298 (4 January 2017)

Happy New Year and welcome to week 298!  The articles below caught my attention this week.  Please note that what are intended to be relatively objective “briefs” are preceded by dashes (——–), whereas additional material or relatively subjective comments are preceded by asterisks (********).  The links to articles preceded by [SR] require a subscription to be read in their entirety, although complete articles may frequently be found by an Internet title search.

(7 April 2016): “Hail the Maintainers” (https://aeon.co/essays/innovation-is-overvalued-maintenance-often-matters-more)

********This article was recently called to my attention and its topic seems timeless: the distinction between innovation and maintenance, and the labor of each.  Those who innovate (innovators) are celebrated as entrepreneurs and lionized in the news and movies, whereas those humble folks who maintain the infrastructure (maintainers) are belittled or, at best, ignored.  This article, as it title suggests, seeks to great balance of treatment between the two.  It does this by posing the question, “is there a better way to characterize relationships between society and technology?”  The question can be addressed in three ways: First, understanding that “technology is not innovation.”  Second, by recognizing “the essential role of basic infrastructures.”  Third, a focus on “infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going.”  The third point leads to the basic point that “Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilization is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation.”

********One author who has written at length on the topics above, as noted in the article, is historian David Edgerton,  The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (https://www.amazon.com/Shock-Old-Technology-Global-History/dp/0199832617/).  Among the many thoughts evoked by the article, the one that is easiest to state is the gendered nature of labor, i.e., innovation is “male” while maintenance is “female.”  As noted in the article, “Feminist theorists have long argued that obsessions with technological novelty obscures all of the labour, including housework, that women, disproportionately, do to keep life on track.”

********Connected to this is the so-called “great man” theory of history (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Man_theory), in which history is “largely explained by the impact of ‘great men’, or heroes; highly influential individuals who, due either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.”  Evidently the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle is most-closely identified with this view.  In contrast to this is view of English writer Herbert Spencer, who held that such great men “are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes.”  These different views are, I think, nicely reflected in President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comment during the 2012 campaign.  Here the President presented a view quite Spencerian, while those who countered him were playing Carlyle’s theme.  You can learn more about the President’s words at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_didn’t_build_that.

(13 December 2016): “Thomas C. Schelling, Master Theorist of Nuclear Strategy, Dies at 95” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/business/economy/thomas-schelling-dead-nobel-laureate.html)

********I somehow lost track of the passing of Nobel laureate (2005) Thomas Schelling and I am repairing that error now.  There is abundant information about his life and work easily found by an online search.  Schelling is well known for his contributions to strategic thinking in the Cold War, especially as it related to nuclear deterrence.  May there be minds like his in the service of U.S. and world interests in the years to come.  In the 1970s Schelling also contributed meaningfully to the development of the consequences of white residents who expressed “only a slight preference for living among members of their own race.”  He did that while using the term ‘tip point’ that had previously been used political scientist Morton Grodzins; Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling 2002 book The Tipping Point (https://www.amazon.com/Tipping-Point-Little-Things-Difference/dp/0316346624/).

********Although sometimes described as a game theorist, Schelling was more a creative user of game theoretic ideas who continually urged strategic thinkers to expand the set of things they considered, looking to address new issues rather than be content to solve problems already known to be solvable.  In writing this I am reminded of one of the most useful things I have read, which appeared in Men of Mathematics (https://www.amazon.com/Mathematics-Touchstone-Book-E-T-Bell/dp/0671628186/), by E.T. Bell.  On page 419 it is related that mathematician Felix Klein was once asked by a student to share the “secret of mathematical discovery.”  Klein responded, “Choose one definite objective and drive ahead toward it.  You may never reach your goal, but you will find something of interest on the way.”  I have tended to focus on the second sentence of the quotation, but now realize that the first sentence is very important, too.

********There is a nice one-page tribute to Schelling in The Economist at: http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21712133-any-time-somebody-talks-about-deterrence-theyre-influenced-schelling-thomas.  I especially liked its coverage of his Nobel acceptance speech, in which he observed that “the most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur.  We have enjoyed 60 years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger . . . what a stunning achievement—or, if not achievement, what stunning good fortune!”  The article goes on to note “If achievement was the word, the credit was partly his.”  This made me think that perhaps Schelling should have won the Nobel Peace Prize, too.  So, I looked to see if someone else had had this idea.  As it turned out, the answer was “Yes.”  Tom Wright of Harvard University made the connection in a 2005 piece in The Irish Times http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/schelling-helped-stop-the-cold-war-turning-very-hot-1.506067).

********So, has anyone ever won the Nobel Peace Prize and another Nobel Prize?  Yes: Linus Pauling (Physics and Peace).  He is one of four people to have won two such prizes, the others being: John Bardeen (Physics twice); Marie Curie (Physics and Chemistry); and Frederick Sanger (Chemistry twice).  The International Committee of the Red Cross has won the Nobel Peace Prize three times (1917, 1944, and 1963) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has won the Nobel Peace Prize twice (1954 and 1981).  You can learn more about the multiple recipients via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Nobel_laureates_with_multiple_Nobel_awards.

(28 December 2016): “Amazon to Flip the Switch on Massive Wind Project in North Carolina” (http://www.ecowatch.com/wind-farm-amazon-2168453431.html)

——–“Before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, 104 wind turbines scattered across 22,000 acres of farmland near Elizabeth City, North Carolina, will begin churning out electricity.  It will be the South’s first large-scale wind farm.  At 208 megawatts, Avangrid’s facility has the capacity to capture enough of the sky’s kinetic energy to power 61,000 homes.  But instead of homes, this electricity will run data centers for Amazon Web Services, a subsidiary of Amazon.com.”  Although the South isn’t usually thought of as being rich in wind resources, technological improvements, policy initiatives, and the “federal Production Tax Credit, have enabled wind’s price tag to plummet 90 percent over the past 25 years, making it more alluring in the competitive energy market.”  Still, one of the factors restricting the adoption of wind is “the lack of independent system operators (ISOs) or regional transmission organizations (RTOs).”  The wind farm near Elizabeth City was made possible because the area “is part of an RTO called PJM Interconnection.  PJM allows Avangrid, the wind farm developer, to sell electricity directly to Amazon Web Services for its data centers at a price per kilowatt-hour negotiated by the two parties.”  As a result of this arrangement, Avangrid “is now the largest taxpayer by far in Perquimans County.”

********A good example of how regulation can protect an incumbent electricity provider and slow the adoption of an alternative technology.

(29 December 2016): “Stop saying that 2016 was the ‘worst year’” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/12/29/stop-saying-that-2016-was-the-worst-year/)

——–“Americans almost always think that the year coming to a close is the worst.”  Why do they have such views?  There are a variety of reasons.  For example, “Many misunderstand how the world is changing or ignore positive change.”  And some people simply do not know about positive developments, a phenomenon that isn’t new.  This lack of knowledge is part the result of the journalistic bias toward specific events, like disasters, as opposed to long-term trends like “improving global health, falling poverty, [and] environmental progress . . . The focus on single events and neglect of slow developments selects negative news instead of often positive developments.”

——–Furthermore, “The negative bias of event news is a problem on the supply side, but there are equally important problems on the demand side.  In fact, to be on the lookout for signs of danger is hard-wired in our human psychology.  Evolution has shaped our human nature to pay attention selectively and left us with a negativity bias because it is much more important for our survival to pay attention to threats than to positive changes.  A missed opportunity is unfortunate, a missed danger can immediately threaten our survival.”

********This article again calls to mind Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow (https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp/0374533555/), with fast thinking oriented toward the event, i.e., the short term, and slow thinking oriented toward the trend, i.e., the long term.  Of course, survival is something that is both short term and long term.  This focus on fast and slow thinking reminds me of a literature I was aware of some years back that examined “multiple utility functions.”  I wonder if current writers have made the connection between this “older” literature and the “newer” literature of behavioral economics?  A place to start on the “multiple utility” literature is the 1986 article “The Case for a Multiple-Utility Conception,” by Amitai Etizioni (https://www2.gwu.edu/~ccps/etzioni/A175.pdf).  A resource that looks to address this more specifically, since it includes the term ‘multiple utility’ is Handbook of Contemporary Economics: Foundations and Developments (https://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Contemporary-Behavioral-Economics-Developments/dp/1138953202/).  My sense is that the multiple utility literature stems from Amartya Sen’s 1977 article “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 6,4 (Summer 1977): 317-44.  You can find at copy at: https://www.uclouvain.be/cps/ucl/doc/cr-cridis/documents/sen_on_TCR_rational_fools.pdf.  Just to be explicit, it seems like a two-utility approach to thinking fast and slow would involve a hierarchy of preferences, one dealing with fast (and first) and the other dealing with slow (and second).

(30 December 2016): “Q&A: Cathy O’Neil, author of ‘Weapons of Math Destruction,’ on the dark side of big data” (http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-cathy-oneil-20161229-story.html)

********Cathy O’Neil is the author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and /threatens Democracy (https://www.amazon.com/Weapons-Math-Destruction-Increases-Inequality/dp/0553418815/).  This book has been reviewed widely and has definitely caught the attention of many.  This Q&A will give you a good idea of what the book is all about, i.e., the auditing of algorithms for their potential destruction use.  In addition to raising the issue of “gaming” an algorithm, she also notes that some of those, like teachers, who are being judged algorithmicly “don’t understand how they’re being evaluated at their job.”  (This is, of course, also a concern of those who are not being judged algorithmicly.)  O’Neil seems to think that some algorithms are potentially dangerous and others are not.  According to her, “the most dangerous ones . . . have three characteristics: scale, secrecy and the capacity to do harm.”  This seems like a book worthy of study.

(31 December 2016): “Scientists Loved and Loathed by an Agrochemical Giant” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/31/business/scientists-loved-and-loathed-by-syngenta-an-agrochemical-giant.html)

********This article examines the interactions between three university researchers and their corporate funders.  As it notes, receiving corporate funds can be a Faustian bargain.

May you have a good week!


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