Thursday, May 21, 2015

Startup Geometry Podcast EP 003: Adam Swartzbaugh

Adam Swartzbaugh, founder of the Genesis Network, works to defeat human trafficking and help rebuild local networks to help with disaster recovery. He's not only an active social entrepreneur, he's also a rapid language learner, world traveler and multi-sport athlete. He's also the only man I know who's won in hand-to-hand combat with a hawk. In this episode of the Startup Geometry Podcast, I talk with Adam about:
  • What made him interested in the problem of human trafficking in Southeast Asia
  • How providing educational opportunities in remote locations is the key to interrupting trafficking networks
  • How finding a calling changes your motivational & energy levels
  • Why attending a highly creative university while doing a highly structured ROTC program made for a powerful combination of experiences
  • What adventure sports can do for you
Show links Genesis Network
Brown University International Relations
Providence ROTC
Indian Ocean 2004 tsunami
Haiti 2010 earthquake
Global Rescue

If you enjoy this podcast series, please subscribe on iTunes. The more people listen, the more episodes we're able to produce.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Startup Geometry Podcast EP 002: Christoph Rehage

"Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue."
-Werner Herzog.
In this episode, I talk with Christoph Rehage, who filmed himself walking more than 5000km across China over the course of a year. Most of you will be familiar with him from the YouTube video that resulted from the trip:

He's also the author of three books, published in German and Chinese, an avid reader of travel books, collector of fine vodkas, filmmaker, photographer and newspaper columnist. We talk about his early travels, what China looks like beyond Beijing and the big cities, what Germany and China have to teach each other, and how travel improves our lives.

Show links:

ChristophRehage.com, his website.

His books, which I hope will be published in English in the near future:
 

Monday, May 04, 2015

Links for Later 5-4-15

  1. How has Investor-State Dispute Resolution been used after other trade deals?
  2. xkcd: Physics vs. Biology
  3. The joy of collecting books. Real, paper books.
  4. Bruce Hornsby on his many piano-playing incarnations. He's most impressed by Keith Jarrett's improv capabilities, and rightly so.
  5. Steve Rogers, Captain America, is almost certainly a liberal Democrat.
  6. "Puddleglum in heaven."
  7. Twelve hours as a conscript in Greece.
  8. Joss Whedon has left Twitter after a number of abusive messages were sent to him to spend more time with his writing.
  9. Tesla released a $3,500 battery for houses
  10. Ta-Nehisi Coates: Nonviolence as Compliance

Friday, May 01, 2015

Paul Romer

Paul Romer's endogenous growth model (which treats ideas as part of the economic model, rather than something which is set outside of, or "exogenous to", the economic growth process) offers what I think is one of the most useful macro frameworks; however, it seems to have fallen out of favor for some reason.

In this interview with Cloud Yip of iMoney Magazine, he talks about the importance of urbanization, his growth model, and why non-rival, partially excludable goods (like ideas) mean that the primary micro market model to study is that of monopolistic competition (many competitors, differentiated goods, neither price taking nor price setting completely):

Q: So are you not going back to work on growth theory?

Romer: Actually I am writing something about growth theory right now, but it is mostly a commentary on what happened to growth theory. To be honest, I think that a substantial fraction of the work that people are now doing on growth has to be judged a failure from a scientific perspective.

In particular – and I apologize if this relies too much on the jargon of our field — monopolistic competition turns out to be just the tool for understanding the economic ideas. (It also turns out to be the tool for understanding international trade, economic geography, and macroeconomics.) But there has been a series of models that are associated with the University of Chicago – from what some people call the freshwater camp in macroeconomics – that are continuing a fight that George Stigler started in the 1930s to keep monopolistic competition from being used in economics. It is hard to explain to an outsider why a whole group of economists have ended up on the wrong side of scientific progress, resisting the direction that all of modern economic theory is taking, but they are.

In the economics of ideas, we have to be willing to at least consider the possibility that someone could have some control over an idea, hence some monopoly power associated with ideas. This could come from patent or a copyright. It could also come from secrecy.

Then we can ask if it is a good idea or a bad idea to have more intellectual property rights or more protection of ownership of ideas. We know that the answer here is mixed. Sometimes some amount of it can be good, but it can also be harmful if the property rights are too strong or are given to the wrong types of ideas. But if you don’t even allow for the possibility of ex post monopoly rents from the discovery of ideas, you can’t even ask the question.

So it is scientifically unacceptable to have people who say, “We will never, as a matter of principle, consider a model in which there are ever any monopolies. We will dogmatically stick only to models of price-taking competition.” I think this an untenable scientific stance.

I don’t think that this critique is going to reignite interest in growth theory. But like I said, when it’s time for interest to come back, somebody have a new take on growth theory, and work in this area will start again. But in the meantime, we have to stop tolerating work that is scientifically unjustifiable.

Q: I thought the endogenous growth model paved a new direction for growth theory to further develop, yet the academic interest in this theory just stopped. And even textbooks just briefly mention the endogenous growth model. What is the problem?

Romer: Well, I think the thing we learn from endogenous growth is something very simple. It is the notion of an idea as a nonrival good. The statement that an idea is a nonrival good is very powerful because what that tells you is the value of an idea is proportional to, or at least scales with, the total number of people who can use it. So it means that scale effects are at the heart of economic activity. This is why globalization is so important, because it is now possible for any idea to be used by everyone.

The Solow model already allows for a non-rival good, but the model also made it nonexcludable – which means that no one could control or own an idea. This turns a nonrival good into a public good. What endogenous growth theory said is that, there are some nonrival goods that can be at least partially excludable. This means that incentives start to matter, both for discovering ideas and for spreading ideas. The people who want to stick with price-taking never want to allow the possibility of that a nonrival good could be even partially excludable. Because of their untenable insistence on price-taking models, they have tried to stop the spread of the key insight from endogenous growth theory. And they have been at least partially successful in doing so.

Once you admit that there are some nonrival goods, globalization becomes much more important than standard theory suggests. And if you allow that some of them are partially excludable, then incentives matter a lot more than standard theory suggests, for better and for worse.

So for example, there is a non-rival idea that a firm can control. They can keep it secret. They can take it to work in a factory in India. If they want to locate in India but there are no gateway cities there, they may go elsewhere in the world. So the policies that make a place like Mumbai so dysfunctional influence growth for the entire country.

What a government can do is influence the incentives for people to bring ideas into a country. One way to think about why Shenzhen was so powerful is that it created incentives for firms to bring ideas into China and combine those ideas with Chinese workers.

You don’t even need a formal model for that. Once you see the underlying idea, sometimes the words and the clarity of thinking are what really matters, not the math. You can use the math to get there, but once you got there, you don’t need that anymore. It is unfortunate that these ideas are not being communicated to students in our textbooks, because these are the exciting ideas.

(via Mark Thoma/Economist's View)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Decision Making in a Nutshell

Justin Fox has a nice review article in the Harvard Business Review which reviews the three major schools of decision-making (decision analysis, heuristics and biases, and "we're not as stupid as we look"). Particularly fascinating, in an inside baseball sort of way, is the bit about how Gerd Gigerenzer "fatigued" Daniel Kahneman with his arguments:
During an academic year at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, in 1989–1990, he gave talks at Stanford (which had become Tversky’s academic home) and UC Berkeley (where Kahneman then taught) fiercely criticizing the heuristics-and-biases research program. His complaint was that the work of Kahneman, Tversky, and their followers documented violations of a model, Bayesian decision analysis, that was itself flawed or at best incomplete. Kahneman encouraged the debate at first, Gigerenzer says, but eventually tired of his challenger’s combative approach. The discussion was later committed to print in a series of journal articles, and after reading through the whole exchange, it’s hard not to share Kahneman’s fatigue.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Startup Geometry Podcast, Episode 001: Steven Brust

Welcome to the Startup Geometry podcast, where we talk to the creators, innovators and explorers who make the world what it is.

In this episode, I talk with Steven Brust, author of the Vlad Taltos/Dragaera novels. We talk about his writing process, important influences and future plans. I've been a huge fan of Steven's, ever since his first novel, Jhereg, introduced us to wisecracking assassin Vlad Taltos and his sidekick Loiosh back in 1983.

His latest books are Hawk and The Incrementalists.

You'll notice that I immediately mispronounce his last name (which is pronounced BROOST, though spelled BRUST), despite having pasted a note with the phonetic spelling of his name to the microphone I was using at the time. Podcasting is HARD.

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Show links:
Dreamcafe, Steven Brust's homepage
His Twitter account: @stevenbrust

At the Tor.com site:
Fritz Leiber
Michael Moorcock
Roger Zelazny
Skyler White
Emma Bull

The Isaiah Berlin quote I referenced with regard to Incrementalist politics was in an interview with him which was excerpted in The 50 Year Argument, a documentary on the New York Review of Books, where I first saw and heard it. Similar sentiments could be found elsewhere in his work, for example in Crooked Timber, a collection of his essays and lectures.