NYT: The Moral Bucket List

I frequently enjoy reading David Brooks’ work, and was fortunate enough to have met him when he came to speak at Davidson during the fall of my freshman year.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?

On Inevitability & Pendula

In short: I think my argument is still essentially true, but it isn’t the whole story. I now believe that technology waves tend to go from closed to open and then back to closed again, with the dominant players becoming dominant based on their strength of network distribtion. In other words, you tend to go from propriety invention to Wild West open innovation and then things start to settle down again as a small number of players control the distribution of content on their own networks (nearly always based on the open set of technologies). These networks tend to be few in number, and overwhelmingly dominant in their control over how people experience technology and content. Think Google for search. Facebook & Twitter and now Snapchat for mobile.

Bitcoin Vs. Wall Street: A Love-Hate Story

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”

Disintermediated value transfer and secure unilateral ownership. Individuals leveraging software to seek opportunities for investment of their value, only eating as much risk as they are comfortable with. Global transfer of value independent of the nation-state framework, legacy fiat limitations and aging regulatory regimes. Autonomous corporations that operate so long as they provide value. Smart contracts that reliably execute any form of financial derivative, plus perform any coordination function such as ownership, certificates, registration, identity.

Given banks’ dependence on the current value mediation paradigm to generate returns, I don’t see them being able to maintain current profits going forward. Financial services are ripe for margin compression. They will still be able to perform excellent research and diligence responsibilities, but they won’t act as gatekeepers or value middlemen anymore.

We Can’t Let John Deere Destroy the Very Idea of Ownership

It’s official: John Deere and General Motors want to eviscerate the notion of ownership. Sure, we pay for their vehicles. But we don’t own them. Not according to their corporate lawyers, anyway. In a particularly spectacular display of corporate delusion, John Deere—the world’s largest agricultural machinery maker —told the Copyright Office that farmers don’t own their tractors. Because computer code snakes through the DNA of modern tractors, farmers receive “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.

Ages & Stages: How Raising a Kid is Like Raising a Startup

But, all things considered, both startups and kids are good for the soul. Balancing the needs of a child and a startup are taxing. But it’s so worth it. Even when you fail, you succeed — because you’re always learning. Both of these experiences completely change you and your perspective, and you have to be ready for that change. Whether you are launching a new idea on the world, or a new human into the world, the lessons are endless and entirely transformative.

The Energy Storage Virtuous Cycle

SolarPower1

The fact that renewables and the ecosystem around them (especially storage) is finally becoming economical is amazing. We’re already subsidizing fossil fuels by trillions of dollars due to the unaccounted costs of negative externalities (global warming, public health, etc). These technologies are becoming economically competitive *even though* fossil fuels have this huge built-in subsidy. Very close to a miracle, this is.

“Storage has plenty of benefits – higher reliability, lower costs, fewer outages, more resilience.

But I wouldn’t have written these three thousand words without a deep interest in carbon-free energy. And the increasing economic viability of energy storage is profoundly to the benefit of both solar and wind.

Let me be clear: A great deal can be done with solar and wind with minimal storage, by integrating over a wider region and intelligently balancing wind and solar against one another.

Even so, cheap storage is a big help. It removes a long term concern. And in the short term, storage helps whichever energy source is cheapest overcome intermittence and achieve flexibility.

Batteries are flexible. Storage added to add reliability the grid can soak up extra solar power for the hours just after sunset. It can soak up extra wind power from a breezy morning to use in the afternoon peak. Or it can dispatch saved up power to cover for an unexpected degree of cloudiness or a shortfall of wind.

Once the storage is there – whatever else it was intended for – it will get used for renewables. Particularly as those renewables become the cheapest sources of electricity on the grid.

Today, in many parts of the US, wind power is the cheapest source of new electricity, when the wind is blowing. The same is true in northern Europe. On the horizon, an increasing chorus of voices, even the normally pessimistic-on-renewables IEA, see solar as the cheapest source of electricity on the planet, heading towards 4 cents per kwh. Or, if you believe more optimistic voices, a horizon of solar at 2 cents per kwh.

Cheap energy storage adds flexibility to our energy system overall. It can help nuclear power follow the curve of electrical demand (something I didn’t explore here). It helps the grid stay stable and available. It adds caching at the edge, reducing congestion and the need for new transmission.

But for renewables, especially, cheap storage is a force multiplier.

And that’s a disruption I’m excited to see.”

Attention and Distraction

We are the sum total of our genes and our environments – nature and nurture. In today’s world, nature is a function of attention; what do you choose to focus on, what are you forced to focus on, and what do you focus on unconsciously?

“I realised how pervasive this has become, these little appropriations of attention,” he says. “Figuring out ways to capture and hold people’s attention is the centre of contemporary capitalism. There is this invisible and ubiquitous grabbing at something that’s the most intimate thing you have, because it determines what’s present to your consciousness. It makes it impossible to think or rehearse a remembered conversation, and you can’t chat with a stranger because we all try to close ourselves off from this grating condition of being addressed all the time.”

Framework for understanding innovation

Solid piece from TechCrunch. Genomics is definitely going to be a major industry going forward. Also interesting is this framework for technical innovation – many interesting parallels between the development of electricity and the development of the internet.

“Before the light bulb, electricity was also a niche product. It was so niche that no one used it and generating electricity and wiring houses made no sense. Electric wiring became necessary as a means to power Thomas Edison’s iconic invention. The light bulb was the killer app that drove infrastructure investment. Side note: Edison’s other killer app was the electric chair.

Initially only JP Morgan had electric wiring in his home – he had an on-prem generator. But demand for the light bulb skyrocketed because it was at least a 10X improvement over kerosene lamps, candles, and houses burning down. As the light solution moved from a vertically integrated, on premises generator to “cloud” electric generators powering entire neighborhoods and cities, the electric grid was built.

The result was a network that other appliances could now plug into without the initial setup costs paid by JP Morgan and other early adopters.  An entire ecosystem of apps could now be designed and built by entrepreneurs because the distribution system and infrastructure was already in place. The initial technology, electricity, was driven by the killer app to mass distribution where network effects kicked in.”

The End of Asymmetric Information

A lot of economic theories about asymmetric information, while logically correct, have been rendered empirically obsolete. We are not suggesting that this new world is perfect in every way, and indeed privacy is one of the major concerns. Still, the passing of many information asymmetries will lead easier trade, higher productivity, and better matches of people to jobs and to each other.

These changes also cast new light on the costs of a political system that  produces many new regulations but repeals very few old ones. The American regulatory apparatus is increasingly out of date. It is geared to problems that peaked in the previous generation or even earlier. We should revisit the topic of regulatory reform, with an eye toward making more regulations temporary, or having automatic sunset provisions, unless they are consciously and intentionally renewed for reasons of their continuing usefulness.