Archive for September, 2009

Checksums for checks

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Here’s a really cool instance of life hacking I heard the other day from Brian Rowe:

First, an introduction. When you’re at a restaurant, and you pay by credit card, how do you decide what to tip? That is, how do you choose an exact amount that’s within the acceptable range? Two common strategies are 1) to choose a round number for a tip and add it to the (not round) total, or 2) choose a value for the tip that will make the final amount a round number.

I have heard that one way is less secure, though I can’t remember which, because the person running the bill can input another amount and you wouldn’t know just from checking your credit card statement. I don’t know how credible this threat is. But now I happen to have a solution.

You can use a checksum for your checks. Leave a final amount such that the last digit is equal to the sum of all the digits preceding it. For example, instead of paying $42, leave a tip such that the amount you pay is $42.06. This method is straightforward, awesome, and helps curtail credit card fraud.

Powdered gumption

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Caffeine. It comes in a liquid form (dissolved, really), but personally I prefer my caffeine as pills. Now, if my real-life conversations are representative, about half of you will be thinking “that’s a little messed up” and the other half will be thinking “that is pretty cool”. Here are a few reasons I consider pills superior: they are cheaper than coffee (~$.10/ea), caffeine dose is precisely metered (200mg, can be cut in half), no calories nor excess liquids are consumed, you can’t scald yourself, and you can’t discretely carry around a coffee in your backpack and then consume it midway through your 3hr marathon Friday morning macroeconomics lecture.

I stopped taking caffeine pills regularly when I stopped needing to be alert or freed from the effects of sleep deprivation — pretty much when I graduated college. The most interesting thing I have noticed about caffeine is how it makes me want to do things. My natural state is kind of lethargic, to be honest. Even when I’ve had plenty of sleep, I can just sit around and feel like doing nothing. I look at my to-do list and feel apprehensive. Thinking about doing any item is an unpleasant experience — my mind wanders and I do nothing at all.

When I take caffeine, I feel the opposite way. When I take caffeine, I have an intrinsic urge to do things. I look at my to-do list and suddenly the next few hours are a flurry of productivity. Aside from early morning exercise, I have found no close substitutes for the productivity enhancement I experience when I take caffeine.

The vitality of Troy, NY

Monday, September 21st, 2009

I spent four years of my life in Troy, NY, attending RPI. I would not recommend living there. RPI is a fine school, and while I have some serious issues with its leadership, my experience there was positive. That said, I have written about my feelings for Troy, and they are not positive. (I should clarify that when I referred to the “community” in my previous post, I really mean the city and area taken as a whole; some people are pretty fabulous, but downtown Troy is not.)

I did not expect to be thinking about Troy today. I was a bit shocked to learn that President Obama made a speech at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy. Initially I was incredulous — my first thought was “Troy? Why Troy?”. Later it made more sense: he had to visit Governor Paterson to give him a talking-to.

President Obama says that the United States needs Troy. I am inclined to disagree, but otherwise willing to hear him out. Now, some caveats: I freely admit I am being too hard on Troy. It is not a terrible place, just below average in some important dimensions. What does it in, in my opinion, is the opportunity cost of spending time in Troy. There are so many better places to be. It is no accident I got out the hell out of dodge as soon as I had my degrees in hand.

My Mirror Speaks

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

It is my firm contention that Ben Gibbard is among the top three lyricists of our age, if not the very best. Death Cab for Cutie is a fabulous band with a bunch of great tunes, and my only qualm about The Postal Service is that they only have the one album. I love their sound, but the lyrics keep me coming back.

For instance, check out My Mirror Speaks (YouTube video here). It’s got a sound that’s got me thinking it will be my favorite song for weeks if not months. Death Cab has done that to me far too many times. For a few more examples, check out Crooked Teeth, Title And Registration, We Looked Like Giants, Title Track, and to a lesser extent I Will Possess Your Heart (the whole thing, not the radio edit, because honestly the first four minutes are brilliant).

I purchased The Open Door EP for $4 at Best Buy, and it was perhaps my most efficient musical use of money to date. Cut from tracks that didn’t make Narrow Stairs, I actually consider it superior. For example, I just didn’t appreciate Talking Bird until I heard the demo version off Open Door. Come to find out I prefer when the song focuses on the acoustic guitar and not the bass.

If you don’t already like Death Cab for Cutie, you should seriously consider it.

Is economics a science?, pt. 1

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

I just finished reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by T.S. Kuhn, so that now I know what all the fuss was about. The book was rather brilliant, a good read, and a thorough examination (or re-examination) of the whole enterprise of science. Science, Kuhn argues, is not a linear process of knowledge accumulation, but instead exhibits a sort of punctuated equilibrium. Scientific communities adhere to a particular paradigm at a particular point in time, and occasionally shift to a new one. These scientific revolutions occur when cracks appear in the dominant paradigm and another paradigm emerges to try to unseat the first. So, most of the time a scientific community engages in normal science, which is the sort of problem solving we typically think of scientists engaging in, with a commonly agreed-upon paradigm underlying scientific research in a field. Revolutionary science is like when Darwin was all “Yo guys I got this idea about evolution” and then Huxley and Wilberforce started duking it out in the Scopes Trial. (This is more or less how it happened; I am clearly taking some liberties with history here).

The reason I was reading Scientific Revolutions had to do with my conception of economics as a science. A big question I am set on resolving is the nature of the very clear distinction between the natural sciences, on one hand, and the social sciences, on the other. What makes physics or chemistry so much more science-y than economics or — wince — sociology? Now I feel a lot closer to having an answer.

The last chapter in particular was elucidating. Perhaps (along with some methods, mindsets, and other similarities) the common point among the sciences is the homogeneity of their adherence to one particular paradigm. Science seems to progress so linearly because of an almost Orwellian process of rewriting history from the standpoint of the dominant paradigm.  When all a field’s practitioners are trained using one set of textbooks, and after each revolution the textbooks are rewritten, is it any wonder that this adherence of all a field’s scientists to one paradigm is achieved? From the other direction, is it a black mark on macroeconomics to have enough factions, and enough different text books that are not agreed upon, that there is not one dominant paradigm in use that constitutes the field?

More on this to come.

Pride comes before the fall

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

I’m in my first year of the economics PhD program at Georgetown University, and classes started last week. Everyone I talk to says how hard the first year is. Everyone. They are so certain of the time and effort we’ll have to put in, the sixty hours a week, the studying every day in the library. I’m going to be honest and say that I don’t entirely believe them.

Of course it will be tough. Tough is what I signed up for. But economics is not rocket science. And let’s be honest, I’m kind of good at school. At this point in my life I’ve been through a lot of it, and I’ve gotten my ass kicked a fair number of times. I am certainly no n00b.

So you know what? I hope the econ department gives me its worst. I’m ready. I can take it.

A Perfect Day for Webcomics

Friday, September 11th, 2009

There are a few webcomics I read daily. My current list is: xkcd, Questionable Content, A Softer World, Dinosaur Comics, Enjuhneer, Penny Arcade, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and Cyanide and Happiness. I highly recommend all of these, and also a late addition called T-rex is Lonely Comics, because I am such a fan of Dinosaur Comics (and I do really like Garfield Minus Garfield but find it too depressing to read regularly).

Most days are pretty good. It is definitely a solid source of entertainment. Some days are better than others, of course. And today was great. Let me show you why:

First, xkcd referenced Ender’s Game, which kind of needed to happen at some point since the blagosphere is a thing now and it’s significantly different from the book series’ conception of the nets. Then ASW was beautifully morbid. It really says something about the frailty of existence, and deriving humor therefrom. As if on queue, DC was all “Today is a good day I think for somber realism!”. Mr. North also posited the existence of several coffee mugs which I would really, really like to buy (a “Maybe Mondays Aren’t The Problem; Maybe I’m The Problem” mug would be truly fabulous). And to top it off my friend Jenny’s webcomic had a link to one of her projects: a video tribute to xkcd. The video is fantastic, you should stop what you’re doing and check it out right now.

A first-principles approach to free culture, rev 2

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

I was lucky enough to have my essay submission accepted to Harvard’s Free Culture Research Workshop 2009, so it looks like I’ll be in Boston on October 23rd. I revised the draft based on the comments of some very fabulous reviewers, and here is what I came up with.

Normative statements – statements of what ought to be – comprise much of the basis of the free culture movement. As an economist, I am wary of jumping to the normative before the establishment of positive science – knowledge about what is. Thus my research on free culture is in developing a foundational, quantitative, descriptive science for the field. I believe that free culture research, and free culture activism more broadly, can benefit greatly from the application of quantitative methods to understanding social systems, for example, in learning to design systems that promote a freer culture thereon. I propose that the new field of web ecology can provide a descriptive science for free culture. In the same way civil engineers design bridges with knowledge derived from physical sciences, so too could free culture engineers design social systems that promote the ends of the free culture movement with knowledge provided by web ecology.

First I will describe some current limitations I see the free culture movement facing. Then I will provide an introduction to the new field of web ecology, whose goal is to develop a foundational science of social activity on the internet. Last I discuss how a web ecology perspective can apply to free culture research.

As it stands the free culture movement knows much more about where it wants to go than about the best way to get there. Open licensing, open access, and open education are all strong, prescriptive goals. But right now the hard work is in implementing those goals. What is the best way to foster broader adoption of open licensing for artistic works? What is the most effective approach to encouraging the creation and reuse of open education resources around the world? How can we design social networks so that they encourage a read-write culture, instead of a read-only culture? To be sure, these are difficult questions. I think what is lacking is a body of quantitative research to develop more precise answers. In free culture research there is more argument about best approaches and less empirical basis for these claims.

For example, at the end of Lessig’s Free Culture, he laid out an argument for why a standardized licensing system is a good idea and would further the principles of free culture. It was not based on science, nor did it claim to be. And while the argument was undeniably strong, I think it could have been even stronger if it had a quantitative empirical basis. I believe this descriptive foundation can be provided by a new field called web ecology, which I will now describe.

A group of colleagues and I have begun work on an academic discipline whose focus is a study of activity on the internet. The name “web ecology” emphasizes the interconnected nature of the social and technological systems that comprise the web. I see web ecology as an attempt to do science on the internet in much the same way as environmental science studies our natural environment. Web ecology takes a holistic view of the internet, seeing users and code as associated and dependent elements. It is empirical and experimentally-driven, creating falsifiable theories and models that will be refined or rejected based on observable data.

My particular interest in web ecology is in its axiomatic approach to the complex phenomena that comprise the internet. There is opportunity for innovative theorists to develop novel, simple, quantitative models that will comprise a scientific basis for future free culture research and activism. I look to the example the field of economics has set, as I think there is significant value in its approach: by rigorously formalizing, even “oversimplifying,” the complexity of the market system, economics deduces profound insight from first principles. The basic models of perfect competition and consumer choice theory conveniently summarize the salient features of the objects under study, and provide a stepping stone toward more complicated analyses. I believe the same approach will prove useful in studying broader social and cultural activity, especially when applied to the rich social systems and associated quantitative data available for study on the internet.

Since this conception is somewhat abstract, let me build an example. Perhaps web ecology seeks to understand the creation of content on the internet. It develops a model for the creation of a certain type of content, say a “remix,” and begins exploring different social and technological treatments that increase or decrease the number of remixes produced by an internet platform. A number of studies, both experimental and observational, are undertaken; researchers systematically attribute the creation of remixes to certain treatments, and are able to make quantitative statements about these relationships. For example, perhaps a group of web ecologists finds that the proportion of anonymous users on an image board is directly proportional to the amount of remixes that are created. Furthermore, they precisely measure a coefficient that relates the proportion of anonymous users to the creation of remixes, holding other things equal. Then people who want to promote free culture by encouraging remixes can leverage this descriptive knowledge to achieve their ends. Perhaps a start-up company wants to build a platform for the creation of remixes, and it uses the findings of web ecology in its design, adding an anonymous user option and encouraging the use of anonymous accounts. Or perhaps a government policy maker decides that the act of remixing should be encouraged, and authors legislation to protect the right to anonymity on the internet.

The three key challenges I see arising from the work laid out above are as follows:

  1. Defining the principles and approach for a rigorous field of web ecology.
  2. Web ecology must define itself as a solid foundation of knowledge for use in free culture research and activism. This hard work will be taken up by academics and business people with an interest in actually understanding the internet’s social dynamics, rather than so-called “experts” seeking to sell social media services based on shoddy data and methods.

  3. Building a standardized set of tools and models for web ecology.
  4. Web ecology will adopt the tools and models of other fields when appropriate, and will build its own when no suitable work exists. Many fields will no doubt have a large body of work to contribute. At the same time, web ecology will express these models in a common language and a common framework that will uniquely benefit the free culture movement.

    My interest is in the interface of economics and the internet, notably building better economic models of hybrid economies and open licensing. The next step for economics is moving away from studying the scarcity of goods and services to more fundamental scarcities: those of time, attention, and reputation. I see this same process occurring in other fields, which will support the work of web ecology.

  5. Expressing the tenets of free culture from the axioms of web ecology.
  6. The bits and pieces which make up free culture – things like open licenses, remixes, sharing, and peer production – will be endemic to the models and methods of web ecology from the start. Having a focus on free culture inform the development of web ecology will be formative and fruitful, for both web ecology and free culture.

If we move in these directions, we will be on our way to building a first-principles approach to the study of free culture.


Saturday, September 5th, 2009

Why do people place so much value on consistent systems of beliefs?

In a formal system, sure, you want consistency. If a formal system is inconsistent then you can use it to prove anything — it’s effectively useless. But our minds are not formal systems. Humans don’t exist simply to prove things (unless you’re a mathematician I guess).

Let’s say you believe two contradictory axioms. What’s to stop you from voluntarily relaxing one or the other as the situation demands? I suppose then you aren’t being “principled”. Your choice may seem arbitrary, and lead to arbitrary results. But it could be that you don’t know what you should believe, until you’re faced with a difficult situation that stretches your belief system. Life is full of gray areas. Sometimes you just do what you think is best, and reform your belief system later to compensate.

Many consider hypocrisy a vice. I used to feel the same way, until I questioned that assumption and couldn’t provide a good justification. Let’s say I get mad at a house mate for not cleaning up his dishes, and then I go ahead and leave my dirty dishes in the sink. He has every right to get mad at me, assuming he doesn’t like dirty dishes left in the sink. But should it be any worse that I’m violating my own rules, in addition to his? I am not so certain.

I’m very willing to hear counter arguments, though.

The tide is high

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

The past two weeks have been a tizzy. Moving to a new city along with six hours per day of maths all but overwhelmed my ability to keep things organized. I suppose I could have swam harder against the tide, but that’s honestly not my style. Times like those I’m happy to keep my head above water.

This week begins my normal, much more open, schedule — three classes, no more than 4hrs/day, no class before 10am, no class on Fridays. And I am going to get on top of things again, and it is going to be awesome. I have a lot of emails, a lot of blog posts in my Reader, a lot of drafts and emails and phone calls I owe people. But that’s all going to come under control soon. I know that by the end of the week I’ll be back in command. Getting Things Done always has my back.

I’m not a GTD-wizard yet, but it keeps me sane.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.