My Conversation with Ben Thompson

Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary opener:

Not only is Ben Thompson’s Stratechery frequently mentioned on MR, but such is Tyler’s fandom that the newsletter even made its way onto the reading list for one of his PhD courses. Ben’s based in Taiwan, so when he recently visited DC, Tyler quickly took advantage of the chance for an in-person dialogue.

In this conversation they talk about the business side of tech and more, including whether tech titans are good at PR, whether conglomerate synergies exist, Amazon’s foray into health care, why anyone needs an Apple Watch or an Alexa, growing up in small-town Wisconsin, his pragmatic book-reading style, whether MBAs are overrated, the prospects for the Milwaukee Bucks, NBA rule changes, the future of the tech industries in China and India, and why Taiwanese breakfast is the best breakfast.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why should I want a tech device in my home at all? Take Alexa — I don’t have one, I’m pretty happy, my life is simple. I don’t want anyone or anything listening to me. What does it do for me? I know I can tell it to play me a song or buy something on Amazon, but that’s one-click shopping anyway, could hardly be simpler. Why do devices in the home have any future at all?

THOMPSON: The reality is — particularly when it comes to consumer products — is that in the long run, convenience always wins. I think people will have them in their homes, and they’ll become more popular because it’s convenient.

You can be doing whatever you want; you can say something like, “Set a timer five minutes,” or “What temperature should I grill my steak to?” And you’ll get an answer with your hands busy, and altogether it’s going to be a more convenient answer than it would’ve been otherwise.


COWEN: How bullish are you on India’s tech sector and software development?

THOMPSON: I’m bullish. You know, India — people want to put it in the same bucket as, “Oh, it’s the next China.” The countries are similar in that they’re both very large, but they’re so different.

Probably the most underrated event — I don’t want to say in human history, but in the last hundred years — is the Cultural Revolution in China. And not just that 60, 70 million people were killed, or starved to death, or what it might be, but it really was like a scorched earth for China as a whole. Everything started from scratch. And from an economic perspective, that’s why you can grow for so long — because you’re starting from nothing basically. But the way it impacts culture, generally, and the way business is done.

Taiwan, I think, struggles from having thousands of years of Chinese bureaucracy behind it. Plus they were occupied by Japan for 50 years, so you’ve got that culture on top. Then you have this sclerotic corporate culture that the boss is always right, stay in the office until he goes home, and that sort of thing. It’s unhealthy.

Whereas China — it’s much more bare-knuckled competition and “Figure out the right answer, figure it out quickly.” The competition there is absolutely brutal. It’s brutal in a way I think is hard for people to really comprehend, from the West. And that makes China, makes these companies really something to deal with.

Whereas India did not have something like that. Yes, it had colonialism, but all that is still there, and the effects of that, and the long-term effects of India’s thousands of years of culture. So it makes it much more difficult to wrap things up, to get things done. And that’s always, I think, going to be the case. The way India develops, generally, because they didn’t have a clear-the-decks event like the Cultural Revolution, is always going to be fundamentally different.

And that is by no means a bad thing. I’m not wishing the Cultural Revolution on anyone. I’m just saying it makes the countries really fundamentally different.

Definitely recommended.


The average IQ of China is 105 and for India it's 82. India has had a caste system for so many generations with strict prohibitions against intercaste marriage that it does not have a single gene pool. There are many smart Indians, but the low average IQ is a problem.

Discussing the different economic prospects of two countries without mentioning a 20 point IQ gap is politically correct but not intellectually honest.

You fell into some classic traps, chess master GM Alexander Genrikhovich Beliavsky.
First, IQ is dependent on GDP. The higher the GDP, the higher the IQ. In fact, I was told by somebody on this board, who sounded authoratative, that for many African countries they don't even do field studies to measure IQ (imagine trying to get a bushman to do an IQ test anyway) but infer it from GDP per capita. Second, the China "105 IQ" metric is a lie. It's nothing more than cherrypicking Shanghai and Beijing data and extrapolating it to the rest of China. China's IQ, based on GDP, is probably in the low-to-mid 90s (not bad at all) not 105. Mongolia has an IQ of 105 but that might be a statistical fluke (Mongolia is a small country) or maybe Ghengus Khan really was the genius people say he was.

Bonus trivia: Ghengus Khan was a cuck. One of his favorite sayings is how pleasant it is to kill a man and then sleep with his wife. Eeww, yuk. But his DNA is the most prevalent DNA on the planet.

1. no one in that situation is a cuck, but especially not ghengis khan.

2. re: IQ, wrong. so wrong you must have spent almost zero time learning about it.

@jason y - one liners won't win a flame war. 1. is classic cuck (two men, one woman) and 2. no cite, no evidence, you lose.

Two men, one woman (or two women, one man) is a menage-a-trois not a 'classic cuck'

lets define our terms;
if ghengis kills the fella and then sleeps with the widow that means the
dead guy is the cuck not ghenghis
and the classic menagdetricycle does not include a murder

I am not the chess grandmaster Alexander Beliavsky. Please don't blame or credit him with what I write.

The average IQ of China is 105 and for India it's 82.

No one, not even you, can possibly know that, even if it were true, which it's not and if it was meaningful, which it isn't.

Word salad from chuck m.

no es ensalada
hes lookin fur a footnote
to support a bold claim?

Can you cite the datasets used for those 2 numbers?

It is fashionable to deride the Indian caste system.

But caste system is also in part the reason why India is more stable than China. There can never be an Indian Hitler, an Indian Mao, or even an Indian Xi Jinping.

That's because power is distributed in India. Community is King. And Individual is subservient to the family and community. This is a great cultural bulwark against centralization.

Also I don't think you can attribute IQ differences to caste system. Sure, the standard deviation of IQ is a lot higher in India than in China.

But the Standard deviation is huge even within each subcaste. So endogamy is not driving this.

The source of the IQ numbers is, using data from Professor Richard Lynn.

I am not saying the caste system has depressed IQ. I am saying that Indian IQs do not fall on a single bell curve because India has many subpopulations.

They say that responses are shaped by the first one on a page, and God help us, that was the first one.

I will bed in a different way. China and India have a fundamental problem, a resource curse, and that is the rice culture is just so darn good.

these people supported almost a billion people with primitive technology because rice supported that.

Every wheat or potato culture who looks at them and doesn't see rice at the core is missing the fundamental difference.

Why are people leaving Honduras right now? Because the poor people can only grow corn, not rice!

Word salad.

China and India each have a unique set of problems. If you were going to point to a shared problem, it sure as hell wouldn’t be rice. It would be a low trust society and its offspring: corruption, ineffective governance, and nepotism.

Hondurans aren’t leaving due to corn, this has to be a satire account. They’re leaving due to the ills of living in a low trust society: corruption, lack of law and order, and no property rights.

Don't say "word salad" when you can't follow. That is lazy.

Compare the pre-industrial populations of the world, and get back to me.

Here is a little help for you

Actually this one is better, because it shows the Chinese and Indian populations overwhelmingly on top.

Even if you look at the 1800 list, British India+Maratha Empire+Wing is only 500 million. Almost a billion is ridiculous hyperbole. World population was a lot more even than that (and more more even than today between Europe and Asia). If you go back to 1600 India+China is about 300 million.

You guys are fighting details rather than really looking at the message.

Rice cultures got an early start at population growth and civilizational complexity, which wheat and other cultures did not match until much later.

It's just true.

And I think it is fair to treat that as a kind of resource curse. Populations reached Malthusian levels before the Industrial Revolution arrived to their shores. When modernisation arrived it did not do so in a semi populated country with lots of room for innovation, it did it in a densely populated nation with farming plots divided down to fractions of acres.

Why were China and India slow to adapt did the Industrial Revolution?

My answer is *huge* populations locked in primative agriculture.

India to this day suffers that momentum.

The Cradle of Civilization was the Near East, and to a lesser extent the Indus Valley, based on wheat agriculture.

Rice based civilization is relatively late, and for most of Neolithic history, regions where rice cultivation are now intense have been peripheral to the centres for development of cultural complexity.

(Even North China is relatively late to complexity, and that wasn't even a rice agriculturalist region, millet was the main crop of the cradle of Chinese civilization).

Civilization in the Mediterranean and West Asia was probably the most advanced in the world up until the fall of Rome, and even then you can make the case for the Islamic world being in advance of China on some things, and the Byzantine Empire being its peer. Then about a thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the bleeding edge of civilization almost certainly decisively moves back to Europe (specifically the north west).

You also don't understand Malthusianism and what it really means, btw.

I mentioned this to my Asian friend, and she said "it's true, not only that you eat everything that comes to eat the rice. You eat the fish, you eat the snails, you eat the birds, you even eat the rats. You don't eat the rat at home, but you eat the rat that eats the rice."

Beliavsky, just checking you are aware US average IQ was roughly around 70 in 1910 by today's standards.

Link please

I thought it was common knowledge. Apparently not in America, I guess.

Here's the Wikipedia article on the Flynn Effect:

Here's Mohamed Nagdy and Max Roser (2018) - "Intelligence". Published online at Retrieved from: ''

It's common knowledge that it's wrong. If the average IQ in the U.S. in 1910 were really 70, that would mean that the average person my grandfather encountered on the street in his twenties was an idiot. That was not his recollection or anyone else's of that time - Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Teddy Roosevelt, whoever.

Max Roser, a first-rate thinker, should have known better than to make the statement that introduces the article. Intelligence as measured has increase dramatically but native ability hasn't, raising an issue of how accurate the measurements are.

Another interpretation would be that a score of 70 on today's IQ tests does not necessary mean a person is an idiot. If you look at countries today that have had low average test results you don't see idiots but poverty, malnutrition, and a lack of education.

There has been no real change in genetics since 1910, if that's what you mean by by native ability. But on average people in 1910 had a much harder time reaching their potential. Average height was at least 2 inches less, 40% of schoolchildren had hookworm, and the average adult probably had less than 5 years of education. What would be surprising is if they tested as well as people today.

Bengali children in the UK hit 97 for nonverbal and 90 for verbal on Cognitive Ability Batteries. Verbal is probably affected by a second language issue. Not sampled from a high or middling caste and indeed such a system doesn't exist there (not much population structure). Bengalis have about as much "ASI" ancestry as middle to low caste Indians.

Its very unlikely that South Asia is too different from Europe in genetic potential for intelligence.

If you match them up right it's possible to transplant organs into unrelated humans. That's not really possible with most animals. There is a serious lack of genetic diversity in Homo sapiens.

Once you get a Google Home it becomes annoying when you're e.g. in a hotel room and you don't have one. Setting a timer when your hands are full in the kitchen, asking it to read you a book when you're lying down in bed, once you acquire these powers you find it annoying to lose them.

You may be better off never having had them, but as you always say, solve for the equilibrium.

Interesting. They have a porn video out by Pure Taboo studios (which has come out with some porn that actually involves a story line and has pretty good acting, see their film "Daughter Slut Shaming") who's story line is a Google Home type AI app that traps a couple in their new smart house and forces them to have sex with the realtor, who turns out to be a robot. Oops, sorry for the spoiler if you intended to see this film.

Why are you so into porn? Problems with Half-My-Age-Girlfriend?

You don't need problems to watch porn. Feel free to brag about how often you have sex with your wife your age. What is she now, 50-something? Kids have flown the coup so you have plenty of uninterrupted time, eh old boy?

Because I'm not as desperately lonely, I am not compelled like you to share every detail of my life with strangers.

He’s not desperately lonely. He has his 30 year old Filipino wife that he can’t have a conversation with in English. But he can mime to her and her relatives that undoubtedly now live in his house.

As he feeds his chickens every morning and contemplates his life, in which his only personal connections are a woman who is disgusted by him and her family who views him with disdain, he reassures himself by reciting the mantra of his inherited wealth: “I’m inheriting a few million, I’m 1%”.

Most upper middle class Americans inherit a few million in wealth. When we do we invest it and keep earning, we don’t ship off to the third world to buy a woman.

"You don't need problems to watch porn." Can we get a t-shirt please?

I got 99 problems but watching porn ain't one

Porn is a solution, a panacea if you will.

This guy definitely understand things better than Paul Krugman!

"The other big thing is, their business model is making people happy. You can define happiness in all kinds of ways, in perhaps nefarious ones as well. But people use Google because they find Google useful. They use Facebook because their friends and family are there. They use these companies regularly."

I must disagree with Ben's "just so" cultural distinction between China and Taiwan. Anyone who has done business in China knows the boss is always right! And the office culture (vaguely Japanese or Korean) he ascribes to Taiwan has done remarkably well in the respective home countries for decades. Japan was cutthroat in the 80s, Korea is still cutthroat. Both have achieved higher pevels of development than mainland China.

I think the simple explanation for Taiwanese stagnation is simply that China has 60 times its population! Both are Chinese to the core, the single decade of Cultural Revolution couldn't erase that. And the thing a Chinese bureaucracy does better than any other institution in the world is sort people. The half of China which is urban is highly motivated and capable of "eating bitterness" way better than the average Indian or American. They are humble folk that are motivated by the benefits urban jobs and social services. On top of them, there are the residents of Tier 1 cities who are responsible for the national champions like Alibaba and Tencent, and their children are the best test takers in the world Above them are the BeiDa and QingHua grads, groomed to rule the country and impress the likes of Henry Kissenger and Mark Zuckerberg with their wordliness, literacy, and "humble" backgrounds.

If you travel to the towns and hamlets far off the high speed rail network, only there will you find the unproductive, illiterate masses. The children not worth bringing to the cities, the old stuck in their ways. Whereas in India and America, these are people are among us. They are the median voters, and sometimes even on the ballot!

@DF - thanks, it confirms by bias about China. I have a theory that China's GDP, which is a 'state secret', is extrapolated from Beijing, Canton and Shaghai regions (a 100 km circle around each of these areas is measured) and projected onto the rest of the illiterate country. Based on this, I estimate China's GDP is in fact about twice that of France's, not nearly as equal as the USA's, which Sinophiles claim it is.

How do you come up with these theories? I do admire the creativity.

Seems to me that if BT is correct about convenience being so important, that we'd all have automatic butt wipers in our bathrooms. Automatic doesn't speak to trust, effectiveness, efficiency, quality, value, and aesthetics. Maybe someday, but I'll bet it won't be soon (5-10 yr). I do like this idea: "Alexa, find me a girlfriend.", but I'm not holding my breath.

BT is absolutely right in his assessment. You don't have to go and buy a smart speaker. Alexa will come embedded in your next refrigerator or microwave. Alexa, microwave that crap until it is done. You won't have to know whether to defrost first and then cook or cook straight up.

Convenience will make it very inconvenient to not use these technological advances.

Seriously though, Japanese style toilet bidets are amazing. It’s effectively an automatic butt wiper, for one, and it’s way better than paper.

I understand the cultural inhibitions at play with changing one’s toilet habits, but seriously, it’s a genuine quality-of-life improvement.

"“What temperature should I grill my steak to?” And you’ll get an answer with your hands busy."

WOW. LOL. This is great to see how totally out there people are who think Alexa is in any way a useful tool.

As a grill master, please clarify why you find this funny. I can grill a steak just by ear, nose and sight, from years of experience, but newbies need a thermometer. Same with making your own yoghurt. Same with fixing a faucet ( how much to tighten to stop that last drop). Same with nearly everything in life. Blitz chess almost as good as slow chess. And so on.

We have an Alexa smart speaker. Currently unplugged -- couldn't figure out anything useful for it to do. Not even music, really. You can't ask it "What albums does prime music have by ....". It doesn't understand. Not as good for recipes as a phone or tablet (in a zip-lock bag if things are messy). As for the steak -- the temperature would be for my sous vide device and I'm not likely to ever forget that. The sous-vide thing also has wireless connectivity for some reason. I suppose it'll talk to Alexa eventually. But I have a hard time there's going to be any convenience upgrade over 1) dial-in temp and 2) push start.

@Slocum - you're a first adopter as it's known in the trade. The money you spent on Alexa will be used to improve it, until it becomes mainstream and then useful. That's when I will buy it. Same with electric cars. Same with nearly everything.

The speakers cost like $30. Given that it's also a bluetooth speaker with decent sound, I don't think there was much (or any) profit to fund R&D in that price. And the same functionality is available on your phone for free if you want to use it. Actually the free phone version is much better because it can also show you information (which, after all, may be graphic or lengthy, formatted text) rather than merely read it back. I suspect that smart speakers are going to remain a product with limited utility.

don't eat the drapersorangedoritos
does anybody really need a passive aggressive robot voice
telling us how to grill a stake?
we know how to grill the stake.

He seems to have confused the Cultural Revolution with the Great Leap Forward. About a million people died in the Cultural Revolution, whereas 20 to 40 million died in the GLF. One was primarily an urban event, the other primarily rural.

I do agree that the Cultural Revolution might have been important, as it sort of discredited communism and made the urban residents (who have all the power) more open to pragmatism and market reforms.

Interesting observation, professor. I had a Shanghai region girlfriend (she dumped me for an even richer, older guy) and she says the Cultural Revolution was were a bunch of MAGA-type Trump-style supporters, illiterate, took over society and started terrorising the intelligicia and more established players.

Wikipedia: In 1966, China's Communist leader Mao Zedong launched what became known as the Cultural Revolution in order to reassert his authority over the Chinese government.; The Great Leap Forward of the People's Republic of China (PRC) was an economic and social campaign by the Communist Party of China (CPC) from 1958 to 1962.

My understanding is that Deng Xiaoping used the weatherman's tried and true technique for accurately predicting the weather: he opened his eyes, looked around the globe, and identified the richest countries in the world, and determined they had one thing in common: capitalism. "I'm having what they're having" he supposedly told his deputies. The catalyst for this transformation? Jimmy Carter. He and Deng Xiaoping signed an accord in January 1979 that ended decades of tension between the two countries and sparked the reforms that created the China miracle. That was then. The tension between the U.S. and China resulting from Trump's trade war with, and demonization of, China could reverse almost 40 years of market and political reforms in China, especially if as some fear China's economy stagnates or contracts and popular pressure causes Xi Jinping to clamp down on critics. Most Americans do not appreciate how precarious a position we are in today with Trump. Today's attempted terrorism against Obama and Clinton is likely just the beginning, as Trump inspires his followers to do what Trump has been encouraging them to do. Add to Trump inspired domestic terrorism a Trump inspired confrontation with China and a political, economic, and military crisis may be coming our way. If Trump orders a nuclear attack on China, will Mattis have the courage and ability to stop it? It's scarier than Halloween.

Re: Alexa, I come home and say "Alexa turn on the living room". Then, all the lights in the living room come on (light fixtures and lamps), the tv turns on, the cable box turns on and switches to espn, and the audio system turns on. It's not just a little more convenient, it's a lot more convenient. I can tell her to dim the lights in any room a certain percentage at any time too, which helps when I turn on a movie.

Dear lord, you’ve saved 30 seconds! Which you comment...on this blog. Where do I sign up?

As a relentless consumer of culture, I think you underestimate the value of Alexa and an Amazon Music Unlimited subscription as a tool for casual musical anthropology.

"robably the most underrated event — I don’t want to say in human history, but in the last hundred years — is the Cultural Revolution in China. And not just that 60, 70 million people were killed, or starved to death, or what it might be, but it really was like a scorched earth for China as a whole. Everything started from scratch. And from an economic perspective, that’s why you can grow for so long — because you’re starting from nothing basically."

So, if Russia has problems today is because Stalin was an underachiver among mass murderers. Had he murdered much more Russians... How low can Americans go to kowtow before Red China?

I don't have an Alexa and don't want one particularly badly, but I think the reason an Alexa would be useful is the ability to use (and create) shortcuts in a home with numerous "smart" devices. For example, when I want to watch a TV show, I don't just turn on my TV and change the channel; I turn on my TV, then navigate to the streaming service, then find the show, then find the episode (and this is without including audio, etc., settings if someone is into that). A voice command system could allow me to quickly set the chain in motion instead of babysitting tech for 30 seconds.

In my low end high end home theater to watch TV, I turn off all the lights, turn on the projector, electronically lower the screen from the ceiling, lower the custom electronic shades, let in the cat from the back room, turn on the receiver, select the input for the receiver, select a controller, if its the Roku - go to the menu of streaming services, select the service, find a show, adjust the seat and the headrest electronically, put my drink in the. cup rest, and then I'm good to go.

The greatest convenience would be finding what to watch. We are currently watching an 80 episode series made in China on the transition from the late Qin dynasty to the beginning of the Han, about 10 years. Everything you need to know about Xi.

1st episode - every sword and horse in the kingdom is registered to prevent political opposition, as the internet is today.
The Qin kill all the Confucian scholars and burn all the books. - cultural revolution.
Court intrigue and arrest of rivals to consolidate power.
Without central power there would be constant strife and lack of physical security.
The Qin empire strangles the economy through corvees and taxes.
Lying in official decrees and hiding bad news from those in power.
And, oh yes, the person who founds the great Han Dynasty, from whom the Han Chinese get their name, was a peasant.

The empire that defined China to this day was contemporary to the 2nd Punic War.

We Americans are quite naive about how initial conditions limit the choices available to other cultures. Perhaps because our initial conditions and culture embraced change as a positive good.

Ben Thompson: "And not just that 60, 70 million people were killed, or starved to death, or what it might be, but it really was like a scorched earth for China as a whole. Everything started from scratch. And from an economic perspective, that’s why you can grow for so long — because you’re starting from nothing basically. "

This isn't what happened with the Great Leap Forward that he is talking about. GDP per capita (PPP) in today's dollars:

1952 $400
1958 $800 GLF begins
1962 $600 GLF ends
1966 $800
1970 $1,000
1978 $1,200

Those were a bad four years but not "scorched earth for China as a whole. 45 million (not 70 million) died, which is <1 percent of the population. China went from very poor, to slightly better than very poor to very poor and then back to slightly better than very poor again from 1952 to 1970.

so are you sayin;
45 million people starved or got shot to raise the gdp/ capita mebbe 400 bucks
that was a pretty big nudge from the sociology dept

That's about 7% of the population

No, 45 million Chinese did not get shot. It is not 7% of the population in the 1960s.

not all 45,000,ooo million chinese shot
more like 45,000,000 Chinese shot, fraught then caught& starved to death en toto

that was a powerful nudge to the nads of the middleclass

Your point about GDP sounds plausible, but this passage is clearly problematic:

"45 million (not 70 million) died, which is <1 percent of the population"

If 45M was 1% of China's population, then China had a population of 4.5B before the GLF. No way.

Did you mean to say < 10% of the population? That math works. Except 10% (or 7% as TMC calculates) is a huge mortality rate.

There were 625,000,000 million so 7% of the population died. Thanks for correcting that.

I suppose that it is strange, I know that my phone and tablet have the potential to monitor my every move and my every word.

So why do I have a resistance to Smart Assistants that do essentially the same thing?

It certainly seems like buying in too much.

Does anyone worry (or not worry) that Alexa-type devices might be the camel's nose in your tent -- and eventually total surveillance over your life? (Not that much is secret anymore anyway thanks to various other devices)

One more... Ben Thompson mentioned that China was influenced by Japan since Japan had occupied it for 50 years. The occupation lasted 14 years.

Ben was saying that *Taiwan* was occupied by Japan for 50 years (1895 to end of World War II). That contributed to Taiwan being culturally different from China.

Actually, "occupied" might be the wrong word. Taiwan was actually officially part of Japan during that period, ceded by treaty. Taiwanese people were Japanese citizens and spoke Japanese during that period. Some of the older generation still call each other using Japanese names.

I went back and listened again. You are right, he said Taiwan. But no, Japan didn't occupy Taiwan for 50 years.

"One, I’m actually not in China."

The things people say when they're not thinking about politics and just speaking intuitively about lived reality and experience.

North just released a consumer friendly version of Google Glass yesterday (

Tyler asked a question about what an Apple Watch was good for. Mine was a gift, and it had two unexpected and valuable uses:

-I used to miss a lot of calls and notifications. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel my phone vibrate in my pocket. The watch literally slaps your wrist for incoming calls.

-I use the infra dig Modular watch face, because it displays my next appointment in the middle of the screen. Every time I check the time, I get a reminder of my next appointment. I miss far fewer appointments as a result.

Both of these are pretty specific to me; I don’t hear other Watch users mention them. But they’re enough that I wear my Watch daily and am likely to get a new one soon.

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