Links - July 22, 2020
- Restoring Discourse (Won’t Be Easy) Albert Wenger - Continuations
The set of topics that can be openly discussed online these days is shrinking. That is a problem. I couldn’t agree more with Albert’s position here: “we need to be willing to explore new and more fundamental solutions rather than trying to patch the existing systems. […] patching our Industrial Age systems won’t do.”
- What the Post-Trump Right Will Look Like Tyler Cowen - Bloomberg
Whether Trump wins or not, there is a big question mark on what the future of the Republican Party looks like. Saying that the left, China, and the internet, will have a defining impact into the repositioning of the party is fairly obvious, but while Cowen makes general comments about culture, and calls out a couple of intellectuals, it’s telling that there isn’t a single politician named in this article.
- The Real White Fragility Ross Douthat - The New York Times
On the hedonic treadmill of meritocracy, meaningless education, and unintended consequences of human systems. In short, Douthat asks what if “in the course of relaxing the demands of whiteness you could, just coincidentally, make your own family’s position a little bit more secure?” I am not sure I agree that this is the main driver of the movement, and I surely hope that people are driven by morality, but it is an interesting line of thought nevertheless. Incentives are important, and this is an argument that makes heavy use of them.
- The State Isn’t Going Crazy; It’s Going State Michael Munger - American Institute for Economic Research
We have rules, and the rules must be followed no matter what.
- How Steven Pinker Became a Target Over His Tweets Michael Powell - The New York Times
I totally agree with Pinker’s point: “I have a mind-set that the world is a complex place we are trying to understand,” he said. “There is an inherent value to free speech, because no one knows the solution to problems a priori.”
- Narrative Collapse L. M. Sacasas - The Convivial Society
A fairly abstract essay about how our ability to build narratives breaks down when our lives revolve around an ever growing knowledge base. Its incompleteness implies deficiency in our understanding of the world. Narratives hide this lack, or at least allowed most of us to ignore the inadequacy until now. “Narratives seek closure (the story must end). The Database is open-ended (it assimilates new data indefinitely). The Database resists the Narrative impulse to control and stabilize meaning.”
- The Purpose of Technology Balaji Srinivasan
An odd case of Balaji going Marxist. I can’t really reconcile the fact that I agree with the premise but disagree with the conclusion. If value comes from humans crystallizing our time into objects (very much in line with Marx), and technologies are tools to improve the rate at which we transform time into value, then it follows that all resources are ultimately denominated in time we spend creating them, and that more time means more value. If that’s the case, and time is the ultimate source of value, “creating more time,” or lengthening lives, is surely the ultimate purpose of technology… and yet, I don’t agree that the purpose of technology is immortality. In part, because I think the value of life comes from the fact that it’s finite, and that experiences are almost by definition not repeatable, special in their uniqueness. The logic is sound, but something is off.
- In Latin America, the Pandemic Threatens Equality Like Never Before Julie Turkewitz and Sofía Villamil - The New York Times
The problem is not inequality per se, but poverty. It is a real problem without the pandemic. This is a set of really sad stories.
- There’s no going back to the pre-pandemic economy. Congress should respond accordingly. Steve Case - The Washington Post
The pandemic accelerates everything. This article made me think of Tim O’Reilly and his commentary about the gig economy, and how the problem we’re facing is not the gig economy itself, but instead the fact that the social and legal frameworks in which it operates depends on people having full time jobs and their health insurance tied to their work, etc. If most of the money being invested is going to old businesses, and those businesses are not going to create new jobs, is that really the best way to invest that capital? Probably not.
- Against anti-anti-anti-price gouging Michael Giberson - Knowledge Problem
A confusing article, as you can tell from the title. Yeah, it’s about masks. Price-gouging is when prices rise “too much” during emergencies. Being anti-price-gouging means that you want price ceilings. Anti-anti-price gouging likely means you are an economist responding to the anti-price-gougers, holding the standard efficient markets view that higher prices lead to increased supply, which ultimately drive the prices down. Anti-anti-anti-price gouging is the response to that article. Anti-anti-anti-anti-price gouging is this. It “feels wrong” is a bad answer.
- More on CBDCs, AML, and anonymity in electronic cash Jerry Brito - Sometimes Right
AML is a necessity of institutions handling cash, not of cash itself. "How do you have a system where transactions or individual holdings below a certain threshold are as anonymous as cash, but above that threshold they are traceable?"
- On Trouser Pockets Sam Bleckley
Everything has to be invented, including pockets. Let’s get better ones.
- The Physical Traits that Define Men and Women in Literature Erin Davis, illustrations by Liana Sposto - pudding.cool
Take a bunch of famous books, shred them into pieces using NLP, and analyze how they describe the characters. The result? Really obvious relationships between how authors treat characters of different genders. This is a cool data visualization project, and the hand drawn charts and images make it unique.
- Behold, Vermont From Above Caleb Kenna - The New York Times
This photography set is amazing. I have never been to Vermont, but now I want to go there, with a drone.
Links - July 9, 2020
- Uighurs in Xinjiang Targeted by Potentially Genocidal Sterilization Plans, Chinese Documents Show Adrian Zenz - Foreign Policy
This is beyond sad. “…findings indicate that Beijing is complementing its pursuit of cultural genocide in Xinjiang with a campaign of ethno-racial supremacy—a campaign that meets at least 1 of the 5 criteria for physical genocide specified by the U.N.” Where is the international community? Who is denouncing China not on bogus claims on their culpability for the current crisis but instead on this very real and morally abhorrent policy? Similar reporting from the Associated Press as well as a short interview with Zenz in NPR.
- A Theory of History and Society: Technology, Constraints and Measurement (TCM) Albert Wenger - Continuations
I very much enjoyed this. Wenger “proposes a theory of history in which technology changes the binding constraint for humanity.” As foragers, we were constrained by access to food. With the rise of agriculture we were constrained by land, and as we shifted to the industrial age we were constrained by capital. Today, he proposes the binding constraint on humanity is attention. I’m not fully bought into this last claim, but I still haven’t read his book, and I’m sure he has good arguments for it. In this piece he builds on that idea, pointing out that the complexity of measuring the impact of our decisions increases over time, making our incentives murkier. As in, it’s easy to see how much food hunters bring back, or how much grain came out of this years harvest. In today’s world, it is much harder to measure the value created by physical capital - there’s whole disciplines on this kind of measurement and optimization. Network effects are deeply linked to this. One of the reasons measuring gets tougher is that, previously, the impact of any one decision was isolated. They mostly had local effects; today, they’re global. Obviously, uncertainty plays a role here too. Measuring the value of an evening hunt is easier than the value of a harvest, because there’s less uncertainty than in the yearly cycle of weather. Increased societal complexity means increased uncertainty. It’s all about attribution. I’m really excited to see him develop this idea further.
- The Dead End of Small Government Brink Lindsey - Niskanen Center
This is the second in a three-part essay series starting here. In a way, this is one of the best responses I’ve seen to Russ Roberts’ essay The Economist as a Scapegoat, critiquing the neoliberal/libertarian project of the last few decades. Lindsey’s book The Captured Economy has been on my to-read list for a while, and after these essays I think I’ll have to read it sooner than expected.
- Tim O’Reilly makes a persuasive case for why venture capital is starting to do more harm than good Connie Loizos - TechCrunch
Not the most informative piece on O’Reilly’s views, but I read his WTF a couple of years ago and I think I agree with a lot of his points. This is more of a fluff piece on his new fund though. He argues that optimizing for shareholder-return is a decision, and that that decision leads to financial instrument that don’t really benefit society as a whole. Instead he suggests that companies should make decisions based on whatever their values are (ie, local manufacturing vs outsourcing, or support for employee benefits vs gig economy contractor model) and that the market still gets to allocate capital based on those ideas, moving the market away from being a weighing machine for financial returns, and instead a weighing machine for “value.”
- Silicon Valley Can’t Be Neutral in the U.S.-China Cold War Jacob Helberg - Foreign Policy
I have pondered some of these questions up-close myself, and I don’t like where they lead if the metric that defines the decision (at least for our side) is short-term “shareholder-value.” This is especially important when we look at the other link on China shared above.
- Philosophy, Progress, and Wisdom (Podcast) Agnes Callard and Russ Roberts - EconTalk
I haven’t been listening to many podcasts recently, but this conversation gave me a lot to think about.
- The Fed is buying some of the biggest companies' bonds, raising questions over why Jeff Cox - CNBC
Raising questions indeed. I’m very much not fond of the idea of the government “picking winners and losers,” and there’s just no way to justify this move other than explicitly trying to prop up the market.
- Can We Please Pick the President by Popular Vote Now? Jesse Wegman - The New York Times
The Electoral College is one of the most nonsensical features of the US political system. Almost 10 years into living here, I still don’t get it. Wegman asks the right question: “if electors are supposed to follow the voters, why have electors at all?”
- A Letter on Justice and Open Debate Many people you know - Harper's Magazine
You might have read about this as “The Letter” on social media. The amount of drama that came from this letter has been somewhat ridiculous. I mostly agree with their point that people should be able to argue for things the believe, and then change their beliefs. That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be consequences to speech, and that anyone can say whatever they want without people reacting. Interesting times ahead.
- The Slack Social Network Ben Thompson - Stratechery
I ran a poll on Twitter that showed most people, at least in my circles, are members of many different Slack groups. It’s interesting to think of Slack not as a vertical company that is trying to lock-in enterprise customers one a time, but instead as one that brings multiple enterprises together in controlled environments.
- Conflict Culture is making social Unsocial Om Malik
On conflict as entertainment, and its evolution from bad TV to bad social media.
- Full Employment Cory Doctorow - Locus Online
While I disagree with a lot of what Doctorow suggests here in terms of monetary policy, I am much more in favor of his fiscal ideas, and definitely agree with his points on climate change vs GAI. Reading this made me think of Nassim Taleb’s comments about redundancy vs. naïve optimization.
- Is fiat money to blame for the Iraq war, police brutality, and the war on drugs? J.P. Koning - Moneyness
In short, no. “If you want to stop governments from engaging in bad policies […] Vote, send letters, go to protests. Sorry, but buying bitcoin or gold in the hope that it somehow defunds these activities by displacing the Fed is not a legitimate form of protest. It’s a cop-out.”
- Survivalist Epistemology Sonya Mann
“Truth is that which remains regardless of whether anybody likes it or not.” - a good meandering essay.
- Yes, the Fed Makes Comic Books (2014) Nolan Feeney - The Atlantic
Interesting to see an institution like the Fed pushing out educational content aimed at kids. When I was in Cleveland a few years ago I was similarly surpirsed by how much the Fed Museum catered to children. Gotta start them young, I guess.
- 2 + 1 = 4, by quinoa Jonathan Landy - EFAVDB
When you pour in two cups of water, one cup of quinoa, you somehow get out four cups of cooked quinoa. How? Spherical packing.
- Zen Guardian Glyph - Deciphering Glyph
A riff on Moshe Zadka’s blog post, using new Python features to answer the riddle from the movie Labyrinth. I learned a thing or two!
- Why time feels so weird in 2020 Feilding Cage - Reuters
A fun interactive piece that shows a few quirks of how we experience time. 2020 definitely feels a decade long so far.
Links - June 27, 2020
- While Statues Sleep Thomas Laqueur - London Review of Books
This essay, reviewing a book comparing the histories of racism and reparations between Germany and the US was worth the 7200 words. “Coming to terms with the past in the United States is a different temporal matter. At issue is the entire national past.”
- Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism (2006) Jaron Lanier - Edge.org
An oddly prescient text from Lanier. It predicted the rise of an entity that’d fill the hole of Facebook as the ultimate bottleneck for our attention online, the devolution of the media industry into either more extreme or more average versions of its old self, and the fact that Wikipedia would become a central asset in the battle to train artificial intelligence models.
- Making Sense of Neoliberalism Quinn Slobodian - Harvard University Press
An essay that tries to explain a complex perspective of neoliberal globalism, arguing that the narrative of “free trade” is in fact false, as there is an extremely opaque set of laws that regulate international markets. Further, the author argues that the global institutions that set the rules are self-perpetuating, and not really the bearers of deregulation that they pretend to be. Now I want to read Slobodian’s book Globalists.
- You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument Caroline Randall Williams - The New York Times
A tough read, and a reminder that the horrors of slavery are recent - a few generations away.
- What comes after Zoom? Benedict Evans
An interesting analogy based on the idea that Zoom “feels 1.0.” It’s not new technology, it’s the one people use though. That makes it similar to Skype or Dropbox. Once video is ubiquitous, who will ask new interesting questions and build products around them? Probably not Zoom.
- How the Virus Won Derek Watkins, Josh Holder, James Glanz, Weiyi Cai, Benedict Carey and Jeremy White - The New York Times
A sadly cool visualization of the spread of COVID across the US, using graph analysis and genetic data to trace back the contagion.
- The shadow org chart Henry Ward - Medium
Organizational behavior usually assumes the perspective that the reader is at the top of the org chart, but that is not the case. I’ve been looking for content that studies bottom up institutional/corporate change, and found this one in the process. If you have any recommendations on this, I’d love to hear them.
- What’s Gotten Into the Price of Cheese? Matt Phillips - The New York Times
I don’t understand commodities markets at all, so even superficial reads like this one, on the effect of the current crisis on cheese prices, seem interesting.
- Why the original laissez-faire economists loved slavery Blake Smith - Aeon
I always knew of the link between capitalism and slavery, but a recent sad realization is that the origin of “free trade” is contradictorily about the free trade in human slaves. This article came up while looking for more sources after reading about this idea in Jill Lepore’s These Truths. The fact that the phrase is rooted in something I see as morally wrong doesn’t really mean that I disagree with its conclusions - I still think free trade on average achieves more efficient solutions than top down approaches.
- Banks are slow to increase rates on savings accounts, but quick to reduce them J.P. Koning - Moneyness
On how banks interests rates are “downwards-flexible and upwards-sticky,” and how that means we’re getting screwed. The title says it all.
- What does 👁👄👁 mean? Well... Josh Constine
The internet went crazy in the past few days over what people were speculating to be a new gen-Z focused social network app. It hit #1 on Product Hunt using a wacky website with just a web-form. Turns out that it was not a tech thing at all, but instead a guerilla marketing campaign to push people to donate to civil rights! It was what it was.
- On the effect of reducing H1B visas on new student enrollment into US schools. Bill Kerr - Twitter
I’m obviously biased on this topic, as a former F1 and H1B holder, but the fact is that even if you believe in the zero-sum immigration story, large parts of the US economy depends on immigrants. Education is one of the most contingent markets.
- Rainbow – an attempt to display colour on a B&W monitor Anfractuosity
Random cool thing of the day.
Links - June 24, 2020
- NYT Is Threatening My Safety By Revealing My Real Name, So I Am Deleting The Blog Scott Alexander - Slate Star Codex
There is real value to pseudonimity, and Slate Star Codex is one of those treasured corners of the internet that wouldn’t exist without it. There are times when the value created for society by exposing personal information can eclipse personal losses. Not knowing the details behind how the NYT makes decisions about anonimity, nor what this story was actually supposed to be about in the first place, this doesn’t seem to be one of those times. The essay above clearly lays out a good set of reasons why Alexander should remain pseudonymous. Unsurprisingly, the author makes a good case for himself. I’m not more than an occasional SSC reader, but there’s been a lot of noise about this incident in my circles online recently, and it’s hard to see how the NYT could justify this. Now the onus is on the NYT to decide whether whatever story they were planning to write is actually worth publishing, outweighing the logic presented by Alexander and backed by a wide array of very-online-people.
- Living in own ideology Branko Milanovic - globalinequality
Sometimes it’s hard to realize how much we’re shaped by our own environment, and how we seldom question why we think the way we do - what the hell is water, etc, etc. Using examples from his youth in Yugoslavia, his time at the World Bank, and the moment in history we’re living now, Milanovic tries to explain that ideology is invisble. We assume it to be obvious, and call it “common sense,” brushing it away.
- The most remarkable product engineering over time in history. Steven Sinofsky - Twitter
In which Sinofsky, a long time Microsoft executive, explains what in his eyes is special about Apple in the context of the recent WWDC announcements.
- Wiener Schnitzel vs Cotoletta alla Milanese The Heart Thrills
Food history, particularly as it pertains to the dishes that are usually associated with a specific group of people, or a country, is a fascinating field of study. After tweeting about making my mom’s milanesas, and how the recipe was originally an import into Latin America that came with my German grandma, my friend Raffaele Colella pointed me to this piece on the origins of the dish.
- The Death of Engagement Orville Schell - The Wire China
Great weekend long read, on “…two countries that are no longer divided just by trade issues, but by a far wider set of discontinuities and contradictions that are made more irreconcilable by our two opposing political systems and value sets.” Set aside an hour if you want to read this, because every couple of sentences can send you through a different Wikipedia rabbit hole.
- Yuppie Fishtanks: YIMBYism explained without "supply and demand" Noah Smith - Noahpinion
This piece came up a few months ago while talking to one of my coworkers about San Francisco housing. For some reason San Francisco progressives (aka, conservatives) are allergic to the basic notion of supply and demand. Here, Noah explains a few reasons why the YIMBY solution should go beyond just “build more market rate housing.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite stop himself short of using supply and demand in his explanation.
- Antifragility Alex Danco
I wish this article used something other than COVID to explain such an interesting concept, and I also wish it didn’t end on such an unfounded navel-gazing note, but Danco does a great job of explaining antifragility, so here we are. I first read Taleb’s book on this topic back in 2013, and I think it’s due for a re-read.
- Say goodbye to the information age: it’s all about reputation now Gloria Origgi - Aeon
An essay on similar ideas to Ben Thompson’s recent pieces on zero trust information but perhaps more grounded in theory. Towards the end, the author quotes Hayek, saying that “civilisation rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.” Today, having the capacity to figure out which knowledge comes from a trustworthy source and which doesn’t is more important than ever.
- Why Indian companies should take on different projects than competing Valley companies - an application of Cobb-Douglas Chris Stucchio
I probably learned about the Cobb-Douglas model a couple of lectures into my economics degree. In one short essay, Stucchio explained more about why it matters than any of my micro professors did.
- The End of OS X Ben Thompson - Stratechery
A bit of history. Now that we’re finally on macOS 11.0, let’s look at the operating system’s roots and heritage, to predict where it could be going.
A year and a half worth of Links
It’s been a while since the last one of these, so here I am, dropping ~200 links on you, hoping that at least one or two seem interesting. It’s a very non-exhaustive list of interesting stuff I’ve read/listened to since early 2019, but I tried to focus on evergreen content. Continue reading...
Links - December 25, 2018
- Here Comes The Downturn Jon Evans - Techcrunch
Merry christmas, shit hit the fan.
- How China’s Rulers Control Society: Opportunity, Nationalism, Fear Amy Qin and Javier C. Hernández - The New York Times
Another piece in this great series on China by the Times. There’s so much packed in here and in the rest of the series that I don’t even know what to highlight. Just go read it.
- On-Chain versus Off-Chain Computation, Turing Completeness and Zero Knowledge Proofs Albert Wenger - Continuations
In this piece, Albert explains an unresolved with smart contracts. He asks, “will a new smart contract cause any existing smart contract to misbehave?” This is a problem I hadn’t thought about until now, and it made me wonder, what are some blockchain projects trying to solve for this?
- Central Planning as Overfitting Vitalik Buterin and E. Glen Weyl - RadicalxChange
There are many reasons to dislike central planning. Most people arguing against it usually point to the economic calculation problem and the fact that even if the required data could be collated, which is on its own impossible, we wouldn’t have the compute power to make optimal decisions, so instead we should offload this process to markets. In this piece, Buterin and Weyl make an analogy to a common failure mode in statistically inferred systems (not necessarily machine learned) that is even easier to accept. I had not thought about it before, and found it very insightful. In short, they argue that systems with simpler designs, particularly those with less knobs for bureaucrats to fiddle with, are better. Our experience of highly complex systems don’t generalize well, so we should aim for less parameters to tune. This in turn also has the advantage of making systems less prone to corruption, since it is harder for the person behind the wheel to hide their actions behind the complex interaction effects of the system. Lastly, they discuss the differences between simple and familiar systems, and how a lot of the structures that organize our lives are actually quite complicated, but we’re used to them. You can consider the essay a proposal to apply Occam’s razor to political economy.
- FOSS is free as in toilet Geoffroy Couprie - Unhandled Expression
A play on the usual “free as in beer” of open source software, denouncing the tragedy of the commons implied by the organization system as it is today. “Let’s own up to the absurdity of talking about a personal freedom that depends mainly on hidden people working for free.”
- Thinking Ahead To 2019 Fred Wilson - AVC
It is interesting to think about how tech IPOs will interact with the bear market of the past few weeks. Here Fred argues that it’s about time for the private and public markets to sync up once again, and that the startup sector is well positioned to make things work. I’m not so sure.
- Messy desks and benign neglect allow ideas to grow Tim Harford
“Neglect is undervalued” - a good short piece. This idea applies to family life, to office productivity, and even urban design. If a space is too controlled, there’s no room for emergent behavior.
- Do I Deserve What I Have? Russ Roberts
Isn’t redistribution more just/fair than our current system? What kind of perverse incentives does it introduce? How do we avoid free-loading? And how do we make sure that redistributive taxation doesn’t deter innovation and entrepreneurship? As usual, Russ does a good job of asking the big questions and answering them smartly, with simple words. Don’t miss out on Part II, while we wait for the third installment.
- "When You Get That Wealthy, You Start to Buy Your Own Bullshit": The Miseducation of Sheryl Sandberg Duff McDonald - Vanity Fair
A strong critique of the cult of the MBA. This is not really about Sandberg, who sadly is just the scapegoat, but about the ethics of business, and the problems that arise from the antinomy of objective profit-seeking and subjective value-judgement. The author blames the great man theory as rehashed by HBS for many of the woes of the industry. I disagree with a lot of what’s said here. In the end nothing gets done without someone making decisions, and I don’t think the case method pretends to have The One Objectively Correct Answer, but it’s good to think about how respected institutions can improve.
- Facebook, Dynamite, Uber, Bombs, and You. Lana Brindley
“How could I use this product to do harm? […] Can I use this platform, this API, this plugin, this app, this feature to do something that, as reasonable moral human beings, we feel a little uncomfortable about?” These questions matter. The author’s point is these things shouldn’t exist, but instead that there are trade-offs in building them. We should think more about trade-offs.
- The Architecture Interview Susan Fowler
I’ve been interviewing a lot of people, and a few weeks ago I was asked to cover architecture for the first time. I had never built a distributed system until I started working at Apple. Sure, I’d used Heroku with a Redis instance and a Postgres DB, but all of that was totally abstracted away from me. Reading this was an eye-opener as to how much I’ve learned in the past few years, and it made me reflect on some of the interviews I had while switching teams - even two years ago I already felt skilled at systems design, and that experience is rare. Working at a place like Apple can really distort your perception of what’s normal.
- The Anti-Bill Gates Adam O’Neal - The Wall Street Journal
I first learned about William Easterly when one of my econ professors handed me his book, The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics. I read that a few years ago, and by now have forgotten many of its anecdotes, but its key point resonated with me and shaped a lot of my intuition behind economics. Essentially, Easterly shows that the classic top-down technocratic solutions that make up foreign aid tend to backfire in unexpected ways because they’re full of perverse incentives for businesses, bureaucrats, and individuals alike. The headline, and part of the article, opposes his views to those of Bill Gates which is gimmicky and click-baity, but the content is substantial. For a deeper dive into Easterly’s thought, check out his Econtalk episodes, or obviously check out his actual work EQG is a pretty easy read.
- Decentralized Identity Trilemma Maciek Laskus - maciek.blog
Your decentralized system can allow for (1) Self-sovereignty, (2) Privacy-preservation, (3) Sybil-resistance. Pick two.
- “Janesville” and the Costs of American Optimism Joshua Rothman - The New Yorker
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.
- Anywheres vs Somewheres: the split that made Brexit inevitable Andrew Marr - New Statesman
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.
- The Yoda of Silicon Valley Siobhan Roberts - The New York Times
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.
- China as No. 1 Economy to Reap Benefits That Once Flowed to U.S. Noah Smith - Bloomberg
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.
- GE Powered the American Century—Then It Burned Out Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann - The Wall Street Journal
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.
- I Used Gmail Auto-Complete, and Now I Know I’m Worthless Derek Thompson - The Atlantic
Perhaps I’m too much of a cynic, but I welcome these little time saving technologies. They help me more than they make me doubt my humanity. Thompson says near the end that “to see these technologies in action is to be confronted with the fact that we are not so very special or unique.” Good, someone had to break it to us.
- Bibi Was Right Ben Judah - The Atlantic
I used to follow Israeli politics quite closely, and Judah’s reflections here echo a lot of my own opinions. I remember grasping, as a 15 or 16 year old, for the first time grasping that Israel can’t be both democratic and Jewish in the long run, and how that realization changed so much of my world view. The world is going in a strange direction.
- The Itsy-Bitsy, Teenie-Weenie, Very Litigious Kiini Bikini Katherine Rosman - The New York Times
At first glance, this did not seem interesting at all. I only read it because several people I respect brought it up on Twitter as a great read, and it was! TL;DR this is a crazy story about a turkish woman who started a fashion company that sold a ton of really high end bikinis, then a bunch of companies like Victorias Secret and Neiman Marcus started copying her, so she sued them over it. In the end, she settled with VS, but it turns out she had copied the design herself from a woman in Brazil who sells bikinis at the beach, and there’s a whole legal shit-show about what copyright is supposed to be surrounding this case. Super interesting.
- What Is Glitter? Caity Weaver - The New York Times
This industry seems unnecessarily secretive, but this piece was pretty fun. It’s good science writing, although, I have to say, the self-deprecating tone felt a bit out of place for the NYT. I had never really thought about how glitter is made, and had always assumed it was some kind of shredded/pulverized metal. I guess it makes sense that it’s mainly plastic, since that’s much cheaper, but, again, I’d never thought of it.
- The World through the Eyes of the US Russell Goldenberg - The Pudding
A really simple visualization that says a lot. The author combed through 741,576 section front headlines since 1900, looking for which country got the most mentions in any given month. It’s pretty amazing how much attention Britain was given early on, and how much reporting about wars takes up the front page. Germany and then the Axis take over during the world wars, then there’s Russia during the cold war, followed Vietnam and Iraq. The fact that China takes up so much of the last ten years is also telling. This is a great project, I just wish the articles were linked, too.
- Marchel (Podcast) Heavyweight
Three seasons in, and I still don’t know how to describe Heavyweight. Jonathan Goldstein somehow manages to create amazing stories where I can initially see none. This time around, he tracks down the single guy who blew it during the filming of Russian Ark, an experimental single-shot full-length movie I had never heard of.
- Negative Mount Pleasant (Podcast) Sruthi Pinnamaneni - Reply All
An unusually political and not very internetty episode for this show, but still a very interesting listen about the interactions between local governments and corporations. It pairs nicely with this Planet Money episode about Amazon and NYC.
- Ancient Dreams of Technology, Gods & Robots (Podcast) Adrienne Mayor and Hanne Tidnam - a16z
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.
- Building Crypto, from Vision to Reality (Podcast) Brian Armstrong, Chris Dixon, and Sonal Chokshi - a16z
I really like the idea of cryptography enabling the “building blocks” style tech that Web 2.0 companies had promised many years ago. Today, no one wants to build on top of other people’s platforms, because historically, platforms end up screweing developers - just ask developers who built on top of Twitter. Crypto might finally lay out the right kinds of incentives, and lead us to a place where tiny services can actually ride on others’ rails. It’s still early days…
- Building Picks and Shovels (Podcast) Patrick O'Shaughnessy and Hunter Walk - Invest Like the Best
This was one of the most interesting episodes of Patrick’s podcast recently. Origin stories are always cool, but especially so when they’re so eclectic. Learning a bit about the decisions behind 2nd Life’s and YouTube’s early economies was fun, but what I found most insightful (by far!) was “is it a value or is it a tactic?” towards the end of the episode. We need to remember why we do the things we do.
- A Computer of One’s Own - Pioneers of the Computing Age Florencia Grattarola, Sebastian Navas, and Alvaro Videla - Medium
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.
- Poland in the 80 Through the Lens of French/Swiss Photographer Bruno Barbey Bruno Barbey - Imgur
This set of photos from Poland in the 80’s is just 👌 Have you seen other similar photo sets that capture a culture at a single point in time? I’d love to see them!
Links - November 20, 2018
- The Land That Failed to Fail Philip P. Pan - The New York Times
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.
- Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen - The Atlantic
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.
- On the constancy of the rate of GDP growth José Luis Ricón - Nintil
An in-depth look at why GDP grows the way it does. This post decomposes growth into many components, and ultimately ties it down to how many people can use a bounded pool of knowledge at any given time, and how we can extract more of that knowledge to put it to use.
- Amazon’s Antitrust Antagonist Has a Breakthrough Idea David Streitfeld - The New York Times
Somehow I’d missed this NYT profile of Lina Khan, and her work on antitrust, from this past September. It’s easy to draw parallels between her questioning the meaning of consumer welfare & Mariana Mazzucato’s questioning the meaning of value. We need to rethink the basics.
- No Straight Lines Alvaro Videla - Medium
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.
- The Hottest Trend in American Literature Isn’t From the U.S. Liesl Schillinger - The Atlantic
I’ve always hated reading translations. It is really surprising that mainstream USians have pushed back on this for so long.
- Superstar Firms and Cities Tim Taylor - Conversable Economist
Power laws are real, and they are everywhere. Of ~6k firms making $1B+ in revenue globally, the top 1% creates 36% of all profits, middle 80% record near-zero profits, Bottom 10% destroys as much value as the top 10% creates. Similarly, out the top 50 cities host 8% of the global population and represent 21% of world GDP, translating into a GDP/capita that’s 45% larger than their peers. The dynamics that lead to this are not studied enough.
- Can Democrats Save Capitalism? Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
In this essay, Noah points out two possible paths for the Democrats: social democracy and corporatism. Either we want the state to take up a larger role in people’s welfare, or we want companies to do so. There’s a clear tension between the two. Honestly, I’d like to think of a third path.
- There is a fine line between stupid and clever Tim Harford
Recently, with the turmoil in markets in the US and abroad, I’ve been thinking a lot about personal finance, and ways to improve my lot. The question of whether one should invest as soon as cash is available with each paycheck (ie, cost averaging over time) or invest in a lump sum when some event occurs (ie, a simple momentum play, or a market drop) is deeply controversial. I’ve been cost averaging for a while, but the longer I do it the more I think I’m doing it wrong.
- Want a mentor? Stop asking for one. Bethany Crystal - Hacker Noon
People want to help, you just need to make it easy for them to do so. I have been lucky over the years to have naturally found mentorship in family members and friends alike, but the kind of specific pointed requests for advice that Bethany recommends here seem like an art that I should spend time perfecting. If I weren’t at Apple, I’d probably make a bigger effort to tell people about what I’m working on, and what I’m struggling with on a day to day basis.
- What Happens When A Founder Is Fully Vested? Fred Wilson - AVC
While I’ve thought a lot about incentives in startups, I had never thought of the kinds of conflicts that arise when a founder fully vests an initial grant. The fact that something like this can trigger a bigger conversation seems especially mis-understood.
- Pivot or Fail? Fred Wilson - AVC
The fact that some “huge successes are the results of pivots” does not mean that all pivots are successful. I agree with Fred that in most cases, hard pivots are a bad idea. There’s probably enough data around to calculate whether
P(success | pivot) > P(success).
- Engineers Shouldn’t Write ETL: A Guide to Building a High Functioning Data Science Department Jeff Magnusson - Stitch Fix
This is a topic that I’ve been thinking a lot about at work, given the growth of my team and the trajectory that we’re following as a data platform to other teams within the company. I can’t say much, but I’m glad other people have thought about these problems before.
- Back When Sears Made Black Customers a Priority Lauretta Charlton - The New York Times
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.
- Streetscapes Mozart, Marx and a Dictator Kai Biermann, Paul Blickle, Astrid Geisler, Flavio Gortana, Lennart Hildebrandt, Andreas Loos, Fabian Mohr, Karsten Polke-Majewski, Alexa Steinbrück, Julian Stahnke and Sascha Venohr. Translation by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey - Zeit Online
Language, geography, history, and identity are deeply tied together. Here’s an awesome visualization from Germany
- The Snapchat Thief Reply All (Podcast)
The internet is scary. I have multiple factor auth in most sites, and somewhat understand the intricacies of phone spoofing. My mom does not, and most of my non-techie friends don’t either. This is a problem we have to solve via easy to use products that abstract away all this complexity, or we’ll have to pay for it later on.
- War of the Worlds Radiolab (Podcast)
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 Seattle Experiment Planet Money (Podcast)
In the US, you need to have money to have a voice in an election. What if we helped people attain that voice? Well, it’s a hard design problem. Seattle tried it, and for the most part flopped. This is an interesting idea worth exploring, and I hope other local experiments expand on it.
- Sharing, Transaction Costs, and Tomorrow 3.0 Russ Roberts and Michael Munger - Econtalk (Podcast)
An interesting conversation on the sharing economy, and the value of platforms, from the ancient souks of the middle east to the present day gig economy. A lot of the dynamics behind these systems can be explained as ways of lowering transaction costs.
- Quant in Private Markets Patrick O'Shaughnessy and Ryan Caldbeck - Invest Like the Best (Podcast)
What kind of analyses can we apply to private brands to try and pick out winners? Caldbeck has been doing this for years, and has great insight into what signals are worth looking for.
- Esoteric Credit Patrick O'Shaughnessy, Ali Hamed, Brian Harwitt and Marc Porzecanski (CoVenture) - Invest Like the Best (Podcast)
The previous episode with CoVentue’s Ali Hamed was great, so I had very high expectations for this one, too. It did not disappoint, and reminded me of how little I actually know about the mechanics of credit, even though I interened in two different credit-related fintech startups.
- On November 26th, a mole will land on Mars. Matthew Inman - The Oatmeal
The usual blend of humor and science that you’d expect from the Oatmeal. Somehow I had missed that InSight was coming.
Links - November 1st, 2018 (Podcast edition)
I guess this is what happens when I don’t share what I’ve been listening to in over two months. Don’t miss out on the counterpart post, which is just links to some of the best articles I’ve read recently.
- How I Got Into College This American Life (Podcast)
Michael Lewis tells an amazing about immigration, education, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and how they shape who we are in very unexpected ways. Just listen.
- Let Me Count the Ways This American Life (Podcast)
Sharing this one mostly because I’m pissed off about the dumb position that the US is taking on immigration, and the small but effective ways in which the government is curtailing immigration accross the board through its bureaucracy. These changes to the rules are affecting good people, like those who try to follow the rules to enter the US legally, many of whom I know personally, and depending on the luck of the draw might also include me in a few months. 🎉
- Post No Evil Radiolab (Podcast)
This episode makes a great point about privilege being geographically bound, which is a recurring topic for me. We can’t agree on values globally, as we don’t all have the same preferences/views. We can’t expect FB (or other companies!) to police that. We can’t make FB, Twitter, or any other company the arbiters of morality globally with a single set of rules. A company can pick what to censor according to one set of beliefs, to be applied equally, or it can respect local belief systems. Since that’s a choice, A company can’t be neutral.
- Building Something People Want to Buy Patrick O'Shaughnessy and Andy Rachleff - Invest Like the Best (Podcast)
This another one of those older episodes I decided to go back and revisit. The stories of Benchmark and Wealthfront are interesting on their own, but Rachleff’s experiences running both are also full of great advice for entrepreneurs.
- What You Learn About Business After 12,000 Deals Reviewed, 1,500 Deep Dives, 125 Site Visits, and 7 Portfolio Companies Patrick O'Shaughnessy and Brent Beshore - Invest Like the Best (Podcast)
This interview is packed with lots of interesting tidbits about businesses that I am not exposed to, from property management to pet crematoria (yup you read that right). The strategies behind these companies are interesting in and of themselves, but thinking about them in aggregate as part of a fund and ensuring, for example, that there are enough cyclical and counter cyclical businesses in the mix made the conversation for me.
- The Bitcoin Standard Patrick O'Shaughnessy and Saifedean Ammous - Invest Like the Best (Podcast)
Ammous is an engaging thinker, and the ideas he pushes are compelling. Hearing economists discuss bitcoin and cryptocurrency from a historical perspective is always more interesting to me than the usual everything is awesome techno-utopic stories pushed by engineers and entrepreneurs. Thinking of crypto from the point of view of monetary policy throughout history is way more interesting than thinking about what role blockchains play right now.
- Crowdsourcing Predictive Models Patrick O'Shaughnessy and Richard Craib - Invest Like the Best (Podcast)
I’ve talked about Numerai here in the past, and on my other non-podcast post this week I shared their most recent product. Craib is on to something, and this conversation with Patrick is a great showcase of why what they’re trying to build makes sense in the long run.
- Crypto Security Tokens Ted Seides and Stephen McKeon - Capital Allocators (Podcast)
I had never heard of McKeon until this podcast came around, and honestly crypto is only a small part of why this episode is worth listening to. His background in the wine industry gives him a unique perspective about business in general, and his time working on the heavily regulated space of drone startups makes for interesting parallels with the inevitably upcoming round of regulation about to hit the cryptocurrency world. I especially enjoyed his analogies, which make concepts such as thin vs. thick markets especially accessible.
- Seeing the Lux Ted Seides, Josh Wolfe - Capital Allocators (Podcast)
Wolfe is one of my favorite Twitter follows. He’s super insightful - seeing the world through the lens of complex sytems can help us understand the networked relationships between people and companies, and this conversation is full of such examples.
- Venezuela's Fugitive Money Traders Planet Money (Podcast)
You probably know, but the political situation in Venezuela is a disaster, and its hyperinflated financial system is an important part of it.
- Big Government Cheese Planet Money (Podcast)
Policymaking is not about good intentions. The government tried to help dairy farmers, and in the process not only did it distort the dairy products market for years, but it also sunk a ton of cash into non-fungible assets - cheese!
- The Central (Bankers') Question Planet Money (Podcast)
The Zero Lower Bound, revisited.
- Moneyland Planet Money (Podcast)
Strange loopholes around taxation and cross-border exploits are getting more and more common. This is not just the case for huge corporations. Rich people are well incentivized hide vast wealth in assets around the world, but setting up shell companies like matryoshka dolls to hide cash is no longer necessary. Buying real estate in top markets, or leaving valuable art in tax-free ports works just as well. This problem is only going to get worse and worse over time, as access to these tax havens becomes more available.
- Modern Monetary Theory Planet Money (Podcast)
Note that this episode was heavily criticized by many people online for its simplified economic explanations, but as an introduction to MMT, it’s probably a good one. In essence, the MMT crowd reminds us that money is just numbers on a spreadsheet, and makes the leap to saying that the government could just spend money by changing its balance sheet - no need to tax to bring in money first. I don’t understand this well enough, so if you have pointers, I’d very much appreciate them.
- New Jersey Wine Planet Money (Podcast)
Certain products are all about perception. Luxury items tend to fall in that category, and good wine is right up there, too. The fact that I was half way through watching The Sopranos when I listened to this didn’t help.
- The Crime Machine Reply All (Podcast)
This episode of Reply All had me thinking about The Wire the whole time. This is a story about policing, urban development, history, and organizational behavior. How do we incentivize the police to do what it is meant to do (keep us safe!) without also pushing for racist and corrupt behavior? That’s the question that this conversation tries to answer. Don’t miss Part II.
- Rob Heavyweight (Podcast)
I’m glad Heavyweight is back. I won’t spoil this, just listen.
- The Mystery of the Kibbutz Russ Roberts and Ran Abramitsky - Econtalk (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!
- The Seven Kinds of Atheism Russ Roberts and John Gray - Econtalk (Podcast)
Religion is always a weird topic for me. Listening to people who have thought about it much more than me is always interesting.
- Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet Union, and In the First Circle Russ Roberts and Kevin McKenna - Econtalk (Podcast)
For the past couple of months, Russ had been pushing his listeners to read Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle, and offered to host a book club through his podcast. This is the first of a few episodes on the book, discussing the historical context of the novel. These other two older episodes, one on Bukharin and one on Trotsky were super helpful in my quest to understand Solzhenitsyn. I finished the book a couple of weeks ago, and hope to write a full blog post on it soon.
- Worker Compensation, Co-determination, and Market Power Russ Roberts and Noah Smith - Econtalk (Podcast)
Hearing Noah and Russ discuss all these topics was wonderful. The conversation about co-determination was not as interesting as the discussion around labor, incentives, and metric measurement. The point about temp agencies reminded me of last year’s NYT piece comparing the bleak job prospects of a janitor at Apple today vs. a janitor at Kodak in the 80s, as well as the discussion about company goals/profit maximization in Tim O’Reilly’s WTF. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for a conversation like the one they alluded to, where each of them presents some indicator to make an argument and the other one has a chance to critique it.
- Cruelty Russ Roberts and Paul Bloom - Econtalk (Podcast)
Having taken Bloom’s class on Coursera earlier this year, I found this conversation a good recap of some of his arguments, which added to a few new ideas made for a great listen. The discussion about Westworld (a show that I’ve never seen) and how people behave with each other versus how they behave with robots or other beings that they believe to be non-human was super interesting.
- The Virtue of Nationalism Russ Roberts and Yoram Hazony - Econtalk (Podcast)
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.
- The House that Came in the Mail 99% Invisible
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.
- The Worst Way to Start a City 99% Invisible
This episode tells the story of a literal land grab. I am happy that 99PI is doing more of these urban origin stories lately.
- The Case Study of Dollar General and Surviving (Thriving!) Retail Cal Turner Jr., Jeff Jordan, and Hanne Tidnam - Andreessen Horowitz (Podcast)
This was one of the most enlightening episodes a16z has put out in a while. In part, due to the fact that I know absolutely nothing about Dollar General and their target market, making the stories fascinating, but also because of how little expectations I had from it. Definitely worth a listen.
- Seeing into the Future — Making Decisions, Telling Stories Steven Johnson, Chris Dixon, and Sonal Chokshi - Andreessen Horowitz (Podcast)
And yet another a16z conversation that ends up making me add a book to my to read list. Johnson’s new book discusses decision making, and tries to list techniques that can help us make the best decisions in the long term. Our tools go beyond simple pro/con lists, as they should. It made me think of the first finance class I ever took, where we discussed decision trees (notice, not to be confused with in decision trees in the ML world) as a way to make structured decisions, considering all possible scenarios. I probably should use tools like these more often. Maybe reading the book will push me in the right direction.
- Technological Trends, Financial Capital, and the Dynamics of Disruption Fred Wilson and Chris Dixon - Andreessen Horowitz (Podcast)
To be honest, I had extremely high expectations from this conversation, given that Dixon and Wilson are two of the most forward thinking people in the tech space. The conversation makes interesting parallels between in-game economies and crypto, as well as the 90s boom and the token markets today.
Links - November 1st, 2018
I guess this is what happens when I don’t share what I’ve been reading in over two months. Don’t miss out on the counterpart post, which is just links to some of the best podcasts I’ve listened to recently.
- Hayekian Communism Branko Milanovic - Global Inequality
This description of China as a country where the individuals are celebrated for starting companies, and building capital, while letting the government steers the wheel and is celebrated for its collectivized growth is a strange combination. From the outside, it seems accurate. What puzzles me the most is how people in China trust that the powers that be are not going to take them away for building the wrong thing. The institutions of trust are simply different, and I don’t understand them well enough, and should change that.
- The Neurodiversity Case for Free Speech Geoffrey Miller - Quillette
Strangely, the week that I read this article there were several pieces where bringing Isaac Newton to the present was used as a thought experiment to exemplify how things have changed. This essay makes the argument that our current push toward political correctness, safe spaces, and restricted speech in academia are curtailing progress. Moreover, the article makes the case that this dispropportionately affects those people who can be categorized as neurodiverse. That much is probably true. The unaddressed question is whether the gains from these policies lead to a net benefit at the expense of those being silenced. That I do not pretend to have an answer for.
- Access is the Scarcest Commodity in Startupland Tomasz Tunguz
Title says it all. Between the JOBS act a few years ago, the rise of ICOs, and the changes announced by the SEC a few months ago, the barriers to entry in VC have never been lower. Nevertheless, having access to deals is still what sets firms apart.
- A history of alienation Martin Jay - Aeon
Now that I’ve been reading Marx and friends, I kind of want to re-read this one.
- First Mover Disadvantage Fred Wilson - AVC
Short but sweet. This reminded me of Peter Thiel’s quip about wanting to be the last mover in a market, not the first.
- Peak Valley? Fred Wilson - AVC
This is a critique of an article from The Economist which has been making the rounds. San Francisco and the Valley have hundreds of problems, and yet, this is still the best place to start most venture funded businesses.
- Could Index Funds Become Too Popular? Ben Carlson - A Wealth of Common Sense
For a while I’ve been wondering about this question myself. If you believe in efficient markets, then there’s always going to be someone there to pick up the $20 from the sidewalk, but at the same time it feels like there must be an effect from the stashes of money flowing to index funds. Could we craft a strategy based on exploiting the added momentum that certain stocks get from being heavily invested in by the Vanguards and Blackrock of the world?
- The Technology Tel Joshua Gans - Digitopoly
Over time, I’ve gotten used to thinking of cities and neighborhoods as accidents of path dependence. Here, Gans makes the point that the infrastructure that powers all our modern technology suffers from that same phenomenon. Leapfrogging a step or two in the chain aside, every piece of technology we interact with is directly influenced by the same old ideas, and built atop the same old networks as everything else. People are generally amazed when they hear that the internet runs on huge submarine cables between continents, just like the telegraph used to, but even though our systems are much more advanced these days, they are ultimately just iterations in at least some dimensions.
- A Lockean Theory of Digital Property Elaine Ou
An interesting argument against banning/blocking users online. Essentially, Elaine makes an analogy to squatter’s rights, arguing that people’s investment over time in their online presence (say, Alex Jones’ Twitter account) should entitle them to some kind of property rights, and that Twitter, Apple, Cloudflare, or whoever, should not be able to single-mindedly revoke those rights. While in theory this sounds reasonable, it disregards the fact that these companies don’t owe their patrons for the space on the platform, and that the patrons agree to be there under whatever terms of service are presented to them. There is no social contract between the companies and the users, and if the users decide to act in a way that the platform finds harmful to their values (or their bottom line!) they are justified in taking them out.
- Apple Is a Hedge Fund That Makes Phones Thomas Gilbert and Christopher Hrdlicka - The Wall Street Journal
This is not really a post about Apple, but about all large companies who invest part of their assets into what the authors deem “risky financial assets, such as corporate bonds, mortgage-backed securities, auction-rate securities and equities.” Gilbert and Hrdlicka argue that this should be a regulated space, and that companies should return this capital to shareholders instead of taking advantage of the tax and accounting treatments that these non-operational assets allow for. I am not familiar enough with this topic to make a strong argument either way, but something smells fishy, and this seems like a space worth regulating.
- Innovative Governance Reading list Mark Lutter
I was recently introduced to this project, which looks great. After skimming the reading list and adding a bunch of things to my queue, now I’m wondering: what other projects have similarly structured survey lists? I really appreciate the mix of breadth and depth.
- The Conversations that Cryptocurrency Killed Sonya Mann - Jacobite
I’m fascinated by the Hirschmanian notions of exit, voice, and loyalty. Here, Mann explains how the rise of cryptocurrencies allow for more use of exit where traditionally people would have leaned on voice. It is exciting to think about how this new technology might reshape the world.
- Norbert's Gambit JP Koning - Moneyness
An example of the strange loops that money takes when someone sees through the modern finance system’s leaky abstractions. Specifically, Koning moves money through the stock market in a series of trades to avoid foreign exchange fees.
- Don't Be Evil Fred Turner - Logic Magazine
A long piece on Silicon Valley history and ideology, the formation of its origin stories, its organizational structure culture, and its hero-worshipping fantasies. Worth your time.
- Everything to know about digital celebrities and how they could change the world Michael Dempsey - Medium
I first heard about digital celebrities during a conversation with Chris Messina. We were discussing the power of voice interfaces, and he brought up Miquela, which just blew my mind. What happens when my niece or my nephews start thinking of me - their uncle who lives far away and never get to see other than through an iPad’s screen - in the same way they think of these characters? What makes me different from Siri, Alexa, or Miquela? This is only starting.
- Programming Languages are not Languages Alvaro Videla - Medium
The ecosystem of built-ins and open source libraries around different programming languages can make solving certain problems trivial or nearly impossible. While we should be able to express the same ideas across any turing complete language, thinking of concurrency in Go or Erlang is much simpler than in C or Python. As Alvaro explains, this is not so much because of the language itself acts as a lens through which we see the world, but because each language (and its community!) packages different groups of ideas into self-contained tools and abstractions. When a Java programmer switches over to Lisp, they bring with them a bunch of ideas about how programming should be done, and while they are constrained by the framework of their new tool they also inject their own set of constructs into their new community by creating libraries that others can use and work on top of. In my opinion, the work you can do with a language depends much more on its ecosystem of bolted on tools than its basic syntax.
- An Unstoppable Predictions Marketplace — Introducing Erasure Richard Craib - Medium
The people at Numerai are producing some really interesting blockchain ideas - the kind that wouldn’t work on a Postgres DB. This implementation of P2P prediction feeds is one of them.
- Religions, Nations, and Other Useful Fictions Alexander Blum - Quillette
Everyone thinks of the “useful fiction” meme as something stemming from Yuval Harari these days, but really it is older. Benedict Anderson discusses it in depth in his Imagined Communities, and others before him have made similar arguments. Ultimately, all of these fictions step in for the sources of objective truths, and in doing so, they are useful.
- In India, gold prices affect dowries and girls' survival Sonia Bhalotra - Quartz
This is very messed up, but not too surprising. “…we find that monthly changes in gold prices lead to an increase in girl relative to boy neonatal mortality and that the surviving girls are shorter.” The analysis of this specific correlation is new, but the study of the dynamic isn’t. For example, here’s Amartya Sen back in 1990.
- Hating the wrong tech people for the right reasons Jon Evans - TechCrunch
Clearly I am biased here, but Evans makes good arguments. It is easy to blame big tech for problems. He doubled down with this argument in a different direction [over here]. Tech has caused negative changes, but let’s not pretend that Tech is guilty of everything.
- I’m very sorry, but you’re going to have to learn to love the blockchain Jon Evans - TechCrunch
If you’re a blockchain skeptic, this might change that.
- The million-dollar brownstone that no one owned Cole Hawes Louison - The Outline
Private property, ownership, and the many rights and regulations that surround them are in fact pretty complex. Who owns the space in which you’re in right now? It might not be that simple.
- The Tyranny of the U.S. Dollar Peter Coy - Bloomberg
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.
- The Crisis Was in the System Matt Levine - Bloomberg View
Humans build complex systems, and those systems lead to unintended consequences.
- What Follows the End of History? Identity Politics Evan Goldstein, interviewing Francis Fukuyama - The Chronicle of Higher Education
I have never read any Fukuyama, but his end of history hypothesis feels very wrong these days.
- The Bermuda Triangle of Wealth Conrad Bastable
A somewhat depressing view of the rat race, but seems like sound analysis. Bastable discusses how we’ve built a system in which people are forced to save for basic needs and services like housing, education, and healthcare, with no real way of ever accumulating enough money to make their expected standard of living achievable. As my friend Stephen mentioned on Twitter, we have to “acknowledge the common factor among the sectors most subject to cost disease: a predominance of government subsidy and regulation.” because “subsidy of demand is captured by suppliers via increased prices.” We need to find ways to tie prices and costs back together.
- How the Elderly Lose Their Rights Rachel Aviv - The New Yorker
On one of my article club meetings with my friends a couple of months ago, the article was this ridiculous New Yorker piece about the rights of the elderly. We had a great discussion. There are interesting questions about state power, family dynamics, corruption, and much more. The state puts rules in place meant to protect its citizens, so what happens when people with bad intentions ride on those rules to take away the rights of others? An important question these days.
- It’s Not Technology That’s Disrupting Our Jobs Louis Hyman - The New York Times
Our current policies around labor don’t match the new reality we live in, and neither stopping the “the gig economy,” nor shoehorning it in the old paradigm will do. “…technology does not usually drive social change. On the contrary, social change is typically driven by decisions we make about how to organize our world. […] Uber is a symptom, not a cause.” We can change the status-quo.
- The Bitter Regrets of a Useless Chinese Daughter Jianan Qian - The New York Times
As someone who lives far away from his family this was a tough read. As someone whose parents (both of them!) have gotten sick while I’ve been away this was a really tough read. This is an empathy building piece, but also a vignette into China and the life of those immigrants who live in the boundary space between two worlds.
- India Pushes Back Against Tech 'Colonization' by Internet Giants Vindu Goel - The New York Times
We’re headed into a world of protectionism. It is scary to think what won’t exist because of it. "…officials admire Beijing’s tight control over citizens’ data and how it has nurtured homegrown internet giants like Alibaba and Baidu by limiting foreign competition." If India goes down this path, and closes itself off to western companies like China has, the market dynamics of working on new products change completely. When your addressable market goes from being the world to excluding the two economies that are forecasted to be the largest in a few years theres way less incentives to build new things. That’s bad.
- Towards The Post-Liberal Synthesis Palladium Magazine
The effort by the people behind Palladium is laudable. They are trying to answer the question of what comes after liberalism, and are publishing this magazine to that end. I, too, am convinced that the current world order is not sustainable, and would love to see it be replaced with a less broken version of itself, based on liberal ideas. I’ll keep an eye on their work, and I hope you do, too.
- My Parents Give Me $28,000 a Year E. J. Roller
A privileged person suddenly notices their privilege, and tries to understand it. What’s most interesting about this piece is not the argument she tries to make for basic income, nor the commentary on the value of education, but instead its point about taxation. Taxes on gifts and inheritance are way too low, and lead to weird incentives.
- Do the Rich Capture All the Gains from Economic Growth? Russ Roberts - Medium
The indicators we pick matter. The ways we measure things matter. Here, Russ makes a strong set of arguments agains the usual arguments about the standard of living in the US, and who wins from economic growth. I think the rich-get-richer dynamics in our modern economic systems are extremely strong, and this piece downplays them a little bit, but the point that Russ makes about the dynamism of the various groups is definitely something that is not talked about enough. Made me think of the random handouts experiment I had produced a while back, which I never turned into a full blog post. The longer you run that simulation, the more obvious it is that people switch from one bucket to another all the time.
- The Lonely Man with a Gun Russ Roberts - Medium
The events from the past couple of weeks are tragic, and deeply troubling. It is on days like these that I remember that it doesn’t matter whether I think of myself as part of a group or not. The case that Russ makes here is that the problem at the root of all the gun violence in the US is not the availability of guns, but the fact that the social fabric that mediates our interactions has torn. In his own words, “One of the glorious things about American culture in our day is that people leave you alone. […] And yet, one of the most horrific things about American culture in our day is that people leave you alone.”
- The Ideology of Isolation Rebecca Solnit - Harper's Magazine
A couple of weeks ago I heard Rebecca Solnit at an event at City Lights. There, she commented on how privilege isolates you. In her view, more privilege makes you more disconnected, until you live in a world of one person. Just you. I found it insightful. She said it in the context of the current leaders in the US, but it made me think of the scenes about Stalin in In The First Circle. This essay develops that idea further. There is an interesting contradiction in conservatism, which is so tightly bound to religion and its value of religious communities, contra the individualism pushed by the modern right. Who has written on the reconciliation of these two ideas?
- What If Counterfactuals Never Existed? The New Republic - Cass R. Sunstein
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.
- Some Notes on Translation and on Madame Bovary Lydia Davis - Paris Review
As part of my current Coursera class on Modernism and Postmodernism, I am currently reading Madame Bovary. Given my interest in languages and translation, I ended up doing some research of my own into which translation was worth reading, and it seemed like Lydia Davis’ was the recommended one. During my search, I found this piece by her on the process of translating it.
- Data Pipeline Randall Munroe - xkcd
And to end on a good note, this is my daily life.
Links - August 15, 2018
- Monetary Policy as a Jobs Guarantee Joshua R. Hendrickson - Mercatus Center, George Mason University
This brief explaining and expanding on some of David Glasner’s and Earl Thompson’s ideas on a labor standard is fascinating. If you’re interested in how money and central banking work, you should take a look. Hendrickson argues that instead of having the Fed aim for stable prices and full employment by managing interest rates tied to fiat, we build a set of policies that mix the ideas of the gold standard and the job guarantee that has gained some popularity recently. Essentially, instead of having the dollar trade for a fixed quantity of gold, the Fed would define the dollar as a fixed quantity of labor. This would tie the price level to changes in the real market, outsource monetary policy to the market, and provide the equivalent of a job guarantee to the citizenry. Obviously there are problems with this, such as fungibility (ie, not all hours of labor are equal) but this can be solved with some kind of indexing solution. I’m intrigued, so if you have anything else to read on this topic, I’d love to hear about it.
- Who do you trust? Jon Evans - TechCrunch
When so much of our lives is mediated by giant corporations like Apple, Amazon, and Google, how do we deal with our data? Sure, it is behind a password in the cloud, but someone at whichever storage provider you pick has the keys to some of your data, and most if not all your metadata. This is one of the reasons I like working at Apple - I believe in our commitment to privacy, even if it is just a ploy for market differentiation. Ultimately, this means that I trust Apple, and that the engineers who work on these products are doing the right thing. I could also trust Satoshi, or Vitalik, or Linus’ Law but ultimately, I have to trust someone, and hope that they’ve done their homework.
- The Stock Market Is Shrinking. That's a Problem for Everyone. Jeff Sommer - The New York Times
This is a topic I’ve discussed before here, but it’s nice to have some data to back up the story.
- Growing up Jobs Lisa Brennan-Jobs - Vanity Fair
People idolize Steve Jobs, and at Apple he is still brought up often. I read this article around the same time that I was reading DFW’s Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky, where he wrote that “to make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people.” Writing this must have been really tough for Brennan-Jobs, knowing how public it’d be. It is good to remember Jobs’ (very) flawed human side.
- As Google Maps Renames Neighborhoods, Residents Fume Jack Nicas - The New York Times
I’ve talked about this before, too. Google is pushing SoMa as “The East Cut” on their maps now. I literally spend half my waking hours in this neighborhood and the only times I’ve heard it in conversation were either (a) people making fun of Google, or (b) referring to the uniforms that cleanup crews wear, emblazoned with “The East Cut,” which ends up leading to (a). There is a very Orwellian aspect to this story, and to how the digital world can reshape the physical world.
- San Francisco, You'll Miss Your Tech Bros If They Flee Noah Smith - Bloomberg
I’m biased, so not much to say here, other than my full agreement with Noah. This broken city would just finish breaking if the tech industry collapsed.
- How Econ Numbers Can Lead You (and Me) Astray Noah Smith - Bloomberg
Another one by Noah. It is very unusual for pundits to go back and revise their commentary, and to retract the data they’ve used to back up their claims. This one deserves applause.
- History of the Naturalization of Kurt Gödel (1971) Oskar Morgenstern
An amazing intimate story involving Morgenstern, Einstein, and of course Gödel, on his naturalization to become a US citizen in 1947. I won’t spoil it.
- How I gained commit access to Homebrew in 30 minutes Eric Holmes - Medium
One of the most fundamental tools for modern software development had a major security hole, and as usual the issue was a human one, not a technical one.
- Sanctimonious Econ Critics Robin Hanson - Overcoming Bias
A critique of Morty Shapiro and Gary Saul Morson’s book on the intersection of economics and the humanities. I took their joint class at Northwestern a few years ago, and also thought it was lacking. The reading list was wonderful. It exposed me to many ideas/authors I did not know about, but their debates were disappointing. I hear a lot more Morson than Morty coming through in Hanson’s arguments. Maybe some day I’ll read their book.
- Selling Fred Wilson - AVC
The strategy described here makes a lot more sense when talking about high risk assets like venture and crypto, and like most of these rules of thumb it must be suboptimal, but I’ve been thinking about taking this approach for future investments. Dividing assets in three separate chunks to diversify away risk, and still remain exposed to the original theses, seems like a good idea.
- A Generation Grows Up in China Without Google, Facebook or Twitter Li Yuan - The New York Times
I wonder if Chinese newspapers write about the generation of Americans growing up without WeChat and Baidu. Probably not. Cultural relativism is a recurring theme in my life, and this is one of the most glaring examples I’ve seen recently.
- STARKs, Part I: Proofs with Polynomials Vitalik Buterin
The kinds of things that mathematics allow us to do are pretty insane. I spent a few hours trying to wrap my head around the ideas that Vitalik explains in this series, but a lot of it went over my head. Made me want to go back and learn higher level math.
- Voice Assistants Still Can't Understand Bilingual Users Ximena N. Larkin - New York Magazine
This piece complains that Siri, Alexa, and the rest of the AI assistant pack can’t handle multiple languages. I fundamentally disagree with some of Larkin’s points. It’s a problem I experience often myself as a native Spanish speaker trying to communicate with these standard written english bots, so I totally understand where she’s coming from. However, not even addressing the speech to text part (which is what’s really broken with the accents), there just aren’t as many NLP tools/corpora/tagged datasets in other languages as there are in English. This is in part a historical/path dependence problem, and in part just economics. Can’t go much deeper than that, sadly.
- Google's censored Chinese search engine: a catalogue of ethical violations? Catherine Flick - The Conversation
Another one I probably can’t say much about. I am worried about the progress of technology and where this kind of censorship might take us, though.
- Americans Own Less Stuff, and That’s Reason to Be Nervous Tyler Cowen - Bloomberg View
Our views about ownership, and how radically they have changed in the last 15-20 years is a topic I’ve been reading a lot about recently. Cowen describes a symptom, and says it should cause us worry. His explanation of why this is a problem is flawed though. As a HN commenter mentions: “The problem isn’t that we own less stuff, it’s that the ownership is replaced by a dependency on a handful of corporations which we have no ability to influence or appeal to. The substitution of individual ownership for a communal one in which individuals retain a stake - a real community, or at a larger scale, a democracy - is not inherently bad. The problem with our recent trend is that we aren’t getting communal ownership in return; we’re getting nothing but convenience. […] You’re renting from a centralized company which outsources the generation of actual value to others, and pays them as little as possible. You aren’t shifting your dependence from yourself to a community, but from yourself to a company that wants nothing more than to make money.” A book I read earlier this year, Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, discusses this topic in depth, and I’m hoping to write more about it in the future.
- The Basics of Growth - User Acquisition Andrew Chen, Jeff Jordan, and Sonal Chokshi - Andreessen Horowitz (Podcast)
A really good refresher on metrics and growth. They don’t say much new, but give a great overview. Don’t miss part two on engagement and retention. Listening to these made me wish I worked on a product where the metrics tracked translated to dollars.
- Frank Dikotter on Mao's Great Famine EconTalk (Podcast)
Most people don’t know much about the millions of people who died in China during Mao’s era of collectivization. In this conversation, Dikotter explains some of its history, and explains the many ways in which its policies failed. It reminded me a lot of reading Seeing Like a State, and made me wonder about the relative success of the kibbutz, the analogous Israeli collective farm. I did a bit of research, and probably will not only add Dikotter’s book to my to-do list, but also this one on the Israeli experiment. The problem with listening to EconTalk is that it makes me want to understand the world more, and I can only do that by reading more. Guess that’s a good kind of problem to have.
- The Postal Illuminati Planet Money (Podcast)
It’s odd when ideas that sound like conspiracy theories are actually true. Turns out that there is a transnational scheme to subsidize the last-mile shipping of stuff that has moved across borders. This contributes to the skewed cost distribution of last-mile delivery, and affects local businesses where transportation cost represents a significant portion of the price of an item. This seems like a pretty messed up set of incentives waiting to explode in our faces.
Links - July 31, 2018
- A la recherche of the roots of US inequality "exceptionalism" Branko Milanovic - globalinequality
People in the US love to talk about how different they are from the rest of the world. It’s inequality is truly exceptional among countries with developed economies, and seems fully self inflicted. As Milanovic notes, given the political environment in this contry, the solution must be multifaceted, with small changes on many dimensions - taxation, education, welfare, healthcare - which will be much easier to swallow individually than a single big change would.
- Why Your Startup Doesn't Invest Sufficiently in its Differentiators Tomasz Tunguz
Customers generally drive you to features they have seen elsewhere, not to new original ideas. Focus on the differentiation, and is more likely your company will succeed.
- How to Combat China’s Rise in Tech: Federal Spending, Not Tariffs Farhad Manjoo - The New York Times
For all the talk going around about conservatives becoming Keynesians, it’s strange how government spending keeps sliding down. It’s easy to forget how much influence military spending had on Silicon Valley’s success, and how we’re still riding the momentum of previous waves of investment. Innovation isn’t free. It must come about from an empowered, educated citizenry, and the government can take part in that. As Manjoo explains, “every key component in a smartphone, from the battery to GPS, is based on research first done for the American government.” It’s time to fund more of these experiments.
- Information Wants to be Siloed Jon Evans - Techcrunch
What’s most illogical about the stance that Evans rails against here (policies around data that the gov makes inaccessible “for our security”) is that much of this data could be compiled from observation by the public. “X could lead to terrorism” is one of the worst possible arguments against X, ∀X.
- Investing Outside The Bay Area Semil Shah - Haystack.vc
The startup market in San Francisco feels less overheated than it was 2-3 years ago, but investors are already hedging theirs bets. The housing crisis is a real issue, and the fact is that lots of people who would like to be here just can’t. Without people, there’s less talent, and with less talent there are less companies. SF might have killed the goose that laid golden eggs.
- Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage David Foster Wallace - Harper's Magazine
This was a recommendation from Jon Evans from a very long time ago. I finally got around to it, and it is as good as advertised. It discusses hegemony through language, how we assign authority to individuals and institutions via standardized language, and more. This is a 20k word essay about the dictionary, and how language shapes our thoughts. I enjoyed it so much that decided to buy DFW’s Consider The Lobster and read more of his essays. Reading it in perspective 15+ years after it was written, in our Orwellian political environment made it extra interesting.
- Faust: Stream Processing for Python Ask Solem, Vineet Goel - Robinhood Engineering
I didn’t know that Solem, the creator of Celery, is now working at Robinhood, but having used it for a bunch of things while in college, and then again at my last gig, I’m looking forward to testing out his code. From their docs, “Faust provides both stream processing and event processing, sharing similarity with tools such as Kafka Streams” and it runs modern python (3.6+ only) with RocksDB and uvloop under the hood. This is a project I’m very excited to try out.
- Value is Dead, Long Live Value, with Modest Proposal Patrick O'Shaughnessy - Invest Like the Best (Podcast)
By far, the most interesting aspect of this podcast was around the 1hr mark on why mega-corp moving into your niche business is not necessarily a problem, followed by a fascinating discussion of M&A vs buybacks. I had never thought about M&A in that way, but it is interesting to hear the public markets side of the coin after reading so many positive comments about acquisitions from people like Elad Gil and Marc Andreesen about the early startup stage M&A.
- Yes In My Backyard Planet Money (Podcast)
San Francisco is a mess. Things could be different.
- Dutee Radiolab (Podcast)
On a recent article club, we discussed how people of different ages competed on different levels when we we’re kids - think your middle school’s basketball team, which wasn’t playing against high schoolers - and how those cutoffs are somewhat arbitrary. After all, a kid born right after the cutoff will still have an advantage over those kids who were born right before the next cutoff. The last such age-based differentiator happens when people apply to college (which was the context of our conversation), after which these boundaries disappear and competition becomes a free for all. This episode discusses a similar topic, not on age, but on gender, where the divide is a lot less clear.
- Alberto Alesina on Immigration and Redistribution EconTalk (Podcast)
This was an episode where the research presented little suprise in directionality, but disappointed me with the magnitudes. Alesina and his team study people’s attitude towards immigrants, focusing on legal immigrants only, and the findings are in many ways obvious. On average, people dislike immigrants (suprise!) and assume they are taking away jobs or free-riding on the local welfare programs. On average, people in the US are much more optimistic than they should be about whether a poor person can bootstrap their way out of poverty, while Europeans are much more pessimistic than they should be. What was suprising though, was how far off people’s guesses were against what the metrics really are. People vastly overestimate how many immigrants there are, how many of them are illegal, and how much they take from the welfare systems. This was a somewhat depressing but quite worthwhile conversation to listen to.
- The Bad Show Radiolab (Podcast)
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.
- Evolving Floorplans Joel Simon
I’ve previously shared some of Simon’s work on generative corals. I totally should have looked at his previous work, too. These floorplans are not very efficient, but with the correct set of constraints could lead to better designs that a human would not come up with on their own.
- Here's How America Uses Its Land Dave Merrill and Lauren Leatherby - Bloomberg
An awesome data visualization of land use across the US. Breaking up the country into quarter million acre squares lets us say a lot about how the US really works, and what people value here.
Links - July 17, 2018
- How should we evaluate progress in AI? David Chapman - Meaningness
This essay is full of questions about the philosophy of science vs engineering vs design. It tries to explain where AI fits in, and discusses the false certainty that powerful tools like these give us. Machine learning/artificial intelligence/deep learning/data science/call it what you want is full of pitfalls because it is so powerful. There’s not much actionable in it, but as someone who’s been pushing the story of automated retraining and continuous deployment to squeeze out performance out of ML models, it certainly gave me a lot to think about.
- How Property Taxes Shape Our Cities Connor Nielsen - Strong Towns
In Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott writes: “By a kind of fiscal Heisenberg principle, tax officials transform that which they take note of.” In this essay, Nielsen shows a few examples of this - from the roofs of Paris, to the facades of Amsterdam.
- Complicating the Narratives Amanda Ripley - The Whole Story
This article, recommended by Mike Davidson, discusses many ways we could fix journalism. Basing its recommendations on a bunch of communication and psycology research, the author tears apart a bunch of different situations in which the conversatin could have been nudged elsewhere, allowing for more productive outcomes. There’s a lot to unpack, and I was not expecting it to be so long (should’ve noticed the “39 min read” at the top!), but totally worth it. It reminded me of a tweet by Mason Hartman and the ensuing conversation: “When you ask a really useful question, most people will consciously or unconsciously try to determine if they have a cached answer that roughly fits what you asked. Getting people to consistently forget their lines is a skill worth mastering.”
- Authority Steve Randy Waldman - interfluidity
This piece reminded me of Nick Szabo’s things as authorities, and how much of our interactions are intermediated by ideas that are tacitly embedded in culture. Society is built on the fact that we can agree without burning mental cycles on things. We encode accepted behavior in culture and technology, relying on those crystals of knowledge to abstract away complexity and layer even more complexity on top. We offload our question of who should go ahead first to traffic lights, and our questions of who must pay back for their actions to courts and judges. If we think of governments as platforms (an analogy from Tim O’Reilly’s WTF), we can see that government’s role is the construction of and upholding of these mechanisms that legitimize sources of authority. The platform coordinates behavior to reliably improve the relation between the individuals who build on top of it, and it does so by setting the rules of what’s admissible and what is not to the point that we don’t need to stop and think about them.
- The Outrage Epidemic Russ Roberts - Medium
Also available as a podcast.This is not a new argument from Russ. He posits that our newfound tribalism isn’t all that new, and that it’s simply been exacerbated due to the incentives of the media industry, the filter bubbles of the internet, and the availability of content. He uses restaurants to illustrate the explosion of available choices, and contrasts how this explosion isn’t all that meaningful when choosing what to eat or shopping for shoes, becoming problematic only when there are high externality costs without a feedback mechanism that makes us pay the price from our mistakes. If we buy an uncomfortable pair of shoes, or order a bad plate of pasta, we suffer. Immediately. If we vote for the wrong candidate, our contribution to their election is minuscule, and their actions are diffused over many years - there’s no clear-cut feedback loop. This dynamic means that the ROI on truth isn’t all that high for any one individual, and in aggregate, we end up with a market failure in which media is louder and angrier, as it sells more than nuanced positions would, and each one of us becomes more entrenched in our beliefs, disconnected from each other. Let’s all try to be more nuanced?
- The Harsh Reality Of The Preference Stack Semil Shah - Haystack.vc
Every time one of my friends has asked me what I think of the startup they’re about to join, I’ve said that they should discount the equity as if it were worth $0. The probabilities work out that way, and given that most of them have other offers on the table, its the rational thing to do. Semil’s post discusses the employee side, as well as the early investor’s side - one I had not considered before. If you want to read more on this, Dan Luu’s piece on startup vs. big co tradeoffs is wonderful, pushing the point that all things being equal taking the megacorp offer is a no-brainer for the employee. As someone who wanted to be in startup land and ended up at HugeCo by accident, I mostly agree with him.
- Tech in a time of travesties Jon Evans - TechCrunch
Technology does not automatically make the world better. Most tools can be used for both good and bad. The solution to bad outcomes due to technology is not more of the same technology.
- Comparing City Street Orientations Geoff Boeing
What kind of patterns arise if we look at the street grids in various cities? It’s not all orthogonal cross streets. Open Street Map data, and the tooling to manipulate it, seems to have evolved a lot since I looked at it a couple of years ago. Big props to Boeing for open sourcing OSMnx and sharing so much of his work. Maybe it’s time for a side project…
- Solving Rush Hour, the Puzzle Michael Fogleman
Say what you want about 10X engineers being a fantasy, but I’m convinced Michael Fogleman is one of them just by looking at his open source side projects. Here’s yet another super cool project from him that you should check out.
- What determines value? Dietrich Vollrath
Value is a mindbending idea once you notice that it’s not tied to price, and that prices themselves are just numbers representing the opportunity cost between various goods. I was surprised there was no mention of supply and demand - this is often overlooked when discussing labor markets (ie, bankers don’t make big salaries because they produce that much value for the companies they work for, but because that’s the price the market bears). Culture might be different at facegoopplemazforce, but even if we’re not measured by “butts in seats” time, people value face time, and track who’s in first, and who leaves last. The input/output problem is pernicious in the org behavior experiences of office life, a la Dilbert. Lastly, the third section in the essay made me think of Russ Roberts’ recurring point that GDP per capita is a bad measure of our standard of living, and that we need to figure out another way to measure our progress. What are some realistic alternatives? Are there any?
- Kelly on Technology and What Technology Wants Russ Roberts - Econtalk (Podcast)
I’m still going strong on my quest to fight recency bias by going back to old EconTalk episodes. I’m doing this partially to get away from the current “everything is politics” environment, but also to unlock knowledge that’s trapped in the recent past.
- My Journey in Photography Sam Abell - Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
Most good photographs seem inevitable, almost incidental. Each one takes thought and effort. Hearing Sam Abell walk through his process was wonderful. I’d recommend this whether you do photography or not. What a great recommendation from Chris Michel. I took a few notes:
- Low angle, more impact
- Strong graphics, S curve, powerful diagonals
- Bad weather makes good pictures
- Compose, then wait
- Setting, expression, gesture
- All photographs are about time
- Put your people above the horizon line
- Perhaps most applicable to other aspects of life, on completing projects: you will only see the mistakes - learn from them, and don’t point them out to others.
- How Trump’s Trade War Went From 18 Products to 10,000 Keith Collins and Jasmine C. Lee - The New York Times
Trade wars are good and easy to win. Really cool economics data viz work from the NY Times, however sad the topic.
Links - July 3, 2018
We’ve had a linkless nearly two months on the blog, so here are 35 links to make up for it - hopefully they’re not too overwhelming.
- Big Tech isn't the problem with homelessness. It's all of us. Adam Rogers - Wired
The longer I live in San Francisco, the more desensitized to homelessness I become. I hate that about this city, and I think about it daily. In my opinion, the biggest problem is NIMBYism - there’s an interesting parallel here with the rise in national isolationism, and some irony in San Francisco’s contradictory positions when flipping the scale from local to national. The second biggest problem, which feeds the first one, is a deep misunderstanding of second order effects - the world is dynamic, and it is hard to think of the change brought on by change itself. The solution is clear. Seattle was already the guinea pig. Let’s build more housing.
- Homelessness Is a Tragedy the U.S. Can Afford to Fix Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
Same topic, but with a broader view, and the same messed up incentives. Noah argues that there are policy solutions that must be taken at the federal level to solve this. I agree, but I’m skeptic that we’ll see them any time soon.
- Ways to think about machine learning Benedict Evans
A great framing of the set of technologies that everyone is so excited about but which in many ways doesn’t yet live up to expectations. Sometimes, even people deeply embedded in the Silicon Valley/San Francisco tech world get stuck in the “We’re not facegoopplemazforce, so we don’t have the data, and can’t gain from ML.” This is a mistake. The value is in the domain specific low cost solutions. Echoes a lot of ideas in Tim O’Reilly’s What’s the Future, which I’m reading right now.
- Core Cryptocurrency Use Cases Elad Gil
A quick read that might even interest the skeptics. In essence, Gil sees potential in the store of value story, the payments story, the securitization story, and the digital goods story. Strangely he subdivides SoV into investment and offshore, but I see those two as the same. I’m personally most excited in securitization/smart contracts, which he calls money wrapped in code.
- The Valuation Obsession Fred Wilson - AVC
At the early stage, startup valuations are mostly about signaling. If you’ve raised N million dollars then you can tell people that you were able to do so. If you’ve invested in a company valued at N you’re able to tell your LPs that you got great terms on that company’s last round. If you’re an employee and your company just raised N you can tell that to the recruiter who’s trying to poach you. But in the end, for any number N, most companies that raise N end up dying. We should focus on it less. N is much more about market conditions than it is about a particular startup’s potential.
- How to talk about God in Silicon Valley Oliver Staley - Quartz
In San Francisco, being religious puts you in the minority. As someone who was raised in a religious community and eventually gave up believing in God, and who was often stigmatized by family and friends for it, that aspect of the culture here was a breath of fresh air. Most people in the Bay Area try to be ultra-rational about their spirituality, some bordering on scientism, and I hadn’t experienced that until I moved here. With a wide range of interviews, this piece tries to put the perspective of the religious group in the Bay Area in context. It’s clear that they are not used to being in the minority position, and that brings a lot of interesing contrasts. There’s a lot to be said about what is lost due to the wave of secularization that we’re living, and I am sad that people in tech circles feel ostracized for their religious beliefs (I’m certainly guilty of this ostracization at times) but on the whole I think this is a good step forward. The big question here is how can we build up communities where people feel connected without having a basis in religion. Below I’ve linked to an essay by DFW that’s somewhat related - Everybody Worships.
- Universal Central Bank Digital Currency? Stephen Cecchetti and Kermit Schoenholtz - Money, Banking and Financial Markets
This essay makes two points: (a) digital currencies are already the norm (~90% of M2 is digital), and (b) a central bank issued digital currency would be disastrous to commercial banking. The reason for (b) is that by virtue of supplying universal access to digital currency, the central bank provides a much safer option to park your money, causing a run on private banks, and eventually forcing the central bank to become a larger lender. This is reductio ad absurdum, and IMO has nothing to do with whether the currency is digital or not. It’s about whether the government allows retail accounts. That would hurt the private lending market, leading to less efficient capital allocation. All of this is based on the fact that the rate spread between the central bank and private lenders is small. I just don’t see how that wouldn’t be arbitraged away by the private market picking better projects to lend to. I asked on Twitter for someone to help me understand this better, but to no avail.
- Should peer to peer lenders exist in theory? John Lewis - Bank Underground
What makes banking different from other peer to peer platforms like Airbnb, Uber, or Tinder? Not the kind of question that I expected someone at the Bank of England to be thinking about.
- The Great High School Impostor Daniel Riley - GQ
This was our article club article from a few weeks ago. The story is quite bizarre. Sadly, we all agreed after our meeting that the author could have done a much better job of going for depth instead of breadth. Still worth it.
- What’s the Yield Curve? ‘A Powerful Signal of Recessions’ Has Wall Street’s Attention Matt Phillips - The New York Times
For quite a while now I’ve been saying that the market feels a little too hot, and that there must be a recession coming. This article is similarly pessimistic about it. I don’t feel confident enough to set short positions, but I have kept good chunk of cash at hand to buy whenever shit hits the fan.
- Robots or Job Training: Manufacturers Grapple With How to Improve Their Economic Fortunes Ben Casselman - The New York Times
When labor markets tighten, people get creative. You get robots, and you train high school kids after realizing you don’t really need any credentials. This is a good thing. This is how we move forward.
- San Francisco Restaurants Can’t Afford Waiters. So They’re Putting Diners to Work Emily Badger - The New York Times
Another labor market tightening. This is a topic I had discussed with friends already, and it is good to put numbers to our anecdotes.
- Brexit Versus Trumpit (Wonkish) Paul Krugman - The New York Times
An interesting back of the envelope analysis of why Brexit and Trump’s tariffs are actually different. It’s interesting to think in terms of little economic diagrams - I don’t do this often enough anymore.
- Behold the priest-kings of the future Supreme Court Megan McArdle - Washington Post
This is one of the best articles on politics I’ve read in a while. In essence it is a Rawlsian veil of ignorance argument over how much power the Supreme Court has, and how strange the process of electing its memebers is. “A country where half the citizens feel their concerns have been placed beyond redress or appeal is a country that is headed for trouble.”
- Crypto Commons Mike Maples, Jr. - Medium
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.
- Apple is rebuilding Maps from the ground up Matthew Panzarino - TechCrunch
When I sent Hannah this article, she said “Wait, was that what you were working on? secretly? It’s weird that I never knew.” And well, that’s Apple for you. Having worked on some of the tech behind this, I’m quite happy to finally have it see the light of day. No matter how small my contribution was, it’s exciting.
- Cuisine and Empire Eugene Wei - Remains of the Day
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.
- Unraveling Bolero Radiolab (Podcast)
The brain is strange. This episode tells thestory of Anne Adams, and how her beautiful paintings suddenly became more structured, much like Maurice Ravel’s music had when he was affected by the disease that Adams had just gotten. It’s strange that so many seemingly different abilities are somehow connected to each other.
- A Value Investor Lost in the Valley, with Chris Douvos Patrick O'Shaughnessy - Invest Like the Best (Podcast)
A great conversation about venture capital. The points about how the value added by investors as you shift between seed and series A was super interesting. I might have to listen to this one again.
- Tim Cook’s Dashboard, with Michael Reece Patrick O'Shaughnessy - Invest Like the Best (Podcast)
The point about not reducing distributions to scalar parameters (minute ~34) was very insightful. What are some other things that we treat as scalars when we shouldn’t?
- Curb Cuts 99% Invisible (Podcast)
We take details of urban design for granted. I bet you had never thought about the fact that someone had to put those little ramps on street corners. I surely hadn’t.
- Post-Narco Urbanism 99% Invisible (Podcast)
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.
- Glen Weyl on Radical Markets Russ Roberts - Econtalk (Podcast)
On my last post I mentioned this EconTalk episode was coming, and it did not disappoint. Out of all the suggestions, I think the rethinking of property tax is the most interesting, and possibly the most non-consensus. I want to read this book.
- Michael Pollan on Psychedelic Drugs and How to Change Your Mind Russ Roberts - Econtalk (Podcast)
This interview was interesting because Russ usually plays the spiritual role, instead of the skeptic one, but here he’s the skeptic. I have been intrigued by the idea of psychedelics since I read about Steve Jobs’ use of them in his biography, and Pollan makes a great case for them backed with strong evidence, and apparently good science. It made me think a lot of Reply All’s “Shine On You Crazy Goldman”, which discusses microdosing, and Sam Harris’ Drugs and the meaning of life. All of these conversations bring up interesting questions about the labeling and stigma that different substances have, and make you wonder why we accept some of them while repudiating others. For the most part, I think it’s path dependence. A couple of my friends are reading Pollan’s book now, so more conversations about this are coming.
- Robin Hanson on the Technological Singularity Russ Roberts - Econtalk (Podcast, 2011)
Hanson’s views about emulating brains and how this kind of technology would affect labor markets are fascinating. The moral side of it is not too different from one of the questions raised by Weyl’s book mentioned above - assuming these ems are indistinguishable from people, is it fair/moral to bring them to the world and take a cut of their earnings? How do their needs and desires balance out? We’ve seen some of this tech roll out between this being recorded 7 years ago and now, but I’m sure that within our lifetimes we’ll see us get a lot closer than Hanson suggests.
- Smith, Ricardo, and Trade Russ Roberts - EconTalk (Podcast, 2010)
Trying to understand why tariffs are bad, and get some sound reasons to reject the US’s current position on trade, I went back to look at what Russ had to offer on the classical trade theory. He gives a lot of really good and really basic examples on the points of returns to scale and comparative advantage, and debunks protectionism as a good long-term strategy.
- Network Effects, Origin Stories, and the Evolution of Tech Andreessen Horowitz (Podcast)
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 Oral History of TrialPay – Obstacles and Opportunities in Payments Andreessen Horowitz (Podcast)
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.
- A Series of Mysterious Packages Planet Money (Podcast)
A crazy dive into the rabbit hole of unexpected packages landing on our doorsteps, and the fake reviews they enable on the internet.
- Noah Smith on Immigration Economics David Beckworth - Macro Musings (Podcast)
For a while now, Noah has been pushing a comprehensive case to open up immigration in the US. Including a slew of facts that show why the current nativist wave is based on false premises, as well as economic arguments for further opening up the borders, his platform is one I can definitely get behind. I’m biased, and I believe there’s a moral case for the US to open up, but the strongest arguments Noah makes are all in the economic interest of the country, not just the immigrants. This conversation is a good summary of his views.
- It's My Party and I'll Try If I Want To This American Life (Podcast)
Years after living here, I’m still wrapping my head around the way that American politics revolves around money, and how exorbitant the amounts necessary to run a successful campaign are. In this episode of TAL there is a broad discussion of how this works within the Democratic Party, as they tell the story of Jeff Beals, a primary candidate for Congress who tried to stand against some of these ideological stances - and lost.
- Kenyon Commencement Address (2005) David Foster Wallace
After months (years?) of hearing Russ Roberts bring up this commencement speech in his podcast, I finally put in the time to read the whole thing. It is an expansion of the kind of train of thought I got in the first time I heard of the word sonder.
- Meaning chains with word embeddings Benjamin M. Schmidt - Sapping Attention
By now most people who deal with machine learning or natural language processing in some way are familiar with the King - Man + Woman = Queen example from word2vec. Here, Schmidt brings up a similarly relatable example: What word is between duck and soup? What words sit between the middle point and those extremes? Iterating these chains brings up really cool patterns.
- UIs that accidentally amass memories (tweetstorm) Marcin Wichary - Twitter
Have you ever opened some settings menu in an old computer, and been surprised with how the results reminded you of some previous experience? Here’s a long list of interesting UIs that unintentionally do that exact thing. From your wifi history, and your phone’s alarms to your Gmail drafts, and more.
Links - May 10th, 2018
- On Radical Markets Vitalik Buterin
Coordination problems are fascinating, and this review of Posner and Weyl’s new book gives a taste of their ideas on political economy, with a nice dose of crypto. From immigration, to private property, to the gig economy, the authors seem to have controversial but well founded solutions on how to tackle some of the hardest coordination problems facing society today. Game theory and technology are a great pairing, and one that I don’t think has been explored enough. I can’t wait for this EconTalk episode to come out.
- The Disturbing High Modernism of Silicon Valley Cal Newport
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.
- Time And Money Fred Wilson - AVC
Every business decision is at its core an exchange of time for money and vice versa. This is not just the case of a founder picking a VC, or investors picking startups, but also of employees deciding where to work, and average Joe thinking of where to put their savings.
- Don't Blame Airbnb for Rising Rents Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
Gotta love when economic analysis beats bad arguments.
- The Scientific Paper Is Obsolete James Somers - The Atlantic
There were a bunch of things I love reading about here. There’s history, there’s complexity science (that’s how I got into CS in the first place), there’s python, there’s UX, and more. If you’re interested in the future of education and the spreading of scientific knowledge this is a must read.
- Facts vs hand-waving in economics Chris Dillow - Stumbling and Mumbling
Most traditional economic models are based on bad assumptions: full information, rational agents, etc. Dillow uses the Modigliani-Miller theorem as an example of how this quickly breaks down, and uses it to argue for better undergad education. I mostly agree that there should be a higher emphasis on empiricism.
- The inefficiency of large, infrequent transactions Eugene Wei - Remains of the Day
And speaking of perfect information and economic assumptions that make no sense, here’s one that’s ususally ignored altogether at the undergraduate level: symmetric information. This post discusses the problems of infrequent transactions (think a company going public, or a person buying a house) and how one side of this market has a clear advantage over the other.
- Conceptual Compression David Heinemeier Hansson - Signal V. Noise
This is a wonderful post about how computer science concepts are abstracted over again and again, making it much easier to build things without knowing the details of what happens under the hood. It made me think of Alfred North Whitehead’s quip: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” It also reminded me of an essay about constraints in programming and how over time we’ve decreased the surface of what a programmers can do, enabling them to do what they actually want to do more easily.
- Like the Ancients, We Have Gods. They’ll Get Greater. Robin Hanson - Overcoming Bias
Everyone has been talking about Hanson for other reasons recently. Here he makes an interesting argument about modern celebrities and human nature.
- Trade Wars, Stranded Assets, and the Stock Market (Wonkish) Paul Krugman - The New York Times
If you believe in specialization, you should believe Krugman’s argument on trade wars. He basically says there’s two reasons for the stock market’s current drop re the potential trade war: 1) Efficiency loss imposed by artificial costs on international trade, which undo specialization (tariffs). 2) Stranded assets, which are worth more on paper than on the market. I’d say there’s a third thing in play here: behavioral overshooting. In any case, the stranded asset thing is interesting. It isn’t just the soon-to-be unproductive factories in China that lost value, but also their counterparts in the US, like real estate owned by foreigners.
- The Many Traditions of Non-Governmental Money (Part I) Nick Szabo - Unenumerated
Sadly, Szabo has not yet released the second part of this series yet. He argues that we’ve forgotten that money used to exist outside of the State’s purview, and it is implied in his argument that cryptocurrencies are just a reversion to older models of money without state intervention.
- The Thing I Love Most About Uber Bill Gurley - Above the Crowd
Obviously Gurley is biased about this company, but he makes some really great points about the gig economy, and Uber’s role in kickstarting it. If there’s a single thing that we should thank Kalanick and the company he’s built for, it’s the availabilty of flexible work options.
- The Suicide of the West (Podcast) Russ Roberts and Jonah Goldberg - EconTalk
EconTalk has been killing it lately with their interviews. I usually don’t agree with most conservative arguments, but Goldberg makes some really interesting points in this episode. Especially interesting was his point about celebrity (related to Hanson’s from above) and how tribal thinking has overtaken the republican party.
- The Tyranny of Metrics (Podcast) Russ Roberts and Jerry Muller - EconTalk
An hour long conversation of what essentially is Goodhart’s law. Clearly the focus is on policy and social cooperation, but a lot of this conversation can be applied to software engineering and entrepreneurship.
- The High Price of Cancer Drugs (Podcast) Russ Roberts and Vincent Rajkumar - EconTalk
A great conversation on the economic tradeoffs of healthcare. I recently discussed this with a good friend who’s dad is going through sever medical issues and is in need of a transplant. It is easy to discuss these things in the abstract, but when you put a face to the problem then discussing whether society should cover the cost of medication that could extend someone’s life for another year or two gets way harder. It’s a tough conversation, but one worth listening to.
- Border Trilogy Part 1: Hole in the Fence (Podcast) Radiolab
This series on borders is full of maddening stories of how people treat each other at borders. Parts 2 and 3 are also totally worth listening to.
- The Rational Madness Of The Used Car Salesman (Podcast) Planet Money
I have never understood the American model of car sales.
- Principles and Algorithms for Work and Life (Podcast) a16z Podcast
This interview with Ray Dalio was great. His management philosophies are very controversial, but his success running Bridgewater speaks for itself. Describing the reasoning behind his book, Dalio discusses how he tries to boil everything down to pattern matching. Since most things have some similar precedent in the past, you can look at previous instances and act according to what history tells you will be the successful decision. Essentially, it’s real life Duck Typing. If you define ahead of time what your principles are, and how you’d behave in a certain situation based on your knowledge of previous experiences, then nothing is surprising. Importantly, you have to be a student of history for this strategy to work.
- Feedback Loops — Company Culture, Change, and DevOps (Podcast) a16z Podcast
This conversation tries to showcase philosophies and practices from the software engineering world to a less technical audience, but does end up going in the weeds. The main idea behind dev-ops is one I subscribe to: empowering engineers to not only be in charge of designing and building a new feature, but also of deploying it, measuring its reliability, and owning its delivery throughout its life. By virtue of having one group of people responsible for the whole life cycle, there is an alignment of incentives that leads to more reliable, easier to deploy software.
- Improv’ing Leadership (Podcast) a16z Podcast
Dick Costolo is an unusual guy for Silicon Valley. This interview gives a window into his background in theatre and improv comedy, and how those experiences changed his management style for the better. About halfway through, he made a great remark: “As a leader, it’s not your job to prevent mistakes from happening, it’s your job to correct them when they happen.” I could not agree more. When you’re trying to prevent errors, everything slows down, and innovation stops. It’s the opposite of what you want.
- Random Acts of History (Podcast) This American Life
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.
- Python Environment Randall Munroe - xkcd
Links - April 03, 2018
Here I am, keeping my promise, and posting less links, more often:
- For VCs, Your Thesis Is Your Portfolio Page, Everything Else is Just Hopes and Dreams Hunter Walk
This is definitely targeted at someone, but I can’t figure out who. Over the years I’ve realized that VCs, are not really gatekeepers, and they follow the same patterns of competition as everyone else. This post by Walk is an example of that dynamic. I like the idea of the VC portfolio page as a lagging indicator of what the VC wants to invest in.
- How referendums break democracies Tim Harford
A thousand times yes. The average citizen knows nothing, is easily manipulated, and does not consider second and third order consequences. The 95 percentile citizen is not that different either. We outsource policy decisions and let politicians take care of things not because people are dumb, but because understanding the nuances of policy takes time and effort. Modern society believes in specialization and, by extension, if we let politicians be politicians while dentists take care of teeth and farmers take care of farms, everyone is better off.
- Trade and the Cities (Wonkish) Paul Krugman - The New York Times
Krugman discusses how running a deficit vs. a surplus is about math and accounting and not about winning or losing, but just plain accounting. Then he goes on to compare international trade to inter-state trade. Inter-state and inter-city interactions are super interesting. I’ve always wondered why there isn’t more research along these lines. Made me wonder whether there is a dataset that could be used to replicate the methodology of Dirk Brockmann’s research on mobility and effective communities, but capturing trade instead of commerce.
- We Need Mandatory Enduser APIs for Social and Search Systems Albert Wenger - Continuations
An extension of Albert’s well known idea of bot representation. For most people “bot representation” is too abstract, but his rephrasing to “any system with 1 million+ users should by law be required to issue users with personal API keys” is quite clear. Brings up questions about the boundary of one user’s data and the next user’s data (ie, MY post on YOUR profile), what constitutes enough APIs to meet said standard, and who gets to decide these terms. These systems do things on many layers, not all available via UI. They’re different per user and change over time. The data that the API consumes and produces today looks different than it will tomorrow. The software engineering side would be a nightmare. But that can be solved with incentives. The more interesting question is whether we get access to the derived data, or just the raw. Am I only allowed access to my data points, or also the aggregates computed over time and in relation to other users? It’d be awesome to see something like this implemented.
- The Death of the Newsfeed Benedict Evans
A discussion of how we consume information, and the cyclical nature of how we share things online. Evans’ comparison of the number of items in your news feed to the number of invitees to a party is a clever analogy (kinda like Big O!) but the essay is fraught with uncharachteristically bad assumptions. Stories are less so about “units of content” than about market segmentation. Stories are a news feed, even if in a different format, and don’t solve the oversharing problem - you still get N*M pieces of content.
- Facebook's Ideological Imperialism Robinson Meyer - The Atlantic
This problem has existed for ages. Technologists and scientists work on things because they are cool, and because they want to push science forward, regardless of the implications. The debate about whether technology is inherently good or not will keep going.
- The many traditions of non-governmental money (part I) Nick Szabo - Unenumerated
When people in 2018 think of money, they think of it much like we think of the nation state - this is how things work in the world, we are all citizens of some country, and that country issues its state-sponsored currency. Most people don’t consider that history has followed different paths, and that we’re not at the end of history. Within our lifetimes these institutions will probably shift shapes.
- It's time for an RSS revival Brian Barrett - Wired
I still use RSS daily. It aggregates the tiny blogs that produce content at a very slow rate, which I have no motive for visiting between posts, as well as socially ranked content from sites like Hacker News. The volume that I consume is relatively high, but the top of the funnel is limited on purpose, in ways that maybe it shouldn’t be. Going back to Evans’ post above, I think that having something with levers and knobs would be amazing, but I know I’m part of the fringe. The closest I’ve gotten is RSS.
- Is Python interpreted or compiled? Yes. Ned Batchelder
This is one of those topics that confused me for a long time about Python. Ned’s post is more of a description of the lay of the land than an explanation of how and why things work the way they do in Python, but it has inspired me to go and dig through those bytecode talks he linked to, and learn more about Python internals.
- Everything I know about life I learned at Al's Deli Kate Bernot - The Takeout
If you went to Northwestern, Al’s was a staple. I walked in front of the shop daily, on my walk from home to school, and I probably had their sandwiches at least once a week while I lived in Evanston. This essay made me nostalgic about college life, and now I’m craving their croissant with baked ham and swiss.
- Evolving Alien Corals Joel Simon
An amazing procedural generation piece. The fact that it is both 3D, and animated, makes it all the more interesting.
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.
Links - February 10, 2018
- The Strange Brands in Your Instagram Feed Alexis Madrigal - The Atlantic
This one is a rollercoaster. Madrigal decides to buy a cheap coat off of an Instagram ad, and upon receiving the item starts wondering how it got to his home. He digs further, only to fall in the rabbit hole of modern e-commerce. Beacuse the front-ends are shiny squares on Instagram and Shopify, we usually don’t think of the cross country supply chains fed by Chinese entrepreneurs on Alibaba, or who is even doing that Instagram marketing in the first place. This is a good peek at the bowels of the machine.
- The Follower Factory Nicholas Confessore, Gabriel J.X. Dance, Richard Harris and Mark Hansen - The New York Times
As a heavy Twitter user, this is not at all surprising. The platform does not try to hide its spam. Notifications for automated likes, follow/unfollow schemes, and unrelated replies from random bot accounts are daily staples. Twitter staying away from politics has nothing to do with them not addressing the bot accounts. The reason this has not been fixed is that the yardstick Twitter gets measured with is the number of active accounts, and being able to say there are millions of accounts pumping content into the network is valuable to them - it props up their stock price, and keeps investors interested. Don’t get me wrong, I think some bots are valuable to the platform, and have coded up a few myself, but bots that merely amplify the reach of someone else’s account don’t improve the experience of any Twitter user. Of course all these bots disappered right after the NYT published this piece.
- A Glitch in the Theocratic Matrix Venkatesh Rao - Ribbonfarm
People hold all sorts of bizarre unfounded beliefs. People also tend to think that their bizarre beliefs are more valid than others’ bizarre beliefs. When reality fails to agree with our mental models, and we’re pushed to reconcile those gaps, we crash. Rao watched Jake Tapper’s interview with Ted Crockett (the one where Crockett insists that elected officials must be sworn in on a bible) and proceeded to write a whole essay on how hard Crockett crashed, and why.
- The Making of Apple’s Emoji: How designing these tiny icons changed my life Angela Guzman - Medium
One of the amazing things of working at a large corporation like Apple is that a seeminlgy small or inconsequential task can end up affecting the way millions of people interact with the world. In this post, Guzman tells the story of her internship at Apple ten years ago, and how she and her mentor changed language forever. The way we communicate with each other is now permeated with their ideas, forever. Emoji are essential to language today. This is the story of the couple of people at Apple who made the first icons on our phones.
- It’s Time for Apple to Build a Less Addictive iPhone Farhad Manjoo - The New York Times
We’re all obsessed with our phones. Notifications come and go, and we’re glued to the screens. There isn’t much new in this piece, but I agree with Manjoo that if anyone is strategically placed to do something about it, it is Apple.
- Craft Beer Is the Strangest, Happiest Economic Story in America Derek Thompson - The Atlantic
Regulation and deregulation should cause serious market restructuring. This is a good article by Thompson on how the market for booze was designed to value morals over efficiency, and how that’s changed in the last few years. It is interesting to put this trend in perspective around the rest of the labor market.
- Inside Amazon Go, a Store of the Future Nick Wingfield - The New York Times
One of the most interesting stories of the last year or two has been Amazon slowly going from a fully online store into various brick and mortar experiments. I have little sympathy for cashiers losing their jobs (as Matt Bruenig quipped on Twitter, what’s the difference between this and self checkout?), they’ll find new ones, but I am afraid of losing what Jane Jacobs calls “eyes on the street”. Those cashiers do more than just charge you when you check out, and that disappears with something like Amazon Go. There’s a story to be written there.
- Ten Year's Worth of Learnings About Pricing Tomasz Tunguz
As an engineer working many layers away from the actual money-making part of the business, I have noticed I’ve almost fully stopped thinking about how sales work, and how people decide to spend their money. This is a problem, and I’m making an effort to read more about sales, marketing, and business development these days. This was a good start.
- The Art Of The Broken Deal Paul Krugman - The New York Times
Limits on a ruler’s power strengthen a country’s credibility. Krugman compares the English and French monarchies, and explains how, back in the olden days, the English king was constrained by parliament while the French king didn’t have an equivalent division of powers, leading to healthier politics in London than in Paris. He then continues to make an analogy with the US today, where Congress should be the one reining in the executive. What’s the point of having a division of powers if people are not willing to stop toeing the party line?
- Democracy in question Chris Dillow - Stumbling and Mumbling
And on that note… “Politics has become like a game of football in which the only thing that matters is that our side wins and nobody cares about the quality or even basic honesty of the game. Most of us have forgotten that we are citizens as well as partisans.” Dillow is talking specifically about Brexit, and the relationships between capitalism and democracy, and the fact that news and information markets don’t lead to the most informed citizenry.
- Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble Steven Johnson - The New York Times
Yes, crypto. If you’ve been following along for a while, and have read about the ideas behind Bitcoin, there isn’t much new here for you, but it’ll be a good refresher. If you want to get a good introduction to the topic, this is a good place to get started.
- The Case for Ethereum Elad Gil
Yes, more crypto. I’ve slowly started to become more bullish on the idea of the Ethereum network taking over Bitcoin, and Gil makes several good points in that direction here. In a vacuum, I think that Ethereum has more fundamental value, making it stronger even without the network effects that come from being the first mover, but what will end up deciding whether the number one network is BTC, ETH, LTC or some other coin, is a substantial reduction transaction costs while increasing throughput. Whether that means Lightning, Plasma, Truebit or something else (Gil mentions Bulletproofs), will matter just as much as other versions of SGML matter to us today when using HTML on the web.
- How To Think About Sellofs Fred Wilson - AVC
Ok, last crypto one. The last month or two have been crazy, but I still think we have a fundamentally different thing going on with the crypto market. And when I say fundamentally that’s exactly the word I’m looking for. When people discuss valuations, cash flows, and discount rates, they’re using concepts that were invented by people to explain prices. Humans made these up, too. That the current model doesn’t apply here doesn’t mean there isn’t fundamental value underneath, it means it is time we come up with a new way to explain prices.
- Towards a Bra-free Instagram Experience Lauren Hallden - NewCo Shift
Men and women have substantially different experiences as they interact with the world, off and online. We’re addressed in different ways, we’re seen in different ways, and we’re marketed to in different ways. Hallden’s argument is that this last one is especially exacerbated on platforms like Instagram, where she is constantly barraged with hyper sexualized advertisements. So much for hyper-targeted ads from companies that know everything about us. This is why you need diverse teams. How did no one at Instagram catch this and say “maybe there’s a problem here”?
- SF tourist industry struggles to explain street misery to horrified visitors Heather Knight - San Francisco Chronicle
SF spent $275M on homelessness efforts in 2017. Where did they go? This city is insane. Collective action problems like this one are exactly the kind of things governments are meant to address, but San Francisco is dropping the ball. (I fully agree with Stephen Merity, who pointed me to this article on Twitter)
- Smart homes and vegetable peelers Benedict Evans
Having had an Echo for quite some time, and a HomePod for a few weeks, I agree with Evans’ view of voice not being the next platform. His analysis on the incentives of different players is probably the most interesting part of the essay - Samsung fighting within itself when trying to figure out how to position itself and how to design its new products, Shenzhen leveraging the supply chain and pushing complexity onto hardware while the SV startup does the opposite and tries to differentiate on software. It will be interesting to see this one play out.
- Gig Economy Grows Up as Lenders Allow Airbnb Income on Mortgage Applications Laura Kusisto - The Wall Street Journal
As Airbnb becomes more and more mainstream, this was bound to happen. Institutions, like people, must adapt.
- A Crazy Idea for Funding Local News: Charge People for It Farhad Manjoo - The New York Times
The main point here is that people are willing to pay for niche content that is relevant to them - this is not news. You’d assume that the spending patterns would be different for finance and tech (where money flows more freely) than for individuals and their local news, but in the end its the same people. People paying for Stratechery or The Information probably care about their kids schools, the local events on their neighborhood, and whatever else their hyperlocal publication has to offer. This is why I’m so interested in initiatives such as Hoodline’s hyperlocal news wire.
- Creative Investing (podcast) Patrick O'Shaughnessy with Ali Hamed - Invest Like the Best
My friend Leon got me hooked on O’Shaughnessy’s podcast. This one is full of interesting ideas about how to value online assets such as accounts on Airbnb or Instagram, and how one could potentially set up an incentive system to transfer the cashflows of these accounts without corrupting the quality of the underlying service being provided by the creator. See also the episode with Chris Dixon on the future of tech.
- Thermal Delight (podcast) 99% Invisible
A great episode on the surprising origin story of air conditioning. I never would have thought that the original purpose of A/C was to control moisture content in the air for publishing plants, where paper and ink alignment would constantly go out of whack. Human pleasure quickly took over, of course.
- Three Miles (podcast) This American Life
A strange quality of the education system is that most people don’t really know (nor have a way to know!) what are opportunities that are available for them. It can be a kid who imagines herself only as a doctor, because that’s what her parents do, or a kid who thinks he’d be lucky if he can become a janitor, because its more than his parents ever accomplished, but at any and all levels of the spectrum, this notion of understanding the availability of choices is tough. In this episode of TAL, they talk about the life of young students from low income backgrounds, their shock when learning how the upper class lives, and how that experience changes the course of their lives years later.
- Chip In My Brain (podcast) This American Life
A story about religion, cults, and how our experiences of what we see as “normal” when we’re children affects us for the rest of our lives. Since you’re here, you probably know that I’m highly skeptic of religion. Listening to this made me think of a quote by Max Weinreich that Mangi Jay tweeted a few days ago: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” A riff on that might be “A religion is a cult with a thousand years of history.”
- One Nation, Under Money (podcast) More Perfect
I had no idea that desegregation in the US was pushed through congress via the commerce clause. There are some really interesting questions on how far the federal government can reach into state actions, and individual decisions. Making everything about money has its issues, and this episode does a good job of poking holes into some basic tenets of the US political system.
Links - December 30, 2017
Hello, and welcome to my last set of links of 2017. Let’s get right into it:
- Goodbye, George Bailey: Decline of Rural Lending Crimps Small-Town Business Ruth Simon and Coulter Jones - The Wall Street Journal
This is true capitalism at work. At a certain point, the demographics and economics of small towns make it impossible for private businesses to survive. This is why we have governments! Certain human processes are just not profitable, no matter how necessary they are, and we ask the government to step in and do the work to align those incentives, or to put up its own offices instead. A relevant example of this is USPS which is not meant to be a profitable business, but a useful service. Capital flowing out of these towns is inevitable - it is up to local governments to figure out how to provide the necessary services for its people. If that means these little towns should not exist, so be it.
- Nassim Taleb’s Probabilistic Minarchism Adam Gurri - The Ümlaut
And speaking of little towns, and local governments, here’s a piece on Taleb and his views on what governments should and should not do. Essentially, he advocates for small units of governemnt spurring from bottom up local knowledge. His quintessential example of this seems to be the Swiss canton system. Having just read Jane Jacobs’ amazing book on city building, I have to say I am starting to like these bottom up approaches more and more.
- The Conservation of Coercion William Wilson - American Affairs Journal
An essay on various forms of social coercion, and how societies with different levels of trust deal with civil issues. Specifically, Wilson discusses how certain societies decrease the required level of trust between individuals on their day to day life, and how this leads to trade-offs between state coercion and social coercion instead of an increase in liberty. I find the topic fascinating, and welcome any and all suggestions on what else I should read about it.
- The Merge Sam Altman
This is a neat article on humans merging with computers. Altman’s take is that this has already started happening (our phones are an extension of ourselves), and the trend is accelerating (double exponential of improving hardware and more people doing AI research). It reminded me of Minsky: “The serious problems come from having little experience with machines of such complexity that we are not yet prepared to think effectively about them.” But we’ve been augmenting ourselves for a long time. There’s a striking scene in The Name of The Rose where William explains the use for eye-glasses to other incredulous monks. The glasses quickly become a central object in the story. We’ve been augmenting our bodies with technology for centuries.
- Competing with BigCo: 2018 Edition Steven Sinofsky - Learning By Shipping
As usual, a great post by Sinofsky. Here he argues against the “end of history” idea that you can’t compete against the big platform companies. His piece focuses on Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and (perhaps strangely) Adobe, tearing apart each company’s business model and finding the opportunities a newcomer could leverage against them. Everyone’s read the book, and executives at these companies know how to defend against one’s own incentives benefitting newcomers, but there are still cracks for startups to get through.
- The Hidden Player Spurring a Wave of Cheap Consumer Devices: Amazon Farhad Manjoo - The New York Times
And to keep going with the thread on platform companies, here’s one on Amazon enabling lots of new products to come to life. The whole thing is worth reading, but the last paragraph in the article was extremely sharp: “There is this erosion of what it means to be a traditional consumer product brand,” Mr. Wingo said. “In a way, Amazon is providing all this information that replaces what you’d normally get from a brand, like reputation and trust. Amazon is becoming something like the umbrella brand, the only brand that matters.” Amazing.
- The Amazon machine Benedict Evans
It seems like Evans took Farhad Manjoo’s article (the one right above this) and ran with it, taking it an extra few steps. Two pizza teams, and shipping the org chart are not new - I thought the new insight was Evans’ third consequence “those atomised teams don’t actually need to work for Amazon.” which totally resonates with Manjoo’s argument.
- What You Need to Know About the Future of Bitcoin Technology Subhan Nadeem
This is probably the best survey I’ve read about BTC’s growing pains and the tech being developed to solve them. It doesn’t dive too deep, but will expose you to a bunch of ideas, from the Lightning Network to MimbleWimble (yes that’s a thing). I’m only bullish on crypto long term because I know the community is working hard to build solutions to these problems, even if vanilla BTC is not the one to succeed.
- The Quest for a Stable Coin Albert Wenger - Continuations
I recently read the Basecoin whitepaper which is intriguing, even if a bit too utopic. Having a currency that is pegged somehow to the values in the real economy is a must if we want to transition into a non-fiat world. Paying rent, receiving a salary, or buying bread and eggs with something as volatile as BTC is a non-starter, and one of the tough problems to be solved in the space.
- Coinbase: The Heart of the Bitcoin Frenzy Nathaniel Popper - The New York Times
This feels completely outdated by now (three weeks is a long time in the cryptocurrency world!) but I decided to share it anyway. Scaling a company is hard. Scaling a company at the pace that Coinbase is doing it seems impossible. They will hiccup along for a while, but having even a tiny glimpse of how things work on the inside is quite interesting.
- Google Maps's Moat Justin O'Beirne
If you haven’t seen O’Beirne’s series, you should definitely click through. The first couple of posts he did on the topic came out while I was working in Maps, and honestly some of his points were disheartening. What Google is doing with their geo data is just amazing.
- How 2017 Became a Turning Point for Tech Giants The New York Times - Farhad Manjoo
I try not to post more than one article by the same author at a given time, but this one was too good to pass up. Ties nicely with other posts about technology and society I’ve been sharing over the past few months. I’m looking forward to what scandals the tech sector will give us in 2018.
- What I Think We’re Talking About When We’re Talking About What We Can’t Talk About Hunter Walk
A great response to Sam Altman’s Post. I don’t buy that SF is not an open minded place.
- What Do You Call a World That Can’t Learn From Itself? Umair Haque
Something strange about my experience living in the US for the past ~7 years is that the average person I meet in the US (who is FAR from the average US citizen in most respects) is convinced that the US is great, if not the best, in nearly every field. While I don’t necessarily agree with some of the arguments and examples given here, I definitely agree with the overall sentiment: people in the US have a misplaced superiority complex, and if things keep going in the direction they’re going, they’re only going to fall further behind.
- The Peril of Taxing Elite Higher Education Gregory Mankiw - The New York Times
Speaking of falling behind, here’s Mankiw making some very reasonable arguments for things that we should not be arguing. The higher education system in this country might need some reform, especially on its financing and in the administrative arms race it has triggered in the last couple of decades, but the tax scheme critiqued by Mankiw here is definitely not a solution. Disincentivizing people from going to college is not necessarily a bad idea - we might be subsidizing too much education in some areas - but if that is the goal, there are more direct ways to address it than through taxing endownments.
- Pixar's RenderMan Harsh Agrawal and Leif Pedersen. - Pixar
Whenever I see stuff like this I regret not taking any graphics courses at school. Modeling reality is very hard. I remember a few years ago learning about how Pixar did hair simulation and finding it fascinating. The Incredibles was one of the first ones in which they seriously took on the physics of moving hair, and then went all out with their physics engine for Brave. In this article they discuss surface modeling, and a new technique they’re using to speed up rendering.
- The Prophet (podcast) Reply All
Ever heard about this fake news thing? Here’s some evidence that, at least in Mexico, it goes deeper than you’d think. I wouldn’t be surprised if the exact same thing is happening in the US right now.
- Our Town (podcast) This American Life
A great analysis of labor and immigration in a little town in Alabama during the 90s, including interviews with locals, and research by several economists, who together make very solid arguments for immigration. The real issues are xenophobia and complacency. Don’t miss part two.
- Tim O'Reilly on Technology and Work (podcast, 2015) EconTalk
I recently started re-listening to some older episodes of EconTalk, trying to see whether the talking points have changed in the past couple of years. The episode focuses on labor economics, and O’Reilly makes a few good points about changes in how we view labor and reputation today, and how that is changing. Listening to this again made me bump up his book a couple of spots for my to-do in 2018.
- Audio samples from "Natural TTS Synthesis by Conditioning WaveNet on Mel Spectrogram Predictions" Jonathan Shen, Ruoming Pang, et al. - Google
Sharing this one for the novelty. It is nearly impossible to tell which one is a human and which one is a machine, which is mind boggling.
Links - December 5th, 2017
This is another crypto heavy post with plenty of the links in some way discussing crypto assets, but bear with me: there’s other good stuff to read, too.
- Blockchain Governance: Programming Our Future Fred Ehrsam - Medium
This post is full of non-crypto/non-blockchain interesting ideas, from basic coordination and incentives, all the way to full fledged frameworks to replace democracy, like Hanson’s Futarchy (which I had never heard of before, and found super intriguing!). Framing the problem of governance as one of dispersed information in a changing environment is very Hayekian, which lines up nicely with what I’ve been reading recently. Toward the end, Ehrsam suggests players should focus on the metaprogramming of systems (ie, the decision making workflows/processes by which these systems evolve) instead of the systems themselves. I like this view.
- Want to Really Understand What all the Hype of Cryptocurrency is About? Mark Suster - Both Sides of the Table
A good intro, with both the bull and the bear cases well summarized. As usual, Suster does a good job of making complex topics available to non-technical users. This seems especially important these days.
- Bitcoin and Fundamentals Stephen Cecchetti and Kermit Schoenholtz - Money and Banking
In an otherwise boring article, Cecchetti and Schoenholtz wonder whether derivatives markets will negatively affect the valuation of crypto assets. This seems possible, and I think its a prudent point of view. Not much else is new in this post. These two have been skeptical of cryptocurrencies for a long time, and here they take the fundamentals’ “no way to do a DCF on this” side. Specifically, they argue that bitcoin looks like a bubble since “investors buy solely because they see the price rising, without any change in the discount rate, in risk tolerance, or in the projected dividend stream.” As my brother Max mentioned, this one can make the same argument against gold, or as Naval Ravikants keeps repeating “Money is the bubble that never pops.”
- A Simple Fix for Our Massive Inequality Problem Matt Bruenig - The New York Times
A spin on the basic income idea. Having a large sovereign fund that redistributes its profits seems smart at face value, especially if one believes in r > g. However, it brings up second order questions, like how to ensure such fund is properly managed, or whether those same assets could be more productive out of state’s hands. Sam Altman pushes a similar idea in American Equity, expressing the payout as “an annual share of GDP”. Intriguing, but perhaps too simple to actually work without unexpected effects.
- Adam Smith: is democracy always better for the poor? Branko Milanovic - globalinequality
I tweeted this out as an “Interesting argument from Milanovic” and he humbly corrected me, saying the argument really is Smith’s. Discussing interactions between democracy and power distribution during the colonial period, Milanovic summarizes Smith’s view: “More democratically-governed colonies (like the British) treat slaves worse because the elite which, in a system of oligarchic republicanism, controls the levels of power is reluctant to punish its own members who are particularly brutal towards slaves.” An unexpected lesson. It made me think of Roberts and Munger’s discussion about slavery, and how plantation owners argued the slaves were better off as slaves than on their own. The system must be full of perverse incentives if that is an idea put forth with a straight face.
- How Peter Thiel and the Stanford Review Built a Silicon Valley Empire Andrew Granato - Stanford Politics
This investigation of the publication Peter Thiel started while at Stanford was fascinating. Surely, there are other such clubs, at Stanford and elsewhere, with similar outsized influence in the business world. What makes the Stanford Review so interesting is the ideological aspect in this moment in history. I played a bit with the data and built a simple network visualization. As Granato mentions in a different piece, it is strange that by virtue of having been to an elite institution both him and I are just one link away from the people in this group, and of each other.
- Abe Lincoln and Filibuster Fever Tom Chaffin - The New York Times
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.
- A 700-Foot Mountain of Whipped Cream (podcast) 99% Invisible
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.
- Sex Appeal (podcast) More Perfect
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.
Links - November 24, 2017
This was in drafts for a while, so posting without comments.
Links - November 09, 2017
- Tech Goes to Washington Ben Thompson - Stratechery
If you have been following along lately, I’ve been talking a lot about tech and politics. Here, Ben Thompson summarizes last week’s hearings. He describes the controversy as “largely centered within the coastal tech-media bubble,” and I could not agree more. The real question is what average Jane and Joe in the rest of the country think about this, and those are exactly the voices that these politicians (in theory) represent. I’m convinced the hearings were useless in the grand scheme of things, but the arguments presented will be tested in other arenas in the months to come - I can’t wait to see where this ends up…
- Can Washington Stop Big Tech Companies? Don't Bet on It Farhad Manjoo - The New York Times
…Especially because government doesn’t seem to be the right answer here. Regulation of tech companies is especially hard because the zero marginal cost model in which they operate does not match the original point of antitrust. Consumer surplus might be high, but the real problems being tackled here are not simply about prices, supply, and demand. Having the government police feeds is a freedom of speech question, but we also don’t want Zuck & friends to explicitly start censoring what can and can’t be seen. Lots of stuff to think about.
- Maybe Index Funds Will Destroy Capitalism Matt Levine - Bloomberg View
There are interesting questions about centralized decision making, organization, and coordination here. For example, if the same people own all the airlines, via indexing, does competition still emerge? The answers matter, but I think we’re still pretty far from having enough concentration of capital for this to be real concern.
- @20 Paul Ford - Ftrain.com
The internet has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Ford does a little recounting of his time online, and the rise of walled gardens versus the open web.
- Square, the Twitter Boss’s Other Company, Could Pass It in Value Nathaniel Popper - The New York Times
Square is a more interesting company than Twitter. They don’t sell ads, nor nudge customers into buying things. Their product reduces friction in other companies’ transactions, which sets them apart from the rest of the pack of Silicon Valley startups. I am particularly intrested in how quiet Square (and PayPal and Stripe and others) has been about crypto. I wonder not what Chase and Goldman are planning to do with these new technologies, but what Stripe and Square have in store.
- Fashion, Maslow and Facebook's control of social Benedict Evans
I like Evans’ analogy of Facebook as a company that surfs on user behavior. As he says, “we attribute vastly too much power to a handful of product managers in Menlo Park, and vastly too little power to the billions of people who look at their phone screen and wonder which app to open.”
- Rise of the Creative Class Worked a Little Too Well Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
In this column, Smith discusses Richard Florida’s argument that “by creating a good environment for knowledge workers […] cities could attract the human capital that would bring in businesses and ultimately re-invigorate their economies.” As Noah points out, and Florida concedes, this helped many American cities kickstart a new phase of growth, but that came together with increased inequality, and other undesired side effects. I agree with Florida that cities should “invest in things that improve the lives of their poorer residents,” but I am skeptic of Noah’s claim that the federal and state governments should get more involved. There is too much local knowledge required to solve urban ailments, but in the end, these are problems of fragmentation, and short vs. long term incentives, both of which governments are well fit to solve…
- How to save San Francisco Justin Krause - Medium
…speaking of which. Krause makes good arguments of how to fix up San Francisco. Some make sense, and some don’t. I agree with him that it’s not a problem of resource constraints. It’s an issue of political will. There’s no BART going up to Marin because of NIMBYs, not because there was no money to build it. I remember listening to a similar arugment on the YIMBY pocdast, where they discussed how the arbitrary geographic divisions in the Bay Area’s landscape makes coordination basically impossible.
- The Line Between Aggressive and Crazy Colby Davis - RHS Financial
Investing is hard. Mostly because of the uncertainty, but also because even the parts of it that seem intuitive are underneath quite complex, making us wrong more often than not. This article discusses optimal strategies for repeated bets (aka the Kelly Criterion) in the context of the stock market. Their test seems biased, given the strategy’s return over the bull market of the last ten years, but the article is interesting nonetheless.
- Debating Where Tech Is Going to Take Finance Tyler Cowen and Matt Levine - Bloomberg View
In a short conversation, Levine and Cowen discuss recent innovations in the fintech space. From blockchain, blockchain, blockchain to index funds and globalized diversification, the two bring up good examples across the spectrum. What’s interesting, and which neither Cowen nor Levine really discuss is the fact that the surplus of innovation in finance has not really gone to the consumer. Perhaps the only exception mentioned is the expansion of access to credit products, which is not necessarily a net positive.
- La Sagrada Família (podcast) 99% Invisible
With everything happening in Cataluña right now, this was a timely podcast. I did not know the back story behind the cathedral, but now that I’ve learned a bit more about it I am even more excited about visiting Spain at some point in the near future.
- Hume and Smith, and The Infidel and the Professor (podcast) Dennis Rasmussen and Russ Roberts - EconTalk
If there is one thing I love (and also hate) about EconTalk, is that nearly every episode ends up with me adding a book to my list. In this case, its Rasmussen’s book on the Hume and Smith, and their role in the Scottish Englightenment. I keep thinking that I should just go back to the origin, and read the classics first - Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature and The History of England, as well as Smiths’ The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations - and then go into the modern analysis of their work, but it is nice to have your hand held as you learn these. I always thought it was odd than in 4 years of economics courses I was never asked to read any Smith. As an aside, I found Smith posthumous editorializing of Hume’s work to be fascinating.
- Elizabeth (podcast) The Memory Palace
A story of the discovery of insulin, and the strange interaction between disesases, cures, and time.
Links - October 25, 2017
- Just own the damn robots Joshua Brown - The Reformed Broker
Brown brings up Vonnegut’s Player Piano, which features a dichotomous society where “only engineers and managers have gainful employment and meaningful lives.” Connecting the novel’s dystopia to the present isn’t too hard to do. What’s interesting is Brown’s connection to retirement investing. The origins of retirement come from not being able to do your work - i.e., losing your good hand, and with it your ability to work the land. Only in the past few decades did this financial structure evolve to the 401k’s and IRAs as we know them today. What if we’re going back to the origins of the model, except not as insurance for health, but for disruption? Replacement insurance. We invest in FAANG and reap the benefits.
- Ur-Fascism (1995) Umberto Eco - The New York Review of Books
So much of this seems familiar. The “thinking as a form of emasculation” and the attacks on “modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for betraying traditional values.” Reading Eco’s memories of his childhood in Italy, and comparing them to today’s environment is frightening. In short some features of fascism as described by Eco are:
- Cult of tradition.
- Rejection of modernism.
- Veneration of action for action’s sake.
- Repudiation of criticism - disagreement is treason.
- Fear of difference, structured against the intruders.
- Appeal to a frustrated middle class, suffering from an economic crisis, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.
- Lack of a clear social identity. The only privilege is to be born in the same country, with identity defined by enemies within and without.
- Shifting rhetoric - the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.
- Life as permanent warfare.
- Aristocratic and militaristic elitism, which implies contempt for the weak. Power is based upon the weakness of the masses.
- Heroism as the norm, which leads to a cult of death.
- Disdain for women, and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits.
- No Individuals rights - The People conceived as a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. The Leader pretends to be their interpreter.
- Impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. Newspeak.
Anyway go read Eco instead of my crappy summary.
- Uber is charging drivers to work Alex Rosenblat - Medium
Uber, like most modern companies utilizes randomized and semi-randomized experiments all the time to imporve their product. In most cases, these are externally labeled as promotions, or offers. In a strange case of these “deals,” Uber recently offered its drivers to pay a fee for the chance to get higher pay rates in the future. However, since Uber has nearly full control of the system - and specifically, the dispatch - this smells like a scammy pay to play. How can drivers trust that Uber won’t throttle their rides as they get near the break-even? This is hard to prove, unless you’re Uber. Over on HN, the discussion turned to ways that Uber could be cut up in an antitrust case. One company as the dispatch, the other handles the rest. That could work. We’ll have to wait and see what happens now that Lyft has some new air.
- Intellectual Property for the Twenty-First-Century Economy Joseph E. Stiglitz, Dean Baker and Arjun Jayadev - Project Syndicate
I recently had a conversation with my girlfriend about how IP is a system of the past that is about to change. Here, Stiglitz and friends agree with me, and say that the solution should look a bit like open source software, but don’t really give a good answer to the question at hand: how can we change international IP law to maximize welfare in the long run? I’d love to learn more about this topic.
- When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy Susan Dominus - The New York Times
We’re humans and, inevitably, we tend make examples out of innocent people when we try to solve hairy problems. I am sure there are ten psychology papers about this somewhere, most unreplicable, and most covered in some pop-science magazine with an accompanying TED talk. I am sorry for Cuddy. What she’s going through must suck. However, I am convinced that the overall movement will benefit the field, and science as a whole.
- Our Model Fred Wilson - AVC
I realize that in a way this is an ad for USV, but it is also a good explanation of how the VC business works, and its cyclical nature. I wish Fred had expanded more on how the new paradigm of cryptographic tokens and decentralized applications will change their model. I guess that’s the secret sauce, and we’ll have to wait and see.
- After the end of the startup era Jon Evans - TechCrunch
I can’t remember where I read (heard?) this argument, but I think the real issue is not so much that there is no upcoming technical revolution, but that the behemots have learned to disrupt themselves. The FAANG companies are pouring resources into areas that undermine their cash cows. Google is investing in one-shot answer voice assistants that can’t show ads. Apple is developing hardware like the Watch and the AirPods, whose goal is to distance us from our iPhones. Whatever can’t be done in-house in a reasonable timeline is solved by acquiring or copying. This hampers bottom up Clay Christensen style disruption for sure, but I am by no means as bearish as Jon Evans is in his piece. Technology never ceases to amaze us, and the paradigms keep changing. More on this topic, by Farhad Manjoo here.
- Why You Don't Know Anybody in the Military Justin Fox - Bloomberg
The demographics of the US Military are interesting, but I won’t pretend to know anything about them. The fact that there is such a strong divide on who signs up for it is a problem. Eventually, seemingly cohesive identities break. The distance is not only geographic.
- Faster Growth Begins With a Land Tax in U.S. Cities Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
When I first read George, it just clicked. It seems beyond logical that windfalls should be taxed at a high rate, especially when said taxation is paired with a fixed market size. If you want to go back to the source, read this excerpt, but Noah’s piece is a good window into how the land lays today. Pun intended.
- A Letter to Jamie Dimon Adam Ludwin - Chain.com
A lucid explanation of the technological breakthroughs of Bitcoin and other cryptographic assets. A bit long, but worthwhile. Ludwin’s main point is that this technology created a new kind of asset - one that enables decentralized applications to be financed and operated. Whether there is a real need for these DApps is still TBD, but Ludwin is (cautiosly) bullish in the long term. The Dimon thing is just clickbait, and Ludwin hedges his bets by acknowledging the frothiness in the crypto market. As an aside, Nick Tomaino’s The Slow Death of the Firm from earlier this week is even more bullish on decentralized applications, and also a good read.
- One person's history of Twitter, from beginning to end Mike Monteiro - Medium
More on the social cost of Twitter, and the kind of dynamics enabled by having social networks without strong principled moderation. It is always intriguing to read opinions that have morphed over time, and to go back to the origin story that most observers can’t tell first hand.
- Megan McArdle on Internet Shaming and Online Mobs (podcast) EconTalk
Totally related to Monteiro’s post above. McArdle and Roberts discuss how internet communities have inherited all the bad things about small-town dynamics, but shed most of the positives. When all of history is a few clicks away, errors become much more costly. This is one of the better EconTalk episodes in recent memory.
- Platforming the Future (podcast) Andreessen Horowitz
Hearing Benedict Evans and Tim O’Reilly discuss O’Reilly’s new book was good, but a lot of it was a rehash from the previously shared EconTalk episode. About halfway through there’s an interesting discussion on optimization. We’ve created institutions that optimize for certain metrics at all cost. At the micro level, we have companies building machine learning models to drive engagement, but at the macro level we expect companies to maximize shareholder value. This is a human decision, codified into law to maximize welfare - at least in theory. Perhaps trusting the market mechanisms and the individual search for arbitrage opportunities is no longer enough. There might be other trade-offs to consider in how companies, and the market at large, are run. In a way, the market acquires a life of its own, not too differentt from a paperclip maximizer.
- The Gun Show (podcast) More Perfect
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.
Links - October 16, 2017
I read a bunch of stuff this weekend. Most of the things I read were about the interactions between tech and policy. There is a strange techno-skeptic somber mood that makes me feel weird about the future, and I am trying to read and write a lot about it to clear my thoughts.
I’m part of a generation that never knew the world before the internet. Did it always feel like we’re in a dystopia?
- The Transaction Costs of Tokenizing Everything Elaine Ou - Elaine's Idle Mind
As I’ve mentioned again and again, the value of ICOs, tokens, and cryptocurrencies is in the new economic structures they enable. In her post, Ou goes through some late 90s/early 00s history of failed protocols and ideas which are now actually possible thanks to blockchains. However, the point of her post is that the potential benefit of the introduction of blockchain comes hand in hand with an increased friction in the form of transaction costs. Whether the benefit of deploying these ideas is greater than the friction introduced remains to be seen, and that is what will make or break each of these crypto projects.
- The Political Awakening of Silicon Valley Vauhini Vara - The California Sunday Magazine
I have long held the view that governments operate with relative ignorance from what their constituents want - not because of nefarious reasons, but because humans are humans and communicating our needs and desires is individually really hard, and nearly impossible at the collective level. The Silicon Valley mindset has its blind spots, but the fixation on experimentation and short feedback-loop iteration is something that could improve policy decisions. It is good to see the top brass realize some changes need to happen outside of the market.
- The scale of tech winners Benedict Evans
Today, unlike in the past 50 years, there isn’t one big tech company at the helm directing the path of technology a-la IBM/Microsoft. Instead, incessant competition between the big four means these companies are always on their toes, and that they are always thinking of how to reinvent themselves. This is a point that Evans has been making a lot lately, and which makes me optimistic about the future of technology. However, these companies are huge, and growing bigger day by day in a way we have not experienced before. The implications of that are not clear. Pardon me the long quote, but it’s too good to pass up:
There probably won’t be a technology that has 10x greater scale than smartphones, as mobile was 10x bigger than PCs and PCs were bigger than mainframes, simply because 5bn people will have smartphones and that’s all the (adult) people. There will be something, though, and though ’something will change, but we don’t know what’ is an unfalsifiable point, so is ‘nothing will change’, and I know which side of that argument I find more likely.
- The real roots of early city states may rip up the textbooks Ben Collyer - New Scientist
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.
- The only job a robot couldn’t do Daniel Carter - The Outline
A highly dystopian article. The presentation of this gig economy company as a consumer education platform is frightening. The fact that a team of engineers is building this, consciously, makes me upset. This is not an algorithm pulling the wrong thing into a feed, or acting upon the biases in a training dataset - these are people building the infrastructure for an ominous future. Why watch Black Mirror when non-fiction reads the same?
- Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend Noam Cohen - The New York Times
The article was really good. However, it’s something that the average person outside SV does not find problematic. People think of FB/Google/Amazon/etc as benign - we use them because they’re better than alternatives. The problem is, the more we use them, the more they become irreplaceable. Network effects/economies of scale here are a strange loop. Google is good because it has all our data, it’s bad because it has all our data. There’s a lot to be worked out here. How much of it is narrative, versus actual skepticism.
- Becoming a Steelworker Liberated Her. Then Her Job Moved to Mexico. Farah Stockman - The New York Times
With in depth stories like these, it is clear that the NYT is working hard on showing more stories of Trump’s middle-America. There are many interesting topics here: identity and the meaning of work, the decreasing role of labor unions in US businesses, the politics and incentives of health care, the education system, race, gender, otherness, etc. What I was least expecting were the direct comparison between the Mexican workers and the Midwesterners - one’s perception of the other as rich with their multiple-times higher salary, and the other’s misconception of what things are like outside their geographic bubble. This is good reporting.
- Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies Paul Krugman - The New York Times
With this blog post, Krugman seems to have forgotten some of his pre-election punditry. Nevertheless, he makes a number of great arguments, backed by data and peer reviewed studies. Since most of you won’t click through, here’s the TLDR (all these are lies being fed to the American public):
- America is the most highly-taxed country in the world
- The estate tax is destroying farmers and truckers
- Taxation of pass-through entities is a burden on small business
- Cutting profits taxes really benefits workers
- Repatriating overseas profits will create jobs
- This is not a tax cut for the rich
- It’s a big tax cut for the middle class
- It won’t increase the deficit
- Cutting taxes will jump-start rapid growth
- Tax cuts will pay for themselves
- Meet The CamperForce, Amazon's Nomadic Retiree Army Jessica Bruder - Wired
I knew that Amazon employed a ton of seasonal workers, but I had no idea of the extent of the program, nor the fact that most of the laborers were retirees. Bruder does a great job in this exposé, giving us a window into the dystopian labor conditions that her protagonists endure. Most interesting is the fact that for a non-insignificant group of the population, the pangs of the financial crisis are still very much alive. I also read a review of her book in the NYT, where the reviewer pointed out a fact I kept thinking about as I read the column - this is all about old white people. A big error of omission in an otherwise great read.
- From boiling lead and black art: An essay on the history of mathematical typography Eddie Smith - Practically Efficient
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.
- The Crowbar Crowded Cities
To close on a good note, here is a cool project - training crows to collect cigarette butts, with computer vision and creativity!
Links - October 14, 2017
- What Facebook Did to American Democracy Alexis Madrigal - The Atlantic
A great summary of how social media’s influence creeped into the political landscape. Madrigal’s account is more thorough than I could even imagine. Perhaps the most interesting point about his piece - one that I had not seen made this clearly elsewhere - is that the 2016 election was not so much about blind-siding, but frog-boiling.
- Cryptocurrency Incentives and Corporate Structures Elad Gil
The reason cryptocurrencies, and the technology behind them, are exciting for me is not their insane returns, but the economic and political implications of creating totally new incentive systems. Matt Levine has a good summary of how these differ from the traditional VC backed company in yesterday’s Money Stuff, but Elad Gil’s post goes much more in depth into what kinds of corporate structures are enabled by crypto.
- Trustworthy Networking Ben Thompson - Stratechery
The notion that Trumpism arose thanks to the 2017 equivalent of a DDoS attack, or an SQL injection on social media has been going around for a while. Here, Thompson makes a good analogy between Facebook today and Microsoft in the early 2000s, and exposes the dangers of assuming people’s good intentions on your platform.
- Trump and Stocks: What Gives? Justin Fox - Bloomberg View
A lot of people are asking themselves how is it that the market is doing so well, when the political environment and various economic indicators make it seem like it should not. Many people predicted that with Trump as president, the US economy would not do well - myself included - so what’s going on? Fox argues that a good chunk of the growth is coming from increased consumption abroad, that investors expect Trump’s business friendly policies to be good for the market, and that maybe we’re just looking at the wrong metrics. One point he doesn’t make, and which I have not seen elsewhere, is that the dollar itself is losing value (nearly 6% since election day), so the bull-market is not actually as strong as it seems.
- When is a Dollar not a Dollar? Leo Polovets - Coding VC
I initially thought this would go in another direction, i.e. money from different VC firms comes with different kinds of strings attached, giving different investment dollars different real values. However, Polovets pleasantly surprised me with a list of how changes in the various lines on your balance sheet have very different effects, and how startups could make better decisions by keeping that in mind.
- I wanted to understand why racists hated me. So I befriended Klansmen Daryl Davis - The Washington Post
Racism is about ignorance, and this story is just one more example of it. I insist that all of politics distills down to applied otherness. Once you remove otherness, and you can see, um, others, as equals, it is much easier to agree on what a government should or should not do…
- Let Them Eat Paper Towels Paul Krugman - The New York Times
…and on that note, here’s Krugman showing how the administration, and a good chunk of the population, don’t see Puerto Ricans as Americans.
- The Athletic Brassiere (podcast) 99% Invisible
It is always strange to hear about how much thought and effort went into the development of products that I don’t use and totally take for granted. One of the things I like the most about Roman Mars’ podcast is that it exposes me to stories that I would never wonder about on my own.
- Suitable for Children (podcast) This American Life
More on race, history, and immigration.
- Flood Money (podcast) Planet Money
An explanation of the insane insurance system that allows people to live in flood-prone areas in Houston, and elsewhere in the US. Through the National Flood Insurance Program “one percent of homes have been responsible for more than 25 percent of the claims,” which is kind of the point of insurance - except when you stop and think that if this incentive system were not in place, people would just not live there! By insuring these homes at subsidized rates, the government is incentivizing dangerous behavior (living in a flood-prone area) out of tax payers’ pockets.
- Tim O'Reilly on What's the Future (podcast) EconTalk
An unusual EconTalk, where the topic is a mixed bag of technocracy and an optimistic outlook of the current technological revolution.
- The Super-Aggregators (podcast) Exponent
In case the Stratechery post above was not enough, here’s Ben doubling down. Aggregation theory paired with politics. Towards the end of the episode there is a discussion on how, via regulation, increased transparency in the decisions made by algorithms could enable journalists and citizens to openly review the outcomes of machine learned systems, which in turn would change the behavior of the advertisers and scammers. Overall, a good way to spend an hour.
Links - September 29th, 2017
September has been a long month. Moving apartments is both mentally, and physically taxing, and the process is extremely time consuming. These have been sitting idle in the draft box way too long, so here goes:
Links - August 26, 2017
- Death Arbitrage and Uber Battles Matt Levine - Bloomberg
I have been reading a lot of Levine’s writing lately (mostly his Money Stuff series/newsletter) and this is a great example of it: a nice mix of crazy, technology, and politics, viewed through the lens of finance. “People are worried that people aren’t worried enough” and “Blockchain blockchain blockchain,” are recurring sections that have kept me coming back.
- Coase's Spectre Cory Doctorow - Crooked Timber
I have never read Cory Doctorow’s novels. He was recently in a Planet Money episode about his change of heart about copyright laws. It was really good, and I’m surprised I didn’t share it after I heard it! This post about his newest book, and the economics behind it, made me want to read his work. I have found myself enjoying fiction as much as non-fiction lately. It is harder to find books whose stories touch on issues that you’re interested in, since you’re not looking at the “business” or “science” section, but there are plenty of good things to read. In this case, it is the economics of coordination.
- Weird Python Integers Kate Murphy
This post, and it’s follow-up made rounds on the python speaking part of the internet this week. It reminded me of Adrien Guillo’s post on the internals of Python strings. The little optimizations that happen under the hood can lead to surprising and unexpected behavior, but once you learn the deterministic rules behind the nice API, it is easy to predict how things will work, and you can use that to your advantage. Now I’m trying to decide how to optimize my current project with string interning.
- Why Is Game of Thrones' Westeros Still Poor? Adam Ozimek - Forbes (but actually Outline, because Forbes is impossible to read)
"The economics of GoT" is a good genre. A long time ago I had read a similar article about its money and banking system, and turns out it was also by Ozimek. In this post, he tries to explain why there hasn’t been an industrial revolution in GoT. The TL;DR is a) there’s no cheap energy source (coal), b) scarcity of both labor and capital, c) a hierarchical closed system of science/knowledge (the Maesters). Trying to poke holes in a fantasy world with real world theories is always interesting.
- Resource Constraints Fred Wilson - AVC
Resource allocation is hard, and only gets harder with size. That’s why startups can carve themselves a niche and take over huge companies. Most projects are not worth pursuing, and not useful. Focus gets the win. Pretty related to this a16z episode on growth strategies and how to handle cash.
- Restaurants Are the New Factories Derek Thompson - The Atlantic
- ICOs and Governance Albert Wenger - Continuations
The human side of technology and business are much harder than the technology and the business themselves. Decision making is hard, whether you ran an ICO or raised a series A. Convincing people that you should go one way or another takes leadership. Development in system design, focusing on how to align incentives for the long term is one of the best things that will come out of the current crypto-craze.
- A history of branch prediction from 1500000 BC to 1995 Dan Luu
One of those articles that make me wish I had been a CS/CE major. The things we do to make computers go fast are crazy.
- Who You Gonna Call? (podcast) This American Life
A very meta show, where two of the acts are about radio shows. The prologue was intensely sad. Go call your parents.
- Can You Patent a Steak? (podcast) Planet Money
The patent system is a mess. In this episode, the Planet Money folks try to explain what ideas are and are not patentable. Among others, they discuss beef cuts, and easily snackable variations on chicken wings from non wing parts of the chicken. I listened to this on my way to meet friends for Wing Wednesday, quite fitting.
- John McWhorter on the Evolution of Language and Words on the Move (podcast) EconTalk
An unusual guest for this podcast, discussing culture and language instead of economics. The link, and the reason why this is interesting, is that language is a continually evolving emergent system, just like the economy. No one designed English, or Spanish, and there is no one person dictating what can and can’t be said. Sure, there are bodies like the Real Academia Española, who “oversee” a language, but they can’t stop us from inserting an emoji in the middle of our sentences, or from dropping a whole set of pronouns from normal use. I wish they had spent some time around topics of nation and identity building around language, but otherwise this is one of my favorite EconTalk episodes lately.
- Plastic (podcast) Tim Hartford - 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy
We’ve all seen that scene from The Graduate. Here’s some backround info on the invention of the material. In many ways, I owe a lot of who I am to that one word: “plastics”
- Poetry, music and identity Jorge Drexler - TED.com
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.”
Links - August 10, 2017
- The End of Typing: The Next Billion Mobile Users Will Rely on Video and Voice Eric Bellman - The Wall Street Journal
My experience of technology, and that of most readers of this blog, is one predicated on high speed access, tens, if not hundreds of gigabytes of storage, and last generation processors paired with large amounts of memory. How does the internet work when “fast” means you’re streaming over 2G? What do your apps store when the drive on your phone holds only a couple of gigs? How do you find content your when you’re illiterate? This article doesn’t try (and can’t!) answer these questions, but provides data and anecdotes of why they are questions worth asking.
- Our Broken Economy, in One Simple Chart David Leonhardt - The New York Times
That’s trickle down economics for you. Not only is the US economy growing at a slower rate, but it is also growing extremely unequally. Intuitively, these curves should have negative slopes - it is much easier to find an opportunity to grow $100 into $102 than to turn $1M into $1.02M - so what changed in this complex system that lead us to the current state? Rules over wealth and wages are diverging more and more.
- The Fallacy of Biological Determinism Albert Wenger - Continuations
I have tried to avoid the discussion about the Google memo from last week, so I have read very few articles (and sadly way too many tweets) on the topic. I know I disagree with the author, and reading N think pieces won’t change that, so I’ve tried to shut it off. However, I read almost every post on Continuations, and Albert’s take seems like a sober response: we have overcome economic, historical and technological determinism, so it seems logical that even if the biological determinism implied by Damore (the memo’s author) were real, we could overcome them with… wait for it… technology!
- GAFA's org structures as a platform for growth Benedict Evans
Organizational behavior is insane. Moving thousands of people towards a common goal is hard, and I hadn’t thought about how insane this 10x personnel increase that Evans brings up is. You should listen to the related podcast, and if you haven’t read Sinofsky’s Functional versus Unit Organizations, you should probably do that first.
- Modern American elites have come to favour inconspicuous consumption The Economist
This article argues that “modern American elites recoiled from accumulating mere goods now that globalisation has made them affordable to the middle class” and are instead now spending their money inconspicously - buying experiences, and high social value items instead. I don’t know if I buy the argument, but I guess I’ll have to read the book. I have also been meaning to read Veblen for a while, but that’s a bit denser.
- Fewer Immigrants Mean More Jobs? Not So, Economists Say Binyamin Appelbaum - The New York Times
Usually I am biased when talking about economics, but this argument wouldn’t help me anyway. Letting low skill workers come in help the US, too, as they generate business and grow the pie for everyone else. It’s not a zero sum game.
- English language and American solipsism Branko Milanovic - globalinequality
Is it good for your country that everyone else speaks your language, and that the majority of the population can virtually ignore what’s going on outside its borders? I’ve always argued that it is not. Branko agrees with me. The average American is isolated in their culture. Relatedly, if they can’t find things on maps, they’re less likely to want to use diplomacy as a solution. That’s bad.
- The Eddie Murphy Rule (Podcast) Planet Money
Among other things, this made me think of the opening chapter of Flash Boys, and how the crazy floors of stock and commodity exchanges are not what they used to be. Now I want to go watch Trading Places. (Also, Roman Mars on Planet Money? More of that, please.)
- The Stethoscope (Podcast) 99% Invisible
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.
- City maps from tourists’ feelings Beñat Arregi
Using Airbnb ratings to visualize a visitor’s experience of a city is an interesting idea. Understanding neighborhoods, and social problems (just look at the Tenderloin in the SF visualization!)
Links - August 04, 2017
- Bitcoin Exchange Had Too Many Bitcoins Matt Levine - Bloomberg
Last night my cousin asked me, “wait, so I heard bitcoin split, how does that work?” to which I replied, “it is not quite a split,” and pointed him to this article. The implications of value creation via new blockchains, and how that value affects the pre-existing base is something I had not thought about until now. It might be that inflation in the world of crypto comes from the creation of new chains. A lot of thinking to do about this. Also recommended, Levine’s follow-up “Bitcoin Forks and Unicorn Fakes”. In general, I’ve been enjoying Levine’s writing a lot lately.
- How BuzzFeed’s Tasty Conquered Online Food Farhad Manjoo - The New York Times
I absolutely hate Buzzfeed’s super optimized methods to grab my attention, and knowing that’s the goal I try to avoid their non-investigative content. However, Tasty is a great idea, and it is very well executed. I probably have burned hours of my life looking at their cooking videos, and yet not once have I tried one of their recipes (even though I cook almost every day!). There is just something about melting cheese oozing out or chocolate drizzling that makes you want to keep watching.
- Millennials Unearth an Amazing Hack to Get Free TV: the Antenna Ryan Knutson - The Wall Street Journal
I wonder how much of an actual trend this is. I haven’t paid for cable since I moved to the US, but I also have no interest in local TV, and I don’t think any of my friends do either. Yes, yes, we’re not representative, blah blah, but still. The craziest thing about this is people’s reaction to the fact that some things are free ‘No, you can’t live in America for free, what are you talking about?’ 🙄
- This Is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit Tobias Rose-Stockwell - Medium
The ethics of journalism, and the history of how modern journalism itself came about are interesting topics that I don’t know much about. I should work to change that. In the current historical context, it is important to understand how and why the content we consume is created. This post was a little too consparicy theory heavy for me, and yet I thought it was a worthwhile read. As I mentioned to my friend this weekend, I worry about the future of journalism. Laurene Powell Jobs buying a majority stake in the Atlantic or Bezos buying the Post kind of works in the short term, because their ideologies align with mine, and I kind of trust their intent, but tell me that the Koch brothers are buying the WSJ, and my reaction would be different. Creating incentives to keep the editorial integrity while maintaining a viable business is a tough 21st century problem.
- In ICO utopia, there is no division of labour Izabella Kaminska - FT Alphaville
A good point about governance, shareholder influence, and, in a way, democracy. If the shareholders are idiots, you end up making bad decisions. But if the shareholders are really smart but skilled in a different area, you end up making bad decisions too.
- The Cycles of Cities Tim Taylor - Conversable Economist
Urban economics and gentrification are recurring topics on this blog. This post doesn’t bring much new to the conversation, but the explanation of feedback loops and how the durability of buildings relates to the length of these feedback loops is interesting.
- The company isn’t a family David Heinemeier Hansson - Signal v. Noise
A short post on management. I like DHH’s and Basecamp’s view of people management. I don’t know how closely they follow what they preach, but they seem to assign value to the right things.
- Fear and Loathing in Homer and Rockville (Podcast) This American Life
Fighting over immigration where there is virtually none. The first act, where they talk to a skeptic who tries to educate himself by reading news online, is just amazing.
- Breaking News (Podcast) Radiolab
Who do we trust in a world where everything is falsifiable? I am really curious about how cryptography and provable mathematics could change this. Companies like Keybase are already working on it, but it is far far from mainstream. Even technical people like myself have trouble wrapping our heads around this issue.
- Long Distance (Podcast) Reply All
The first of a two part show. Alex gets a scam phone call, and he follows it to the source.
- Barbed Wire (Podcast) 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy
Links - July 21st, 2017
It seems like this is a post where articles are paired up in some way or another. That didn’t happen on purpose.
- How did usury stop being a sin and become respectable finance? Alex Mayyasi - Aeon
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.
- Apple Prime and the iPhone Pro M.G. Siegler - 500ish Words
It is interesting to think about Apple products as part of a subscription model. M.G. makes good points, none of which I can comment on.
- Wall Street Has Begun to Think About Apple In a New Way Neil Cybart - Above Avalon
And speaking of Apple and things I can’t comment on, here’s some more interesting financial analysis on the company. When I read articles like this one I wish I had paid more attention in my corporate finance classes.
- Why Not Taxation and Representation? Timothy Taylor - Conversable Economist
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.
- Content isn't king Benedict Evans
Holding the keys to the content is not as important as it used to be. Partially, I think this has to do with the fact that the market for content has been totally flooded, an aspect that Evans does not touch at all in his article.
- In Urban China, Cash Is Rapidly Becoming Obsolete Paul Mozur - The New York Times
I would love to spend some time in China and understand how some technologies are being leapfrogged over there. The article reminded me of Charlie Warzel’s cashless Swedish adventure, which I shared when it came out last year, and is totally worth your time. Especially interesting here are the aspects of consumer lock-in to these two companies (Alibaba and Tencent) mobile payment systems, and the lock-out experienced by foreigners.
- Alienation 101 Brook Larmer - 1843 Magazine
As international student who landed in the Midwest for the first time for college, this was interesting. Granted that the cultural differences between the US and China are much larger than those with Costa Rica, but I can still relate to a lot of it. It was much easier to hang out with other Latin American students, and enclose myself in the international bubble, but spending time with people from all around the world, including the US, was one of the highlights of my college experience.
- The Cost of a Hot Economy in California: A Severe Housing Crisis Adam Nagourney and Conor Dougherty - The New York Times
Last night I attended an event about the interaction between technology and housing. As you’d imagine, this is a hot topic in San Francisco. One of the panelists pointed out that unlike other countries, in the US home ownership is seen as an investment, and not as a means of shelter. From her perspective, this philosophy has led regulators to crystallize a perverse set of incentives into law, in order to preserve the value of those investments, at a huge social cost. And I totally agree. When I see all the single-family two story homes in the western side of San Francisco, or the low rise buildings neighboring the downtown area, I just get more convinced that this is a policy issue, not an innovation issue. Having an economic boom should be a good thing!
- Should we build lots more housing in San Francisco? Three reasons people disagree Julia Galef
Disagreeing over the facts, and these levels skepticism over quantitative analysis is almost laughable, but NIMBYs, and other critics of the pro-housing movement do have some good arguments. Here’s a quick summary.
- Trump's Lucky Break on the Economy Justin Fox - Bloomberg View
I have always said that who is president does not matter as much as the historical context, and who that person surrounds themselves with. The fact that things were going well when he got to power means that people shouldn’t be too unhappy (yet!) but they are. What will happen once the economy goes south?
- The Death of a Pig (1948) E.B. White - The Atlantic
Hannah made fun of me for reading this without knowing who E.B. White is. Sometimes, even she forgets that I’m not American, and that I don’t know everything about this culture. I read this essay because it strangely showed up on Hacker News. I still have not decided what I think about it.
- The Ceremony (podcast) Radiolab
I have mixed feelings about the fact that ZCash is on Radiolab. On the one hand, it’s great to see good reporting on cryptocurrencies, and they do a pretty good job of making it accessible to laymen, but on the other hand they hide the math behind mysticism and science. It is ok to explain simplified versions of the concepts, but even the title of the episode gives it a magical connotation that I can’t come to terms with.
- The Golden Era of Productivity, Retail, and Supply Chains (podcast) Marc Levinson, Hanne Tidnam, and Sonal Chokshi - a16z
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.
- Jones Iver - Alex Jones Rants as an Indie Folk Song Nick Lutsko
This is funny, but it is also sad. Sad!
Links - July 2nd, 2017
- Should Startups Care About Profitability? Mark Suster - Both Sides of the Table
Dealing with the trade offs between profits and growth is one of the toughest problems in business. Suster frames his article as “profits vs. growth,” but when he compares companies under different scenarios he’s really talking about the decision of raising VC money to fuel growth, not about picking a plowback ratio. The argument put forward in the post is that the calculus of “cash in hand today” vs. “debt today plus a promise of more cash tomorrow” is not a big question in high margin businesses with “winner takes most” outcomes.
- Getting Past the Dominance of the Nation State Albert Wenger - Continuations
This is one of the topics I keep bringing back in conversations with friends, and which I keep getting made fun of for. People forget that the institution of the nation state as we know it is only a couple centuries old, and that it also replaced a seemingly irreplaceable structure. Reading Imagined Communities (see my notes as I go here) has convinced me that the status quo is fragile, and while it won’t change overnight, there is pressure at both ends to revise it. We’re moving towards globalization, while cities gain prominence and develop as smaller localized units that don’t necessarily respond to “the nation”. Countries will be around for a long time, but I am certain that within my lifetime the power balance will have shifted.
- Health Insurance and the R Word (Redistribution) Albert Wenger - Continuations
Lots of talk these days about insurance these days, for obvious reasons, so here’s another post by Wenger.
- Thoughts on Insurance Aaron Harris - Y Combinator
This one is less about the politics of it, but the actual mechanics. The business of insurance is one of pricing - the better you are at calculating the likelihood of whatever mishaps you are insuring against, the more money you’ll make. Harris explains the various players along the value chain, and discusses how the insurance market is structured.
- Why libertarians should read Marx Chris Dillow - Stumbling and Mumbling
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.
- iPhone Turns Ten Neil Cybart - Above Avalon
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.”
- There Goes the Gayborhood Scott James - The New York Times
Hannah has been reading a lot of books on gentrification lately, so we’ve been discussing the topic more than usual. What is the meaning of gentrification today in these neighborhoods, when the gay population were the original gentrifiers? I live a few blocks away from the Castro, so you could put me in the bad-guys bucket in this story. This is a hot-button issue, and I have no answers on what’s the right way to solve it, but I am convinced the real cause is policy, not the people moving in.
- What can developers learn from being on call? Julia Evans
On call rotations are about aligning incentives. Code that is suspected to have bugs is never merged and pushed to production on a Friday afternoon when the person writing it is on the hook to fix the error over the weekend. In my two years at Apple I have learned a lot about monitoring and logging, and one of the biggest lessons has been to write fool-proof error messages for anyone else in the team to quickly get context and all the information needed to debug without thinking too much. The post is full of other examples.
- The Danger Of Inadvertently Praising Zygomatic Arches Robert Sapolsky - Edge.org
I thought I had posted articles from Edge.org before, but apparently this is a first one! If you haven’t visited their website, you definitely should. Every year they post a broad question, and ask people from a wide range of scientific and technical fields to answer it. In 2013, the question was “What should we be worried about?” and Robert Sapolsky answered with “What really worries me is that it is so hard for virtually anyone to truly act as if there is no free will.” Go read his answer, and then more questions on Edge.
- Revising the Fault Line (Podcasts) Radiolab
And if that was not enough, here’s some more Sapolsky on free will.
- Mexico 68 (Podcast) 99% Invisible
Design meets history, meets civil unrest, meets politics.
- You Should Do a Story (Podcast) 99% Invisible
5 stories in 1. A Standard Oil gas station in San Francisco to comply with trademark law, “desire paths” and how user experience beats designers wishes, 50-Hz vs 60-Hz electrical systems, and a whole section on local design solutions, followed by a strange story about street naming.
- A Not-So-Simple Majority (Podcast) This American Life
Another fight over public governance, funding, and what happens when we can’t agree on what the government should and should not provide. This case on public education is insane. The religious side to this story makes me especially angry.
- Shrimp Fight Club (Podcast) Planet Money
Another fight over public governance, funding, and what happens when… Wait, that’s the same description as the post right above, but here we’re talking about the federal government and funding scientific research.
- A good walk spoiled (Podcast) Revisionist History Podcast
While the episode is framed as an argument against the game of golf, it really is about the strange taxation status of country clubs in California where the game is played. The reason it is specifically about California is Prop 13, and the extremely low property taxes that these clubs pay to the State. Under the proposition, land value is reassessed whenever the majority ownership changes hands, making for a really interesting argument on the nature of ownership under equity membership schemes of the clubs.
- 3D Packing Michael Fogleman
Another fun visualization experiment by Fogleman. How many widgets can one pack in a constrained volume? Math can give you the answer.
Another Great (Podcast) Link Dump - June 2017 June 15, 2017
- The Quiet Master of Cryptocurrency — Nick Szabo Tim Ferriss Podcast
I generally can’t stand Tim Ferriss, but this is a good episode. Nick’s blog is great (if you haven’t read him, start here).
- Extra: Henrietta Lacks Radiolab
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.
- Funky Hand Jive Radiolab
Microbiomes are interesting. It’s odd to think that so much of our life is defined by bacteria.
- Squatters of the Lower East Side 99% Invisible
Planning urban development is hard, and sometimes, the unplanned spontaneous decisions of many lead us to interesting places that central planning couldn’t reach.
- Reversing the Grid 99% Invisible
I had never thought about the political implications about generating electricity at home. This episode discusses “net-metering,” or the billing mechanism that allows someone with PV panels on their roof to get credit for generating more electricity than they consume. How did it come about? Some guy plugged his PV panels into his meter, and it started going backwards!
- Speed Dating For Economists Planet Money
This makes the idea of getting an economics PhD even less appealing than it already was. The fact that even the people who arguably know the most about how markets function can’t build a better matching market.
- Spreadsheets! Planet Money
It’s ridiculous to think that spreadsheets were so revolutionary only a few years ago.
- Slot Flaw Scofflaws Planet Money
Is it illegal to study how a system works, to the point that you understand it so well that you can exploit it? No, that’s the whole point of open source software. Patch the issue, give the gray hat his bounty, and move on.
- Passports 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy
This series of podcasts by Tim Harford has given us strong history lessons, telling us why things are the way they are. This specific episode though, focuses more on asking whether any of it makes sense “From a certain angle, it is odd. Many countries take pride in banning employers from discriminating against among workers based on characteristics we can’t change: whether we’re male or female, young or old, gay or straight, black or white. […] But mostly our passport depends on the identity of our parents and location of our birth. And nobody chooses those.” Somehow, this seems ok in our modern mind set - it is all a game of Us & Them.
- What Kind of Idiot Gets Phished? Reply All
Lately I have been more paranoid than usual about this, and I am considering changing how I handle my password management all together, and even buying a YubiKey for personal use. This episode just backs that feeling even more.
- Blockchain Beauty Contest Exponent
If you think about it hard enough, everything is made up. Countries, money, companies, the constitution, everything! And, blockchains, too…
Another Great Link Dump - June 2017 June 15, 2017
Ha. And here I was thinking I’d post links more often… My stats say that while I used to read roughly 10-12 articles a day, these days I am barely hitting 5. My yearly rolling average peaked in mid-2016.
To be honest, I am not sure what to make of it.
This round-up is full of Apple stuff, so not too many comments on my end, but sharing some interesting perspectives. There’s also a ton on cryptocurrencies, because that’s the latest craze in tech, and I have also been following along.
- A Brief History of the UUID Rick Branson - Segment Blog
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.
- Apple Isn't a Tech Company Neil Cybart - Above Avalon
- A Year of Google Maps & Apple Maps Justin O'Beirne
- Actually good Silicon Valley critiques? Noah Smith - Noahpinion
While Noah lives in San Francisco, he’s not really a Silicon Valley insider, so seeing his reaction to Scott Alexander’s Reality Check was interesting. His take? “All in all, Silicon Valley represents one of the least objectionable, most rightfully respected institutions in America today.”
- Tulips, Myths, and Cryptocurrencies Ben Thompson - Stratechery
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.
- Bringing back the Somali shilling JP Koning - Moneyness
And if you really thought fiat is valuable, think again.
- Blockchains are the new Linux, not the new internet Jon Evans - TechCrunch
Evans with the counter-narrative: “It’s easy to envision how and why an interwoven mesh of dozens of decentralized blockchains could slowly, over a period of years and years, become a similar category of crucial infrastructure […] while ordinary people remain essentially blissfully unaware of their existence.” Ah, and nice Fred Wilson burn. I also thought the Rare Pepe story was nuts.
- The consequences of allowing a cryptocurrency takeover, or trying to head one off Tony Yates - FT Alphaville (Paywall)
What are the implications of crypto for central banking? The written-in-stone aspect of the blockchain makes monetary policy way more credible, which is a good thing, but at the same time crypto knows no borders, making adjustments by one group of users spill over to others quite easily. A more in depth look here.
- Chicago taxi industry sliding towards collapse Aamer Madhani - USA Today
The writing has been on the wall for a while - is not a surprise - but the numbers are staggering: “42% of Chicago’s taxi fleet was not operating in the month of March […] The average monthly income per active medallion has dipped from $5,276 in January 2014 to $3,206 […] medallions hit a median sales peak of $357,000 in late 2013, just before Uber arrived on the scene in Chicago. In April, one medallion sold for just $35,000.”
- Buyer Beware Fred Wilson - AVC
Initial coin offerings (ICOs) are all the rage these days. Some people will get screwed in this process, and I am staying away from buying any ERC20 tokens for a good chunk of time.
- Options vs. cash Dan Luu
A couple of years ago, right after my college graduation, I was very close to going the startup route, but ended up joining Apple instead. With hindsight, I can tell that financially the decision is a no-brainer: Cash is cash.
- Is the United States Becoming Less of an Optimal Currency Area? David Beckworth - Macro Musings
Currency areas, and defining regional economies is one of my long-time favorite topics. There is a trend in the US towards lower labor mobility, which has deep implications for the economy. Historically, if an economic shock hit a state like Oklahoma, its citizens would respond by migrating to California, where things were better. This is no longer the case. As this trend continues, the business cycles of different zones in the country may start to diverge, and at that point the monetary policy set by the Fed might stop making sense.
- Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich Richard V. Reeves - The New York Times
A note on inequality, since that’s another recurring theme here.
- When Pixels Collide sudoscript
If you haven’t heard about Reddit’s April’s Fools experiment from earlier this year, you need to read this. Emergent behavior is awesome.
- Alpha (A translation of Genesis 1) Douglas Summer Stay - Llamas And My Stegosaurus
We’re training our computers to do some really strange things. This one translated Genesis 1 to only use words that start with the letter “A.”
The Great Link Dump of April 2017 April 24, 2017
It has been a linkless month, so here’s a brain dump.
Links - March 26, 2017
- Why does Donald Trump demonize cities? Will Wilkinson - The Washington Post
This article was awesome. The basic idea it tries to get across is that because cities are multicultural and inclusive, they are also more productive. This vision of the city as a bastion of openness and tolerance, unlike the insular rural communities that voted for Trump, is not new, but the post sparked some interesting conversation online. For example see Noah Smith’s, Ross Douthat’s and Chris Arnade’s takes.
- The Disqus Demo Day Story Fred Wilson - AVC
It is always good to hear these insider views of how companies got started. Much like Airbnb selling Obama-O’s, or Drew Houston forgetting his USB drive, these origin myths are just that, stories, but they reinforce the idea that all you need to start a startup is to solve a pain point.
- Complexity and Strategy Terry Crowley - Hackernoon
Thinking about technical complexity as a moat is interesting, especially considering the initial discussion about “the shape of the cost-functionality curve.” I definitely believe that there are increasing costs to adding functionality, or as the author says “Features interact — intentionally — and that makes the cost of implementing the N+1 feature closer to N than 1.” This is exactly why a startup can come up with a simple product and blow a big co out of the water. They don’t have to worry about how all the other pieces in the business - and in the code! - interact with each other.
- The eigenvector of "Why we moved from language X to language Y" Erik Bernhardsson
Stochastic modeling is a really cool topic, and here we see it applied to the transitions between programming languages.
- What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists? Neil Irwin - The New York Times
This is another version of Noah Smith’s Beware of Thinking like an Economist. Here the argument is “there are certain problems that only sociologists can solve,” which is probably just as bad. However, the historical aspect is interesting, especially the fact that there could have been a Council of Social Advisers.
- How the Internet Is Saving Culture, Not Killing It Farhad Manjoo - The New York Times
Nothing about Farhad’s argument seems controversial to me. There are still unsolved problems in the vein of “finding a needle in a haystack” where separating signal from noise has become increasingly difficult, but the expansion of content produced by humans can only be a good thing. If we trust that willingness to pay will somehow sort out the good vs. bad content problem in the long run, we’re headed in the right direction.
- The Problem With Facts Tim Harford
Starting with the case of Big Tobbaco vs. Medicine in the 50s and 60s, and continuing with Trump and Brexit, Harford makes an argument against ignorance. Agnotology, “the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced,” is a really interesting concept that I had never heard of. The punchline is that we need to get people excited about learning, and make them curious about the world in which they live in, so that they seek out truth on their own. Not an easy endeavor.
- Ask A Grown-Up This American Life
Life somehow keeps teaching us that we have no idea what we’re doing. “Growing up” is about learning from your experiences, but there are always new mistakes to make.
- Public key cryptography 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy
All new technology can be seen as a double edge sword. Luckily, crypto wasn’t killed by the US government.
- The Russian Passenger Reply All
- Sorry for the delayed response Susanna Wolff - The New Yorker
This happens daily to me. Sorry. Not sorry.
Links - March 15, 2017
- Voice and the uncanny valley of AI Benedict Evans
Like I said last time Evans wrote about this, “voice interfaces seem to be adding more friction than they take away.” Changing people’s habits is hard. I constantly prompt my Echo by saying “Hey Siri,” and find myself thinking of ways to phrase my questions to make them intelligible by the machines. Once or twice a week I get developer emails about “What’s New With Alexa,” but after many months my Echo only acts as a gateway to Spotify, and a party trick whenever there are guests. Voice might be the new platform, but it is nowhere near.
- What Do Economists Actually Know? Russ Roberts - NewCo Shift
The issue with modeling of any kind is that there are no alternative realities to compare against. We can only measure what we see, and by definition there are no counterfactuals, nor what-ifs. Making policy decisions under this state of affairs is hard, and the only thing we can do about it is internalize this limitation, knowing that we could be very wrong. Statistical analysis is a tool, and like any other tool, it is succeptible to operator error.
- If There Are an Infinite Number of Parallel Universes, Some Must Be Terrible Places Dean Zimmerman - Nautilus
I disagree with the author’s position, but thinking of when the problem of evil meets 21st century math and science is fascinating.
- Patagonia and The North Face: saving the world – one puffer jacket at a time Marisa Meltzer - The Guardian
Good reads on the history of large well-known retailers are not usual, as most stories in the genre end up with a strong PR flavor. This article, by virtue of showing the origin stories of two seemingly rival companies at once, achieves a good balance.
- Improving U.S. Healthcare and Coverage Stephen Cecchetti and Kermit Schoenholtz - Money, Banking and Financial Markets
Americans are exceptional in their very own ways. This whole healthcare story is a fiasco, and I am amazed that the American people have allowed it to go this long.
- White supremacism is not nationalism Noah Smith - Noahpinion
I am reading Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and Noah’s arguments in this blog post fit right into the framework that Anderson proposes at the beginning of his book. Nations are made up. Expect a blog post about this soon.
- Triple Pendulum CHAOS! Jake VanDerPlas - Pythonic Perambulations
When I look at demos like these, I wish I had kept learning about differential equations after sophomore year of college. Complexity is awesome, and being able to model these crazy patterns with only a few lines of code would be great.
- Update: CRISPR Radiolab
The cutting edge of biological research gets more interesting, and more scary, the more I learn about it. Researchers are uncovering really powerful building blocks, but we have very little understanding of the complex relationships in the whole system. The ethical considerations discussed in the last part of this episode are especially worth listening to.
- Hacking The iPhone For Fun, Profit, And Maybe Espionage Planet Money
Something I will never understand is how someone can enjoy poring over low level buffer management for hours to find an overflow condition or some obscure vulnerability. Luckily some people like watching water boil with their white hats on, and do it for the greater good, too.
Links - March 13th, 2017
- Why All Exchange Rates Are Bad Timothy Taylor - Conversable Economist
The Trilemma makes it so that whatever policy a government decides to follow, it must be an active choice. Currency manipulation towards a stronger, weaker, more stable, or more volatile currency is a choice, and there is no default. Like everything else in economics, and the world we live in, it is a choice about tradeoffs, and understanding who gains and who loses (and by how much!) is the key to the issue.
- A Big Little Idea Called Legibility Venkatesh Rao - Ribbonfarm
I am currently reading several books at once, and one of them is Seeing Like a State. So far, the book has presented a bunch of ideas about the inner workings of what the author calls high modern states. In this post, Rao (who is not the author of the book) summarizes one of the most interesting ideas in the book so far: legibility, or reorganizing society to make it more understandable, and thus more governable.
- President Trump Wants a Wall? Mexico Is It Eduardo Porter - The New York Times
The average American has no clue of how immigration policy and actual immigration patterns work. Understanding how much effort other countries put into helping the US keep illegal immigrants at bay could be helpful in the current climate.
- The Uber Conflation Ben Thompson - Stratechery
2017 gave Uber a rough start. In an unusual post, Ben argues for a change of leadership, focusing on two questions: ‘Is Uber’s approach to regulation wrong?’ and ‘Is Uber wrong with regards to the specific issue at the center of this controversy?’
- Brains, Bodies, Minds... and Techno-Religions a16z Podcast
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.
- Crafts, Garicano, and Zingales on the Economic Future of Europe EconTalk
Having Russ Roberts and one of his guests debate on economic topics is fun. Having him and another three guests? Even better.
Links - March 12th, 2017
This post has been sitting half-baked on my draft list for far too long. In an effort to motivate myself, and to write more, I decided to post it as is and move on. My apologies to the authors of the uncommented links.
- Manifestos and Monopolies Ben Thompson - Stratechery
It has been interesting to see Ben apply aggregation theory to politics more and more. I agree with the views presented in this article about centralization (or lack thereof), regulation (or lack thereof), and market solutions (or lack thereof).
- Surfing, metrics and creation: Facebook and Snap Benedict Evans
Since Snap’s S1 came out a couple of weeks ago, everyone has been discussing whether moats exists or not. The fact that their whole thesis revolves around the disintegration of sustained competitive advantages is fascinating. Evans’ index fund analogy adds an interesting idea to the mix: Facebook, Instagram, and Google must reflect reality and serve billions, while Snapchat will aim to create N things, each worthwhile to M million people, such that N*M becomes significant while not overtaking the role of the index.
- Segregation Had to Be Invented Alana Semuels - The Atlantic
Not surprisingly, the past is different than we think it was. Thinking of the rise of segregation as a relatively new phenomenon is odd.
- Hyphen-Nation Bayeté Ross Smith - The New York Times
A great set of interviews. I constantly think about this topic of where identities overlap and how people view themselves vs. how they are sseen by others. More so these days. Belonging, otherness, and these social dynamics are very intriguing.
- How did Europe become the richest part of the world? Joel Mokyr - Aeon
- "Incentives" as bigotry Chris Dillow - Stumbling and Mumbling
- People Actually Use Food Stamps to Buy More Food Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
- Clock 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy
Links - February 16, 2017
Unintentionally, there’s a lot of money/banking/finance content in this post. At least its not all about Trump, right?
- The Future of the Euro Stephen Cecchetti and Kermit Schoenholtz - Money, Banking and Financial Markets
“Markets price risk, not hope.” In times like these, I wish I understood international finance better.
- Money, blockchains, and social scalability Nick Szabo - Unenumerated
I have previously discussed Szabo, and his view on human institutions as “trust-offloading mechanisms.” In a way, money is the ultimate trust-offloading abstraction. Until the last few years, money – American Dollars, the Euro, or the Costa Rican Colon – still relied on trusting several points of failure – states, the payments networks, the certificate authorities – and our human interactions simply assumed those costs. Bitcoin and the internet have started to changed that, and further developments in technology promise much more. This is a post I’ll probably re-read again soon.
- Money as a Commons: Basic Income, Demurrage and Crypto Currencies Albert Wenger - Continuations
Something that surpised me about monetary policy rules when I studied them in college was how much their usefulness depended on people’s expectations of their usefulness. Individual agents’ beliefs on the predictability and stability of a state’s decisions about its monetary policies were the fulcrum of all the models we studied in these intermediate economics classes. Thinking about how these rules can be baked into a crypto currency, such as bitcoin’s pre-defined velocity rule, or freicoin’s holding fees, is really interesting. Like Albert, I’m excited about these experiments.
- Snap's Apple Strategy Ben Thompson - Stratechery
I have seen the Snap <=> Apple narrative popping up over and over across the web. Except for the “obsessive-design-focused-mission-driven-CEO” story, which I can’t really ascertain (and neither can the media!) , I haven’t really seen any good arguments to back it up. Ben comes the closest, but doesn’t quite convince me either. The Facebook <=> Microsoft analogy is much more believable, given the market conditions. I am bullish on Snapchat, and I am enjoying my spectacles (a different blog post soon?) but we’ll have to wait and see how this one plays out.
- What We Don’t Do Fred Wilson - AVC
Thinking about this on a personal level is interesting. I know what my goals for the year are, to a certain level, but what are things that I should specifically not focus on? After all, focus means “saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”
- Understanding Python Class Instantiation Amir Rachum
These one-off explanations of snippets of source code are always enlightening. Coding seems like magic, until you discover that there is not magic, just layers upon layers of well thought out abstractions, each one understandable on its own, but magical as a whole.
- Square-Mile Street Network Visualization Geoff Boeing
Urban development is super interesting, and thinking of how cities work by looking at their layouts is a good exercise. I wish I had worked more with geographic data while I was in the Apple Maps team. This seems like a neat library, and the fact that it is based on networkx makes me even more curious. There might be a side project brewing here.
- Anthony Bourdain's Moveable Feast Patrick Radden Keefe - The New Yorker
My friend Dana had already recommended that I read Kitchen Confidential, but after reading this, it got bumped up a few notches on my to-do list. Parts Unknown, Bourdain’s show, is one of my go-to “half an hour to kill” shows on Netflix. It is very entertaining, and it makes an effort to show more than just the food of foreign lands. As the article describes, there is a layer of political complexity to the show that is unusual for its kind. Make half an hour to read this, and then make another one to watch an episode of the show.
- Bitcoin, the Blockchain, and Freedom in Latin America Russ Roberts and Jim Epstein - EconTalk
The confluence of artificially cheap electricity, price controls on imported goods, and hyper-inflation are making Bitcoin more and more mainstream in places like Venezuela. While the great majority of the population probably has no idea of what cryptocurrencies are, or how to use them, it is really interesting to hear about how the fringe slowly drifts.
- Billy Bookcase 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy
There is a comment I especially liked here about how “…innovation in the modern economy isn’t just about snazzy new technologies, but boringly efficient systems. The Billy bookcase is not innovative in the way the iPhone is innovative. The innovations are about working within the limits of production, and logistics, finding tiny ways to shave more off the cost…” The iPhone example is coincidental, I’m sure, but I immediately went to “this is the argument against Tim Cook.” It is hard to appreciate how much of today’s Apple is dependent on the advanced supply chain operation that the company has built. Pushing atoms is also innovation.
Links - February 12th, 2017
This is a podcast heavy list. I have been reading plenty of books lately (this year I’ve already finished 4, and I’m partially through 3!), so I’ve been spending more and more time on podcast land. There are a couple of programm-y things, but everything else is sadly about Politics.
- Government Economists Are Going to Produce Statistics Trump Doesn't Like Gene B. Sperling - The Atlantic
Data are the base on which we assess the validity of any policy, and on which we can measure the success or failure of ideas. When China announces growth numbers, no one believes them. Can the US potentially get to the same situation?
- How to Spot Visualization Lies Nathan Yau - Flowing Data
Facts don’t need to be alternative to make you arrive at the wrong conclusions.
- So You Want to Move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem? Here’s How Daniel Shapiro - Foreign Policy
When I went back home, I was amazed by how many of my friends and family were convinced that having Trump in the White House was a good idea just for this. Someone with a little more experience tells us how simple the process would be.
- This is the Republican plot to kill the US corporate income tax as we know it Tim Fernholz - Quartz
The headline is a bit click-baity, but the content is good. Tax reform is not a bad idea. At face value, this variation on the VAT seems good, but to be honest I don’t understand the full implications yet. This Planet Money episode tries to explain the same idea from a different, lighter angle. If you have other good explanations on this topic, please send them my way.
- Senior Republican statesmen propose replacing Obama’s climate policies with a carbon tax Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin - The Washington Post
I am very much in favor of a carbon tax. However, there is no way that the right kind of carbon tax will be instituted given Trump and friends’ stance on the fossil fuel industry. It’s not like the Secretary of State is the ex-chariman and CEO of the world’s largest refinery business. While Rex Tillerson might have said that a carbon tax is the best possible policy, there is no reason to believe that the government will curb the industry as much as it should.
- The Dirichlet is a Mixed Bag (of Nuts) Justin Bozonier - Data Bozo
Using short code snippets, and a bag of mixed nuts as the motivating example, Bozonier explains a complex probabilty concept.
- Buggy Software, Loyal Users: Why Bug Reporting is Key To User Retention Itamar Turner-Trauring - Code Without Rules
Filing bugs sucks, every time, but few things are as satisfying as getting a message that says “this will be fixed in the next build!” and feeling like you’re helping improve a system that you actively use. Whether it is opening an issue on an open source project, or filing a Radar for a different team at Apple, the less I have to think about how to report a bug, the more likely it is that I will continue using your software, and helping you improve it.
- George Borjas on Immigration and We Wanted Workers EconTalk
Understanding that the economy is not a zero sum game is essential when talking about immigration. Borjas and Roberts describe the short and long term implications of the demographic changes that are tied to immigration, not just on the economic side, but also in terms of culture.
- Michael Munger on the Basic Income Guarantee EconTalk
Lately I have been coming back to the Veil of Ignorance and how morality can be defined in terms of the choices we’d make behind it. If we did not know in which part of society we’ll fall, our policy choices would be very different. This can apply at the level of a city dealing with its poor, a country dealing with its healthcare system, or the international community dealing with its refugees. The idea of a basic income guarantee is gaining more and more steam, and I think this Rawlsian exercise can help us understand why.
- Jesus Fernandez-Villaverde on European Economic History and Macroeconomic Modeling Macro Musings
I especially liked the section on why people remember hyperinflations, but not financial crises. Essentially, the argument is that hyperinflations affect anyone with savings. A financial crisis, on the other hand, can make you better off in real terms — as long as you keep your job.
- It’s Working Out Very Nicely This American Life
By far, act two was the best part of this episode. The Trump Administration’s rhetoric implies that the current vetting system for immigration into the US is leaky, and useless. The wording of the executive order is one of “taking first steps,” while “extreme vetting” suggests that the current implementation is not strong enough. Hearing the opinion of one the interviewers who actually take part in the vetting process shows how naïve the narratives coming out of the White House can be.
- Cars and Cities, the Autonomy Edition a16z Podcast
What happens to our urban environments when car culture goes away? What kind of businesses are enabled due to autonomous vehicles?
- If Economists Controlled The Borders Planet Money
More on immigration. This episode includes three interviews with three economists with very different views. First, Dean Baker, whose suggestion is that the US should open its borders for high skilled individuals, such as doctors, engineers, scientists, etc. The most interesting part of his argument is that he’d like to make it mandatory for these individuals to repatriate some of their income, and so improve their home-countries in return for the brain-drain. Next, Giovanni Peri makes an argument for an auction based system, in which companies bid for the most lucrative candidates. This is a system I’d be against. For starters, how would we control for living cost in different areas of the country? And importantly, money is not a good measure of how valuable a job is. Last, Alex Nowrasteh, whose proposal most aligns with my views: make it a free for all.
Links - January 31, 2017
The Trump Administration has been giving me lots of reasons to read on topics that I otherwise would not read about. I want to spend less time on social media trying to parse truth and facts out of the endless stream of articles, but it feels like I have to.
- Every day, there’s an all new you Robert Sapolsky - SavannahNow
The future exists, and we have a lot ahead of us. Let’s remember that.
- Standards Persist Drew Bell - Track Changes
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!”
- Continental Rift Joshua Kucera - Roads & Kingdoms
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.”
- Time to Take a Stand Sam Altman
- Rules for a constitutional crisis Lawrence Lessig - Medium
The Consitution, Senate, Congress, are all institutions, and institutions are just people. We don’t live in a world of self-enforcing mechanics and contracts. We live in a world where rules and expectations put in place by people are enforced by people.
- How Donald Trump Could Build an Autocracy in the U.S. David Frum - The Atlantic
We’ve seen this before around the world. Let’s use those lessons.
- How To Get Your Green Card In America Sarah Matthews - BuzzFeed News
This was originally published a full year before the election. Coming here legally is not an easy process. Even though Oman and Costa Rica are so different, I see myself, and echoes of my experience in the US in a lot of these stories.
- I'm Loyal to Nothing Except the Dream Jeff Atwood - Coding Horror
Links - January 22, 2017
The new year has received me with a lot of reading, but of the dead tree variety. I’m halfway with books #3 and #4 of the year by now. I guess an unexpected trip, and an even more unexpected stay in Costa Rica helped too.
- Metaphors We Compute By Alvaro Videla
Language matters. Names shape how we think. This is as important in computer science as in any other field. We talk about queues and stacks and bugs and patches, not because we like jargon, but because metaphors are the only way we can get complex ideas across quickly. Communication is the hardest thing about software engineering, and pretty much any human endeavor. Picking the right metaphors can ease our job significantly, and shed light on how others have solved the same problems in the past.
- San Francisco Asks: Where Have All the Children Gone? Thomas Fuller - The New York Times
There are a slew of insane facts in this piece. For example, San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children of any of the largest 100 cities in the US. The rate for San Francisco is 13%, for New York is 21%, and for Chicago, 23%, which is also the overall average across the United States. The number of dogs is roughly the same as the number of kids: 120k. There is one additional student enrolled in the public school system for every 100 apartments sold in the city. The public school system has shrunk by 40% since 1970. More than 10 private schools have opened in San Francisco since 2009. This city really makes no sense.
- The Department of Homeland Security International Entrepreneur Rule Fred Wilson - AVC
Very excited for this. Hoping to take advantage of it at some point in the future.
- Dismissing Python Garbage Collection at Instagram Chenyang Wu and Min Ni - Instagram Engineering Blog
I’ve never even thought that disabling garbage collection could be a sensible option. It’s always fun to see how people can take a deep-dive into the inner workings of their toolchain and come out with this kind of performance boost. Questioning basic assumptions can be a good idea.
- Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours. The Upshot - The New York Times
Another great data visualization project out of the NYT’s “analytical journalism” desk, this time about the relationship between education and economic mobility. Finding your school is really easy. Here’s Northwestern, for example. There are no surprises: the numbers are stark, as expected.
- Looking for commonality among HTTP request APIs Brett Cannon - Tall, Snarky Canadian
When Brett started posting a bunch of polls on how people use various Python libraries for HTTP requests, I knew he was up to something good.
- The Sound of Silence Jessica Livingston
This post has been making rounds on tech twitter, and several of the newsletters I follow shared it, too. I wholeheartedly disagree with Jessica here, which is exactly why I wanted to share this. I think Anil Dash’s response summarizes my thoughts well.
Links - January 09, 2017
- The Ten Year Anniversary of the Apple TV Ben Thompson - Stratechery
Ten years ago today, Steve Jobs unveiled two products that could change the world. One did. The other one was the Apple TV. Ben reminds us that how much he’s idolized, “it’s worth remembering that even Steve Jobs hedged his bets.”
- Grappling With My Family’s Identity in a Post-'Brexit' Europe Katrin Bennhold - The New York Times
It is too easy to start listing groups which you identify with. The author talks about her family, and their identities. What does it mean for her to be European, when she’s faced with the contrast between her spouse’s Welsh-ness and her own German-ness? What does it mean to have a name, or a passport? More importantly, what will it mean in 10 years, or 20?
- Why read old philosophy? Katja Grace - Meteuphoric
I had never thought about how Philosophy is studied in such a different way than pretty much any other discipline. What does this tell us about how we should study science, or how we should teach mathematics?
- Reserves Fred Wilson - AVC
While obviously biased, Fred has good points about the importance of having experienced venture capitalists backing your company. I knew that reserves, and follow-up rounds, were an important aspect of the business, but its always good to understand the mechanics in a deeper way.
- The Economics of Fake News Matthew E. Kahn - Environmental and Urban Economics
It is easy to draw a matrix to group the cases of what might be fake news, based on the belief of its publisher and its consumer. It is a simple confusion matrix, where the only quadrant we should really worry about is the one where “the supplier knows the story is false but the demander believes the story is true.” Kahn exposes important issues about the economic environment in which a market for fake news might arise.
- Entrepreneurship Is Intellectual Immigration Brad Feld - Feld Thoughts
A quick read. The idea of moving away from your comfort zone, and perpetually moving towards new things is definitely an appealing one to most entrepreneurs.
Links - January 7, 2017
2017 is off to a busy start. After posting on books I read last year, gathering links from the year before that, and sharing photos of my last trip it is about time I curate some fresh links. Enjoy:
- Things as authorities Nick Szabo - Unenumerated
Humans have learned to defer decision making and process to “things” since time immemorial. The main goal of this is to offload brain cycles into simple rules, and ease our interactions with the world around us. Szabo brings up examples like clocks ands traffic lights, which enable coordination between humans that would require way more effort otherwise. We can also think of learned heuristics, encoded in folklore and religion, as other means of offloading. Clocks ease friction as long as we agree on their time, just like ideas of good and evil ease friction as long as we agree on their base truth. Clocks and religion are trust-offloading mechanisms.
- Why Hayek Was not a Conservative David Glasner - Uneasy Money
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.
- The Age of Fake Policy Paul Krugman - The New York Times
The perverse effects of signaling becoming more important than reality.
- Why Many Young Russians See a Hero in Putin Julia Ioffe - National Geographic
I’d say this title is misleading. The article really is about the world views and identities built by young Russians since the break up of the Soviet Union. The author focuses especially on those in rural areas, who long for more urban lifestyles, even if that means a lower standard of living. In many ways, the story isn’t that different from that of the US.
- World War Three, by Mistake Eric Schlosser - The New Yorker
The scary story of the 1960s technology that manages the world’s nuclear arsenal. They had TDD back then, right?
- Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People Maciej Cegłowski - Idle Words
There are way more immediate ethical issues with AI than “oh noes, it’s going to kill us!”. We can keep researching and building better systems, and in fact I’d argue we should, but instead of thinking about how to regulate the companies’ ability to kill us, we should regulate their ability to collect data indefinitely, as we don’t know where it will land. I am more scared of humans than machines.
- A Bigger Problem Than ISIS? Dexter Filkins - The New Yorker
It’d be great if governments, and whoever is striving for power could care about real problems. “A dam in Mosul that’s about to fail and potentially could kill a million people” sounds like a bigger issue than “those westerners are teaching us their disgraceful customs and insulting our god!” Kinda like how gun violence in the US is a bigger problem than bombs on airplanes.
- There is No Now Justin Sheehy - ACM Queue
Time is complicated, especially in massively distributed computing systems. I’d love to understand this topic better. If you have recommendations on what else to read, please let me know.
- Alexa: Amazon’s Operating System Ben Thompson - Stratechery
I have had an Echo for several months now, and I still see it as a gimmick, but I understand why the strategy behind the device has so much going for it. Amazon is building a platform that makes a lot of sense, but the technology isn’t quite there yet. It’ll be interesting to see this pan out.
- Jeremy Heavyweight
I recently tweeted that about one of Gimlet’s new podcasts, Heavyweight, calling it “Curb Your Enthusiasm, podcast version”. Stories about people, told in a really fun way. This one is about young people developing their identities, and grappling with their religious beliefs. Two stories about two people who met as they were going in opposite directions 30 years ago, meeting again today.
- The Last Bank Bailout Planet Money
A story about the most recent crisis, and how Neel Kashkari, who worked at the Treasury at the time, and is now the president and CEO of the Minneapolis Fed, plans to avoid the next one. As the podcast put it, the fact that Bernie Sanders and the WSJ editorial board agree that Kashkari’s proposal is a good way to move forward means that there is some intellectually solid ground in it.
Links - December 13, 2016
- Increasing Returns and the New World of Business (1996) Brian Arthur - Harvard Business Review
Twenty years after this article was published, both academia and industry are still struggling to understand the implications of increasing returns, network effects, and zero marginal costs. It is good to take a step back, and see how a view from the past can improve our understanding of business dynamics today.
- Building a Prison-to-School Pipeline Larissa MacFarquhar - The New Yorker
If we truly believed that prisons are about reformation, and correction, our systems would be set up differently. Here’s a glimpse into the lives of a few people who made it through and turned their lives around.
- Economists Pretend They Don't Pick Winners and Losers Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
Normative economics, and therefore normative policies, are more prevalent than we would all like to admit. In Noah’s lead example (the US opening trade with a poor country) he talks about two sides: the consumers, who get cheaper goods, and the workers, whose jobs are lost to globalization. Ultimately though, there is one more group missing in this tale, and it is presumably that of the biggest winners: the citizens of the poor country, whose economic gain from such a trade deal would disproportionately improve their standard of living. “What ought to be” is a matter of identity politics, and we ought to remember that identity can also be defined by a nation-state.
- AI and Competition Policy Joshua Gans - Digitopoly
How does pricing strategy work in a world where decisions are programmatic, and therefore can’t be viewed through the lens of traditional game theory or antitrust case law? Can you blame a supplier who “sets and forgets” his pricing scheme, and somehow ends up selling a book for $23,698,655.93 (+$3.99 shipping)? Interesting times are ahead.
- Money and Banking Josh Hendrickson - The Everyday Economist
“You might be able to teach an entire course on the microeconomics of money and banking based on the following thought experiment” might be an overblown claim, but this is definitely a good way to introduce the topic. While most people these days are aware of the “fiat-ness” of money, or its imaginary value, the money creation process is a few logical jumps away that few actually take.
- Functional versus Unit Organizations Steven Sinofsky - Learning by Shipping
A treatise on the nature of companies, organizational structures, and getting things done when there are thousands of independently moving pieces. Throughout my four years in college, I mocked the idea of a major in “learning and organizational change.” I still do, except now it’s for a different reason: even with years and years of experience, and several real products under their belt, managers can only have a sliver of the picture. People are the hard part about management.
- As Trumplethinskin lets down his hair for tech, shame on Silicon Valley for climbing the Tower in silence Kara Swisher - Recode
The leaders of our industry are not bending their knee. At least not yet. Take it from Dave Pell: <a href="https://medium.com/@davepell/why-they-sort-of-have-to-go-77535544d2bd">they sort of have to go.</a> The real question is what will happen after the meeting, but Swisher got an important part right: “fuckfuckfuck.”
- This Man Will Teach You How to Cook Gilad Edelman - Slate
In cooking, like in everything else, the basic skills are much more important than the recipes and the tutorials. It is a matter of learning, and of putting in the hours. After reading this, I went on a youtube binge.
- 1213486160 has a friend: 1195725856 Rachel By The Bay
Links - December 07, 2016
- What do cows want? Jayson Lusk
Measuring a farm animal’s utility is an interesting exercise. Choice is not only a human problem.
- This Is What Happens When Millions Of People Suddenly Get The Internet Sheera Frenkel - BuzzFeed News
A fascinating story about figurative walls coming down. It made me think a lot about the inadequacy of the label “third world.” Coming from Costa Rica, which has the highest internet access rate in Latin America, the experiences told in this story are shocking. Widespread definitions and categorizations sometimes don’t make sense.
- Even Trump Is a Keynesian Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
Tax cuts, and infrastructure spending are good ideas, but will he actually put them in motion?
- The hardest problem in computer science Eevee (Lexy Munroe) - fuzzy notepad
I’d wager that this is the hardest problem in all human endeavors, and not just in CS. Communication is hard, and while language helps us share our ideas, it is nearly impossible to be sure that the message we wanted to get across was properly conveyed.
- I, Pencil Leonard E. Read - Library of Economics and Liberty
The fact that anything works is crazy. Making pencils is nearly impossible, and yet, there is probably a store within a couple of blocks from you where you can get one, along with N other more complex items.
- Swift and the Legacy of Functional Programming Rob Napier - Realm.io
While I am not a swift-er yet (is that a thing?) I am slowly picking up functional programming, and I find the ideas in this talk quite valuable.
- Prop 13, or, California's Progressive Blindspot Illuminated Diego Aguilar-Canabal - Bay Area Metropolitan Observer
- Knowledge Builds Technology and Technology Builds Knowledge a16z Podcast
In this interview wit Joel Mokyr, Sonal Chokshi and the a16z team bring historical perspective into today’s economic environment. Building new things is easier when you have an understanding of the past. The episode reminded me of why I should have taken Mokyr’s class at NU, instead of signing up for an awful data structures course.
- The History Of Light Planet Money
Right up there with “I, Pencil” and the story of economic complexity, we have the story of economic growth. Consider this a case study.
Links - November 20, 2016
I am actively trying to de-emphasize content about Trump, and the election, but it is tough. Expect to find traces and parallels to these themes for the next few months.
- A Bad Carver Sarah Perry - Ribbonfarm
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.
- A Country Is Not A Company (1996) Paul Krugman - Harvard Business Review
This is not about Trump. This is about (macro)economics, business, and the mind-bending realization that they are inherently different. Macro versus micro, closed systems vs. open systems, zero-sum games vs. growing pies. Out of all my classes at Northwestern, International Finance was probably the most unexpectedly enlightening. This is it, in a nutshell.
- I’m a Latino in Tech, and I Think the ‘Diversity’ Discussion Is Broken Eric M. Ruiz - Observer
A piece that echoes a lot of my own thouhgts on identity, well-summarized by quoting Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan: “…a philosopher from Peru resembles a philosopher from Scotland more than a janitor from Peru.”
- Fake News Ben Thompson - Stratechery
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.
- Who Will Command The Robot Armies? Maciej Cegłowski - Idle Words
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?
- You Are Still Crying Wolf Scott Alexander - Slate Star Codex
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.
- Wind Waker Graphics Analysis Nathan Gorodn - Medium
Reading about graphics and procedural generation has become a new hobby for me.
- Language, Meaning and Machines agibs010 - Goldsmiths, University of London
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.
- A Trunk Full of Truffles Planet Money
A fun look at an extremely small market, dealing only in high luxury fungi.
- The Backlash Has Arrived Exponent
Aggregation Theory applied to Trump.
Links - November 02, 2016
- Uncertainty Wednesday: Limits on Explanations (Turing and Gödel) Albert Wenger - Continuations
Whether we like it or not, Turing and Gödel proved that there is irreducible uncertainty in the world, and when we build models and explanations, we need to keep that in mind.
- What else are we getting wrong? Dan Ghica
I agree with Ghica. We need research into whether strong, static type systems help or hurt. When do we pick which? The issue is that any empirical study would have to control for training, use case, and many other variables. The end result would be to artificially recreate industry, which is basically impossible.
- I don't understand Python's Asyncio Armin Ronacher
- Want More Startups? Build a Better Safety Net Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
The argument is easy, make it cheaper to take risks, and more people will take risks. Incentives.
- An Email History of the 2001 iPod Launch Steven Levy - Backchannel
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.
- The iPad: it’s for everyone else (2010) Ben Thompson - Stratechery
History definitely rhymes! “…here’s the deal. Most people aren’t power users” is exactly what I’ve been thinking the past 5 days after the Mac release event. I am convinced that this generation of MBPs will sell well. Even if I am not buying one, the majority will.
- Paint Drip People Kent Beck
Don’t be a generalist, and don’t be T-shaped. Be a paint drip.
- And Then They Came for Me... Mark Suster - Both Sides of The Table
Not much needs to be said about this, but Mark Suster makes great arguments about why backing Trump is completely wrong.
- Behind the Mask: Scenes From Nicaragua's Sandinista Revolution James Estrin - The New York Times
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”.
- So Where Are We on the ‘S-curve’ for PC Devices a16z (podcast)
The big question about technology today is who will be the leader for the next platform. As usual, great insights from the Andreessen Horowitz hallway.
Links - October 30, 2016
I meant to post these on Wendesday, which became Thursday, which became Friday… then Saturday. But here we are!
- What Do Trump and Marx Have in Common? Jochen Bittner - The New York Times
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.
- The Great Cooling Off Kim-Mai Cutler - Modern Luxury, San Francisco
Are we at the tail end of the up-cycle in San Francisco? The economic indicators make it seem like we might be. With rents flattening over the past few months, and unicorns falling from their sky-high valuations, the Bay Area might become a little less insane in the near future.
- It’s Trump’s Party Paul Krugman - The New York Times
It will be interesting to see what happens with the Republican Party after Trump. Many key players have lost their credibility, but, sadly, I don’t think that really matters.
- Static typing will not save us from broken software David R. MacIver
Writing software is a matter of trade-offs. There are costs to runtime errors, but there are also costs to over engineering. In the end, each feature, and each project ends up mixing and matching processes and strategies, but I haven’t seen types pay-off their upfront expenses yet. Someone should spend the time modeling these choices in an economic model. I am sure several companies would be willing to fund such research.
- The secret behind Italy’s rarest pasta Eliot Stein - BBC
I want to eat this. On a more serious note, I think the most interesting part of this story is how a very specific skill, which has been passed down as a secret through generations is about to be lost because of lack of interest, and indifference.
- A Tale of Two Stagnations Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
Consider two very different options for why growth seems to have stoped: either people have stopped consuming enough to drive the economy forward, or we have stopped innovating and creating products as we used to. Each situation requires very different remedial policies, but as Smith explains, we’re not sure which of the two worlds we’re living in.
- The stock market looks cheap Antonio Fatas
One of the few things about finance that I actually enjoyed learning about in school was Gordon’s Growth Model. In his post, Fatas applies the model and plays with the equation to come up with a “Bubble Index.” While I wouldn’t bet on it, the equation makes for an interesting exercise.
- Contempt Culture Aurynn Shaw - The Particular Finest
Holding others in contempt for not working with a real language is a problem. Putting down PHP, a commonplace occurence, is as bad as mocking Java for having industrial strength. As a Python guy, I constantly get comments on when I’ll graduate to a static language. Making fun of each other’s tools of choice, and marking them as being beneath consideration is a mistake.
- Jane Jacobs’s Theories on Urban Planning—and Democracy in America Nathaniel Rich - The Atlantic
I was first exposed to Jane Jacobs through a class in college. We were assigned an excerpt of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” and it was odd how much Jacobs’ line of thought, once extranous, was so internalized into our own views that many of us didn’t understand why her writing was interesting. After learning more about her, and putting things in historical perspective, it all made much more sense.
- Shadowed Qualities Startup (podcast)
While I don’t yet know the pressures of being CEO, it is well known that depression, anxiety, and other issues are common among the startup crowd. Gotta hand it to Alex Blumberg for exposing himself as he did in this episode. It takes courage to let others into one’s life as he did.
- The No-Brainer Economic Platform Planet Money (podcast)
People do not understand second order effects, and have trouble forseeing policy implications. I keep going back to how whenever we think of economics in terms of the study of “rational agents,” we’re making a mistake. And I don’t mean it in the behavioral econ “we all have biases” way, but in the “People are dumb and don’t have full information to make rational decisions” way. Democracy is hard.
Links - October 19th, 2016
As my friend Leo would say, my lack of link-posting has been circumstantial, not intentional.
Last week found me busy, and uninspired. The weekend, on the other hand, gave me a lot to think about. I listened to the audio-book version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and watched 13th, both of which I would highly recommend. I also attended a few LitQuake events, one of which was especially worthwhile.
For a while now, I have been saying that I want to write more, and this weekend gave me even more ideas, as it put a lot of things in perspective. The goal for the upcoming weeks is to put my thoughts down on paper.
Also, I read a bunch of interesting things about the election, but you’re probably tired of that. I am too.
In the mean time, here are links worth reading.
- Developer hiring and the market for lemons Dan Luu
A critique of Spolsky’s Finding Great Developers, based on solid microeconomics. Luu compares the software engineering labor market to Akerlof’s market for lemons. The argument against Spolsky’s model seems to be based on two ideas: first, that there is an information asymmetry for both hiring managers, as well as engineers, and second, that the proportion of dysfunctional teams is larger than Spolsky implies. The article goes into an extensive study of the market structure, and possible solutions for both managers and engineers. The main takeaway, is that job hunting and hiring for software engineers is hard.
- The White Problem Quinn Norton - The Message – Medium
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).
- Echo, interfaces and friction Benedict Evans
We are nowhere near a transparent general AI, and all the companies buidling voice interfaces know that. By now, Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant have all been positioned away from such an all-encompassing solution, pushing for ever narrower use cases. Like the AIs out of Facebook’s bot fiasco of 2016, voice interfaces seem to be adding more friction than they take away.
- An Economics Nobel for Examining Reality Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
When people think of economics as a discipline, they tend to think of the broad themes they read about in the newspaper: interest rates, trade, unemployment, the housing market, etc, usually analyzed at the macro level. However, as Smith points out, microeconomics has slowly gained steam, developing more reliable models than macro in the last few years. Better tools, new methods, as well as data, are driving this change. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in more Nobel Prizes going to the microeconomists as of late, including this year’s winners.
- A half-million Brazilians want to break away and form a new country The Washington Post
More of the same. I still believe modern nations might be unraveling. Another case of “we don’t want to pay for them, because they are not us”.
- The Hard Raise Fred Wilson - AVC
From an anecdote of a “hard raise,” I think what Wilson makes in this post is an argument against easy money. When companies persevere against hard conditions, they come out stronger, with smarter theses, and better strategies.
- How the Fed Turns Good News Into Bad Narayana Kocherlakota - Bloomberg View
In which Kocherlakota explains so much of what’s wrong with techno-pessimism, while making a case for paying attention to second and third order effects.
- A Great Fight of Our Times David Leonhardt - The New York Times
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.”
- Our Need for Purpose and Recognition Albert Wenger - Continuations
I have been thinking a lot about Maslow’s hierarchy as of late. Luckily, I am part of the minority that gets to worry about these things.
- A Short Primer On The Thiel Dust-Up Alex Wilhelm - Mattermark
Tech Twitter blew up on YC’s face this week. It is rare for tech celebrities like David Heinemeier Hansson, Marco Arment, Thomas Ptacek, Jeff Atwood, and even Maciej Cegłowski to agree on things, but they have all come out with pitchforks after Sam Altman and Paul Graham for their defense of Peter Thiel. Even if Hillary wins, Trump has put strain on the Silicon Valley technorati.
- Angus Deaton on Inequality, Trade, and the Robin Hood Principle EconTalk (Podcast)
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.
- The Wells Fargo Hustle Planet Money (Podcast)
The stories coming out of the Wells Fargo scandal are rough. Incentives in the financial markets are turned on their heads, and it is amazing that the extensive regulation can’t handle these issues. Golden parachutes and bail-outs aside, this is insanity.
- Half a House 99% Invisible (Podcast)
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.
- In Line The Memory Palace (Podcast)
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.
- Map of the Internet Quartz
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.
Links - October 5th, 2016
Just like last week, these were ready yesterday, but the debate talk made me push them for a day. A lot of political content, but the kind that runs deeper than the election cycle’s scandal du jour.
It might be time for me to solidify some of these thoughts, and do a write-up of my own.
- Why's that company so big? I could do that in a weekend Dan Luu
If there is one thing I have learned over the last year, it is that even small projects require huge overhead when your tolerance for error is small. Building services with acceptable uptime, reliablity, and performance is extremely complicated, if not nearly impossible. “I could do that in a weekend” is a strawman. In fact, I have come to the opposite realization… it is surprising that anything works at all, even when thousands of human hours are invested!
- Deep-Fried Data Maciej Cegłowski - Idle Words
As usual with Maciej, there are many layers to this essay. The comparisons between libraries and the internet are not new, and his railing against large companies aiding online surveilance are more than expected. Much more interesting are the questions brought up about archiving the modern web - where content is selected, joined, and rendered dynamically per user at load time, with large portions behind walls: What is the point of building a community you don’t own? What should be kept for posterity? What is a the point of a site’s snapshot without the code that makes it work? What happens when a company dies, or misses, and we go beyond simple link-rot? The conclusion is hand wavey, but the future of the internet is, as Maciej put it, contingent.
- When world leaders thought you shouldn’t need passports or visas Speranta Dumitru - The Conversation
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.
- Immigration: the right's problem Chris Dillow - Stumbling and Mumbling
To continue the theme of freedom of movement, let’s talk immigration policy. In short, Dillow argues that the free market right should support open immigration in much the same way they support free trade. If freedom was something that the conservatives really cared about, they could not be this inconsistent, and they surely would push for more lenient immigration laws than the left. Once again, it is a matter of boundaries, and identity: freedom for whom?
- Trade Show Planet Money
More of the same. I am on a roll, I guess. It is odd that both US presidential candidates are against trade in this election, so the Planet Money folks compressed a quarter millenium of trade history for us. While superficial, there is a good discussion of The Wealth of Nations, and who benefits from tariffs vis-a-vis open borders and other trade policies. They touch on concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, which we can see across the ladder from regional to supranational deals. I assume the bipartisan anti-trade sentiment in the US is just a blip, and that we’ll soon revert to the trend of freer trade.
- Why Are Politicians So Obsessed With Manufacturing? Binyamin Appelbaum - The New York Times
It is easier to sell people on a safe past than an unsure future. Our brain is hardwired with biases, trained by thousands of years of evolution. It can trick us on false positives and overblow our fears, or it can make us think that the past was, by its own nature, better than the future. What seems irrational is that no candidate has capitalized on this, realizing that there is a discrepancy between public discourse and the numbers. Soon, some candidate will catch the tailwind instead of falsely promising restoration.
- The Intellectual, Yet Idiot Nassim Nicholas Taleb - Medium
The more I read Taleb, the less I like him. The IYI concept is worth sharing, though, because it is pervasive, and we all fall in the trope at times. “The IYI has been wrong, historically, on [a ton of things,] but he is convinced that his current position is right.” The key to ridding one’s self of the YI part is to have an open mind, accept errors as they are revealed, and course-correct accordingly.
Links - September 28, 2016
- Startup Cargo Cults: What They Are and How to Avoid Them Leo Polovets - Coding VC
We all fall prey to cargo cults: following our biases and finding patterns where there might be none, mimicking the inessentials and hoping we get the same results. Think hard about why you do things, and trim as necessary.
- Snapchat Spectacles and the Future of Wearables Ben Thompson - Stratechery
There is too much Apple speculation here for me to make strong comments, but go read it. Products don’t exist in a vacuum.
- Economics Has a Major Blind Spot Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
A clear exposition one of my gripes about economics as a discipline: Once you layer in tax, after tax, after tax, and your policies start interacting with each other, they no longer achieve the desired effects.
In the real world, no agent -however rational- can make optimal choices, as they don’t have nearly full information. To make things worse, solutions proposed at a given time might alter the underlying reality before they even go into effect, and no longer work as expected! By the time they are in place, policies are hard to change (this week’s EconTalk touched on that topic) and we deal with it by adding more crap on top. Living in a complex society does not by definition require the levels of complexity of modern legislation.
- Amazon’s Newest Ambition: Competing Directly With UPS and FedEx Greg Bensinger and Laura Stevens - The Wall Street Journal
Similar to the recent Bloomberg article. Amazon seems more and more serious about their last-mile effort, and the incumbents are still incredulous.
- Trump was completely wrong about the Fed last night. But I’m glad the topic came up. Jared Bernstein - The Washington Post
If the political system in the US is hard, and confusing, the Fed is probably one of the most misunderstood. Even having taken several courses on the topic, understanding the intended effects of central banking, and monetary policy, is tough. Bernstein makes a good case for the importance about better understanding it.
- Uncertainty Wednesday: Limits on Observations Albert Wenger - Continuations
Another good one in Albert’s series on uncertainty, easter egg included. “All observation necessarily entails compression of reality,” further compression from our tool’s resolution limits, and even more from measurement error. Regardless of how good your observations are, they will always be uncertain. Moreover, observations themselves can change the underlying state of reality. Not only in the uncertainty principle quantum sense, but also in the user research sense, for example.
Links - September 27th, 2016
- How Slack and Facebook Are Making Access to Information Less Democratic Ezra Galston - BreakingVC
There are clear tensions regarding how information is stored and accessed on the internet. In the OSS world, there is a loud group that constantly complains about the IRC => Slack trend, for example. Whether the fringe is becoming more or less accessible, I don’t know, I have not tried to hang out there, but there is an overwhelming feeling of the walls closing in on themselves.
- The Falsity of False Equivalence Paul Krugman - The New York Times
The fact that this is not clearer to the public at large is insane. It is a bizarre time to live.
- A mistake is just a moment in time Jason Fried - Signal V. Noise
Internalize your mistakes, correct your course, but don’t forget you messed up.
- What San Francisco Says About America Thomas Fuller - The New York Times
I lived in Chicago for 4 years, and I never saw levels of poverty and homelessness as intense as I see in San Francisco. However, both cities have poverty. Both cities have homelessness. In Chicago it is a matter of “out of sight, out of mind”, while in SF you see it day in and day out. Market Street and the Magnificent Mile are a stark contrast, but both cases require society to provide solutions. This article is missing a call to action.
- The Free-Time Paradox in America Derek Thompson - The Atlantic
- Spotify Is Perfecting the Art of the Playlist Devin Leonard - Bloomberg
Probably one of the best features in Spotify. Pretty cool story of how it came about.
- Snapchat Releases First Hardware Product, Spectacles Seth Stevenson - The Wall Street Journal
A glimpse into the future of media/advertising, an interesting personal story, and a product I’d love to try. The back story of how this story got leaked by Business Insider, and the WSJ ended up being whipped into releasing it early says a lot about journalism in the 21st century, too. A lot to unpack.
- I Used to Be a Human Being Andrew Sullivan - New York Magazine
Another piece about the perils of living attached to our screens, and taking a break from the addiction. These have become more and more common, but somehow Sullivan gives a refreshing view.
- The MIT License, Line by Line Kyle E. Mitchell - /dev/lawyer
I wish I understood licensing better, but this is a first step. Open source software is amazing. It is one of the reasons computers today are as powerful as they are.
- Compressing and enhancing hand-written notes Matt Zucker
Another cool project on image processing by Zucker. Code that solves a real problem, however tiny, is always worth reading.
Links - September 22nd, 2016
So much for making an effort to post more consistently… 🙄
Links - September 7th, 2016
- Knowledge (2015) Albert Wenger - Continuations
In this post, Albert defines knowledge from a humanistic perspective. It nicely ties into a recent article I shared about nihilism. Knowledge only matters if it is worth reproducing.
- Learning and mastering isn’t the same David Heinemeier Hansson - Signal V. Noise
Slowly, one abstraction at a time, software engineering has become more and more accessible. The advent of Ruby on Rails marked the beginning of a wave that lowered the barriers to entry for programming, particularly web development, for thousand of engineers. I am one of them. Now it is time to put in the hours and master the craft.
- Story of My Life: How Narrative Creates Personality Julie Beck - The Atlantic
We contain multitudes. Our idea of the “self” is just an aggregate of layers of all previous actions and states of mind, wrapped in a narrative that also changes over time. It’d be an interesting exercise to try and model this computationally, somehow.
- When You Change the World and No One Notices Morgan Housel - Collaborative Fund
Real innovation takes time. It is, however, important to remember that cycles are contracting. Innovation itself is accelerating, and that needs to go into our decision making models, too.
- How Apple Helped Create Ireland’s Economies, Real and Fantastical Adam Davidson - The New Yorker
The events that are developing in the EU right now are potentially more important to the future of global culture than most people realize. Whatever conclusion comes from this case might define sovereignty and jurisdiction across national and supranational borders. As Tim Cook posits in his letter, “at its root, the Commission’s case is not about how much Apple pays in taxes. It is about which government collects the money,” and that is the actually interesting question here.
- How Harambe Became the Perfect Meme Venkatesh Rao - The Atlantic
Links - September 5th, 2016
- Labor Day: From the Job Loop to the Knowledge Loop Albert Wenger - Continuations
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.
- Are We Really So Modern? Adam Kirsch - The New Yorker
I should make an effort and learn more about history and philosophy. We are solving different immediate problems, but ultimately trying to answer the same basic questions as those that came before us.
- The Pill, the Condom, and the American Dream Derek Thompson - The Atlantic
In a complex world, second order effects tend to be more important in aggregate than one would expect. Increased access to birth control results in better care for the kids who are born, and eventually a better society.
- What to Make of Andreessen Horowitz’s Returns? Mark Suster - Both Sides of the Table
Not often do you get a VCs view on another fund. Suster gives us some great insights in his piece.
- How Uber Drivers Decide How Long to Work Noam Scheiber - The New York Times
No data was released, but here is the original paper, in case you want to take a look.
- Trying Not to Try Edward Slingerland - Nautilus
Thinking fast and slow, from the angle of Butcher Ding and chinese philosophy. When your conscious mind lets go, the body can take over.
- Will Amazon Kill FedEx? Devin Leonard - Bloomberg
Amazon is an impressively interesting company (as an aside, the old timey look of the photos is great, too). The original bits and atoms startup, which somehow keeps innovating.
- All about Microservices a16z (Podcast)
Starting a career in software engineering during the days of AWS and Heroku gives me a strange vantage point. The story of how Netflix switched their whole infrastructure would not be half as impressive if I didn’t understand the role of culture in organizational change. The fact is that “this is how we do things around here” can make or break you. This episode talks about the architecture that underlie the modern web stack.
Links - August 30th, 2016
- Big data, Google and the end of free will Yuval Noah Harari - The Financial Times
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.
- In Search of Ragu Roads & Kingdoms
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.
- How artificial intelligence and machine learning work at Apple Steven Levy - Backchannel
Another one that I can’t comment much on, but want to share.
- I Got Scammed By A Silicon Valley Startup Penny Kim - Startup Grind
Lately I have been bringing up Maslow’s hierarchy over and over. I am one of the few lucky people in the world who (like you, probably, since you’re reading this) get to only worry about the very top of this pyramid. Food, shelter, health - all these are non-thoughts for me. My concerns are much less important. In the context of this article, I have been spending many hours considering how to be happier at work, and spend my time to maximize my learning and my future opportunities. Even in the tech bubble that I live in, things can be much worse, and it is sobering to remember that.
- Building Better Algorithms Requires Human Judgment Albert Wenger - Continuations
- Hunting for great names in programming David Heinemeier Hansson - Signal v. Noise
Naming things is much harder than it seems, and its implications much more widespread than one would expect. Spend more time thinking about names.
- Types Gary Bernhardt
Different languages have different ways of constraining and enabling programmers. Any language provides us with trade-offs. For a long time, I have thought of types as an added layer of complexity, which makes them unappealing. However, unit tests and documentation are also extra complexity, and I am more than happy to pay the cost for those. Perhaps its time to make the jump and get into static typing.
Links - August 24th, 2016
- The Unicorn Hedge Dave McClure - 500 Hats
As software seeps into our daily lives, everything becomes “tech”. I don’t like that word, it is too broad, and somewhat meaningless. A truck is technology. So is a self-driving truck, but the latter does much more by leveraging software. Every “traditional” company in some capacity uses “tech”, and as time goes on more and more firms depend on software for their daily operations. This is at the root of the reality that McClure describes. AirBnB is considered a “tech” company, but it should be compared against Hilton and Marriott, not against Google and Apple. That’s their actual competition. The hedge is real, and it is only a symptom of the overall trend towards a fully software enabled industry.
- Programming without Programmers? Aka Software Eating Software Development? Albert Wenger - Continuations
Software engineering, and the tools required for it, have evolved significantly over time. Barriers to entry have been lowered, making programming accessible for “normal” people, both in terms of monetary costs as well as in the amount of effort required to get started and build something significant. For better or for worse, modern programming languages are english-like enough that they can be grokked by children. Writing machine or assembly language can be seen as an esoteric exercise by today’s standards. On the shoulders of giants, we’ve climbed up several levels on the ladder of abstraction, and as Wenger implies, this is not stopping any time soon.
- Understanding VCs Fred Wilson - AVC
The “PR angle” Fred talks about is true of the blogs of VCs, startups, programmers, journalists, and pretty much any other piece of content on the web, even including this curated set of links. We should cast wide nets, and get information from every possible source before making decisions. Remember other people are driven by incentives just as much as ourselves.
- Penny Auctions - How to sell a $180 tablet for $7,264 Curious Gnu
Whether penny auctions can be classified as gambling or not, they could be a source of really interesting decision theory/behavioral economics research. If you know of any studies particularly worth looking at, please send them my way.
- Milwaukee's Divide Runs Right Through Me Bassey Etim - The New York Times
Over the last few weeks, I started watching The Wire. The longer I live in this country, the more I understand the tensions around race and class rooted in years and years of history. I want to spend more time reading about this, and exploring the narratives of the various sides. Building empathy is hard work.
- It really is the future Paul Biggar - CircleCI
A follow-up on last week’s post on Docker, and the state of distributed systems on the web. This one being the non-satirical version.
- Five Years of Tim Cook’s Apple in Charts Jan Dawson - Medium
Being on the inside, I can’t say much about this, other than: I’m still bullish.
- But What If We're Wrong Russ Roberts and Chuck Klosterman - EconTalk
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”?
- Slavery and Racism Russ Roberts and Michael Munger - EconTalk
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.
- On Average Roman Mars - 99% Invisible
Had never thought about the fact that someone had to have introduced “average” into our culture. Another great episode from the 99pi team.
Links - August 22th, 2016
- This is strictly a business decision Tim O'Reilly - Medium
Incentives rule all our decisions. If the mandate of fiduciary duty is to “maximize shareholder value,” that is what any board will do. Whether the “business decision” was correct or not is a question of short-term vs. long-term thinking, discount rates, and how much the company values its employees. When labor is interchangable, this is not a surprising decision. If the well-being of the employees were somehow baked in into the pricing model, there could be a different outcome.
- Imaging, Snapchat and mobile Benedict Evans
As usual, Evans gives us a lot to think about. Our phones aren’t really just phones, and our cameras aren’t really just cameras.
- It’s The Future Paul Biggar - CircleCI Blog
Overengineering is a real problem. I need to learn more about this new dev-ops world, and play with Docker et al, but the fact is that to get started, a monolith running on Heroku is more than enough. Scaling will be harder? Yes, but you might actually get something done and sell to real users. Good enough is good enough. Once again, short-term vs. long term incentives.
- All the Leaves are Brown and the Sky is Gray Cate Huston - Accidentally in Code
Perspective on software engineering impact: Somehow, the industry keeps moving forward as our projects die, 1 by 1. Stay motivated, and learn from your errors.
- The stuff we really need is getting more expensive. Other stuff is getting cheaper. Christopher Ingraham - The Washington Post
- The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority Nassim Nicholas Taleb - Medium
A draft of a chapter of Taleb’s upcoming book. He argues that asymmetrical rules lead to minorities dictating choices when there are large benefits to a concentrated minority and small diffuse costs among the majority. All his examples are negative, but its not hard to think of how this same effect can affect us positively.
- The Night That Obama and Hillary Founded ISIS Liz Meriwether - New York Magazine
The world of politics is odd.
- Page dewarping Matt Zucker
Math lets us do some really interesting things. This post presents a relatively simple model that solves a real problem for a real person.
- Firms and Inequality Claudia Sahm
An analysis on the future of work, and labor compensation. I am not surprised that gains are concentrated in a set of firms, the real question, as Claudia points out, is “is rising worker segregation a sign of reduced competition, greater economic rents, or is it telling us about a change in the nature of production?” My guess? The latter.
- The meaning of trust in the age of Airbnb Tim Harford
The fact that we can walk into a store and exchange a piece of paper for a loaf of bread is a sign of trust. Our economies, and our lives, are all based on trust, and Tim’s article explains how important this is in an age where “reputation” becomes currency. Reminded me a lot of Seabright’s Company of Strangers.
Links - August 18th, 2016
Hello there old friends. It has been forever since my last post, and I apologize for that. Here is a mixed bag of technology, management, and politics pieces. My interests haven’t changed, hopefully yours haven’t either.
Expect more frequent updates coming back soon.
- Serverless Architectures Mike Roberts
“Serverless” is the Next Big Thing. Serve static stuff on S3, make everything stateless, and plug a bunch of functions in Lambda. AWS once again changing the paradigm.
- The hedgehog and the fox Benedict Evans
I like to think of myself as a much more fox-ey than hedgehog-ey person, and I think success comes from getting a fox to surround themselves with hedgehogs. This is true in the AI context, as well as many others. “To think about tech now is to think about many things.”
- Stalking your Facebook friends on Tinder Alex Hogue - Literally Words
The internet: where nothing is really private.
- What Did You Do? What Will I Have Done? Albert Wenger - Continuations
While the comparisons with WWII are extreme, this is one of those “better safe than sorry” situations. Go vote, I can’t.
- Watch this very chill video of virtual soft-bodied creatures swimming underwater James Vincent - The Verge
- The Uber Engineering Tech Stack, Part I: The Foundation Lucie Lozinski - Uber Engineering Blog
It is always interesting to see how others do things. Especially interesting is the migration from python/node to Java/Go, and the heavy usage of OSS projects. I agree that having less languages is good, however, this might be a bit quixotic.
- Central bank digital currency: the end of monetary policy as we know it? Marilyne Tolle - Bank Underground
One of the most intriguing aspects of bitcoin is what kind of effects a constant, predictable, and stable money supply would cause in our financial systems. Coming from the Bank of England, this post holds more water than the usual cryptocurrency wonk posts.
- Delusions of Chaos Paul Krugman - The New York Times
The world is a mess, its just less messy than it used to be.
- The Unbundled City Paul Krugman - The New York Times
Not the usual Krugman. A really interesting take on how the Internet has changed cities. While he thinks of “back office operations,” I think of AWS and outsourced manufacturing.
- The Dreaded Weekly Status Email Christina R. Wodtke - Elegant Hack
In the modern office, email defines workflows. Communicating over email is hard. Do it right.
- Apple and the gun emoji Jeremy Burge - Emojipedia
Related, and somewhat more in depth, is the a16z podcast on emoji. Why do these icons carry so much weight?
- Judaism is not a major player in the history of humankind Yuval Harari - Haaretz (Paywall)
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.
- What Marissa Mayer Brought to Yahoo That Can’t Be Bought or Sold Jelena Woehr - Medium
Leadership is hard, and requires personal sacrifice. People appreciate that, and can tell when a person in power doesn’t put in the required effort. According to Woehr, Marissa did.
- Rectangular countries David Barry
Useless but fun geospatial data analysis, because why not?
Links - July 14th, 2016
As you can tell from the articles below, I’ve read a lot about consciousness lately. In general, I like the topic a lot, but I was actually trying to find an article on the subject from a couple of years ago that I remember being really good. Sadly, I didn’t find it, but it did take me down the rabbit hole of the Internet, and I found all of the consciousness related posts below, so hopefully you will enjoy those.
- A Nihilist's Guide to Meaning Kevin Simler - Melting Asphalt
A graph theory approach to the meaning of life, and, by extension, every one of our actions.
- Square is guilting us into tipping basically everyone Ester Bloom - Quartz
Because who wouldn’t tip $3 on a cup of coffee?
- The Facebook of ecommerce Benedict Evans
- A Technical Glitch Ben Thompson - Stratechery
- Medieval technology, indistinguishable from magic E R Truitt - Aeon
- Six centuries of secularity began with the first 'how-to' books William Eamon - Aeon Essays
- How Did Consciousness Evolve? Michael Graziano - The Atlantic
- Consciousness Began When the Gods Stopped Speaking Veronique Greenwood - Nautilus
- Postcards From the Edge of Consciousness Meehan Crist - Nautilus
- End of Cycle? Elad Gil
- Why Python is Slow: Looking Under the Hood Jake VanderPlas
- Why Does Pepperoni Curl? J. Kenji López-Alt - The Food Lab/Serious Eats
Yeah, its a post about pizza. To be more accurate, pizza + science.
- Fintech Revolution or Evolution? Alex Rampell, Angela Strange, and Charlie Warzel - a16z
In a recent post, I shared Charlie Warzel’s analysis on the future of payments. This episode of the a16z podcast takes a deeper dive.
- Remembering Stonewall 99% Invisible
Living in San Francisco, and having just attended Pride, this seemed very fitting. A really interesting story, which made me think a lot about how what is socially and culturally acceptable changes over time and space.
- Who Do We Think We Are? This American Life
I listened to this several weeks ago, but just noticed I hadn’t posted it. Mostly recommending it for Act 1, which deals with a really hard story. Especially interesting due to the herd mentality of “we do this because it is the way we’ve always done it,” which I hate so much. Other people’s decisions can change our lives forever. Sometimes unknowingly, and for all the wrong reasons.
Links - July 4th, 2016
I haven’t read much lately. I checked my stats today (yes, I keep track of how many articles I read) and my rolling one week daily average is about to hit 1 article read per day. That is scary, because I don’t know what is consuming my time in place of my usual online reading.
It might be Twitter, and the bots, but that doesn’t add up in my head.
Links - June 3rd, 2016
- What Tech Workers Can Learn From Harry Bridges Kelsey Gilmore-Innis
San Francisco and the Gold Rush, both old and new. Labor, unions, and narratives of success.
- Deep Reinforcement Learning: Pong from Pixels Andrej Karpathy
Another in depth look at modern solutions to artificial intelligence and problem solving. As usual, Karpathy makes complex ideas understandable, this time using OpenAI’s Gym to play Pong.
- Video is the new HTML Benedict Evans
HTML, Flash, Video, etc, are only a medium. Corporations today are working hard to exploit these new means of distribution.
- Why the World Is Drawing Battle Lines Against American Tech Giants Farhad Manjoo - The New York Times
- Can social science yield objective knowledge? Noah Smith - Noahpinion
Great analogy between natural science vs. religion and natural science vs. social science. As Noah points out, the idea of the “God of the Gaps” fits in quite well. I have long been a fan of Paul Davies and his take on the classic fight. Noah gives a good explanation for why they are, in a way, the same.
- Carts Without Horses Aaron Harris
Understanding that developing markets are fundamentally different beasts, and not just waiting for copies of what has already been done, is both challenging, and exciting. Makes me wonder what I could do if I went back home.
- Why Trump voters are not “complete idiots” Chris Arnade - Medium
The expanded version of the tweetstorm. Poor people understand optionality, too. If your downside is flat, and your upside isn’t, logic says break the system.
- What happened, what's happening now and what's next Benedict Evans
Yes, two posts by Evans today. It’s that good.
Links - May 27th, 2016
Hi there. It had been a while! I have read a lot less than usual lately, but here are a few things I’ve recently enjoyed.
- I know how to program, but I don't know what to program Nano Dano - DevDungeon
Through an analogy between learning CS, and how to play musical instruments, the author explains the value of reinventing the wheel: cloning other people’s projects allows you to learn useful patterns as you go. Start by mimicking, and continue adding your own features. The important part is putting your fingers to work. For example, I got my start with Michael Hartl’s Rails Tutorial, and modified it bit by bit to fit my needs. One of the best pieces I have read on how to “level up” as a software engineer.
- If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden - The New York Times
- The Netflix Tech Blog: Creating Your Own EC2 Spot Market Andrew Park, Darrell Denlinger, and Coburn Watson - The Netflix Tech Blog
I learned this exists from my manager, who used to work at Netflix. Mind blown.
- What happened when a professor built a chatbot to be his teaching assistant Matt McFarland - The Washington Post
TLDR, no one noticed until the guy revealed it.
- 1,700 years ago, the mismanagement of a migrant crisis cost Rome its empire Annalisa Merelli - Quartz
- Government Must Play a Role Again in Job Creation Eduardo Porter - The New York Times
- Today's rich families in Florence, Italy, were rich 700 years ago Matthew Yglesias - Vox
- Google’s Go-to-Market Gap Ben Thompson - Stratechery
The “best” is not always enough.
- The Curse of Culture Ben Thompson - Stratechery
Culture is fascinating, but also really subjective, making it hard to quantify, or analyze. To make it worse, it is turtles all the way down: culture matters at the company, division, group, team and individual basis, and the larger the company the more culture solidifies as a “thing” that makes that company what it is.
- The Empty Brain Robert Epstein - Aeon
- Ruby has been fast enough for 13 years David Heinemeier Hansson - Signal v. Noise
Speed is rarely the reason to pick a programming language these days. See below.
- Blue. No! Yellow! Robert C. Martin - Clean Coder Blog
Mostly, its a matter of taste. See above.
- Ethereum is the Forefront of Digital Currency Fred Ehrsam - The Coinbase Blog
It takes guts to describe your company as the “…most popular way to buy, sell, and use bitcoin” or, more humbly, a “bitcoin wallet and platform” and then come out and say that something else is better, and possibly more sustainable, than BTC. Smells like a soft pivot to cryptocurrencies in general could be coming.
- The Father of Modern Metal Jonathan Waldman - Nautilus
Never thought steel could be this fascinating.
- What disturbed me about the Facebook meeting. Glenn Beck - Medium
If I am sharing an article by this guy, it must be good. Never thought I’d do that, but he does bring up good points.
- Make America Great Again for the People It Was Great for Already Bryce Covert - The New York Times
- The G.O.P. Is Not America, Clinton Is Not Rubio Paul Krugman - The New York Times
- The End of the End of the World Jonathan Franzen - The New Yorker
An epic article about Antarctica, family ties, global warming, and the future.
- Hello, This Is London Rising Andrew Godwin - Aeracode
A very cool project. Can’t go wrong with mapping + Python + 3D Printing.
- Fizz Buzz in TensorFlow Joel Grus
Links - May 11th, 2016
- How AI And Crowdsourcing Are Remaking The Legal Profession Sean Captain - Fast Company
The legal field is not very technologically enabled. As Casetext’s Jake Heller points out, “We’ve all seen this story. Whether it’s restaurants or encyclopedias, this is going to be replaced by an open knowledge solution.” The question is, which of all these services will win the market (full disclosure, my girlfriend works at Casetext, and I think they are doing great work at making legal data easily available).
- Writing with the machine Robin Sloan
While I enjoy reading about the breakthrough techniques in deep learning, applied machine learning, with weird and fun objectives and non-standard datasets is much more exciting.
- Three Years in San Francisco Mike Davidson - Mike Industries
The article talks about topics beyond management, but spends a good chunk of time discussing why projects with many moving pieces, many stakeholders, and many contributors are hard to do right. Mostly, because people are hard to understand. If you understand people, you’ll be a better engineer, better designer, and better manager.
- Apple’s actual role in podcasting: be careful what you wish for Marco Arment
As Marco says, “…the last thing we all need is for the ‘data’ economy to destroy another medium.” Implied, but not mentioned in the article, is the discoverability problem of podcasts. Finding 10 shows that you generally like is easy. Finding the best episode of those 10 shows is impossible.
- The perils of mixing open source and money David Heinemeier Hansson
- Today I accept that Rails is yesterday’s software. Rob Robinson - Medium
- It Takes All Kinds Justin Etheredge - CodeThinked
- Fifty years on, one of Mao’s ‘little generals’ exposes horror of the Cultural Revolution Tom Phillips - The Guardian
- Hot Chili Peppers, War, and Sichuan Cuisine Andrew Leonard - Nautilus
Links - May 7th, 2016
- Who Was Ramanujan? Stephen Wolfram - Backchannel
Life is strange. One letter (email?) could really change yours. Send it today.
- What Military Jargon Says About Military Service Matti Friedman - The Atlantic
- Dynamic Typing > Static Typing? Greggman
It is weird when you can’t credit an author because their work doesn’t list their name. </br> As a side note, tweeting this got me into a strange twitter fight.
- Stuck in the Middle With You Mark Suster - Both Sides of the Table
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.
- Eye Doctors Want To Shut Down This Online Vision Exam Startup Stephanie M. Lee - BuzzFeed News
While I understand the point of regulation, Opternative delivers exactly what it advertises: refractive eye exams. The incumbents are just using regulation to push their interests and avoid getting pushed out of the market. But, obviously, I am biased. I used to work there.
- I’ve got a few questions for virtual reality filmmakers Lucas Matney - TechCrunch
Possibly my favorite opening paragraph in a TechCrunch article, ever.
- Brad DeLong pulpifies a Cochrane graph Noah Smith
Economic models can be bent to lie. Usually, not this blatantly, though.
- I tried to make my own tortillas from scratch the Mexican way in the US, and it was a disaster Ana Campoy - Quartz
This article is just a curiosity. The fact that Quartz opens with “Leer en español” was very unexpected.
Links - May 4th, 2016
- The Increasing Problem With the Misinformed Thomas Baekdal
Extreme clarity on the future of journalism, media, and strategies for companies in the space to respond to change. TL;DR: create better content or disappear. The arguments fit perfectly with Aggregation Theory, and while the article is a bit too focused on politics, the analysis could apply to any other news covered by the media, from the Tech Bubble, to ISIS, or Millenials. Long, but worthwhile.</br>I have been reading Baekdal for years. I can’t even remember how I ran into his blog, but it must have been 7 or 8 years ago, and I am glad I did.
- Demystifying Venture Capital Economics (Part 4) Andy Rachleff - Wealthfront
While I have read (…skimmed 🙄) Mary Meeker’s report several years in a row by now, I had never consciously noticed the acceleration of adoption rates of new technologies.
- AdBlock Plus teams up with Flattr to help readers pay publishers Anthony Ha - TechCrunch
Possibly more interesting than the opt-in model championed by Blendle.
- Inevitability in technology Benedict Evans
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…
- My path to OpenAI Greg Brockman
Somehow, the dots connect in the future.
- Type Wars Robert C. Martin - The Clean Code Blog
Was not expecting Uncle Bob to finish on that note. The history of programming languages is a big question mark for me. If you have a good book/blog post to recommend on it, please send it my way.
- Everything as a Service Ben Thompson - Stratechery
Ben sounds more bullish in this article than in the past few, especially Exponent.
- Apple's Numbers Bob Lefsetz
Yet another bear case for Apple pinned on the cult of personality for Steve Jobs. While I disagree with the overall message, the writing is really good, and Lefsetz does have a point on the strategy of innovation, viz. Christensen’s disruptive innovation.
- Obituaries My Mother Wrote for Me While I Was Living in San Francisco in My Twenties Bess Kalb - The New Yorker
Links - May 2nd, 2016
- The Case Against Reality Amanda Gefter - The Atlantic
I have linked to Hoffman’s work before, and encouraged some of my friends to read his research. I think Gefter did a great job with this interview.
- The Feed Is Dying Casey Johnston - New York Magazine
- You play like you practice Jason Fried - Signal v. Noise
- Why is Amazon all of a sudden not re-investing all its profits? Marcel Weiß - Early Moves
- Neural Networks Are Impressively Good At Compression Probably Dance
A good explanation of neural networks by example. It is amazing how quickly the toy problem of learning a couple of weights, basic high school math, becomes untractable.
- Do Experienced Programmers Use Google Frequently? Umer Mansoor - Code Ahoy
- How does knowledge get locked up in people's heads? Julia Evans
Reminded me of Cesar Hidalgo’s book, Why Information Grows. At some point info HAS to be spread out across brains in the organization.
- On the (Small) Number of Atoms in the Universe Peter Norvig
- What Will Come After Payday Lending? Bethany McLean - The Atlantic
- Handcuffed to Uber Connie Loizos - TechCrunch
Most of modern economics is based on the idea that people make decisions with a clear understanding of the consequences. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Whether we’re talking of switching to a new job, moving to a different state, picking an insurance plan or making a donation, there are always economic consequences that people don’t understand. The complexity of our world, some of it designed, some of it emergent, makes rational decision-making almost impossible. These Uber employees were definitely not aware of how big of an issue this policy would be years after they joined the company. (For more on the topic, take a look at Zach Holman’s post.)
Links - April 27th, 2016
- I was an undercover-bot for 2 months. Here is what I learned. Ami Ben-David - Chatbots Magazine - Medium
I don’t buy the bot craze. The technology is not there yet, and as the author well describes, the user experience feels just like calling a bank, or a telco, and being greeted by a distorted digital voice asking how one can be helped. Some day.
- The Rising Costs of Scaling a Startup Tom Tunguz
An oldie, but goodie. Someone should repeat this analysis and include 2015/2016 data. We’ve probably already crossed the 2x threshold.
- 15 Fundamental Laws of Software Development Matthew P Jones - Exception not Found
One of those lists that invariably will be printed out, and pinned to a cube, by a grumpy coworker.
- Generally Accepted Accounting Standards (GAAP) Fred Wilson - AVC
- F*** You, I Quit — Hiring Is Broken Sahat Yalkabov - Medium
I have been on the other side of the table of many interviews since I started working at Apple. It is unbelievably hard to gauge the skills of a front-end engineer, even more so when more than half the people involved in the interview process do back-end work day to day.
- Antitrust and Aggregation Stratechery - Ben Thompson
As is mentioned toward the end, “the most effective monopoly killer is the next monopoly.”
- Wikipedia’s Piracy Police Are Ruining the Developing World's Internet Experience Jason Koebler - Motherboard
Sometimes, free is a problem.
- The Log: What every software engineer should know about real-time data's unifying abstraction Jay Kreps - LinkedIn Engineering
To be honest, I haven’t finished reading this, but it was profusely recommended by randos on HN and coworkers alike. The preferred stack, and the JS framework du jour might have changed since then, but the basics are still the same. This essay tries to explain distributed systems fundamentals from “the log” up.
Links - April 26th, 2016
- You can take the derivative of a regular expression?! Julia Evans
Even though I didn’t take a regex class, the similarities with my stochastic modeling class are stark. Now I want to learn more!
- I Have Valuable Information Cory Watson - One Mo' Gin
We can always be better, smarter, etc. Watson talks about why he shares what he learns: one step at a time, helping others along the way, understanding that there is always more than we can process.
- Understanding the Rich Tapestry of American Culture as Experienced Through Food Mark Suster - Both Sides of the Table
Last time Suster recommended a movie, Supermensch, I wasn’t sold, but watched anyway. It was awesome, and now I want to watch this one too. VCs should do more movie/book/etc reviews. After all, a deep understanding of culture can give you an edge to make better bets than others. I am sure it has helped Upfront Ventures get where they are.
- When to Rewrite from Scratch - Autopsy of a Failed Software Umer Mansoor - Code Ahoy
Building software is hard. Learn from others’ mistakes.
- Economics and Self-Awareness Paul Krugman - The New York Times
When reality contradicts your beliefs, most likely, you have to change your beliefs.
- O Reader! My Reader Silvia Killingsworth - The Awl
A little bit hyperbolic, I use Feedly and it works more than fine, but the internet definitely changed the day Google shut down Reader.
- Uncanny Valley Anna Wiener - N + 1
Long, but so worth it. As Paul Ford tweeted, this essay is “a great catalog of Silicon Valley self-deceptions.”
Links - April 25th, 2016
- The Average 29 Year Old Derek Thompson - The Atlantic
In this short and data-centric piece, Thompson makes the argument that since most mainstream media is based in large cities, “…well-educated journalists in these dense cities wind up with a skewed impression of the world” and they feed us their biases. “An irony of digital media is that the Internet distributes journalism, but it concentrates journalists.”
- Bots won't replace apps. Better apps will replace apps. Dan Grover
Everyone talks about “bots”, but “bots” are not new. Grover makes a great analogy between early iOS skeumorphism and the metaphors of “conversational UI” that have leaked into these new user experiences. He goes on to argue that the notification systems in modern operating systems are broken, which I fully agree with, and suggests the rise of meta-platforms like WeChat and Facebook Messenger as the path forward.
- Why Write in English? Tim Parks - The New York Review of Books
A few months ago, an article titled Teach Yourself Italian was published in the New Yorker. In it, the author (Jhumpa Lahiri) discusses her journey from the United States to Italy, and her discovery of how language affected her identity as she wrote a book in a language that wasn’t her own. Parks discusses Lahiri’s work, compares her to other authors that went through similar transitions, and ultimately explains why he still writes in his mother tongue, even after years of living abroad.
- Minimum Viable Superorganism Kevin Simler - Ribbon Farm
Perhaps a bit too paranoid, discussing conspiracy theories more than it should, but interesting nonetheless. Simler explains the economics behind the social structures that align our incentives to work together toward common goals.
- Machine Learning Meets Economics, Part 2 Nicolas Kruchten - Datacratic MLDB
If you haven’t yet, go read Part 1.
- Making 1 million requests with python-aiohttp Paweł Miech
- The Rich Don't Work Anymore—Working Is for Poor People Robert Reich - Alternet
Links - April 18th, 2016
- How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained) Kim Mai Cutler - TechCrunch
A deep dive into the history (and disaster) of the San Francisco housing crisis.
- In Cramped and Costly Bay Area, Cries to Build, Baby, Build Conor Dougherty - New York Times
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.
- School Is To Submit Overcoming Bias - Robin Hanson
- Machine Learning Meets Economics Nicolas Kruchten - Datacratic MLDB
- Growing a Nation Won't Always Grow Its Economy Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
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.
- Domino's: Pizza and Payments Paul Price
- The Sacrificial Pancake Neal Sales-Griffin
A great analogy that prompts us to get started, knowing that, most likely, we’ll fail at first.
- Cellmates Radiolab (Podcast)
- Richard Jones on Transhumanism EconTalk (Podcast)
Links - April 8th, 2016
- Broken Promises: The Housing Market in SF (And Ten Ideas to Fix It) Zac Townsend
A clear economic analysis of the housing market in San Francisco, its history, its distortions, and its intricacies. Zac makes good arguments, proposes attainable solutions, and brings examples of other cities arount the U.S. that have solved similar housing crises before.
- The Weird Redemption of SF's Most Reviled Tech Bro Lauren Smiley - Backchannel
While the city officials’ skepticism is understandable, their stubbornness to work with a capable person due to his background is not. Two very unexpected things I learned from this piece: 1) San Francisco’s homeless population has been around 6000 for over 25 years. 2) between nonprofits and city departments, $241M/year are spent on supporting San Francisco’s homeless population. That is, roughly $40k per person.
- Declining Mobility and Restrictions on Land Use Alex Tabarrok - Marginal Revolution
- A 26-Story History of San Francisco Alexis Madrigal - The Atlantic
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.
- On your marks. Get set. Go. The fourth Facebook goldrush just started. Jeremy Liew - Lightspeed Venture Partners
Everyone is talking about bots.
- Why Kik Thinks Chatbots Will Kill Webpages Cliff Kuang - Fast Company
- What the iPhone has done to cameras is completely insane Roberto A. Ferdman - The Washington Post
- Stop Voter Suppression Robert Reich
- What Bernie Sanders Gets Right Mark Thoma - The Fiscal Times
As usual, Thoma asks the right questions. I am particularly interested in the “how is the social interest is defined?” aspect of his article. When companies, and identities, span across the world, our definitions of society change too.
- Losing Money Fred Wilson - AVC
- Film Dialogue Hanah Anderson and Matt Daniels - Polygraph
Links - April 5th, 2016
Between researching camera lenses and teaching myself machine learning, there hasn’t been much reading lately.
Links - March 31st, 2016
I have spent a lot of time lately trying to understand, and playing around with, computer vision, deep learning, reinforcement learning, and other machine learning models. Between Stanford’s Convolutional Neural Networks for Visual Recognition course, Trask’s neural stack explanation, playing snake with Keras and creating image analogies, I have spent a lot more time than usual coding and training machine learning models after work. More accurately, I have spent hours poring over complex equations I don’t yet fully understand, and waiting for models to converge.
Even if you are not a computer scientist, you should read the intro to reinforcement learning linked below. With some understanding of economic modeling, and a bit of effort, you’ll get the basics of how a system like AlphaGo works. Machine, or otherwise, learning is fun.
Links - March 16th, 2016
- The Amazon Tax Ben Thompson - Stratechery
An extremely bullish case from a former Amazon bear. Ben’s writing is usually great, but this one takes the prize for clarity: connecting the dots from Bezos’ famous letter to shareholders in 1997 to the beginnings of AWS in 2006, to today. A must read.
- Ping21: Earn Bitcoin by Monitoring Uptime and Latency Tyler Pate, Andrew DeSantis, Eli Haims, David Harding, and Balaji S. Srinivasan - Medium
Very seriously considering buying one of these. Seems like the investment would pay for itself with a few hours of tinkering.
- The Era of Free Trade Might Be Over. That’s a Good Thing. Jared Bernstein - The New York Times
- Elegant Economic Theories Get Shoved Aside by Data Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
- Handful of Biologists Went Rogue and Published Directly to Internet Amy Harmon - The New York Times
An interesting account of incentives at work. Nobel prize winners, and other already well-known scientist, do not care about the prestige of the important journals, so they get to publish directly. Young, unknown, scientists on the other hand, are stuck with the old, considerably inferior, publishing system to prove their worth.
- After Cash: All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses a Bank Account Megan McArdle - Bloomberg View
- The Changing Value Of ARR Alex Wilhelm - Mattermark
On one hand, the article makes good use of historical data to make a clear point: SaaS has been hit hard by the markets, both public and private. On the other hand, the URL makes good use of pirate jokes.
- On Trade, Angry Voters Have a Point Eduardo Porter - The New York Times
- The macabre truth of gun control in the US is that toddlers kill more people than terrorists do Lindy West - The Guardian
Some things about this country are still baffling to me.
Links - March 14th, 2016
- Resetting the score Benedict Evans
Shifts in the landscape, and analogies of history, or how innovation in warfare technology can explain the implications of the rise of the smartphone.
- The Second Smartphone Revolution Fred Wilson - AVC
- Trackers Jacques Mattheij
A story of anthropomorphic cookies, scripts, and ad-blockers.
- The Blood Harvest Alexis Madrigal - The Atlantic
Our dependence on other species is not surprising. The depth of our dependence is.
- Zoning Plays a Big Role in San Francisco's Housing Crisis, Gentrification, and Wealth Disparity Kriston Capps - CityLab
New wealth flowing into a city, plus old wealth’s “build new things in other places” attitude leads to gentrification. We’re not in a bubble, but in a bifurcation, and SF has no relief valve to rely on. Only new city policies could change that.
- The First Micropayments Marketplace John Granata, Ali Fathalian, Michael Goldstein, Eli Haims, Saivann Carignan, Matt Storus, and Balaji S. Srinivasan - Medium
In which 21, the Bitcoin company, unveils what the future of the web might look like.
- Why Snapchat is an Important Media Company Mark Suster - Bothsides of the Table
- The Obama Doctrine Jeffrey Goldberg - The Atlantic
A fascinating (but, at 65+ pages, excessively long) piece on the Obama administration and its foreign policy legacy.
- How to Code and Understand DeepMind's Neural Stack Machine Andrew Trask
Academic papers tend to utilize terse language and jargon to precisely describe processes and outcomes, but these “precise” explanations end up being impenetrable walls for the uninitiated. Thankfully, there are bloggers like Trask, Olah, Karpathy, and others who lower the bar to understanding the intricacies of academic machine learning. I am still trying to get through this one. Trask definitely made the task accessible. The DeepMind researchers, on the other hand, did not.
Links - March 9th, 2016
- In San Francisco and Rooting for a Tech Comeuppance David Streitfeld - The New York Times
In a way, it is surreal to be living this first hand, knowing that I am part of the problem. How long can SF keep going without a policy change?
- Valley VCs Sit on Cash, Forcing Startups to Dial Back Ambition Lizette Chapman - Bloomberg Business
As Ben and James have discussed in the last few episodes of Exponent, this is not a bubble. It is a bifurcation.
- Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here's why. Thomas Frank - The Guardian
Very related to yesterday’s Noah Smith article on Bernie, and last week’s Stratechery on “The Voters Decide”. Both Trump and Sanders appeal to a population that is not addressed by mainstream media.
- Why the poor pay more for toilet paper, and just about everything else Emily Badger - The Washington Post
- The Data Sleuths of San José Christian Caryl - Foreign Policy
I remember these events from when I was a kid, and it really interesting to see them exposed here again, a decade later, when I can actually understand them and their implications. I wonder what kind of data is available today, in Costa Rica and elsewhere, just waiting to be analyzed to uncover other schemes like these.
Links - March 4th, 2016
Today I am posting from Indianapolis! I am spending the weekend here with Hannah’s family, and I got a lot of reading done on the flight here, so the article selection today is better than usual.
Links - March 1st, 2016
- Toolkits for the Mind James Somers - MIT Technology Review
Languages, both artificial and natural, define how you think. Since I speak three natural languages, and I am trying to learn a fourth, it is somewhat strange how fixated I am on refining one, and only one, programming language. This article might have some clues as to why.
- The Computer in the Basement: Learning to Code, Then and Now James Somers - The Atlantic
- The Majestic Monolith David Heinemeier Hansson - Signal v. Noise — Medium
It would be amazing if DHH could back this up with more than a sample of n=1. How much of their success is the monolith, and how much is the culture, process, and care that Basecamp has refined over the years?
- Slack, I’m Breaking Up with You Samuel Hulick - Better People — Medium
- The Instagrams of Food Deserts Julie Beck - The Atlantic
- London vs San Francisco - back and forth Jamie Henson
- Pipelines Randall Munroe - XKCD
Links - February 25th, 2016
It seems like this is a good reading week for me. A ton of articles, plus about to finish two books. Can’t complain.
Links - February 11th, 2016
“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much.” ― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
As I said in my last post: attention is a zero sum game. I checked how much I have been reading online lately and I’m way below average (Yes, I keep stats on this. Yes, I know its nerdy). According to data from the past 2.5 years, I read about 10 articles per day (avg. 10.02, median 9) but in the last three weeks I’ve been floating between 5-7 per day. I think it will be impossible to keep up the usual 10-12 while maintaining my book reading goal and my new (bad?) habit of scrolling through Twitter a couple of times a day.
However, I’m proud to say that in the past couple of weeks I finished Why Information Grows and moved on to Cool Gray City of Love. Some thoughts on those two are coming.
Links - January 29th, 2016
Random assortment of thoughts:
I was sad to hear that Marvin Minsky passed away this week. I was exposed to his work by chance, as I picked up Society of Mind at a used book sale in Chicago during the summer I read GEB, and became obsessed with the seminal ideas of AI and consciousness. His book definitely helped me shape my views on intelligence.
A couple of weeks ago I started compiling a list of resources worth reading/watching. They are mostly programming related, but we’ll see how the list grows.
My resource list prompted my friend Leon to introduce me to Buster Benson’s Codex Vitae which is an awesome idea. I might do something similar in the future.
Attention is a zero sum game. I have started using Twitter which is fun (follow me! @avyfain), but is super time consuming. Its hard to come to terms with the fact that the stream is infinite while time is not. Between that, and my new goal of reading 3 books per month, blogs and news have taken the back seat.
Complex systems are awesome. I have been reading about them, and so should you.
Anyway, links for the past few days:
Links - December 15th, 2015
I have not actually read Feinstein’s whole paper, but the abstract makes it seem like an amazing read:
In this paper we study the financial repercussions of the destruction of two fully armed and operational moon-sized battle stations (“Death Stars”) in a 4-year period and the dissolution of the galactic government in Star Wars. The emphasis of this work is to calibrate and simulate a model of the banking and financial systems within the galaxy. Along these lines, we measure the level of systemic risk that may have been generated by the death of Emperor Palpatine and the destruction of the second Death Star. We conclude by finding the economic resources the Rebel Alliance would need to have in reserve in order to prevent a financial crisis from gripping the galaxy through an optimally allocated banking bailout.
Links - December 11th, 2015
Well, I finished the first season of Startup, and then, I got bored… Take note Alex Blumberg! The reasons why I was enjoying it so much were the SV outsider tone, the feeling of surprise when lingo had to be explained, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that I listened to a whole season of Reply All before I started with StartUp. To me, Gimlet is just a more interesting business to learn about than Dating Ring (sorry matchmaker aficionados).
Now, since I always NeedMoreContent™, I started a class on coursera and it has been awesome to learn about the low level pieces that make up a computer. It’s been less than a week since I started, and I am already halfway through week 4 of the course. The class is aimed at people with 0 engineering background, and I would definitely recommend it if you are interested in computing.
Links - December 1st, 2015
I have been listening to Startup the past couple of days, so I have not been reading that much lately. It provides a view of the tech and startup world from an outsider’s perspective, and when discussing concepts that I take as general knowledge it constantly makes me think “Wait, most people don’t know that?”
If you have not listened to it, you should.
Links - November 30, 2015
Took a break for thanksgiving. Read a lot. Choosing was hard. This week’s winner seems to be Noah Smith.
Links - October 28, 2015
Several comments today:
First, if you are reading the AVC posts, make sure to read them together. I think the analogy is flawed, but the underlying idea of “collecting the economic surplus of a revolution” is spot on.
Second, I’d like to thank my friend Yoav for pointing out Sapiens. I had skipped the EconTalk episode until he called it the best book he’s ever read. I trust his recommendations, even though he doesn’t trust mine.
Lastly, Politico’s website is kind of annoying, but their article about transportation-oriented development in Evanston was super interesting.
Having lived there for a good chunk of my life, I can tell first hand that Evanston doesn’t feel like a suburb. In fact, when discussing this article, I said “Evanston is actually part of the city, it is basically Chicago” and the response I got was “the fact that you think so means that the policy was successful.”
Links - October 13th, 2015
It’s not that there were no interesting things to read on the internet this past week, its that I was lazy and have not posted them.
Here’s another catchup post.
Links - September 30th, 2015
Today I discovered an amazing LinkedIn feature that I did not know existed. It is called “Connections In The News”.
With the subject “News about Aaron Dallek” sitting in my inbox, LinkedIn’s email really intrigued me. Clicking through took me to a New York Times article about Opternative, the startup where I used to work, and where Aaron is CEO. Quite simply, LinkedIn parsed Aaron’s name from the piece, and notified me that one of my contacts was mentioned in it. How the software distinguishes between various people named John Smith, or whether it tries at all, is unclear to me, but the feature provided me with a pleasant surprise.
Links - September 28th, 2015
My apoligies for the lack of links on Friday. Hopefully today’s set makes up for that.
Links - September 23rd, 2015
I am amazed by the fact that Caltrain ridership tracks the Nasdaq. This is the kind of relationship that I would never think about on my own, but once I read it, it clicked and makes perfect sense. I wonder if similar correlations can be found for other cities and their public transit.
Links - September 21st, 2015
I can’t recommend Gopnik’s article enough. It is a really interesting read about history, faith, and human life. If you read any online article today, this should be it.
Links - September 17th, 2015
I started a new book this week, which means my time has shifted from online consumption to staring at dead trees. More on that soon.
Links - September 7th, 2015
I spent most of last week moving to my new apartment in San Francisco, which meant I had no time to post links.
Here’s a big list to make up for a lost week: