Francis’s news feed

This combines together some blogs which I like to read. It’s updated once a week.

August 19, 2017

Taking a Break by Albert Wenger

This will be my last post until Labor Day. I will be spending as little time online as possible, reading books instead, spending time with family and friends and working on World After Capital.  I will be disabling all notifications on my phone and checking email only twice a day. Given all the craziness here in the US and elsewhere in the world, I have been spending too much time on news and I am looking forward to this break to dial things down. 

Uncertainty Wednesday: Risk Seeking (Jensen’s Inequality Cont’d) by Albert Wenger

Last Uncertainty Wednesday, we saw how diminishing marginal utility of wealth provides an explanation of risk aversion via Jensen’s inequality. Why would it be then that lots of people seem to like small gambles, like a game of poker among friends. One possible explanation is that the utility function is locally convex around your current endowment. So this would look something like the following:

In the immediate area around the endowment (marked with dotted lines for two different levels) the utility function is convex, but for larger movements it is concave. 

In the convex area someone would be risk seeking. Why? Well because Jensen’s inequality now gives us

U[EV(w)] ≤  EV[U(w)]

Again, the left hand side is the utility of the expected value of the wealth, whereas the right hand side is the expected utility, meaning the expected value of the utility. Now the inequality says that someone would prefer an uncertain amount over a certain one. Here is a nice illustration from Wikipedia:


We see clearly that the Certainty Equivalent (CE) is now larger than the expected value of wealth, meaning the Risk Premium (RP) works the other way: in order to make a risk seeker as well off as accepting the bet, you have to pay them more than the expected value.

Next Uncertainty Wednesday we will look more at how incredibly powerful convexity is in the face of uncertainty. 

ICOs and Governance by Albert Wenger

As has been widely reported, in the last few months ICOs have raised significantly more money for blockchain startups than has come from traditional venture investors. This can be seen as a sign of the long discussed unbundling of venture capital. The idea is that while VCs bundle capital, advice, governance and possibly services (e.g., help with recruiting), technology may make it possible to separate out these different functions. Today I want to focus on “governance” which is the least understood, and I believe most difficult to accomplish, of these functions.

What is governance? The word, like “government,” comes from the Greek word for “to steer.” It stands for the decision making bodies and processes that steer a company, a protocol, or a country. 

Why is governance needed? Because we (a) cannot in advance specify the right course of action for all possible contingencies and (b) for many of those contingencies there is not a single, obviously optimal action to take. That’s often the case because actions will impact different constituents differently. The role of governance, of steering, is to help choose an action at those moments.

What are examples of governance issues? In companies, these include events such as fundraising, considering an M&A offer, replacing a CEO. The need for governance in a company tends to be relatively limited because the CEO has a lot of discretionary power. In contrast, protocols completely describe the activities of participants and so almost any change to the protocol turns into a governance issue. 

People have written about governance once a protocol is up and running, including different mechanisms for triggering (or avoiding) forks. But the issue I want to focus on instead is the question of governance post ICO and pre-protocol launch. How should the allocation of funds be steered?

For a lot of projects the answer appears to be that funds can be spent on whatever the founding team deems appropriate without any additional governance mechanism. This is akin to a company without a board or a board that’s controlled by the CEO. Other projects have set up foundations that control some of the ICO proceeds with an independent board as a governance mechanism.

Governance will turn out to be important here because there are so many allocation decisions to be made (several projects have raised north of $100 million). And those decisions not only don’t have obviously right answers but also come with the potential for self dealing, starting with determining salaries for team members. 

Now VCs role in governance of companies is not perfect either. There are lots of potential conflicts of interest. For instance, investor board members may want to accept (or reject) an M&A offer that management wants to reject (or accept) because their economics are quite different. And there are of course plenty of examples of VCs not exercising their governance role.

Nonetheless, the right answer is probably not doing away with governance altogether. I recommend to all the projects that have raised money through ICOs to put some kind of governance structure in place before spending a lot of the funds. It will be important for that mechanism to not just include investor and founder interests, but to also reflect community members, the people who are ultimately supposed to benefit from the protocol.  

Preparing for Superintelligence: Living the Values of Humanism Today by Albert Wenger

In my draft book World After Capital, I write that humans having knowledge is what makes us distinctly human and gives us great power (and hence great responsibility). I define knowledge in this context as science, philosophy, art, music, etc. that’s recorded in a medium so that it can be shared across time and space. Such knowledge is at the heart of human progress, because it can be improved through the process of critical inquiry. We can fly in planes and feed seven billion people because we have knowledge.

There is an important implication of this analysis though that I have so far not pursued in the book: if and when we have true General Artificial Intelligence we will have a new set of humans on this planet. I am calling them humans on purpose, because they will have access to the same power of knowledge that we do. The question is what they will do with knowledge, which has the potential to grow much faster than knowledge has to date.

There is a great deal of fear about what a “Superintelligence” might do. The philosopher Nick Bostrom has written an entire book by that title and others including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are currently warning that the creation of a superintelligence could have catastrophic results. I don’t want to rehash all the arguments here about why a superintelligence might be difficult (impossible?) to contain and what its various failure modes might be. Instead I want to pursue a different line of inquiry: what would a future superintelligence learn about humanist values from our behavior?

In World After Capital I write that the existence and power of knowledge provides an objective basis for Humanism. Humanism in turn has key value implications, such as the importance of sustaining the process of critical inquiry through which knowledge improves over time. Another key value implication is that humans are responsible for animals, not vice versa. We have knowledge and so it is our responsibility to help say dolphins as opposed to the other way round.

To what degree are we living this value of responsibility today? We could do a lot better here. Our biggest failing with regard to animals is industrial meat production and as someone who eats meat, I am part of that problem. As with many other problems that human knowledge has created, I believe our best way forward is further innovation and I am excited about lab grown meat and meat substitutes. We have a long way to go in being responsible to other species in many other regards (e.g., pollution and outright destruction of many habitats). Doing better here is on important way we should be using the human attention that is freed up through automation.

Even more important though is how we treat other humans. This has two components: how we treat each other today and how we treat the new humans when they arrive. As for how we treat each other today, we again have a long way to go. Much of what I propose in World After Capital is aimed at freeing humans to be able to discover and pursue their personal interests. We are a long way away from that. That also means constructing the Knowledge Age in a way that allows us to overcome, rather than re-enforce, our biological differences (see my post from last week on this topic). That will be a particularly important model for new humans (superintelligences), as they will not have our biological constraints. Put differently, discrimination on the basis of biological difference would be a terrible thing for super intelligent machines to learn from us.

Finally, what about the arrival of the new humans. How will we treat them? The video of a robot being mistreated by Boston Dynamics is not a good start here. This is a difficult topic because it sounds so preposterous. Should machines have human rights? Well if the machines are humans then clearly yes. And my approach to what makes humans distinctly human would apply to artificial general intelligence. Does a general artificial intelligence have to be human in other ways as well in order to qualify? For instance, does it need to have emotions? I would argue no, because we vary widely in how we handle emotions, including conditions such as psychopathy. Since these new humans will likely share very little, if any, of our biological hardware, there is no reason to expect that their emotions should be similar to ours (or that they should have a need for emotions altogether).

This is an area in which a lot more thinking is required. We don’t have a great way of discerning when we might have built a general artificial intelligence. The best known attempt here is the Turing Test for which people have proposed a number of improvements over the years. This is an incredibly important area for further work, as we charge ahead with artificial intelligence. We would not want to accidentally create, not recognize and then mistreat a large class of new humans. They and their descendants might not take kindly to that.

As we work on this new challenge, we have a long way to go in how we treat other species and other humans. Applying digital technology smartly gives us the possibility of doing so. That’s why I continue to plug away on World After Capital.

NASA experiments will watch eclipse's effect on atmosphere by The Planetary Society

The upcoming solar eclipse isn’t just about watching the Moon block out the Sun. A suite of NASA-funded science experiments will to study the unseen effects of the eclipse on Earth's atmosphere.

Celebrating the 40th anniversaries of the Voyager launches by The Planetary Society

Sunday, August 20 marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 2. Tuesday, September 5, will be the 40th anniversary for Voyager 1. Throughout the next three weeks, we'll be posting new and classic material in honor of the Voyagers. Here's a preview.

Could the total solar eclipse reveal a comet? by The Planetary Society

Next week's solar eclipse will reveal the Sun's corona, nearby bright planets and stars, and, if we get extremely lucky, a comet!

A dispatch from the path of totality: the 2017 solar eclipse in Ravenna, Nebraska by The Planetary Society

Ravenna, population 1,400, sits on the plains of central Nebraska, and almost on the center line of the path of totality for the upcoming Great American Eclipse. Nebraska native Shane Pekny reports on how this small town is preparing for the big event.

Bill Nye's top eclipse tip: Protect your eyes by The Planetary Society

Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, has some suggestions for staying safe during next week's solar eclipse.

Book Review: Sun Moon Earth by The Planetary Society

With the North American Total Solar Eclipse coming on August 21, people across the continent are getting eclipse mania! Astronomer Tyler Nordgren has written a detailed book on eclipses with a special focus on the August 21st event.

August 16, 2017

Radio silence by Charlie Stross

Hi! Apologies for the long hiatus. I've been kind of preoccupied, with a funeral in the family and then a world science fiction convention in Helsinki, but I'm finally home and trying to get back to some semblance of normal.

In the meantime, some news:

If you're in the United States and read ebooks, The Rhesus Chart is currently discounted to $1.99. (The link goes to but it should be the same price on iBooks and the Google Play store and Kobo. It's probably also at this price in Canada, but not in the UK or Europe--different publishers in different territories.) If you haven't tried the Laundry Files, this book isan entrypoint: why not give it a try?

Tonight, August 16th, I'm appearing at the Edinburgh Book festival with Nnedi Okorafor, Jo Walton, and Ken Macleod. We'll be at the Studio Theatre from 7:15pm; it's a ticketed event from the main book festival box office.

And on Friday August 18th, I'll be back at the book festival for a discussion with Nalo Hopkinson, Ken MacLeod, and Ada Palmer: we'll e at Bosco Theatre (on George Street) from 6:30pm, and again, it's a ticketed event.

And finally, the big news: my space opera, Ghost Engine, is being rescheduled for 2019; instead, July 2018 should see publication of The Labyrinth Index, the ninth Laundry Files novel! Publishers will be Orbit in the UK and Tor in the USA (this being the New Normal for the Laundry Files). This change has been in the works for a few months, but I didn't want to pre-announce it until I had it nailed down. (In a nutshell: Ghost Engine was too ambitious to finish on my original schedule, and The Labyrinth Index was growing more and more timely, until they just crossed over.)

Scottish Hamlet. by Feeling Listless

TV Good grief, the BBC have announced a classic theatre broadcast for BBC Two. Oh, yes, it's Andrew Scott's recent Hamlet which is very exciting especially since it's being produced by Illuminations:

"Robert Icke, Director (and Almeida Theatre Associate Director) says: “It has been a real joy to work with such a gifted and dedicated company of actors on bringing this most-famous play to audiences in 2017. The production has been on a wonderful journey from the Almeida to the West End, and I am very much looking forward to this next step on BBC Two. To be able to offer our version of Hamlet to as wide and diverse an audience as possible has always been of paramount importance to us, and now we are thrilled to be able to bring it to people across the country.”"
The press release is a bit ambiguous about whether it's a theatre recording or a reshoot for television. I've asked Illuminations via Twitter for a confirmation.

August 14, 2017

Lovefilm RIP. by Feeling Listless

Film In case you were wondering this gap between blog posts is because I'm having something of a life laundry, deciding which books I really want to keep and reorganising my dvd collection.

 Sidebar: I'm ditching the chronological approach to classification by the date in which everything is set in favour of alphabetical order so I might have have chance of finding a film without having to consult a bloody database.

 Yes, I did spend a lot of time curating that database and yes, I wish I could tell the younger version of me to watch more of the them rather than many the many minutes it took trying decide whether a particular western was set at the beginning or end of the 1880s. But I'm through the tunnel and out the other side.

This interruption to my sorting schedule, is to mark some time. This morning Amazon sent its loyal Lovefilm by Post users an email advising that the service is to close on the 31st October this year. Happy birthday to me.

As you know, other than for a brief gap last year, I've been receiving discs from some version of this company since 2002, over fifteen years, starting with ScreenSelect then to Lovefilm when they merged and finally on Amazon's website.

Honestly, I knew this would be happening soonish. Streaming has entered primacy, with physical sales of films dropping massively and even blu-rays showing signs of serious discounting.

Which isn't to say I wasn't pretty devastated. The key reason why I returned to the service was because if you're interested in something other than the newest releases or the popular canon the available catalogue on subscription streaming is a joke and I can't really afford to pay for everything separately.

But it turns out there's a further option, the cutely named Cinema Paradiso, whose website has some of the old school charm of ScreenSelect and also seems to have titles that Amazon doesn't even have in their database yet (and now we know why).

So I'll be migrating over there and see what happens.  If it's rubbish, I haven't lost anything.  But for all they say that they're not closing and investing in new titles, I suspect I'm putting off the inevitable.  We'll see.

Now, back the book mountain.  We'll speak again soon.

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Updated using Planet on 19 August 2017, 04:48 AM