2019-06-03

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

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.

2019-05-21

My Time at the 2019 SmartDrivingCar Summit

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.

2019-04-22

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

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.

2019-03-21

My Time at the 2019 APS March Meeting

This is a quick update from my trip to the 2019 APS March Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts at the beginning of March. I felt like my time overall was somewhat mixed, though positive on balance. On the negative side, my talk was lumped into a totally unrelated session on a Thursday afternoon, in which the talks weren't of interest to me and were generally not so well-delivered, the audience consisted almost entirely of the speakers who left after their own talks (and that included me after I saw what was happening, though I was grateful that some of my friends came for my talk), and the first talk which was supposed to be a 36 minute-long invited talk was canceled in the absence of the speaker, leading to a break during that time. Additionally, my advisor and I were busy preparing a paper unrelated to the work I would be presenting, and I've also been taking my time to figure out what I want to do after graduation, so I didn't prepare a schedule of talks to attend as well as I had in the previous two years. That said, on the positive side, I paced myself properly in attending talks, and I did appreciate having conversations with people from my department as well as people I knew in college about our work as well as future plans. I also had a lot of fun hanging out with friends from college as well as graduate school, and though I could have done a better job networking, I did try to reach out as much as I could. Finally, I had a great time skipping the last day of the conference and visiting MIT instead, where I got to catch up with professors from the physics department as well as other people whom I knew well in college (and met some people for the first time too); I felt like that was a far more useful & productive move. Next year, I hope to be able to present in a session more relevant to my current research interests, and to do a better job of tailoring my networking and session attendance to my future interests (which I hope will have solidified by then).

2019-02-18

Taking a Class After 3 Years of Full-Time Research

This spring semester, I'm taking a class; as the title explains, this is the first class I've taken in 3 years, during which time I've engaged in full-time research as a graduate student and have been a TA for 3 semesters. This class is in a very different field from my current area of research, as I'm exploring other fields for opportunities after graduation. After 2 weeks of class, I've been considering how taking a class now feels different than it did in high school, college, and the first two years of graduate school.

In high school and college, my main focus was on classes, and I wanted to make sure that I challenged myself as much as I felt I could and got good grades in those classes. This mentality stayed with me through the first two years of graduate school, which is why I felt like I could do pretty well in graduate classes but had a harder time initially finding my footing in research while I remained mentally so focused on classes above all else. I felt quite relieved when I finished my course requirements 3 years ago so that I could renew my focus on research. Since then, I do feel like I've been able to establish a pretty good track record with my research, and given that I'm approaching the end of the PhD program and want to explore other fields, I am comfortable taking this class with fresh eyes and without worrying about grades; in particular, I can really feel like I'm taking this class purely to satisfy my own curiosity and am willing to accept that I'll get out of it exactly what I put into it. Moreover, for the classes I took until 3 years ago, I was fairly engaged with the instructor during lectures, frequently asking questions whether for clarification or edification; now, especially because the others in my class are all undergraduate students, I feel more comfortable letting them take the reins with their own education, and will only ask questions about points that I feel need urgent clarification.

Having been a TA for 3 semesters, I now have a much greater appreciation for the amount of work even instructors whose lectures are of average quality have to do with respect to preparation and delivery of a lecture, fielding questions from students during and outside of class, and grading assignments. Concomitant with that, I especially appreciate the instructors from my past who were particularly good at clearly communicating concepts in the class to as many people in the class as possible in an engaging way, and realize that I was truly lucky to have had so many great class instructors in high school, college, and graduate school. At the same time, my patience for instructors who do a poor job is even less than it was before, because I feel like such instructors are in some sense neglecting the responsibilities to their students fundamental to their job; while I recognize that not everyone develops skills for or interest in teaching immediately, I would hope that such instructors at least put some effort into developing such skills knowing they are responsible for educating young citizens.

It'll be interesting to see how my thoughts on taking a class shift as the semester progresses, and how useful it ends up being with respect to my exploration of other fields. At the very least, I do hope to learn more about how to teach well (and how not to teach poorly) by applying what I've learned from being a TA to my observations of instruction in this class.

2019-01-07

Book Review: "The Evolution of Cooperation" by Robert Axelrod

I've recently read the book The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod. (Note: this is somewhat of a technical book, so I will dive right into the review with jargon, with more on this point at the end of the review.) It's a primer on results from that time showing how in an iterated prisoners' dilemma, tit-for-tat strategies are remarkably robust for their combination of simplicity, clarity, tendency toward cooperation and forgiveness, and prompt & effective retaliation when needed, and that such strategies can effectively propagate environments even where other strategies are in place, provided that those who play the tit-for-tat strategies can find & cluster around each other to interact often enough, and provided that the value each player places on the next round compared to a given round in an iterated game is not too small. The author also uses examples from trench warfare in World War I, biological evolution, and international trade policy to illustrate the seeming universality of the principles of the prisoners' dilemma and its iterated variant.

Although this book was written in the 1980s, making it a little dated in terms of the complexity of models that could be tested on computers and the formalism of game theory itself, it was great to see the author anticipate a lot of more recent developments by discussing the importance of clustering, stereotypes, reputation, regulations, et cetera. Additionally, while the author stresses that cooperation can take place even among egotistical (non-altruistic) or antagonistic individuals in the absence of central authority, the author does take care to convey the nuance that this is not always a good thing per se, rather than taking the utopic view of libertarian philosophy; such cooperation is detrimental to the public at large in situations like economic collusion in an oligopoly, while the incentives to cooperate or not change such that government (or other societal) intervention is needed to do things like collect taxes & deter evaders to fund public goods, correct historical (and present) racist marginalization of minority groups, mediating conflicts among heterogeneous populations in large cities, et cetera. It was also cool for me to understand that any iterated game where the players are unsure of when the game will end but others controlling the game know it will end after a finite number of rounds can be rewritten as a similar game where the players believe the repetition will be infinite but with a different discount factor. My only minor complaints are that while the author does acknowledge that changing parameters of a social interaction can change the prisoners' dilemma into a different sort of game altogether, it would have been nice to see a more nuanced discussion of the degree to which the prisoners' dilemma is really a universal feature of human interactions as opposed to being culture-specific, given its seeming universality in other domains, and that the author rather glibly claims that sequential versus simultaneous play by players in each round of an iterated prisoners' dilemma doesn't make much of a difference, which I find suspicious in the absence of further explanation/context in the book itself. Overall, I enjoyed reading this and could read it quickly because of my minor in economics in college & interest in the subjects of economics, game theory, and network science, so it may be appropriate to others with similar interests & backgrounds as myself; it is a fairly technical book, so it may not be appropriate to general readers without this background, while specialists in the fields of evolution, game theory, or complexity science may find this book to be too dated.

2018-12-03

Second Laptop: ASUS ZenBook UX331UN

I was hoping that a post from when I got my first laptop, an ASUS U30JC, would provide a template for how to review my new, second laptop. Sadly, that post was from over 8 years ago, when this blog was just a year old, I had not yet started college, and my writing was much worse. With that in mind, I now provide a review of my new laptop; this review will be by no means a thorough review of hardware, but will be more of a summary of my experiences installing Linux on it and using it for around a month.

A few months ago, I noticed that part of the plastic frame around the screen of my old laptop, along with the hinge below it, had partially detached. A little over a month ago, that detachment had become much more noticeable, to the point of becoming a liability for me: the laptop would no longer close properly (without me risking breaking it altogether), so I would not be able to take it anywhere outside. Up until that point, I had experienced no major hardware issues with that laptop, and only minor issues such as the optical drive occasionally being unresponsive; I could tell that it was struggling a little more with newer software, but on the whole, it was performing quite well, so while I had from time to time over the last couple of years been looking casually into replacing it, this sudden development forced the issue. Given my disability, I wanted something a bit more lightweight, because my old laptop was 4.5 pounds, which was a bit heavy for me; that said, I still wanted something that would offer a reasonable amount of computational power, and while I didn't anticipate requiring a high-performance graphics card for gaming as I am not a serious gamer, I figured there may be some casual games as well as the possibility of getting into GPU programming for my work for which I may want a reasonable dedicated graphics card. Luckily, I found the ASUS ZenBook UX331UN, which seemed on paper to fit the bill on all counts, and I found only a few left in stock online for a reasonable price (just over $1000), so I went ahead and bought one. Follow the jump to read more.

2018-11-19

My Time at the 2018 SHPE Convention

About 4 weeks ago, I got an email asking me to help Princeton University's School of Engineering & Applied Science (SEAS, of which my department, the Department of Electrical Engineering, is a constituent) recruit undergraduate students attending the 2018 Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) Convention to apply for graduate school in SEAS; that convention happened the previous weekend in Cleveland, Ohio. I first thought it was a little strange that I should get this email, given that it was somewhat short notice and especially given that I am not Hispanic nor have I done anything with SHPE in the past. However, after clarifying these details, I decided to go, because I do care about increasing representation of people from marginalized & underrepresented backgrounds in graduate education & academia, especially given my disability (as disability is just another aspect of diversity and too often leads to societal marginalization).
I had a lot of fun at the convention. I went with our SEAS diversity chair, a postdoctoral researcher in my department, and 13 undergraduate students; the former two people and I were there primarily to recruit, while the undergraduate students were there for their own benefit to meet corporate or academic recruiters and learn about (and hopefully secure) positions after graduation. It was definitely nice to see so many enthusiastic undergraduate students from all over the country coming with so many questions about graduate school, and I enjoyed getting to know those in my travel group more, such that I didn't feel left out even though I was essentially the only one among them who hadn't previously done anything with SHPE. There were some events that may have been more relevant to me that I missed due to the travel schedule, and I didn't find that many companies of interest to me when I explored the giant career fair (the focal point of the convention) on my own, but I did take solace in finding a few. Plus, it was nice to get out of Princeton and briefly explore a city that I hadn't really seen before (barring a short trip when I was very young, which I barely remember). Overall, I'm glad I went, and hope to have similar opportunities in the future.

2018-10-01

FOLLOW-UP: Sexual Harassment, Power Dynamics, and Institutions

Last year, I wrote a post motivated by a case of sexual harassment and assault committed by a professor in my department against a student in his group. The incidents happened in the spring of last year, but the news about the incidents and the nominal punishment only came at the end of the year. Since then, there have been further developments, as described in this article (by Marcia Brown in The Daily Princetonian), so I am writing this post as a follow-up regarding the specific developments of this case and our department's response, even as my post last year was my attempt at exploring the broader issues at stake. Essentially, Princeton University had reason early this year to investigate further claims of past consensual relationships between that same professor and other direct professional dependents (students & postdoctoral associates), and suspended him for the spring semester and summer as they conducted their investigation. The university concluded the investigation with findings of guilt on his part of having engaged in at least one such consensual relationship, and as that is a violation of university rules, he was fired. Follow the jump to read more about my thoughts regarding this; as mentioned above, compared to my previous post on this subject, this post will have more of my raw emotional reaction to this whole process and to the specifics of this case rather than a more measured take on the broader issues at stake.

2018-09-17

Book Review: "Medici Money" by Tim Parks

I've recently read the book Medici Money by Tim Parks. It's a book that covers the rise, consolidation of money and power, and downfall of the Medici banking family in Florence in the 15th century. It focuses on the main players in the Medici family as they relate to their banking business, and how that business grew, became intertwined in politics & religion, and was able to fund the collection & creation of artworks and other cultural artifacts; the whole story is just a long power play, with jockeying between Medici family members, popes & cardinals, politicians, and competing nobility & business interests.

The book itself is a well-written, engaging, fun jaunt through that period in history; by the fact that it only has a casual section at the end containing bibliographic notes, without having a formal bibliography, footnotes, or endnotes, I can tell this was written for popular rather than technical/academic consumption, which I can appreciate. It was particularly interesting to see the tensions, contradictions, and hypocrisies of the Catholic Church's views on usury (in the old sense of lending money at any nonzero interest rate) explored fully in this book: the argument is that usury allowed ordinary people to become wealthy without needing to inherit it or work as hard, upending the social order, while the Catholic Church depended on usury to fund its own wars & extravagant lifestyles even as it condemned the practice (though even people at that time struggled to find coherent Biblical justifications for injunctions against usury), leading to weird debates about whether some commercial practices like speculation on currency exchanges were really usury in disguise. My only quibble is that the author ties the notion of usury too much to currency: the way I see it, currency simply liquefies commercial value across space (i.e. making value available across different geographic areas), while usury liquefies commercial value across time (i.e. making value available to future buyers), so while currency certainly makes usury much more feasible by combining liquidity in space and time, it is conceivable to imagine usury without currency, simply through bonds between people expecting greater future returns to be settled through consensual barter. Overall, I think this book could be an interesting and fun history for a general audience.