Archive for August, 2011

2001-2011: Technology under Presidents Gore and Romney

August 27, 2011

Everyone remembers September 11th, 2001, when President Gore announced that America had been attacked. But few people knew at the time how drastically technology would change over the next ten years.

Gore had long been an environmentalist, but in the months following 9/11, he used his political capital to push through a range of new programs: a carbon tax combined with personal CO2 allowances, subsidies for energy efficiency and mass transit, and unprecedented investments in energy infrastructure, research, and development. This led to a seemingly endless demand for data analysts, physicists, computer scientists and engineers in companies funded by the Department of Energy, causing Jeff Hammerbacher, CEO of AdMath, to remark “Everyone is trying to make energy more cheaply and cleanly. That sucks if you want to do anything else.”  And it also led to many startups in that ecosystem, such as Zuckerberg’s FaceGrid, which lets people trade carbon credits with their friends and neighbors, and the rapidly growing Blipper, which generates a 140 character alert whenever there is a “blip” in power consumption. At first Blipper was parodied as just generating “using microwave for lunch” blips, but it now has a viable revenue stream with sponsored blips from major automakers such as Ford, Toyota, Tesla or GCars.

While Gore’s changes were dramatic, we should note that he was really just in the right place at the right time. The problems of global warming, dependence on foreign oil, and America’s crumbling infrastructure were so large that even if Bush had won, he would surely have implemented similar programs. Gore was also mocked for various gaffes, such as claiming that he invented FaceGrid, and that “his” levees and mangroves saved New Orleans.

After Romney defeated Hillary Clinton in 2008, he largely maintained the Gore agenda, but added a new project: healthcare reform, led by his popular Democratic Secretary of Health and Human Services Barack Obama. “Obamacare”, as it became known, built on Romney’s earlier work in Massachusetts, and cost reduction informed by data analysis and statistical modeling was a major part of it, from the NetDocs prize onwards.

What of the future? Vice President Bush is pushing forward his education initiative to find and reward the best teachers and fire the worst. In his words, “Those who can, can do. Those who can’t, can’t teach.”  Generous merit pay awards for math and science teachers have been unpopular with unions, but they are attracting talented graduates to the field. The administration claims that this and immigration reform will be the bases for continued American technological dominance into the next generation.

Is Google+ solving the wrong problem?

August 22, 2011

Traffic seems pretty light on Google+, even in my circle of technoliterate Silicon Valley friends. Why? Partly it’s because G+ is solving the wrong problem.

The origins of G+’s approach can be found in a thoughtful presentation by Paul Adams – The real life social network v2. In it, he argues that Facebook’s concept of friendship is not nuanced enough, using the example of Debbie, a swimming teacher who’s friends with her 10-year old students, and also some guys who work in a gay bar and post risqué photos. The proposed solution is G+ circles, so you can control exactly who sees what.

There’s good news and bad news about this approach. The bad news is that it doesn’t work. The crazy will always out, and the Internet will always find a way to get it to everyone. One of my friends started up a blog to present a staid and professional image, but within a few months the intelligent, entertaining and highly non-pc rants had slipped in. And if our teacher friend is hanging out with a fast crowd, you can bet that will get out to her class somehow. Plus, once you start thinking about detailed control, you never stop. Who should be able to see who you’re friends with? What time of day you posted, and who commented when? That way lies madness.

But the good news is that it doesn’t matter. Only a few people follow your status updates, and they have figured out your weird views or predilections already, maybe before you have. Are you worried about posting too much about your child / pet / marathon / claim to the throne of France? Don’t be. Your Facebook friends can handle hearing about you in a different context, and part of the fun of FB is seeing that, and occasionally seeing everyone else’s friends. It’s part of the appeal of weddings, too.  G+ ends up like a season of “Friends” without any guest stars.  We already have means for keeping in touch with cohesive circles of friends – they’re called dinner parties, game nights, pub crawls and email.

What about saying the wrong thing to some of the group? Miscommunications on FB are like crashes in NASCAR – fun to watch, part of the sport, and don’t often hurt.

Isn’t FB an evil profit-maximizing corporation? Sure, but the profit-maximizing part is the key. FB’s modus operandi has always been to push privacy concerns to the edge, wait for Diaspora or G+ to do free user-base testing for them, and then pull back. As I’ve said before, billion dollar companies that are paying any kind of attention don’t let themselves be dismantled. Privacy scares on FB won’t stop people from using it any more than urban legends about hooked-hand killers will stop teens from making out.

This is not to say that everything’s perfect with FB. People in social relationships with tricky dynamics like teacher / student may not want to friend their juniors.  FB could do better too – it’s very easy to hide someone and not see their posts by default, less easy to set it up so they don’t see yours. But the required tweaks would be minor – maybe a secret “courtesy friend” status so you could accept a friend request to avoid offense, but not have to share anything. And as soon as Google+ works out the kinks, Zuckerberg will get right on it.

Why economists get no respect

August 8, 2011

Everyone from Asterix to Richard Nixon makes fun of economists. Why does the discipline get no respect?

Economics, or, to be more precise, macroeconomics, has a unique combination of features. First, it touches on vested interests. Second, it deals with commonplace things that it’s easy to have an opinion about, like jobs and money. Many subjects have one or the other. Medicine has the first, and philosophy the second, but the combination means that discussion ends up dominated by “common sense” views that really express a regressive agenda. Common sense often fails because of another feature of economics – the failure of composition. What’s good for one person may be bad at the national level, or vice versa. As one example, if you have a billion dollars, then you’re rich. If everyone has a billion dollars, then you’re Zimbabwe.

Hacks and cranks aside, economists have figured some things out over time. Free trade and free markets are good. A gold standard is bad. Governments should spend in slumps and save in booms. Nothing that rises to the level of the Pythagorean theorem, but smart people from the Romans to the Soviets to the inventors of Bitcoin to the current administration have failed to fully grasp these. Now of course these are broad generalizations – free markets in healthcare are very bad, for example. But the basic ideas are sound.

It’s a pretty short list of good ideas, though, and there’s a limit to how much can be said about them. So economists have added lots of bathwater to the baby, in attempts to get tenure (see rational expectations theory) or play up to generous patrons (see libertarianism). Any argument, no matter how ridiculous or mendacious, will have at least one economist ready to propose it for the right price. And that’s really why economists get no respect; they don’t respect themselves.