Naam on GND. Super-tall in NYC. Mirrorworld. Netflix expanding your interests. Insects. Peper Q&A with Harkaway.

A year ago: Why Decentralization Matters.


How to decarbonize America — and the world

Ramez Naam expanding on his Twitter thread I linked to last week, with lots more detail. His central point is that electricity generation and transport are largely “solved”, not that the work is done but we know how to do it and are on our way. Which means the US (and Europe) need to focus on creating technologies and lowering their costs to address agriculture and industry, the two largest sources of CO2, for which we don’t have good decarbonation solutions. Naam goes through how that might look like in the Green New Deal, concentrating on new ARPA programs and incentives to invest and deploy. Have a look at the learning curve (or the experience curve) section on how scaling production reduces cost for everyone.

Why did subsidies bring down the price of technology? Because industry scale leads to industry learning and innovation, and that, in turn, leads to lower cost ways to manufacture, deploy, and manage new technologies. […]

Electricity from solar power, meanwhile, drops in cost by 25-30% for every doubling in scale. Battery costs drop around 20-30% per doubling of scale. Wind power costs drop by 15-20% for every doubling. Scale leads to learning, and learning leads to lower costs. […]

By scaling the clean energy industries, Germany lowered the price of solar and wind for everyone, worldwide, forever. […]

The most just thing we can do is to address climate change as rapidly as possible, and to produce and spread the tools that also boost climate resilience around the developing world.

Super-tall, super-skinny, super-expensive: the ‘pencil towers’ of New York’s super-rich

There are three phases to reading this piece. First you [redacted] a bit in your mouth at the obscene prices and entitlement. Then you start contemplating the almost scifi-novel levels of privilege and how the projects feel exactly like first stage cloud-high Altered Carbon Meth towers. But then you stay for the darkly fascinating way in which these developers twist the letter of the law, disregard its spirit, and snake their way between air rights, floor area ratios, and other rules to get their projects built while bypassing the public review process.

A heady confluence of engineering prowess, zoning loopholes and an unparalleled concentration of personal wealth have together spawned a new species of super-tall, super-skinny, super-expensive spire. […]

Like leggy plants given too much fertiliser, these buildings are a symptom of a city irrigated with too much money. The world’s population of ultra-high-net-worth individuals, a super-elite with assets of at least $30m, has now mushroomed beyond 250,000 people, all in need of somewhere to store their wealth. More than a third of them are based in North America, while those from riskier economic climes favour New York real estate as one of the safest places to park their cash. […]

Sitting alongside rare wine, coloured diamonds and old masters, a full-floor apartment in a pencil tower with a view of Central Park makes a fine addition to the investor’s trophy cabinet. Except it is not just a trinket in a safe. It is a very large presence on the skyline for all to endure. […]

What makes the economy go is the fact there isn’t a discretionary review of everything.

AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform—Call It Mirrorworld

Tech “prediction” by Kevin Kelly bordering on the scifi and quickly glossing over the potential negative consequences (like the highlight below) but worth a read anyway for some interesting potentials he describes. Also fun to read keeping in mind last week’s Fortnite piece and the metaverse thinking it contains.

The mirrorworld will reflect not just what something looks like but its context, meaning, and function. We will interact with it, manipulate it, and experience it like we do the real world. […]

We are now at the dawn of the third platform, which will digitize the rest of the world. On this platform, all things and places will be machine-­readable, subject to the power of algorithms. […]

To recreate a map that is as big as the globe—in 3D, no less—you need to photograph all places and things from every possible angle, all the time, which means you need to have a planet full of cameras that are always on. […]

We will come to depend on the fact that every object contains its corresponding bits, almost as if every atom has its ghost, and every ghost its shell.

Netflix Is the Most Intoxicating Portal to Planet Earth

Original take on Netflix by Farhad Manjoo, on how the company invests massively on content in various countries and then uses the series and movies across the world, not just in each country, and not simply pushing US content everywhere. The idea that they algorithmically broaden our horizons is also interesting though likely somewhat rose tinted.

Virtually alone among tech and media companies, Netflix intends to ride a new kind of open-border digital cosmopolitanism to the bank. […]

“What we’re learning is that people have very diverse and eclectic tastes, and if you provide them with the world’s stories, they will be really adventurous, and they will find something unexpected.” […]

Because it is spending so much on shows from everywhere, Netflix has an incentive to get the biggest bang for its buck by pushing them widely across its user base. Its algorithms are tuned toward expanding your interests rather than narrowing them.

Is the Insect Apocalypse Really Upon Us?

A… realignment of expectations? By Ed Yong on the recent insect extinction coverage. Basically; we should be worried but it’s probably not as bad as that research everyone was talking about. In large part because we just don’t know enough about insect populations and should invest a lot more in properly knowing what’s going on.

It’s a question that goes beyond the fate of insects: How do we preserve our rapidly changing world when the unknowns are vast and the cost of inaction is potentially high? […]

The sheer diversity of insects makes them, as a group, resilient—but also impossible to fully comprehend. There are more species of ladybugs than mammals, of ants than birds, of weevils than fish. There are probably more species of parasitic wasps than of any other group of animal. In total, about 1 million insect species have been described, and untold millions await discovery.

An Interview with Nick Harkaway: Algorithmic Futures, Literary Fractals, and Mimetic Immortality

But as those things fade, so we lose our traditional ways of locating ourselves in the societal nexus. The ends of the axes flap about and we end up with lunging, desperate identifications with single points like fundamentalism, or Trump, or Brexit. These aren’t political decisions at all; they’re ontologies to protect the self. […]

Incidentally: Why are we trying to build AI? It’s not because we want to have something that makes coffee properly and walks the dog. It’s because we want a perfect, wise friend to stop us from doing stupid shit. We’re trying to build the angels we were promised who never show up.

A Different Kind of Theory of Everything

If you want to bend your mind a bit. Reminded me of one of my favorite pieces from last year: The Octonion Math That Could Underpin Physics.

To Arkani-Hamed, the multifariousness of the laws suggests a different conception of what physics is all about. We’re not building a machine that calculates answers, he says; instead, we’re discovering questions. Nature’s shape-shifting laws seem to be the answer to an unknown mathematical question.

Miscellany