February 2019


Podcasts

Bias And Perception by TED Radio Hour

  • three things important phenomena to address: (1) confirmation bias, (2) Dunning-Kruger, (3) cognitive dissonance. Want an easy example of bias?

“A father and son are involved in a car crash. The father dies, but the surgeon won’t operate on the critically injured son. The surgeon explains: “he’s my son”.

  • How? The surgeon is his mom.

  • Culture shapes what information we seek out: why do we ask whether you believe in climate change? We don’t ask whether you believe in gravity 

The 1MDB Scandal And The Nature of Debt by Odd Lots

  • Interesting discussion of sovereign bonds, and the less savory version that have been popping up: Venezuela’s hunger bonds, Mozambique’s tuna bonds, and of course Malaysia’s 1MBD bonds

  • The prevailing narrative is that countries pay off a previous government’s debts — even if they don’t have to, e.g. China’s Communist Party, or in this case Malaysia… but there is no empirical evidence of benefit from guaranteeing 1MBD bonds that were previously not guaranteed

    • Cui bono suggests, therefore, that new government was involved / at least did not want discovery process 

  • Recommendation: odiousness rating so the free market can price it appropriately, as an effort to create a legal framework “utterly failed”


Articles

The second phase of the opioid epidemic, the patient broker networks and fraudulent treatment centers profiting off the deaths and misery of the most vulnerable

In the standard narrative of the opioid crisis, greedy pharmaceutical companies are the villains and kids like Brianne are the casualties. But now we are in phase two, an addiction epidemic compounded by a treatment network that in many cases sets patients up for failure. Where pill mills proliferated a decade ago, unscrupulous rehabs sprout today. “A lot of the talk until this point has involved more money for rehab,” says Dave Aronberg, the state attorney for Palm Beach County, one of the few jurisdictions that has vigorously pursued lawbreaking treatment providers. “Little has been said or done on the issue of patient brokering and insurance fraud that has cost so many lives.” 

How Neopets paved the way for this generation’s female coders

Neopets” was the wireframe for a community of girls that continuously expanded its expressive reach. Not bound by the limitations of a traditional open-world game built on a console system, “Neopets” began a collaborative building exercise for those that played it. Even in the aspects of play that were regulated by “Neopets” developers, users provided input: A player could publish reported and researched stories or opinion pieces in the in-game newspaper, The Neopian Times, or build out shops that filled Neopia’s marketplace. Players gathered in forums and in guilds – partly responsible for the “Neopets” DIY media scene – to forge relationships and share experiences. Communities of storytellers, artists, reporters, designers, and poets emerged, alongside an economy that fed off its collaborators.

Garcia and other girls like her, including Madison Kanna, now a software engineer, looked outside “Neopets'” set system to earn Neopoints, capitalizing on the skills that drew them to the site. “I would build profiles for people with HTML and CSS and exchange that for goods and supplies,” Kanna says. “Just going on and knowing I could create anything I wanted was huge.” Both women taught themselves as girls to design and code websites for their “Neopets,” and, in turn, started “businesses” designed to use those skills. “I designed my profile page, my shop,” Garcia says. “I coded everything. And what came out of that was my first tutorial site where I was teaching people – other girls, mostly – to code. I had a ‘staff member’ when I was 14, also writing tutorials. That’s what I was doing in my spare time.”

Vertical vs. Horizontal reading

Our phones and computers deliver unto each of us a personalized—or rather, algorithm-realized—distillation of headlines, anecdotes, jokes, and photographs. Even the ads we scroll past are not the same as our neighbor’s: a pair of boots has followed me from site to site for weeks. We call this endless, immaterial material a feed, though there’s little sustenance to be found.

As reading materials—not just books, but newspapers, magazines, and ephemera—proliferated, more recent centuries saw the rise of reading “extensively”: we read these materials once, often quickly, and move on. Birkerts coins his own terms: the deep, devotional practice of “vertical” reading has been supplanted by “horizontal” reading, skimming along the surface. This shift has only accelerated dizzyingly in the time since Engelsing wrote in 1974, since Birkerts wrote in 1994, and since I wrote, yesterday, the paragraph above.

Horizontal reading rules the day. What I do when I look at Twitter is less akin to reading a book than to the encounter I have with a recipe’s instructions or the fine print of a receipt: I’m taking in information, not enlightenment. It’s a way to pass the time, not to live in it. Reading—real reading, the kind Birkerts makes his impassioned case for—draws on our vertical sensibility, however latent, and “where it does not assume depth, it creates it.”

We know perfectly well—we remember, even if dimly, the inward state that satisfies more than our itching, clicking fingers—and we know it isn’t here. Here, on the internet, is a nowhere space, a shallow time. It is a flat and impenetrable surface. But with a book, we dive in; we are sucked in; we are immersed, body and soul. “We hold in our hands a way to cut against the momentum of the times,” Birkerts assures. “We can resist the skimming tendency and delve; we can restore, if only for a time, the vanishing assumption of coherence. The beauty of the vertical engagement is that it does not have to argue for itself. It is self-contained, a fulfillment.”

Lincoln’s Depression and one of his favorite poems

In his middle years Lincoln turned from the question of whether he could live to how he would live. Building bridges out from his tortured self, he engaged with the psychological culture of his time, investigating who he was, how he might change, and what he must endure. Having seen what he wished to live for, Lincoln suffered at the prospect that he might never achieve it. Even so, he worked diligently to improve himself, developing self-understanding, discipline, and strategies for succor that would become the foundation of his character.

As noted, work was a first refuge; he advised a friend, "I think if I were you, in case my mind were not exactly right, I would avoid being idle." When he was off duty, two things gave him most relief. He told stories and jokes, studiously gathering new material from talented peers and printed sources. And he gave vent to his melancholy by reading, reciting, and composing poetry that dwelled on themes of death, despair, and human futility. Yet, somewhat in the way that insulin allows diabetics to function without eliminating the root problem, this strategy gave Lincoln relief without taking away his need for it.

For Lincoln had long applied the same principle to his own life: that is, continuing struggle to realize an ideal, knowing that it could never be perfectly attained. Individuals, he had learned from his own "severe experience," could succeed in "the great struggle of life" only by enduring failures and plodding on with a vision of improvement. This attitude sustained Lincoln through his ignominious defeats in the 1850s (he twice lost bids for the U.S. Senate), and it braced him for the trials that lay ahead. Prepared for defeat, and even for humiliation, he insisted on seeing the truth of both his personal circumstances and the national condition. And where the optimists of his time would fail, he would succeed, envisioning and articulating a durable idea of free society.

He lost friends and colleagues to the war, and in February of 1862 he lost his eleven-year-old son, Willie. In this vulnerable period Lincoln was influenced by the Reverend Phineas D. Gurley, whose Presbyterian church he attended (but never joined). In his eulogy for Willie, Gurley preached that "in the hour of trial" one must look to "Him who sees the end from the beginning and doeth all things well." With confidence in God, Gurley said, "our sorrows will be sanctified and made a blessing to our souls, and by and by we shall have occasion to say with blended gratitude and rejoicing, 'It is good for us that we have been afflicted.'" Lincoln asked Gurley to write out a copy of the eulogy. He would hold to this idea as if it were a life raft.

Many popular philosophies propose that suffering can be beaten simply, quickly, and clearly. Popular biographies often express the same view. Many writers, faced with the unhappiness of a heroic figure, make sure to find some crucible in which that bad feeling is melted into something new. "Biographies tend conventionally to be structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives," the critic Louis Menand writes, "in which the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment or adversity, and then has a 'breakthrough' or arrives at a 'turning point' before going on to achieve whatever sort of greatness obtains." Lincoln's melancholy doesn't lend itself to such a narrative. No point exists after which the melancholy dissolved—not in January of 1841; not during his middle age; and not at his political resurgence, beginning in 1854. Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn't do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.

Hudson Yards, the city within a city; Stephen Ross and Related: 28 acres, at almost a billion dollars an acre

It’s possible to live a full and varied life here — to sleep, put in an hour at the gym, bring the kids to school, drop the dog off at day care, go to the office, shop, eat out, visit a museum, and catch a show — without so much as crossing the street. That kind of total-service completeness has been a goal of smart-growth urbanists for many years, but it’s one thing to apply those aspirations to a semi-citified development around a suburban transit station, in the hope that it won’t go dead after rush hour. It’s a very different, and more disquieting, achievement to create a high-rise district on a plinth so sealed-off and yachtlike that nobody need ever leave.

Architecture, like politics and war, springs from a million separate decisions made within the context of vast historical forces, decisions that can seem freer or more meaningful than they really are. At Hudson Yards, the path to the ribbon-cutting followed an inexorable trajectory based on impregnable financial logic. Underutilized space must be reclaimed for its highest and best use.

Zillow buying houses

Zillow paid $335,300 for the Chandler house on Sept. 27, collecting a 6.5 percent fee from the seller, or a little less than $22,000. It budgeted $8,000 and 10 days for the renovation and about four months to resell it. That gave it time to replace the refrigerator and microwave, repair a leaky toilet, and make some basic cosmetic fixes, such as repainting the pool decking. The outdated master bathroom, on the other hand, and a purple accent wall in the living room were left untouched. Of course, renovations are beside the point if Zillow can’t value a home properly. In its early days, the company’s home-price estimator had a median error rate of 14 percent. The algorithms improved, but not in every case. Zillow says it shoots for a 1.5 percent profit margin on every house. That means even a small miss on price can eat into the profit margin fast. The Chandler house sold at the end of December for $1,800 less than the company bought it for, highlighting Eisman’s concerns.

The three main iBuyers in Phoenix—Zillow, Opendoor, and Offerpad—bought roughly 4,700 homes last year, or about 4.5 percent of the market, according to the University of Colorado’s DelPrete. Another institutional buyer, the startup Knock, began operating in the city this month. Brooks predicts the iBuyers will soon get to 20 percent of sales in the Phoenix market. In fact, there are now so many players making “offers” that another company, HomeLight, recently unveiled an Expedia-like comparison-shopping tool to make it easy for homeowners to get the best price. Zillow, which began buying homes in Houston on Feb. 11, is aiming to operate in 14 cities by this fall as it races to keep up with Opendoor, which has said it plans to buy and sell homes in 50 markets by the end of 2020. The opportunity is “scary, unknown, dangerous, huge, and awesome,” says Barton, Zillow’s co-founder and executive chairman.

Emojis in court

It’s rare for cases to turn on the interpretations of emoji. “They show up as evidence, the courts have to acknowledge their existence, but often they’re immaterial,” Goldman says. “That’s why many judges decide to say ‘emoji omitted’ because they don’t think it’s relevant to the case at all.”

“Judges need to be aware of the importance of the emojis to the overall communication when we run into these odd evidentiary issues,” Goldman says. “We need to make sure that the emoji get proper credit.”

The Mirror World, future of AR

Someday soon, every place and thing in the real world—every street, lamppost, building, and room—will have its full-size digital twin in the mirrorworld ... We are now building such a 1:1 map of almost unimaginable scope, and this world will become the next great digital platform.

The first big technology platform was the web, which digitized information, subjecting knowledge to the power of algorithms; it came to be dominated by Google. The second great platform was social media, running primarily on mobile phones. It digitized people and subjected human behavior and relationships to the power of algorithms, and it is ruled by Facebook and WeChat.

We are now at the dawn of the third platform, which will digitize the rest of the world. On this platform, all things and places will be machine-­readable, subject to the power of algorithms. Whoever dominates this grand third platform will become among the wealthiest and most powerful people and companies in history, just as those who now dominate the first two platforms have.

UN Population Predictions Are Wrong? Population Will Start To Decline In 30Y? Authors of Empty Planet argue global population will start to decline in 30Y, versus UN estimate of 11B in 2100 (40% growth)

UN forecasting model inputs three things: fertility rates, migration rates, and death rates. It doesn’t take into account the expansion of education for females or the speed of urbanization (which are in some ways linked). The UN says they’re already baked into the numbers. But when I went and interviewed [the demographer] Wolfgang Lutz in Vienna, which was one of the first things we did, he walked me through his projections, and I walked out of the room gobsmacked. All he was doing was adding one new variable to the forecast: the level of improvement in female education. And he comes up with a much lower number for global population in 2100, somewhere between 8 billion and 9 billion.

Lutz has this saying that the most important reproductive organ for human beings is your mind. That if you change how someone thinks about reproduction, you change everything. Based on his analysis, the single biggest effect on fertility is the education of women. The UN has a grim view of Africa. It doesn’t predict much change in terms of fertility over the first quarter of the century. But large parts of African are urbanizing at two times the rate of the global average. If you go to Kenya today, women have the same elementary education levels as men. As many girls as boys are sitting for graduation exams. So we’re not prepared to predict that Africa will stagnate in rural poverty for the rest of the century.

We polled 26 countries asking women how many kids they want, and no matter where you go the answer tends to be around two. The external forces that used to dictate people having bigger families are disappearing everywhere. And that's happening fastest in developing countries. In the Philippines, for example, fertility rates dropped from 3.7 percent to 2.7 percent from 2003 to 2018. That's a whole kid in 15 years. In the US, that change happened much more slowly, from about 1800 to the end of the Baby Boom. So that’s the scenario we’re asking people to contemplate.

The Cash For Electronic Cash — Coin Center (PDF)

“This paper shows that a cashless economy is a surveillance economy.” Citizens in these countries [those becoming rapidly cashless, Sweden + other Nordics] rely on card and mobile payments systems owned and operated by banks and financial technology (fintech) firms. These companies have an interest in promoting an increasingly cashless society. Every cash transaction is a transaction that takes place outside of the infrastructure that they own and on which they take a fee. Additionally, cash management is a not an insignificant cost for financial institutions.” [see death of free checking]

“7.5% of low income people, who make less than $30,000 a year, get hit with 20 or more NSF fees for an average total cost of $1,568… For low-income people, 56.7% have less than $100 in their checking account when averaged throughout the year. Some will pay $1,568 in order to get a space in the connected economy in order to productive [sic] use a balance of $100.” 

Firms such as Visa have launched advertising and media campaigns to urge consumers to give up cash for card payments.13 Other campaigns are targeted at merchants. In one, Visa offered $10,000 to restaurants and food trucks that committed to stop accepting cash. As Visa UK put it, these campaigns are part of a “long term strategy to make cash ‘peculiar’ by 2020.”

Former International Monetary Fund chief economist Kenneth Rogoff, whose gripes with paper money are plainly stated in the title of his book, The Curse of Cash, nevertheless agrees that “we need cash for privacy.”

The move away from cash in China happened in just a few years. While cash accounted for 96 percent of payments in 2012, today that number is below 15 percent. As of 2018, more than one-half billion Chinese use mobile payments.

The same logic that applies to speech is applicable to association and other freedoms valued by an open society. Respect for autonomy is how such freedoms are given meaning; a legal right is useless if one can be prevented from exercising it. The more intermediated a society is, however, the easier and more tempting it becomes to effect prior restraints on the free exercise of rights.

Privacy is a notoriously difficult concept to define, but a useful definition was put forth by mathematician and computer scientist Eric Hughes: “Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.” In this formulation, it is interesting to note that Hughes does not frame privacy as a right to be respected by others, but as a power to be exercised by individuals.

Economist (and Sam Altman) on UBI (video)

When machines/AI arrive, we’ll have $$$, but it’ll naturally accrue to the owners, with nothing left for the newly unemployed (without UBI)

Animation and in-depth story regarding the two US Navy destroyer collisions in the same year

In those eight months, nearly 40 percent of the Fitzgerald’s crew had turned over. The Navy replaced them with younger, less-seasoned sailors and officers, leaving the Fitzgerald with the highest percentage of new crew members of any destroyer in the fleet. But naval commanders had skimped even further, cutting into the number of sailors Benson needed to keep the ship running smoothly. The Fitzgerald had around 270 people total — short of the 303 sailors called for by the Navy.

At 1:25 a.m., the Fitzgerald was 6,000 yards from the Crystal, 5,000 yards from the Wan Hai 266 and on a collision course with the Maersk Evora, approaching from 14,000 yards away. There was still time for the highly maneuverable Fitzgerald to get out of the way.

But Coppock disobeyed Benson’s standing orders. Rather than call Benson for help, she decided to continue on her own. Coppock didn’t call down to the combat room to ask for help, either.

Coppock could have ordered the Fitzgerald into reverse; there was still time to stop. Arleigh Burke destroyers can come to a complete halt from 20 knots within 500 feet or so.

Instead, Coppock ordered a move that disregarded the very basics of her training.  She commanded the helmsman to gun the destroyer’s powerful engines to full speed and duck in front of the Crystal by heading left. “All ahead flank,” she ordered. “Hard left rudder.”

An entrepreneur’s reflections on taking VC money but failing to build a unicorn; according to Andreessen, “product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” But too often the focus is on latter part of the sentence (a product that can satisfy the market) and not the former (in a good market).

But we were venture-funded, which was like playing a game of double-or-nothing. It’s euphoric when things are going your way–and suffocating when they’re not. And we weren’t doubling fast enough to raise the $15M+ Series B (the second major round of funding) we looked for to grow the team.

For the type of business we were trying to build, every month of less than 20% growth should have been a red flag.

It doesn’t matter how amazing your product is, or how fast you ship features. The market you’re in will determine most of your growth. For better or worse, Gumroad grew at roughly the same rate almost every month because that’s how quickly the market determined we would grow.

What it’s like to a Facebook fact-checker

In case you’re curious, here’s what it was like to be an official Facebook fact-checker. We were given access to a tool that hooked into our personal Facebook accounts and was accessed that way (strike one, as far as I was concerned) and it spat out a long list of stories that had been flagged for checks. We were free to ignore the list, or mark stories as “true,” “false,” or “mixture.” (Facebook later added a “satire” category after what I like to call "the Babylon Bee incident", where a satirical piece was incorrectly labeled false.)

It was clear from the start that that this list was generated via algorithm. It contained headlines and URLs, and a graph showing their popularity and how much time they had been on the site. There were puzzling aspects to it, though. We would often get the same story over and over again from different sites, which is to be expected to a certain degree because many of the most lingering stories have been recycled again and again. This is what Facebook likes to call “engagement.”

But no matter how many times we marked them “false,” stories would keep resurfacing with nothing more than a word or two changed. This happened often enough to make it clear that our efforts weren’t really helping, and that we were being directed toward a certain type of story — and, we presumed, away from others.

A Guide to Tagging for Personal Knowledge Management — yes it’s as exciting/consequential to me/you as the title sounds; 4 actionable insights offered:

  • Tag notes according to the actions taken or deliverables created with them

  • Add structure slowly, in stages and only as needed, using accumulated material to guide you in what structures are needed

  • Tag notes according to their internal, external, and social context, and status

  • Develop customized, profession-specific taxonomies

Public defendants

Public defendants have a hard time, e.g. example in article needs to do work of 5 lawyers... most are ineffective, and although courts allow an individual to claim, after they lose, that they received an ineffective defense. But the bar is high. Some judges have ruled that taking illegal drugs, driving to court drunk or briefly falling asleep at the defense table — even during critical testimony — did not make a lawyer inadequate… Roughly four out of five criminal defendants are too poor to hire a lawyer and use public defenders or court-appointed lawyers.

Modern Monetary Theory

What’s modern about MMT is this: the modern sovereign’s balance sheet cannot be understood solely from a fiscal perspective. The sovereign’s balance sheet includes not only the assets and liabilities of the sovereign’s treasury from tax-and-spend-and-borrow fiscal policy, but also the assets and liabilities of the sovereign’s central bank from money-printing-and-pricing monetary policy. As a result, MMT holds that not only are austerity and budget-balancing policies a bad move, but so are balance sheet-reducing and liquidity-draining policies. MMT is the theoretical justification for QE without end.

At its core, Modern Monetary Theory is an argument that would be wonderfully familiar to every sovereign since the invention of debt. It is essentially the argument that significant sovereign debt is a good thing, not a bad thing, and that budget balancing efforts on a national scale do much more harm than good. Why? Because there’s so much to do and so little time for the right-minded sovereign. Because it is fundamentally unjust for the demands of private lenders to thwart the necessary ends of the sovereign, and it is politically difficult to finance those ends through tax levies on a fickle citizenry. MMT is the sovereign-friendly justification for deficit spending without end.

So don’t tell me that the crowding-out effect of sovereign debt on the real economy isn’t a bad thing. Because it is. This is how entire economies are turned into zombies. Don’t tell me that the monetization of sovereign debt, explicitly or implicitly, isn’t a bad thing. Because it is. This is how a middle class is destroyed.

Responses from readers of Epilson Theory to above article

When you accept the language and the structural vocabulary of an insurgent political narrative (and that’s what MMT is … an insurgent political narrative), then you’ve lost the debate before you’ve even begun. It’s like earnestly “debating” Arthur Laffer about supply-side economics in front of an audience of Young Republicans at the Hoover Institution in the mid-80s … the vocabulary and the structure of the conversation are INTENTIONALLY CONSTRUCTED to sound truth-y (to use Stephen Colbert’s wonderful word) and to create a hermetically sealed argumentation chamber where flaws in the theory do not exist because the words to express those flaws do not exist. Like I said in the note: I get the joke. This is what Socrates called sophistry. It was the bane of education and intellectual discourse 2,500 years ago, and it’s the bane of education and intellectual discourse today. The key to successful engagement with a political narrative like MMT (or like supply-side Reagonomics back in the day) is the same key that Socrates identified in freakin’ 430 BC: CALL THINGS BY THEIR PROPER NAMES. That’s all it takes. Seriously.”

“In the modern system, there are more tickets sold than seats in the house (more money/debt printed than products and services, at current prices.) The elites are good at playing for time, but eventually ticket holders will want to go in. So you’re down to a choice among: denying entry to some tickets (default/deflation,) putting 4 people in every 3 seats (inflation/devaluation,) announcing everyone must wait indefinitely (financial repression,) and building more seats (economic growth.) If you’re the global empire, you can also make the neighboring theater honor some of your tickets, or make war to make that happen. There are no other ways out, and even if miracles come out of the labs, people may not spend money on them, so growth is really outside Team Elite’s control. Historically, the Western elites have been pretty good at effecting a combination of the scenarios, to spread around the stress and keep their system alive.

Hypothesis driven development in journalism @ NPR

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Acceptance Speech

Stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point. But for me the essential thing is that they communicate feelings. That they appeal to what we share as human beings across our borders and divides. There are large, glamorous industries around stories; the book industry, the movie industry, the television industry, the theatre industry. But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?