Monthly Archives: February 2014

tech

Very simple algorithm for keeping track of doing something 50% of the time

So one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to eat meat less than 50% of days. However, I’ve been having trouble tracking it, and therefore have not been doing a good job of sticking with it. It’s hard to remember to update a calendar. You have to remember the days you did or did not eat meat that week, and there’s no easy way to see if you are doing better than 50%.

Yet, there is a shortcut we can use that my coworker pointed out to me that is very simple and elegant, although only because we have the simplification of 50%. Think about it for a minute…

If you’re like me you probably just jumped to this paragraph. Really, think about how you could track it!

 

 

 

 
Well, if you’ve given up, the very simple way of tracking this is just to add one when you make a day, and subtract when you miss one. You then only have one number, and that number tells you how far in the hole you are, or how well you are doing. Additionally, you are using psychology to benefit you, as humans (or at least the western-educated college students they run experiments on) hate losing things, even if the ‘things’ are imaginary points.

Right now I’m at -2 after 4 days. Which is not good, but at least I know now and can fight it!

politics tech

Thoughts About Recent Books I’ve Read

Average is Over, by Tyler Cowen

“Tyler Cowen may very well turn out to be this decade’s Thomas Friedman” was a quote on the back of the book. This quote is accurate.

In a more serious vein, while I have a ton of problems with his conclusions and writing, his heuristic for how to choose a career is very valid:
In your work, are you competing directly against something a slightly smarter machine could do (aka assembly line worker)? Yes? You’re screwed.
In your work, are you augmenting what the computer does and providing the human input necessary to ‘translate’? Yes? Ok, good, you’ll do great.

He doesn’t go into the deeper ramifications of this, however- what does society look like when we are listening to machines that we can’t even understand the inner workings of? (There is actually some good sci fi on this…) Is this different from what has been taking place since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, or is this a real, very different change? I’d just like more critical analysis.

I would read this, but only because people are going to reference it forever and you might need to know what they are talking about. OTOH, they are probably just going to say something like “Average is over” and you can nod your head and continue with your life without having to read this. Your pick.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

This is a great novel. It’s hard to not spoil it, but it’s amazing what he does and it is definitely something that at every page keeps you wanting to know what happens next. There are a million questions in your mind as you read this, and Mitchell lets you keep some questions still up in the air- very satisfying in a frustrating way! I absolutely hate when novels (and TV and movies) have no questions open- this is what makes the 6th season of the X-Files terrible, for instance. I should see the movie, although I doubt it can match the book.

You should read this book.

Future Perfect by Steven Johnson

This book speaks pretty strongly to how I believe problems should be solved in the world today. It in fact is pretty much intellectual wanking to read it, as I agree with everything there. I imagine that most of the people who are reading these words also agree, but I’ll summarize just in case.

Essentially, the models for how to organize human endeavors have traditionally been either a central state-based model or a market-based, anything goes model. The central model he refers to as a “Legrand Star”, after the French railway model. The market-based / libertarian model he refers to as the “Hayek” model. This gives us the usual conservative/liberal breakdown of suggestions to solve problems. Liberals have tended to favor centralized, controlled programs to (for instance) end poverty, while conservatives have tended to favor individual actions. However, neither works too well and in other parts of our society we have seen the benefits gained by another model: peer-to-peer, modeled after the internet.

Johnson argues that we should learn the lessons the internet has been teaching us and apply the same types of structures to our political realm. He coins the term “Peer Progressives” to label those who (like me) believe in various forms of social justice and who believe that the internet gives us better tools than the traditional duo to work with. He gives the example of art funding. The classic progressive way of promoting art is the NEA- large government bureaucracy. The libertarian way is private benefactors (hey, worked for Michaelangelo). The Peer Progressive way is Kickstarter, which currently passes on more funds than the entire NEA budget to artists every year, and arguably does a much better job at funding art that could never have gotten a grant.

I would recommend reading Future Perfect, but like most business books, you could read a long blog post and get the gist. The book is a fast read, though, and wonderfully self-validating, if you happen to be a “peer progressive” at least…

finance politics tech

Thoughts about “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital”

This is a totally eye-opening view of how capitalism and technology advances interact. This is going to be on my list of must-read books for anyone, especially anyone working in or investing in tech.

In “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital”, Carlota Perez argues that the technological advances and financial capital interact to create “surges”, what others generally call “long waves”. This surge encompasses the lifecycle of an entire “techno-economic paradigm”, a fancy word to describe how a society and its capitalist organization is underpinned by a set of technologies including processes, and that one form of this capitalist organization is very different from another. It is easiest to use an example, such as the “mass production” techno-economic paradigm. This started with Henry Ford et al, and is essentially waning as the “Information Age” (society’s term for the current techno-economic paradigm) emerges and dominates.

These surges have a lifecycle of the stages:

  1. Incubation/gestation
  2. A “big bang” of societal awareness of the new technology
  3. “Irruption”: A “frenzy” of investment and installation of the new tech
  4. Crash/Recession/Depression as the investment was over-hyped compared to the installed base
  5. “Synergy” as the paradigm is accepted and rolled out
  6. “Maturity” of the paradigm as the major gains are tapped out and capital goes in search of the next shift

Perez backs up this theory with examples of the 5 capitalist paradigms:

  1. The Industrial Revolution
  2. Age of Steam and Railways
  3. Age of Steel & Heavy Engineering
  4. Age of Oil, Autos, and Mass Production
  5. The Information Age

This theory seems to hit the data points very well, and it will be very interesting to see how the next stages of the Information Age play out. Perez wrote the book right after the Tech Bubble burst in 2001, identifying that event as the crash in the lifecycle. It seems so far that the lifecycle is holding: as the broadband deployment and cell phone service extends, business models are finding traction in all areas of the economy. This seems to follow the “Synergy” phase and validate those claiming that “this time it’s different” because of such widespread adoption. For instance, online ordering of takeout food is normal to the point where people will not order from a restaurant who does not use Seamless/Eat24Hours/etc. What was once a fringe service that could not gain traction is now the norm.

Once almost every routine thing can be done online, we will be in the “maturity” stage and you can expect profitableness of new tech ventures to decrease. Note that I am not saying that everything will be done online, just routine things. Shopping for a gift? Still in person, if you want. But a new pair of jeans? Bonobos has seemingly cracked that one, and there’s no sentimental or community-building reason to keep going to Kohls and buying Levis. You might as well just order over the internet. Groceries are probably going to be handled online, as the supermarket is a big hassle for everyone.

You might think, isn’t this what everyone thought the last time? Again, yes, but that is somewhat of the point- a lot of decent ideas were floated during the bubble that were too early for their time, horribly executed, and way overvalued. As this techno-economic paradigm rolls out, we can hopefully avoid “Internet Mania” with constant reminders of the turn of the century.

So what’s the next paradigm? I’d guess robots who can navigate the real world, but we will see. The advances in battery technology and machine learning are allowing potentially explosive growth in useful applications of robotics. Or does cloud computing count as a separate paradigm? It seems as though that is not the case, but perhaps it is revolutionary enough. Perez does not seem to set defined limits for how different a paradigm can be, seemingly setting them once it is clear a technology is on a track to replace as a paradigm.

Right now I’m borrowing Paul’s copy of the book, but I think I might buy myself a copy- it is that important to think about these things! Look also for a followup in which I think about which things might be totally different this time around.