Category: Web/Tech

Net neutrality for me but not for thee?

To be perfectly clear, I would prefer that 8chan did not exist. At the same time, many of those arguing that 8chan should be erased from the Internet were insisting not too long ago that the U.S. needed to apply Title II regulation (i.e. net neutrality) to infrastructure companies to ensure they were not discriminating based on content. While Title II would not have applied to Cloudflare, it is worth keeping in mind that at some point or another nearly everyone reading this article has expressed concern about infrastructure companies making content decisions.

That is from the excellent Ben Thompson and yes you should pay for his tech email newsletter.

A Toolkit of Policies to Promote Innovation

That is the new Journal of Economic Perspectives article by Nicholas Bloom, John Van Reenen, and Heidi Williams.  Most of all, such articles should be more frequent and receive greater attention and higher status, as Progress Studies would suggest.  Here is one excerpt:

…moonshots may be justified on the basis of political economy considerations. To generate significant extra resources for research, a politically sustainable vision needs to be created. For example, Gruber and Johnson (2019) argue that increasing federal funding of research as a share of GDP by half a percent—from 0.7 percent today to 1.2 percent, still lower than the almost 2 percent share observed in 1964 in Figure 1—would create a $100 billion fund that could jump-start new technology hubs in some of the more educated but less prosperous American cities (such as Rochester, New York, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). They argue that such a fund could generate local spillovers and, by alleviating spatial inequality, be more politically sustainable than having research funds primarily flow to areas with highly concentrated research, such as Palo Alto, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In general I agree with their points, but would have liked to have seen more on freedom to build, and of course on culture, culture, culture.  At the very least, policy is endogenous to culture, and culture shapes many economic outcomes more directly as well.  I’m fine with tax credits for R&D, but I just don’t see them as in the driver’s seat.

*Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language*

That is the new book by Gretchen McCulloch, here is one excerpt:

The passive-aggressive potential of the single period started being reported in thinkpieces in 2013…The string of dots got a thinkpiece in 2018, though it has been popping up in comment threads since at least 2006, while it cousins, the hyphen and string of commas, have been less extensively reported but have occasioned long comment threads on blogs and internet forums.  Despite the fears mongered by headlines, it’s not the case that the passive-aggressive meaning has killed all other uses of the period.  The linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, who’s definitely younger than the peak dot-dot-dot generation, did a study of periods in his own 157,305 text messages.  He found that, true, periods were rare in short, informal messages — ones less than seventeen characters or containing lol, u, haha, yup, ok, or gonna.  But they were still often found in messages longer than seventy-two characters or containing words like told, feels, feel, felt, feelings, date, sad, seems, and talk.  The added weight of the period is a natural way to talk about weight matters.

Most books on the internet I find vacuous, this one had some material of interest, though perhaps for some people it is too navel-gazing.  But if you are going to spent that much time staring at a screen, and typing text into little boxes, surely you might wish to understand it better.  Most of all, I enjoyed the discussion of how different generations have learned to use the internet somewhat differently, depending on when they started.

Inventor CEOs

One in five U.S. high-technology firms are led by CEOs with hands-on innovation experience as inventors. Firms led by “Inventor CEOs” are associated with higher quality innovation, especially when the CEO is a high-impact inventor. During an Inventor CEO’s tenure, firms file a greater number of patents and more valuable patents in technology classes where the CEO’s hands-on experience lies. Utilizing plausibly exogenous CEO turnovers to address the matching of CEOs to firms suggests these effects are causal. The results can be explained by an Inventor CEO’s superior ability to evaluate, select, and execute innovative investment projects related to their own hands-on experience.

That is from Emdad Islam & Jason Zein, forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Neal Stephenson

Here is the transcript and audio, and here is the CWT summary:

If you want to speculate on the development of tech, no one has a better brain to pick than Neal Stephenson. Across more than a dozen books, he’s created vast story worlds driven by futuristic technologies that have both prophesied and even provoked real-world progress in crypto, social networks, and the creation of the web itself. Though Stephenson insists he’s more often wrong than right, his technical sharpness has even led to a half-joking suggestion that he might be Satoshi Nakamoto, the shadowy creator of bitcoin. His latest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, involves a more literal sort of brain-picking, exploring what might happen when digitized brains can find a second existence in a virtual afterlife.

So what’s the implicit theology of a simulated world? Might we be living in one, and does it even matter? Stephenson joins Tyler to discuss the book and more, including the future of physical surveillance, how clothing will evolve, the kind of freedom you could expect on a Mars colony, whether today’s media fragmentation is trending us towards dystopia, why the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest triumph, whether we’re in a permanent secular innovation starvation, Leibniz as a philosopher, Dickens and Heinlein as writers, and what storytelling has to do with giving good driving directions.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If we had a Mars colony, how politically free do you think it would be? Or would it just be like perpetual martial law? Like living on a nuclear submarine?

STEPHENSON: I think it would be a lot like living on a nuclear submarine because you can’t — being in space is almost like being in an intensive care unit in a hospital, in the sense that you’re completely dependent on a whole bunch of machines working in order to keep you alive. A lot of what we associate with freedom, with personal freedom, becomes too dangerous to contemplate in that kind of environment.

COWEN: Is there any Heinlein-esque-like scenario — Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where there’s a rebellion? People break free from the constraints of planet Earth. They chart their own institutions. It becomes like the settlements in the New World were.

STEPHENSON: Well, the settlements in the New World, I don’t think are a very good analogy because there it was possible — if you’re a white person in the New World and you have some basic skills, you can go anywhere you want.

An unheralded part of what happened there is that, when those people got into trouble, a lot of times, they were helped out by the indigenous peoples who were already there and who knew how to do stuff. None of those things are true in a space colony kind of environment. You don’t have indigenous people who know how to get food and how to get shelter. You don’t have that ability to just freely pick up stakes and move about.


COWEN: What will people wear in the future? Say a hundred years from now, will clothing evolve at all?

STEPHENSON: I think clothing is pretty highly evolved, right? If you look at, yeah, at any garment, say, a shirt — I was ironing a shirt today in my hotel room, and it is a frickin’ complicated object. We take it for granted, but you think about the fabric, the way the seams are laid out.

That’s just one example, of course, but you take any — shirts, shoes, any kind of specific item of clothing you want to talk about — once you take it apart and look at all the little decisions and innovations that have gone into it, it’s obvious that people have been optimizing this thing for hundreds or thousands of years.

New materials come along that enable people to do new kinds of things with clothing, but overall, I don’t think that a lot is going to change.

COWEN: Is there anything you would want smart clothing to do for you that, say, a better iPad could not?

STEPHENSON: The thing about clothing is that you change your clothes all the time. So if you become dependent on a particular technology that’s built into your shirt, that’s great as long as you’re wearing that shirt, but then as soon as you change to a different shirt, you don’t have it.

So what are you going to do? Are you going to make sure that every single one of your shirts has that same technology built into it? It seems easier to have it separate from the clothing that you wear, so that you don’t have to think about all those complications.

There is much more at the link, including discussions of some of his best-known novels…

That was then, this is now

The data came from Facebook:

During Obama’s initial 2008 bid for office, his team had already embraced technology in a greater capacity than any before it, assembling massive email lists and other targeted initiatives that earned Obama historic fundraising tallies. But for 2012, campaign manager Jim Messina wanted to take things even further.

To get there, his staff needed to link what had previously been disjointed databases of voter information (collected by volunteers, pollsters, and other campaign workers) into a single, comprehensive pool unrivaled in detail and scope. Whereas most voter logs used by campaigns often list only names and telephone numbers, Obama’s advanced tool dove into specifics like age, race, district, and voting history: it allowed field workers to rank voters intelligently and not waste time chasing unlikely votes.

Here is the article from The Verge, via the excellent Ben Thompson.  I recall similarly glowing coverage from The New York Times.

There is no great stagnation in policing nature through the use of AI-regulated cat flaps

A cat flap that automatically bars entry to a pet if it tries to enter with prey in its jaws has been built as a DIY project by an Amazon employee.

Ben Hamm used machine-learning software to train a system to recognise when his cat Metric was approaching with a rodent or bird in its mouth.

When it detected such an attack, he said, a computer attached to the flap’s lock triggered a 15-minute shut-out.

Mr Hamm unveiled his invention at an event in Seattle last month.

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

That was then, this is now

As he prepared for Apollo 11’s lift-off, Neil Armstrong thought he had a 10 per cent chance of dying during the mission, and a 50 per cent chance of not walking on the Moon. “There was still a debate about if you stepped on to the Moon, would you step into 10ft of dust?” says former Nasa official Scott Hubbard.

The entire mission was vulnerable to a single-point failure: if the service module’s engine had failed, for example, there was no back-up.

Nasa’s whole attitude to risk has now changed. Until recently, each system was built to tolerate any two faults. This is now seen as a blunt approach, treating all components as equally important. So Nasa instead tries to limit the probability of failure. The chance of losing SLS and Orion on its first mission is one in 140, according to the agency’s analysis.

That is by Henry Mance and Yuichiro Kanematsu, in the FT, from their splendid look at the current attempt to drive a moon mission.  And this:

“We do not have time or funds to build unique, one-of-a-kind systems,” William Gerstenmaier, a senior Nasa official, said recently. The agency’s biggest rocket — Boeing’s troubled Space Launch System (SLS) — will use some of the same engines as the Space Shuttle. Blake Rogers, an engineer at the Aerospace Corporation, a government-funded research agency, told the FT: “2024 is really soon. So there’s not a lot of brand-new technology…Today, Orion’s processing power will still be below 500MHz — significantly less than a MacBook.

Recommended, gated but of course you should subscribe to the FT.

Libra’s unresolved puzzles

That is a long blog post from my colleague Lawrence H. White, who has thought about these matters for many years.  Here is one excerpt:

If we take the white papers’ talk of “backing” seriously, it suggests that the value of Libra coins in circulation is matched by the value of assets held in the Reserve, ready to buy back or redeem the coins. The papers say that Libra will be backed by a portfolio of $-denominated, €-denominated, and other fiat-denominated securities. But is a coin in the hands of a Reseller a debt claim or an equity claim on the Reserve? In particular, when a Reseller bring Libra 1 to the Reserve, she might either have an IOU, entitling her to a specified medium of redemption, like a Paypal account balance or a Hong Kong Dollar note redeemable in US Dollars. Or she might have a share claim on the Libra Reserve portfolio, like a mutual fund share. For the Reserve portfolio to provide full backing, the share claim will have to be redeemable in a bundle of currencies whose composition mirrors the composition of the portfolio.

The official papers ambiguously suggest both debt and equity characteristics. in places, they liken the Libra Reserve to a currency board. An orthodox currency board note issues debt claims (local currency notes), each redeemable for a fixed amount of the anchor currency (HK$7.8 = US$1), and holds at least 100 per cent reserves in the anchor currency. If that is the Libra arrangement, then there is a fixed exchange rate between Libra and a pre-specified fiat currency basket. The proportions of fiat currencies in the medium-of-redemption basket would be pre-specified. To provide full backing the proportions would have to correspond exactly to the proportions of currency-denominated assets in the Reserve’s portfolio. Otherwise adverse exchange rate movements could reduce the portfolio value below 100 percent of the par value of Libra in circulation.

On the other hand, the Resellers are not described as redeeming Libra at the Reserve. A different backing arrangement would provide that returning Libra 1 always gives the Reseller a fixed-proportions fiat currency basket equal in value to 1/N, where the portfolio’s market value is Libra N. The Reserve is then a kind of mutual fund, and Libra 1 in the hands of a Reseller is a mutual fund share (a possibility Williamson identifies). This would be novel arrangement – a mutual fund redeemable in a multi-fiat medium of redemption, with shares used as a medium of exchange. The value of the Libra 1 share would not be perfectly steady in terms of the defined currency basket, but would be as steady as the nominal net asset value of the portfolio in currency baskets.

There is much more detail at the link.

The real privacy violators

Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have turned state driver’s license databases into a facial-recognition gold mine, scanning through millions of Americans’ photos without their knowledge or consent, newly released documents show.

Thousands of facial-recognition requests, internal documents and emails over the past five years, obtained through public-records requests by Georgetown Law researchers and provided to The Washington Post, reveal that federal investigators have turned state departments of motor vehicles databases into the bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure.

Police have long had access to fingerprints, DNA and other “biometric data” taken from criminal suspects. But the DMV records contain the photos of a vast majority of a state’s residents, most of whom have never been charged with a crime.

Here is the full story by Drew Harwell.

Bryan Caplan, against populism

My point: If your overall reaction to business progress over the last fifteen years is even mildly negative, no sensible person will try to please you, because you are impossible to please.  Yet our new anti-tech populists have managed to make themselves a center of pseudo-intellectual attention.

Angry lamentation about the effects of new tech on privacy has flabbergasted me the most.  For practical purposes, we have more privacy than ever before in human history.  You can now buy embarrassing products in secret.  You can read or view virtually anything you like in secret.  You can interact with over a billion people in secret.

Then what privacy have we lost?  The privacy to not be part of a Big Data Set.  The privacy to not have firms try to sell us stuff based on our previous purchases.  In short, we have lost the kinds of privacy that no prudent person loses sleep over.

There is more good material at the link.

Why is the United States behind on 5G?

No American company makes the devices that transmit high-speed wireless signals. Huawei is the clear leader in the field; the Swedish company Ericsson is a distant second; and the Finnish company Nokia is third.

It is almost surprising that the Defense Department allowed the report to be published at all, given the board’s remarkably blunt assessment of the nation’s lack of innovation and what it said was one of the biggest impediments to rolling out 5G in the United States: the Pentagon itself.

The board said the broadband spectrum needed to create a successful network was reserved not for commercial purposes but for the military.

To work best, 5G needs what’s called low-band spectrum, because it allows signals to travel farther than high-band spectrum. The farther the signal can travel, the less infrastructure has to be deployed.

In China and even in Europe, governments have reserved low-band spectrum for 5G, making it efficient and less costly to blanket their countries with high-speed wireless connectivity. In the United States, the low-band spectrum is reserved for the military.

The difference this makes is stark. Google conducted an experiment for the board, placing 5G transmitters on 72,735 towers and rooftops. Using high-band spectrum, the transmitters covered only 11.6 percent of the United States population at a speed of 100 megabits per second and only 3.9 percent at 1 gigabit per second. If the same transmitters could use low-band spectrum, 57.4 percent of the population would be covered at 100 megabits per second and 21.2 percent at 1 gigabit per second.

In other words, the spectrum that has been allotted in the United States for commercial 5G communications makes 5G significantly slower and more expensive to roll out than just about anywhere else.

That is a commercial disincentive and puts the United States at a distinct disadvantage.

Here is more from Andrew Ross Sorkin (NYT).

How to pro-actively address our internet problems

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

It is striking and sad that there is so much over-the-top criticism of social media yet so little faith in education as a possible remedy.

Public school is supposed to be good and effective, right?  The internet is supposed to be destroying our world, or at least democracy and sanity, right?  So why not teach people — in school — how to use the internet better?

As it stands, plenty of teachers give informal advice about how to use the internet, but there isn’t much in the way of formal institutions or curriculums. I am not saying this needs to be a full, semester-long class. But surely internet usage and understanding is worthy of a formal dedication of at least a few weeks of attention, maybe more.

Somehow America has moved very, very far away from a problem-solving mindset.

Addendum: As a side note:

Twitter search is one of the most underrated parts of the internet. If I am looking to learn more about a current event, I typically go to Twitter before Google and type in the relevant search term. The results seem more up-to-date, and I will probably be exposed to a wider range of opinions.