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My Thoughts on Science, Technology, Freedom, and Stuff
Updated: 16 hours 6 min ago

Book Review: "Capitalism Without Capital" by Jonathan Haskel & Stian Westlake

Monday 3rd of June 2019 09:39:00 PM
I've recently read the book "Capitalism Without Capital" by Jonathan Haskel & Stian Westlake. I found out about this book from a reading list by Bill Gates that was circulated by various media outlets online, which suggested that this book would have a lot to say about the currently relevant issue of people's personal data held by large online companies like Facebook & Google. This turned out to not be the case, as there was only a single brief mention of this point later in the book. Instead, this book is a discussion about how companies in many developed countries rely more on intangible assets than tangible assets, how associated trends can explain many issues faced by societies in those countries today, and why governments need to take notice of these trends. The authors start by carefully defining their notions of investments & assets, along with tangibility (essentially physical goods that can be valued & traded relatively easily) versus intangibility (things like institutions, rules, know-how, intellectual property, and social relationships that are much harder to quantify & trade), and then discuss why the values of intangible assets are harder to measure and how various econometric organizations are trying to improve this situation. They then describe their central thesis, which is that intangible assets have much greater scalability, sunk costs, spillover effects, and synergistic effects compared to tangible assets, and this leads to qualitatively different economic & political outcomes. This leads to discussion of specific points, including the role of intangible assets in secular stagnation (low business investment levels despite low interest rates) as well as income & wealth inequality, the issues associated with creating infrastructure for as well as financing investment in intangible assets, the role of intangible assets in promoting a cult of management and the greater role of management in turn as intangible assets become more important, and the questions governments will have to face with respect to managing this growth in intangible assets.

I thought this book was meant for lay readers, but it seems more meant for policymakers, entrepreneurs, and the like, and it is a bit dense. Nonetheless, it is quite well-written, and I enjoyed gaining more perspective about these aspects of the economy that I wouldn't have consciously considered otherwise. I particularly appreciated the summaries at the end of each chapter, as the authors seemed to implicitly acknowledge the density of information in their book and wanted to refresh readers' minds after going through each chapter. Moreover, I really liked the fact that the authors were more interested in laying out the facts as they interpreted them instead of making bold, sweeping proclamations about the generality of their analysis: they really tried to avoid the golden hammer fallacy of trying to contort their explanation to fit every possible problem. As a particular example, one of the features of intangible goods being synergy would seem to suggest that as synergistic/agglomeration effects are correlated with dense urban development, then policymakers should promote dense urban development to promote the formation of synergy/agglomeration clusters and that this should be a guaranteed way of growing a local economy; however, the authors take pains to mention at multiple points in the book that the empirical evidence for this is sparse in general, and where it does exist, the results are mixed, thereby providing a testable & falsifiable scenario that leads to a failure to reject the null hypothesis. As another example, both this book and the book Radical Markets by Eric A. Posner & E. Glen Weyl (which I have reviewed here) discuss Friedrich Hayek's anecdote of pencil-making to illustrate how markets efficiently communicate information via prices, but while the authors of the other book uncritically praise and extend that notion, the authors of this book are quick to show how in practice, gathering price & other information as well as conducting bargaining can be quite costly, which is how Ronald Coase concluded that people organize into firms with hierarchies in order to lessen these costs and uncertainties. Also, in the chapter about what governments should consider doing, the authors explicitly state that they are not trying to suggest the existence of quick fixes, but are instead laying out the challenges in full and suggesting possible general approaches that governments can tailor to their specific needs. Overall, I would need to read a lot more to more seriously evaluate the claims in the book, so I wouldn't be able to recommend this to lay readers, but specialists in the field may find this book interesting & thought-provoking.

My Time at the 2019 SmartDrivingCar Summit

Tuesday 21st of May 2019 08:56:00 PM
Last week, I attended the 2019 SmartDrivingCar Summit, hosted in Princeton University by ORFE professor Alain Kornhauser. As someone with a physical disability, I've become excited of late about the possibilities that autonomous vehicles could offer people like myself as well as older people or people with cognitive disabilities, blindness, or even those without disabilities but live in poverty, while also wondering about the socioeconomic implications for such people with respect to the development of autonomous vehicles and associated systems in practice. Given this, I've been in conversation with Prof. Kornhauser about these issues for several weeks, and desirous of learning more & meeting people in the field, I attended the conference.

Laudably, the conference had the overall theme of prioritizing development of autonomous vehicle systems to serve the needs of those in marginalized groups (where marginalization could be socioeconomic or through disability). As I have been reading about some predictions about socioeconomic impacts for the last few months, presentations touching upon those aspects felt more familiar to me, but it was really interesting to also see the technical developments in this field, current innovations in transportation network development for elderly & disabled people, and psychological aspects to bear in mind with respect to popular acceptance of autonomous vehicles. For instance, with respect to the last point, it didn't really occur to me that some people in marginalized communities may feel a sense of social belonging with others at public transit stops as they are designed now and may feel more socially isolated in small autonomous vehicles.

The overarching concern at the conference was about the funding pressures being acutely felt following the incident of an Uber autonomous vehicle killing a pedestrian in Arizona last year, along with the general failure of fully autonomous systems to materialize at this time despite predictions from 3-5 years ago that it would happen now. As a result, the tone of the conference felt more measured than some of the hype from that time might have suggested, yet there was an overall sense of optimism and motivation to do more work toward solving these problems. Even if fully autonomous cars fail to materialize, whether the problems are technical (i.e. they just won't work unsupervised) versus political (i.e. the number of accidents in testing becomes unacceptably high), I am personally optimistic about the possibility of working toward solving some socioeconomic inequities in transportation even with current innovations. Overall, I really enjoyed learning more and meeting new people, and am hoping to get more involved in this field in the future.

Book Review: "Radical Markets" by Eric A. Posner & E. Glen Weyl

Tuesday 23rd of April 2019 01:10:00 AM
I've recently read the book "Radical Markets" by Eric A. Posner & E. Glen Weyl. I should disclose that I came to know of this book upon attending a talk and Q&A session on campus by the latter author about this book, and that I was able to ask a question during that time (though as I point out later, I didn't find the answer to be so satisfactory). In any case, the topic intrigued me. This book is essentially a vision for a radical reformation of society, starting in the West but ultimately spreading through the world, such that concentrations of power are systematically broken and a level playing field is quickly approached. The two key novel contributions of this work are the notion of a common ownership self-assessed tax (COST), which aims to revolutionize notions of ownership by abolishing property rights extending to perpetuity and replacing them with auctions for goods & capital, and quadratic voting (QV), which aims to replace the principle of one-person-one-vote with voting credits such that individuals can vote on issues or candidates (for or against) in proportion to their perceived importance while being prevented from unduly swinging elections. There are also other issues discussed, such as immigration, institutional investment, and the value of digital data, all in the context of concentrations of power. It is worth pointing out that though there are many arguments that extend to Canada, the UK, other European countries, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, most of the arguments are made in the context of the US.

I will leave a detailed critique after the jump, and summarize my thoughts here. I found the ideas presented in the book rather intriguing and certainly novel. However, the main flaw of the book in my view is that the authors too often like to present their ideas at a very broad conceptual (macroscopic) level while simultaneously presenting examples justifying these concepts at a very granular (microscopic) level. The missing elements are the granular implementations of their broad concepts as well as the implications of the granular examples interacting on a larger scale; as a result, particularly for the introduction of the COST ideas, the claims must be taken essentially on faith, as the authors are quite glib about the importance of implementation details to the overall path of society if their ideas were to be followed. Given this, there are many reasons to remain skeptical about these ideas. This is also evident in the writing style too, in that my need to reread parts of certain chapters multiple times, while in part because these ideas are certainly not trivial, was mostly because of these sorts of logical leaps to conclusions that were not obvious, and many times, these conclusions remained non-obvious even after multiple reads through; the writing is otherwise engaging and fun to read, but I could tell that the authors were at many points getting swept up in their own ideas at the expense of clarity for readers. Overall, I recommend this book because the ideas are intriguing and I do want to see these ideas fleshed out better, but I would not recommend this book in the sense of wanting to preach these ideas myself. Follow the jump to see more detailed discussion about this book.

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More in Tux Machines

Database News on YugaByte Going for Apache 2.0 Licence

  • YugaByte Becomes 100% Open Source Under Apache 2.0 License

    YugaByte, a provider of open source distributed SQL databases, announced that YugaByte DB is now 100% open source under the Apache 2.0 license, bringing previously commercial features into the open source core. The transition breaks the boundaries between YugaByte’s Community and Enterprise editions by bringing previously commercial-only, closed-source features such as Distributed Backups, Data Encryption, and Read Replicas into the open source core project distributed under the permissive Apache 2.0 license. Starting immediately, there is only one edition of YugaByte DB for developers to build their business-critical, cloud-native applications.

  • YugaByte's Apache 2.0 License Delivers 100% Open Source Distributed SQL Database

    YugaByte, the open source distributed SQL databases comapny, announced that YugaByte DB is now 100 percent open source under the Apache 2.0 license, bringing previously commercial features into the open source core. The move, in addition to other updates available now through YugaByte DB 1.3, allows users to more openly collaborate across what is now the world’s most powerful open source distributed SQL database.

  • SD Times Open-Source Project of the Week: YugaByte DB

    This week’s SD Times Open Source Project of the Week is the newly open-sourced YugaByte DB, which allows users to better collaborate on the distributed SQL database. The move to the open-source core project distributed under the Apache 2.0 license makes previously closed-sourced features such as distributed backups, data encryption and read replicas more accessible, according to the team. By doing this, YugaByte plans to break the boundaries between YugaByte’s Community and Enterprise editions. “YugaByte DB combines PostgreSQL’s language breadth with Oracle-like reliability, but on modern cloud infrastructure. With our licensing changes, we have removed every barrier that developers face in adopting a business-critical database and operations engineers face in running a fleet of database clusters, with extreme ease,” said Kannan Muthukkaruppan, co-founder and CEO of YugaByte.

Programming: Ruby, NativeScript, Python, Rust/C/C++ FUD From Microsoft

Security Leftovers

  • Alas, Poor PGP

    The first is an assertion that email is inherently insecure and can’t be made secure. There are some fairly convincing arguments to be made on that score; as it currently stands, there is little ability to hide metadata from prying eyes. And any format that is capable of talking on the network — as HTML is — is just begging for vulnerabilities like EFAIL. But PGP isn’t used just for this. In fact, one could argue that sending a binary PGP message as an attachment gets around a lot of that email clunkiness — and would be right, at the expense of potentially more clunkiness (and forgetfulness). What about the web-of-trust issues? I’m in agreement. I have never really used WoT to authenticate a key, only in rare instances trusting an introducer I know personally and from personal experience understand how stringent they are in signing keys. But this is hardly a problem for PGP alone. Every encryption tool mentioned has the problem of validating keys. The author suggests Signal. Signal has some very strong encryption, but you have to have a phone number and a smartphone to use it. Signal’s strength when setting up a remote contact is as strong as SMS. Let that disheartening reality sink in for a bit. (A little social engineering could probably get many contacts to accept a hijacked SIM in Signal as well.) How about forward secrecy? This is protection against a private key that gets compromised in the future, because an ephemeral session key (or more than one) is negotiated on each communication, and the secret key is never stored. This is a great plan, but it really requires synchronous communication (or something approaching it) between the sender and the recipient. It can’t be used if I want to, for instance, burn a backup onto a Bluray and give it to a friend for offsite storage without giving the friend access to its contents. There are many, many situations where synchronous key negotiation is impossible, so although forward secrecy is great and a nice enhancement, we should assume it to be always applicable. [...] My current estimate is that there’s no magic solution right now. The Sequoia PGP folks seem to have a good thing going, as does Saltpack. Both projects are early in development, so as a privacy-concerned person, should you trust them more than GPG with appropriate options? That’s really hard to say.

  • Armadillo Is An Open-Source “USB Firewall” Device To Protect You Against USB Attacks

    Exchanging data using USB devices is something that we do on a daily basis. But how often do you think that the next USB device that you’ll plug into your PC’s port could be malicious? In the past, researchers have unveiled 29 types of USB attacks that could compromise your sensitive data by simply plugging in a USB device. Globotron’s Armadillo is a device that you could use to protect yourself from USB attacks.

  • Open source solutions in autonomous driving: safety is more than an afterthought [Ed: A lot less likely to contain back doors, unlike proprietary software where this has become rather 'standard' a 'feature']

    In the automotive industry, in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems were one of the early adopters of open source operating systems, namely Linux. Today’s innovation and success with IVIs can largely be attributed to this approach. Collaborative efforts such as the GENIVI Alliance and Automotive Grade Linux—where automakers, suppliers, and their competitors agree to share common elements of the IVI software stack—are enabling rapid development in this area.

  • New open source solution reduces the risks associated with cloud deployments [Ed: This is an inherently flawed kind of logic because if you handed over control to AWS, then the Pentagon already controls everything and thus you have zero security, you're 'pwned' by definition]

    The Galahad software will be deployed to AWS and provides a nested hypervisor on AWS instances. There, it will monitor role-based virtual machines virtually across all levels of the application stack including the docker container: the basic unit of software that packages an application to run quickly between computing environments.

  • Open-Source Exploit: Private Keys in MyDashWallet Exposed for Two Months- Users Should Move Funds Immediately [Ed: Highly misleading headline. This has nothing to do with "Open Source"; it's about some fool who uploaded private keys]

    The private keys of Dash crypto coins being held in online software “hot wallet” called MyDashWallet have been exposed to hackers for two months, and anyone using the wallet should immediately move funds out. A “hot wallet” is any cryptocurrency software “wallet” connected to the Internet.

Devices: 'IoT', SparkFun and Beelink L55

  • Top 20 Best Internet of Things Projects (IoT Projects) That You can Make Right Now

    Internet of Things (IoT) is a new predominant technology for this advanced world. This technology can change the lifestyle people lead. Question is what the Internet of Things is? IoT can be described as a network of physical objects connected through the internet. Physical objects could be anything that contains embedded electronics, software, sensor, etc. with the internet. Using the IP addresses, those smart objects can exchange data among the network and can make a decision. A significant number of researches is going on over the IoT trends and projects. In this article, we will talk about a few IoT project ideas based on standard IoT protocols, so that readers get the basic knowledge about the Internet of Things. These internet of things example are keen, useful, and interesting to build.

  • Open-Source SparkFun Module Supports Low-Power TensorFlow Machine Learning

    SparkFun has released the SparkFun Artemis, Engineering Version, an open-source embedded development kit that supports the TensorFlow machine learning environment. Designed for toolchain-agnostic, low-power machine learning development, the 15.5 mm x 10.5 mm Artemis board includes... [...] In addition to a secure firmware update system, flexible, serial peripherals, a suite of clock sources, and camera compatibility, the Artemis board features large SMD pads that support carrier board implementations. SparkFun has launched three carrier boards in conjunction with the release of the Artemis, Engineering version board: the BlackBoard Artemis (Arduino Uno footprint); BlackBoard Artemis Nano (smallest form factor); and BlackBoard Artemis ATP (with 48 GPIO pins).

  • Beelink L55 Review – An Intel Core i3-5005U Mini PC Tested with Windows 10 & Ubuntu 18.04

    With the shortage of Gemini Lake processors, some manufacturers have taken to releasing new mini PCs using older CPUs