Podcast recommendation: Econtalk – Andy Matuschak on Why Books Don’t Work

This is a fantastic interview that takes Andy Matuschak‘s controversially titled essay as a springboard for a not-really-controversial but fascinating discussion of teaching, learning and tech informed by Matuschak’s work at Kahn Academy.

Highly recommend. Highlights to follow.

Podcast Recommendation: Econtalk with Alain Bertaud on Cities, Planning, and Order Without Design

This is a great episode of Econtalk. Bertaud uses labour markets as a lens for thinking about cities. Helpful examples of emergent order and the challenges (impossibility?) of planning in complex adaptive systems.

Highlights (coming up) include:

  • Discussion of the importance of culture and context in how cities develop;
  • Bertaud’s explanation of his broader-than-usual understanding of labour markets;
  • When planning and regulation is helpful and when it’s damaging;
  • The trade-offs made by new arrivals in a city (and the danger of planners trying to decide these for them);
  • The way that property markets can turn development costs into opportunities.

Highly recommend.

Podcasts: starting points for learning about AI

Stuart Russell on After On with Rob Reid

A thought provoking interview and excellent introduction that sounds a note of caution about AI and gives good reasons for doing so.

Highlights include:

  • some interesting stuff about how people and robots process goals and the huge number of actions and priorities that make up a single ‘simple’ action (around 32 minutes);
  • Discussion about recent progress with AI learning to play real-time strategy video games that are far more complex than chess;
  • A definition of ‘beneficial’ AI and some other nuances beyond standard ‘general artificial intelligence’ around 43 minutes;
  • A brilliant illustration about robots cooking cats at 1 hour and 16 minutes.

Rodney Brooks on Econtalk

Brooks is less concerned, and takes an ‘AI will take a lot longer to develop than anyone thinks’ approach to the topic, with some good points about how developing AI forces us to clarify our own ethics and priorities.

Start the Week with Yuval Noah Harari

Harari paints an unsettling picture of a post-human future.

Amy Web on Econtalk – Artificial Intelligence, Humanity, and the Big Nine

On my hit list. I’m a Russ Roberts fan and expect this will be a useful addition, in particular on “the implications and possible futures of a world where artificial intelligence is increasingly part of our lives.”

See Also

Resources in WtF from Kevin Kelly, Tim O’Reilly and James Gleick,

Resource: Tim Harford on 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy

If you haven’t thought much about economics, this series from the BBC is a first-rate introduction to a lot of key ideas about how markets work.

Each episode is about ten minutes long and features at least one interesting, often entertaining and sometimes surprising ‘thing’ to illustrate fundamental principles of economics.

There are lessons galore about how technologies take off and spread, change culture, transform the environment (human and physical) for both good and ill, and the unpredictable nature of emergent order and complex adaptive systems.

Seasons one and two are here at the BBC, and downloadable free wherever you get your podcasts.

There’s also a book (amazon).

Tim Harford is great – The Undercover Economist and More or Less (also on the BBC) are well worth checking out too.

Econtalk: Mauricio Miller on Poverty, Social Work, and the Alternative

This is a really interesting episode of Econtalk, and worth a listen.

Highlight 1: Accurate description of poor communities

A couple of things here really resonated with my experience of living and working in low-income communities in Jakarta:

  • Miller’s descriptions of the resourcefulness of people in poor communities – that many people in poor communities are hard working and resourceful and demonstrating impressive amounts of willpower and – in his word – ‘talent’ just to get by on low incomes.
  • The dynamism of poor communities, particularly in terms of people moving in and out of poverty – apparently backed up by statistics. According to Miller, although 15% of the U.S. population are ‘poor’ at any given time, the majority of those will move above the poverty line, to be replaced by other (temporarily) poor people – i.e. people who lost their job a month before the census and have no income, but will soon return to work. Miller says that only about 3% of the population are ‘long-term, generationally poor.’

Highlight 2: What happens when users pay for services

This section also really reflected my experience at the charity I work for, where a switch to a ‘user pays’ model of service (rather than a purely donation-based, ‘charitable’ model) made us more responsive to the needs of our users, and drove up the quality of what we do. Here’s Miller:

Mauricio Miller: …I wouldn’t bring my own family through [my own social services]; now I had money–

Russ Roberts: Why not?

Mauricio Miller: Because they were paternalistic. My mother hated that. She said, ‘The social workers are really nice, but they take away my pride.’ And certainly the racists would take away her pride, too. You know. And sexual harassers would take away her pride. But even the people who were trying to be really nice would take her pride away. And so, that was one of the issues. The other issue is that the programs that I had were sold–and the structures were to sell to get funding. Funders don’t really understand circumstances on the ground. But, they get certain interests. And so you have to shape your program based on what they kind of want in order to get the money. And that, then you are held accountable to those kind of standards. Where, I actually had started two businesses within my own non-profit, that, when you are running a business, you have to meet the customer demand. Not the investor demand. You have to really meet the customer demand. And so, somehow or other, when I wanted to adjust my programs, they were not responsive to my customers. And so, for me, my social service programs were too structured, too paternalistic. They did not recognize or meet that market demand. And now that I was middle income and had money, I would instead, when I had to help my nephew and nieces who struggled with drugs and all kinds of things, I would go to private sector services, because they would say, ‘Do you want us to send the advisor on the weekend, or the evenings?’ Or, ‘What’s convenient for you?’ and ‘Would you like this program?’ I was given choices. Because I had money. But people who were poor didn’t have those kind of choices. And so, why would I want to take my own family, that had struggled with everything that everybody else was struggling with what was out there in some of these neighborhoods: Why would I take them into a system that was so structured and was not responsive when I had money? So, money made a difference. And I realized that: No, I wouldn’t bring my own family.

Russ Roberts and Mauricio Miller – Econtalk

In the end, I wasn’t completely convinced with Miller’s model – or didn’t feel completely clear about what he was offering – but these bits were excellent – and true.

Scrapbook: Clay Shirky, Niall Ferguson – a spot of network theory

Speaking of networks, here’s a way into network theory – a few videos from Clay Shirky that make a good introduction:

Ten Truths About Social Media

And a couple of TED talks…

Shirky on Econtalk

And finally, go here interview on Econtalk from 2008.

The blurb says…

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, talks about the economics of organizations with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. The conversation centers on Shirky’s book. Topics include Coase on the theory of the firm, the power of sharing information on the internet, the economics of altruism, and the creation of Wikipedia.

And Niall Ferguson on the Long Now

Video and audio here.

“This time is different.”

Historians: “Ha.”

“The Net is net beneficial.”

Historian Niall Ferguson: “Globalization is in crisis. Populism is on the march. Authoritarian states are ascendant. Technology meanwhile marches inexorably ahead, threatening to render most human beings redundant or immortal or both. How do we make sense of all this?”

Ferguson analyzes the structure and prospects of “Cyberia” as yet another round in the endless battle between hierarchy and networks that has wrought spasms of innovation and chaos throughout history. He examines those previous rounds (including all that was set in motion by the printing press) in light of the current paradoxes of radical networking enabled by digital technology being the engine of massive hierarchical companies (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and their equivalents in China) and exploited by populists and authoritarians around the world.

He puts the fundamental question this way: “Is our age likely to repeat the experience of the period after 1500, when the printing revolution unleashed wave after wave of revolution? Will the new networks liberate us from the shackles of the administrative state as the revolutionary networks of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries freed our ancestors from the shackles of spiritual and temporal hierarchy? Or will the established hierarchies of our time succeed more quickly than their imperial predecessors in co-opting the networks, and enlist them in their ancient vice of waging war?”

See also:

Conservatism and the status quo

Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek make good arguments for leaning towards conservatism (small c).

For all its problems, the relatively stable equilibrium we live in is a blessing. It depends on a lot of intertwingled factors. It wasn’t planned or made: it evolved and accrued.

The faster the world changes, the more valuable stable touchstones of culture, family, relationship become.

Which parts are of the social structure are held up by the piece you’re pulling away at? Is it a keystone?

Who else depends on the type of person you’re disrupting? Are they a keystone species?

Look before you leap.

** Russ Roberts‘ Econtalk is a great place to go to hear a well-intentioned person working from this point of view.

WTF? Technology and you

WTF: What’s the Future?

Tim O’Reilly
Gyroscopic ‘deflector’ gunsights like this Ferranti Mark IID helped WW2 pilots to aim ahead of enemy planes to where the target would be by the time their bullets arrived.
(Imperial War Museum)

If you’re doing meaningful work, you’re trying to hit a moving target, and your job isn’t made any easier by how fast the world is changing.

These resources should help you calibrate your ‘deflector gunsight’ by giving you a sense of where technology seems to be going, hopefully giving you a better task of hitting what you’re aiming for. This is one that I’ll update periodically, adding texture or new resources.

The Kevin Kelly Section

Kevin Kelly – co-founder of Wired magazine, omnivorous techno-hippy – gets his own section. He’s funny and humane, and good at identifying trends and tendencies in tech and extrapolating these into the future. One of the many helpful ideas I’ve taken from KK is the realisation that we’re actually only at the beginning of the computer revolution. It feels like something that’s already happened – ‘if only I’d made a website in 1993’ – but Kelly argues that a hundred years from now people people will look back on this time as a golden age and say, ‘I wish I’d started then.’

KK Books

New Rules for the New Economy: Radical Strategies for a Connected World
Kevin Kelly wrote this in 1995, predicting almost everything that happened with the internet between then and now, and it still feels incredibly relevant. And it’s free on his blog. Read and re-read in installments

What Technology Wants
It gets slow in places, but looking at technology as a new zoological ‘kingdom’ gives a whole new set of fascinating – and at times scary – insights.

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that will Shape our Future
This is on my ‘to read’ list. I guess it’s an update and extension of ‘New Rules’, and I’m looking forward to find out

KK in Podcasts

Tim Ferriss show Ep 25: Kevin Kelly – WIRED Co-Founder, Polymath, Most Interesting Man In The World
A decent introduction and a fun listen

Tim Ferris Show #166: Kevin Kelly – AI, Virtual Reality, and The Inevitable
Unpacking ‘The Inevitable’ and a lot of other stuff

Econtalk, June 20 2016: The Inevitable
More free audio, with the great Russ Roberts poking around KK’s ideas and their implications for the economy.

Other Resources

The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Walter Isaacson’s fantastic story of the digital revolution runs from the mid-1800s to very-nearly now. The audiobook is great. A key theme is how technology accumulates incrementally, as well as in great leaps forward – and the importance of teams and culture (as opposed to great individuals), and of private and government-sponsored contributions to technological advance.

The Second Machine Age – Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
Erik Brynjolfsson – on the list. Features in an econtalk episode.

Tim Ferris Show #297 – Bob Metcalfe — The Man (and Lessons) Behind Ethernet, Metcalfe’s Law, and More
Another fascinating Silicon Valley story

Econtalk, August 28 2017 – Benedict Evans on the Future of Cars
One of my favourite Econtalk episodes. Evans’ discussion of the evolution of cars is fascinating, and there’s a lot to learn from the way he thinks about the future.

WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us
Tim O’Reilly – it’s on the ‘to read’ list.

Econtalk October 5th 2015: Tim O’Reilly on Technology and Work
Econtalk October 9th 2017 – Tim O’Reilly on What’s the Future
I’m flagging these as much for myself as for anyone else here – I think they were good?

There’s a lot by Seth Godin that could end up in here too…

To be continued…