbiter of nation boundaries. They don’t do that today but it is the kind of thing that could one day fall under the remit of “Organising all the world’s information”.

How do you feel about that?

 


links again, 4 of ’em

Earlier this year Netflix and Comcast had a little contretemps about their peering agreement. Unless you spend time trying to keep up with the various layers, and the players therein, that make up the technical infrastructure of the internet then that statement potentially means absolutely nothing to you whatsoever, but actually its all quite important.

Peering is the name given to the agreements that cover the terms for transferring internet traffic between networks and they are a fundamental cornerstone of the modern internet. Because there is not one single network that covers the whole world it is important that traffic can be exchanged, as required by the needs of the user, with the least possible friction. Historically these agreements were made between engineers and each network simply agreed to open to each other as required, no money involved. Comcast decided that they wanted to buck that history and demanded payment from Netflix. Netflix suggested that prior to this negotiation Comcast were deliberately allowing congestion in certain parts of their network to negatively affect Netflix’s customers (something Comcast denied) and that they had no choice but to pay the ransom.

Level 3 is one of the big global internet backbone companies that carry enormous amounts of web traffic. They are the one of the companies that pay for, and own and maintain, the cable that runs under the oceans. This post on their blog lays out some of the dynamics that go into peering agreements and even though this post doesn’t deal directly with the situation between Netflix and Comcast it should probably give you enough information to understand who is playing the shithead and who isn’t.

Level 3

 

I never did try playing Go the ancient Chinese strategy game, and after reading this article i’m starting to think that that is no bad thing. Like chess its a 2 player war game, but unlike chess its a game (possibly the only game left) that retains an unbeaten crown in human vs computer match-ups. Machines beat humans at checkers in 1994 and chess was added to the list in 1997. Now, 17 years later Go still holds out, and holds out with comfort. Every year the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo hosts the UEC cup where computer programs compete against each other for the opportunity to compete against a Go sage, who will be one of the world’s top Go players. The challenge is not one of brute force computing power, its more about strategic understanding and the fact that by all accounts we don’t really understand what goes into being a great Go player, human or otherwise.

Wired

 

Ever wondered why the airwaves are licensed by the government? If you think about it a little, the chances are you will come to what seems like a very simple and straightforward conclusion, which is that the airwaves are licensed so that broadcasting signals don’t interfere with each other. To ensure that when you tune in to 97-99 FM here in the UK, you will receive radio one, not some other outfit broadcasting on the same frequency. Which is all well and good except that electromagnetic waves simply don’t interfere with each other. This concept of interference seems to imply that there is only so much space on any particular frequency that can carry signals, that there is only so much spectrum available. Colours are on the same spectrum as radio waves, separated only by their different frequencies, to suggest that spectrum is limited is to suggest that there is only so much Red to go around, which is clearly a farcical concept.

All of that, which is sound and uncontroversial 6th form physics, does raise some interesting questions about our radios and TVs and mobile phones, all of which broadcast across licensed electromagnetic frequencies. It turns out that the problem of interference is a problem of the broadcasting and receiving equipment not the natural scarcity of the airwaves. We have a system that limits access to frequencies because we are still using a technology base optimised to an old technical paradigm.

This piece published in Salon gives you the full detail and quotes extensively from the work of David Reed an important and prominent scientist from MIT, famous for writing the text that nailed the modern architecture of the internet. Understanding what is actually going on here turns out to be entertaining and enlightening.

Salon – The myth of interference

 

I don’t know whether this last link is being serious or not, and that alone might be the best observation I have to make about the state of modern economics.

Alex Tabarrok is a right leaning economist who authors the blog Marginal Revolution with Tyler Cowen, both are professors at George Mason University in Virginia. This short post, one of many from the right responding to the fuss being made by Piketty’s Capital, offers “2 surefire solutions to inequality”. One is to increase fertility among the rich, dilute the inheritance and reduce capital concentration. The other surefire way? To reduce fertility among the rich! The author of the post puts a lot more detail into this position than I do here. I’m leaning towards the opinion that he is simply having a laugh, but then as he is an economist i’m really not so sure.

Marginal Revolution

 

 


Links – High frequency trading, poison and Jimmy Carter

I’ve had my eye on high frequency trading (HFT) for a little while. I was initially fascinated by the overwhelming need for connectivity speeds driving up the cost of real estate near the exchanges. If you could locate your trading operation next to the exchange the tiny fractions of a second saved by geographical proximity were worth huge amounts in naked profit.

The whole thing struck me as another example of short term profiteering taking precedence over the more sensible longer term allocation of risk and investment capital (which is after all what stock markets are supposed to do).

The long term trend of shareholding periods has been in decline since the 1960’s when shares were held on average for 8 years. The following 2 links are in disagreement about what the average holding period was in 2012 but whichever data point you prefer, 5 days according to Businessinsider or 22 seconds according to London’s Daily Telegraph, it is clear that we are using the mechanic that is the stock market, in a radically different way than we have ever done before.

Part of the overarching societal philosophy of share ownership was that the long term incentives held by investors, via shareholding, would act as a brake on the incentives for larceny, held by the professional management class. But those long term incentives can only act as a brake if the shares are held in a long term pattern, and today that is not the case. To be fair this is not a triumph of the managerial class over the investor class, this is driven by the profiteering of Wall street and London’s City too. Simplistically more trading generates more trading income, but there are other factors acting here too.

Firstly we have a global capital investment paradigm that is focused on the needs of finance capital not production capital. This so called casino approach to capitalism, and its relationship to production capital, is best understood through the analysis of Carlota Perez in her stunning, and surprisingly accessible, Technological Revolutions and Financial CapitalThis is a very quick summary of her ideas.

Secondly, and something that has only surfaced into popular discourse recently, it appears that there is a fraudulent mechanic in widespread use as a result of HFT. Michael Lewis has penned the expose in his book Flash Boys.

In essence the advantage bestowed on certain traders as a result of their proximity to certain exchanges generates more than quicker sight of price movements. The original story of HFT was that this small advantage generated thousands of small arbitrage trades, but the window of opportunity to make these trades was so small that it could only be accomplished by computers acting autonomously via algorithms.

Among other things Lewis has showed that the various routings around the multiple exchanges are illegally skirting regulations that are designed to present the same price on all exchanges at the same time. This means that a trading outfit that operates on multiple exchanges can make trades based on the market intelligence of a received order. If a client instructs the trader to buy all 10,000 shares at the price they are listed they will need to buy them from multiple exchanges, but the trader’s ability to communicate to the furthest exchanges faster than the official price channels sees them instruct their machines at those locations to buy what is available. The end result is that the original client will only receive say 4000 of the shares they wanted. The differential 6000 shares are now owned by the trader, but only because of the inherent value generated by knowledge of the instruction for the original 10,000 transaction.

Interestingly a key component here is the difficulty of verification.

This lack of human insight about what is occurring through these technical networks, obscures knowledge of what is happening so much so that fraud can flourish. In this regard it is very similar to the fraud rife in the ad tech networks for digital display advertising.

This link from the Washington Post sets the scene very well, explaining the nature of the wider problem.

This piece, published by the NYT is actually an adaptation from Lewis’s book and details how the situation was eventually understood and the actions being taken to rectify the problem. Its long but really good.

 

 

In 2006 Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London with the lethally radioactive chemical Polonium. If you recall the incident at the time you will remember that it took a long time before anyone was able to understand what was happening to him, what the poisoning agent was and where he was poisoned. The original location was believed to be the Itsu sushi restaurant in Piccadilly although it eventually turned out to be the Pine Bar in the Millennium hotel in Grosvenor square.

The story is much more involved than any 5 minute news segment could possibly have hoped to portray, which I guess is not a surprise. Litvinenko himself was no innocent, with a history in the feared FSB and the KGB before that. He took a stand in favour of Boris Berezovsky over Vladimir Putin, something that no ordinary man would do, and maybe ultimately was contributory to the situation he found himself in.

This article is very long but if you enjoy a spy story, fictional or otherwise, then you will certainly enjoy this. Something I didn’t understand was how much concern was raised by the presence of Polonium in London. The decontamination program employed a staggering 3000 people and operated across 50 different sites, 2 simple numbers but they invoke images of a Men in Black style clean-up operation happening under our noses but with no obvious sign whatsoever that it was happening.

The article also describes the strange world of the Russian Oligarchs and as a result tells part of the recent history of the post cold war Russian experience.

It’s worth finding the time to read this. For fun.

How radioactive poison became the assassin’s weapon of choice

 

 

This next piece is also a pleasure to read if only because it is so refreshing to hear an American president (ex) talking so candidly about the role and position of America in the world today and issues within the scope of American domestic politics as well. Jimmy Carter never was like all the rest, whether you agreed with him, whether or not you are a natural republican or a natural democrat it is difficult to fault his sincerity and his integrity. There aren’t many world leaders that it’s easy to say that about.

On the topic of religious persecution of women’s rights.

Well, they actually find these verses in the Bible. You know, I can look through the New Testament, which I teach every Sunday, and I can find verses that are written by Paul that tell women that they shouldn’t speak in church, they shouldn’t adorn themselves and so forth. But I also find verses from the same author, Paul, that say all people are created equal in the eyes of God. That men and women are the same before God; that masters and slaves are the same and that Jews and Gentiles are the same. There’s no difference between people in the eyes of God. And I also know that Paul wrote the 16th chapter of Romans to that church and he pointed out about 25 people who had been heroes in the very early church — and about half of them are women. So, you know, you could find verses, but as far as Jesus Christ is concerned, he was unanimously and always the champion of women’s rights. He never deviated from that standard. And in fact he was the most prominent champion of human rights that lived in his time and I think there’s been no one more committed to that ideal than he is.

I’m not a religious man but I do wish there were more prominent leaders who hold a strong faith, willing to call out the contradictions within their religious texts and simply choose the side that is kind caring and decent instead of aggressive and divisive.

Jimmy Carter

 


3 ways to look at the world, past, present and future

I’ve read this essay twice now, some months apart. On both occasions it has irritated and enthralled me at the same time. It is an odd experience to be enthralled by something (the ideas in the essay) that simultaneously causes feelings of extreme discomfort. There are some great ideas here, but I can’t help feel that the solutions suggested are overly influenced by the very young world view of the American model of governance and administration.

Venkat lays out 2 eye opening concepts for understanding the way a state seeks to govern a population.

Firstly a reduction of the state’s requirements (in order to exist), to counting the population, conscripting the population and taxing the population. Obvious once you think about it maybe, but one of those ideas that is huge once you do.

Secondly, that technologies are always the medium by which government’s gain the consent of a population to be governed. To be fair consent is not necessarily the right word, as the first such technology that Venkat mentions is the sword, but the idea (semantics apart) is still a powerful filter for looking at the relationship between a state and its population (even if at times the picture is ugly).

The broad argument is that a population that is inherently gaining mobility (virtual and geographic), causes problems for the current model of governance which is significantly based on knowing that most people in a population don’t move in and out of administrative boundaries on a regular basis. As this mobility increases, goes the argument, then if we accept that a government will have to govern (counting, conscripting, taxing) then with increased mobility must come increased surveillance. Hence the consent of the surveilled.

It’s a long essay, and you will have to stop and think along the way to follow every idea presented (as usual with Venkat the piece is very dense), but it is worth it.

Upfront I suggested that I had a concern with the piece, and I do, but it does not diminish what is a very rich piece of writing that can spark much involved thinking of your own. I do feel that much of what is written is informed by an immature model of American governance, based on the history of that country. The 50 states of the USA have always struck me as a slightly odd model built by a young country still obsessed in strange measures with the idea of a wild west. As a child even, I remember feeling a peculiar dissonance watching the movie Porkies, where to evade the police the high schoolers merely needed to cross county lines.

If, however, you consider these ideas as factors affecting the global stage, we can start to think about how political globalisation will inevitably be influenced. Maybe that’s a 30 year horizon, maybe it’s a 300 year horizon, either way there is lots to get your teeth into here.

Consent of the Surveilled 

 

Crypto-currencies are really nothing new, they’ve been around as concepts for a long long while and as real available commercially exchangeable entities since 2009 when the Bitcoin code was released. Nonetheless we are this year starting to see a significant maturation of how Bitcoin is being reported. More specifically we are seeing the emergence of stories about the blockchain, the idea at the core of the Bitcoin protocol. Particularly there is significant activity in the VC sector driving much of this interest.

Bitcoin is often misconstrued as an anonymous currency, which simply isn’t true. In fact the whole secret sauce is that in the absence of a central banking authority your transactions are actually made very public indeed. It is possible to obfuscate your link to any particular bitcoin transaction but this is not an inherent part of the protocol at all.

The excitement is around the idea of distributed consensus systems. The heart of a distributed consensus system, in this reading, is the idea known as the blockchain. Essentially a public ledger of transactions, the blockchain cleverly solves many of the problems that are commonly dealt with by centralised authority.

Distributed consensus as an idea potentially impacts many more sectors than just currency. Any societal entity that depends on a centralised authority could be in the cross hairs, one example is Namecoin, an alternative to the DNS, which can allocate .bit domain names on a decentralised basis.

This article does a superb job of explaining the blockchain itself and how it solves the problems of centralisation. If you have any interest in technology, and emergent trends therein, then this is something you need to read.

How the Bitcoin Protocol Actually Works

 

In contrast to Venkat’s pragmatic reading of the oblique structures that inform modern governance models, this essay from Yanis Varoufakis of the University of Athens (currently resident at University of Texas at Austin), explores the question of what the internet can do to ‘repair’ democracy.

The hunch underpinning this paper is that, behind voter apathy and the low participation in politics, lays a powerful social force, buried deeply in the institutions of our liberal democracies and working inexorably toward undermining democratic politics. If this hunch is right, it will take a great deal more to re-vitalise democracy than a brilliant Internet-based network linking legislators, executive and voters.

His approach is informed by an examination of the original democracy of Athens, paying attention to both its structures and its hypocrisies (Athens was a state built on slavery), and how that differs from the underpinning historic influences that structured modern western liberal democracies.

His aim is not to discourage those that seek to use modern technologies to reinvigorate democracy, but to point their innovations in the right direction. Thus he explores the perceived issues with direct democracy, the idea that we can all vote on all the issues, and the subsequent conclusion that voter apathy is not a bug of a governance model built on the needs of a mercantilist ruling class, but a feature.

In contrast to the Athenian model, whereby the poor but free labourer was empowered equally alongside the richest man, in a system that has evolved to devalue citizenship while massively extending its reach (no slaves in liberal democracies, at least not mandated by law) whilst simultaneously transferring real power from the political sphere to the economic, solutions that simply make political connection between our governing institutions and the people more efficient, will likely make little difference.

In this reading the changes required are economic, not political, with subsequent change in the political sphere only plausible once such changes within the economy are in place.

This may not be the most optimistic reading of today’s political landscape, but it is a well constructed and researched argument worthy of your time. Must read reading.

Can the Internet Democratise Capitalism