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“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”*…

 

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We’re living through a real-time natural experiment on a global scale. The differential performance of countries, cities and regions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is a live test of the effectiveness, capacity and legitimacy of governments, leaders and social contracts.

The progression of the initial outbreak in different countries followed three main patterns. Countries like Singapore and Taiwan represented Pattern A, where (despite many connections to the original source of the outbreak in China) vigilant government action effectively cut off community transmission, keeping total cases and deaths low. China and South Korea represented Pattern B: an initial uncontrolled outbreak followed by draconian government interventions that succeeded in getting at least the first wave of the outbreak under control.

Pattern C is represented by countries like Italy and Iran, where waiting too long to lock down populations led to a short-term exponential growth of new cases that overwhelmed the healthcare system and resulted in a large number of deaths. In the United States, the lack of effective and universally applied social isolation mechanisms, as well as a fragmented healthcare system and a significant delay in rolling out mass virus testing, led to a replication of Pattern C, at least in densely populated places like New York City and Chicago.

Despite the Chinese and Americans blaming each other and crediting their own political system for successful responses, the course of the virus didn’t score easy political points on either side of the new Cold War. Regime type isn’t correlated with outcomes. Authoritarian and democratic countries are included in each of the three patterns of responses: authoritarian China and democratic South Korea had effective responses to a dramatic breakout; authoritarian Singapore and democratic Taiwan both managed to quarantine and contain the virus; authoritarian Iran and democratic Italy both experienced catastrophe.

It’s generally a mistake to make long-term forecasts in the midst of a hurricane, but some outlines of lasting shifts are emerging. First, a government or society’s capacity for technical competence in executing plans matters more than ideology or structure. The most effective arrangements for dealing with the pandemic have been found in countries that combine a participatory public culture of information sharing with operational experts competently executing decisions. Second, hyper-individualist views of privacy and other forms of risk are likely to be submerged as countries move to restrict personal freedoms and use personal data to manage public and aggregated social risks. Third, countries that are able to successfully take a longer view of planning and risk management will be at a significant advantage…

From Steve Weber and @nils_gilman, an argument for the importance of operational expertise, plans for the long-term, and the socialization of some risks: “The Long Shadow Of The Future.”

* Dwight D. Eisenhower

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As we make ourselves ready, we might recall that it was on this date in 1822 that Charles Babbage [see almanac entry here] proposes a Difference Engine in a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society (which he’d helped found two years earlier).

In Babbage’s time, printed mathematical tables were calculated by human computers… in other words, by hand.  They were central to navigation, science, and engineering, as well as mathematics– but mistakes occurred, both in transcription and in calculation.  Babbage determined to mechanize the process and to reduce– indeed, to eliminate– errors.  His Difference Engine was intended as precisely that sort of mechanical calculator (in this instance, to compute values of polynomial functions).

In 1833 he began his programmable Analytical Machine (AKA, the Analytical Engine), the forerunner of modern computers, with coding help from Ada Lovelace, who created an algorithm for the Analytical Machine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers— for which she is remembered as the first computer programmer.

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A portion of the difference engine

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“Neoliberalization has meant, in short, the financialization of everything”*…

 

Succession

 

Investing and deal-making occupy an outsized role in popular depictions of “business” like HBO’s Succession and Showtime’s Billions. They also occupy an outsized share of our elite: Over the last five years, the nation’s top business schools have sent nearly thirty percent of their graduating classes into finance.

But the buying and selling of companies, the mergers and divestments, the hedging and leveraging, are not themselves valuable activity. They invent, create, build, and provide nothing. Their claim to value is purely derivative—by improving the allocation of capital and configuration of assets, they are supposed to make everyone operating in the real economy more productive. The practitioners are rewarded richly for their effort.

Does this work, or are the efforts largely wasted? One might default to the assumption that an industry attracting so much talent and generating so much profit must be creating enormous value. But the elaborate financial engineering of the 2000s, which attempted an alchemy-like conversion of high-risk loans into rock-solid assets, and then placed highly leveraged bets against their performance, led to the collapse of some established Wall Street institutions, massive bailouts for others, and a global economic meltdown. Mergers and acquisitions, meanwhile, appear largely to be exercises in wheel-spinning: “M&A is a mug’s game,” explains Roger Martin in the Harvard Business Review, “in which typically 70%–90% of acquisitions are abysmal failures.”…

Hedge funds and venture capital funds appear to badly underperform simple public market indexes, while buyout funds have performed roughly at par over the past decade. Of course, some funds deliver outsized returns in a given timeframe; even a random distribution has a right tail. And there are managers whose strong and consistent track records suggest the creation of real value.

In other words, most fund managers are generating the results that one might expect from an elaborate game of chance—placing bets in the market with odds similar to a coin flip. With enough people playing, some will always find themselves on winning streaks and claim the Midas touch, at least until the coin’s next flip. Except under these rules of “heads I win, tails you lose,” they collect their fees regardless…

In the U.S., finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sector now accounts for 20 percent of GDP– compared with only 10 percent in 1947.  The thorough and thoughtful analysis– and critique–  of the frothier components of that sector excerpted above is noteworthy, beyond its quality, for it’s origin; it is an early product of a new conservative think tank, American Compass.

Read it in full: “Coin-Flip Capitalism: A Primer.”

Pair with “What Kind of Country Do We Want?“, a resonant essay from the amazing Marilynne Robinson.

(image above: source)

* “Neoliberalization has meant, in short, the financialization of everything. There was unquestionably a power shift away from production to the world of finance… Neoliberalization has not been very effective in revitalizing global capital accumulation, but it has succeeded remarkably well in restoring, or in some instances (as in Russia and China) creating, the power of an economic elite. The theoretical utopianism of neoliberal argument has, I conclude, primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation for whatever needed to be done to achieve this goal.”  — David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism

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As we look beyond price to value, we might recall that it was on this date in 1936 that Alan Turing submitted his paper, “On Computable Numbers” for publication; its full title was “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.”  In answer to Hibert’s and Ackermann’s 1928 challenge, Turing demonstrated that some purely mathematical yes-no questions can never be answered by computation; more technically, that some decision problems are “undecidable” in the sense that there is no single algorithm that infallibly gives a correct “yes” or “no” answer to each instance of the problem.  In Turing’s own words: “…what I shall prove is quite different from the well-known results of Gödel … I shall now show that there is no general method which tells whether a given formula U is provable in K.”

Turing followed this proof with two others, both of which rely on the first. And all rely on his development of type-writer-like “computing machines” that obey a simple set of rules and his subsequent development of a “universal computing machine”– the “Turing Machine,” a key inspiration (to von Neumann and others) for the development of the digital computer.

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“PLATO was my Alexandria. It was my library, it was the place where I could attach myself to anything.”*…

 

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One upon a time [in the 60s and 70s], there was a computer network with thousands of users across the world. It featured chat rooms, message boards, multiplayer games, a blog-like newspaper, and accredited distance learning, all piped to flat-panel plasma screens that were also touchscreens. And it wasn’t the internet.

It was PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), and its original purpose was to harness the power of the still-obscure world of computing as a teaching tool. Developing PLATO required simultaneous quantum leaps in technological sophistication, and it worked—college and high-school students quickly learned how to use it, and also pushed it to do new things.

Despite decades of use at major universities, it all but vanished in the 1980s and from popular memory in the years that followed, a victim of the microcomputer revolution. At its peak, PLATO was surprisingly similar to the modern internet, and it left its DNA in technology we still use today…

The story of the ur-internet: “PLATO.”

* novelist Richard Powers (who was a coder before he turned to literary fiction)

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As we log on, we might send super birthday greetings to Seymour Roger Cray; he was born on this date in 1925.  An electrical engineer and computer architect, he designed a series of computers that were the fastest in the world for decades, and founded Cray Research which built many of these machines– effectively creating the “supercomputer” industry and earning the honorific “father of supercomputing.”

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With a Cray-1

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Written by LW

September 28, 2019 at 1:01 am

“A classical computation is like a solo voice—one line of pure tones succeeding each other. A quantum computation is like a symphony—many lines of tones interfering with one another.”*…

 

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Quantum computers will never fully replace “classical” ones like the device you’re reading this article on. They won’t run web browsers, help with your taxes, or stream the latest video from Netflix.

What they will do—what’s long been hoped for, at least—will be to offer a fundamentally different way of performing certain calculations. They’ll be able to solve problems that would take a fast classical computer billions of years to perform. They’ll enable the simulation of complex quantum systems such as biological molecules, or offer a way to factor incredibly large numbers, thereby breaking long-standing forms of encryption.

The threshold where quantum computers cross from being interesting research projects to doing things that no classical computer can do is called “quantum supremacy.” Many people believe that Google’s quantum computing project will achieve it later this year…

Researchers are getting close to building a quantum computer that can perform tasks a classical computer can’t. Here’s what the milestone will mean: “Quantum Supremacy Is Coming: Here’s What You Should Know.”

* Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos

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As we get weird, we might recall that it was on this date in 2012 that Ohioan Beth Johnson attempted to break a record that has been set in on this same date 1999 by a group of English college students– for the largest working yoyo in the world.  The British yoyo was 10 feet in diameter; hers, 11 feet, 9 inches.  (It weighed 4,620 lbs.)  Her attempt on this date failed, as did another.  But finally, in September, 2012, she was able successfully to deploy it from a crane in Cincinnati… and earn her way into the Guinness Book of World Records

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Beth Johnson and her record-setting creation

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“One of the things I did not understand, was that these systems can be used to manipulate public opinion in ways that are quite inconsistent with what we think of as democracy”*…

 

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Nineteen years ago, in his third annual call for answers to an Annual Question, John Brockman asked members of the Edge community what they believed to be “today’s [2000’s] most important unreported story.” The remarkable Howard Rheingold (@hrheingold) answered in a way that has turned out to be painfully prophetic…

The way we learn to use the Internet in the next few years (or fail to learn) will influence the way our grandchildren govern themselves. Yet only a tiny fraction of the news stories about the impact of the Net focus attention on the ways many to-many communication technology might be changing democracy — and those few stories that are published center on how traditional political parties are using the Web, not on how grassroots movements might be finding a voice…

Every communication technology alters governance and political processes. Candidates and issues are packaged and sold on television by the very same professionals who package and sell other commodities. In the age of mass media, the amount of money a candidate can spend on television advertising is the single most important influence on the electoral success. Now that the Internet has transformed every desktop into a printing press, broadcasting station, and place of assembly, will enough people learn to make use of this potential? Or will our lack of news, information, and understanding of the Net as a political tool prove insufficient against the centralization of capital, power, and knowledge that modern media also make possible?…

The political power afforded to citizens by the Web is not a technology issue. Technology makes a great democratization of publishing, journalism, public discourse possible, but does not determine whether or not that potential will be realized. Every computer connected to the Net can publish a manifesto, broadcast audio and video eyewitness reports of events in real time, host a virtual community where people argue about those manifestos and broadcasts. Will only the cranks, the enthusiasts, the fringe groups take advantage of this communication platform? Or will many-to-many communication skills become a broader literacy, the way knowing and arguing about the issues of the day in print was the literacy necessary for the American revolution?…

The Scylla and Charybdis of which Howard warned– centralization-by-capital/political power and atomization-into-cacophony (whether via the pollution of manipulation/”fake news” or simple tribalism)– is now all too apparent… even if it’s not at all clear how we sail safely between them.  It’s almost 20 years later– but not too late to heed Howard’s call, which you can read in full at “How Will The Internet Influence Democracy?

* Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google [as Howard’s 2000 insight dawns on him in 2017, source]

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As we try harder, we might recall that it was on this date in 1911 that financier and “Father of Trusts” Charles R. Flint incorporated The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company as a holding company into which he rolled up manufacturers of record-keeping and measuring systems: Bundy Manufacturing Company, International Time Recording Company, The Tabulating Machine Company, and the Computing Scale Company of America.

Four years later Flint hired Thomas J. Watson, Sr. to run the company; nine years after that, in 1924, Watson organized the formerly disparate units into a single operating company, which he named “International Business Machines,” or as we now know it, IBM.

150px-CTR_Company_Logo source

 

 

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