The next Conversations with Tyler comes next Thursday, six days from now, and it is with Dani Rodrik.  Of course you should show up, or watch the LiveStream (see the link).  But in the meantime, what should I ask him?

Again, here is the previous session with Luigi Zingales.

The transcript is here, with a podcast version, and there is also a YouTube version at the link, with cleaned-up audio compared to any earlier link you may have come across.  Luigi was wonderful, and also fantastically witty.  The topics included Italy, Donald Trump, Antonio Gramsci, Google and conglomeration, Luchino Visconti, Starbucks, and the surprisingly high productivity of Italian cafés.

Here is one excerpt:

I don’t understand why in the United States the only thing that is really noncompetitive is sports. In Europe, the only thing that is really competitive is sports.

And another:

COWEN: …Angela Merkel, overrated or underrated?

ZINGALES: I think she’s probably underrated. I’m impressed by her ability to, number one, run Europe for the interest of Germans in a very effective way.

The longest bit from me is where I compare and contrast Luigi with Gramsci, another theorist of hegemony, and try to sum up Luigi’s work; you can find that on the video or in the transcript.

And again from Luigi there is this:

…when I arrived in this country 27 years ago, you were not really drinking coffee. You were drinking a dark thing that tastes like I don’t say what because we’re online. The culture of coffee did not exist here.

The culture of coffee and a café where you seat and drink, et cetera, what Starbucks is, is an Italian or at most French culture. Why were you unable to export this? This is my little explanation. By the way, the only country in the world where Starbucks has not arrived is Italy.

Luigi then considers when Italian coffee is better tasting and better run at the artisan level, yet without the same possibilities for corporate expansion.  I liked this sentence from Luigi:

The extreme agency problems of Italy make it difficult to scale firms.

And finally:

One thing I can predict fairly confidently is that we are not going to pay the debt.

This is also a worthwhile observation:

When you’re down to one or two kids, the chance that one is an idiot is pretty large.

His favorite film is Visconti’s The Leopard, a good pick.  And he was the public choice scholar who forecast the rise of Donald Trump, as we discuss in the chat.  Self-recommending.

The ghost in the machine

by on August 7, 2015 at 7:30 am in Film, Science, Travel | Permalink

I visited two wonderful churches in Barcelona. The first, of course, was La Sagrada Familia. Ramez Naam put it best, this is “the kind of church that Elves from the 22nd Century would build.” I can’t add to that, however, so let me turn to the second church.

The Chapel Torre Girona at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona is home to the MareNostrum, not the world’s fastest but certainly the world’s most beautiful supercomputer.


Although off the usual tourist path, it’s possible to get a tour if you arrange in advance. As you walk around the nave, the hum of the supercomputer mixes with Gregorian chants. What is this computer thinking you wonder? Appropriately enough the MareNostrum is thinking about the secrets of life and the universe.

In this picture, I managed to capture within the cooling apparatus a saintly apparition from a stained glass window.

The ghost in the machine.


Hat tip: Atlas Obscura.

Good sentences about Godzilla

by on August 5, 2015 at 3:17 pm in Film, History, Law | Permalink

In movie after movie, people merely ran away from the stampeding monster, and no one tried to face up to the issue of accountability, he said.

Those are the words of the new director for the series.

Let’s stick with the living, here are a few who come to mind:

Adam Minter

Charles C. Mann

Laura Miller (formerly of, now of Slate)

Ted and Dana Gioia

Christopher Balding

Fuchsia Dunlop

Stephen King

Arnold Kling

Kendrick Lamar

Viktor Zhadanov

Chow Yun Fat

To be clear, I am not suggesting these people are deficient or lacking in status, rather that it should be higher yet.  Or maybe it is the list of people who should decline in status which interests you more


1. Painter: Marko Čelebonović.  Plus lots of the art in the monasteries.

2. Performance art: Marina Abramović.  I still love this video of the staring game.

3. Author: Danilo Kiš, the Serbian Borges.  Or how about Milorad Pavic, Dictionary of the Khazars, which somehow seems to have fallen through the cracks since the time of its publication.  Ivan “Ivo” Andrić is the Serbian Nobel Laureate, sort of, he espoused a Serbian identity but actually was Bosnian.

4. Actor and director: Emir Kusturica.  Recently he has disappointed, and taken flak, for having supported Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  He is still an impressive creator, however, and is also an accomplished musician and author.  Did I mention that he espouses a Serbian national identity, and has converted to Orthodox Christianity, but originally was a Bosnian Muslim?

5. Actress: Milla Jovovich, most of all in Fifth Element and also Resident Evil, she is part Serbian.

6. Economist and blogger: Branko Milanović.

7. Sports: Lots of tennis players, plus Pete Maravich was of Serbian descent.

Other: Tesla was ethnic Serbian though born in Croatia.  American poet Charles Simic was born in Serbia, though he moved to the United States at a young age.


1. Novelist: Help!  I do own a copy of Sarah Nović’s Girl at War, but haven’t yet read it.

2. Basketball player: Toni Kukoc, the “Croatian sensation.”

3. Painting: There was an active school of Naive painting in Croatia, from Hlebine near the Hungarian border.  Perhaps my favorite from the group was Ivan Generalic, but Mirko Virius was very good too.

4. Inventor: Nikola Tesla.  Before you go crazy in the comments section, however, here is a long Wikipedia page on to what extent we can justly claim that Tesla was Croatian.  Here are further debates, Croat or Serb?  Or both?

5. Pianist: How about Ivo Pogorelić?  Here is his Petrushka.

6. Economist: Branko Horvat, the market-oriented market socialist, is the only one I can think of, here is an overview of his contributions (pdf).  Am I forgetting someone?

7. City: Split, not Dubrovnik.  I am here for two days right now, then on to Belgrade for a conference/salon.

I cannot name a Croatian movie or composer or pop star.  I have the feeling they have many more famous athletes.  Don’t they have a lot of beautiful models?  Aren’t they the world’s most beautiful people?  Has anyone set a movie here?

The bottom line: It would be worse without Tesla.

What I’ve been reading, and viewing

by on July 7, 2015 at 1:37 am in Books, Film | Permalink

1. Stephen Witt, How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy.  Most of all, Learned how much hard work and ingenuity was behind the MP3 standard, in any case a good and useful book.

2. P.W. Singer and August Cole, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.  More of a speculative exercise than a traditional novel — what if the Chinese could beat the Americans? — but still a fun read and a book that people are talking about at high levels.

3. Vendela Vida, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty: A Novel.  To the point and lots of fun.  A recently divorced woman travels to Morocco and surprises start to happen.  Occupies that intriguing space between “not deep” but also “not superficial.”

4. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend.  This writer has been called a “female Neapolitan Knausgaard,” arguably a deliberate oxymoron.  It took me my second read through to “get it,” which I suppose means I am not the natural target audience.  But I am very glad I gave it that second read, and this is in fact the female Neapolitan Knausgaard, in four volumes by the way.

5. Red Army, a film documentary about the hockey team of the Soviet Red Army, its rise and fall.  Chock full of social science, I loved this movie, philosophical too, even though I am not especially interested in hockey.  One of my favorite documentaries.

*Inside Out*

by on June 21, 2015 at 8:12 pm in Film | Permalink

In what is perhaps the worst year for movies in my life, the new Pixar feature stands out as a welcome relief.  Even by Pixar standards it is more adult than usual, with the main theme being the precariousness of mental health and the ease of slipping into depression.  Voluntarists will object.  Every scene is gorgeous, the inside jokes are rife, and I enjoyed the ongoing pokes at Silicon Valley, most of all the dreams of unicorns.

Thanks to computerized aiming, HEL MD can operate in wholly autonomous mode, which Boeing tested successfully in May 2014 – although the trials uncovered an unexpected challenge. The weapon’s laser beam is silent and invisible, and not all targets explode as they are destroyed, so an automated battle can be over before operators have noticed anything. ‘The engagements happen quickly, and unless you’re staring at a screen 24-7 you’ll never see them,’ Blount says. ‘So we’ve built sound in for whenever we fire the laser. We plan on taking advantage of lots of Star Trek and Star Wars sound bites.’

More generally, fibre-laser weapons may be on their way:

Despite their modest capabilities, Scharre claims that fibre-laser weapons could find a niche in US military defence in 5–10 years. “They may not be as grand and strategic as the Star Wars concept,” he says, “but they could save lives, protect US bases, ships and service members.”

The full article is here, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Most indie films and documentaries don’t get to most markets. It’s hard for a theatre to know which of the many indie films audiences really want to see and without the scale of a NYC it doesn’t make sense for theatres to gamble on a screening that might not make audience.

R.J. Lehmann writes about Tugg, a new service that allows someone who wants to create an event to pull the movie to a local theatre:

With Tugg, a user chooses a film and the date, time and the theatre where he or she would like it to be shown. If the theatre approves the request, Tugg creates a personalized event page for the user through which tickets can be sold. If sales meet a set threshold goal before the set deadline, then the screening is on; if not, it’s cancelled and those who bought tickets are refunded their money. As a bonus that provides ample incentive to promote screenings, users who organize events get to keep 5 percent of the gate.

…Essentially, what Tugg offers is what is known in game theory circles as an assurance contract. (That’s ASsurance, not INsurance.) As my old colleague Alex Tabarrok, who has done some pioneering work on the subject, explains:

In an assurance contract, people pledge to fund a public good if and only if enough others pledge to fund the public good. Assurance contracts were not well-known when I began to write on this topic but have now become common due to organizations like Groupon and Kickstarter, which work on this principle (indeed, I have been credited with the ideas behind Groupon, although sadly for my bank account, I don’t think that claim would stand in a court of law). Since no money is paid unless the total pledges are high enough to fund the public good, assurance contracts remove the fear that your contribution will be wasted if other people fail to contribute.

In essence, Tugg handles the logistics of creating a movie event and the assurance contract assures that the event will be profitable.

Roberto Ferdman reports:

Ratner has a new study titled ‘Inhibited from Bowling Alone,’ a nod to Robert Putnam’s book about Americans’ waning participation in group activities, that’s set to publish in the Journal of Consumer Research in August. In it, she and co-writer Rebecca Hamilton, a professor marketing at the McDonough School of Business, describe their findings: that people consistently underestimate how much they will enjoy seeing a show, going to a museum, visiting a theater, or eating at a restaurant alone. That miscalculation, she argues, is only becoming more problematic, because people are working more, marrying later, and, ultimately, finding themselves with smaller chunks of free time.

Might part of the problem be narcissism?:

“The reason is we think we won’t have fun because we’re worried about what other people will think,” said Ratner. “We end up staying at home instead of going out to do stuff because we’re afraid others will think they’re a loser.”

But other people, as it turns out, actually aren’t thinking about us quite as judgmentally or intensely as we tend to anticipate. Not nearly, in fact. There’s a long line of research that shows how consistently and regularly we overestimate others’ interest in our affairs.

There is more here.  For the pointer I thank Claire Morgan.

I’m passing through Baltimore on the train today (a talk at U. Penn and chatting with Ashok Rao), so I have license to do this.  Here goes:

1. Author: There is plenty to choose from here, including Poe, James Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Frank O’Hara, and H.L. Mencken.  I do not love F. Scott Fitzgerald as many do, same with Upton Sinclair, but they deserve mention.  I’ll opt for Poe, with Gold-Bug as my favorite story.  Hammett’s Red Harvest I also enjoy and have taught a few times, delicious incoherence.  Anne Tyler has a few good books, but stop reading after one or two of them.

2. Philosopher: John Rawls, though since we’re talking about Baltimore I feel I should call him Jack.

3. Painter: Morris Louis or Grace Hartigan?  I feel I can do better, help out people.

4. Popular music: Tori Amos grew up in Baltimore, I like her Little Earthquakes and various singles, live cuts, and cover versions, available only in scattered form as far as I know.  Is Dan Deacon popular?  Frank Zappa is a remarkable musical talent, but I don’t actually enjoy listening to him.

5. Jazz: Eubie Blake, there is also Bill Frisell and Billie Holiday.

6. Classical music: Philip Glass was born there, though I associate him with NYC.

7. Baseball: I still remember that old Orioles rotation with Cuellar, McNally, Palmer, and Dobson, all twenty-game winners in the same year.

8. Soviet spy: Alger Hiss.

9. Movie, set in: I don’t love Diner or Avalon, how about The Accidental Tourist, or Twelve Monkeys?  The first half of Silence of the Lambs is excellent.

For good measure toss in Thurgood Marshall, Tim Page, Babe Ruth, The Wire, Walters Art Museum, the underrated BSO, and Brooks Robinson.  Who or what else am I forgetting?

The bottom line: Lots for one city!  Let’s hope it gets better soon.

Here is a long and excellent post, whereby Robin outs himself as a strange kind of environmentalist.  Do need the whole thing, but here is one summary excerpt:

So, bottom line, the future great filter scenario that most concerns me is one where our solar-system-bound descendants have killed most of nature, can’t yet colonize other stars, are general predators and prey of each other, and have fallen into a short-term-predatory-focus equilibrium where predators can easily see and travel to most all prey. Yes there are about a hundred billion comets way out there circling the sun, but even that seems a small enough number for predators to careful map and track all of them.

“At first they came for the rabbits…and then they came for me.”  I find that intriguing, but I have a more marginalist approach, and perhaps one which encompasses Robin’s hypothesis as a special case.  The death of human (and other) civilizations may be a bit like the death of the human body through old age, namely a whole bunch of things go wrong at once.  If there were a single key problem, it would be easier to find a patch and prolong things for just a bit more.  But if we have reason to believe that, eventually, many things will go wrong at once…such a concatenation of problems is more likely to defeat us.  So my nomination for The Great Filter, in a nutshell, is “everything going wrong at once.”  The simplest underlying model here is that a) problems accumulate, b) resources can be directed to help solve problems, and c) sometimes problems accumulate more rapidly than they can be solved.

This is also why, in many cases, there is no simple “fact of the matter” answer as to why various mighty empires fell in the past.  Here is my earlier review of Apocalypto, a remarkable and still underrated movie.

Compensating Differentials

by on April 8, 2015 at 7:28 am in Books, Economics, Education, Film | Permalink

The latest section of our Principles of Economics course at MRU is up today and it covers price discrimination and labor markets.

In this video, The Tradeoff Between Fun and Wages, we introduce the idea of compensating differentials in wages, an idea that goes back to Adam Smith.

Sharp readers will notice a homage near the beginning in what might otherwise appear to be an odd scene setting.