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Albert Wenger

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019 - 11:38am

We had eight glorious years with Dori, our beloved Goldendoodle. Just seeing her in the street put a smile on people’s face. She was alway up for a pet from random strangers and could be trusted with the youngest of kids. She made the big move with us from the suburbs back to the city as a pup (not pleased at first with the lack of grass but then happy with all the play time with friends). We will remember many fond moments with Dori, such as sitting on the stoop and watching the world go by or running wild on an empty beach. We are thankful for everyone who took care of Dori over the years when we were not there. She had a large family indeed. We are making a donation to a shelter in her memory.

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Monday, November 11, 2019 - 11:33am

It is a common idea that we should learn from our mistakes. In practice though I see many people making the same mistakes repeatedly. I myself have found that it often takes me making the same mistake at least twice before I really learn from it. Leading a startup is about personal growth and mistakes are that opportunity for growth, so how come it is so difficult to do?

The framing of “learn from your mistakes” suggests that this is entirely about a rational process. It is too easy to think of the mistake as a failure of rational analysis. There were several options available and for some rational reason, I picked the wrong one. If I am good at analyzing that mistake after the fact and understand the reason, surely I will not repeat it.

But most important mistakes, especially when it comes to leadership, have a strong emotional component to them. That is the real source of the mistake wasn’t a rational error but rather an emotion such as fear, regret or maybe greed, made us view the situation in the wrong light. At a later point, without the emotion present, the mistake will seem rational and easily avoidable. But if a similar situation arises and we again are driven by the same emotion we are extremely likely to repeat the mistake.

We will then blame ourselves. How could I have been so stupid to make that same mistake again? I knew better. But it is not about knowing rationally, it is about identifying the source of the emotion and working on that.

Fear in particular stands in the way of leadership. For example, a common pattern are organizational changes that need to happen but will cause disruption. Many leaders will wait too long to make these. After the fact they will often say something like “I should have done that months ago.” They vow not to make this mistake again which at this points seems like a rational weighing of the pros and cons of solving the organizational problem. But what really drove the mistake was their own fear of something going wrong and so the downsides loomed so much larger than the benefits at the time when the decision had to be made.

So how does one do this? The key is to focus in on the emotional component of a decision and be willing to ask probing questions of oneself, in particular about sources of fear and regret. As a leader, any encounter with a problem that brings up emotions is an opportunity to learn about this. Even if you do not have children, I highly recommend Dr. Shefali Tsabary’s book “The Conscious Parent” (see prior post also). The same approach she describes can easily be transferred to relationships with others in our lives, including partners and employees. Once you understand the source of an emotion you can try to let go of it or at least be conscious of it in the future.

So the next time you make a big mistake, don’t look at it just through the lens of rational analysis. If you really want to learn from it you need to understand your emotions and where those came from.

Friday, November 8, 2019 - 2:33pm

The discussion around taxing wealth, and in particular billionaires, has been illuminating. Not in the sense of learning something new but rather seeing who is willing to make or defend bad takes instead of engaging in any level of critical thinking. To make it clear on where I am on this issue, I am in support of a wealth tax, although I think there is a lot of room for discussion on how to best accomplish this.

There are a few takes out there though that particularly bother me. The first is that Bill Gates deserves all his wealth. This is rooted in a near tautology “markets are good, so all the outcomes of markets are good.” Now I love well-functioning markets. They are amazing at information aggregation and capital allocation. Please note the important modifier: well-functioning. Most of the time real regulatory effort is required to wind up with a well-functioning market and as I point out in World After Capital, there are hugely important problems that cannot ever be solved by markets.

So back to Bill Gates and markets. Unpacking the idea that Gates deserves all his wealth based on a belief in markets you would have to be willing to sign up to something roughly as follows “Microsoft succeeded in a competitive market through delivering a better product.” Without a doubt Gates was a pioneer. But Microsoft was also a ruthless machine that built and exploited market power at every turn. So at a minimum to make an actually consistent argument about Gates deserving all his wealth you have to be willing to defend gains coming from the exercise of extreme market power as “deserved.”

The second and related take that bothers me is the idea that Gates should keep all his wealth because he is a better allocator of capital now than some politician. The astonishing thing is that many people who make the “he deserves it based on markets” take above are the same ones offering this take also. At a minimum to make that argument at least somewhat internally consistent, you would have to say that Gates instead of concentrating his wealth in his foundation should be giving it away in small portions to lots of people so that the market can work better (e.g. give lots of people money that they can spend on education). Beyond that it is also worth pointing out that of course neither Gates nor a politician allocate money personally (for the most part). In the case of Gates there is a huge foundation and in the case of politicians there is a budget process. So to provide anything other than a hot take on allocation you would have to engage in an actual argument about foundations versus democratic processes.

I doubt that this post will do much (or anything) to move the people who are most loudly proclaiming these takes. But maybe it is a bit of help to those who have kept an open mind about where we are today, how we got here and what to do next.

Addendum: Some people objected strongly to this post on the basis of the word “deserved.” Never mind that I was using it as a word to describe a specific hot take by others, one can obviously and easily substitute another word, such as “earned,” above without any change in argument. Now let’s dig a bit deeper beyond the word choice. Most people will likely agree that wealth that’s obtained through illegal means can in fact be taken back by society (you don’t get to keep a stolen car, for example). A critique of my post then would be: wealth earned legally should never be subsequently taken away by society. While I agree that we should not make such decisions lightly, societies do make mistakes and circumstances change. Our current dysfunctional income and wealth distribution is the result of a series of such mistakes, including poor regulation of digital market structure and failure to address power law outcomes through more progressive taxation. So to make the “earned wealth is sacrosanct” argument you have to also believe that society never gets to correct mistakes, no matter how bad they are.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019 - 12:32pm

In yesterday’s election New York City voters passed Ranked Choice Voting as a ballot measure. This means that in future elections such as those for mayor of the city, independent candidates will have a much better shot at getting elected.

In Ranked Choice Voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting, a voter can indicate their preference across multiple candidates instead of selecting just one candidate. So let’s say there is an independent whom I really like but who is a long shot. Historically I might be worried that by voting for that candidate my vote would effectively be useless and that could be a problem if I think it will take away from my second choice candidate.

A classic example of this situation in Presidential elections was the run of Ralph Nader in 2000. In Florida, Bush beat Gore by 537 votes, but Nader received nearly 100,000 votes there, running on a platform that was much more similar to Gore than to Bush. Effectively the people who voted for Nader helped get Bush elected. With Ranked Choice Voting, they would have put Nader first and Gore second (and if they so want Bush third). Then when it is clear that Nader isn’t going to win, their first choice vote is discarded and their second choice vote is instantly activated (hence the instant runoff).

I am excited to see New York City adopt this system, which is now gaining momentum. It is promoted by a growing coalition, including the excellent Represent.us.

Friday, November 1, 2019 - 11:35am

Twitter is banning political ads. This is Jack sticking it to Mark while the latter is on the ropes in a one-two punch including a jab against Libra. This mast feel like sweet revenge for the many ways Facebook has messed with Twitter over the years including snatching Instagram. But is it the right thing to do?

Not running paid political adds is a self-imposed behavioral remedy, the way traditional antitrust regulators would impose on monopolies. A behavioral remedy requires or forbids some specific action. These are a last resort when a company has too much power and there is no other way of curbing this power.

But is there really no other way to curb the power of Twitter and Facebook? Of course not. We could have enduser APIs instead.  And for the first time in the US there is a bill proposing more or less that, the ACCESS Act proposed by Senators Warner, Hawley and Blumenthal

Of course the great irony here is that Twitter started out as just an API and did not have its own apps. If Twitter still had a real (instead of crippled) API, anyone could write a third party Twitter client. Such a client could decide which ads to show and which to strip. It could programmatically pull in third party evaluations of those ads – and more importantly could do so for all tweets, not just ads. Now that would be giving power back to the enduser. 

Instead we will have Twitter deciding what’s a political ad, which sounds great for all of a second until you start to think about some pressing issues. Take the climate crisis. Will an ad for a carbon tax be a political ad? Or take HIV. Will an ad promoting Prep be a political ad? There is an obvious inconsistency here in saying: we can’t evaluate which political ads are sufficiently truthful at scale but we can evaluate which ads are political. And that will end badly for sure. Especially as the dollars that would have been used for ads will just flow into more influence operations.

So yes, I suspect Jack is feeling good about this but if he truly wanted to take a step that made a real difference he should bring back the Twitter API full bore. But what about revenues, you may ask, when a client could strip all ads? Twitter should set a subscription price at something like the 25th percentile of its RPU from ad supported users (per region).

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 - 1:35pm

A question I get quite frequently is “What makes a good leader?” One of the most important aspects of a good leader is that they have values. This may at first sound noncontroversial, but we are surrounded today by leaders who do not have values or whose only values are to get rich personally or to be powerful (or both). Tech investors have been especially guilty of enabling charismatic leaders, and sometimes even non-charismatic but wildly successful ones, who are fundamentally hollow and without values.

How and why do values matter? Because leadership is ultimately about making certain difficult decisions. Decisions that only the leader can make and where everyone else is looking to the leader to make the decision. What makes a decision difficult? When there is a lot at risk, high uncertainty of outcome, and when there are strong voices arguing for opposing options. In those situations what can you ground your decision in as a leader?

Too often these days we see leaders who go with whatever is best for themselves, or with whoever is shouting the loudest at the moment, or maybe even whoever they last talked to. None of that is leadership. Leadership is when you make a decision based on values, explain the decision in terms of those values and use those values to rally support for the decision.

I have been asking myself why so few leaders these days appear to have clear values. One reason appears to be that we are still stuck in the “greed is good” phase of capitalism which per the Friedman doctrine reduced values to profit. Another reason I suppose is a broad decline in religious conviction as a source of values. Finally, with a son who is just applying to college, I have noticed that higher education is oddly value free. Go to the homepages of a university and look for anything about values. The occasional mission statement aside there is very little to be found.

So if you are in a leadership role or aspire to be in one, a great starting point to ask what your values are. What are your grounding your decisions in?

Monday, October 28, 2019 - 6:37pm

A while back I recorded an interview with Jason Jacobs for his podcast series My Climate Journey. Jason did a great job pushing me on a number of different issues which helped clarify my thinkings (thanks, Jason). Today Jason launched the episode and I suggest you go and check it out. I love the Jason publishes a transcript also, so if you prefer reading you can do that also. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Jason Jacobs:  Well, that’s what’s been happening to me is that I was always concerned about it, but then I was trying to kind of go on. I was building that fitness company, and I wanted to land the plane. Then we landed the plane. Then I took some time, and there’s a lot more fun things that one could be doing than focused on climate change. But yet the more I looked into it, I kept hoping to find, oh, it’s overblown, and it’s under control. We’ve got this, and I can go back to fitness, which I love, or something else [crosstalk 00:08:39]

Albert Wenger:  It’s sort of the opposite. The more you dig, the more you go, what? That’s not true and that’s not true? Like renewables. I love renewables. I think solar is fantastic. I think wind is interesting. But they’re not going to get us there, and not just get us there. They’re not going to get us there by a wide mile. So suddenly you go, oh, all this solar is great, and we should definitely be doing more of it. If you live in Arizona where the sun shines a lot and you run an AC, you should probably be running that at the hottest hours of the way of solar. So there’s a lot of things we can do, but it’s not going to get us all the way there.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019 - 1:38pm

Yesterday Google’s paper announcing a first instance of “quantum supremacy” was published in Nature. Not surprisingly for those who have followed the topic there is now a healthy debate around what that actually means. Google was celebrating in a big way including tweets by Sundar Pichai. IBM was quick with a blog post suggesting it’s not as big a deal.

If you want to form an opinion for yourself, I recommend two posts. First, John Preskill explains why he coined the term “quantum supremacy” and what the Google announcement means in that context. Second, after the early leaks of the result Scott Aaronson had a tremendous post titled “Scott’s Supreme Quantum Supremacy FAQ!

My view is aligned with those two posts. This is the “Hello World” moment of quantum computing and it is fair to compare it to the Wright brothers’ achievement of heavier than air flight. It is a meaningful breakthrough on a technology that has been pursued for a long time.

The big question now is how rapid the improvement will be from here. In flight, we went from not being able to fly at all to scheduled transatlantic flights in half a century

If quantum computing gets on a similar pace of improvement from its “Hello World” moment, we will have to make major changes to the security infrastructure of the internet within the coming decade as most of the existing systems are not quantum resistant (meaning they can be broken by further advance in quantum computing). On the upside, it will mean that we can do amazing simulations of physical systems that can help with anything from drug discovery to advanced materials for batteries.

Congratulations to the team at Google and what an exciting time for computation!

Monday, October 21, 2019 - 12:32pm

This morning I will be on a panel at Columbia University about Universal Basic Income (UBI) and the climate crisis as part of a conference on the Green New Deal. In my view UBI should be a central component of a Green New Deal instead of the jobs guarantee. Here are my reasons:

1. UBI frees up people’s time and attention to really focus on solutions to the Climate Crisis. Not everyone can come up with a breakthrough invention but everyone can be active in solving climate crisis problems in their respective communities (e.g. helping build better housing, reforestation, etc.). And everyone can be a part of the process of political and economic transformation that is required.

2. UBI lets people exit the job-consumption loop that is at the heart of the present economy which is based on material growth. A UBI lets people put purpose first as their source of satisfaction and move away from consumption. As has been pointed out rightly many times by others, moving away from a goods based GDP as the measure of progress is essential in fighting the climate crisis.

3. UBI gives people the flexibility to move to places less impacted by the climate crisis. In the US we have high concentrations of people living in low lying coastal areas and in flood plains. Even with relatively fast progress against the climate crisis, these habitats will be heavily impacted and it would be better if people can build new communities in safer areas of their own choosing.

None of these things are accomplished by a jobs guarantee. Instead a jobs guarantee keeps us firmly trapped in industrial age thinking which is exactly what got us so deep into the climate crisis in the first place. It also suggests that we believe that the solutions to the climate crisis need to be built with cheap labor instead of availing ourselves of the great potential for automation that is now at our disposal.

Friday, October 18, 2019 - 1:40pm

Here we are again in 2019 debating speech online and specifically the case of Facebook. Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown trying to invoke the civil rights movement and to draw a sharp distinction to China. Warren quickly fires back on Twitter. Pundits everywhere weigh in. And yet hardly anyone gets to the heart of the matter: power. And those who are mostly stuck in industrial age thinking recommending a traditional antitrust approach to limiting power.

Here are the two big traps people appear to be caught in, both of which are a result of applying the past to the future. The first trap is the publisher versus carrier dichotomy. This made sense in the age of the printed newspaper and the telephone network of yesteryear. Facebook is a different animal and trying to put it into one of these boxes will always result in some ridiculous conclusion and yet people persist in doing so.

The second trap is misunderstanding network effects. Yes, one absolutely could split Facebook into Instagram, Whatsapp and Facebook proper. And yes that would on the margin reduce Facebook’s power. But each of these three separate networks would still be ridiculously powerful in its own right and so would be Twitter and whatever new networks are yet to come. Network effects are endemic to the digital realm.

So what is to be done about limiting power? We have to break the fundamental asymmetry that each end user is limited to their thumbs and their brain while the networks operate supercomputers. As long as there is one Facebook algorithm, one Twitter algorithm, one Instagram algorithm, etc. that will alway be way too much power in one place. We all need to be able to programmatically interact with these services. I have spoken and written extensively about this going back to a post on labor rights (2014) and my TEDxNY talk (2015), several subsequent blog posts, and my book World After Capital.

This idea is no longer without precedent. In the EU all bank accounts are now required to have an API. This has massively reduced the power of incumbent banks, allowing for rapid innovation in the banking and payments sector. The same would and could happen if platform such as Facebook and Twitter were required to have an API. New intermediaries would spring up quite rapidly that would vastly extend the power of endusers over the networks. We know this from the web (the entire web is one gigantic open API), where there is still competition among web browsers, including new ones, such as Brave.

APIs are not a panacea. Nothing ever is. We still be faced with the fragmentation of truth in a world of information overload. But there will no longer be central control points that are easily weaponized by third parties or exploited for maximal profit at the cost of all else. Power will be shifted back to the network participants. We still need to educate all of us on how to best use that power. But first we need to get it back. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - 2:32pm

It is fascinating to see at the moment how much China is flexing its power. And maybe as importantly how little the world is pushing back. Certainly on the commercial side we are finding that companies such as Apple which are beholden to China for their supply chain and others, such as the NBA, which see China as a big market have rolled over. Now the House has passed a bill supporting the Hong Kong protestors and China has threatened retaliation should the bill make it into law via the Senate and the President.

All of this of course comes in the middle of a major trade war and after a long period of China building up its military and a more recent reasserting of party dominance over civil affairs under Xi Jinping, as well as a dramatic ratcheting up of the suppression of the Uighurs. I have traveled in China and also talked to Chinese entrepreneurs about the buildup of power. My takeaway from that is that there is broad based pride in what has been accomplished and an absence of fear among the younger people that it might go too far. It is a lot less clear to me whether the older actual leadership and the young people I have interacted with inhabit the same reality. Much like there has been a major generational breakdown in the West between political leaderships goals and the up and coming generations. 

The generational gap, which has proven so pernicious in Brexit, and has been delaying action on the climate crisis, is where I see the real danger with regard to China also.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019 - 10:38am

Last Monday in my series about the climate crisis, I posted about the potential of reversing the carbon cycle: grow plants to remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into the ground. Here now are some numbers that show the viability of this approach. Let’s start with a bit more data on greenhouse gases. I will focus here on CO2 because it stays around in the atmosphere the longest and accounts by far for the largest percentage of warming.

First, how does the carbon cycle relate to the ppm (parts per million) number quoted for CO2 in the atmosphere? We are emitting about 9 GtC/year, that is 9 gigatons (billons of tons) of carbon © per year. But 5 gigatons of that is absorbed by the oceans and through increased biomass already, for a net addition to the atmosphere of 4 gigatons. To convert that into a ppm measure we first ned to go from C to CO2, i.e. from carbon to carbon dioxide. Assuming for simplicity that all our C emissions are in the form of CO2, we get to 4 * 3.67 = 14.7 GtCO2/year (why 3.67? that’s the relative atomic weight of CO2 compared to C). Now to 1ppm to the atmospheric count requires 7.8 GtCO2, which means our back of the envelope calculation suggests we are adding 14.7 / 7.8 = 1.9 ppm per year. That’s pretty close to the actually observed increases of about 2.5ppm per year in the last few years measured at the Mauna Loa station.

Second, how much carbon can we capture per acre of farmland? Biomass consists of about 45% carbon. Assuming a yield of 10 tons per acre, which is achievable with certain grasses, that means a single acre could capture as much as 4.5 tons of carbon annually. Now of course it is crucial that this carbon doesn’t get back into the atmosphere, so one cannot just let this biomass decay or worse yet burn it. Instead, one needs to use a pyrolysis or similary type process to compact the biomass and wind up with residue such as biochar and biocrude. These processes have not historically been optimized for storage of the resultant material but rather for things like biofuel production. To be conservative for now I will assume that only one third of the carbon can be captured that way (this would be just the biochar at low temperature pyrolysis), yielding 1.5 tons of carbon/acre per year. I am assuming that the entire rest of the carbon is rereleased back into the atmosphere in some way (for instance the burning of biofuel and syngas).

Third, how much agricultural area could we use for this? There are about 900 million acres of farmland in the US. Some of it is used for export, some for feed for milk cows and much of it is used highly inefficiently compared to what can be accomplished with vertical farming. So for the sake of this analysis I will assume that we can free up 400 million acres for carbon sequestration. That is a big number and definitely will take a lot of time but I just want to get at ballpark numbers here. We are then talking about 400 * 1.5 = 600 million tons of sequestered carbon per year or 0.6 GtC/year. That is 12% of the current global net addition of 5 GtC/year. Annual US emission are 5.7 Gt of CO2 which is 1.55 Gt of C, so this could do away with 0.6 / 1.55 = 38% of US net addition.

Of course another way to look at how much land would be required to sequester all 5 GtC / year. There are 48 million square kilometers of farmland globally. There are 247 acres per square kilometer for a total of 11.8 billion acres. At 1.5 tons/acre it would take 3.3 out of the 11.8 billion (nearly one third of all farmland). Now you might think that sounds completely implausible, but I am not trying to argue that we would or should do exactly this at the current yields suggested above. Simply that even without heroic assumptions one winds up in the right ballpark. There are parts of the world where biomass yields can be 30 or even 40 tons/acre. At 30 tons/acre the math is 2.5 out of 11.8 billion acres for carbon sequestration.

Fourth, you might ask where would we actually store this stuff? The best answer here would be existing mines. The output is a lot denser then the original biomass (thankfully). I estimate based on coal that 1 ton of biochar fist in 1 cubic meter of space. That means that 1 years worth of 600 million tons of sequestration could be stored in 0.6 cubic kilometers. Again this seems like a conservative estimate as it might be possible to further condense the carbon. Also, for comparison, this is about 2x the amount of trash produced in the US annually, which I suspect is a lot less dense.

So what is to be concluded from all of this? Well, there is always the possibility that I have made a major research or calculation error – if you find one please point it out. In the absence of that though it shows that plants and plant based solutions can play a major role in fighting the climate crisis. That’s of course not a substitute to also decarbonizing the electric grid, transportation and habitation but it will make a huge difference.

PS Thanks to Tom O’Keefe for pointing out a calculation error which I have now fixed, making plant base removal on agricultural land look better (only requiring about one third of available farmland).

Monday, October 7, 2019 - 12:33pm

Back to writing about the climate crisis. Today is the beginning of a week of action by Extinction Rebellion – they are pushing for carbon neutrality by 2025. As promised before I will start looking at solutions. Following my post on greenhouse gases, it is pretty clear that there are fundamentally only two types of solutions: emit fewer greenhouse gases and recapture existing one from the air. I will write more about both of these, but today want to introduce a basic idea of reversing the carbon cycle.

What do I mean by this? Well, for the last 200 years or so we have been digging up hydrocarbons from the ground, mostly in the form or coal and oil and have been burning them while at the same time cutting back on forests.

We now need to do the exact opposite. That means we need to aggressively grow biomass which removes carbon from the atmosphere. We then need to make sure that the captured carbon is either stored back in the soil (for instance in the form of biochar) or is used in our materials supply chain (for example by creating plant based packaging material). One key insight in this context is that we now need less land than ever before to grow our food supply and can in fact cut down on that land use aggressively by building out vertical farming. The freed up land needs to be used for reforestation and for even more aggressive biomass growing (e.g. grasses that can grow up to 15 feet in a single season).

As the picture above shows, the other area where we can work on biomass are the oceans. This is tricky for many reasons that I will get into but because the oceans are vast could make a huge difference in reversing the carbon cycle. I will dig into each of these ideas in more detail in upcoming posts.

Friday, October 4, 2019 - 12:32pm

I will resume writing about the climate crisis next week, but today it feels appropriate to return to the topic of Trump. My last post was about the need to resist Trump’s return to cruelty as a means of politics. I am happy that this resistance has been building and most importantly that the Democrats appear to finally have found the courage to impeach the president. The longrunning prior calculation about how impeachment might affect the election was misguided, as I previously argued in a post in April.

There had been plenty of reasons for impeachment as it has been clear from before the election that Trump fundamentally thinks laws do not apply to him.  His admiration for dictators isn’t some kind of aberration in an otherwise democratic politician. It comes from the core of his personality. Thankfully with the latest texts revealing just how much the phone call with Zelensky was part of a classic quid-pro-quo cooperation with a foreign power, the case for impeachment has become stronger than ever.

The president and his remaining supporters are now retreating to the last refuge of scoundrels which is doubling down. “We are looking for the real killers”-style they are now proclaiming that the whole thing is an investigation into 2016 election interference. Trump himself has taken to calling publicly on other nations including China to join in, apparently on the theory that if it’s public it can’t be corruption.

Time to get on with impeachment. And I look forward to the senate vote which will finally force GOP members there to put their name indelibly in the history books, no longer getting away with equivocating television interviews.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019 - 12:36pm

Between the climate crisis and the US government crisis it’s difficult to remain upbeat. So today instead of writing about either of those I want to celebrate an example of what I call the Knowledge Loop in my book World After Capital

About a year ago or so I stumbled on a wonderful Youtube channel called Numberphile that has over 3 million subscribers. On Numberphile, Brady Haran gets mathematicians to explain interesting and sometimes simply just quirky bits of math. The videos tend to be under 15 minutes and are super engaging. Here is one I watched last night on transcendental numbers.

These videos convey so much wonder and honest excitement that provides a marvelous antidote for the cynicism that we are exposed to daily. I also believe that young people who watch these may discover an interest in mathematics and so am pleased to see that many of the videos have 1 million views. What a beautiful celebration and sharing of human knowledge!

Monday, September 30, 2019 - 12:39pm

In Aristotle’s theory of the mean, every virtue lies between two vices on either extreme. For example, courage lies between cowardice (a lack of courage) and rashness (an excess of courage). The general idea that there are failure modes in either direction is a useful one to consider, including when discussing inequality.

This was brought to mind when I saw Josh Wolfe’s tweet, making fun of Bernie Sanders for being an 0.1%-er on Twitter with over 9 million followers. This was in the context of Sanders suggesting that billionaires should not exist in support of his argument for a wealth tax.

I then tweeted the following (quoting Josh’s tweet):

What if the right answer is that both systems have strong positive feedback loops giving undue influence to a few?

By both systems here I mean the economy at large and online systems (such as Twitter) generating power law distributions. I have a section in World After Capital about this pervasive shift to power laws and how it is powered by the shift to digital technologies.

Josh then replied with a question: Is society worse off? There is a lot of evidence that the answer is yes. Since I had accidentally linked to a paywalled piece, let me link here to some recent studies:

- OECD Study from 2014
- World Bank paper from 2015
- IMF Blog post from 2017

Now there will almost certainly be issues with the econometrics on each of these (there always are), so I wouldn’t put too much weight into any one, but if you combine them with some logic and other empirical findings, the evidence adds up. Let me give just one example: as inequality rises it may get more difficult for children growing up in poor households to keep up with educational achievement (eg wealthy households pay for private tutors). That’s exactly what we are now seeing. That’s bad for society because it makes it harder for brilliant minds who happen to be born poor to contribute.

So yes. Excessive inequality is bad for society. That’s true for wealth and it also true for social media influence. Right now, that is the failure mode we should be worried about, not that we are somehow anywhere close to the opposite end of excess equality.

Friday, September 27, 2019 - 2:32pm

Earlier this week I posted Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN. In the speech she is visibly angry. I believe this anger is justified. We have been collectively ignoring the ever bigger warning signs coming from science that go back many decades. Why should children not be angry at us? We deserve this until we start acting to a degree that is commensurate with the existential crisis we are facing.

Having grown up in Germany, I have read lots of books and had some intense discussions with adults from my grandparents generation, about the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. The same angry question stood at the center here too: How could you let this happen? And of course the circumstances were different and the details of the answers to this question are different also, but it does fundamentally come down to the same two cores: we were busy living our lives and we did what everyone else did.

I believe the most vicious reactions to Greta’s speech and her person overall come from people who deep down recognize how right she is. But it is far easier to attack the messenger and carry on as usual than to face the enormity of the changes that are required. Scott Aaronson, someone not given to sentimentality, wrote this about Greta:

You can make fun of her, ask what standing or expertise she has as some random 16-year-old to lead a worldwide movement. But I suspect that this is always what it looks like when someone takes something that’s known to (almost) all, and then makes it common knowledge. If civilization makes it to the 22nd century at all, then in whatever form it still exists, I can easily imagine that it will have more statues of Greta than of MLK or Gandhi.

That sums up my sentiment as well.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019 - 2:33pm

On Monday I wrote a post about the relationship between activism and innovation. Later that day Greta Thunberg addressed the UN. If you have not seen it, it is worth watching in its entirety:

Instead of providing my thoughts on it now, I would love to hear reactions from Continuations readers. I will write a longer post on Friday.

Monday, September 23, 2019 - 12:34pm

If you have been following my posts on the climate crisis, you know that I have been supporting various forms of activism. I was pleased to see the massive turnout at the climate strike all around the globe and especially here in New York, where Greta Thunberg will be addressing the UN today.

Some people have been pushing back along the lines of “this activism is distracting from the real need which is for innovation;” or “all they want is renewables but we really need nuclear;” or even more pointedly “the activists want socialism and only capitalism will give us enough innovation” to fight the climate crisis.

This is a false dichotomy. We absolutely need activism so that we can have more innovation. How so? First, in order to attract more entrepreneurs and private capital to the sector we need to price carbon and we need a high price for it. That will not happen without activism.

Second, there is a clear role for behavior change above and beyond innovation. If we remain stuck in industrial age patterns of production and consumption, wedded to the job loop, we will not succeed against the climate crisis. That will not happen without activism.

Third, beyond innovation and behavior change we also require the mobilization of public resources. As I tried to explain with the “alien invasion analogy” the scale of the climate crisis is such that we need to globally be on the equivalent of a war footing. Again, only activism will get us there.

But what about nuclear you may still ask? Absolutely there will be questions down the line that need to be resolved and this is one of them but that discussion can only be had in the context of real urgency which still needs to be established.

Thursday, September 19, 2019 - 1:36pm

The beginning of global climate strike is now only 2 days away. In New York City it starts noon on Friday at Foley Square with a 1pm march to Battery Park. Even if you cannot stay for the rally at Battery Park, everyone who has a lunch break should just use that to join the march! So: grab a sandwich and join. Details on the march here. Let’s make this bigger than anyone expects.

PS If you are wondering why, read my climate crisis posts. If you have time for just one, make it the Alien Invasion Analogy.

Albert Wenger is a partner at Union Square Ventures (USV), a New York-based early stage VC firm focused on investing in disruptive networks. USV portfolio companies include: Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Etsy, Kickstarter and Shapeways. Before joining USV, Albert was the president of del.icio.us through the company’s sale to Yahoo. He previously founded or co-founded five companies, including a management consulting firm (in Germany), a hosted data analytics company, a technology subsidiary for Telebanc (now E*Tradebank), an early stage investment firm, and most recently (with his wife), DailyLit, a service for reading books by email or RSS.