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…..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There has been a small spate of articles in the last 3 months or so suggesting that we might be in for another horrible global financial shock this year. I’m in no position to judge these opinions with any certainty, but do note that they are coming from both the right and left flanks of modern political discourse. Recently I have increasingly taken the position that economists, when considered as a singular group, are in general no better at such predictions than almost any other group of people, economics being, chiefly, an ideology masquerading as a science in its common usage (to be clear economic thought could/should be scientifically applied, but in most expositions isn’t). So, when I see the right and the left making similar claims I take notice.
First up we have the Wall Street Journal’s Marketwatch relaying the eery similarities between the movement of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DIJA) in 1928/29 and the movements of the DIJA today. To my untrained eye it certainly does look very similar, however, of more concern is the evolution of how Wall street traders are commenting. No-one is panicking but, as is noted, the level of concern is rising the longer the similarities continue. The chart was first circulated in November 2013, and wasn’t taken too seriously by seemingly anyone. Now, the rhetoric is more cautious.
One of the market gurus responsible for widely publicizing this chart is hedge-fund manager Doug Kass, of Seabreeze Partners and CNBC fame. In an email earlier this week, Kass wrote of the parallels with 1928-29: “While investment history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, it does rhyme.”
From the Guardian we have Ha-Joon Chang, currently Reader in the Political Economy of Development at the University of Cambridge and author of “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism”.
His point is quite succinct. In the UK and the US we are currently seeing stock markets at record marks, despite the underlying economies performing at levels that have not recovered to 2007 levels. Chang’s key point of reference is the growth in per capita growth in income, a data point that speaks to the underlying real economy (I find it strange that economists of all stripes talk of the real economy as an aside, surely it should be the main focus). More scarily he makes the observation that at this point no-one is offering any kind of narrative to explain these huge performance numbers. This differs starkly from the dot com bubble, explained away by tech innovation, and the 2008 crash, financial innovation leading to better risk management. The commenters were wrong in 2000 and in 2008, as the bubbles burst causing great losses, but at least someone believed in the market movements. This time is seems that no-one does.
David Cay Johnston, writing for Aljazeera, takes a stab at some of the crazy changes in valuation metrics that have become prevalent over the last 15 years or so. In short this is an intelligent and in depth (although very accessible – not too long) look at the tendency to massively value tech stocks that seemingly turn over no profits. Superficially this seems similar to what happened in 2000, however he also shows that there is some deep complicity between the journalistic sector and the speculative elements of today’s trading universe allied to a degradation of traditional measures of value, such as price/earnings ratios being superceded by price to revenue. For example, Facebook’s traditional PE is currently around 113, against a century long S&P500 average of 15, but its PR is 26 ($5bn revenue to market cap of $132bn), which is seemingly more palatable to speculators.
The article makes the point that investors that push money into stocks like Twitter, that has yet to book a red cent in profit are speculators.
Would that we could bring back Benjamin Graham, whose 1949 book, “The Intelligent Investor,” explains how to value stocks. Warren Buffett calls it “by far the best book on investing ever written.”
Graham looked at the profits companies earned, not the promises of what they might someday make. That is, he was an investor.
Markets can benefit from speculators, who take risks that prudent people and institutions should avoid, but speculators should represent the edges, not the core of the market.
Back to the WSJ’s Marketwatch. This post is a little strange, almost an homage to the deep fallibility of the human animal in totality, not just in regard to the prediction of financial crashes. The premise is very straightforward, there are always warnings, there have always been warnings, before the 1929 crash, 2000, 2008 the same. And they were all ignored. All of them. And it will be the same this time. It’s a heartfelt characterisation of a human process that will play out against pre-ordained personal prejudice and bias (naturally a bull, naturally a bear), regardless of what the rational analysis tells us.
Yes, you will read new warnings, like “ Soros doubles a bearish bet on the S&P 500, to the tune of $1.3 billion.” You may double down too. Or do nothing. You may listen to Hulbert, Gross, Gundlach, Ellis, Shilling, Roubini and Schiff. And still do nothing. Or something. You will listen, take it all in, and do what you always do. Your way, based not so much on all the warnings, the facts, evidence, predictions. Rather you’ll make your own decisions based on some inner consensus of voices that always guides you from deep inside your brain.
Talking of George Soros and his $1.3billion Put, here are 2 opinions, first from the WSJ again and secondly from the strange folk at zerohedge (a site that is popular with aggressive opinion. Nearly all columns are written by “Tyler Durden” a nom de plume designed, with a somewhat wicked sense of humour, to enable industry insiders to pontificate anonymously without fear of jeopardising their employment). Both articles are strangely inconclusive actually, it may be a hedge, or it may be a sign that Soros is concerned about China and is anticipating a big fall. Still, an interesting marker to keep an eye on, Soros, after all, has a history of getting big bets right.
Finally a somewhat left field and unscientific historical observation from David Brin.
His suggestion is that 1914 and 1814 were the real starting points of their respective centuries, with the Concert of Vienna 1814 leading to an extended era of peace on the European continent, shattered rudely by the horror of WW1 in 1914. As a thought experiment, and Brin is clear that this whole exercise is almost an amusing aside, we can speculate what might be brought forward from 2014. It could go both ways. Let’s hope common sense prevails.
Stratfor is the global intelligence consultancy that came to public prominence in 2011 when they were hacked by anonymous.
I didn’t pay them much mind beyond those news reports until recently, when I stumbled across a video called “The United Kingdom’s Geographic Challenge” via r/GeoPolitics on reddit. It’s only 2 minutes long and after watching it I was strikingly unimpressed, largely because it was made by Stratfor, and I therefore expected something pretty big in terms of insight, and which I felt was lacking. I scanned the reddit thread and found folks similarly unimpressed. I then read the Youtube comments, which I don’t often do. There was only one substantial exchange, between someone called Random Videos (RV) and someone called Zarrov. RV was unimpressed, Zarrov somewhat bluntly explained that RV was missing the context…
Thats why I said that I dismissed your comment. It would take too much time to explain basics. You just don’t understand strategy. You think in superficial, layman terms, thats “ability to amass invasion” means “omg, agression, they WANT to attack us”. Not so. The very existence of power warps relations with others. The most obvious mistake you make is to assume that history happens because of random events, and that it does not repeat itself. You do not ask yourself question why all states, despite changing times, regimes, technology, societies and leaders behaved in patterns. To think, that “well, today we are safe” and proejct (sic) that into the future is very basic mistake. — Zarrov