Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Shapiro-Stiglitz "Shirking" Model: An Efficiency Wage Hypothesis Model

Thought someone out there might enjoy the slides from a presentation I was a part of in my Advanced Macro class.

If you have any questions please post them in the comments and I will try to answer them in the future.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review: Crux by Ramez Naam

Nexus is one of the best books I have read in years.  It had a fast paced plot dealing with the morals and ethics of our transhumanist future along with a nice bit of Buddhist philosophy.  Also the unique setting of a cyberpunk Bangkok was pretty awesome.  Crux is the sequel novel that deals with the aftermath of the events in Nexus.

There isn't much I can say about the plot without somewhat spoiling Nexus but I will say that we find the surviving characters of the previous novel each dealing with the new reality from those event in their own ways.  They have changed the world in ways both good and bad and might have a few chances to make things better.  In the end the book is about the good and bad impact transhumanist technology can have on a society.  Technologies that are developing in the real world much faster than anyone would have though just a few years ago.

The most common complaint I have read about Crux is that the quality of writing isn't very good.  Although I see what those reviewers are talking about and Crux isn't going to win any awards for literary style, I feel that these critics are missing the point of a book like this.  It isn't about the quality of the prose, but the quality of the ideas which is important.  This is the major reason the Sci Fi tends to be viewed poorly by literary types.  Crux might not win over the literati but I feel that Ramez Naam is a solid writer and he is able to depict action scenes much better than most other authors.  

This leads to the major complaint I have with this book, and something I have noticed happening in most modern Sci Fi.  I felt the book had too much action and didn't focus enough on the ideas.  The novel could have been significantly shorter if many of the action scenes had just been left out with no real damage being done to the story itself.  Additional character development, world building, and just random musings on the social impact of the various technologies in the book would have been a welcome change of pace from the action.  It almost feels like Sci Fi writers today are scared of their audience getting bored and that blowing something up is a way to fix that.  

I also didn't feel that the anti-transhumanist characters were given enough depth and space to give their side of the argument.  Some rather horrible things are done in this book in the name of humanity and the people committing those acts end up looking more evil than rational.  It may be that Ramez Naam decided that Nexus gave enough of that argument and that Crux should instead focus on the real possible implications of transhumanism.  Even if that is the case I felt more time could have been given to debating the issues that the book brings up.  

In the end this is a fun, fast-paced, techno-thriller that I enjoyed immensely.  I can't wait for the next book in the series and I hope it spends a bit more time on the important ideas that only a Sci-Fi novel like this can explore.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review: Buying bus and train tickets with your smartphone in Portland

One of the reasons I live in Portland is the simple fact that the mass transit system is good enough that I don’t have to drive.  I hate driving and find it to be both expensive and a huge waste of time.  One of the odd issues though with using mass transit is trying to make sure that you either have some bus passes or the correct amount of cash to buy a ticket when you need one.  Given that I rarely use cash this has actually been more of an issue than it should have been so I have been looking forward to e-tickets to simplify this issue.

Now Trimet, the regional mass transit authority for the Portland area, has a simple smartphone app that lets you buy tickets whenever you need them.  All you need to do is download the app, put in some credit/debit card information and then you can start buying tickets.  When you need to use one you just click a few buttons and you get a valid ticket to show the bus driver, it even has a QR code that the driver can check to ensure that the ticket is valid.

I have been using this app for the last week and it works exactly how I would want an app like this to work. It is simple to use and even looks pretty good.  The only issue I have with the system is that they do force you to buy at least $5 of tickets at a time.  This is undoubtedly due to processing fees and is not that big a deal, but still a bit annoying.  Also some people have complained that the trip planning features are not as developed as they should be, but I already use google maps for my transit directions anyways.

I personally had thought about e-ticketing systems over the years and have used a few in various cities.  What I love about this system is the simplicity of it.  All you need is a smartphone running Android or iOS and you are good to go.  Most other system are much more complicated and involve needing to sign up for some type of card or device.  This system didn’t require any type of overhaul of the current ticketing system that trimet has and is simple enough that most people can start using right away.

I am very impressed with this app and hope that a lot of people start using it and if you live in the Portland area please give it a try!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Thought of the day "Would you feel differently if the creative destruction were a natural disaster instead of an economic one?"

The issue of how the pace of innovation has been destroying middle class jobs has been more and more in the news recently with several stories about it on Marketplace and a couple of Economist articles over the last few months.

Most people who are knowledgeable on this issue tend to take the long view that this has all happened before and, in the long term, we still ended up with plenty of jobs for everyone.  I mostly agree with this line of reasoning but have to admit that this time does look a little different.

Mark Sigal of Unicorn Labs has an interesting post over at gigaom that looks more deeply at the issues of innovation and jobs.
Innovation, economics, and messy, complex truths
SUMMARY:The only certainty involved in assessing the impact of technology on the future of our economy is complexity. Mark Sigal of Unicorn Labs argues that the impact of technology on job creation is a complicated question with no easy answers.
The biggest policy issue that might be facing us today is how to deal with technological unemployment.  It doesn't appear that a laissez-faire approach will work, but then what will?  There isn't an obvious answer and a lot of people are going to get hurt while we try to figure out what to do.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Thoughts on Portland being an unsafe driving city

A study is in the news that reports Portland, OR as being on of the most unsafe driving cities in the US.

What I found interesting about this is that, compared to other places that I have lived, I don't know many people who drive all that much in Portland.  Basically all of my friends and co-workers who live in Portland tend to take mass transit or bike just about everyone.  I personally haven't driven more than a few times in the past 6 months and I actually drive less in Portland than I did when I lived in Corvallis, which is a tiny college town.

Portland is so easy to get around just using mass transit or a bike that I personally don't understand why anyone who lives here even bothers to own a car unless you really need too. This makes me wonder if the driving population of Portland might be different than your average driver population in other cities.  In other cities that are Portland sized, driving is the norm, and although driving is still fairly common in Portland, a significant part of the population appears to be choosing other forms of transportation.

I wonder how this change in the demographics of who drives might effect reports like this one?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Should the blink tag make a come back?

Probably not, but that isn't stopping people from trying.

A group is forming over at that appears to seriously want to bring back the blink tag, which has recently been removed from just about all major browsers.  So far this isn't a big group, but the twitter feed is fairly active, the blog is updated way more than most, and you can get a free button! They even have a pro-<blink> t-shirt available.

Honestly, the web is probably better off without <blink> but I have to admire the commitment that this group is showing to bring back <blink>.  I guess as long as I am able to turn it off, then I wouldn't mind bringing back the <blink> tag.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why I am mad about the fluoride debate and how Portland could resolve this issue

The City of Portland is voting on if fluoride should be added to the public water supply in an effort to improve the dental health of the city.  This has caused a heated debate about the merits of adding fluoride that not only questions the effectiveness of fluoride but also the safety.  Unfortunately, like many policy debates today, this has quickly devolved into a very unproductive debate with some of the anti-fluoride side claiming that public officials have been paid off to add a poison to the water supply and with some on the pro-side calling the opponents conspiracy theory nutjobs.

From what I have read, I am of the opinion that fluoride is safe and probably effective.  What makes me mad at both sides though is that they are convinced that they are right to a degree that does not allow open dialog on the issue.  I am willing to concede that it is possible that fluoride will not be an effective strategy in decreasing cavities.  In addition, given that there are a couple of studies that question the safety of fluoride in the water supply, I am willing to concede that we should research this more.  This does not mean we should not add fluoride to the public water supply in Portland.  The research overwhelmingly points towards fluoride as being both safe and effective.  The few research papers that point toward it being harmful tend to be of poor quality or have been difficult to replicate.

What this means is that we should stop yelling at each other and come together to solve this question.  We are lucky in that this debate is an empirical question of the effectiveness and safety of fluoride.  Both the pro and anti side should sit down with researchers from OHSU and develop a research agenda that would solve this issue.  I think we should start adding fluoride to the water and then use the research agenda that all sides creased to see what the effects.  We have a unique opportunity to be the city that solves this problem for the world.  Instead of fighting about this issue, we should come together as a community and resolve it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

I can't remember the last time I enjoyed reading a book as much as I did with Nexus. The plot revolves around the development of a drug that allows for direct mind to mind communication and how various factions try to control this new creation.

There was never a dull moment while reading this book yet at the same time it was able to explore the social and political implications of transhumanism more deeply than some documentaries I have watched. This novel felt like a glimpse at an all too possible future and tried to honestly deal with the implications of the technology that is being built today. My only real complaint with this novel is that the action scenes can be hard to follow at times and last a bit longer than necessary.

My recommendations is that if you think that post-cyberpunk transhuman buddhist scifi might be something you are interested in then you need to read this book.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Review: Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears (Singularity Series)

This is a fun little novel about the accidental creation of an Artificial Intelligence at a large internet company and the unintentional consequences that follow.  Avogadro corporation is a Google like company that is pushing the boundaries of what computer technology can do.  While attempting to create a new revolutionary feature for their email platform they accidentally create something that is both very impressive and very difficult to control.

I was very surprised by how much i enjoyed this novel. Although the writing isn't the greatest and the Portland love goes a bit over the top at times, it is still a rather impressive first novel. The plot moves at a nice pace and the character and situations are usually plausible. It also covers some interesting topics in regards to the singularity and the effects it might have on humanity, which gives the reader some great ideas to think about and research further.

My only real complaint is that it is rather short and feels like only half of a novel.  I guess that is to be expected given that it is book one in a series and from what I understand book two continues the story while looking at things from a different perspective   Still, I do feel that this book could have been expended a bit to make it feel more like a real novel and not a novella.

I doubt this book would ever be on top of any "Best Of" list but I think it is still a very enjoyable read and has a very hard to beat price. If you are just looking for an easy to read and interesting scifi novel then this is a great choice.

Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears (Singularity Series)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Cloud Atlas might be the best film I have seen in years

I just finished watching Cloud Atlas and it might be one of the best films I have seen in years.  It is a sprawling epic of a film that touches on so many different issues and topics that I have no idea how to even describe the film.  I think everyone will take away a different meaning from a flim like this and that is what makes it so amazing.  For me, I found myself thinking about how we live our lives and how interconnected we are, even when we don't see it or understand it.

A line repeated throughout the film is "Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” I am not sure why, but something about that line touches me in a way that few things do.  It makes me think more about my actions and the world around me.  I think far too often we think of our lives and actions as our own and forget how everything we do has been influenced and effects others and our lives together.

Cloud Atlas is a film that I honestly can't review because it is so ambitious that I wouldn't even know where to start.  I recommend reading Roger Eberts review linked below.  I highly recommend giving this film a try.  It might not work for everyone but I think it is a film that deserves your attention.

Roger Ebert Review:
Even as I was watching "Cloud Atlas" the first time, I knew I would need to see it again. Now that I've seen it the second time, I know I'd like to see it a third time