Posts from Science

Sunblock

From roughly 1pm ET to roughly 3pm ET today there will be an eclipse of the Sun by the Moon over the US.

I like this map which shows when and where the eclipse will take place:

I spent a half hour this morning on the Internet and learned everything I wanted to know about what is happening and why.

I wonder how the earliest inhabitants of planet Earth must have felt when the sky went dark for a few minutes in the middle of the day.

Mankind has learned a lot about the universe we inhabit over the years and that knowledge is now largely available online for anyone to browse and learn from, as I did this morning. Here’s a study set based on today’s eclipse from Quizlet (a USV portfolio company) which uses their new diagramming feature.

It is a wonderful time to be alive with so much knowledge at our fingertips.

Decentralized Self-Organizing Systems

Mankind has been inventing new ways to organize and govern since we showed up on planet earth. Our history is a gradual evolution of these organization and governance systems. Much of what we are using right now was invented in ancient Greece and perfected in western Europe in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

I have been thinking for some time that we are on the cusp of something new. I don’t know exactly what it will be but I think it will be inspired by the big technological innovations of the late 20th century and early 21st century and it will be based on decentralized and self-organizing systems.

The Internet is, at its core, a scaled decentralized system. Its design has been a resounding success. It has scaled elegantly and gradually to well over 2bn users over fifty years. No central entity controls the Internet and it upgrades itself and scales itself slowly over time.

Open source software development communities are also an important development of the past fifty years. These communities come together to create and maintain new software systems and are not financed or governed by traditional corporate models. The goals of these communities are largely based on delivering new capabilities to the market and they don’t have capitalist based incentive systems and they have shown that in many instances they work better than traditional corporate models, Linux being the best example.

And, for the past decade or so, we have seen that modern cryptography and some important computer science innovations have led to decentralized blockchain systems, most notably Bitcoin and Ethereum. But there are many more to study and learn from. These blockchain systems are pushing forward our understanding of economic models, governance models, and security models.

I think it is high time that political scientists, philosophers, economists, and historians turn their attention to these new self-organizing and self-governing systems. Maybe they have and I am not familiar with the work. If so, please point me to it. If not, maybe this post and others like it will be an inspiration for the liberal arts to catch up to the computer scientists and mathematicians or at least work closely with them to figure out what is next, to articulate it and put it in the context of other governance and economic systems. From that work can come progress that mankind needs to move beyond the current systems, which work, but have many flaws and are becoming stale and in need of an upgrade.

Protecting The Right To Speak And Write And Blog

I stayed out of the public debate and discussion of the Gawker lawsuit because while I privately came down on the side of Gawker, the specifics of the case made me uncomfortable and I don’t think it was an ideal case to determine what is free speech and what is not.

However, the same lawyer, Charles Harder, who argued the case against Gawker, is back with another libel suit, this time against Techdirt and its founder and lead writer Mike Masnick. Regular and longtime readers of this blog will know that I am friends with Mike and have supported his efforts to speak out on Techdirt about all sorts of tech policy issues over the years.

The specifics of the Techdirt case are easier for me to get excited about. Mike has consistently and rigorously debunked the claims of Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai that he (Dr Ayyadurai) “invented” e-mail. Dr. Ayyadurai is upset with Mike about this and so he hired Charles Harder to file a $15mm libel suit against Techdirt and Mike.

Regardless of whether Dr. Ayyadurai invented email or not (I highly doubt it), we have a long standing history in scientific and technical circles and in the United States of freely, openly, and publicly debating and discussing technical issues like this. Through that sort of public debate and discussion we determine what is real and what is not and we also move the understanding of science and technology forward. These public debates can get nasty and personal, and that is unfortunate, but I believe it is better that we allow for this debate than set legal precedent that wealthy people can stifle debate by suing publications out of business.

So, I am urging everyone who cares about the legacy of free, open, and public speech and debate about technical issues to support Mike and Techdirt’s efforts to defend themselves. Mike wrote a blog post about this issue last week and this is taken from that post:

I am beyond thankful to the many of you who have reached out and offered to help in all sorts of ways. It is heartening to know so many people care about Techdirt. At some point soon, we may set up a dedicated legal defense fund. But, in the meantime, any support you can provide us will help — whether it’s just alerting people to this situation and the danger of trying to stifle a free press through meritless lawsuits, or it’s supporting Techdirt directly (or, if you have a company, advertising with us). As always, you can support us directly as a Friend of Techdirt, or check out some of the other perks you can get in our Insider program. You can also support us via Patreon.

I am hoping that Mike sets up a dedicated legal defense fund and plan to contribute to it if he does. I will let AVC readers know if that happens. Until then, let’s all get behind Mike and put a stop to this nonsense.

Experiment and Scandal

We are living in a time of great experiments. They are not happening in the lab. They are happening in the real world. And they are being financed by real people. We are witnessing the de-institutionalization of experimentation. We are returning to a time when anyone can be an inventor and innovator. Some of this has happened because of the explosion of venture capital, both in the US and also around the world. Some of this has happened because entertainment and culture has embraced the world of experimentation and innovation (Shark Tank, Silicon Valley). Some of this has happened because the tools for innovation and experimentation have become mainstream and anyone can use them.

I am not thinking of one thing. I am thinking of many things. I am thinking of The DAO. I am thinking of Bitcoin and Ethereum. I am thinking of Oculus getting financed on Kickstarter. I am thinking of the launch of equity crowdfunding for everyone in the US last week. I am even thinking of things like Theranos.

All of these things are great experiments that will produce great benefit to society if they succeed. But by their nature experiments often fail. They need to fail. Or they would not be experiments.

And one of the challenges with the de-institutionalization of experimentation is that some of these failures will be spectacular. Combine that with the idea that these experiments are being funded by real people and the idea that the world of media/entertainment/culture has injected itself right in the middle of this brave new world and you have the recipe for scandal. And scandal will naturally result in efforts to put the genie back in the bottle (Sarbanes Oxley, Dodd Frank). And these regulatory efforts will naturally attempt to re-institutionalize experimentation.

I find myself wishing we could keep the dollars invested and hype down when we do these massively public experiments. But the dollar/hype cycle is a natural part of being human. Some dollars are invested. We get excited about this investment. We talk it up. More people find out about it and more dollars are invested. More of us get excited about this investment and we talk it up more. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat and you get unicorns and distributed autonomous funding mechanisms entrusted with hundreds of millions before anything has even been funded. Eventually some of that gets unwound and the tape is full of red.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for distributed autonomous organizations and the innovation behind them and in front of them. There isn’t much out there that I am more excited about. But I am also very fearful that this could end badly. And even more fearful of what may be foisted on us by well meaning regulators when that happens.

So let’s celebrate this incredible phase of permissionless innovation we are in. And let’s all understand that we will have many failures. Some of them spectacular. Money will be lost. Possibly hundreds of millions or billions. Let’s expect that. Let’s build that into our mental models. So when that happens, we can suck it up, deal with it, and keep moving forward. Because an open permissionless world of innovation that everyone can participate in is utopia in so many ways. The good that will come of it will massively outweigh any bad. But bad there will be. I can assure you of that.

The Limits of Capitalism

I am a capitalist. Contrary to the occasional community members who call me a socialist or a techno communist, I believe wholeheartedly in the power of markets to efficently determine what's best in most cases.

But I am not an absolute capitalist. I believe that markets do break down from time to time and we need to recognize when those things happen and do something about it. The labor movement, when it was not corrupt for the most part, is an example of a societal response to a market breakdown.

When we stare into the future, we see that our cars will not have drivers. We see that the stuff we buy from Amazon will be delivered by drones. We see that the foundations and structures of our homes will be built by 3D printed concrete. We see a world where many jobs will not exist anymore. Taken out by technology. The very technology that many of us here at AVC are working hard to create and that many of us here at AVC celebrate.

My partner Albert has been talking about this on his blog for a long time. If you want to see the totality of Albert's thinking on this topic, read the economics tag on his blog. One of Albert's thoughts is that we may need a basic income guarantee to redistribute the consumer surplus we will be creating when we no longer have to pay for drivers, delivery people, and construction workers in our lives (and many others). He's now doing a research project to look into this idea in greater detail and is looking for a research assistant.

But Albert is not the only one thinking about this stuff. Bruce Bartlett, a senior policy advisor to the Reagan and Bush administrations wrote a piece in the NY Times earlier this week advocating for a basic income guarantee.

And if you haven't read David Simon's rant on this topic in the Guardian, I would suggest you do.

I am not sure about the basic income guarantee. It feels like welfare to me and that system destroyed many productive lives. People need to work. They need to have something to feel good about doing every day. Work is a big part of self image and self worth. Any system that makes it possible for people to sit at home eating bon bons (as the Gotham Gal likes to say) is not a good system.

That said, we do need to recognize that technology is taking massive costs out of our collective P&Ls and creating a large surplus for many of us. At the same time, the people who made up that cost structure are out of work and struggling to put a roof over their head and feed their families. Shouldn't that surplus, at least part of it, go to assisting those people?

So I welcome this debate and I will not be principled on this point. I will not let ideaology and orthodoxy drive my thinking here. And I don't think anyone else should either. Because this is an important discussion to be having. And not just for the US, but for the entire world.

Video Of The Week: String Theory

This past week, my son Josh asked me to explain String Theory to him. That was a tough task because I don't know much about String Theory myself. But with the help of Google and Wikipedia, we worked through most of the basic concepts in about an hour and he had the guts of a five minute talk he planned to give at school the next day. Phew.

The next day I asked Zander, our resident physicist at USV, about String Theory. He pointed me to a TED Talk by Brian Greene. Which I just watched. And Zander is right, if you have 20 minutes and want to get the essence of string theory down, watch this video. It is great.

Video of the Week: Peter Thiel and Garry Kasparov

Tyrone sent me a link to this video sometime in the past week and I watched it yesterday morning. These are two fascinating guys talking about fascinating things. I enjoyed it very much. It's about 50 mins long so a good candidate to put on the big screen and play while you do other things. Thanks to Airplay and Chromecast, that's getting easier and easier to do these days.

Funding Math and Science Projects For Young Women

In prior years, this community has participated in the Donors Choose Bloggers Challenge during the month of October. We've won the Bloggers Challenge in the tech category three years in a row with total giving amounts of about $30,000 each year. We were dominant in the tech category and a few other blogs were equally dominant in their categories. As a result Donors Choose has decided to stop doing the Bloggers Challenge and encourage the blog communities that were regular winners to do something on their own.

What we are going to do here at AVC is make November our Donors Choose Month. We are going to try to raise a bunch of money for Donors Choose projects this coming month. In that respect it will be a lot like prior years. However, there are two important twists (one borrowed from last year).

The first twist is that we are going to focus on science and math education for young women. We've curated a giving page for this community and we've filled it with projects that focus on science and math and young women. I have kicked off a month of giving with $250 of contributions to five projects. Here are the five that I selected:

Donors choose gifts 10-31

Our Giving Page is full of projects like this and we will keep it filled with them for the entire month. I am excited to be doing something real and tangible for young women to get them prepared for the world we live in. I hope you all are too.

The second twist, borrowed from last year, is that we are doing a Meetup on December 8th from 6pm to 8pm in NYC. The Meetup will happen in a public school in NYC. I will be there and I hope the Gotham Gal will be as well. We will have a number of NYC public school teachers and a few people from Donors Choose as well. Anyone who participates in this month of giving and contributes via our Giving Page will be invited to attend.

So that's what we are doing this coming month. I'm excited about this new way of doing this. The competition with other blog communities was getting boring because we beat them so badly three years in a row. Now we can make this all about our community and the projects we are supporting. We will launch a giving widget for this effort on the right sidebar sometime in the next couple days. Until then, go to the Giving Page and get started.