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.
San Francisco Walks October 9, 2018
This set of photos is a mixed bag. Some of them have been sitting in my archive for almost a year, and some I took just a couple of weeks ago. They’re also a mixed bag in terms of quality, but editing is not my strong suit - I have a really hard time cutting. More...
The Listening Room, or habits to unlearn September 23, 2018
I’m not sure how I found Magritte in the first place, but as a teenager, his Son of Man became my avatar on every online platform where I spent afternoons and evenings during the mid-aughts. I pondered endlessly on his playful compositions, full of contradictions, false premises, and recursive repetitive themes. The motifs in Magritte’s art — paintings within paintings, windows confounding what was inside with what was outside, ambiguous and impossible light sources — invite us to question the automatic assumptions we make about what is in front of our eyes, the nature of reality, and what the objects we interact with on our daily lives actually represent. Images are treacherous, etc, etc. Continue reading...
Boston, 2018 September 8, 2018
After a long time without visiting, I finally got to spend some time in Boston this past weekend with Max and Einat. We decided not to plan much, which turned out to be a great decision. More...
Origin Stories September 8, 2018
Boston holds a special place in my life. When I was starting my senior year of high school, and my brother Max was applying for business school, he was invited to MIT for an interview at Sloan and thought it was a good idea for me to tag along on his visit. I did, and that trip was the trigger that made me consider going to college in the US. Continue reading...