Links - March 26, 2018
I have been awful at sharing links lately, and I haven’t quite figured out why. Partially it is because my consumption patterns have changed. I’m reading more books on paper, spending more time reading tweets, and devoting many many hours a week to listening to podcasts - according to my phone’s stats, I’m spending 8 hours per week on Overcast (at 1.5x, not counting smart speed!) and another 4 hours per week on Twitter (plus however long I spend scrolling on my laptop). That’s a ton of content, and sifting through to decide what’s worth sharing is tough.
I’ll try to go back to sharing a bunch of smaller posts instead of these huge lists going forward. We’ll see how that goes.
Anyway here they are:
- Let’s Get Better at Demanding Better from Tech Cory Doctorow - Locus Magazine
This column asks questions about the future of technology, and which technologies are worth supporting. As you’d expect, it brings in some “marginal cost of 0” ideas, along with questions about what the structure of society should be, and what should be the role of corporations in a financialized world. Ultimately, it pushes us to remember human agency. Being a cog in one of these machines, I can tell you how easy it is to forget we have that.
- Dorm Living for Professionals Comes to San Francisco Nellie Bowles - The New York Times
These are re-branded and remodeled SROs, but people on both sides are doing mental gymnastics to convince themselves otherwise. On the one hand, you have the residents, signaling that their (probably annoying) neighbors are their best friends, and on the other you have the developers who are selling the renewal of these buildings as a good thing for the neighborhood (which I agree with) and a good thing for the residents (which, eh…). Honestly, I was suprised that the NYT was not more critical of this. It adds another layer to San Francisco’s patina of dystopia.
- Pierre Menard, Inventor of LISP Alvaro Videla
If you haven’t read Borges’ Pierre Menard (that’s the original, for an English translation, click here), you should. The text provides amazing commentary on authorship, creativity, and intellectual property. In his piece, Alvaro takes it a step further - Pierre Menard’ing Menard, and rewriting the story as an allegory of computer science in the spirit of Borges. It’s just amazing.
- The DACA and immigration debates are about whether Latinos are "real Americans" Will Wilkinson - Vox
In these days of political craziness, it’s good to remember history. “Trump supporters who thrill to the idea of a ‘big, beautiful wall’ on the border largely fail to grasp that the ancestors of many of the people they want to keep out have been here all along, and that people cross back and forth over the border in part because the border crossed a people.”
- Doctors, Revolt! Rich Joseph - The New York Times
Reading this reminded me of this piece on measuring surgeons’ skills and making decisions on who gets to perform surgeries based on that. Medicine is a very tricky industry (is it even ok to call it an industry? or is that healthcare?), where we don’t set up incentive systems that we know lead to better outcomes because it’d reveal that we don’t really trust our doctors. Doctors are people, and if we give them something to optimize for, they’ll optimize for it. Let’s pick the right thing: patients.
- How is the world ruled? Branko Milanovic - globalinequality
Bottom up or top down? I think neither. Lately I’ve been really conflicted about this idea of whether single humans can effect change in the world, and how.
- Batching Mental Transaction Costs Elaine Ou
This post describes one of the reasons why “micropayments” just don’t work. Yes, I’m in theory willing to pay a cent to read some article or blog post, and I could spend $N/month on content, but having to think about whether or not I want to pay for something or not adds significant friction. This is also why you’d rather open Netflix and scroll for ten minutes through bad content instead of opening the iTunes Movie Store and scroll for two.
- Fitter, Happier, More Productive... and other fantasies of millennial life. Slightly Marxist Founder
A good essay on productivity and lifehacks, and the stories we tell ourselves about human life in 2018 through the lens of Radiohead’s Ok Computer. The accompanying art is worth it on its own, too.
- The Moral Life of Babies Paul Bloom - The New York Times
I took a psychology/philosophy class on the moralities of everyday life on Coursera, and out of all the research that was presented this was one of the more interesting projects. Bloom, who taught the class on Coursera, presents evidence to show that babies are not really clean slates, but instead come with a built-in genetic morality. From a really young age, kids understand empathy, and can discern good and evil. This innate morality is limited, but it appears in babies across cultures, which is just mind blowing.
- The War on Reason Paul Bloom - The Atlantic
Another one by Bloom, from the same class described above. I didn’t even remember having read this one, but when I put it in Pocket I got a little star next to it, which warned me that not only had I read it, but I had really liked it. It brings up great arguments for and against determinism, moral objectivism, and free will.
- The Brain on Trial David Eagleman - The Atlantic
And yet another one that I got from that same class.
- Nothing Is "Standard" Fred Wilson - AVC
The realization that things are the way they are because of path dependence has become more and more prescient in my life lately. This anecdote is a good example of someone side stepping inertia.
- Who Gets to Graduate? Paul Tough - The New York Times
I recently signed up to volunteer with Scholar Match. Their intake process is long, so I have not yet done any actual volunteering yet, but I did have to read this piece for their training. It’s about leveling the field for incoming freshmen in college who come from underprivileged backgrounds via mentoring and tutoring programs. According to the article, the research was quite positive with their test groups, so much so that they extended the process to include the whole incoming class to U.T. that year, which is about to graduate now. I wonder what those numbers look like.
- It's still hard for beginners to get started with Python Vicki Boykis
I constantly remind my team to try to get into a beginner’s shoes when writing documentation, and to think carefully of every word they’re using when documenting code. My go to is “What would you think if you read that on your day 1 at the office?” Thinking about this problem at a more macro scale (i.e., all people learning python, not just seasoned engineers learning the ins and outs of a large system they’ll help develop) makes for an interesting change of perspective.
- World After Capital Patrick O'Shaughnessy, Albert Wenger - Invest Like the Best
On a previous episode of Patrick’s podcast, the conversation turned to the role that attention plays in consumption. Naturally, that led to talk about Albert’s book, World After Capital, and how we’re shifting to a world where the scarcest asset is human attention. I tweeted back saying I’d like to hear them discuss further, and they did!
- Economics for the 21st Century (Podcast) Russ Roberts, Arnold Kling - EconTalk
Most economics taught in school is based on ideas that are hundreds of years old. In most colleges,(including my own) courses at the undergraduate level are focused on the theory, and the idealized models that describe the interactions between firms, labor, and widgets, which don’t really apply to our reality today. In many ways, this is related to the conversation between O’Shaughnessy and Wenger linked to above. Our world is full of intangibles. Our economics education should evolve to deal with them.
- The Case Against Education (Podcast) Russ Roberts, Bryan Caplan - EconTalk
When I took a class on public finance in college, we devoted a total of an hour and a half to this topic. From the minute I heard about signaling theory, I was completely convinced. If you are at all interested on education, and how people make decisions about their lives, listen to this.
- The Enemies of Modernity (Podcast) Russ Roberts, Helen Pluckrose, and James Lindsay - EconTalk
Yes, a third EconTalk episode. Sorry, not sorry. I have to confess I have not yet read the manifesto, but I soon will. Pluckrose and Lindsay make a strong argument to embolden science, reason, democracy, the rule of law, and moral progress. It’s crazy that these are things that need to be argued for, but we live in strange times.
- Bijlmer (City of the Future, Part 1) (Podcast) 99% Invisible
Lately, Roman Mars and his friends at 99PI have been doing great work explaining the evolution of cities, urban planning, and state sponsored development projects. This one on CIAM’s Bijlmer project reveals a lot of the problems of modernist architecture. Having just read Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Scott’s Seeing Like a State, made this extra interesting. Don’t miss part two.
- Fordlandia - (Podcast) 99% Invisible
This one, about Henry Ford’s failed project in Brazil was also fascinating. It’s packed with great tid bits of economics, culture, and incentives management. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something similar happening with American corporations setting out for a modern equivalent in China today.
- Networks, Power, and Chaos (Podcast) Sam Harris and Niall Ferguson - Waking Up
I’ve been on a Sam Harris binge lately, and it all started from this podcast episode. I’ve been meaning to read Ferguson’s work for years, and this discussion of his latest book gave me an even stronger reason to do so. At first I was interested because of the analysis of power networks and institutions throughout history, but when I realized that the use of the word network was not casual, but actually referring to network science, I was totally sold. I’ll make a big effort to read it this year.
- Rigging The Economy (Podcast) Planet Money
Protectionism and lobbying are staples of the American economy. Here, more so than in many other countries, the government is structured in a way that incentivizes this. In this episode, Lindsey and Teles, come together from different sides of the political spectrum and show why the captured economy is a problem. For a more academic in-depth version of this, you can also check out the EconTalk episode interviewing the same two guys.
- P Is For Phosphorus (Podcast) Planet Money
Everyone needs food to live. Most food comes from fertilized fields. Most fertilizer is made with phosphate, which is derived from phosphorus. Most phosphorus comes from Morocco. Morocco is a monarchy. How insane is it that the future of humanity is so tied to a single person’s whim, and no one knows about it?
- The Evolution of Payments (Podcast) a16z
Stripe is a really interesting company, and hearing John Collison talk about where it is going is fascinating. First, he talked about the idea of pitching a company for customers that don’t yet exist, which is kind of crazy, but by definition visionary. Then, they also discussed being seen as a value-add or a toll-taker. I’ll probably re-listen to this one in a few years, just like this other a16z episode on marketing and positioning. Neither is relevant to my current role, but eventually they will come in handy.
- Five Women (Podcast) This American Life
Hannah listened to this before me, and insisted that I had to hear it. I truly don’t understand how this has been acceptable behavior for so long.
- The Walls (Podcast) This American Life
Episodes of TAL are divided in several acts, and for the most part the various acts are of similar quality in any given episode. On this one, act one knocks it out of the park with a story of immigration into Europe via two tiny Spanish enclaves in Africa.
- Voyages in sentence space Robin Sloan
I work in a tangential field to NLP, and constantly deal with experts in the field, whose explanations can go over my head. Any time I’m pointed to good resources on the topic, I get happy. This is one of them. Additionally, for a good intro to word vectors in general, and how to compute them, you can check out Understanding word vectors, a Jupyter notebook by Allison Parrish.
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