Gridlocked

Gridlock Economy
Trapped in Fragments

A couple of months back I stumbled upon this book by Michael Heller (a lawyer), Gridlock Economy. It raised a very interesting question in the introduction and convinced me to borrow the book. The book went on to look into different parts of the modern economy where hurdles to economic activities are created because of structures built within the modern economy used to spur economic activities in the first place. It’s an irony we can’t ignore. The author framed them as a ‘Tragedy of the anticommons‘; this idea is from Michael Heller himself so the book is more or less a vehicle to get greater audience exposed to it.

Anyways, it started this way;

A few years ago, a drug company executive presented me with an unsettling puzzle. His scientists had found a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, but they couldn’t bring it to the market unless the company bought access to a dozen patents. Any single patent owner could demand a huge payoff; some blocked the whole deal. This story does not have a happy ending. The drug sits on the shelf though it might have saved millions of lives and earned billions of dollars.

I thought this is exactly the sort of problem that is going to plague the field of microeconomics in the modern world. The world’s complexity naturally mean that the mesh of technological advancement, legislative hurdles and logistical difficulties in the market would introduce new problems for us to solve. I didn’t quite manage to read much of the book but I’ll try to spend some time researching stuff in this area soon. Meanwhile, USA still probably going to continue being the hot bed for patent disputes.

Con-nect-working

Social Networks
Start the Chatter

Social networks have been rising for some time now. And while they initially started out as mere toys for youngsters, there have been talks of higher degrees of commercialization, how these networks will change the lifestyle of people, and so on. Now that the change has taken place somewhat, it makes sense for The Economist to tabulate some of the impacts these networks have brought in.

To begin, these networks have definitely became an important way people communicate; however mundane or skimpy each little piece of content may be, they are viewed by many people within your network and it broadcasts bits of information about you that couldn’t have been captured in the yesteryears. This is true for the comments you cast, the status messages you post, the photos and videos you uploaded and all the social games that you play. Although online social networks remain essentially much like a bulletin board (except viewership ability of contents are more strictly controlled and with richer content) and thus does little to enrich people’s ability to do real networking, it does a wonderful job at augmenting our real relationships.

This strong link with the real world is a great strength for online social networks. Websites are viewed as corporate facades that give little information about the reality of the companies. On the other hand, the pages for these firms on social networking sites are viewed as better avenues for firms to communicates with their customers. Likewise, a corporate site announcement of a promotion the company is offering does less to boost sales compared to a tweet which might have much more followers.

That is the free advertising service that sites like Twitter and Facebook might offer, which brings us to the question of how money is being made on such networks. A peach of an opportunity, an article in The Economist special report on social networks gives us an idea what are the businesses that taps into the plumbing of social network connections and thriving. For all the talk about connecting with friends, being entertained by your online pets, or having a good laugh from the video your friend has shared, businesses might be the greatest benefactor of this trend.

Jobs’ Book

iPad
No need for Ctrl+Alt+Del...

My sister asked me if The Economist would publish an article on Apple whenever they introduce a new product. I told her that they would if they anticipate that the product Apple produces is sufficiently influential or even revolutionizing. And perhaps that should be the case for iPad, where The Economist thinks is an attempt at transforming 3 industries at one time.

Their full article on the iPad propels their point further, discussing how the product would have a profound impact on the way digital content and media is consumed in the market and how this would alter the economics of digitizing newspapers. While there are many limitations to this product, Apple have traditionally been quick to modify their products to suit the way users use them while incorporating more powerful functions. A quick review of the historical revisions of the iPod before it eventually become the current iPod Touch shows how Apple pulls off their innovation along with changes in consumer preferences while upgrading their product.

We know that something big will be happening when the iPad is available on the market but it’s still too early to decide what it is. For now, we wait.

The Polarity of the Internet

Magnets
Like Poles Agree...

In today’s The Straits Times, Rachel Chang comments about “the power of the Net to polarise”.

She cites the examples of how vocal people on Facebook and their blogs, who have publicised their political views or displayed their political affiliations, have been slammed and harasssed online to the point that one such blogger stopped writing. The empowering voice of the Internet appears to work like a double-edged sword, threatening to slit the throat of the person wielding it in the face of the majority or the powerful.

It scares me sometimes how polarised views on the Internet can get. There does not seem to be room for compromise or discourse, it is very much an “us against them” game in terms of opinion rather than the moderated views across the spectrum. Chang quotes Cass Sunstein of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for his view that people who “interact with others who share the same views… tend to become more extreme”. Of course, “the opposite is also true”, but at least looking at some of the incidents Chang has had to cover for The Straits Times, it appears as if the former applies more than the latter.

I can very much feel for myself this polarity when I visit The Temasek Review. It is considered a source that is less influenced by the government (as opposed to The Straits Times, which some may deem to be a government propagandist body) but I am seeing quite a lot of critical anti-government writing. Ever since I started visiting this website, my rosy views about the govenrment have been somewhat tainted, not in a bad way. At very least, I feel as if I am considering other non-governmental viewpoints that might reallly be the voice of the people and not just what the government feeds to us via the press. It is scary, however, how netizens slam each other for their views, be it pro-PAP or anti-PAP. It is rather heartening that there is much debate about Singapore’s future, and by and large discussion there is rather measured. It can get disturbing when emotions are flared up, as I notice in this write-up. I dare not express my views on this website for fear of being flamed to death by both pro-PAP and anti-PAP netizens.

Democracy… certainly brings about a cacophony that needs to be understood and tolerated, for all in the society to benefit. Hopefully with all the debate online and offline, people will come to a better understanding of what they want for their society. And it must mean dangerous times if arguments on the Internet spill over into real life and disrupt society.

So in essence… take heed online.

And just like Chang, I must add the disclaimer that I expect people to “shoot me nasty, unsigned email messages after reading this column”, if only just to pre-empt comments considering the nature of my writing.

Ruin & Farms

Detroit
Years Back...

As The Economist reports on the need for a whole scale re-invention of the state of Michigan, an investor in Detroit has come up with an interesting proposal to utilize the unused land in the largest city of Michigan and attempt to restore economic activity in the city that is hollowing out.

There is much potential in building up engineering capabilities of the population of Michigan to kick-start newer, more tech-intensive industries. The small start-ups may be slow to hire and would begin with the best brains, subsequent growth would help raise employment figures. Like what is mentioned in The Economist article, the state has no quick-fix to return to prosperity and will have to toil long and hard to develop newer industries. This could be considered a punishment for having lobbied so hard to maintain the inefficient automobile industry and the refusal of firms in the state to carry out restructuring.

On the other hand, the urban farming idea in Detroit might be a good start given that it might offer the chance to warm up the construction industry. Nevertheless, reviving Detroit would do little to help the state of Michigan if the other towns and cities don’t come up with new ideas on how to rise again. Moral of the story of procrastinating change: Someone will have to pay the bill someday.

Internet & China

Google China
Expensive Evil

With so many people obsessed with the Internet in China and yet even more obsessed with curbing the addiction of them, Google should be making money in China. But apparently it didn’t quite beat Baidu.com that much and thus decided on a ‘New Approach‘.

The Economist discusses the issue at length, citing how Google has come to this after experiencing hackers attacks. They also talked about the similar kind of problem other big sites are facing from China.

Tech Crunch noted that Google’s stance in this case is more about business; perhaps the hacking attacks have been around for a long time and Google has gathered the evidence but lately, they reviewed their business and decided that the cost of maintaining the engineers and censorship is too heavy given the gains they made.

More Wars

The day Google Nexus One came out, my co-workers were looking at the features and thinking to themselves, “When is this going to come to Singapore?”. While it didn’t take long for people to start complaining about the confusion and frustration created by the weird relationship between Google, the handset-maker HTC and the mobile operators.

Nexus One
Good? Or Goo?

Perhaps the somewhat disturbing problem is that Google have started becoming somewhat ‘evil’; The Economist reported on how they were telling everyone they weren’t intent on having their own phone but eventually came up with this awesome one. Google’s model for developing the phone is typical of course, using an open source mobile phone operating system, contracting the hardware development to an experienced handset manufacturer in an emerging economy with loads of hi-tech industries (in other words, Taiwan).

This contrasts starkly with the Apple model of production, which involves enclosed development. Perhaps this war of phones and wider consumer electronics will demonstrate which model of development would prevail in long run. I tend to think Google’s strategy is more robust but Apple should be able to hold out for quite some time still. Being a Mac user, I’ve confidence in Apple’s ability to churn out products that they would eventually manage to market to the mass market and aid consumers to love them. Google might want to spruce up their ability to do just that.

Culture & Phones

Handphone
Indian Torch

Trapped on our little island of Singapore, we hardly wonder what our handphones are capable of; here in Singapore we typically use it to text, call, surf, as a phone book to retrieve contact details of people, a personal organizer and even a camera. Singaporeans makes extensive use of their phones and our preferences are varied, a reflection of our melting pot of diversity. And as the briefing in the latest issue of The Economist shows, mobile phones are indeed a great reflection of the culture of the people using them.

The article mentioned a couple of interesting quirks about people using mobile phones around the world:

Japanese use their phones to text and surf intensively because using phones to make or receive calls on board trains and some other public places are thought to be extremely rude.

Spaniards reject voicemail because they think it’s rude not to receive calls from others when they call, even when the receiver is busy with matters.

Chinese will interrupt conversations to receive calls because they are afraid to that they’d miss a business deal; at the same time they use knock-offs handphones that often have extensive functions, even capable of using two SIM cards.

Americans are willing to endure limited cellular coverage; perhaps fearing the hassle involved in changing operators.

Italians, Greeks and Finns would switch operators if they find their coverage limited and yet are fearful of the effects of electro-magnetic radiation, which probably is more ubiquitous than in America.

Indians use mobile phones as torchlights.

Africans usually use ‘beeping’ (ie. give the person a ring) to contact people and signal them to call back when they’re low on pre-paid credits.

Indeed, mobile phones are changing everyone’s lives everywhere; one just needs to know the name given to these devices in different societies and cultures to understand their importance. In fact, Iraqis thought more highly of the proliferation of mobile phones as a result of the American invasion than their supposed liberation.

Programming Reality

DNA
Lego of Life

Saul Griffith is an inventor, not many people would have this as their main identification occupation/tag today; but when you read up his profile, he really fits the title of an inventor, basically a scientist who problem-solve through inventions. In one of his talk on TED.com, he talks about programming self-assembling systems, very much like creating life itself.

There’s is already what we call biohacking taking place in homes of people, much like the geeks of the 1970s who were assembling computers in their garage. Already, The Economist points out how this parallels the beginnings of the computer age where the geeks had their kits consisting of basic chips for computers.

Going back to mechanical stuff, objects can be ‘programmed’ to build themselves based on sequencing their materials in a certain way like what is shown in the presentation by Saul Griffith. A 3-dimensional object, in this sense, can be defined by a sequence of bits (in a digital sense). Seeing the universe – reality – as a compiler, changes the way we think about our world; it helps us see how everything contains information and how properties of objects are able to convey additional information about things they are interacting with.

Griffith also co-writes Howtoons, cartoons that teaches people how to build/make stuff.

Reads Again…

Globe Skimmer Dragonflies
Next Stop: The other side of the globe

I guess ERPZ recommends too much readings sometimes and so I think you could try watching more videos. Charles Anderson talks about his work and especially that with globe skimmer dragonflies on TED.com. It is interesting how he made the discovery of the migratory route of the globe skimmer dragonflies just through rather informal research himself; cycling through the island of Maldives and counting dragonflies, calling friends to ask them which time of the year they observed swarms of dragonflies out there. His spirit of inquiry of nature is admirable.

Students of General Paper who are into Science & Tech questions should definitely watch a presentation by Kevin Kelly on the evolution of technology. He asks the question, ‘What does technology wants?‘ in the evolution kind of way; a little like questioning what the genes are trying to achieve and what each organism is trying to do as it lives life. He tries to identify the trends of technology, the direction everything is heading towards, comparing it with biology – where there is increasing complexity, diversity, ubiquity and such. He even defines technology as the seventh kingdom of life, integrating the man-made with nature, reconciling the arguments on man versus nature.

Interestingly, this issue that Kevin Kelly touched on is something I visited in the past on my personal blog. At that time, I was reading Origins of Wealth by Eric D Beinhock and was introduced to the idea of complexity. I was fascinated by it and believed that the idea of evolution as a proliferation of ‘experiments’ had great applicability beyond Biology and Economics. It’s such a pity I loaned out the book and seriously have no idea who it is with.

If TED.com is not enough for you, there’s always Academic Earth, which is way more academic in that it is practically university course lectures.