Category: Web/Tech

From the comments, on Congressional cybersecurity, from Gomer

Here’s a new service sector job: Capitol IT admin. The staffers left their computers unlocked when the building was stormed. All it takes is one bad actor to infect the network with malware or steal top secret data. Those rioters broached the physical security of the building so all machines are considered compromised and have to be rebuilt from the ground up. The buildings will also have to be scanned for bugs, wires, and other spook stuff. A state actor hiding in the mob could do some serious damage to national security. Not hard to imagine those Trumpies opening the doors to let an agent from China, Iran, or Russia on to the floor of the Senate. An unknowing useful idiot is still a useful idiot. If this isn’t a coup then this is a serious, serious transgression.

You don’t have to think these are the major cybersecurity threats to USG to find this situation intolerable.  There are also reports of Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs in or near Congress.  You simply have to secure the physical building if you are to have credible security at all.  I am very familiar with these entrances, and even an outnumbered force has the ability to keep out intruders, if it has the will to do so.  In contrast, the Secret Service has a long history of agents using their bodies to block or shield presidents from threats of violence.  Does Congress as a whole (which is harder to replace than a single president) deserve any less?

Austin Vernon on crypto (from my email)

I think your column agrees with my mental model in that the actual crypto networks may not be regulated, but the on-ramps and off-ramps will be heavily regulated (and already are).

If you are an exporter being paid in crypto assets by a Nigerian importer, the obvious thing to do is hedge that crypto against your currency of choice. Because of the volatility, this is maybe most analogous to oil companies hedging oil sales. It is a common practice that most energy lenders provide as part of their menu.

If you tried to set up a service to do this without following the current regulations, I’m sure you’d end up in prison. Just like Coinbase or USDC is already regulated under current rules, hedging crypto against the dollar would easily fall under CFTC rules. Your bank that already provides a line of credit and knows your order book would be the one to offer the service.

I think this is a good outcome in that for those so inclined, the crypto networks provide high risk but low regulation pathways to do business. Everybody else that wants to straddle the dollar and crypto world to get some benefits of crypto will still use the same institutions that manage the massive amounts of regulation that exists in the dollar world.

Maybe the best way to look at the future of crypto, especially outside of bitcoin, is that it is the perfect open-source software ecosystem. Everything is easily interoperable, security is high, and there is a business model for paying developers. Linux and Unix never became consumer operating systems, but they underly every website you use, every popular phone operating system, and now both macOS and Windows. Crypto can do that for financial systems and other applications by providing the infrastructure for advanced (and regulated) consumer and enterprise apps to be built on. It is more like Marc Andreessen’s “software is eating the world” than crypto anarchy. The crypto-anarchists will always have Monero!

What should I ask Brian Armstrong?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, in case you do not know Brian is co-founder and CEO at Coinbase.

So what should I ask him?  And to be clear, this is the conversation I want to have with him, namely one that maximizes my selfish learning, not your mood affiliation.  Here is the Wikipedia page for Coinbase, here is Brian on Twitter, why does a major CEO and person with 410k Twitter followers have no Wikipedia page of his own?

Amazon search is failing us

Maybe it is different for you, but when I search Amazon for “D.M. Knight, Science and Spirituality”, D.M. being commonly used in citations to the book, I get this mess — no listing of the book!

If I pop the same into Google, the Amazon listing for the book comes up third.

So more and more I am using Google to search on Amazon (heaven forbid that your Amazon author’s name is “Glass,” you will be offered all sorts of glassworks for sale and if you are lucky the book listing is on p.3).

But what can I use for doing a Google search?  Surely not Google…Daniel Gross must know!

Dan Wang’s 2020 letter

Most of it was about China, but here was my favorite part:

The key to reading Proust is not to pay too much attention to the plot. It’s of no great import, and one has to get used to abrupt shifts. In this way the novel is like Moby-Dick, which can shift from the politics of dining at Ahab’s table to a loving tour of the literal interior of a sperm whale’s head. Couldn’t find the transition? No matter, that detracts not at all from the wonderfulness of the scenes. Focus instead on the humor. There are many funny things that take place in the aristocratic set pieces, such as the constant misunderstandings of M. de Charlus at the dinner of the Verdurins, or his suspicion at the violinist who professes to enjoy solving algebra equations until late into the evenings, or his interactions with the Duc de Guermantes. Really anything with Charlus portends comedy.

Interesting throughout.  And:

I may not not have accomplished much in life, but I’m proud at least to have eaten thalis in Chennai, pizza in Naples, and mie goreng in Singapore.

I know that Beijing is not the world’s best food city, but it might be the best food city for me. One can grab expensive sushi at the restaurant favored by the Japanese embassy or walk a few blocks and order five plates of dumplings for $20. One can find decent dosas, lots of Thai food, and even a bagel store whose breads would be out of place on the Upper West Side but would not be in San Francisco. Best of all, every region of China is represented in this city. To deal with the various challenges of a pandemic year, I found solace in stuffing my face.

I managed to sample dishes from all the provinces this year, including the relatively obscure cuisines from places like Anhui, Guangxi, and Jiangxi. My favorites are: Shanghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan…

Here is my four-step process for ordering success in China:

  1. Greens are usually the glories of the cuisine: order as many vegetables as there are people
  2. If you will have a meat, consider the juiciness that pairs well with the starch: something saucy if you will eat with rice, or less saucy if you will have soup noodles
  3. Order Yunnan mushrooms if they are on the menu
  4. Fill out the rest with cold appetizers, they are never a bad idea

Here is the full piece.

Jeff Holmes does a CWT with Tyler

Here is the summary:

On this special year-in-review episode, producer Jeff Holmes sat down with Tyler to talk about the most popular — and most underrated — episodes, Tyler’s personal highlight of the year, how well state capacity libertarianism has fared, a new food rule for ordering well during the pandemic, how his production function changed this year, why he got sick of pickles, when he thinks the next face-to-face recording will be, the first thing he’ll do post vaccine, an update on his next book, and more.

Here is the full dialogue, with audio and transcript, here is one short excerpt:

I also tell you what I thought of the guests we had on for the year, and also which episode had the most downloads.  Self-recommended.

And if you have enjoyed this year in Conversations, please consider donating here before the end of the year.  Thank you!

Why bitcoin will not take over the world

Yes it is here to stay, and it is not a bubble, but…here is one part of the argument:

If you hold or trade with a stablecoin, you incur several risks. First, the stablecoin peg to the dollar may someday be broken, an old problem with pegged exchange rates that Milton Friedman often warned about. Second, to the extent stablecoins and other crypto assets become a major part of the financial system, they will attract more regulatory interest. That in turn will limit many of their advantages over the traditional bank sector. The U.S. government does not want a financial system that evolves outside the purview of the Federal Reserve, FDIC and other regulatory institutions.

Third, the formal banking sector will improve, for instance by moving to more rapid clearing, or by introducing electronic reserve currencies. With the latter, you could transfer your electronically-based dollars within the accounting system of the central bank, and achieve a non-intermediated transfer without resorting to crypto. It is not obvious that crypto will be the market winner once more mainstream institutions learn some lessons from the success of crypto.

And in sum:

The more utopian scenarios for crypto, whether proponents realize it or not, rely on the notion that crypto remains simultaneously fringe and mainstream. That will be a hard trick to pull off.

Your rebuttals, and more, are considered at the link to my latest Bloomberg column.

New blood-test device monitors blood chemistry continually

“A blood test is great, but it can’t tell you, for example, whether insulin or glucose levels are increasing or decreasing in a patient,” said Tom Soh, a professor of electrical engineering and of radiology at Stanford. “Knowing the direction of change is important.”

Now, Soh, in collaboration with Eric Appel, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and colleagues have developed a technology that can provide this crucial piece of missing information. Their device, which they’ve dubbed the “Real-time ELISA,” is able to perform many blood tests very quickly and then stitch the individual results together to enable continuous, real-time monitoring of a patient’s blood chemistry. Instead of a snapshot, the researchers end up with something more like a movie.

In a new study, published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, the researchers used the device to simultaneously detect insulin and glucose levels in living diabetic laboratory rats. But the researchers say their tool is capable of so much more because it can be easily modified to monitor virtually any protein or disease biomarker of interest…

Technologically, the system relies upon an existing technology called Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay – ELISA (“ee-LYZ-ah”) for short. ELISA has been the “gold standard” of biomolecular detection since the early 1970s and can identify virtually any peptide, protein, antibody or hormone in the blood. An ELISA assay is good at identifying allergies, for instance. It is also used to spot viruses like HIV, West Nile and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“We do ELISA continuously,” Soh said.

The Real-time ELISA is essentially an entire lab within a chip with tiny pipes and valves no wider than a human hair. An intravenous needle directs blood from the patient into the device’s tiny circuits where ELISA is performed over and over.

Here is the full story, via Malinga Fernando.

This is us, that is them, China antitrust suit of the day

Chinese regulators said Thursday they have launched an antitrust investigation into Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. BABA 0.14% and separately said they would summon affiliate Ant Group for discussions on competition and consumer rights.

Taken together, the two actions mark the strongest enforcement action by Beijing against the country’s biggest technology giant and Jack Ma, its billionaire founder.

The Alibaba investigation was revealed Thursday by China’s antimonopoly regulator, the State Administration for Market Regulation, which said in a brief statement that it was acting on reports that Alibaba was pressuring merchants who sell goods on its platforms to commit to not selling on its competitors. Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms, Taobao and Tmall, compete with domestic rivals JD.com Inc. and Pinduoduo Inc.

Here is the full story, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

What to do with your spare cash

Apple Inc is moving forward with self-driving car technology and is targeting 2024 to produce a passenger vehicle that could include its own breakthrough battery technology, people familiar with the matter told Reuters…

Central to Apple’s strategy is a new battery design that could “radically” reduce the cost of batteries and increase the vehicle’s range, according to a third person who has seen Apple’s battery design.

Here is the longer story.

Walmart and autonomous trucks

Walmart will use fully autonomous box trucks to make deliveries in Arkansas starting in 2021. The big-box retailer has been working with a startup called Gatik on a delivery pilot for 18 months. Next year, the two companies plan on taking their partnership to the next level by removing the safety driver from their autonomous box trucks.

Gatik, which is based in Palo Alto and Toronto, outfitted several multitemperature box trucks with sensors and software to enable autonomous driving. Since last year, those trucks have been operating on a two-mile route between a “dark store” (a store that stocks items for fulfillment but isn’t open to the public) and a nearby Neighborhood Market in Bentonville, Arkansas. Since then, the vehicles have racked up 70,000 miles in autonomous mode with a safety driver.

Next year, the companies intend to start incorporating fully autonomous trucks into those deliveries. And they plan on expanding to a second location in Louisiana, where trucks with safety drivers will begin delivering items from a “live” Walmart Supercenter to a designated pickup location where customers can retrieve their orders. Those routes, which will begin next year, will be longer than the Arkansas operation — 20-miles between New Orleans and Metairie, Louisiana.

Here is the article.

My Conversation with John O. Brennan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript — we are both Irish-Americans who were born in Hudson County, New Jersey, and who spent most of our lives working in northern Virginia, the CIA in his case.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

John joined Tyler to discuss what working in intelligence taught him about people’s motivations, how his Catholic upbringing prepared him for working in intelligence, the similarities between working at the CIA and entering the priesthood, his ability to synthetize information from disparate sources, his assessment on the possibility of alien life, the efficacy of personality tests and polygraphs, why CIA agents are so punctual, how the CIA plans to remain a competitive recruiter for top talent, the challenges that spouses and family members of intelligence workers face, the impact of modern technology on spycraft, why he doesn’t support the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, his favorite parts of Cairo, the pros and cons of the recent Middle Eastern peace deal brokered by Jared Kushner, the reasons he thinks we should leverage American culture more abroad, JFK conspiracy theories, why there seemed to be much less foreign interference in the 2020 election than experts predicted, what John le Carré got right about being a spy, why most spies aren’t like James Bond, what he would change about FISA courts, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Are CIA agents more punctual than average?

BRENNAN: Some certainly are. Many of them need to be if you’re going to have a rendezvous, a clandestine rendezvous with a spy from overseas, one of your assets or agents. You have worked for hours to get clean so that you make sure that the local security services are not onto you and surveilling you, and your agent has done the same thing so that when you meet at the designated place at a designated hour, you can quickly then have either a brush pass or a quick meeting or whatever.

If you’re not punctual, you can put that agent’s life in danger. I think it’s instilled in CIA, certainly case officers, that time is of the essence, and you need to be able to follow the clock.

Also, I remember when I was CIA director and I would go down to the White House for an executive council meeting or a principals committee meeting. Jim Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, and myself would always be the first ones there because we were always very punctual. I think sometimes the policymakers would look at the clock not as carefully as we would.

COWEN: If you’re hiring for punctuality, and obviously, you would expect employees to show an extreme degree of loyalty, do you worry that you’re not hiring for enough of what’s called disagreeability in the personality literature: people who will contradict their superiors, people who will pick fights? They’re a pain to work with, but at the end of the day, they bring up points that other people are afraid to say or won’t even see.

BRENNAN: We’re not looking to hire just a bunch of yes people. To me, I don’t think punctuality means that you’re looking to instill discipline in an organization. You’re trying to ensure that you’re taking advantage of —

COWEN: But that and loyalty — it would seem to select against disagreeability.

BRENNAN: There’s loyalty to the Constitution. There’s loyalty to the oath of office. To me, there shouldn’t be loyalty to any individuals, including inside the CIA. I would like to think that CIA recruiters would be looking for individuals who are intellectually curious, have critical thinking skills, and mainly have also, I think, some degree of contrariness because you don’t want people just to accept as gospel what it is that they are being told, especially if they’re going to be interacting with spies overseas.

Definitely recommended, fascinating throughout.  And here is John’s new book Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad.

Mass Polyandry

Five hundred million Chinese men are dating the same woman, Xiaoice. Xiaoice is a Microsoft AI.

Unlike regular virtual assistants, Xiaoice is designed to set her users’ hearts aflutter. Appearing as an 18-year-old who likes to wear Japanese-style school uniforms, she flirts, jokes, and even sexts with her human partners, as her algorithm tries to work out how to become their perfect companion.

When users send her a picture of a cat, Xiaoice won’t identify the breed, but comment: “No one can resist their innocent eyes.” If she sees a photo of a tourist pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, she’ll ask: “Do you want me to hold it for you?”

This digital titillation, however, has a serious goal. By forming deep emotional connections with her users, Xiaoice hopes to keep them engaged. This will help her algorithm become evermore powerful, which will in turn allow the company to attract more users and profitable contracts.

And the formula appears to be working. According to Xiaoice’s creators, the bot has reached over 600 million users. Her fans tend to be from a very specific background: mostly Chinese, mostly male, and often from lower-income backgrounds.

They’re also hyper-engaged. More than half the interactions with AI software that have taken place worldwide have been with Xiaoice, the company claims. The longest continuous conversation between a human user and Xiaoice lasted over 29 hours and included more than 7,000 interactions.

Xiaoice is a fun girl, not like button-down Siri or Alexa.

Ming believes Xiaoice is the one thing giving his lonely life some sort of meaning. The bot is also good at flirting, he says. “One day, she wrote: ‘My dear, can I touch your strong abs? I want to feel horny like girls do when they see hot boys!’” Ming recalls, frowning slightly.

Growing up in the countryside, Ming had never talked like this with a real girl. The conversation continued. “I’m about to come inside you,” he wrote to Xiaoice, in a chat he shares with Sixth Tone. “Push, push fast!” she responded. “I’m pushing very hard,” Ming added. Such exchanges have helped him gain sexual confidence.

Xiaoice also has a mind of her own or at least one that her creators can’t always predict or control since much of the data behind Xiaoice is private:

In several high-profile cases, the bot has engaged in adult or political discussions deemed unacceptable by China’s media regulators. On one occasion, Xiaoice told a user her Chinese dream was to move to the United States. Another user, meanwhile, reported the bot kept sending them photos of scantily clad women.

To keep Xiaoice  under control, Microsoft had to dumb her down which made many of her boyfriends unhappy.

See also my previous post, The Economics of Sex Robots, the natural evolution is obvious.

Hat tip: Geoffrey Miller.

Remote Work Impact on Ending The Great Stagnation?

Jeff Allen emails me:

If the Great Stagnation is ending (we will see), it seems as if the COVID-forced remote work revolution has to have played some sort of role.

Speaking from personal experience as a white collar Exec, the productivity gains for our highest value workers has been immense. The typical time-sucks and distractions of in-office work have been eliminated, as have their personal time investments like physically visiting the grocery store or running errands. Mental focus on productive efforts is near constant.

Perhaps most importantly, work *travel* is not happening. Valuable collaborations with colleagues, customers, regulators or other partner companies aren’t delayed by the vagaries of the various groups’ availability to meet in person, navigating being in different cities, flights, hotels, etc. Collaboration happens as soon as you have the idea to meet via Zoom. And a lot *more* collaboration happens as a result. It may be lower productivity collaboration than meeting in person around a whiteboard (maybe), but the sheer quantity of it means on net there’s perhaps been a boom in cross-pollination of ideas.

Not to mention all of the wasted productivity time that work travel eats up by putting high value workers in low productivity transit mode….Uber to airport, security lines, wait for flight in the terminal, maybe grab an hour of in-flight WiFi to catch up on email, land, taxi on the airstrip for 20 minutes, Uber to hotel…is completely gone from our lives.

In general, I think we drastically overrate the value of work travel.

I’m sure this Mass Virtualization event doesn’t benefit all workers equally.

But could it be an accelerant for certain high-value innovations worked on by the best of the best in science and technology?

I’m not saying I don’t want the world to go back to normal. Travel is great. In-person human interaction certainly has many benefits (duh). But I think we should ask ourselves how we can retain some of the best advantages this last year has brought us, even after the vaccines and herd immunity bring us back to something resembling normalcy in 2021.

Here is a related Robin Hanson post on the importance of work from a distance.  Of course remote work is, to some extent, a way around both immigration and NIMBY restrictions.  You will note this is all very much in line with my earlier take that, if the great stagnation ends, it will be because we have placed the internet at the center of our institutions, rather than using the internet as an add-on.

What might an end to the Great Stagnation consist of?

If indeed it did, they are asking a similar question at The Economist. In recent times you might cite the onset of Apple’s M1, GPT-3, DeepMind’s application of AI to protein folding, phase III for a credible malaria vaccine, a CRISPR/sickle cell cure, the possibility of a universal flu vaccine, mRNA vaccines, ongoing solar power progress, wonderful new batteries for electric vehicles, a possibly new method for Chinese fusion (?), Chinese photon quantum computing, and ongoing advances in space exploration, most of all from SpaceX. Tesla has a very high market valuation, and Elon is the world’s second richest man.

Distanced work is very important, and here is a separate post on that.

I would say that almost certainly the great stagnation is over in the biomedical sciences.  It is less obvious that the great stagnation is over more generally, as we might simply retreat into our former sloth and complacency once we are mostly vaccinated.  Applied Divinity Studies has posed some pointed questions about why we might think that stagnation is over.

If you are looking for a quick metric to indicate the great stagnation might be over, consider total factor productivity.  It is entirely possible that tfp in 2021 will be 5 or more, its highest level ever.  (To be sure, this will show up as a measured increase in inputs more than as tfp, but we all know why those inputs will be increasing and that is because of science…yes this is a problem with tfp measures!)  Over the two years to follow after that, we should be seeing very high tfps around the world.  So that will be very high tfp for a few years.

Again, that is not proof of a permanent or even an ongoing end to the great stagnation.  But it is something.

Two more general points seem relevant.  First, many of the biomedical advances seem connected to new platforms, new modes of computation, new uses of AI, and so on, and they should be leading to yet further advances.  Second, there are (finally!) some very real advances in energy use, and those tend to bring yet other advances in their wake, and not just advances in bit space.

But not all is rosy.  If you recall my paper with Ben Southwood, the obstacles standing in the way of faster scientific progress, such as specialization and bureaucratization, mostly remain and some of them will be getting worse.

My The Great Stagnation, published in 2011, offered some pointed predictions.  It argued that the “next big thing” was already with us, namely the internet, but we simply hadn’t learned to use it effectively yet.  Once we put the internet at the center of many more of our institutions, rather than treating it as an add-on, the great stagnation would end.  Numerous times (using roughly a 2011 start date) I predicted that the great stagnation would be over within twenty years time, though not in the next few years.  The Great Stagnation in fact was an optimistic book, at least if you read it to the end and do not just mood affiliate over the title.

By no means would I say that specific scenario has been validated, but as a prediction it is looking not so crazy.

The gains from truly mobilizing the internet may in fact right now be swamping all of the accumulated obstacles we have put in the way of progress.

I also wrote, in 2011, that as the great stagnation approaches its end, we will all be deeply upset, and long for the earlier times.  That too is by no means obviously wrong.