Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Capital in the 21st Century

In a similar vein to my last post, here is another set of thoughts on a book composed of criticism and advice for our political and economic systems. This time Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty.

I have many worries about the future of the world, the two greatest being environmental destruction and wealth inequality. Capital in the 21st Century takes an extremely detailed look at the second of these. If you care about inequality, or the world's political and economic organization, I highly recommend reading this book. It is worth the time investment, which is certainly significant given its size. The only popular economic books I have read in the last few years that perhaps match its its significance would be Debt and The Second Machine Age.

Being on Amazon and the New York Times best-sellers lists, there has already been a lot of talk about the book, and much more exhaustive reviews than what I am putting together now. Cory Doctorow in particular has a good review of the book.

Piketty looks at the distribution of wealth in Europe and America over the last 300 years, and has documented an extraordinary amount of detail. Progressives and activists such as Occupy have been railing against wealth inequality for years, if you go back to Marx, more than a century, but Piketty paints a clear picture of the details of the economic distribution in a way that has not been before. This book is more a book on economic history than economic theory. It breaks down in great detail, not just the distribution of wealth in Europe and America since the Industrial Revolution, but such details as the share of income generated through labor vs capital at various wealth levels of society, the proportion of wealth transferred through inheritance, and more.

What this historical research shows is that the 20th Century, primarily the period between the start of World War I and the 1970s, was an outlier in terms of its level of equality. Piketty attributes this to three main factors: 1) the massive destruction of capital caused by the First and Second World Wars, 2) significant economic growth, primarily caused by population growth, and 3) progressive taxation and social welfare policy that gained prominence in this time period. Since the 1970s, due to rollback of these social policies, and the thankful recovery from the world wars, inequality has steadily risen, approaching levels not seen since the Gilded Age. As population growth rates continue to hopefully decline, and barring any horrible wars, without further governmental policy inequality looks set to rise throughout the 21st century.

Though a lesser part of the book than the historical analysis, there is some economic theory that is used to make these predictions. And there are certainly economists out there that will argue the theory. Regardless, the fact that we have already slipped back in many ways to a level of economic inequality that existed before the First World War is deeply frightening to me. The current political debate is still set by an economic reality that has been disappearing for the last forty years and is increasingly unrealistic. The economic realities of the 19th Century that were assumed by popular culture of the time, that Piketty shows through works such as those from Austen and Balzac, are horribly distasteful to a modern citizen. That is the world that we are on the verge of living in if trends from the last forty years continue. We are approaching the level of economic inequality that caused Marx to produce his works. It is not the society I want to live in. Piketty has potential solutions of course, such as a return to the top income tax levels of the 1950s, and a progressive global tax on capital. I would certainly support these solutions in theory, but more importantly, I want popular opinion to realize how far we have swung back to the extreme inequalities of the Gilded Age.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Republic Lost and the Mayday PAC

Happy 4th of July everyone. In the midst of fitfully trying to convince myself to write again, I came across a draft of my thoughts on Republic, Lost, which I had originally tried to get out back in October of 2012. With the July 4th deadline for the current Mayday PAC fundraising goal today I figured now was a good time to get this out the door.

I would like to recommended Republic, Lost, by Lawrence Lessig, to anyone with an interest in American politics, or who lives and votes in America. I have been a fan of the works of Lawrence Lessig for years. He first came to my attention with his work on the disastrous effects of modern intellectual property law, and this is the first work I have read of his that branches out to a broader view of the American political process.

Republic, Lost goes into painful detail how corrupt American politics have become over the last forty years. This book is frightful in its details, explaining how the process of deciding elections, how the practice of governing, and the end result of law and policy have all been horribly warped by money. The book traces a majority of the issues I care about back to this cause. Yes, it is a political policy book designed for the mass market, of course it is going to explain that it knows the primary cause of and cure for the nation's ills, but I found myself convinced of the importance of the issue.

Over the last several decades the amount and importance of campaign fund-raising has increased tremendously. Campaign processes have grown increasingly sophisticated in ways that sink money into advertising, research, etc. Campaign finance restrictions have been rolled back. The ethical norms of what is expected of our elected officials has changed and lobbyists have become a normal, accepted part of our political system while politicians spend more and more of their time fund-raising. Politicians work hand in hand with lobbyists in creating the laws. Congressmen spend less time debating the bills that they are supposed to be writing, farming that duty out to lobbyists. The laws grow more complex as lobbyists seek benefits for their industries, and politicians seek to expand regulation so that they have more influence to bargain with lobbyists in exchange for campaign donations.

Lessig goes on to detail how this corrupted process created the disastrous financial regulatory framework that lead to the Great Recession, how it prevented more thorough healthcare reform such as a single payer system, how it contributes to growing wealth inequality, how it has created an overly complex set of tax law, and many other unfortunate examples. There are many dreams of idealists on both the right and left that have been thwarted by the current corruption of the American political system.

In order to fix this issue Lessig as recommended many solutions since Republic, Lost was published in 2011. A constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United, or publicly financed elections, or other forms of electoral reform would be wonderful, but are unlikely given the current state of political polarization and with moneyed interests opposed. Right now, the most important plan that I would like to encourage support for is the Mayday PAC, which with some degree of irony, is raising money to support candidates pledged to get money out of American politics. I am more optimistic about the Mayday plan than any previous attempt to address this issue I have seen before, simply in terms of the amount of public awareness it is generating. I would like to encourage you all to consider supporting it.



Thursday, May 22, 2014

Oh dear, I have a blog

After increasing my productivity in 2014, due to a combination of maturity, improved therapy, and simply having free time in-between jobs, I managed to work my way through my personal to-do list to an item that read "Write blog posts again." Much to my chagrin, I realized I haven't updated this blog in nearly two years, and am predictably embarrassed by its content. Given that I'm too proud to abandon mjanes.com, I suppose I'm going to have to get back into writing something here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fear and Loathing in the 2012 Election

Once again it is time to rant about the cesspool that is American politics. I am sure to lose sleep for the next month worrying about what may happen. As of today, FiveThirtyEight has things looking better than they could be, but the direction has been unpleasant since the debate on Wednesday.

I, of course, support Obama and the Democrats. They are moderately acceptable, whereas I have a passionate hatred of the Republicans. And yes, that level of partisanship leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe I am too much of a radical with no hope of understanding the average American voter. Admittedly I have a hard time relaxing and not worrying under normal circumstances. But my level of loathing the opposing side is not that uncommon in America these days, given what I see in the news. I cannot say that is anything new, my personal participation in American politics only goes back ten years, but to see the negative effects this has had on American today, you have to look no further than the deadlock in Congress over the last two years. Despite this, the best advice I can give is to fight harder and crush the other side.

My desires for American politics are many. I want a reduction in the income inequality that has been dramatically increasing the last several decades in America. Increase investment in our infrastructure, education and scientific research. Improve the disaster that is the American health care system, though I think Obamacare is a step in the right direction; I would prefer something with the simplicity of a single-payer system. I want to reform intellectual property law and protect net neutrality. We need stronger competition law and financial reform. Reduce corporate welfare. End the drug war. Repeal Citizens United and actively work to get money out of politics. Advance women's and gay rights. Increase protection for whistle-blowers. Allow an easier path for immigration. Abolish the TSA. Decrease the size of the armed forces. Close Guantanamo, abide by the Geneva Convention, and provide similar basic protections of human rights. Make far, far stronger environmental protections. And yes, what is most on people's minds these days, lower the unemployment rate, improve economic growth and reduce the national debt.

That is only a brief outline of what I want in America. On many of those issues, the Democrats are significantly better than the Republicans. With many of them, neither side pays any attention. One might even be able to convince me that the Republicans are better for a few of those. I would like to see better arguments and empirical evidence for what policies will accomplish them.

Yet before I could get to arguments, it would be difficult to bring myself to listen to the Republican Party. I admit that this is problematic. Unfortunately their pandering to anti-science, young-earth creationists and other religious bigots, the racists and homophobes, those who would drag women's rights back forty years, and all those other disgusting dregs of America leaves a hideous taste in my mouth. Beyond the general greed, stupidity and shortsightedness I see in both parties, it is the regressive discrimination tainting the Republican Party that is the root source of my partisan vitriol. Beyond that I see the Republicans as liars and hypocrites who would happily lock down the legislature in order to prevent anything positive from happening to this country that might make the next election harm them. They are actively working to disenfranchise voters. I do not feel they can be trusted.

At some of these extremes, I might be showing shades of the irrational exhibited on other side of the fence by people who listen to Rush Limbaugh. Many of those right-wingers have fears similar to mine, as much trouble as I have understanding them. And so I worry that I have simply been riled up by political theater, driven to hate the other side for the sake of my vote and money. I am not saying that I would vote Republican, but what I am saying is that there are other fights that I have become distracted from. We should actually look at why we are horribly hyper-partisan and fight desperately over some issues while ignoring so many others. Why there is relatively little middle ground on the issues we do fight over. I do not know if we are actually more divided and partisan than we have been in the past, but I do know that we should have higher standards.

There are a number of theories for what might be dividing us so: the Big Sort, the Filter Bubble, the corruption of money in politics, distortions in our electoral process caused by gerrymandering, the Electoral College, and first-past-the-post voting systems. With some of the more direct political issues listed above, we could fix them with relatively simple laws and would not even require constitutional amendments. Despite that, the state of the American political system does not give me much optimism that I will live to see any of those issues resolved. I can hope that some exogenous societal or technological change can help advance the system. In the meantime, I will be donating money, making phone calls and possibly knocking on doors. Good luck to us.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Wolfram Alpha's Social Network Analysis

A couple of weeks ago I ran across this new feature of Wolfram Alpha designed to analyze your Facebook activity. I think this is an excellent example of how to summarize and elegantly display some of the mass of social information being captured over the net. We are starting to get enough data in the social sciences that hopefully the soft sciences can be made a bit harder. We're a long ways off from what I want to do with that, but are making some progress. That is one of the reasons I liked Klout, despite the rather unfortunate taste it leaves in some people's mouths. It takes a massively complex set of data and tries to reduce it down to something easily measurable so that people can act on it.

The new Wolfram Alpha project does a good job of that. It is on a very small scale, but I am able to look at my own analysis and learn some useful information. I can see at a glance the various friend groups I'm a part of, where my friends come from, who I'm interacting with over Facebook, what time of day this interaction is occurring, broad statistics of the religions and relationship statuses of my friends, and so forth. I find it very informative.

We still have got a long long ways to go. Get Wolfram Alpha's Facebook analysis expanded to all the social networks Klout covers, and cross-reference all of that data. Have location aware services such as Google Latitude and Foursquare tied in and watch the daily flow of people. Add more economic measurements and get social network systems monitoring how money flows through society. It would be great if someone could find a way to convince people to make public, or least public after being anonymized, data from sources such as Mint.com. Of course, I didn't use Mint.com or any such system until I started writing this article. Getting enough people to plug financial measurements into social networking software for a better understanding of economics is a ways off, but perhaps that's an open market ripe for invention.

I'd give a lot to have better economic theories backed by data to inform our politicians. True, politicians don't often feel the need to back their actions with data, but there's such a massive amount of public ignorance that any tool to help would be of benefit. One study that comes to mind was asking Americans what their desired level of wealth inequality in society was. The results showed that Americans greatly underestimated wealth inequality in the US, and their desired wealth distribution was similar to what Sweden has. People, myself included, tend to have a very poor idea of the construction of society, despite the massive amount of data out there. We still need better systems for working with and displaying this data.


I want, perhaps not a Newtonian revolution that reduces the messiness of the social sciences to clean lines and equations, humans are too complex for that to be possible, but I at least want something better than we have now. If not ways to predict the future, at least better ways of visualizing what is going on around us.  Now, I obviously don't think that having better data visualization will erase human ignorance, but it has to help. Making it easier for everyday people to better see what is going on can't hurt. It feels like there's a bunch of analysis being done inside companies to improve marketing or make financial predictions, and not much progress in creating broad, useful scientific theories. Perhaps I'm just not up to date on what is being learned, ignorantly dreaming of revolutionary theories, but I take comfort in things like Wolfram Alpha doing a bit to peel back the curtain.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

There Went The Summer

September already. I survived the summer, just got back from Burning Man and pushing forward with work. I'd like to think that being done with Burning Man would mean I'd suddenly have a surplus of free time, but then again, my weekends will now often be devoted to Stanford football games. Or playing Skyrim, but that won't be much of a change from the last few months since I moved on from EU3.

Burning Man was excellent this year. After the ticket debacle, I saw the camp that I've been a part of in some form or another for several years left in a much reduced state. Several of our more regular members didn't return, many of the remaining splintered into different camps, and we were left with ten to twelve of us holding enough infrastructure built up over the years to fit fifty people. Fortunately we found a way out of our dilemma by joining up with another camp, Camp Charlie, and that worked out tremendously. 

Camp Charlie is a group primarily from LA who apparently watched too many Charlie the Unicorn videos. This year, with our camp fragment added, Charlie numbered somewhere between eighty and a hundred people. They, or 'we' now I should say, have a spiffy art car, and our subsection provided the back end of the camp with dome, shade, kitchen and such. All told, I spent the last week meeting many wonderful people and having a great time. It was also nice to avoid being in charge of much more than spending a night cooking for a hundred people.

Hell, I've now survived two burns with Cori and am still in one piece. Oh yeah! That's another significant happening in my life in the last few months. I'm officially living with my girlfriend, signed onto a lease and everything. At four months now, but I'll consider that an accomplishment.

On the work side of my life, over the last week, while I and half our engineering team were on the playa, Bloodhound pushed out the new website that has been in production for months. Today was my first day back into the thick of coding and bug fixing and there is, as always, plenty to do, but it's great to see the new site out. After our company spent a good share of the summer working on the new website and our new exhibitor focused Retrieve application that made its debut a month ago, it is wonderful seeing the results out there and live. Now to see how that pays off in the next few months.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Back in Existence

After finally transferring this blog away from GoDaddy in SOPA/PIPA distaste, I managed to forget about it and let it sit in DNS limbo for two months. Fortunately, now it's back! Now to just write something mildly substantive...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Europa Universalis 3

My posts here have definitely fallen off the last four months. Part of that has been work at Bloodhound keeping me busy. Things there are going quite well, we're growing as fast as we can and there should be some press releases shortly. However, away from work an almost embarrassing amount of my free time since Thanksgiving has been devoted to playing Europa Universalis 3, specifically the latest expansion, Divine Wind. I can't remember the last time I was this into a game and I can't recommend it highly enough unless you'd like to save a few hundred hours of time.

I have been a fan of both strategy games and alternate history for a very long time, and EU3 is an excellent merger of the two. In many ways it is similar to the Civilization series, but is restricted to occur between the years 1399 and 1820. Due to this it can afford to have more special, specific rules and still not diverge too wildly from reality. For example, it has hard coded rules for Papal politics, the Holy Roman Empire, Scottish resistance to England, the Reformation, etc. You wouldn't be able to write something like that into a game of Civilization, where when a game starts at 4000 BCE the historical divergences would be so great that to include rules written specifically for things that occurred over the last few hundred years would leave me tearing my hair out. Admittedly, I'd love to have a system smart enough that it could automatically generate gameplay options for divergent political/religious/cultural systems, but that is a ways beyond current game design and artificial intelligence. As it is, having these specific rules written in for the setting adds a great feeling of immersion and connection to history.

Perhaps a more significant difference that distinguishes EU3 from Civ is that it has a far greater amount detail. There is enough micromanagement to keep the perfectionist in me endlessly trying to reshape world history. There are 300 plus playable countries and 1700 plus provinces making up the world. You can pick as a starting date any day over the course of the game, and the starting point is modeled with a fair deal of accuracy to match history, with all the attending countries, governments, diplomacy, wars, cultures, religions, royal marriages, and such that existed at that point in time. I still haven't finished a game yet, despite having spent more than a month on a single game. I know at some point I'll snap out of it and get bored of it, but that hasn't happened yet.

If I had to give it a criticism, aside from a few minor gameplay tweaks, it would be that I would like it to go into even more detail. It does a tremendous amount already, but I wish I could go deeper. I would like to have it do things like model demographics and spit out tables and graphs to compare against the actual historical record. Games like EU3 and Civilization never give you an easy readout of your nation's total population, or try to reduce game units to 'tons of grain' or other more tangible measurements, and I find this frustrating. I assume it is because it would be hard to ensure that the game didn't radically diverge from what would be reasonable and break the suspension of disbelief, but EU3 comes so much closer that I think with a bit more effort it could pull it off.

Maybe just because I read Guns, Germs and Steel at a young age, I would prefer if the game would better model agriculture and disease. In the game, New World societies are handicapped with a low tech level as they were in reality, but I would like to see that handicap modeled in more detail with a lack of domestic animals and weakness to Old World diseases being some of the cause of the handicap. Then you could better model the Columbian Exchange, and see things such as how earlier or later colonization could lead to a different rate of introduction of crops, and see how those spread around the world and affect population levels and trading.

Similarly, I would like better economic models, to be able to see where traded items go instead of just having them make you money. In EU3 a province makes a trade good which gets you a certain amount of money, and your traders compete at a center of trade to make you a certain amount of money, and goods can give global bonuses if you have enough market share, but there's not much connection beyond that. I'd love to see supply and demand and see how the goods are flowing around the globe. This would better reflect historical occurrences such as how the breakdown of the Silk Road was an impetus for Europeans to seek overseas routes to the Far East.

Somewhat connected with trading and economics, I would prefer if the modeling of roads, rivers, canals and other transportation were done with more realism, with easy to see maps of how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B by what means. Have rivers reduce transportation time, and canals actually connect rivers, and have that tie in with the trading system.

Beyond that, I'd love to see more detail on the family trees of ruling families... and there if I continue along this path, I'll be down a rabbit hole and I could spend as much time thinking about what to add to the game as I do playing it. As it is, it does a better job of providing a tremendous amount of detail in a simulation/strategy game and still making it addictively playable. It may be the best strategy game I have played.

Though I am looking forward to the engine on the new Sim City game which is apparently doing an agent based simulation of every single human/vehicle in an entire city!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Opposing SOPA and PIPA


I'm in a bit of a rush at the moment, but wanted to add my blog to the chorus of opposition to SOPA and PIPA heading through Congress. As the House Judiciary Committee is voting on SOPA today, now is the time for everyone out there to call their reps and oppose these bills.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Klout and the Future of Whuffie

I like Klout, admittedly with a few reservations, realizing that it has a long way to go. It is something of an attempt to be a Whuffie system, and I have been writing about those for years. Klout, despite its flaws, gives a good example of how Whuffie systems might start out and where they might go in the future. Klout's stated goal is to measure one's online influence, and render that information as a number between 1 and 100. To quote their About page: "The Klout Score measures influence based on your ability to drive action. Every time you create content or engage you influence others." This year, Klout has hit public attention in the online world. There are a lot of people who think it is desperately important, and others that hate it, but Klout has at least succeeded in getting people's attention.

I do have several criticisms of Klout. I am curious as to how meaningful it is as a measurement in terms of real-world impact. What exactly does online influence mean, and should people care about it as much as some of them seem to? How exactly do you define influence at all? As far as I know, it is not easy to make tests where we ask people to attempt to influence the world in a particular way, and measure the result. Klout is only measuring comments, retweets, shares and such. It does appear to be correlated with real-world fame and influence, as can be seen by people that have real-world fame tend to have high Klout scores. People are still trying to find out whether Klout is actually usable in real world situations. There haven't been anything approaching double-blind scientific tests, only approximations and Klout's marketing department trying to convince us that it is a real thing.

Klout's algorithm is secret, so for all we know a significant portion of the score could be a random number generator behind their black box. I might just be an openness and transparency fanatic, but I imagine that will be a significant weaknesses for Klout. There is no accountability or insight. Considering that the metric is their business, this is somewhat understandable, but for me at least, it is a hindrance. Klout is succeeding in getting attention right now, because it's the only real competitor in this space and no one is providing an alternative. We simply have to take their metric because it is the only one out there.

While one of Klout's benefits is simplicity of presentation, I wish that one could go into more detail with the score. Social influence, online or not, is incredibly complex. People can be hugely influential on one subject and not another; people might be more likely to influence those with similar tastes; there is a difference between influencing the world by creating new works and directing people to existing ones; and there are many other shades of 'influence' that Klout doesn't go into. Klout does attempt to make its metric more focused by listing individual topics, but I find that system to be largely irrelevant at the moment. Topics are limited to three per person and they are determined solely by what I believe is a natural language processing algorithm on their end. Mine are coffee and libraries and that is almost completely nonsensical. Up until a week ago, Klout thought I was an authority on Skynet. It will get better when people can suggest topics for others, and Klout has said that improvement will be here soon. It would also improve if there could be a greater number of topics, and if each had its own individual score. Klout also attempts to break the metric down into sub-factors of reach, amplification and a network's influence, but again, those are somewhat hand-wavy. There is a long way to go on all these fronts. We do not just need more accurate metrics, but to better define what we want to measure.

If Klout were a predictive metric instead of simply a number, it would at least provide an explicit connection to the world. Where if your score is x, you can, through y effort, change the world z amount. Then the metric can be tested and refined. Unfortunately, then you need metrics for x, y and z, and to measure and define a host of other items affecting the system. Despite the outpouring of data about people's social lives, the social sciences remain far from the hard sciences. Klout is just a first step. Perhaps if there were a way to spend Klout, that would give us an exchange rate to something tangible, but I'm not sure that even makes sense, despite the idea of 'reputation markets'. Reputation and influence are not easily transferable or fungible, so our handy metaphors are not much use. Could you measure a Gross National Attention and see where it is being spent?

Our shortage of metrics in the social sciences is so acute that people are starving for them, even if they are as imprecise and inaccurate as Klout. Klout is already showing itself to be significant, simply because it is used. I have seen a lot of articles this year by people ranting how important Klout is. That 'Without Klout, Google+ is dead to me'. Instances of people throwing fits with regards to their score. Given the tone used in those articles, it is easy to dismiss the people obsessing about Klout as twats, but Klout does appear to be a meaningful measure to some extent. How to make it more useful is a better question.

People, mainly marketers, are attempting to use the metric and measure the results. Dozens of companies are giving away perks to people with high Klout scores and certain topics of influence in the hopes that they will talk up their products and influence people to buy them. Audi appears to still be trying to figure out whether or not their participation in such a plan actually had results. There's a new idea to give people with high Klout equity in startups if they and promote them. Again, a ways to go, but with money being poured in, people are going to want to be able to measure their return on investment.

As hungry as people are to use the Klout score for marketing, people are even more hungry to have a high Klout score, out of sheer simple human competitiveness. Klout encourages people to sign up additional services in order to get a higher score. Not everyone cares to do this of course, but certain competitive people like me are more than happy to. Thankfully, I've avoided sounding like a twat on a message board, but I can see some of where they are coming from. I could easily imagine people out there wanting to give Klout access to their emails and phone records just so that their connections to various people could be added to their score. As I wrote earlier, it gives people something to compete for in a way similar to money because it's a status metric.

Klout does indeed lead to some negative effects in the real-world, beyond shrill comments on blogs. A lot of people have criticized that it just creates an arbitrary pecking order for people to be pricks about, or to easily dismiss people without looking at them, and that is a danger. A great criticism of the social networks behind Klout, 'The Social Graph is Neither', does a good job of pointing out how far removed Facebook and such are from normal human interaction. Klout does certainly have a 'teach to the test' effect, encouraging online interactions for the sake of scoring points. I admit I have found myself influenced to tweet more simply with scores in mind. My response to those criticisms is to make the test better, instead of abolishing the test. That is why I am trying to better connect the metric with reality. Ideally, I want Klout, or a new Klout replacement, to be greatly improved, but I am thankful for it as a first step.

This has gotten quite long enough at this point, so I'm going to break up what I am writing into more articles. Next up will either be a deeper look at ways to improve social metrics, or a look at my favorite social network, Reddit, thoughts on improving it, and how it ties in with Klout.