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.