I read this because Sean posted about it on Twitter. Turns out his family comes from there, which I didn’t know until after I read the article and told him I was adding this to my to-read pile. I have a very hard time understanding company towns. This book will be a good start.
I don’t really know much about Brexit, but this divide between “any-wheres” and “some-wheres” is an interesting one. For a while, I’ve been making a similar argument about the cosmopolitan urban elites vs secluded rural communities elsewhere in the world.
I never got into the Knuth cult, I have not read his books, and don’t pretend to know much about his research, but I know he’s a highly influential figure who changed the field of computer scince again and again in the last ~60 years. Reading about him, and how he spends his time these days was fascinating.
Here, Noah points out what has been clear to many for a while: China is already the main world power, and the trend says that’s not gonna change. Still wrapping my head around the obvious implications & struggling to understand 2nd/3rd order effects. It made me think of this piece by Brian Brooks, the chief legal officer of Coinbase. If the replacement of the USD as the world reserve currency is a real worry near-term, it would be a good strategy for the US to push for a non-sovereign-backed currency instead of ceding the position to China. It’s like a kid, who knowing he’s lost the game, grabs the ball and takes it home with him early.
This ~12k word story of the downfall of GE is crazy. I’m sure someone has studied it well, but don’t conglomerates go totally in the opposite direction of Coasian theory of the firm? Odd that the paper it comes from was written in the golden era of conglomerates. The section on GE Capital overtaking the industrial “real economy” branch of GE has a lot of echoes of Braeburn Capital. Odd to think of the financialization of industrial giants.
A fun conversation about how humans thought about technology thousands of years ago, and how little some things have changed. I had never heard about Talos and especially liked that part of the podcast.
This isn’t a link to a single article, but to 24. Through this advent calendar, these three decided to tell the stories of 24 women who, as they explain, “made today’s computing industry as amazing as it is.” The whole set is awesome, but I especially enjoyed reading about Kathleen Booth and Wendy Carlos.
This is the first epic in a series about China that the NYT is working on. It is a good overview of how the Chinese government has switched from being a closed-in communist anti-market regime to an expansionist communist but market driven regime. The tone is a bit too positive for my taste, as it brushes away the clearly autocratic/totalitarian tendencies of the Chinese system, but the content is well put together, and I’m sure they will touch on these in one of the upcoming pieces. Make sure to see the appendix articles, too.
As I read this wonderful piece I kept thinking of Robert Gordon. Unsurprisingly, the authors invoke Gordon’s pessimistic headwind thesis but, unlike him, Nielsen and Collison are optimistic, demanding “large-scale institutional response” to a problem they see as solvable. The thing is, progress is non-linear. Most science isn’t worth the time and effort invested in discovering it. I was a bit bummed out that the domain they are hosting their appendix at (http://scientificreturns.org) is empty. I was excited to click around and learn more about their position, and hoping to find proposals they were bringing to the table. I assume they have more than just this op-ed up their sleeves, so I’m looking forward to hearing more.
In this short piece, Alvaro questions the modern eurocentric view that cartesian straight lines are good, while complex illegible curves are not. We have a learned set of ideas of what things should look like, and that knowledge is a lens through which we view other societies. When at first sight a system doesn’t fit nicely with our views, it is easy to dismiss it as wrong - our first reaction is to impose our accepted truth on top of it. Clearly our way of doing things is better. Whether we’re discussing urban planning or software engineering, people are often trigger-happy and ready to raze down effective solutions layered by history, enacting our own abstractions to provide legibility at the cost of actual efficiency. Without knowing it, he was channeling Seeing Like a State.
You can trace all sorts of parallels between Sears and Amazon. This is one I hadn’t heard about before, but it is interesting how sometimes unrestricted capitalism and its tunnel vision can lead to unexpected good outcomes. Having access to catalogue shopping meant that you had access to products you otherwise were not able to obtain. The capitalist machine was just catering to the market. Another example, technology meant to reduce friction for everyone can disproportionately ease the experience of shopping for those who are usually targeted as potential thieves.
Language, geography, history, and identity are deeply tied together. Here’s an awesome visualization from Germany
Fake news! The problem is that people are gullible, and that we don’t question what we see and hear, not that we are presented with false information. This episode is a good case study with a couple of extreme historical examples, but for a wider overview on the topic you can also check out Sam Harris interviewing Matt Taibbi for his podcast
The internet is wonderful. I had a question about a topic which I knew about, but mostly anecdotally: the kibbutz. I wanted depth, and asked Russ if he could supply it. He asked me to suggest an expert worth interviewing. I researched a bit and found Abramitsky. Weeks later, my questions were answered, even if there wasn’t much in the episode that I didn’t already know. The success of the kibbutz was related to being small homogeneous units of very motivated people, and its eventual fall came with time, as the motivated people were gone, and other opportunities appeared for their kids and grandkids. The discussion on how the Israeli kibbutz was voluntary (exit was an option!) and comparing it to the coercive Russian kolkhoz was what made this episode most valuable. That’s where my questions had initially come up, and what I learned most about. I had my gap year in Israel when kibbutzim were no longer central, so I didn’t get the kibbutz experience. By now, I don’t think young people can have that experience, but there’s a lot to learn from the experiment. This episode makes the kibbutz ideas accessible to everyone. Thank you for that Ran and Russ!
A conversation worth listening to given our current political environment around the world. I am fascinated with nation states lately, and Hazony believes they’re not going anywhere. He’s against the idea of more global government, and thinks that we should double down on the nation-state. In a way, his arugments mimic what Taleb says at the beginning of Antifragile about Switzerland and its canton system - you want to have multiple sets of policies running in parallel as a way to let the best outcomes rise out of trial and error across the board. With little research to back it up, I think that’s the correct approach, but that the modern nation-state is too large for such trial and error to be productive. Another book to add to the to-read list.
An entertaining story of how the designers at Sears shaped the future of tens of thousands of families with these mail-to-order houses. These are still sprinkled all over the US, and people don’t even know about it. The past was weird, and every once in a while it peeks back at us and laughs.
This episode tells the story of a literal land grab. I am happy that 99PI is doing more of these urban origin stories lately.
Having the whole world virtually on a single currency, owned by a single country, and serving that country’s interests is an anomaly, and other states seem to be catching on to the fact that they can do something about it.
Humans build complex systems, and those systems lead to unintended consequences.
Sometimes, counterfactuals are just wishful thinking. Other times, they are tools. Sunstein’s review of Richard Evans’ Altered Pasts gives us a great lens through which to look at history. Also, the pun in this piece’s title is awesome.
This episode has three different parts. They’re all good, but I’m mostly recommending it due to the second one, a conversation about Fritz Haber, questioning whether our good actions can outweigh our bad ones.
Can blockchains be to governance and public goods what the modern corporation and public markets were to private goods? I am pretty bullish on this overall, even if it is hard to see where this paradigm change is taking us.
This one came from Leon. He found the argument about food replacing music as a status symbol the most interesting, but for me it was much more about the cultural appropriation aspect, and how culture imposes itself in strange subtle ways.
If you have watched Narcos, you should listen to this episode. Exploiting the dark past of a city for tourism is an interesting moral problem. Reviving the city is a more interesting challenge.
Hearing Sonal Chokshi and Marc Andreessen interview anyone together is generally worthwhile, but this one with Brian Arthur was exceptional. Arthur is an economist and complexity researcher. He pretty much came up with the idea of lock-in, which is elemental in how we think of business strategy and product development today. His paper on the topic, from 1983, was rejected by 4 leading econ journals, and was only published 6 years later. He kept getting reviews saying "We can’t find fault in this but this isn’t economics!" This is a conversation about that topic, as well as company formation in general.
The story of a startup I had never heard about, and the B2B2C wonder that they built via channel partnerships. The model is super interesting - consumers get something for free in exchange for buying/trying the product of another TrialPay advertiser. The merchant is then paid for by the advertiser. Say you needed softwre X. X costs $10, which is more than you can pay, but if you sign up for a month of Netflix, you could get X for free. If you were on the fence on Netflix, now you have a good reason to try it - you were going to spend the $10 anyway on X - but Netflix’s LTV from acquiring you is much higher than that, and the cost of acquisition ends up being a payment to TrialPay and a payment to X, which can be much much lower than that LTV. This is something that I had never even thought of, and overall a really interesting business model.
Having read Seeing Like a State earlier this year, this article resonated a lot with me. It takes James C. Scott’s message of being wary of authoratitave states bearing technology and good intentions, and applies it to Silicon Valley companies’ good intentions. Some technology companies are governments in their own way, and many of these web services are larger and more powerful than many nation states, allowing them to deploy large projects that affect the lives of millions of people. Unlike sovereign states, which in theory have aligned incentives with their citizens, companies have a series of other constituents with their own interests beyond that of their users. Our lives are starting to be permeated by these services, and, much like nation states, their grip is starting to become inevitable as more and more aspects of our lives are mediated by them.
Teaching requires empathy in order to figure out how to transfer knowledge that has already been synthesized in their teacher’s head to the student, who has a very different set of anchor knowledge than whatever the teacher already does. To put themselves in the shoes of the student, and make a new idea accessible to them in known terms is what makes teaching hard. Good museums, movies, and books, are built by people who recognize that fact. The first act, where a group of black kids are innocently brought to the movies to watch Schindler’s list was fascinating, precisely because the protagonist teacher had not considered that those kids would have no anchor to understand the movie.
An odd thing about coming to the US, was realizing that no one here knows about filibusters. In Costa Rica, their existence is a defining chunk of history. The Walker Affair is disproportionately important to Costa Rican identity. There’s a national memorial holiday, parks named for its heroes, and, after some revisionist history, even the main airport in San Jose got its name from it. Reading this, and listening to Nate DiMeo’s Memory Palace episode on the topic made me notice that while we learn of the incident, in Costa Rica we’re never taught about the motivation. The fact that slavery was deemed legal south of the 36°30′ parallel gave people all sorts of messed up incentives.
This guest episode was an odd but awesome mash up of radio advertisments, jingles, and their histories. I still haven’t decided, but I might have to subscribe to The Organist.
Until I listened to this, I did not know much about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s origin story. This episode of More Perfect was especially good.
I have been enjoying More Perfect recently. It has good insights into American History, and why things are the way they are in this country. They go deep. For example, there is a whole section of this episode about how the Black Panthers played a key role in the revival of the Second Amendment, and the rights to own guns. I had no idea, and fact that even this has a racial component is says a lot about the United States. On that note, if you have any general American History book recommendations, let me know, I’d like to learn more.
I started reading Scott’s book, Seeing Like a State, and found it super dense, but also super interesting. I need to finish it, and then also read his new book, which is covered in the article. The origins of the state, and the coercive systems that come with it are fascinating. At some point people agree that the overall benefit from these institutions is higher than any alternative, but the state machinery quickly becomes a self fulfilling prophecy - path dependence is real. Upending our understanding of how states came about could really change what we consider as possible paths forward, which is what’s most exciting about understanding them in the first place.
Technology is also interesting sometimes, not just dismal and apocalyptic. The printing press is a good example, and Smith starts his story there, leading all the way to today’s tooling. A somewhat misleading title, as it actually covers way more than just mathematic typography.
I have loved this song since I first heard it back in 2004-2005. Adding this whole layer of its origin story (a night out with Sabina, of all people!), and the history behind its structure, was awesome. The fact that everyone claims this metric/structure as their own, and as a defining aspect of the musical identities of their country is quite telling. Like Drexler says towards the end, “deep down, we’re all from nowhere and a little bit from everywhere.”
Speaking of Roman Mars… I think this episode represents well what I like so much about his podcast. A mix between a history class (who invented the Stethoscope?), a design review (how can you improve upon the original rolled up notebook?), modern culture (why do doctors wear their stethoscopes around their shoulders?), and a bunch of interesting interviews. Worth the 20 minutes.
Religion’s role in the rise of finance is an interesting topic. I remember reading about it in Dimont’s God, Jews, and History 10 years ago (I should probably it read again), and being surprised by how much of a role Judaism had in the development of modern banking. This article discusses the changing views of money within Christianity, and how lending shifted from being sinful to respectable. The development of money and commerce is related to slowly expanding our circles of trust - from families, to tribes, to villages, to towns, and eventually to cities and countries. As transactions become trustless, finance becomes faceless, and lending at interest is no longer one person screwing the other one, but oil in the gears of a bigger machine.
How would an alternative history where the American Colonies get seats in the British Parliament have played out? In Imagined Communities, Anderson repeatedly mentions that the colonial nation state emerges in the Americas partly because creole colonists are not given the same opportunities as the “actual British” or the “Actual Spanish.” A colonist could rise in the state bureaucracy up to a certain point, but never reach the highest courts. This led to an imagining of “us” against “them” where the “us” were the colonists, and the “them” was the empire. This dynamic led to rebellions, and a variety of fights for independence across the continent. Are there any examples of colonies that were granted full “part of the empire” status? I couldn’t think of any.
The episodes of a16z where people talk about the past are way better than those where they talk about the present or the future. “How did we get to now” says a lot more about where we are going than the latest and the shiniest.
Dillow lists three reasons. First, he starts with Marx’s view of economics as a historical process. Since the economy is “founded upon past injustices” and the “denial of the rights and freedom which libertarians celebrate,” the status quo can’t be regarded as legitimate by libertarians. Second, he discusses Marx’s perspective on property rights, and how they might discourage investment and innovation. Lastly, he posits that Marx’s gripe with capitalism was not that it was unfair, but that it robbed laborers from their freedom. As someone mentioned on HN a few days ago in the context of a minimum wage discussion, “When a person is desperate, ‘voluntary’ starts to lose all meaning.” I’m not a libertarian, but I should read Marx.
The insanity of transforming the way we interact with technology a second time. “Apple had sold approximately 180M devices since being founded in 1976 (70M Macs and 110M iPods) […] Apple is on track to sell its two billionth iPhone at some point in 2020.”
Design meets history, meets civil unrest, meets politics.
At Northwestern, the “One Book” program tries to build community by sending incoming students a copy of a book before they arrive on campus. My year, it was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This episode gives an overview of her story, and by interviewing her family members, and some of the scientists involved in the research that her case spawned. To be honest, I started the book that summer, but never finished it. I’ll get to it some day.
Planning urban development is hard, and sometimes, the unplanned spontaneous decisions of many lead us to interesting places that central planning couldn’t reach.
It’s ridiculous to think that spreadsheets were so revolutionary only a few years ago.
Identity online is hard - and I don’t mean tying your persona to social media, but actually tagging bits and bytes with other bits and bytes to identify them across machines. The self-incrementing column of integers is a mainstay of traditional databases, but what happens when scaling across machines becomes necessary? Here’s some history of how that’s been solved across the years.
In a strange melding of worlds, Ben moves away from the usual tech talk and goes deep into the history of financial manias. Using Yuval Harari’s notion of shared myths, this post makes a clear difference between bubbles of irrationality, and bubbles of timing. I firmly believe that crypto is one of the latter.
One of my favorite episodes of a16z ever. Touching on the subjects of nationalisim, imagined communities, religion, governments, etc, etc, etc, and how all of these are affected by the rise of technology. I had shared a related piece from Harari a few months ago, but this podcast episode is way better.
Not surprisingly, the past is different than we think it was. Thinking of the rise of segregation as a relatively new phenomenon is odd.
“Markets price risk, not hope.” In times like these, I wish I understood international finance better.
A story of weather reports, demonstrating path dependence1000. “Choices we agree on now are going to stick around, and get baked into the foundational brick of our biggest, most critical systems. Be careful what you toss in there!”
Borders, names, in-groups and out-groups, are all arbitrary, and more fluid than we generally think. Herodotus spoke of the divide between Europe, Asia, and Africa 500 years ago: “I cannot conceive why three names [Asia, Europe, and Africa] should ever have been given to a tract which is in reality one.”
New ideas are not worth listening to because they are new, but shouldn’t be disregarded for that reason either. Conservatism is a stupid idea. I wonder how it came up in the first place. Definitely related to my argument on Szabo’s article above.
Tax cuts, and infrastructure spending are good ideas, but will he actually put them in motion?
A dose of historical perspective for these times of economic anxiety and anomie. Unbundling and specialization leads to recondensation and reformation. In cycles, humanity tends towards complexity.
Facebook is a scapegoat among the aggregators. Hacker News could be just as guilty of this same issue, but they don’t operate at scale, and are not frequented by Average Joe. People are lazy, including me, and we will read whatever confirms what we already think. Some of us just do a bigger effort than others to keep our biases at bay.
In classic Pinboard style, Cegłowski starts up high with evil armies, police, and governments, but shows how in the end individuals - in this case, technical individuals - are on the hook. Facebook, Amazon, Google, and yes, Apple, all are comprised of individuals. What do we do to make sure that our decisions remain moral?
The media is a shit-show. Yesterday I watched Amanda Knox (which I definitely don’t recommend), and the whole time I kept thinking of this article. Unfounded phrases get repeated over and over for views and clicks, making monsters and presidents out of thin air. Trump is bad, but I trust that things will not change that much in the short term.
Honestly, I don’t remember how I found this article. I assume Twitter. Finding who to give credit for it was impossibly hard. In any case, while the whole thing was interesting, the most valuable piece was learning about Pierre Jaquet Droz and his 18th century robots.
Aggregation Theory applied to Trump.
15 years went by quickly. I remember my first iPod, back in 2004. Hearing a bit of what the future looked like back then is worthwhile.
Not much needs to be said about this, but Mark Suster makes great arguments about why backing Trump is completely wrong.
Growing up in Costa Rica, I somewhat lived with the after-effects of the revolution. A large portion of the population in Costa Rica is from Nicaragua (somewhere between 5%-10%, according to Wikipedia) and while I have heard some stories, and learned a bit about this in school, I feel like I should make an effort and learn the history of my own “other”.
TL;DR, they were both “Wutbürgers,” or “Angry Citizens.” I don’t think they had much else in common. Despite the poorly chosen title, the article does a good job of recounting previous political movements driven by anger, some more constructive than others, and showing how history echoes across time, as well as geography.
An explainer on race in the US, which I can’t recommend enough. Norton’s two part post helped me re-contextualize the present via history I was unaware of (part two, here).
Throughout history, not all generations get to be better off than the previous ones, and that seems to be the case of the United States today… unless things change. “The moral case for a fairer society is clear. But there is also a self-interested case.”
Not suprisingly, the idea of redistribution is not taken well by Roberts, but the underlying themes are more interesting anyway. Touching on cosmopolitanism, identity, and other recurring subjects of this blog, Deaton and Roberts discuss the state of the US’s poor, questioning whether a poor person in the south is objectively worse off than a poor person in Africa, for example.
Necessity is the mother of invention, quite literally. This episode makes it easy to imagine what the village might look like, but after seeing the photos I think the audio doesn’t do it justice. An excellent idea, and an important example of why the US sometimes lags on the innovation side.
A short episode, based on a 1964 New York Times article. Nate DiMeo tells us a story we’ve all heard before, but which, sadly, must be retold over and over again.
I am sharing this, even though I honestly did not read the whole thing. An 11 part epic on how the internet works. A good production, even if a bit overwhelming.
I had never thought about the fact that passports are a recent construct. Obviously, it makes sense, but when I first read it I was baffled that they were a new necessity only a hundred years ago. In historical context, freedom of movement ties very nicely with a lot of themes I have been thinking about related to sovereignty, national identity, shared culture, and their implications. Be it due to globalization, radicalization, or you-name-it-ization, the modern nation-state may be slowly breaking down.
What is the point of work? What should people spend their time on, and why? Wenger argues that we are about to enter a post-capital and post-labor world. I still haven’t decided if I should read his book now, as a draft, or when it is published in a few months.
Harari discusses the jump from religion, to humanism, and now Dataism: Letting go of “religion” and “feelings” to guide our choices, and allowing computers to make decisions for you. As much as “knowing thyself” is great advice, making good decisions also requires knowing the rest of the world. No matter how much you know yourself, there will be unknown unknowns about the people and things you interact with. Computers might be able to help us there.</br>A specific case I’ve thought deeply about is “choosing what content to consume,” which applies to books, articles, podcasts, MOOCs, etc. Objectively, there is some optimal solution to this question, and Harari’s Dataism probably has a better answer than humanism, regardless of how uncomfortable that thought makes you feel.</br>The idea is powerful, and we can similarly extrapolate to other questions.
A cuisine’s history, and its people’s sentiments about it, can tell us a lot about culture and how it is formed over time. There is a lot of value when food becomes more than sustenance.
Lots of interesting tid bits on culture, and how our perception of the world changes over time. What will we look back in N years and think “wow, how were we so stupid”?
The fact that two white economics professors at prestigious universities talk about this in public is already a big win. Not knowing the history of slavery in the US, this was quite interesting. The “us vs. them” framing, coupled with the Rawlsian ideas towards the end, was the most persuasive part. Incentives strike again.
Had never thought about the fact that someone had to have introduced “average” into our culture. Another great episode from the 99pi team.
While the comparisons with WWII are extreme, this is one of those “better safe than sorry” situations. Go vote, I can’t.
Exceptionalism is not just an American problem.
The only way I was able to get around the paywall was to click on the link from Facebook Messenger, which adds a referrer to the HTTP request. Let me know if you find another workaround.
Never thought steel could be this fascinating.
Life is strange. One letter (email?) could really change yours. Send it today.
Good analysis of why the US can’t play the isolation game going forward. Even if you don’t care about politics, and you should, it is worth your time just for the amazing list of books that Suster recommends.
Evans has a knack for finding great analogies from history. In most cases, path dependence, network effects, consumer lock in, and feedback loops matter more than any one decision. I wonder if we can systematically figure out the decisions that matter more…
I will steal a comment from Hacker News, because it was that good of an explanation of why this article, as interesting of a read as it is, says nothing: “To say that the technology is best when it’s ripe for replacement could just be flipped around. Technological advances happen when they happen and whatever gets replaced was the best we could do before then.”
A deep dive into the history (and disaster) of the San Francisco housing crisis.
Politicians in the San Francisco Bay Area are getting pulled in every direction, this NYT article tries to explain some of the complexities involved. In a strange coincidence, this article came out roughly a week after I read Kim-Mai’s article, linked above.
When I tweeted at him asking for resources to understand the math behind this research, Noah recommended reading this pdf. To be honest, I haven’t had time for it yet.
I went to a meetup at 140 New Montgomery this week. The event was unremarkable, but the venue was odd. This essay tells its story.