Author: Deven Desai


CIV!!! Or How Simulations May Help Government and Personal Choices

Could Civilization and the SIMs be part of a better informed future? I loved Civilization and played way too many hours of it in college. Turns out that the Colombian government has developed “computer games which are designed to teach pre-teenagers to make sensible choices about everything from nutrition to gang membership.” I wonder whether running a simulation of choices and outcomes over and over would shape behaviors or teach other gaming instincts. For example, most people might find that if they follow certain paths they end up in safe, but relatively happy middle class life and retirement. Heck, the game, Life, was a truly random version of what growing up is (then again maybe everything is so stochastic that Life is correct to rely on the spin of a wheel to see whether one is a doctor or teacher or has kids). Still, a game that reinforced the experience of putting money away now, not having it to play with, but having savings in retirement, i.e., the tradeoffs were more palpable, might sensitize people to choices. I never played SIMs, only Sim City, but if SIMs lets you smoke, take drugs, drink too much, have unsafe sex, etc. and gain near term rewards but then find that the long-term payoffs were poor, that would be interesting. Of course, some outcomes might be you’re a superstar who dies early or worse ends up on a horrid reality show. And, many may say “I was a wild child, had a blast, and ended up on T.V.? Cool!”


Walmart versus Apple aka Revenue versus Profit

Which business would you want to be? The Economist Espresso reports that Walmart takes “about 65 seconds to collect $1m in revenue,” but Apple needs “very nearly three minutes.” Looks like Walmart is where the money is. And it is, but when it comes to profit, “Apple, with its high margins, is fastest in the profit stakes: chalking up $1m takes it less than 13 minutes and 20 seconds, whereas Walmart needs more than half an hour.” Looking at the chart, Apple and Google have good profit margins but banks like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs do even better (all above 20%). Coke (17.4) and Pepsi (10.4) are quite good too. So how much does the law affect these sectors and which the best to be in? Hard to tell.

No matter what, any regulation be it about disclosures about practices or nutrition or oversight or safety or labor or where a good is made or liability for property rights or ability to weather an economic downturn, can shape a sector. Given the high profits in some of these sectors, you will see some arguing that they are getting away with too much and others saying that any regulation will kill the sector. Both positions are likely incorrect. That said, watching where new money, new offices (for old and new ventures), and start ups go may tell us something about where people believe they can do well.

One thing I am thinking about is how much state-by-state regulations and barriers to labor mobility influence business decisions. Although work on intellectual capital and noncompetes is quite strong that lower restrictions help business overall, alleged protection of voting systems and other entry barriers matter too. Someone may have studied this point. If so, please share. But my guess is that a company that has trouble getting people (and I mean U.S. citizens) to their headquarters won’t be happy about that cost.


The 100 Year Bloom?: Wealth Inequality in the U.S.

The debates around Piketty’s analysis of wealth gaps will persist, but a recent paper by Emmanuel Saez (U.C. Berkeley) and Gabriel Zucman (London School of Economics) indicates that wealth disparity in the U.S. has hit the levels of about 100 years ago. As the Economist Espresso edition reports, the study finds that “In the late 1920s the bottom 90% held just 16% of America’s wealth; the top 0.1% had a quarter.” From the Depression until “well after” World War II, the middle class share went up. Since the go-go 1980s that tide reversed and now “The top 0.1% (160,000 families worth $73m on average) hold 22% of America’s wealth, just shy of the 1929 peak—and almost the same share as the bottom 90% of the population.” (The Economist link has a nice chart from the paper. The chart captures the trend well. I was unable to get the image from the paper, however.).

I have to wonder whether the intersection of wealth disparity, race and police tensions, health security, job prospects, lack of food, and perhaps other factors explain what seem to be larger examples of unrest and revolutionary impulses from all ranges of political interests all around the world. And, the general sense of rejecting all institutions (a millennial impulse if lack of joining a party is a signal) can still lead to the short term alliance of enough people to cause revolution (their cause is change and rage and unleashed energy against the unjust), the aftermath of which is rarely bloodless. Once the common enemy goes, the energies of the one truth turn on each other. The show Survivor is much more real: eliminate those who are strong and helped you win, for they may threaten your vision. In other words, I sense much anger out there (and it may be founded) on many fronts. I see lex talionis (eye for an eye), but that is not justice. The law is supposed to mediate our impulse to revenge, and yet the law lies behind the changing tides of wealth. The unarticulated sense of injustice and disenfranchisement can eat the system from the inside. And even those gaining the biggest benefit right now will not see that the bottom is falling out from under them.

Not all 100 year blooms are pretty or benign. Reorganizing a country or the world so that baseline well-being goes up and is shared by most, if not all, seems like a blip in historical terms (I am trying to think of an extended era, more than 100 years, when wealth disparity was not high). But it may be that if we don’t start to fix these problems, the desire for those blips will become real and travel with high costs: depressions, starvations, revolutions, and wars.

It may not take much to prevent the fall. Who knows? Maybe the Jam’s That’s Entertainment captures an odd, sad, equilibrium that barely satisfies.

Waking up at 6 A.M. on a cool warm morning
Opening the windows and breathing in petrol
An amateur band rehearsing in a nearby yard
Watching the telly and thinking ’bout your holidays

If that is gone, well…


Fusion and the Firm

Lockheed Martin claims it is closing in a fusion reactor. Such claims pop up often enough to be dismissed. Yet as the Economist notes Lockheed Martin is asserting that its design could be viable in 10 years rather than previous claims by others which tended to be 30 years. One random, nice thing about being at GA Tech is that when I first read about the claim, I happened to meet a PhD student who was studying nuclear engineering on the campus tram. He confirmed that the approach is known. He was skeptical but agreed it was promising. And that is where the firm comes in. Apparently Lockheed Martin has gone public, because to get the design to production will require the help of folks outside the firm. The researcher, Dr. McGuire, “thinks his design could deliver a 100MW reactor (able to power 80,000 homes) of about 7 metres in diameter, weighing less than 1,000 tonnes. Indeed, smaller versions might fit on a large lorry.” It may be a pipe dream, and with oil on a free fall, investment in new energy sources may seem less attractive. Still, if the idea is percolating in private and public arenas and the payoff is a clean, less expensive, renewable energy source, that would be amazing. I recall just after President Clinton left office and was on Letterman, he said if he were an oil country, he’d be thinking of energy, not oil, as the industry of the the future. Rather smart insight. Seems others are paying attention, but that works too.


Yahoo! and YouTube

Mozilla switched to using Yahoo! for its search engine, and so I noticed something about how it shows YouTube results; something that may upset YouTube aka Google. When I was writing about lightsabers and 3D printing, I wanted to embed a clip from Return of the Jedi. The search on Yahoo! showed me a potential clip. I hit play to confirm that. It was good for my needs. I looked for the embed code, and it wasn’t there. There was a share button up top, but for the full page and codes, I had to go to the YouTube page. Now that is what happens when one embeds a YouTube video. But I wonder whether YouTube posters will be upset (or maybe even YouTube/Google) to find that a rival search engine maybe undercutting them. For example, it seems, I stress seems as I ran only one test, that a YouTube video that has an ad before a video lacks that ad when on Yahoo! Banner ads seem to be present on both, but they differ. I am guessing Google gets to serve those and maybe they vary depending on where the video is served. That would make sense given the targeting should vary depending on where the video is shown. Still if Yahoo! is taking content and showing it on its site, perhaps making money that way too (or at least keeping it from the Goog), will we see a replay of the early Internet cases on framing, diversion, etc., but with Google as the plaintiff? If so, is that an ironic moment where some folks will be saying Google just got Googled (i.e., I am thinking certain industries see being “Googled” as something other than being searched for; hey that may show that the whole genericisim question is less of an issue.).


Hello Stigler: Google Trusted Stores, Amazon, and Price Discrimination

Hello, Stigler. Matchmaking and advertising are Google’s forte. It has upped its game. Never to leave things as they are, Google has been rolling out a trusted vendor system. I noticed the service for a company that I cannot recall. Not a good sign for the company, but then again I don’t notice Amazon third parties either. If Google can use algorithms and other options such as requiring applications by vendors to be part of a trusted network of retailers, that change could be huge. There are, however, some issues.

First, Amazon should keep an eye on this program as it might be the first one to challenge Amazon’s excellent third party system. For that to be a true threat, Google will have to find a way to protect customers. Amazon has been great, in my experience, when it comes to protecting me while I deal with sellers far away and sometimes dubious. It does not give away my credit card etc. So if a lemon is in play, Amazon covers me. I assume it takes a fee for being the broker. Google customer service may have to evolve, if it is to match Amazon. A series of online, automated loops that end up hitting walls will make me stay with Amazon. But as Google gets better at identifying good sellers and protecting consumers, the service may work well. In addition, the play should feed into Google’s foray into ecommerce. Again if it can aid in delivery and resolve poor third party service, Google could do quite well in this space.

Second, will search results be influenced by participation in the program? On the one hand, I’d love results that lead to better sellers. Heck if Amazon or eBay ratings figured into Google results and improved knowing whether an ad or listed result was trust-worthy, that’d be great. Then again, right or wrong, I expect Google watchers/haters/worriers will argue that Google has promoted results unfairly. As long as a company can go through certification, it seems that argument should fail. I imagine Amazon, eBay, and others require some level of clearance to be in their system. Regardless of purveyor, it seems systems that are relatively low-cost (or maybe free except for time to fill out forms) to join and then are monitored should be embraced. In other words, Yelp etc. are near useless to me. Crowds are not as smart as folks think. As the great agent Kay in Men in Black said, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.” More ways to improve how each of us, separately, evaluates options would be welcome, and plays to the way we each are capable of being smart. Options that limit us and feed echoes of dubious sources, behaviors, and beliefs, I’d like to avoid.

So we’ll see whether Google can one-up Amazon in connecting buyers and sellers. If so, I may buy more LPs and who knows what from folks I will never meet. And prices should be more competitive. Of course, that will be so until Christmas hits. Then as happened this year, prices may go up. But hey, Amazon listed the MSRP and connected me to a retailer whose markup combined with Amazon shipping worked for a gift to my niece. That was great. Wait, did I just agree with perfect price discrimination?!!? Damn, you Goog! and Amazon! Or is that Happy Holidays! I got what I wanted without fighting through stores.


Goliath aka Google aka No Surprises in Hollywood versus Silicon Valley

This just in: Hollywood hates/fears/plots against Google! The Sony security breach and following leaks have yielded many insights, sort of. If anyone thought Hollywood executives were discrete, that was naive and now debunked. If anyone thought most people knew not to use work email for personal business, that too is shown false. (I am continually amazed at how many law professors have thought it “odd” or “paranoid” that I use different emails for work and non-work communication). And yes, Hollywood aka the copyright industry is quite savvy and plots ways to go after its competitors and/or threats. The revealed emails do show the details of the plans and that there was a code word, Goliath, for Google (which I take as a place holder for Silicon Valley). All of which seems very Dr. Evil. But let’s be clear. Strategies to go after state attorneys general or legislators and to push negative news stories are endemic. They are endemic to Hollywood, telecoms, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, and really any major industry. I am not saying that these practices are great or that policy is well-made from them. But they are real and should be understood. And, for those interested in the open Internet debates there are some other lessons. If you thought SOPA was the end, think again.

Vigilance and support for many companies and groups that support your issue (regardless of what it is) matters. The game is afoot. It will not end. Disclosure moment: Yes, I worked at Google in the policy group, and I have also worked on a political campaign. And one thing that I know from my experience and research (check Jessica Litman’s work on the copyright industry for a great lesson in this industry’s ability to play the game) is that if ideas come from only one entity, they seem weak. For better or worse, trade groups, NGOs, etc. matter. I prefer those that are independent and offer some nuances, but overall the concerted voices of many can be powerful. No matter what issue you wish to see succeed, backing only one entity dilutes the power of the idea or makes it seem like one company or group is crying over its lot in life. Some other post may get into the public choice issues here. But for now, the Sony leaks show that nothing much has changed. “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.” Ecclesiastes, 1:5-6.

Hollywood will always lobby for its interests and so will everyone else. “So it goes.”


Let the Games Begin! Lightsabers, 3D Printing, and Jedi Skills

Toys are a big area for 3D printing, and now someone is printing prototype lightsabers from a fleeting image in a trailer for the new Star Wars movie. As Gerard and I argue in Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things, “Advances in 3D printing technology are launching an Industrial Counter-Revolution, and the laws governing the way things are made will need to make peace with the reality of digitized objects and on-demand fabrication.” These Hollywood-inspired designs may end up a case study for the ideas and issues we raise in the article. After all, Lucasfilm had a history of strong IP enforcement as does Disney, the new owner of the Star Wars franchise. And George Lucas is famous for having negotiated the merchandising rights to Star Wars and making a fortune from that revenue stream. There is, arguably, much at stake.

So will Disney try to stop this fun? If so, who will the target be? Thingiverse, a repository for 3D printing files? FDM, the company that makes the printer hardware? The source of the PLA filament (the materials for the object)? What about the tinkering that has come from just a brief view of the new lightsaber (it has a crossguard which has caused online debates about that design)? The designers at le FabShop offer:

As Makers, we couldn’t help but try to find out by ourselves if this “crossguard” design was a good configuration or not… So we decided to build one, with our army of 3D printers. Of course, the “darkness” of the movie sequence and the lack of details on the weapon itself left a lot of place for imagination and interpretation.

A dozen of 3D printable lightsabers being already available for download on internet, we decided to make one that would be completely customizable. The modular system we invented makes hundreds of configurations possible. From Yoda’s lightsaber to Darth Maul’s.

To me that sounds like some creative work and cool ways to let people play with designs to come up with a range of lightsabers. Of course, others might disagree (as I might if I were the corporation trying to make money selling the merchandise).

Then again, as we say in the article, “Advances in 3D printing technology are launching an Industrial Counter-Revolution, and the laws governing the way things are made will need to make peace with the reality of digitized objects and on-demand fabrication.” So maybe the Disney/Lucasfilms folks will work with these tinkerers and fans. Streamed official lightsabers might be possible. Or a customized lightsaber shop at Disney stores or even in licensed partnership with le FabShop would be great. If so, someone like me is more likely to order that specialized toy for me and for others as a gift and thus rely on expertise and safe materials a bit more than designing my own lightsaber.

Wait, designing my own lightsaber? That was evidence that Luke’s Jedi skills were complete. Maybe I need to get to work on that. Thank you le FabShop!


Mark Weiner, author of The Rule of the Clan, Wins Grawemeyer Award

I am thrilled to share that Mark Weiner has won the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order for the ideas in his book, The Rule of Clan. As some of you know, Concurring Opinions hosted a symposium on Mark Weiner’s book, The Rule of the Clan. It was a heady exchange and much fun too. Mark is a dear friend and colleague. To see his work recognized in this way is most gratifying. The history of the award is rather interesting too. H. Charles Grawemeyer trained as a chemical engineer, had success as an industrialist, and endowed the award “to honor powerful ideas in five fields in performing arts, the humanities, and the social sciences.Winners in the World Order category include Mikhail Gorbachev, Samuel Huntington, John Braithwaite and Peter Drahos, and Erica Chenoweth among many others. So again, congratulations to Mark who is continuing his slacker ways with new work while at the University of Salzburg, Austria, this spring as a Fulbright Scholar. I expect another great set of ideas and work is in Mark’s and our future.


The Creativity Cliff: Another Reason Extended Copyright Terms Are Not About Authors

Quality of life and creative capacity at the end of life are other reasons to doubt that long copyright terms are important for authors. Ezekiel Emanuel’s “Why I Hope To Die at 75” caused a stir for his views on graceful death and quality of life. Part of his argument is that creativity, on average, diminishes late in life. Those who pursue prolonging life as if they are “immortals” “operate on the assumption that they will be … outliers” such as one of Emanuel’s colleagues who still publishes papers that change policy at 90. “But the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.” (Emanuel picks 75 because that is his trigger age for not fighting death). The article has a graph that indicates truly creative, novel ideas and work decline after the early to mid 60s for most people. Emanuel is quick to point out that there are many other ways to be productive and contribute to society after creativity slows down or goes away. Nonetheless, if he is correct that “This age-creativity relationship is a statistical association, the product of averages; … [and] The age-creativity curve—especially the decline—endures across cultures and throughout history, suggesting some deep underlying biological determinism probably related to brain plasticity”, it suggests that there is what I would call a creativity cliff.

If the creativity cliff is real, it suggests that giving more incentives to create late in life is unwise. As I argue in The Life and Death of Copyright, the idea that authors need copyright after death to provide for heirs is absurd and unsupported. When I presented the paper, many asked but what if I am old and want to leave something to my children, isn’t copyright an incentive? It may be an incentive, but it is not sound, in part because of the creativity cliff. In general, as Hal Varian has noted, very few works ever generate a steady income stream. That is true regardless of when one creates. Copyrighted works are part of winner-take-all markets and “Such markets end up fostering over-entry into the field because too many people believe they will be the one to sit at the top of the market when only a few or arguably one can do so.” As Emanuel points out, many of us hope to be outliers and “immortals” who have excellent quality of life and tremendous creativity late in life, but by definition that can’t be true. Thus those who say they need copyright as an incentive to write as they see death approaching labor under the illusion that they are the outliers. I laud the effort and probably will write until I die, but that is not a sound basis for policy.