Links from the Rest of 2020
After too long of a hiatus, I’m back posting links. Here’s a few highlights of what I read and listened to after my last links post of 2020. I’ll be sharing another couple of posts with links from 2021 and 2022 in the next few days.
- The Lottery (1948) Shirley Jackson - The New Yorker
This is a short story about mob mentality and the value (and harm) of tradition. The last few years I’ve been grappling more and more with the tension between tradition and change. The kernel of conservatism expressed by Chesterton’s fence seems extremely valid: “Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.” At the same time, if we never removed fences whose purpose we don’t truly understand, we’d live in a much worse world. Apparently, after the New Yorker published this story, they got more response letters than from any other work of fiction they had ever published.
- Truth, utility & education (2020) Chris Dillow - Stumbling and Mumbling
On education, and the conflict between teaching people things that are true, or things that are useful. It reminded me in some ways of Donald Hoffman’s case against reality, and the idea that our brains learn a representation of the world that best allows us navigate the world and live in it, instead of optimizing for accuracy.
- Regulating technology (2020) Benedict Evans
What does it even mean to regulate “technology,” when everything is permeated by it? On the contracting timelines of innovation, the complexity of an evolving (and mostly borderless) industry, and the political mechanisms of regulation trying to play catch up.
- The Four Quadrants of Conformism (2020) Paul Graham
A simple 2x2 of conventional/independent-minded and passive/aggressive at the other axis. Not surprisingly, Graham has some strong thoughts: “…it seems to me that aggressively conventional-minded people are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the trouble in the world.” Also not surprisingly, I happen to agree.
- China’s Artificial Intelligence Surveillance State Goes Global (2020) Ross Andersen - The Atlantic
This article was scary enough in 2020 when it came out. With a couple of years of hindsight, and having seen a lot of the news coming out of China during the pandemic I’m even more upset about China’s central role in our geopolitical future.
- You should include your tests in coverage (2020) Ned Batchelder
A short and sweet technical post. The title says it all, but Ned explicitly calls out his reasoning, too: “tests are real code. Coverage measurement can tell you useful things about that code.”
- New Climate Maps Show a Transformed United States (2020) Al Shaw, Abrahm Lustgarten, and Jeremy W. Goldsmith, - ProPublica
An awesome, albeit scary, set of visualizations of how climate change might affect different parts of the US and force people to move around in the next few decades.
- Why ‘Civilization’ is a political masterpiece (2020) Sam Leith - UnHerd
I spent a good chunk of the found time of early pandemic days playing Civilization. This is a nice homage to the series, and why so many people have fallen in love with Sid Meier’s classic.
- Coordination, Good and Bad (2020) Vitalik Buterin
A short essay on the benefits of decentralization as ways to avoid collusion that leads to worse societal outcomes and the mechanisms that can enable it. As Vitalik clearly states “[…] markets can only solve some problems; in particular, they cannot tell us what variables we should be optimizing for in the first place,” but markets enable those core values to emerge from the actions that each of us takes. When markets don’t get us to what society at large “believes” to be the better outcome, it’s often because people’s stated beliefs don’t actually agree with their selfish goals, as revealed by their actions.
- Do I Deserve What I Have? Part III (2020) Russ Roberts
- Debt is Coming (2020) Alex Danco
I’ve always found it interesting that startups run on equity instead of debt. Here, Danco lays out a good argument for why this is the case, and why he thought the model was about to flip on its head. He cites Carlota Perez’s Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital and argues that the relationship between production capital and financial capital (PK/FK) is well understood, and that we’re near the turning point where these two recouple. The pandemic got in the way, and the debt market still hasn’t matured in the direction he predicted, but it’s a reasonable theory nontheless. We’ll see whether we end up getting there.
This is a super complex topic, and I’d really love to learn more about debt financing. I’ve found a few good resources here, here, and here.
- Why are we so bad at software engineering? Jacob Voytko
A short essay discussing the economics of code quality, project management, and how amazing it is that we can ship any code that works.
- Andreessen-Horowitz craps on "AI" startups from a great height (2020) Scott Locklin
In which the author dissects Martin Casado’s and Matt Bornstein’s blog post on ML businesses. I have thought hard about this, and I mostly agree that the moat is not the model, but the data. If you have novel datasets, you can do a lot of things that your competitors won’t be able to, and that flywheel spins fast.
- To Get Good, Go After The Metagame (2020) Cedric Chin - Commoncog
Merely being good at something is not enough. You have to understand how a field has evolved in order to know where it’s going.
- Why Life Is Pretty Good But Doesn’t Feel So Great (2020) Noah Smith - Bloomberg
The average USian lives a much better life than they did in the 50s, but our expectations of what a good life is have also shifted since then.
- Bank Runs and Panics: A Primer (2020) Stephen Cecchetti and Kermit Schoenholtz - Money and Banking
For me, the most fascinating topic in economics has always been the non linearity of panics. This is a good starting point, without any math.
- Coronavirus Might Make Americans Miss Big Government (2020) Noah Smith - Bloomberg
It’s pretty sad to read this two years later and seeing that the “state capacity” narrative was exactly right.
- A Sound Debasement (2018) J.P. Koning - American Institute for Economic Research
On debasement as a strategy to counteract Gresham’s Law and defend the value of medieval currency
- How Wine Bricks Saved The U.S. Wine Industry During Prohibition (2015) Adam Teeter - Vinepair
Come up with stupid rules, and people will figure out ways to route around them.
- The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy (2020) Kevin Dowd - Cato Institute
…it is short‐sighted and potentially counterproductive to promote a particular policy package such as MMT because you can use it to finance projects that you like, because someone else might use it to finance projects that you do not like
- IP (2020) Cory Doctorow - Locus Mag
“Locked down, viewing the world through our screens, there is no longer any distinction between human rights and digital rights.” Additionally, a good follow on from Matt Clancy.
- Drowning in the melting pot (2020) Antonio García Martínez
A good analogy on secular liberalism.
- The unbanked, the post office, and fintech in the 1880s (2020) J.P. Koning - Moneyness
I love reading about historical parallels like this one on 1800s fintech.
- The Geology of Mars (2019) Eleanor Lutz
It’s strange how used we are to looking at the Earth’s map, and the conventional colors of green/blue to represent land and sea. I don’t even know where to begin here!
- The Why and How of Reasonable Disagreement (2017) Kevin Vallier - Niskanen Center
The idea that “reasonable people can disagree, and that’s ok” was key to Rawls’ philosophy. It’s a core tenet of real liberalism.
- Facebook: Free as in Bullshit (2020) John Gruber - Daring Fireball
This cultural difference between FB and Apple (which, yes, conveniently aligns with just one of the companies’ business models) is one of the things that kept me working at Apple. Privacy matters. I’m glad someone’s standing up for it.
- "Tech" in SF vs in the Valley (2020) Sean Byrnes - Twitter
History matters. Tech’s prominence in SF is new. Sean’s thread is 👌 The center of gravity shifted in the last 10 years. Some of it due to policy, some due to tech itself changing (AWS, anyone?) and some, because people’s priorities change (see Richard Florida’s creative class). FWIW, the narrative about the SF vs SV divide isn’t new. This was in the NYT back in 2014, before I came to SF.
- Mission Cheese closing permanently after nearly 10 years (2020) Tessa McLean - SF Gate
This might be the only pandemic related closure in SF that I’m truly sad about. I’ll miss Mission cheese.
- How America Invests (2020) Vanguard
Vanguard released a fascinating report on how their customers invested over the last 5 years. The average Vanguard customer has 20%+ in cash. 20% of their customers hold no equities (!) and the median portfolio is a household of 1 holding ~$60k.
- Industrial literacy (2020) Jason Crawford - Roots of Progress
Our modern society is built on top of what, for most people, are invisible building blocks. When technology works so well that average Joe doesn’t even think about it, it’s easy to take that technology for granted.
- Neurath's Boat Wikipedia
I love this idea, thinking of society as a boat being rebuilt at open sea, which I first heard from Martin Hägglund: “Who I can be—how my boat is built—depends on socially shared norms, which I am bound to uphold, challenge, or transform through what I do.”
- Consider the interface (2020) Alvaro Videla - The Increment
Often, we write code to scratch our itches, not knowing that our code will be turned on its head as the building block for someone else’s solution to a problem we didn’t know existed. Good design is about foreseeing those situations.
- Capitalism, Alone (Podcast, 2020) Branko Milanovic, Russ Roberts - EconTalk
Modern society, in part because of secularism, no longer has an objective morality to point to, so instead we point to the law, not even questioning that it could be flawed.
- The Big Questions of Economics (Podcast, 2020) Branko Milanovic, Russ Roberts - EconTalk
A critique of the institutions that define the North star for most advanced economic research. True of academia, and it’s hyper-specialization, but also of international political entities and their quest for growth. “Good answers are often crucially important, but sometimes the best questions can’t be answered. And, we learn something from our attempts to answer them or to narrow what possible answers there are, even if we don’t come up with definitive answers.”
- Aspiration (Podcast, 2020) Agnes Callard, Russ Roberts - EconTalk
A great conversation on who we are versus who we would like to become. Most modern microeconomics is based on the idea of utility functions, a tool to abstractly measure happiness or satisfaction and make people’s preferences comparable to each other. What is generally never discussed is that not only do people have a utility function of their own, but they also have a second order utility function - desires about their desires.
- Lost in Thought (Podcast, 2020) Zena Hitz, Russ Roberts - EconTalk
A conversation about learning for the sake of learning, and understanding the world and human experience through great works of literature, philosophy, and history. I had the opportunity to participate in one of Zena’s workshops with the Catherine Project earlier this year, and I couldn’t recommend this mode of thinking enough.