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 -

    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.

Disconnected, Hood Mountain

Disconnected, Hood Mountain

For 4th of July weekend Hannah and I took a last minute backpacking trip to Hood Mountain, right on the border of Napa and Sonoma Counties. We had been looking for campsite permits in a bunch of different parks during the weeks leading up to the long weekend, but nothing seemed to open up. Luckily, Sonoma regional parks had had their reservation system closed due to COVID, and they opened it the morning of the 2nd. After a stressful morning trying to book something, we found this site.

This was our first time leaving SF since the shelter-in-place order started, and it was great to disconnect almost completely. Except for a couple of let’s check Alltrails moments, and a short call to my dad to wish him happy birthday, my phone was on airplane mode the whole time. More...

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 -

    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

    Random cool thing of the day.

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