In the United States, there is more interest in heaven than in hell, at least based on searches. There are 1.5 times more searches for “heaven” than “hell,” 2.8 times as many searches asking what heaven looks like than what hell looks like, and 2.75 times as many searches asking whether heaven is real than whether hell is real.

…Relative to the rest of the country, for every search I looked at, retirement communities search more about hell. In retirement communities, there are a similar number of searches asking to see visuals of hell as visuals of heaven.


There are 4.7 million searches every year for Jesus Christ. The pope gets 2.95 million. There are 49 million for Kim Kardashian.

That is from Seth Stephens-Dawidowitz.

There is no great dental stagnation

by on September 17, 2015 at 6:19 pm in Medicine, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

This Father Pulled Out His Daughter’s Wobbly Tooth With A Drone, via Pethoukis and Drudge.

Swiss health insurers could demand higher premiums from customers who live sedentary lifestyles under plans to monitor people’s health through wearable digital fitness devices.

CSS, one of Switzerland’s biggest health insurers, said on Saturday it had received a “very positive” response so far to its pilot project, launched in July, which is monitoring its customers’ daily movements.

The MyStep project, developed in conjunction with the University of St Gallen and the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, is using digital pedometers to track the number of steps taken by 2,000 volunteers until the end of the year, synchronizing that data with an online portal on the CSS website.

But don’t worry, that is just the pilot program:

Fitness wristbands such as Fitbit are just the beginning of a revolution in healthcare, believes Ohnemus.

“Eventually we will be implanted with a nano-chip which will constantly monitor us and transmit the data to a control centre,” he said.

Obesity in Switzerland now costs the health service eight billion francs a year, according to figures from the Federal Office of Public Health, rising from 2.7 billion in 2002.

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank Axacatl Maqueda.

Online lending is overrated

by on September 7, 2015 at 2:16 am in Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

So the industry turned instead to the wholesale markets. Hedge funds and investment banks have proved a much easier sell. Not surprising, perhaps, when average rates on a Lending Club loan are between 7.5 per cent and 25 per cent and bond fund returns are closer to 2 per cent. Institutions now make up about four-fifths of many US operators’ funding. That allows some of the largest marketplace lenders to grow at more than 100 per cent a year. But it also makes them look a lot less like financial innovators — and more like finance companies of yore.

The FT piece by Jonathan Ford is interesting throughout, for instance he emphasizes that new business in these markets is drummed up only slowly and the sector depends on origination fees of one kind or another.  One possible outcome is that these online lenders will be bought out by banks.   Yet:

The snag is that banks trade on just 10 to 12 times earnings. Even after recent share price falls, that is far below the valuations that listed marketplace lenders enjoy.

Stay tuned, but the great stagnation for finance is in my view likely to continue…

I very much enjoyed this Live Chat, and I thank the participants for all of their stimulating questions and remarks.  Here is one excerpt:

Ben Casnocha:

How do you think your career and life would have been different if blogging, twitter, and digital media had be ubiquitous in your teens and 20’s? Would you have still pursued an academic path or would you have become a full-time columnist/commentator/speaker earlier on? I seem to recall you saying at one point that you’re glad the internet didn’t exist early on in your life as it gave you the time to read the classics and develop a substantive base of knowledge.

Tyler Cowen:

I am glad I was forced to live in “book culture” and “meat space’ for my first forty years. Or maybe thirty-five years would have been enough. People these days have lost the sense of information being scarce, and counterintuitively that makes it harder for them to develop profound thoughts. It’s like practicing chess by asking the computer right away, all the time, what the right move is.

[and later] …contemporary academic is overly bureaucratized and there is a very good chance I would [if I were starting today] look for another model of success and contentment. It is an open question whether or not I could find one. Whatever its limitations, there is still a followable formula for academic success, which of course is part of the problem.

Other topics include when is the best age to live in various parts of the world, Alban Berg and Rilke, Marc Andreessen, my one hidden talent, Rene Girard, labor market networks, optimal travel into the past, and which is the most underrated or overrated wisdom tradition.  Do read the whole thing.

“I would never have been able to arrive at my destination without my smartphone,” he added. “I get stressed out when the battery even starts to get low.”

That is from Osama Aljasem, a 32-year-old music teacher from Deir al-Zour in Syria, who took a boat to Greece, walked to Belgrade, and hopes to continue to parts further north and west:

In this modern migration, smartphone maps, global positioning apps, social media and WhatsApp have become essential tools.

Recommended.  And yes, disintermediation is kicking in:

“Right now the traffickers are losing business because people are going alone, thanks to Facebook,” said Mohamed Haj Ali, 38, who works with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital — a major stopover for migrants.

Facebook groups are used to pass along GPS coordinates and the prices charged by the traffickers have fallen in half.

According to the O.E.S., songwriters and music directors saw their average income rise by nearly 60 percent since 1999. The census version of the story, which includes self-­employed musicians, is less stellar: In 2012, musical groups and artists reported only 25 percent more in revenue than they did in 2002, which is basically treading water when you factor in inflation. And yet collectively, the figures seem to suggest that music, the creative field that has been most threatened by technological change, has become more profitable in the post-­Napster era — not for the music industry, of course, but for musicians themselves.

That is from Steven Johnson, the piece is excellent throughout.  And note this:

The new environment may well select for artists who are particularly adept at inventing new career paths rather than single-­mindedly focusing on their craft.

A few points on the Amazon story everyone is talking about:

1. First, if the story is somewhat true but exaggerated (a plausible scenario for something anecdotally based), the story may help Amazon with its current (but not prospective) employees.   A lot of people suddenly are feeling better treated than the perceived average, and that may boost their morale and productivity.  Yet they still feel the surrounding pressures to succeed.  As a countervailing force, Amazon is now less of a high status place to work and that may lower productivity and also it may hurt recruiting.

2. Given the existence of a tax wedge, Amazon employees are perhaps treated better than they would be in an optimum.  There is in general an inefficient substitution into non-pecuniary means of reimbursing workers because workplace income is taxed but workplace perks are not.  So arguably Amazon is treating its workers too well.  Think of this as another form of corporate tax arbitrage.

3. There is no right to an upper middle class lifestyle.  And for a large number of people, getting one is not easy.

Here is my Washington Post review of that book, which I very much liked.  Here is one bit from the review:

My favorite parts of the book are about the military, an area where most other popular authors on automation and smart software have hesitated to tread. In this book you can read about how much of America’s military prowess comes from superior human performance and not just from technology. Future gains will result from how combat participants are trained, motivated, and taught to work together and trust each other, and from better after-action performance reviews. Militaries are inevitably hierarchical, but when they process and admit their mistakes, they can become rapidly more efficient.

The subtitle of the book is What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will.

…Adblock Plus has become the internet’s advertising sheriff. That’s because its software, by default, allows some ads through its firewall—ads it deems “acceptable,” meeting a series of strict criteria it came up with in conversation with internet users around the world. The criteria essentially eliminate most of the ads on the market today, rolling back ad technology to the 1990s: text only, no animations, no popovers, no placement in the flow of text. In the two months since I’ve installed the software, I don’t recall seeing any ads that meet the criteria.

Websites must apply to get “whitelisted,” and an Adblock Plus employee then works with the site to make sure that the selected ads comply with the criteria. Ben Williams, a spokesman for Eyeo, told me that 700 publishers and bloggers have been whitelisted. The whitelist is how the company makes money. Eyeo charges large for-profit publishers a cut of ad revenues to be on the list, a scheme some critics have called extortion. Williams declined to say who is paying or how much, but the Financial Times recently reported that Google, Microsoft, and Amazon were among those paying Eyeo for their acceptable ads to appear to Adblock Plus users.

There is more here, from Michael Rosenwald.

Will ad-blocking, over time, decimate the free web?

Is WeChat the future?

by on August 11, 2015 at 1:15 am in Economics, Games, Web/Tech | Permalink

This Connie Chan article about mobile in China is difficult to summarize or excerpt, but it is one of the most important pieces of the year so far.  Here are the opening bits:

This post is all about WeChat, but it’s also about more than just WeChat. While seemingly just a messaging app, WeChat is actually more of a portal, a platform, and even a mobile operating system depending on how you look at it.

Much has been written about WeChat in the context of messaging app trends, but few outside of China really understand how it works — and how it can pull off what for many companies (and countries) is still a far-off vision of a world managed entirely through our smartphones. Many of WeChat’s most interesting features — such as access to city services — are not even visible to users outside of China.

So why should people outside of China even care about WeChat? The first and most obvious reason is that it points to where Facebook and other messaging apps could head. Second, WeChat indicates where the future of mobile commerce may lie. Third, WeChat shows what it’s like to be both a platform and a mobile portal (what Yahoo could have been).

Ultimately, however, WeChat should matter to all of us because it shows what’s possible when an entire country — which currently has a smartphone penetration of 62% (that’s almost 1/3 of its population) — “leapfrogs” over the PC era directly to mobile. WeChat was not a product that started as a website and then was adapted for mobile, it was (to paraphrase a certain movie) born into it, molded by it.

Do read the whole thing, this is also one of China’s first major innovations in the classic sense of that term.

Alphabet and Google

by on August 10, 2015 at 5:58 pm in Economics, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

Peter Klein has an interesting Rand Journal piece (pdf) on conglomerates:

This paper challenges the conventional wisdom that the 1960s conglomerates were inefficient. I offer valuation results consistent with recent event-study evidence that markets typically rewarded diversifying acquisitions. Using new data, I compute industry-adjusted valuation, profitability, leverage, and investment ratios for thirty-six large, acquisitive conglomerates from 1966 to 1974. During the early 1970s, the conglomerates were less valuable and less profitable than standalone firms, favoring an agency explanation for unrelated diversification. In the 1960s, however, conglomerates were not valued at a discount. Evidence from acquisition histories suggests that conglomerate diversification may have added value by creating internal capital markets.

In other words, today’s Google announcement isn’t as crazy as it may sound.  Here is further positive evidence on conglomerates, and Glenn Hubbard also thinks the 1960s conglomerates were largely efficient.  Here is some evidence, however, that conglomerates tend to be less innovative.  Scharfstein and Stein are less positive more generally.  Here is some evidence that the non-Google divisions will receive favoritism in the allocation of capital within the conglomerate.  That all said, conglomerates are understudied in microeconomics, in part because they are hard to study.

What do you all think of the news?

Imagine if I wrote a post that just served up a list like this:

The people who deserve to be raised in status:

Norman Borlaug, Jon Huntsman, female Catholics from Croatia, Scottie Pippen, Yoko Ono, Gordon Tullock, Uber drivers, and Arnold Schoenberg,


The people who deserve to be lowered in status:

Donald Trump, Harper Lee, inhabitants of the province Presidente Hayes, in Paraguay, doctors, Jacques Derrida, Indira Gandhi, and Art Garfunkel

You might get a kick out of it the first time, but quickly you would grow tired of the lack of substance and indeed the sheer prejudice of the exercise.

Yet, ultimately, the topic so appeals to you all.  So much of debate, including political and economic debate, is about which groups and individuals deserve higher or lower status.  It’s pretty easy — too easy in fact — to dissect most Paul Krugman blog posts along these lines.  It’s also why a lot of blog posts about foreign countries don’t generate visceral reactions, unless of course it is the Greeks and the Germans, or some other set of stand-ins for disputes closer to home (or maybe that is your home).  Chinese goings on are especially tough to parse into comparable American disputes over the status of one group vs. another.

I hypothesize that an MR blog post attracts more comments when it a) has implications for who should be raised and lowered in status, and b) has some framework in place which allows you to make analytical points, but points which ultimately translate into a conclusion about a).

Posts about immigration, the minimum wage, Greece and Germany, the worthiness of entrepreneurs vs. workers, and the rankings of different schools of thought or economists all seem to fit this bill.

Sometimes I am tempted to simply serve up the list and skip the analytics.

Addendum: Arnold Kling comments.

Interesting but worrying too:

The SmartGPA study uses passive sensing data and self-reports from students’ smartphones to understand individual behavioral differences between high and low performers during a single 10-week term. We propose new methods for better understanding study (e.g., study duration) and social (e.g., partying) behavior of a group of undergraduates. We show that there are a number of important behavioral factors automatically inferred from smartphones that significantly correlate with term and cumulative GPA, including time series analysis of activity, conversational interaction, mobility, class attendance, studying, and partying. We propose a simple model based on linear regression with lasso regularization that can accurately predict cumulative GPA. The predicted GPA strongly correlates with the ground truth from students’ transcripts…Our results open the way for novel interventions to improve academic performance.

That is from a new paper by Rui Wang, Gabriella Harariy, Peilin Hao, Xia Zhou, and Andrew T. Campbell (pdf).  Class attendance, by the way, does not predict grades very well.

For the pointers I thank Eric Barker and Dan Gould.

The share of teen girls who reported they’ve had sex at least once dropped from 51 percent in 1988 to 44 percent in 2013, they found. Abstinence was more pronounced among the guys: 60 percent of teen boys in 1988 said they’d had sex, compared to 47 percent in 2013.

That is from Paquette and Cai, the underlying CDC study is here.  One major hypothesis is that teen sex has declined because smart phone usage is up.  Teens are both better informed about the risks of sex and…they have something else to do.