Current Affairs

…advocates of a new copyright term extension bill wouldn’t be able to steamroll opponents the way they did 20 years ago. Any term extension proposal would face a well-organized and well-funded opposition with significant grassroots support.

“After the SOPA fight, Hollywood likely knows that the public would fight back,” wrote Daniel Nazer, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an email to Ars. “I suspect that Big Content knows it would lose the battle and is smart enough not to fight.”

“I haven’t seen any evidence that Big Content companies plan to push for another term extension,” Nazer added. “This is an election year, so if they wanted to get a big ticket like that through Congress, you would expect to see them laying the groundwork with lobbying and op-eds.”

Of course, copyright interests might try to slip a copyright term extension into a must-pass bill in hopes opponents wouldn’t notice until it was too late. But Rose doesn’t think that would work.

Here is the full piece, via someone in my Twitter feed sorry I forget.

A number of Chinese mobile applications have been shut down after it was revealed women on their platforms were actually automated robots, it’s reported.

According to the Modern Express newspaper, police have closed down mobile apps associated with 21 companies and arrested more than 600 suspects operating across 13 provinces, after discovering that messages from some women were being automatically generated by computer programmes.

Police in southern Guangdong province began investigating in August 2017, after suspecting one app of fraudulently charging visitors to view pornographic videos which did not exist.

Further investigation found that technical personnel from at least one company had created fake “sexy girl” accounts. They wrote computer programmes which generated greeting messages and compliments from fake accounts, and targeted these at newly registered users.

Here is the full story, via Anecdotal.

I will be doing a Conversation with Charles (no public event), what should I ask him?  Charles is one of my favorite writers, as he is the author of 1491, 1493, and the new and excellent The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Here is yet another excerpt from the latter book:

Rodale died in 1971 — bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering his host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

I thank you all in advance for your wisdom and inspiration.  Here is Charles’s home page, he also has many excellent magazine articles.

Security breach in India?

by on January 5, 2018 at 12:27 pm in Current Affairs, Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

In 2010 India started scanning personal details like names, addresses, dates of birth, mobile numbers, and more, along with all 10 fingerprints and iris scans of its 1.3 billion citizens, into a centralized government database called Aadhaar to create a voluntary identity system. On Wednesday this database was reportedly breached.

The Tribune, a local Indian newspaper, published a report claiming its reporters paid Rs. 500 (approximately $8) to a person who said his name was Anil Kumar, and who they contacted through WhatsApp. Kumar was able to create a username and password that gave them access to the demographic information of nearly 1.2 billion Indians who have currently enrolled in Aadhaar, simply by entering a person’s unique 12-digit Aadhaar number. Regional officers working with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the government agency responsible for Aadhaar, told the Tribune the access was “illegal,” and a “major national security breach.”

second report, published on Thursday by the Quint, an Indian news website, revealed that anyone can create an administrator account that lets them access the Aadhaar database as long as they’re invited by an existing administrator.

Here is the full story, via Brian Slesinsky.

Oregon has just passed a law that gives gas stations in rural counties the option of allowing self-pumping (in some rural counties this is allowed only between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.!) As you have probably heard, this incomplete lifting of an absurd restriction has some Oregonians upset and afraid.

“I don’t even know HOW to pump gas and I am 62, native Oregonian . . . I say NO THANKS! I don’t like to smell like gasoline!” one woman wrote.

“No! Disabled, seniors, people with young children in the car need help. Not to mention getting out of your car with transients around and not feeling safe. This is a very bad idea. Grrr,” another woman wrote.

“I’ve lived in this state all my life and I REFUSE to pump my own gas . . . This [is] a service only qualified people should perform. I will literally park at the pump and wait until someone pumps my gas.”

Most of the rest of the America–where people pump their own gas everyday without a second thought–is having a good laugh at Oregon’s expense. But I am not here to laugh because in every state but one where you can pump your own gas you can’t open a barbershop without a license. A license to cut hair! Ridiculous. I hope people in Alabama are laughing at the rest of America. Or how about a license to be a manicurist? Go ahead Connecticut, laugh at the other states while you get your nails done. Buy contact lens without a prescription? You have the right to smirk British Columbia!

All of the Oregonian complaints about non-professionals pumping gas–“only qualified people should perform this service”, “it’s dangerous” and “what about the jobs”–are familiar from every other state, only applied to different services.

Once we got familiar with self-pumping it didn’t seem like a problem, but it’s surprising we ever got self-pumping as it would have been easy to scare people into voting no. After all, the case for trained gas pumpers is far stronger than for licensed barbers. Perhaps we were less risk averse and complacent in the past. I don’t think we could build the Hoover Dam today either.

It’s easier to scare than to inform and we fear losses more than we desire gains so collective decision-making defaults toward stasis.

We have innovations like Uber and Airbnb and many others only because entrepreneurs didn’t have to ask for permission. Had we put these ideas to the vote they would have been defeated. Allow almost anyone with a car to drive customers around town? Stranger danger! Let any house be turned into a hotel? Not in my neighborhood! Once the innovations were brought into existence, the masses saw the benefits but they would not have seen those benefits if the idea had been put to a vote. Demonstration is more powerful than imagination.

More and more, however, the sphere of individual action shrinks and that of collective action grows. Thus, I do not laugh at the Oregonians and their fear of gas pumping freedom. We are all Oregonians in one form or another.

Yes, the Matt Levine who writes for Bloomberg.  The “the only greeting you need is “Only you can do what you do!”” Matt Levine.

That one (not the other one).  I’ll be having a Conversation with him, so what should I ask?

Did you know by the way that Matt can speak Latin?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The first disquieting sign is that solar companies are spending only about 1 percent of their revenue on research and development, well below average for a potentially major industry. You might think that’s because things are going so great, but some major solar users may have already maxed out their technology. According to Sivaram’s estimates, four of the five most significant country users — Italy, Greece, Germany and Spain — have already seen solar energy flatten out in the range of 5 percent to 10 percent of total energy use. The fifth country, Japan, is only at 5 percent.

And:

A common view is that solar power will come into its own once batteries and other storage technologies make steady improvements. Yet Sivaram notes that lithium-ion batteries in particular are not well-designed for storage across days, weeks and months. Also note that about 95 percent of global energy storage capacity is from hydroelectric power, a discouraging sign for the notion that solar energy storage is on a satisfactory track.

And:

Solar energy has great potential for emerging economies, but some very basic preconditions are not in place. India, for instance, would need to end its kerosene and electricity subsidies. Freer trade in solar technologies is found in Tanzania and Rwanda but not always in West Africa.

My column draws heavily on Varun Sivaram’s forthcoming Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet, Amazon link here.  This book is full of useful information, a pleasure to read, and more generally a model for how to write about science, technology, and policy.  It will definitely make my 2018 “best books of the year” list.

A while ago I promised you my take on Bloomberg View [BV], and why I decided to work for them.  They don’t know I am doing this post, I don’t in any official or even unofficial way speak for Bloomberg View or for the broader company, and I hope they don’t get mad at me for attempting this brief capsule treatment.  And it is fine if you wish to dismiss this as biased pleading, because it is.

One of the most striking features of BV, from my personal point of view, is how many of the writers I was actively reading and following before they started with BV.  For instance:

1. A few years ago I tracked down Adam Minter for a Sichuan lunch in Shanghai, to talk with him about recycling, China, the metals trade and used goods, and his general take on things.  Adam is one of the very best writers for mastering small, apparently obscure details, based on years of personal travel and research, and then showing how they reflect broader and more important truths.  Adam later started writing for Bloomberg.

2. Megan McArdle and I have had periodic lunches and chats since I first met her in 2004 (?), when I was presenting an early version of Stubborn Attachments to Victor Niederhoffer’s Junto seminar in New York City.  She was one of the very first economics bloggers, along with John Irons and Brad DeLong.  The next time I see her we will again debate when and whether the world is going to end, and whether Panda Gourmet really does have the best cold noodles in Washington, D.C. (yes).

3. I met up with Christopher Balding for a lunch in Hong Kong, as he came over from Shenzhen.  I was a fan of his China blog and research, and lo and behold Christopher ended up writing for Bloomberg.  Here are his New Year’s resolutions.

4. Cass Sunstein is one of the polymaths of our time, and the #1 cited legal scholar, not to mention a Star Wars fan, and I interviewed him for Conversations with Tyler.  I don’t have to tell you where he writes now, or that his favorite musician is Bob Dylan.

5. I’ve had periodic email contact with Stephen R. Carter, of Yale Law School, as the two of us share many common interests and reading habits.  He’s now with Bloomberg View.

6. Virginia Postrel is a “dynamist” thinker of major significance, and I’ve been following her work for more than twenty years.  I hope she does more with the topic of textiles.  Here is a 2014 video she and I did together (mostly her) on the topic of glamour.

7. A few years ago, Noah Smith and I decided to get together at the AEA meetings, most of all to talk about Japan (Noah is fluent in Japanese and lived there for a good while).  He was then still a professor before he made the decision to work for Bloomberg full-time.  Last year, I took a long Uber ride to meet Noah for Thai food in Berkeley.

8. Conor Sen started blogging, and I thought: “This guy is awesome and has unique perspectives rooted in finance and housing and demographics and Atlanta.”  Soon enough, Bloomberg hired him.  Conor deservedly made this list of the year’s most interesting people.

8. I was a fan of Stephen Mihm’s work on history and economic history, before he started with BV.

9. And now we have Ramesh Ponnuru and Michael Strain, two of the very best market-oriented, right of center yet also eclectic columnists.

I don’t mean to neglect all the other people who write for Bloomberg View, as this list is determined by whom I knew before there was any Bloomberg connection.  As for some of the others, Leonid Bershidsky is an amazing polymath, the “every column is full of information” Noah Feldman has a new and wonderful book on James Madison, there is Joe Nocera and Justin Fox and Barry Ritholz, and I am trying to schedule a Conversation with the great Matt Levine, who always knows more than you think he does, even after taking this clause into account.  When I met Matt I simply uttered: “Matt Levine, only you can do what you do!”  Is any other greeting required?

One day I woke up and realized these people write for Bloomberg View, or that people like them were going to, and then it occurred to me that maybe I should too.  And there are still Bloomberg View writers I haven’t really discovered yet.  (By the way, one reason all these people are so good is because of the consistently excellent editors.)

What is the common element behind all of these writers?  I would say that Bloomberg View tends to hire reading-loving, eclectic polymaths, with both academic knowledge and real world experience, and whose views cannot always be predicted from their other, previous writings.

Over the last year, I think I would nominate Ross Douthat as The Best Columnist.  But overall I think Bloomberg View has assembled the most talented and diverse group of opinion contributors out there, bar none.

On top of all that, BV is perhaps the least gated major opinion website.

In addition to the writing, I also very much enjoy working for a great company.  Not all media outlets can offer that.

Anyway, forgive the biased rant, that is my take for today!  They also serve nice snacks and have an amazing art collection in the NYC building.

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

And here is what it tells us:

In the most recent paper, and one published earlier in the year by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, these were among the predictive correlations:

■ The system was able to accurately predict income, race, education and voting patterns at the ZIP code and precinct level in cities across the country.

■ Car attributes (including miles-per-gallon ratings) found that the greenest city in America is Burlington, Vt., while Casper, Wyo., has the largest per-capita carbon footprint.

■ Chicago is the city with the highest level of income segregation, with large clusters of expensive and cheap cars in different neighborhoods; Jacksonville, Fla., is the least segregated by income.

■ New York is the city with the most expensive cars. El Paso has the highest percentage of Hummers. San Francisco has the highest percentage of foreign cars.

That is from Steve Lohr at the NYT, and here is a link to the earlier research as cited in the first sentence.

1. Fez is perhaps the place in the world with the clearest continuous connections to the time of late antiquity.  Maimonides and Ibn Khaldun worked there, and walking through the medina that is not hard to imagine — you can dine in a small restaurant in the home of Maimonides (recommended, most of all the vegetables).  Fez has the world’s oldest university, dating from the 859, and the world’s oldest continuously operating library, from 1359.

2. The country has been remarkably stable relative to the rest of the region, whether you take that to be the Middle East, MENA, or Africa.  But the nature of the associated stability lessons remains unclear, read more here.

3 Social capital is higher than it was during my last visit twenty years ago.  That said, every transaction is still a potential swindle waiting to happen.  And if any English-speaking Moroccan climbs into your train cabin, and claims his brother is the most wonderful guide in town and offers up his phone number…simply decline any further contact.  Especially if the guy has a scar on his face.

4. From the OEC:

The top exports of Morocco are Cars ($2.95B), Insulated Wire ($2.46B), Mixed Mineral or Chemical Fertilizers ($1.83B), Phosphoric Acid($1.14B) and Non-Knit Women’s Suits ($1B)…

It could be much worse, but the dangers of premature deindustrialization are real.  Their exports are too dependent on Spain and France, two countries with many other trading partners and also relatively slow growth rates.  Agriculture still accounts for 40-45% of employment.  Tourism continues to grow, but service culture in the country is not top-notch.  They export a lot of marijuana too.

5. The country has the (distant) potential to evolve into an Atlantic economy — check the map — and I don’t just mean the history of Rabat/Salé as a pirate state.  Nonetheless the actual trade of the nation paints it as a Mediterranean economy, and most Mediterranean economies have not done very well lately.

6. Moroccans do not seem very religious.  Counterintuitively, that may be why, when they are living in Europe, they are especially vulnerable to radicalization. They are not already “filled up with belief,” and experience anomie, which is then exploited by terror groups.  Arguably the same is true for Uighurs in China, by the way, who are recruited by the thousands for foreign ISIS crusades and the like.

7. More and more of the country’s gdp is concentrating in and near Casablanca, which is underrated as a visit.  The famous Grand mosque, as Yana pointed out, in fact resembles a cavernous mosque-clock tower-opera house-French railway station, with even some elements of a medieval cathedral.  Not all devout Muslims are happy with it.

8. The best bistillah is in Meknes, where it is moister and less sweet.  In Casablanca I recommend the seafood stalls in the Grand Marché, and the roast chicken joints, always with french fries.

Most Popular MR Posts of 2017

by on December 29, 2017 at 7:25 am in Current Affairs | Permalink

The most popular post on MR for 2017 was my post, Switzerland is Prepared for Civilizational Collapse. Who can tell what will go viral? I suppose people are thinking a lot about civilizational collapse in recent times.

Next was Tyler’s post on Richard Thaler’s Nobel Prize.

There’s a lot of interest in Tyler’s religious beliefs as What is the Strongest Argument for the Existence of God? and Why I Don’t Believe in God were both widely read and commented upon.

Next came a bunch of econ posts from both Tyler and myself including:

Not surprisingly politics was also popular, including Tyler’s The Show so Far and Who Should be Shamed? and my post Authoritarians Distract Rather than Debate.

Overall, what strikes me is how normal 2017 seems. Compare with last year’s top posts, which are crazy. I don’t think 2017 was any less crazy than 2016 but–god help us–crazy has become normal.

Blogger Alon Levy first drew attention to the fact that building a subway costs far more in New York City than elsewhere in the United States or the world. In a superb investigation the NYTimes updates that finding and investigates why:

The estimated cost of the Long Island Rail Road project, known as “East Side Access,” has ballooned to $12 billion, or nearly $3.5 billion for each new mile of track — seven times the average elsewhere in the world. The recently completed Second Avenue subway on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and the 2015 extension of the No. 7 line to Hudson Yards also cost far above average, at $2.5 billion and $1.5 billion per mile, respectively.

So why are costs so high? The NYTimes concludes:

For years, The Times found, public officials have stood by as a small group of politically connected labor unions, construction companies and consulting firms have amassed large profits.

Trade unions, which have closely aligned themselves with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other politicians, have secured deals requiring underground construction work to be staffed by as many as four times more laborers than elsewhere in the world, documents show.

Construction companies, which have given millions of dollars in campaign donations in recent years, have increased their projected costs by up to 50 percent when bidding for work from the M.T.A., contractors say.

Consulting firms, which have hired away scores of M.T.A. employees, have persuaded the authority to spend an unusual amount on design and management, statistics indicate.

Where the Times piece goes well beyond what has been discussed before is the detail by which it supports these conclusions and the careful comparison with similar but much cheaper projects elsewhere in the world such as Paris.

It will not escape notice that New York buys subway construction the way all of America buys health care.

Read the whole thing.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

The onset of a new year brings plenty of predictions, and so I will hazard one: Many of the biggest events of 2018 will be bound together by a common theme, namely the collision of the virtual internet with the real “flesh and blood” world. This integration is likely to steer our daily lives, our economy, and maybe even politics to an unprecedented degree.

For instance, the coming year will see a major expansion of the “internet of things”…

And:

But whatever your prediction for the future, this integration of real and virtual worlds will either make or break bitcoin and other crypto-assets.

And:

So far the process-oriented and Twitter-oriented foreign policies have coexisted, however uneasily. I see 2018 as the year where these two foreign policies converge in some manner. Either Trump’s tweets end up driving actual foreign policy and its concrete, “boots on the ground” realization, or the real-world policy prevails and the tweets become far less relevant.

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of cyberwar,  China and facial surveillance technologies, and the French attempt to ban smartphones at schools.

…interest in sex peaks sharply online during major cultural and religious celebrations, regardless of hemisphere location. This online interest, when shifted by nine months, corresponds to documented human births, even after adjusting for numerous factors such as language and amount of free time due to holidays. We further show that mood, measured independently on Twitter, contains distinct collective emotions associated with those cultural celebrations. Our results provide converging evidence that the cyclic sexual and reproductive behavior of human populations is mostly driven by culture and that this interest in sex is associated with specific emotions, characteristic of major cultural and religious celebrations.

That is from Ian B. Wood, et.al., in Nature, via Kevin Lewis.  Kevin also refers me to a new paper arguing that “the company” came before and stimulated the development of “the economist.”

Chinese money is increasingly flowing into Israeli hi-tech companies and is likely to overtake the US as the number one source of foreign investment for the Jewish state.

Here is the full article, via the excellent Mark Thorson.