Healthcare.gov & the Scalability Problem

Scalability problems plague the creation of large web sites. This is especially poignant, given the Healthcare.gov web site fiasco:

Large systems, too complex for individual comprehension, must be subdivided into smaller tasks coordinated between groups. In fact, a large portion of software engineering is devoted to the documentation, notification, and management review needed to coordinate large projects.

Report Reiterates Axiom: Restrictive Spectrum Rules Unsuccessful

A report released today reiterates much of what we already know: restrictive spectrum rules aimed at achieving specific policy goals are mostly unsuccessful. I have previously written on this topic for the UK, which the report outlines in more detail, but both Canada and Germany have faced serious challenges and market distortions because of restrictive spectrum rules:

  • In Germany, where regulators restricted participation in the 3G auction through spectrum caps, two new entrants withdrew from the market without deploying the newly acquired spectrum. This spectrum lay fallow for a decade and was reassigned in the 2010 4G auctions.
  • A spectrum cap was in place for the Canadian PCS auction in 2001, butthe auction failed to enable the creation of a new national carrier, though new regional service was launched. After the cap wasrescinded, a merger reduced the national carriers from four to three.
  • A 2008 Canadian auction of AWS licenses set aside 40 of 90 MHz for new entrants. The discriminatory rule distorted prices for both the set-aside and unrestricted spectrum – Canadian AWS spectrum sold for three times the average price for AWS spectrum in the U.S. – and failed to attract national entrants. There has been little impact on the combined market share of the three national carriers.

The FCC and carriers are getting ready for another major round of spectrum auctions and critics are again calling for restrictive rules. History tells us to be very wary.

 

Forget About Too Little Information or Too Much Information, Think About Search Costs

Poking around Cory Doctrow’s Tumblr site today, I came across a Neil Gaiman quote:

For most of the human race, pretty much all of the lifespan of the human race, information was currency. Information was like gold. It was rare, it was hard to find, it was expensive. You could get your information, but you had to know where to go, you had to know what you were looking at, you had to know how to find your information. It was hard. And librarians were the key players in the battle for information, because they could go and get and bring back this golden nugget for you, the thing that you needed.

Over the last decade, which is less than a blink of an eye in the history of the human race, it’s all changed. And we’ve gone from a world in which there is too little information, in which information is scarce, to a world in which there is too much information, and most of it is untrue or irrelevant.

From too little information to too much information in just a few short years? Presumably then, at some point there was a Goldilocks era when we had exactly the right amount of information. So, when exactly was that, 1998 or thereabouts? Gaiman’s rhetorical use of too much and too little information hardly makes sense when considered in finer detail.

True, there is more information today than ever. Almost 90% of all data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. And yes, there is a lot to experience, yet, there is a serious dearth of useful information, as there always has been. Useful information, information that push forward a project or make a difference in saving lives is costly. For individuals, it means pushing yourself further on the learning curve. For firms, it means the adoption of new management practices. Concerns about too much or too little information are orthogonal to a more important line of questioning: what are the costs in searching for the answer.

 

 

Frankenstein, the Modern Critical Horror Novel

An essay at the Times Literary Supplement adds context to Frankenstein:

As the editors note, Shelley’s contemporaries would have associated the monster’s terror with the Terror of the French Revolution. Conservatives likened the Revolution to a monster created by Enlightenment rationalism, whereas radicals perceived it as a justified response to a monstrous ancien régime. The novel raised questions about social justice and reciprocal obligations in a modern, secular age, in the process also condemning slavery. In addition, Shelley criticized gender relations, just as her mother had done in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Frankenstein’s creation of life was not simply an act of scientific hubris, but an exposé of patriarchy. By arrogating the creation of life solely to himself, Frankenstein’s deed of giving birth results in the death of everyone he loved, culminating in his own mortal struggle with his creation in the sterile frigidity of the Arctic.

The Embodiment of Technopanics – Gesture

“Fear is an extremely powerful motivating force, especially in public policy debates,” writes Adam Thierer. The emotion is often used to drive public policy to spectacular effect, but it little understood in this context. Thierer’s paper “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle” fills in those gaps. In reading it, however, I was struck by the connections at various points to current linguistic theory, and so this is my attempt to slowly build a comprehensive paper to further elaborate on the topic. The first section is on gesture, simply enough.

Gestures

Chimpanzees do not point. Although they might hear the vocalizations of other apes and assume the presence of a predator without seeing it, the one who vocalizes will always have sight of the the predator. They cannot, unlike humans, point to things that are not there; they cannot express information about an absent thing. To some, this might seem like a minor distinction, but for those concerned with language, it is a gulf, separating the simple communication of higher apes and other social creatures, from the defining feature of humanity, language. To be more concrete, we can express abstract gestures.

The ability to point to something out there that we both do not see, is the key difference. It hints at something larger, at a more basic relationship between abstract gesture and abstract communication. There are however many of these threads running between anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology that paint a complex mosaic of relationships connecting language with important bodily features like gesture, motion, emotion and reason. The total project that has tried to draw together many of the important thought is generally being called cognitive science, and gives us an important theoretical underpinning to the power of technopanics.

It helps to begin where all of the magic happens, the brain. As evident from a wide assortment of studies on language disorders, only a limited number of areas in the cerebrum have linguistic capabilities; the so called Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas being two of the most studied and well known. Nearly all of these areas of language processing are located on the left side of the brain, next to areas that control speech and movement. This is not just a peculiarity, but integral to processing. As evidenced in studies employing neural imaging, mentions of the face or the leg will cause the part of the brain that directs movement in the face or the leg to light up. Conversely, activation will occur in many of the same language areas when an individual conducts simple tasks involving the leg or the face. When repeated for visual and olfactory stimuli, language centers again were activated.

This partially explains why comprehension tests show a marked increased in semantic understanding for the situations that are essentially spatial or related to ‘body-object interaction,’ as there is complex array of processing dedicated to these relations.

To guide the movement of the body through space, there must be constant physiological monitoring of the environment and the relations of nearby objects. Body schema is the name given to this internal system of control. As a version of homeosatis, body schema is a kind of internal regulation that is universal for life. Distinct from the rest of the higher primates and the animal kingdom, humans by far have the most complex of these systems, as we are able to incorporate tools within seconds. Oftentimes, there is no natural inclination to actually interact with tools on the part of other primates, which is universal of humans, and they have taught.

In many ways, this is a new way of looking at language. This new program of research has emerged,

[This] approach focuses attention on the fact that most real-world thinking occurs in very particular (and often very complex) environments, is employed for very practical ends, and exploits the possibility of interaction with and manipulation of external props. It thereby foregrounds the fact that cognition is a highly embodied or situated activity—emphasis intentionally on all three— and suggests that thinking beings ought therefore be considered first and foremost as acting beings.

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones…”

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

-Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

TS Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”

The best parts of this poem come from the end:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Life in the 1700s Was Very Poor

The natural state of humanity is poverty, not abundance. Poor, nasty brutish and short was the way of life for nearly until 250 years ago, especially poor. Here was life in the early 1700s, for example:

  • Every item of clothing was made by hand to fit the consumer. Suits made like this today costs around $4,000. Consider affording that on subsistence wages. 
  • In France, it was common for poor laborers to not wear shoes.
  • With low economies to scale and expensive transportation costs, everything but the priciest of materials was expensive to ship. Spices, whale byproducts and tobacco were among these items.
  • Interest rates were 30-60%.

SEC Accuses the State of Illinois of Securities Fraud

Yes, you read that title correctly. The NYT is reporting:

From 2005 to 2009, Illinois issued $2.2 billion worth of municipal bonds, which the S.E.C. said were marketed under false pretenses. There was a growing hole in the pension system, putting increasing pressure on the state’s finances every year. That raised the risk that at some point retirees and bond buyers would be competing for the same limited money. The risk grew greater every year, the S.E.C. said, but investors could not see it by looking at Illinois’ disclosures.

In effect, that meant investors overpaid for bonds of a lower quality than they were made out to have, although the S.E.C. did not measure any loss. In Monday’s settlement with the S.E.C., Illinois agreed to a cease-and-desist order without admitting or denying the accusations.

 

The Nuances of Neoliberalism

Masters of the Universe” will be the next book in the pile, largely due to a review by Michael Clune:

That neoliberalism won out was due neither to the failures of the welfare state nor to a “master plan” pushed by the agents of capital. The story Stedman Jones tells is considerably more nuanced. He shows neoliberalism’s ascendance to be the result of a series of more or less ad hoc moves on the part of politicians, activists, media figures, and economists in response to a series of political and economic shocks that began in the 1970s. The image of a dramatic face-off between neoliberals and proponents of the postwar center-left consensus is largely an artifact of retrospective right-wing propaganda, which the left seems to have accepted in its essential features.

Monetarism is a government policy for manipulating the economy. The free market is the vision of an economy liberated from government control. Understanding how a rather technical policy approach came to be identified with the love of free markets opens an entirely new approach to the fundamental economic and political transformation of our time. And understanding how this identification came to be resisted allows us to understand the longevity of the biggest zombie of all: the tendency to blame government for everything that’s wrong with the economy.

I often find myself in discussions of neoliberalism and have implored others to consider a more detailed story of events, which this book seems to aim for. But Clune fails to mention the deregulation that occurred elsewhere in the economy, not just in monetary policy. Telecommunications, airlines and alcohol were all “deregulated,” the effect being lower prices and higher quality goods. Of course there have been problems, but the larger point is that a free market philosophy is more nuanced than even this reviewer is willing to admit.