This great 2011 post by Roy Rapoport tells the story of how a software company created and incrementally improved a chat-bot that collected and organized the team's coffee orders -- and how the system grew, drip by drip, into a full-fledged bank. Rapoport presents it as a cautionary tale about feature creep -- but it's also a neat parable about how all currency arises from debt, which is the thesis of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, which is one of the most provocative books I've read in years.
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My latest Locus column is "Cold Equations and Moral Hazard", an essay about the way that our narratives about the future can pave the way for bad people to create, and benefit from, disasters. "If being in a lifeboat gives you the power to make everyone else shut the hell up and listen (or else), then wouldn’t it be awfully convenient if our ship were to go down?"
In 2012 I reviewed Economix, a terrific cartoon history of economics by Michael Goodwin and illustrated by Dan E. Burr. (After reading it, I bought a few copies of the book to give as gifts.)
Today, Michael emailed to let me know that he and Dan have posted an excellent and free 27-page online comic called The Transpacific Partnership and "Free Trade," which describes how the negotiated-in-secret treaty is a "global coup that's disabling our democracies and replacing them with multinationals and Wall Street," and is making the US "police state more extensive, more restrictive, and global."
In this interview with Boom Magazine, Kim Stanley Robinson discusses the relationship of California to the future. Robinson is a profound ecological thinker, and two of his books in particular, Pacific Edge (the best utopian/optimistic novel I've ever read) and 2312 (a dazzling work of environmentally conscious, wildly imaginative eco-futurism) are both important works for thinking about a way out of our current dire situation.
In this interview, Robinson's analysis is particularly cogent, making a microcosm out of California for the whole world, and making important points about the way that good technology is key to any answer to questions about humanity's future on and off Earth. Especially worth reading are his views on the relationship of science to capitalism:
"Capitalism’s effect on humanity is not at all what science’s effect is on humanity. If you say science is nothing but instrumentality and capitalism’s technical wing, then you’re saying we’re doomed. Those are the two most powerful social forces on the planet, and now it’s come to a situation of science versus capitalism. It’s a titanic battle. One is positive and the other negative. We need to do everything we can to create democratic, environmental, utopian science, because meanwhile there is this economic power structure that benefits the few, not very different from feudalism, while wrecking the biosphere. This is just a folk tale, of course, like a play with sock puppets, like Punch and Judy. But I think it describes the situation fairly well."
Yesterday, FirstSecond formally announced the publication of In Real Life, a graphic novel about gaming and gold farming for young adults based on my award-winning story Anda's Game, adapted by Jen Wang, creator of the amazing graphic novel Koko Be Good. Jen did an incredible job with the adaptation.
Some Bitcoin enthusiasts have announced a new project called Bitcloud. The idea is something like the old Mojo Nation P2P architecture, in which individual Internet users perform tasks for each other -- routing, storage, lookups, computation -- in exchange for very small payments.
The Bitcloud protocol uses Bitcoin-style accounting to allocate those microtransfers, along with Bitcoin-style proof-of-work (they call it "proof-of-bandwidth") and the authors suggest that the potential for profit by individual members will create enough capacity to replace a large number of centralized commercial services ("Youtube, Dropbox, Facebook, Spotify, ISPs") with "distributed autonomous corporations," that obviate the need for centralized control in order to supply anonymous, robust, free services to the public.
The idea is an interesting thought-experiment, at least. The idea of "agorics" -- using market forces to allocate resources on the Internet -- is an old one, and I remain skeptical that this produces optimal outcomes. That's because its proponents seem to treat market efficiency as axiomatic ("everyone knows markets work, and that's why we should make them the basis of network resource allocation") and their proposals are substantially weakened if you don't accept the efficient market hypothesis.
Rachel Willmer, who runs the excellent ebook price-comparison site Luzme, summarizes the price-preference data she's captured from her customers. By measuring the point at which readers are willing to buy ebooks (whose prices are variable) and the volumes generated at each price-point, her findings suggest the optimal price for ebooks in different territories. This is important work: because ebooks have almost no marginal cost (that is, all their costs are fixed through production, so each copy sold adds almost nothing to the publisher's cost), there's lots more flexibility pricing strategies. If you make more by pricing your book at $0.01 than you do at $10, the right thing to do is price it at a penny and rake it in -- a rational business wants to maximize its profits, not the amount that each customer spends (I wrote about this at length in 2010).
The Undercover Economist Strikes Back is a great macroeconomic companion to his 2005 debut, The Undercover Economist, an excellent and accessible book on microeconomics. Structured as a dialog between an economist (Harford) and a notional punter who has been put in charge of getting an imaginary economy going after a deep, long recession (ahem), Strikes Back is full of Harford's witty, clear and memorable explanations of complex and vital subjects.
Tim "Undercover Economist" Harford's column "Casinos’ worrying knack for consumer manipulation," takes a skeptical look at business and markets -- specifically their reputation for offering a fair trade between buyers and sellers. Inspired by Natasha Dow Schüll's book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, a 2012 book on the calculated means by which gamblers are inveigled to part with more money than they consciously intend to, Harford asks a fundamental question about capitalism: are markets built on fair exchanges, or on trickery?
James Meek's essay "Where will we live?" is a detailed, passionate history of the housing timebomb that is detonating in England today. Thatcher set the time in the 1980s, when she sold off public housing to tenants and forbade local governments from building more with the proceeds, and subsequent governments have done everything they can to fuel and intensify housing speculation and bubbles. And now single moms, disabled people, and elderly people are being evicted, families can't afford housing on anything less than a banker's salary, and pensioners are being doomed to decades of poverty by low interest rates that can't be raised, lest they burst the property speculation bubble.
Housing in the UK is a microcosm for everything wrong with neoliberalism: corruption, cronyism, grinding human misery, and funny accounting to prove that it's all working, honestly.
Fergus Wilson, one of England's largest landlords, has announced that he will no longer rent to people receiving welfare benefits, and has served all of his benefits-receiving tenants with eviction notices. He says that the cuts to benefits in the UK have resulted in an unacceptably high level of rent arrears, so high in fact that rent guarantee insurers will no longer cover properties let to welfare tenants.
The problem of social housing tenants falling behind on rent will get much, much worse shortly, when the "universal credit" scheme is introduced -- a massive change in the way benefits are paid that has delayed by massive IT problems.
The hardest hit groups of tenants are elderly people and single mothers, as well as people who are too disabled to work.
Seth Godin's daily thoughts are always provocative and thoughtful, but today's is a particularly timely and apt one for the new year. Godin describes three ways of coping with the future: Accuracy (correctly guessing what will happen); Resilience (admitting you can't make accurate predictions, so preparing to weather a variety of storms); and "Denial" (pretending nothing will change and getting clobbered as a result). I'm shooting for "Resilient" myself, but if I'm brutally honest, I have to admit that I have moments where I assume that I can be Accurate and where I'm too tired to do anything except Deny.
Brian sez, "Lawrence Lessig, former EFF board member, chair of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, founder of the Center for Internet and Society, founding board member of Creative Commons, and former board member of the Free Software Foundation is taking on a new project -- walking across New Hampshire.
"The idea is to raise awareness of the massive amount of political corruption in the American democratic system, and make it the #1 issue in New Hampshire in time for the 2016 Presidential Primaries. This three-minute video (from the guy who did the Windows 8 and Data Caps animations) explains the project, called the New Hampshire Rebellion, in cartoon form."