Recensie Desert Golfing in de nrc.next

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In de nrc.next van vandaag staat de eerste helft van mijn recensie van de iOS sensatie Desert Golfing. Hier is de rest:

Desert Golfing is een game over golfen in de woestijn. In een twee-dimensionaal pastelkleurig woestijnlandschap moet je een bal de hole in schieten. Je vinger bepaalt de kracht en de hoek van je slag en als je loslaat vliegt de bal weg. Hoe ver je bal komt, hoe vaak hij stuitert en hoe lang hij doorrolt voelen perfect, eigenlijk precies alsof je echt golf speelt in een woestijn. Alleen ben je hier na 18 holes niet klaar. De maker laat niet veel los maar spelers hebben ontdekt dat er duizenden willekeurig gegenereerde woestijnlandschappen—de een moeilijker dan de andere—wachten om gespeeld te worden. Of er een einde aan komt weten we niet. De combinatie van eenvoud en oneindigheid maken dat je Desert Golfing lang kunt blijven spelen. Het is een fijn tussendoortje voor onderweg en tegelijkertijd een meditatie op hoeveel er met heel weinig mogelijk is.

Acemoglu’s Critique on Piketty

I read this paper by Acemoglu and Robinson right after I read the book by Piketty thinking that there would be some interesting economic debate. Unfortunately I was proved wrong and this seems to be exemplary for the stagnation of the economic field.

It’s extremely selective nitpicking, some qualms with definitions and arguing about semantics. In those places where Piketty actually writes the same thing as them, they don’t mention it in their paper. This means that they have either not read the book or that they are being disingenuous.

Their paper was also written so poorly that reading it felt like more of a slog than 600 pages by Piketty.

I found a confirmation for my point (and another one) of view and it looks like it’s the old: ‘I need to publish something quickly to take advantage of somebody else’s freshly minted superstardom.’.

Thomas Piketty Debunks Conventional Economics

I read “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” on assignment and I am glad I did because it is a well written, easy to read and profoundly insightful book. It illuminates what capital is and what effects it has in the world to an extent that hasn’t been done before. The book contains lots of insights and it takes down many financial myths that are imposed on us every day.

Even though I read this book on an Austrian mountain I was still witness to the age old workings of capital. The cabin next door belonged to a person who also owned a large chunk of the mountain. On this plot he kept a couple of dozen cows who grazed and calved there by themselves. This herd and therefore this farmer’s capital would thereby multiply every year yielding double digit returns (I estimate anything from 20-80% on the animals).

I’ll treat each of the myths in this post from the copious notes I took while reading the book.

Myth 1: Capital concentration is not a problem

This is the central tenet of the book. The idea that capital is not an issue and will never be again in our societies is disproved. The core equation of r > g states that most of the time the yield on investments is higher than economic growth and even a small difference will have fairly large consequences in the long run.

Those that don’t have any capital (over 50% of society) have no idea what kind of concentrations of capital are available to others nor which mechanisms enable them to create and maintain these quantities of wealth. A lack of widespread knowledge both of the details of capital as of the financial strategies available to elites is a democratic deficit.

“Those who have a lot of it [money] never fail to defend their interests.”

Myth 2: Merit determines what people get

“Modern meritocratic society, especially in the United States, is much harder on the losers, because it seeks to justify domination on the grounds of justice, virtue, and merit, to say nothing of the insufficient productivity of those at the bottom.”

This point is being argued increasingly by for example Alain de Botton on ‘the evils of meritocracy’. It turns out that this argument frames everybody who isn’t rich (usually because of hereditary misfortune) into a loser who who isn’t trying hard enough or is lazy.

This is an absurd piece of reasoning that has been surprisingly predominant in the past decades.

Myth 3: We need 5-10% annual growth

The current consensus seems to be that a growth rate below 2-3% is bad news. Piketty argues that even a growth of 1% year over year will compound to create large amounts of change. This rate of increase is actually exponential growth (for a fairly low exponent) even though Piketty does not call it so.

According to Piketty high growth usually takes place during phases of catch up. Once a country is caught up growth will come down to normal rates. Other countries can and will experience these high growth periods as threatening.

Myth 4: Macro-economists are doing the best job they can

The biggest value of Piketty’s book is that it demonstrates that a realist approach to economy is possible. Many of the insights in the book are not illuminating because of their politics but because this kind of data has never been collected and analysed in this way before. He calls his deductions accounting identities and as such their content isn’t subject to debate as much as their consequences are.

In the book he questions regularly what economists have been doing for the past centuries. Piketty at one point says that Marx could have done a better job if he’d consulted the data that was available to him at the time. I would say that rather than building a realistic and empirical basis for their positions they have undertaken pissing contests between this school and that.

Every graph in the book points to a data series on an accompanying website where you can download an archive with Stata files, Excel files and all of the graphs in the book. Though a somewhat primitive approach, for the field of economy this looks like a revolutionary innovation. This may be a bit of ‘digital social sciences’ happening finally.

The sheer amount of data lends this book a sheen of objectivity. That may explain why so many people who had not read this book totally lost their shit over it. I believe this is a case where the extra credibility lent to something based on data is mostly justified.

At the end of the book Piketty welcomes the empirical research being popularised within economy as part of ‘behavioural economics’:

“Economists today are full of enthusiasm for empirical methods based on controlled experiments. When used with moderation, these methods can be useful, and they deserve credit for turning some economists toward concrete questions and firsthand knowledge of the terrain (a long overdue development).”

Myth 5: Immigration is a bad thing

“In a quasi-stagnant society, wealth accumulated in the past will inevitably acquire disproportionate importance.”

The consensus in Europe is that immigration is a bad thing. Piketty argues that population growth is a factor on top of economic growth (or instead of) to increase a nation’s income.

Myth 6: Debts are neutral

Piketty explains that debts are a transfer from the poor to the rich. Bond holders are almost exclusively rich people either directly or through portfolios who are paid interest by nations as a whole. As such everybody including poor people pay while the only people who benefit are the rich.

This is highly relevant when considering the levels of national debts within Europe and the fact that nation states are being held hostage by lenders whose identities we don’t even know.

Myth 7: Taxation is just about creating revenue

“It is important to understand that a tax is always more than just a tax: it is also a way of defining norms and categories and imposing a legal framework on economic activity.”

Piketty says that even a tax that is too small to make a fiscal difference would be useful because taxation necessitates transparency and mapping. Just as the taxation of land requires a legible cadastral system to know who had what piece of land, creating a fractional tax on capital would shine some light in a dark place.

Myth 8: Inflation is bad

“How can a public debt as large as today’s European debt be significantly reduced? There are three main methods, which can be combined in various proportions: taxes on capital, inflation, and austerity. An exceptional tax on private capital is the most just and efficient solution. Failing that, inflation can play a useful role: historically, that is how most large public debts have been dealt with. The worst solution in terms of both justice and efficiency is a prolonged dose of austerity—yet that is the course Europe is currently following.”

It turns out that inflation is not as bad a thing as it is made out to be. Many European nations have used inflation in the 20th century to greatly reduce their debts. Piketty says above that austerity is the worst thing that you can do in the face of large national debts.

Inflation is however not an uniformly good strategy to get rid of debts because it will disproportionately affect those without real assets (poor people and the lower middle class) i.e. people with a small nest egg in the bank.

In fact later in the book Piketty mentions that Germany has benefited most from inflation during the 20th century but now refuses to let others benefit similarly.

Germany is often exemplarized as an economic example within Europe but this is patently false. Germany is in fact a deeply unfair and hyper-capitalist society which has more similarities with the USA than with any other continental European nation. There is no minimum wage in Germany. Parents can give their children €800’000 taxfree every ten years. The list goes on.

After using inflation to reduce their debts, Germany has in the 90s reformed its social security and labour market to a fairly extreme level. With such a liberal job market it is also economically expedient for them to be an immigration nation pulling in the qualified labour pools of other countries.

Now being the dominant economic power in Europe Germany is using every means at its disposal to stay that way even if it means choking off other European nations. Comparisons of Merkel with Hitler may be absurd, a comparison with Putin seems justified. Just like Putin, Merkel is allowed to stay in power as long as the economy is growing and things are stable.

Myth 9: Supermanagers deserve to make absurd amounts of money

There has been a lot of debate about this already and it is pertinent to Piketty because the people at the top of the income distribution today are people that have both historically accumulated wealth and are in positions where they make a lot of money from their work.

Piketty argues what has been argued in other places as well: there is no proof for increased productivity of supermanagers or for anything else that would merit such disproportionately high pay. A better explanation for it is that there are old boys who determine each others’ renumeration and have no incentive to hold back.

Myth 10: Education should be expensive

Piketty argues that even though education may not be a cure for inequality that open access to higher education for anybody who is able to go is very important for a society.

Unfortunately in the Netherlands higher education is being instrumentalized and financialized. It is becoming unattractive to learn things that do not have a direct market payoff because of the debt you incur while studying. It is fairly obvious that this system disproportionately benefits those with money who are less affected by opportunity cost.

Myth 11: Globalization is bad

Piketty argues that globalisation is good and that countries that close themselves off rarely benefit from it. He uses this as an argument for more taxes: “Absence of progressive taxation may undermine support for a globalised economy.”

Myth 12: The United States have always been a nation of low taxation

“Furthermore, the Great Depression of the 1930s struck the United States with extreme force, and many people blamed the economic and financial elites for having enriched themselves while leading the country to ruin.”

“Josiah Wedgwood, in the preface to a new edition of his classic 1929 book on inheritance, agreed with his compatriot Bertrand Russell that the “plutodemocracies” and their hereditary elites had failed to stem the rise of fascism. He was convinced that “political democracies that do not democratize their economic systems are inherently unstable.”

I was amazed that the United States (and England) for a period of time had incredibly high (confiscatory) taxes on income, capital and estates because: ‘all excessively high incomes were suspect.’ The accumulation of capital was seen as something unhealthy and also as something profoundly illiberal.

Myth 13: Financial transparency is undesirable

“It is particularly striking to discover that the countries that are most dependent on substantial tax revenues to pay for their social programs, namely the European countries, are also the ones that have accomplished the least, even though the technical challenges are quite simple.”

One of the most important solutions and necessities Piketty suggests is to increase the transparency of capital stocks and flows around the world. There are initiatives underway to do this but they will take a long time to implement and will probably be watered down when they get there. Doxing off-shore banks may be the only remedy available to us in the meantime.

Financial transparency for everybody and especially the ultra-rich should be something for which there is a clear majority. The question then remains why it is so hard to push through. Maybe having a president of the European Commission who used to work for the Luxembourg cottage financial industries is not making this any easier?

Knowing whose money is where and where it is going is also necessary during financial crises to be able to take the right action. It would seem obvious but it turns out that during the recent financial crises our governments had to resort to the equivalent of randomly throwing money into black holes.

The initiative Open Spending focuses on making government finances transparent. A similar initiative should push for doing the same with the financial data of public and private companies.

Myth 14: Public wealth will follow after economic growth

Economic growth in an area does not benefit everybody and definitely not equally. Berlin for instance has recently seen a gigantic influx of capital and private wealth. The city finally has budgets in the black again but still has no money to speak of. More correctly: there isn’t any money for better public transportation or to clean school buildings; there is money for large scale construction projects and Olympic bids.

Myth 15: Investors are as useless as a gorilla

“The higher we go in the endowment hierarchy, the more often we find alternative investment strategies,” that is, very high yield investments such as shares in private equity funds and unlisted foreign stocks (which require great expertise), hedge funds, derivatives, real estate, and raw materials, including energy, natural resources, and related products (these, too, require specialized expertise and offer very high potential yields).”

Piketty demonstrates this popular notion to be patently false. It turns out that given enough money you can get both access to more interesting investment opportunities and hire advisors that can get you high yields on those opportunities. He takes the endowment of for instance Harvard as an example where they by investing a small part of their huge capital (of some $30B) they manage to get returns on the order of 10% a year.

The measly one or two percent you and I can get at the bank pales in comparison and does not even keep up with inflation. You could save yourself some trouble and just throw your money into a fireplace.

Holiday Reading: The Information by James Gleick

“The new technology was both the virus and the vector of transmission.” — Walter J. Ong

Shannonmouse

This was one of the three books I read during my holiday in a cabin on the Austrian Alps. To hedge against a lack of sun hours to charge my reading device with I brought some physical books that had been lingering on my moribund to-read pile.

I wasn’t sure if ‘The Information’ would be worth reading as a graduate in computer science but it turns out that it is as fantastic a book as everybody said it was.

Shortly summarised ‘The Information’ is a summary of a large part of my studies: the formal logic and computability parts, the signal processing and information theory parts and a bunch more. As such it functions as an easier to digest mashup of ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach’ and ‘The Baroque Cycle’ if I may call it that.

The book treats many of the same topics as those books and paints a stunning picture of the history of science. It shows you in the writings of those scientists how our understanding of information evolved with time and how that evolution informs our current perspective.

The book focuses on Shannon, where GEB for instance is more about Kurt Gödel and Cryptonomicon (the prelude to the Baroque Cycle) is more about Alan Turing. What is interesting to note is how Shannon’s work contributed an informational turn to the social sciences.

Information historical accounts are super interesting—also something that I enjoyed immensely during the Latour MOOC—but a weakness of the book is that the insights offered therein break down the closer we get to the present day. Current events move too quickly to be framed with the same flourishes as the writings of Charles Babbage and Ada Byron Lovelace.

Product design focused on user wants

This post was previously published on Medium and is now archived here.

There’s some recent writing about the decomposition of apps into either thin slivers of single purpose functionality per app or even breaking out of the traditional app domain entirely and delivering their functionality through for instance the notifications screen.

I think both of these are onto something but that the trend itself is more fundamental. I think there are three things happening.

1. Apps can be decomposed into high-level user wants.

A want starts with “I want” and is followed by getting or creating something often accompanied by some social intermediation. Such a want could be “I want to send a message” or it could be “I want to read (and reply to) my messages” or it could be “I want to find a place to eat.”

These are not utilities. Most interesting apps these days are lifestyle apps. Focusing on a single want does not mean the app becomes easier to make. Implementing a want with its very specific functionality, appropriate context, user interface and communication may be even more difficult. A want is a summary of what used to be called ‘user stories’ but focused on what people want to do not on what people are supposed to do. At the risk of sounding obvious: people don’t want to do things they don’t want to do. The exception to this is work where people do things they don’t want to do. People want apps that bring them entertainment, social connections or self-actualisation.

2. Apps cannot support more than a couple of wants well.

Any app that tries to cram in more than a couple of wants from different domains starts to creak and feel cluttered. This looks like the main reason why Foursquare unbundled the totally disparate wants of local discovery “I want to find a good restaurant now” and that of social broadcasting “I want to tell my friends where I am.”

Such unbundling is becoming the norm because an app cannot do everything well without containing multiple apps. Just think back of Facebook’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink app with its own homescreen. The Facebook app itself is becoming more and more bare while wants are increasingly delivered by apps that don’t show they belong to Facebook.

This is a good indicator of what the future holds for these apps. I would for instance be surprised if complicated list management features would be a significant part of the future Foursquare mobile app. Lists do support local discovery but they will never have the mass appeal the app is focusing on.

3. Wants can be fulfilled anywhere you want.

This ties into Naveen’s piece about the notifications becoming the app. I would take this further and say that the app will be wherever people interact with a connected device. Building an app becomes a matter of translating a user want into the interaction affordances of a medium.

You could indeed read and reply to messages in a notification screen if that is where you spend your time. But soon you might do the same thing using the same app but on your connected watch. In a somewhat more distant future you might send a Yo! by slamming two IoT enabled rocks together.

The medium through which a want is fulfilled has become flexible. What matters is the want itself and appropriateness. A talented designer will figure out whether a translation makes sense and how to best implement it.

All in all this is a great development. Digital design is breaking out of screens enabling it to find us where we are and offer us the things we really want.

Berlin real estate development Victoriapark edition

Last Sunday the Senate’s plan to build on Tempelhof was voted off thankfully. Not just to preserve the field which is a one-of-a-kind but to signal to the city that their way of managing construction and housing is not the right way (a full treatment in German).

Then yesterday I went for a run in the nearby Viktoriapark. Out of necessity because I was trying out a running track which turned out to be closed to the public.

Another closed track

So instead of that I ran my laps through the park up and down the hill of the Kreuzberg and was treated with some spectacular views.

Sunset

Doubling back through the South side of the park I came upon this very odd housing development built around a former brewery.

Flaschenkeller

The entire thing was built from scratch and looked super eery and artificial.

Housing development

And worst of all it is hard to access and hermetically closed off from the park. The entire area is fenced off and unaccessible from the park (and vice versa). When you try to pass through you end up on this dead end square. It is a gated community in the center of Berlin and probably exemplary of the type of developments the city government likes to see.

Dead end square

And from there on you can only get out the same way you got in. I can’t really imagine what it must be like to live there without any city activity or people passing through. The only people there are your neighbours on their balconies and their watchful eyes. These people have been sold the fact that they live in Kreuzberg and they probably pay a premium for it but this is as far from that city experience as you can get.

And finally on the other side of the track I found this local sporting club having their BBQ.

Sport club BBQ

Loving the Vechtclub XL

A couple of weeks ago by now I finally got to visit our new office in the Vechtclub XL building in Utrecht. This turned out to be a great experience.

Office

One of the best aspects of the ‘club’ is that it offers an alternative to Utrecht’s terribly cramped and overpriced city center. Everybody wants to live and work in the Utrecht within the ‘singels’ but that privilege costs a lot of money and doesn’t give you a lot of quality of life. Only if you manage to strike a suitable property deal with the city you can do whatever the fuck you want.

Canteen

The Vechtclub XL is a fifteen minutes bike ride out of the city on a derelict business park, about here. There’s nearly nothing nearby which means the building needs to be self-sustaining. That necessity is actually causing that to happen. They are setting up a fully functional cafetaria with world class coffee and more facilities. Being there right now is not terrible. People make do with whatever they have already brought in and there are upsides such as somebody training for a barista championship, lunch being brought in once a week and other events being organized.

This is a continuation of a previous non-XL Vechtclub. Most of it has been funded by the people there who run it not as a cooperative —which looks to be vital. Development is autonomous and moves at a fast clip. The space which is already pretty great is improving continuously.

You can imagine that I was a bit envious and loathe to leave. The upside is that it’ll probably be all new again next time I get there.

Going down everywhere

I was looking around a bit to see if something similar is happening in Berlin or other places as well.

Adam Greenfield mentioned the Institut for (X) in Aarhus which looks very similar in its setup and goals. In Berlin there is the Alte Gießerei which is being converted into a similar setup. There are a bunch more spaces that do something in that direction but most of them do not manage to hit the scale or communal vibe that I try to describe above.

Tempelhofer Park and the union between local government and property developers

There is a shack on Tempelhofer Feld that explains the senate’s plans with the park and the construction they plan to do there:

One sided citizen participation because that is how this city rolls

The people of 100% Tempelhofer Feld with an alternate view are not allowed to express their view on the park itself. Reading through their facebook feed for the past weeks is a collection of absurdism that beggars belief. Truth is stranger than fiction.

And now the city has started a campaign where they found people willing to shill for construction on the field in videos such as these:

They don’t mention how much these people have been paid for their participation. Maybe a human flesh search for these people would be a good idea to track them down and ask them what they really think.

Anyway the entire thing is turning into a travesty where capitalism and the corrupt local government get what they want regardless. There is a term for such an unholy alliance though it has fallen slightly out of use in Germany these past decades.

The Union issue

I have been long flummoxed by how terrible the CDU/CSU complex in Germany is. I could not understand how people could be that stupid and that conservative to the detriment of everybody including themselves. The number of examples is near infinite, but this post was prompted by yesterday’s action by the young Union Berlin.

I now have a new working theory that explains this issue and sheds a new light on Germany.

Working theory: Most of the people from the Nazi party who weren’t shot after WWII went into the Union.

I have not really heard anybody object to this and it really does explain a lot. Those people had to go somewhere and I’m guessing they did not enter the socialist parties which were probably seeded from whatever red element survived the world wars.

This fact has shaped modern German politics from then on.

Turkey’s stolen elections

I have followed the Turkish elections on the night from Sunday to Monday which turned into a gripping account of prime minister Erdogan trying to steal the elections while most of the people were sleeping. Orchestrated blackouts had drawn out the count. The twitter block didn’t prevent activism from spreading but did reduce the reach of its effects. Those that knew and cared about it were at the counting locations trying to safeguard the ballots and the tallies.

The tally notes were shared to be able to corroborate them with entries into the online result system. Most of those results have been off, some by a small amount, some by a larger amount.

Altogether it was a mess and from the cross section of tallies I’ve seen it’s hard to believe that the AKP would have fully swept Istanbul and Ankara. What follows now is a long process of chasing the issue into Turkey’s notoriously horrible judicial system. It is unclear whether that will have an effect other than reducing the trust people in Turkey have in institutions even further.

What that night did teach me after the lukewarm Dutch municipal elections is that democracy is an institution worth defending both when things are calm but especially when times are tough. I am finally allowed to participate in a vote in Berlin. The European Parliament elections may be lackluster but I’ll take whatever little democracy I’m given.

I’ll post back here about how that vote and its count goes.

Something else that is noteworthy is the dismal coverage the elections got in the Dutch mainstream media. For any kind of news event that you are interested in, following tweets either in the local language or by English speaking commentators on the ground provides a far better experience. What I saw on Dutch television and in Dutch newspapers was predictable, shallow, disconnected and actively shameful.