This combines together some blogs which I like to read. It’s updated once a week.
February 17, 2018
In an indictment announced Friday in Washington, Mueller describes a years-long, multimillion-dollar conspiracy by hundreds of Russians aimed at criticizing Hillary Clinton and supporting Senator Bernie Sanders and Trump.
More accurate, I suspect, would be to say that Putin wanted someone who wasn’t as anti-Russian, and anti-him. Clinton and Putin have a long time adversarial relationship, and Clinton has been very antagonistic to Russia. In particular she wanted a no-fly zone in Syria after the Russians were there, and Putin sees her as lying to him about Libya: reassuring him that the no fly zone there was not about regime change.
This “information warfare” by the Russians didn’t affect the outcome of the presidential election, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told reporters. Trump and his Republican supporters have repeatedly denounced the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” and have denied any collusion. The indictment cites no instances of Russians coordinating directly with the Trump campaign.
The election was so close that I don’t see how it can be said that the Russian interference didn’t effect the outcome. Though, exactly because it was so close that can be said of everything, from Clinton not campaigning in key Rust belt states to Republican voter suppression. (The later is probably most significant, but Clinton racked up a lot of votes where she didn’t need them and didn’t put much in the way of resources into some marginal states which mattered.)
The Internet Research Agency, a Russian organization, and the defendants began working in 2014 to interfere in U.S. elections, according to the indictment. They used false personas and social media while also staging political rallies and communicating with “unwitting individuals” associated with the Trump campaign, it said.
In a Feb. 10, 2016, planning memo, the Russians were instructed to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them).”
The operations also denigrated candidates including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Trump’s rivals in the 2016 Republican primary, the indictment said.
The 2014 date indicates plans were in place long before Trump or Sanders could be expected to run. That Trump was the chosen one on the Republican side makes sense, he was consistently Russia and Putin friendly. As for the Democratic side, it was Clinton or Sanders, and Sanders, while not a Russia booster, was certainly better for Russia than Clinton.
I don’t see a great deal here to be excited about. The US routinely interferes in foreign elections to a much greater extent than this. The best solution would be an agreement to stop interfering in foreign elections on both sides.
I assume Mueller will continue and indict some more Americans (one American is indicted here on minor charges.)
They spent thousands of dollars a month to buy advertisements on social media groups, while carefully tracking the size of U.S. audiences they reached, according to the indictment. (emphasis added)
Thousands of dollars? Not millions? Or even “hundreds of thousands”? It is hard to take that very seriously.
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So, this is an idea whose time has come, again.
It is only half right.
It is right, somewhat, when it comes to suffering harm if something fails. One of the reasons for the 2008 financial collapse is that most of the actors were rich, and knew that even if their companies failed and were not bailed out, they would be fine.
OTOH, taking massive risks was making them rich. So given the upside was theirs, and the downside wasn’t, why not risk?
And this is before they knew for sure that the government would bail out almost all of the companies.
So, had they had relatively small amounts of money, and thus needed their ongoing salaries, and for their companies not to collapse, the financial collapse might well have not happened.
However to do that meant making sure that they were not reaping so much of the upside of the housing and MBS (mortage backed securities) market.
The less upside they had, the poorer they were, and the more they needed their companies to continue, the more they would have been risk averse.
Alternatively, the credible threat of losing everything they had could have worked, but it had to be credible, and as we see, for most, it did not exist. Threats of future losses don’t work well unless they are near certain: this is well established in criminology, where it is known that how likely one is to be caught and convicted of a crime is far more important than how harsh the punishment will be.
People who think they’ll get away with it, in other words, aren’t scared by “having skin in the game.”
Skin in the game has to be a near certainty to work.
The core issues of making skin in the game work are responsibility, power and externalities.
A person’s responsibility (consequences/skin) must be equal to their power.
You should only take a hit equal to your responsibility, and your responsibility is NEVER more than how much power you have.
But the hit you take must be equal to all the losses taken that are your responsibility.
And that is often, effectively, impossible. The key people behind the financial crisis were responsible for losses far greater than the amount of money they personally possessed. This is particularly true of central bankers like Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, but is also true of Wall Street execs and so on.
Even in an ideal world, they could not take hits equal to the damage they did. The closest one could come would either be lifetime imprisonment, or death. (Understand, very clearly, that many people died because of the financial crisis and its aftershocks. People who lose their jobs and housing die a lot.)
To make “skin in the game” work requires two things.
1) No one must be in a position to “quit the game” if they win. If the upside is so large that it doesn’t matter if the game continues, people will destroy the game. Understand that if it takes 7 years to make enough money to never work again and live a life of luxury, those people WILL do that no matter the consequences after they leave.
2) No one must be isolated from social consequences of their actions. Money or power MUST never be able to buy anything that matters: health care, a good education for your kids, skipping security theater, avoiding endemic social violence or anything else. If the decision will cause bad things to happen to people in society, decision makers must suffer the consequences with those people.
(This means no private schools. No public schools that are better than other public schools. No private jets. No skipping security lines for first class travel. No buying healthcare poor people can’t have. No polluting and not having to suffer the pollution yourself.)
But even if you put this in place skin in the game has sharp limits to its usefulness.
Skin in the Game Doesn’t Beat The Death Bet or IBG, YBG.
The death bet is a bet that you’ll be dead before the consequences of your decisions occur. Climate change was understood and taught in school as early as the late 70s, but adults in the late 70s bet that they would be dead before it mattered. They were right to make that bet. They didn’t have skin in the game and they couldn’t.
During the 2000s, in the runup to the financial crisis, the saying when a shitty deal was being cut was “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” Anyone who has worked in a big firm is familiar with how a new executive will change things one way (let’s outsource!) then the next one will change them back (let’s bring it in house for control!). They are familiar with how salesmen get almost all their commissions up front, and multi-year sales deals then blow up a few years down the line.
Real skin in the game requires a commitment to go after people who did shitty things in the past and left. When the Sepoy rebellion happened in India in the 19th century, the British didn’t just blame the current Viceroy, they went after the Viceroy before him, because he had to have screwed up too.
But, at the end of the day, skin in the game only goes so far. People do die (which is why harsher regimes than us would hit the entire family.) People do leave.
And then there is fact that skin in the game can actually be bad when…
Detachment is needed.
Doctors make better decisions when they no financial incentives. Those who make more money the more surgeries they do, do more surgeries, needed or not. Those who make more money the more drugs they prescribe, prescribe those drugs.
Those who have no incentive tend to do the right thing by the patient, because why not. Flat fee suffering person, help them. But they aren’t required to die if the patient dies, the normal human mechanisms of empathy and social bonding work quite fine IF they aren’t overwhelmed by incentives.
This is true also of analysts. The best analysts are generally people who have no skin in the game; no dog in the fight. They may be interested, but they don’t actually care.
Detachment: lack of concern, makes it possible to see things as they actually are.
Skin the game works best when it is identical with the largest group that makes sense. Aligning workers with overly precise incentives leads to them ignoring things outside their incentives. Whatever the bottom line for them is, they see to (even cheating) and they ignore everything else.
The survival and prosperity of a country, a company, a team, or a marriage must be the responsibility of everyone, and they must suffer consequences if it fails equal to their power in that group.
When they don’t, societies fail.
But even this rule is not enough, because we are finite beings. We die. This is the reason for the Iroquois maxim that decisions must be made with the next 7 generations in mind. It is why the Ancient Greeks said that a society is great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.
And to get there requires something more than skin in the game.
Or rather it requires an extended sense of self which our society does not embrace and which it cannot embrace as long as its core moral sentiments and identity are based on individualistic liberalism and the selfish self-concern that is mandated by capitalist ideology.
Self-interest can only walk so far.
More on that another time.
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Londoners spend 72% of their income on rent.
Overseas buyers snap up majority of exclusive London homes
These two facts are related.
This is a problem with an obvious solution, do not allow non residents to buy housing in your country. Do not allow housing to be empty more than 3 months a year. If it is, and renovations are not actively ongoing (physically check to see if it is), then tax them at punitive rates (30% of the property value or more) and if after a year it still isn’t, simply expropriate it, with no compensation.
Further, smaller countries CANNOT absorb the excess money of larger countries busy printing money and/or creating billionaires. Canada and Australia I am talking to you with relation to China. You are pygmies and China is printing more money than every other major nation combined. You cannot allow Chinese to buy up real estate, or anything else in your countries, because they have enough money to buy everything at prices your locals cannot compete with.
This is obvious. It is stupidly obvious. But various speculators and builders are getting rich so it is ignored.
These housing price problems require more than just banning foreign buyers, but any solution starts there, and the problem cannot be solved without doing so.
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Yesterday I did a fireside chat at our portfolio company Shippo and someone asked the question how a company can continue to be successful and grow over a long period of time. My answer was: continue to innovate. A company that wonderfully represents that spirit is MongoDB. Eliot Horowitz, the co-founder and CTO of MongoDB, just announced in a blog post that MongoDB 4.0 will support multi-document transactions.
You should go read the post as it is great, including the epic title “MongoDB Drops ACID” (which I will explain later), but here is the quote that really stood out to me (emphases in bold are mine):
The imminent arrival of transactions is the culmination of a multi-year engineering effort, beginning over 3 years ago with the integration of the WiredTiger storage engine. We’ve laid the groundwork in almost every part of the server – from the storage layer itself, to the replication consensus protocol, to the sharding architecture.
Yes. MongoDB started the work for transactions 3 years ago. And they had to touch every part of the product to make it work. That’s what it means to be a company that continues to innovate.
Continued innovation requires real commitment, but it is also extremely powerful. Many companies simply don’t do it and so it is a crucial source of competitive advantage. Making continued innovation part of the DNA of a company also means you can start out with a simple product, one that others dismiss as a “toy” and keep making it better.
So what exactly are ACID multi-document transactions and why do they matter? ACID is an acronym for Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability. These are all desirable properties of a transaction, where a multi-document transaction is a change to the data contained in multiple different documents. The canonical example in computer science here is transferring money from one bank account to another. In the database each account is represented by a document that contains information such as the account number, the account type and the balance on the account.
Transferring money from account A to account B thus requires decrementing the balance field in document A and incrementing it in document B (hence multi-document). We would like such a transaction to be:
Atomic - meaning either both changes occur or no change
Consistent - no one else accessing the database can see a state in which say the balance document A has been decremented but the balance in document B is still unchanged
Isolated - if you are running many multi-document transactions at once they do not interfere with each other
Durable - once a transaction is done, it is really recorded in the database even if say the power to one or more components of the database fails
As you might guess just from reading it, this is hard to achieve. Traditional relational databases, however, have had ACID transactions for a long time. They really come in hand for writing certain types of systems, such as say an accounting application. Well, as of the 4.0 release this summer, MongoDB will have them as well.
That’s great news not just for people writing new applications, but also for those who want to lift existing workloads from older databases to MongoDB. To the extent that those applications required transactions they can now be ported much more easily. That in turn means that customers can more easily standardize on MongoDB as their database of choice.
Congratulations to the entire team at MongoDB on this major accomplishment and their ongoing dedication to continued innovation!
So the last two Uncertainty Wednesday posts have been about spurious correlation. Today, I want to give an example of easy it is to observe spurious correlation. To that end I wrote a little Python program which I will show below that rolls two independent dice. Each is rolled 10 times to give us two data series of 10 points each. This mimics the 10 data point series from last week’s example.
The program runs some number of these and each times calculates and outputs the coefficient of correlation. I then use Google Sheets to produce a histogram.
Here is the result for 1,000 runs
And here are 10,000 runs
What we see is the distribution of the sample correlation. As we add more runs we once again see a normal distribution emerge (isn’t that fascinating?).
Looking at the charts we see that the center of the distribution is 0, which is reassuring as it suggests that the two sets of dice rolls were in fact independent. But we also see that the bulk of the histogram is for values of the correlation that are, well, not zero. Put differently, you are much more likely to observe a non-zero correlation than a zero correlation in these samples.
Now you might say though, even with 10,000 runs we don’t see correlations above 0.75 or below -0.8, but the divorce rate example had a correlation of 0.99. So isn’t that extremely unlikely?
Keep in mind that the correlation in the example was between two basically arbitrary data series of 10 points each. There are, well, billions (actually infinitely many) such series. So 10,000 runs is really nothing. So I changed the program to 1 million runs. The maximum observed correlation on that was 0.9727, much closer to the 0.99 in the example. In fact the minimum observed correlation on that run was -0.9902!
But this direction of analysis is the wrong direction. We are assuming independence (remember this is a strong assumption) and then checking how likely it is to observe a specific correlation. What we really want to figure out is what our updated belief about correlation should be depending on a less restrictive prior.
Interestingly, this takes me to the edge of my own knowledge and so I have asked an expert in Bayesian estimation to help me. Stay tuned!
PS Here is the Python code:
from scipy.stats import randint from numpy import corrcoef max = 0 min = 0 runs = 10000 for run in range(0, runs): r1 = randint.rvs(1,7,size=10) r2 = randint.rvs(1,7,size=10) cm = corrcoef(r1, r2) c = cm print c
NOTE: Last week’s blog post was the current introduction to my book World After Capital. Today’s post covers the first half of the chapter on Digital Technology, which discusses how zero marginal cost is unlike anything found in the analog world.
The invention of agriculture expanded the space of the possible by dramatically increasing the food density of land. This allowed humanity to have surplus food, which provided the basis for increased population density and hierarchical societies that developed standing armies, specialization of labor and writing .
The Enlightenment and subsequent Industrial Revolution further expanded the space of the possible by substituting human power for machine power and increasing our understanding of, and control over, chemical and physical transformations of matter. This allowed humanity to make extraordinary material progress on the basis of innovations in energy, manufacturing, transportation and communication .
Digital technologies provide the third expansion of the space of the possible. This seems like a bold claim, and many have derided digital technologies such as Twitter, arguing that they are inconsequential compared to, say, the invention of vaccines.
Yet we can already see the disruptiveness of digital technologies. For instance, many previously well established businesses, such as newspapers and retailers, are struggling, while companies that deal only in information, such as Google and Facebook, are among the world’s most highly valued .
There are two characteristics of digital technology that expand the space of the possible, and both are important: the first is zero marginal cost and the second is the universality of digital computation.
Zero Marginal Cost
Once a piece of information is on the Internet, it can be accessed from anywhere on the network for no additional cost. As more and more people around the world are connected to the Internet, “anywhere on the network” increasingly means anywhere in the world. The servers are already running. The network connections and end user devices are already in place and powered up. Making one extra digital copy of the information and delivering it across the network is therefore free. In the language of economics: the “marginal cost” of a digital copy is zero. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people trying to charge you, in many cases there are. Zero marginal cost is a statement about cost, not about prices.
Zero marginal cost is radically different from anything that has come before it in the analog world, and it makes possible some pretty amazing things. To illustrate, imagine you own a pizzeria. You pay rent for your store, you pay for your equipment, and you pay salaries for your staff (and yourself). All of these are so-called “fixed costs.” They don’t change at all with the number of pizzas you bake. “Variable costs,” on the other hand, depend on the number of pizzas you make. For a pizzeria, these include the cost of the water, flour, and other ingredients used in making pizzas. Variable cost also includes the energy you need to heat your oven. If you make more pizzas, your variable cost goes up. If you make fewer, your variable cost goes down.
So what is marginal cost? Well, let’s say you are up and running making 100 pizzas every day. The marginal cost is the additional cost to make the 101st pizza. Assuming the oven is already hot and has room in it for one more pizza, then the additional cost for that 101st pizza is just the cost of the ingredients, which is likely relatively low. Imagine now that the oven has already cooled off, then the marginal cost of the 101st pizza would include the energy cost required for re-heating the oven. In that case the marginal cost could be quite high.
From a business perspective, you would want to make that 101st pizza as long as you can sell it for more than its marginal cost. Every cent above marginal cost makes a contribution towards fixed cost, helping to pay for rent and salaries. If you have already covered all your fixed cost from the previous pizzas sold, then every cent above marginal cost for the 101st pizza is profit.
Marginal cost also matters from a social perspective. As long as a customer is willing to pay more than the marginal cost for that pizza, then everyone is better off. You’re better off because you get extra contribution towards your fixed cost or your profit. Your customer is better off because, well, they just ate a pizza they wanted! Even if the customer paid exactly the marginal cost you wouldn’t be any worse off and the customer would still be better off.
Let’s consider what happens as marginal cost falls from an initially high level. Imagine for a moment that your key ingredient is an exceedingly rare and expensive truffle and therefore the marginal cost of your pizzas is $1,000 per pizza. Clearly you won’t be selling a lot of pizzas. You decide to switch to cheaper ingredients and start to bring down your marginal cost to where a larger number of customers are willing to pay more than your marginal cost. In New York City, where I live, that seems to be around $25 per pizza. So you start selling quite a few pizzas. As you bring down the marginal cost of your pizza even further through additional process and product improvements (e.g., a thinner crust, economies of scale, etc.), you can start selling even more pizzas.
Now imagine that through a magical new invention you can make additional pizzas at close to zero marginal cost (say one cent per additional pizza), including nearly instantaneous (say one second) shipment to anywhere in the world. What would happen then? Well, for starters you would be able to sell an exceedingly large number of pizzas. And if you charged even just two cents per pizza you would be making one cent of contribution or profit for every additional pizza you sell.
At such low marginal cost you would probably be the only pizza seller in the world (a monopoly—more on that later). From a social welfare standpoint, anyone in the world who was hungry and who wanted pizza and could afford at least one cent would ideally be getting one of your pizzas. This means that the best price of your pizza from a social point of view would be one cent (your marginal cost). Why not two cents? Because if someone was hungry but could only afford one cent and you sold them a pizza at that price, then the world as a whole would still be better off. The hungry person was fed and you covered the marginal cost of making the pizza.
Let’s recap: When your marginal cost was extremely high, you had very few customers. As your marginal cost dropped you started to be able to sell more. And as your marginal cost approached zero, you eventually started to feed the world! This is exactly where we are with digital technology. We can now feed the world with information. That additional YouTube video view? Marginal cost of zero. Additional access to Wikipedia? Marginal cost of zero. Additional traffic report delivered by Waze? Marginal cost of zero.
This means we should expect certain digital “pizza-making operations” to be huge and span the globe in near monopoly positions (i.e., they are much larger than anyone else, having nearly the entire market to themselves). This is exactly what we are seeing with companies such as Google and Facebook. But—and this is critical to the idea of the Knowledge Age—it also means, from a social perspective, that the price for marginal usage should be zero.
Why prevent someone from accessing YouTube, Wikipedia or Waze, either by cutting them off from the system altogether or charging a price they can’t afford? This would always constitute a loss to society. With zero marginal cost, any given individual might receive some benefit, which would be a benefit greater than the marginal cost. And best of all, they might use what they learn to create something that they share and that in turn winds up delivering extraordinary enjoyment or a scientific breakthrough to the world.
We are not used to zero marginal cost. Most of economics assumes non-zero marginal cost. You can think of zero marginal cost as an economic singularity: dividing by zero is undefined, and as you approach zero marginal cost, strange things happen. We are already observing these strange things in the world today, including digital near monopolies and a power law distribution of income and wealth. We are now rapidly approaching this zero marginal cost singularity in many industries, including finance and education.
So the first characteristic of digital technology that expands the space of the possible is zero marginal cost. This space includes digital monopolies, but it also includes access for all of humanity to all the world’s knowledge (a term I will define more precisely later).
The Austrian Space Forum is leading a four-week Mars mission in Oman's Dhofar Desert.
NASA has announced changes to how engineers are operating Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in order to prolong its life as long as possible, long enough to support the Mars 2020 rover mission.
The White House's budget proposes $19.9 billion for NASA.
February 13, 2018
Travel Yesterday during one of my monthly London trips, I began walking the Monopoly board, or rather the places listed in the Monopoly board as a reason to visit some of the less obvious places to visit in the city if you're a tourist. I've begun a Twitter thread for the occasion:
This won't be every month. If I discovered anything yesterday, it's that with time this precious and tickets to the capital still this expensive even at thirty odd pounds return I'm probably best concentrating on see the world's treasure houses rather than the inside of an Aldi in a different part of the country (they all look the same you know).
Mural depicting the History of Old Kent Road
The most delightful and unexpected surprise. On the corner of Old Kent Road and Peckham High Road is what was once the North Peckham Civic Centre when when it opened in 1966 included on its exterior walls a mural by artist Adam Kossowski depicting the history of Old Kent Road from its Roman origins through the the 1960s, from patricians to pearly kings and queens. I did take some photos but none of them are as good as those you can find on an average Google image search. Historic England has a long entry about the murals and Exploring Southwark a tldr with more pictures.
The obvious surprise is how it's almost a pictorial depiction of Shakespeare's history plays with Henry V and the Jack Cade rebellion from Henry VI. The Old Kent Road itself doesn't appear to have been mentioned in the Complete Works, but it does demonstrate that however run down it is now, at one point the road was a key thorough fair and a vital route in and out of the city. That said, I did witness a rebellion in that Aldi because they'd run out of change and the staff weren't being allowed to go home because they were too busy and the next shift didn't start for hours.
The Whitechapel Gallery
Closed on Mondays. But it was still nice to stand outside and look through the window. They seem to be between exhibitions. Elsewhere, I enjoyed a decent bowl of Lentil soup in the public library and found a blu-ray copy of Atomic Blonde for £3 in a charity shop so it wasn't a completely wasted journey.
Currently on the concourse of Kings Cross Station, Ffestiniog Railway have installed two steam locomotives and a passenger carriage to publicise the destination. Ian Visits has a short piece about the, well, visit, with a shot of an engine being driven into place. As you can see I was very pleased to be there:
Ruth Wilson is about to take part in very a personal passion project.
"But in April, she finally begins filming a long dreamed of project: a drama for the BBC and PBS in America that will tell the story of her paternal grandparents. In Mrs Wilson, which is written by Anna Symon and directed by Richard Laxton, she will play her grandmother, Alice, who only discovered after his death that her husband, Alexander Wilson, was a bigamist. (After Alice’s death, Wilson’s father found out that Alexander, an MI6 officer who wrote spy novels, had in fact been married not twice, but four times; none of his wives and various children knew of one another.) “It has been such a long process,” she says. “Getting a committed answer from the BBC took a while. But that might be a good thing. We’ve had time to talk to everyone, to make sure they feel OK with it.”" [The Guardian]
February 11, 2018
Daniel Kaluuya played Barclay in Doctor Who's Planet of the Dead. Wow:
"For the best part of two years, Daniel Kaluuya has lived and worked in the US, where his elevation to fame – sudden, unexpected, by turns gratifying and alarming – has made him look differently on his native UK. “I think there’s more room in the US to create something and see what happens,” the 28-year-old says, while unwinding after a photoshoot in New York, where he is taking a break from LA awards shows. (A week after our meeting, Kaluuya is nominated for an Oscar for Get Out; the film was also nominated at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards.) “While in England, I feel, there’s The Way and if you don’t fit in with The Way, then you don’t fit in. A lot of people think their way is The Way. I think my way is a way. And you’re imposing your way on to my way, and I’m like: no way.” [The Guardian]
February 10, 2018
Well it looks like asset prices don’t always go up. Of course I’m not surprised by this revelation but the mainstream media did seem surprised with headlines such as “Dow loses 7 million points in the session” and “Worst market performance since dinosaurs roamed the earth” but then of course they need sensationalism as they’re attention seeking. The market action even meant that it made the
- Adrian McEwen
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- Charlie Stross
- Dan Catt
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- Fairphone blog
- Feeling Listless
- Ian Welsh
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- The Archdruid Report
- The Leveller
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- a sense of place
Updated using Planet on 17 February 2018, 05:48 AM