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My Thoughts on Science, Technology, Freedom, and Stuff
Updated: 12 hours 46 min ago

Book Review: "Capitalism Without Capital" by Jonathan Haskel & Stian Westlake

Monday 3rd of June 2019 09:39:00 PM
I've recently read the book "Capitalism Without Capital" by Jonathan Haskel & Stian Westlake. I found out about this book from a reading list by Bill Gates that was circulated by various media outlets online, which suggested that this book would have a lot to say about the currently relevant issue of people's personal data held by large online companies like Facebook & Google. This turned out to not be the case, as there was only a single brief mention of this point later in the book. Instead, this book is a discussion about how companies in many developed countries rely more on intangible assets than tangible assets, how associated trends can explain many issues faced by societies in those countries today, and why governments need to take notice of these trends. The authors start by carefully defining their notions of investments & assets, along with tangibility (essentially physical goods that can be valued & traded relatively easily) versus intangibility (things like institutions, rules, know-how, intellectual property, and social relationships that are much harder to quantify & trade), and then discuss why the values of intangible assets are harder to measure and how various econometric organizations are trying to improve this situation. They then describe their central thesis, which is that intangible assets have much greater scalability, sunk costs, spillover effects, and synergistic effects compared to tangible assets, and this leads to qualitatively different economic & political outcomes. This leads to discussion of specific points, including the role of intangible assets in secular stagnation (low business investment levels despite low interest rates) as well as income & wealth inequality, the issues associated with creating infrastructure for as well as financing investment in intangible assets, the role of intangible assets in promoting a cult of management and the greater role of management in turn as intangible assets become more important, and the questions governments will have to face with respect to managing this growth in intangible assets.

I thought this book was meant for lay readers, but it seems more meant for policymakers, entrepreneurs, and the like, and it is a bit dense. Nonetheless, it is quite well-written, and I enjoyed gaining more perspective about these aspects of the economy that I wouldn't have consciously considered otherwise. I particularly appreciated the summaries at the end of each chapter, as the authors seemed to implicitly acknowledge the density of information in their book and wanted to refresh readers' minds after going through each chapter. Moreover, I really liked the fact that the authors were more interested in laying out the facts as they interpreted them instead of making bold, sweeping proclamations about the generality of their analysis: they really tried to avoid the golden hammer fallacy of trying to contort their explanation to fit every possible problem. As a particular example, one of the features of intangible goods being synergy would seem to suggest that as synergistic/agglomeration effects are correlated with dense urban development, then policymakers should promote dense urban development to promote the formation of synergy/agglomeration clusters and that this should be a guaranteed way of growing a local economy; however, the authors take pains to mention at multiple points in the book that the empirical evidence for this is sparse in general, and where it does exist, the results are mixed, thereby providing a testable & falsifiable scenario that leads to a failure to reject the null hypothesis. As another example, both this book and the book Radical Markets by Eric A. Posner & E. Glen Weyl (which I have reviewed here) discuss Friedrich Hayek's anecdote of pencil-making to illustrate how markets efficiently communicate information via prices, but while the authors of the other book uncritically praise and extend that notion, the authors of this book are quick to show how in practice, gathering price & other information as well as conducting bargaining can be quite costly, which is how Ronald Coase concluded that people organize into firms with hierarchies in order to lessen these costs and uncertainties. Also, in the chapter about what governments should consider doing, the authors explicitly state that they are not trying to suggest the existence of quick fixes, but are instead laying out the challenges in full and suggesting possible general approaches that governments can tailor to their specific needs. Overall, I would need to read a lot more to more seriously evaluate the claims in the book, so I wouldn't be able to recommend this to lay readers, but specialists in the field may find this book interesting & thought-provoking.

My Time at the 2019 SmartDrivingCar Summit

Tuesday 21st of May 2019 08:56:00 PM
Last week, I attended the 2019 SmartDrivingCar Summit, hosted in Princeton University by ORFE professor Alain Kornhauser. As someone with a physical disability, I've become excited of late about the possibilities that autonomous vehicles could offer people like myself as well as older people or people with cognitive disabilities, blindness, or even those without disabilities but live in poverty, while also wondering about the socioeconomic implications for such people with respect to the development of autonomous vehicles and associated systems in practice. Given this, I've been in conversation with Prof. Kornhauser about these issues for several weeks, and desirous of learning more & meeting people in the field, I attended the conference.

Laudably, the conference had the overall theme of prioritizing development of autonomous vehicle systems to serve the needs of those in marginalized groups (where marginalization could be socioeconomic or through disability). As I have been reading about some predictions about socioeconomic impacts for the last few months, presentations touching upon those aspects felt more familiar to me, but it was really interesting to also see the technical developments in this field, current innovations in transportation network development for elderly & disabled people, and psychological aspects to bear in mind with respect to popular acceptance of autonomous vehicles. For instance, with respect to the last point, it didn't really occur to me that some people in marginalized communities may feel a sense of social belonging with others at public transit stops as they are designed now and may feel more socially isolated in small autonomous vehicles.

The overarching concern at the conference was about the funding pressures being acutely felt following the incident of an Uber autonomous vehicle killing a pedestrian in Arizona last year, along with the general failure of fully autonomous systems to materialize at this time despite predictions from 3-5 years ago that it would happen now. As a result, the tone of the conference felt more measured than some of the hype from that time might have suggested, yet there was an overall sense of optimism and motivation to do more work toward solving these problems. Even if fully autonomous cars fail to materialize, whether the problems are technical (i.e. they just won't work unsupervised) versus political (i.e. the number of accidents in testing becomes unacceptably high), I am personally optimistic about the possibility of working toward solving some socioeconomic inequities in transportation even with current innovations. Overall, I really enjoyed learning more and meeting new people, and am hoping to get more involved in this field in the future.

Book Review: "Radical Markets" by Eric A. Posner & E. Glen Weyl

Tuesday 23rd of April 2019 01:10:00 AM
I've recently read the book "Radical Markets" by Eric A. Posner & E. Glen Weyl. I should disclose that I came to know of this book upon attending a talk and Q&A session on campus by the latter author about this book, and that I was able to ask a question during that time (though as I point out later, I didn't find the answer to be so satisfactory). In any case, the topic intrigued me. This book is essentially a vision for a radical reformation of society, starting in the West but ultimately spreading through the world, such that concentrations of power are systematically broken and a level playing field is quickly approached. The two key novel contributions of this work are the notion of a common ownership self-assessed tax (COST), which aims to revolutionize notions of ownership by abolishing property rights extending to perpetuity and replacing them with auctions for goods & capital, and quadratic voting (QV), which aims to replace the principle of one-person-one-vote with voting credits such that individuals can vote on issues or candidates (for or against) in proportion to their perceived importance while being prevented from unduly swinging elections. There are also other issues discussed, such as immigration, institutional investment, and the value of digital data, all in the context of concentrations of power. It is worth pointing out that though there are many arguments that extend to Canada, the UK, other European countries, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, most of the arguments are made in the context of the US.

I will leave a detailed critique after the jump, and summarize my thoughts here. I found the ideas presented in the book rather intriguing and certainly novel. However, the main flaw of the book in my view is that the authors too often like to present their ideas at a very broad conceptual (macroscopic) level while simultaneously presenting examples justifying these concepts at a very granular (microscopic) level. The missing elements are the granular implementations of their broad concepts as well as the implications of the granular examples interacting on a larger scale; as a result, particularly for the introduction of the COST ideas, the claims must be taken essentially on faith, as the authors are quite glib about the importance of implementation details to the overall path of society if their ideas were to be followed. Given this, there are many reasons to remain skeptical about these ideas. This is also evident in the writing style too, in that my need to reread parts of certain chapters multiple times, while in part because these ideas are certainly not trivial, was mostly because of these sorts of logical leaps to conclusions that were not obvious, and many times, these conclusions remained non-obvious even after multiple reads through; the writing is otherwise engaging and fun to read, but I could tell that the authors were at many points getting swept up in their own ideas at the expense of clarity for readers. Overall, I recommend this book because the ideas are intriguing and I do want to see these ideas fleshed out better, but I would not recommend this book in the sense of wanting to preach these ideas myself. Follow the jump to see more detailed discussion about this book.

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More in Tux Machines

OSS Leftovers

  • Hideki Yamane: Debian 10 "buster" release party @Tokyo (7/7)

    We ate a delicious cake to celebrate Debian 10 "buster" release, at party in Tokyo (my employer provided the venue, cake and wine. Thanks to SIOS Technology, Inc.! :)

  • First Global Students Open Source Conference to Bring Together Next-Generation Tech Community

    Open-source software is a piece of software whose source code is distributed, modified and reused by the public with a few restrictions. The emphasis of open-source development on freedom, collaboration and community appeals to Silicon Valley companies and student organizations alike.

  • Zstd 1.4.1 Further Improves Decode Speed, Other Optimizations

    Zstd 1.4.1 is out today as a maintenance release to Facebook's Zstandard compression algorithm but with this update comes even more performance optimizations.  [...] This Zstd release also has several bug fixes including for niche use-cases where it could hit a rare data corruption bug. There are also build system updates and documentation improvements. 

  • Kubernetes As A Service On Bare Metal | Boris Renski

    Mirantis is one of those companies that continues to evolve with change times. Mirantis is now upping its Kubernetes game by offering Kubernetes as a service that supports bare metal. Mirantis CMO and co-founder Boris Renski explains the service in this interview.

  • YugaByte Commits to 100 Percent Open Source with Apache 2.0 License

    Version 2.0 Release Candidate of YugaByte Distributed SQL DB Available; First Product Available Under License Created by the Polyform Project.

  • Databases adopt open licenses, JavaScript gets faster on Android, governments use more OSS, and more news

    In the last year, a handful of major open source database vendors have tightened their grip on their code to try to remain competitive. Two vendors have bucked that trend and have gone all in on open source. The first of those is Cloudera, which announced that it's making "closed license components of its products open source" under the AGPL and Apache 2.0 license. While Cloudera's executives said they "had been mulling a modified open source license" like the one adopted by some of their competitors, they decided to go open and to adopt a "licensing/subscription approach" that closely mirrors that of Red Hat. Distributed database vendor YugaByte also adopted an Apache 2.0 license, making its wares fully open source. That move brings "previously commercial-only, closed-source features such as Distributed Backups, Data Encryption, and Read Replicas into the open source core project." That code is available in the project's GitHub repository.

  • Why Carl Malamud's Latest Brilliant Project, To Mine The World's Research Papers, Is Based In India

    Carl Malamud is one of Techdirt's heroes. We've been writing about his campaign to liberate US government documents and information for over ten years now. The journal Nature has a report on a new project of his, which is in quite a different field: academic knowledge. The idea will be familiar to readers of this site: to carry out text and data mining (TDM) on millions of academic articles, in order to discover new knowledge. It's a proven technique with huge potential to produce important discoveries. That raises the obvious question: if large-scale TDM of academic papers is so powerful, why hasn't it been done before? The answer, as is so often the case, is that copyright gets in the way. 

Security Leftovers

  • Researchers Build App That Kills To Highlight Insulin Pump Exploit

    By now the half-baked security in most internet of things (IOT) devices has become a bit of a running joke, leading to amusing Twitter accounts like Internet of Shit that highlight the sordid depth of this particular apathy rabbit hole. And while refrigerators leaking your gmail credentials and tea kettles that expose your home networks are entertaining in their own way, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the same half-assed security in the IOT space also exists on most home routers, your car, your pacemaker, and countless other essential devices and services your life may depend on. Case in point: just about two years ago, security researchers discovered some major vulnerabilities Medtronic's popular MiniMed and MiniMed Paradigm insulin pumps. At a talk last year, they highlighted how a hacker could trigger the pumps to either withhold insulin doses, or deliver a lethal dose of insulin remotely. But while Medtronic and the FDA warned customers about the vulnerability and issued a recall over time, security researchers Billy Rios and Jonathan Butts found that initially, nobody was doing much to actually fix or replace the existing devices. [...] And of course that's not just a problem in the medical sector, but most internet-connected tech sectors. As security researcher Bruce Schneier often points out, it's part of a cycle of dysfunction where the consumer and the manufacturer of a flawed product have already moved on to the next big purchase, often leaving compromised products, and users, in a lurch. And more often than not, when researchers are forced to get creative to highlight the importance of a particular flaw, the companies in question enjoy shooting the messenger.

  • Desktop Operating Systems: Which is the safest? [Ed: This shallow article does not discuss NSA back doors and blames on "Linux" devices with open ports and laughable passwords -- based on narrative often pushed by corporate media to give illusion of parity. Also pushes the lie of Linux having minuscule usage.]
  • How Open Source Data Can Protect Consumer Credit Card Information
  • Open Source Hacking Tool Grows Up

    An open source white-hat hacking tool that nation-state hacking teams out of China, Iran, and Russia have at times employed to avoid detection....

Games: Dota Underlords and Stadia

  • Dota Underlords has another update out, this one changes the game quite a lot

    Valve continue to tweak Dota Underlords in the hopes of keeping players happy, this mid-Season gameplay update flips quite a few things on their head. I like their sense of humour, with a note about them removing "code that caused crashes and kept code that doesn't cause crashes". There's a few smaller changes like the addition of Loot Round tips to the Season Info tab, the ability to change equipped items from the Battle Pass and some buffs to the amount XP awarded for your placement in matches and for doing the quests. Meaning you will level up the Battle Pass faster.

  • Interested in Google's Stadia game streaming service? We have a few more details now

    With Google's game streaming service Stadia inching closer, we have some more information to share about it. Part of this, is thanks to a recent AMA (Ask Me Anything) they did on Reddit. I've gone over what questions they answered, to give you a little overview. Firstly, a few points about the Stadia Pro subscription: The Pro subscription is not meant to be like a "Netflix for Games", something people seem to think Stadia will end up as. Google said to think of it more like Xbox Live Gold or Playstation Plus. They're aiming to give Pro subscribers one free game a month "give or take". If you cancel Stadia Pro, you will lose access to free games claimed. However, you will get the previously claimed games back when you re-subscribe but not any you missed while not subscribed. As for Stadia Base, as expected there will be no free games included. As already confirmed, both will let you buy games as normal.

LabPlot has got some beautifying and lots of datasets

Hello everyone! The second part of this year's GSoC is almost over, so I was due to let you know the progress made in the last 3 weeks. I can assure you we haven't lazed since then. I think I managed to make quite good progress, so everything is going as planned, or I could say that even better. If you haven't read about this year's project or you just want to go through what has already been accomplished you can check out my previous post. So let's just go through the new things step by step. I'll try to explain the respective feature, and also give examples using videos or screenshots. The first step was to improve the welcome screen and make it easily usable, dynamic, clean and intuitive for users. This step was very important since the welcome screen is what the users will first get in contact with when they start using LabPlot. Read more