Hawaii November 25, 2018
A few weeks ago, Hannah had to go to Hawaii for work, and asked if I wanted to tag along. The tickets were cheap, so I said why not! I had low expectations, beacuse how much better could the beaches be than the ones I grew up going to in Costa Rica? I’d say they are different enough, and cool in orthogonal directions - the cultural and historical context are totally different. More...
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.