Web/Tech

The impersonator priced the book at $555 and it was posted to multiple Amazon sites in different countries. The book — which as been removed from most Amazon country pages as of a few days ago — is titled “Lower Days Ahead,” and was published on Oct 7, 2017.

Reames said he suspects someone has been buying the book using stolen credit and/or debit cards, and pocketing the 60 percent that Amazon gives to authors. At $555 a pop, it would only take approximately 70 sales over three months to rack up the earnings that Amazon said he made.

“This book is very unlikely to ever sell on its own, much less sell enough copies in 12 weeks to generate that level of revenue,” Reames said. “As such, I assume it was used for money laundering, in addition to tax fraud/evasion by using my Social Security number. Amazon refuses to issue a corrected 1099 or provide me with any information I can use to determine where or how they were remitting the royalties.”

Reames said the books he has sold on Amazon under his name were done through his publisher, not directly via a personal account (the royalties for those books accrue to his former employer) so he’d never given Amazon his Social Security number. But the fraudster evidently had, and that was apparently enough to convince Amazon that the imposter was him.

Here are additional points of interest, as the practice is more common than you might have thought.  Via the estimable Chug.

Non-subscribers visiting WSJ.com now get a score, based on dozens of signals, that indicates how likely they’ll be to subscribe. The paywall tightens or loosens accordingly: “The content you see is the output of the paywall, rather than an input.”

Here is the full Nieman Lab article, you all have a good enough score to read it, just like at MR.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and it is not just about male wage stagnation:

The researchers Guido Matias Cortes, Nir Jaimovich and Henry E. Siu split jobs into categories, with “cognitive” occupations relying on brain power corresponding closely to what many call white-collar jobs. Their worrying result for men is this: In 1980, 66 percent of college-educated men worked in these cognitive occupations. By 2000, that had fallen to 63 percent. Those three percentage points may not sound like a major change, but that’s over a 20-year period when the American economy became wealthier and more Americans became educated. Men also grew older as a group during this time, which should have propelled them into more white-collar jobs. Relative to those expectations of improvement, the retrogression is startling.

…One possible reason for this shift is that more jobs demand good social skills. The data show that the growing demand for social skills, as measured by job characteristics and employment ads, has matched where women have gained relative to men in the workplace. The researchers suggest the scientific evidence shows that women have on average stronger skills in empathy, communication, emotion recognition and verbal expression, and corporate America is valuing those qualities all the more.

There is much more at the link.

Here is the transcript and audio, Matt was in great form.  We covered Uber, derivatives, crypto, Horace, Latin and the ancient world, neighborhoods of New York City, whether markets are volatile enough, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whether IPOs are mispriced, Nabokov and modernist literature, Achilles and Homer, and of course the Matt Levine production function (“panic”).

Here is one excerpt:

LEVINE:

…What I’d like the story to be is that financial markets have gotten smarter and they reacted less to news. So even though the news is noisier, they react less to that noisy news because it turns out not to affect asset prices in as noisy a way as you’d think by watching TV.

I think that there is something compelling to that because we actually have seen smart people build smart things that do a good job of making investing decisions. So you’d expect over time, as people build more rational investing tools, investing would become more rational.

The good counterargument to that is that investing is not a technological problem in the world that can be solved. It’s an interpersonal fight. Trading, in particular, is an attempt to be better than someone else. You can never make trading more rational because as you get better, someone else gets better. The residue will ultimately still be your human biases.

I’m biased towards the view that we have gotten smarter at decoupling our emotional reactions to the news from financial asset prices. Part of that is — whether or not that’s true globally — there’s a local sense in which the first day of Trump’s election everyone panicked. Then he said another crazy thing, and then he said another. Eventually you tune it out. That’s a form of this thing of financial assets reacting less to human reactions to the news.

Here is another:

COWEN: Do you have a single biggest worry [about asset markets], however tiny, tiny, tiny it may be?

LEVINE: I don’t think I do. I don’t think I do. The thing that I find weirdest is the lack of volatility in the face of a very strange and volatile world, but I’ve reconciled myself to that. This is my efficient markets optimism, where I assume that if something bad is happening, it would happen.

COWEN: But efficient markets is also a pessimism, right? It’s harder to make the world better than it already is because you can’t see past what others are seeing very easily.

LEVINE: Sure, it’s an efficient markets conservatism or something.

And finally:

LEVINE: I have an idiosyncratic take on Book 9 of the Iliad. The Iliad is the story of Achilles is the great warrior on the Greek side in the Trojan War. He gets mad at some slight, and he goes back to his tent to sulk, and the Greeks start losing.

So then they send emissaries to his tent to say, “Please come back.” And he says, “No.” Then, the Greeks start losing some more.

Eventually, he comes back, and he gets killed. That’s basically the story of the Iliad. Book 9 is where they send the emissaries to say, “Please come back,” and he says, “No.”

He gives this speech, this response that is weird, where he says, effectively, “The prophecy is that if I go back to fight here, I will die here. My name will be immortal. If I don’t go back to fight, I’ll go home and live a long life and will be forgotten.” He chooses to go back and be forgotten. Then, later, he changes his mind because his friend gets killed.

I think the existential examination of this Greek warrior and this heroic culture that clearly valorizes heroism and deathless fame and everything, and who is, canonically, the most famous heroic warrior and the one with the most deathless fame, he’s the one who says, “Nah, I’d rather go back and live a long life on my farm.”

The forcing of that choice is the central point of the highest work of Greek art, sort of prefigures a lot of existentialist thought in the future, I think.

Do read and listen to the whole thing

In 1971 Irving Kristol said yes, today Ross Douthat says yes.  I am sympathetic with the notion that porn in the “I know it when I see it sense” is a net negative bad for society, even if it helps some people revitalize their sex lives (Alex differs).  That said, I cannot find an attractive way of censoring it.

Ross tweeted:

I think you start with the rules we have, and think about how they might be applied to ISPs.

Yet playing whack-a-mole with ISPs does not always go well, a truth to which a number of emotionally well-balanced MR commentators can attest.  And porn users and suppliers I think would be especially willing to find workarounds, including VPNs.  So I don’t think porn would end up all that ghettoized.  My fear is that the American internet would evolve rather rapidly toward Chinese-style institutions of control (though they would not used right now), without stopping porn very much, but leading to increasing calls to censor many other things too.

Keep in mind also that porn has been a major driver of innovation, not just for the VCR but for the internet too, including for means of payment, methods of streaming, and anti-piracy.  Might porn drive the demand to build networks of virtual reality?  So I’m not ready to ban it just yet.

Cryptocurrencies are among the largest unregulated markets in the world. We find that approximately one-quarter of bitcoin users and one-half of bitcoin transactions are associated with illegal activity. Around $72 billion of illegal activity per year involves bitcoin, which is close to the scale of the US and European markets for illegal drugs. The illegal share of bitcoin activity declines with mainstream interest in bitcoin and with the emergence of more opaque cryptocurrencies. The techniques developed in this paper have applications in cryptocurrency surveillance. Our findings suggest that cryptocurrencies are transforming the way black markets operate by enabling “black e-commerce.”

Here is the paper, by Foley, Karlsen, and Putniņš, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Dan Hanson writes:

I wonder how many of the people making predictions about the future of truck drivers have ever ridden with one to see what they do?

One of the big failings of high-level analyses of future trends is that in general they either ignore or seriously underestimate the complexity of the job at a detailed level. Lots of jobs look simple or rote from a think tank or government office, but turn out to be quite complex when you dive into the details.

For example, truck drivers don’t just drive trucks. They also secure loads, including determining what to load first and last and how to tie it all down securely. They act as agents for the trunking company. They verify that what they are picking up is what is on the manifest. They are the early warning system for vehicle maintenance. They deal with the government and others at weighing stations. When sleeping in the cab, they act as security for the load. If the vehicle breaks down, they set up road flares and contact authorities. If the vehicle doesn’t handle correctly, the driver has to stop and analyze what’s wrong – blown tire, shifting load, whatever.

In addition, many truckers are sole proprietors who own their own trucks. This means they also do all the bookwork, preventative maintenance, taxes, etc. These people have local knowledge that is not easily transferable. They know the quirks of the routes, they have relationships with customers, they learn how best to navigate through certain areas, they understand how to optimize by splitting loads or arranging for return loads at their destination, etc. They also learn which customers pay promptly, which ones provide their loads in a way that’s easy to get on the truck, which ones generally have their paperwork in order, etc. Loading docks are not all equal. Some are very ad-hoc and require serious judgement to be able to manoever large trucks around them. Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge.

I’ve been working in automation for 20 years. When you see how hard it is to simply digitize a paper process inside a single plant (often a multi-year project), you start to roll your eyes at ivory tower claims of entire industries being totally transformed by automation in a few years. One thing I’ve learned is a fundamentally Hayekian insight: When it comes to large scale activities, nothing about change is easy, and top-down change generally fails. Just figuring out the requirements for computerizing a job is a laborious process full of potential errors. Many automation projects fail because the people at the high levels who plan them simply do not understand the needs of the people who have to live with the results.

Take factory automation. This is the simplest environment to automate, because factories are local, closed environments that can be modified to make things simpler. A lot of the activities that go on in a factory are extremely well defined and repetitive. Factory robots are readily available that can be trained to do just about anything physically a person can do. And yet, many factories have not automated simply because there are little details about how they work that are hard to define and automate, or because they aren’t organized enough in terms of information flow, paperwork, processes, etc. It can take a team of engineers many man years to just figure out exactly what a factory needs to do to make itself ready to be automated. Often that requires changes to the physical plant, digitization of manual processes, Statistical analysis of variance in output to determine where the process is not being defined correctly, etc.

A lot of pundits have a sense that automation is accelerating in replacing jobs. In fact, I predict it will slow down, because we have been picking the low hanging fruit first. That has given us an unrealistic idea of how hard it is to fully automate a job.

For that reason, Woodrow says that he saw their version of self-driving trucks as complementing humans, not replacing them. To make their case, Uber created a model of the industry’s labor market based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Then, they created scenarios that looked at a range of self-driving-truck adoption rates and how often those autonomous trucks would be on the road in comparison to human-driven vehicles.

Their numbers for autonomous-truck adoption are intentionally very aggressive, Woodrow says, corresponding to 25, 50, and 70 percent of today’s trucks being self-driven. These do not reflect an Uber prediction that between 500,000 and 1.5 million self-driving trucks will be on the road by 2028, but rather they allow the model to show the dynamics in the labor market that might result from widespread adoption. “Imagine that self-driving trucks are incredibly successful and impactful,” he says. “What would that mean?”

The other set of numbers in the model—the utilization rate of the self-driving trucks—is the component that leads Uber to a different analysis of the effect that these vehicles will have on truckers. Basically, if the self-driving trucks are used far more efficiently, it would drive down the cost of freight, which would stimulate demand, leading to more business. And, if more freight is out on the roads, and humans are required to run it around local areas, then there will be a greater, not lesser, need for truck drivers.

That is from Alexis C. Madrigal at The Atlantic.

What would make more sense to me is that, having first built an interface for its employees, and then a standardized infrastructure for its health care suppliers, is that Amazon converts the latter into a marketplace where PBMs, insurance administrators, distributors, and pharmacies have to compete to serve employees. And then, once that marketplace is functioning, Amazon will open the floodgates on the demand side, offering that standard interface to every large employer in America…

This is certainly ambitious enough — basically intermediating U.S. employers and the U.S. healthcare industry — but in fact this only sets the stage for the wholesale disruption of American healthcare. First, Amazon could not only open up its standard interface to other large employers, but small-and-medium sized businesses, and even individuals; in this way the Amazon Health Marketplace could aggregate by far the most demand for healthcare.

And to close the piece:

My expectation, then, is not that the Internet methodically disrupts industry after industry in some sort of chronological order, but rather that the entire edifice lasts far longer than technologists think, only to one day collapse far quicker than anyone expected.

The ultimate winners of this shakeout, then, are not only companies that are building businesses predicated on the Internet, but just as importantly, are willing and able to build those businesses with the patience that will be necessary to wait for the old order to collapse, particularly if that collapse happens years or decades after the underlying business models are rotten.

Here is more, and I do hope you are all subscribing to Stratechery, which is one of the very best regular reads, worth the money.

My personal moonshot

by on January 31, 2018 at 12:03 am in Economics, Education, Philosophy, Web/Tech | Permalink

That is a short piece I wrote for the inauguration of a new Mercatus website The Bridge.  The focus of the piece is how I think about my own career and “moat”, excerpt:

My view, or at least hope, is that these diverse outputs [listed at the link] exploit two synergies.  First, my work in any one of these areas publicizes what I am doing in the others.  Second, what I learn from each task boosts my productivity in the others.  Overall, I think of these activities as a kind of collective intellectual blitzkrieg.

I will step out of my modest demeanor for a moment and suggest that relatively few people can construct and manage such a broad portfolio, and so this gives me some kind of competitive advantage or “moat” in the world of ideas.  My moonshoot, in essence, is trying to push as hard as possible on that advantage with this blitzkrieg.

And:

By the way, I love it when people describe writing a blog, or writing on the internet, as “popularizing” economics or something similar.  That is a sign they don’t understand what is going on, that they don’t understand there is such a thing as “internet economics,” and also a sign they will not be effective competition.  It’s really about “the internet way of writing and communicating” vs. non-internet methods.  The internet methods may or may not be popular, and may or may not be geared toward a wide audience, so they are not the same as popularizing.  One point of the internet is to find an outlet for super-unpopular material.  What’s important right now is to develop internet methods of thinking and communicating, and not to obsess over reaching the largest possible numbers of people.

I would note that tylercowensethnicdiningguide.com fits into the picture too, although this essay was too short to explain the larger schema with that one.

Soon I will be having a conversation with Robin Hanson — the Robin Hanson.  What should I ask him?  The jumping-off point will be his new book with Kevin Simler, but of course we won’t stop there.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit about why they might not:

In any of these Washington area locations, Amazon is taking an implicit stance on the nature of talent and education. It’s well known that the D.C. area has high education levels, including in science and technology fields. At the same time, it has not bred a lot of rapidly scaling, dynamic startups comparable to, say, Silicon Valley or Austin, Texas. The work ethic and competition here are strong, but the orientation is too much toward the government as customer and arbiter. If Amazon settles in or near Washington, the company is betting that educated human beings are flexible and can reorient their priorities and ethos to a changing business environment. If there is any argument against Amazon picking the D.C. area, it’s this one.

There are many more points at the link.

Here is the video of my 30-minute debate — and yes it was a debate not really a dialogue — with Luigi Zingales on this question (click through for the video).  At the link is an associated transcript too, though the vigor of the back and forth was lots of fun.

I think Ross, along with Steven Pinker, received the hardest (though never hostile) questions from me, but of course that is a measure of respect.  Plus serious questions about God are difficult by their nature.  Here is how the summarizers described the ground covered:

…Douthat’s views on religion and theology, but then moves on to more earth-bound concerns, such as his stance on cats, The Wire vs The Sopranos, why Watership Down is the best modern novel for understanding politics, eating tofu before it was cool, journalism as a trade, why he’s open to weird ideas, the importance of Sam’s Club Republicans, the specter of a Buterlian Jihad, and more.

Not to mention Reformicons, CRISPR, Thiel/Girard, Godwin’s Law, euthanasia, what Ross learned his mother, and the dangers of too much smart phone use.  Ross responded in fine form, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

DOUTHAT: I suppose that I’m drawn to the idea that the truth about human existence lies in what can seem like paradoxical formulations, and this is of course very Catholic in certain ways. Certainly a G. K. Chestertonian idea, so I’m just stealing it from other people. But the idea that various heresies of Christianity, Calvinism included — with apologies to my Calvinist friends — tend to take one particular element of you that’s supposed to be in synthesis and possibly in tension, and run with it. And therefore the truth about things lies in a place that may seem slightly contradictory.

And I think this is borne out in many ways in everyday experience. This both-and experience of human existence. The idea that you can’t split up grace and works in any kind of meaningful way. It’s connected to larger facts about the nature of human existence. The tension between determinism and free will that persists in any philosophical system. You can get rid of God and stop having these Jansenist Jesuit arguments about predestination and so on, but you’re still stuck with the free will–determinism debate. That debate doesn’t go away.

So, yeah, there’s a point at the intersection of different ideas that is as close to the truth as our limited minds can get and in Christian thought, we call that point orthodoxy. Now, how that is connected to my political views is a really good question.

And:

COWEN: We all know the Marcionite heresy: the view, from early Christianity, that the Old Testament should be abandoned. At times, even Paul seems to subscribe to what later was called the Marcionite heresy. Why is it a heresy? Why is it wrong?

DOUTHAT: It’s wrong because it takes the form . . . It’s wrong for any number of reasons, but in the context of the conversation we’re having, it’s wrong because it tries to basically take one of the things that Christianity is trying to hold in synthesis and run with it to the exclusion of everything else, and essentially to solve problems by cutting things away.

The Marcionite thesis is, basically, if you read the New Testament, Jesus offers you a portrait of God that seems different from the portrait of God offered in Deuteronomy; therefore, these things are in contradiction. Therefore, if you believe that Jesus’s portrait of God is correct, then the Deuteronomic portrait of God must be false; therefore, the God of the Old Testament must be a wicked demiurge, etc., etc. And the next thing you know, you’re ascribing to, again, a kind of . . . What is the Aryan Christianity of the Nazis, if not the Marcionite heresy given form in the 1930s and 1940s?

And so the orthodox Christian says, “No, any seeming tension between the Old Testament and the New, any seeming contradiction, is actually suggesting that we need to look for a kind of synthesis between them, and for a sense in which there is not contradiction, but fulfillment in some way, which —

COWEN: Bringing us back to Hegelian Douthat.

DOUTHAT: Yes, yes.

And:

I think it’s probably fair to say that Chesterton’s Father Brown stories had as much influence on my worldview as his more sort of polemical and argumentative writings. And, again, I think therein lies some important insight that I haven’t thought through, but I think you’re correctly gesturing at, about a particular way of thinking about God and theology that isn’t unique to Christianity, but that is strongly suggested by just the structure of the revelation that we have. Marilynne Robinson has a line, I think in Gilead, about — one of the characters is imagining that this life is like the epic of heaven. That we’re living in the Iliad or the Odyssey of heaven. This is the story that will be told in the streets.

And:

COWEN: When you see how much behavior Islam or some forms of Islam motivate, do you envy it? Do you think, “Well, gee, what is it that they have that we don’t? What do we need to learn from them?” What’s your gut emotional reaction?

On another topic:

I’ve been always disappointed that there hasn’t been a kind of sustained Watership Down revival because it’s such a great book and it’s a book about — essentially, it’s about a founding.

It’s connected, in a sense, to the kind of things that the Straussians are always arguing about and so on. What does the founding mean, and so on? But you have a group of rabbits who go forth and encounter different models of political order, different ways of relating to humankind, that shadow over rabbit-kind at any point.

You have a warren that has essentially surrendered itself to humanity and exists as a kind of breeding farm, and you have a warren that’s run as a fascist dictatorship essentially. And then you have this attempt to form a political community that is somewhere in between the two, getting back to the Hegelian synthesis and so on. And you have sort of this primal narrative where the problem is of course that they don’t have any females, and so there’s this competition, this competition for reproductive power that’s carried out between these different warrens where the rabbits from the good warren have to literally — not kidnap, because the does come willingly — but steal women from the fascist dictatorship, which maintains a ruthless control over reproduction.

So there’s just a lot of fascinating stuff there, and then it’s all interspersed with storytelling. There’s the sort of rabbit folktales that Richard —

COWEN: So, narrative again.

DOUTHAT: Narrative again.

Strongly recommended, and I do thank Ross for putting up with me.  Do read or listen to the whole thing.

And I very much enjoyed reading Ross’s forthcoming book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, which I found totally engrossing.

A few points:

1. Facebook can now claim it is truly addressing the problems (way exaggerated in my opinion) associated with the 2016 election.  This looks decisive, and the company can present it as a turning point.

2. In essence, they are blaming the media, without having to throw the stones themselves.  Americans respond positively to attacks on the media, so this is a strong public relations move.  Facebook retains the option of blaming the media more explicitly for its previous troubles, if need be.

3. The news feed can always be reintroduced under another name or guise.  Two years from now, the entire dialogue about the major web companies is likely to be different, one way or another.

4. I do understand this may devastate some marginal media outlets, and in fact many media outlets are marginal these days in economic terms.  Still, in the longer run I prefer a scenario where other web sites try to compete with Facebook rather than being co-opted by it and dependent on it.

5. Does this mean more ads will turn up on Instagram, chat apps, Facebook Messenger, and other Facebook services?

There is also this angle (NYT, speculative):

Facebook’s pulling back from the news — which necessarily depends on conflict — and elevation of homier material may bolster the company’s attempt to enter China, where it has been met with stiff resistance.

“Facebook is just desperate to get into China, and it will never do that unless it censors news — and this is actually a neat solution to that,” Mr. Weisberg, the Slate chairman, said. “If you only have news on the platform shared by users, users who live under repressive regimes don’t have access to real news and can’t share it, because it’s legally prohibited.”

I’m not entirely happy about this last factor, but I also don’t see how it is better for China for Facebook to remain permanently outside the country.  And if the desire to enter China makes Facebook in some way worse for Americans, that is a potential problem, but I don’t see how this move makes the overall media environment worse for Americans.