Month: February 2020

Monday assorted links

Pop Songs are Getting Sadder and Angrier

AEON: English-language popular songs have become more negative. The use of words related to negative emotions has increased by more than one third. Let’s take the example of the Billboard dataset. If we assume an average of 300 words per song, every year there are 30,000 words in the lyrics of the top-100 hits. In 1965, around 450 of these words were associated with negative emotions, whereas in 2015 their number was above 700. Meanwhile, words associated with positive emotions decreased in the same time period. There were more than 1,750 positive-emotion words in the songs of 1965, and only around 1,150 in 2015. Notice that, in absolute number, there are always more words associated with positive emotions than there are words associated with negative ones. This is a universal feature of human language, also known as the Pollyanna principle (from the flawlessly optimistic protagonist of the eponymous novel), and we would hardly expect this to reverse: what does matter, though, is the direction of the trends.

The tempo and the tonality of the top-100 Billboard songs was also examined: Billboard hits have become slower, and minor tonalities have become more frequent. Minor tonalities are perceived as gloomier with respect to major tonalities.

The authors, Acerbi and Brand, have some speculation about why the change has occurred–negative emotions transmit more easily, random drift, changes in preferences, a change in music distribution but nothing definitive. Could rap explain the differences? The study looks at the production of new music but what about the consumption? Are we listening to sadder songs or brightening things up by listening to more songs from the past? It would be interesting to know whether this is true in other languages as well.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.

Why is VC Twitter so peculiar?

Here is an email from an anonymous MR reader, on exactly that question:

– VCs are in the business of speculating about the future and identifying underestimated trends. They are subjective to evolutionary pressure that selects for heterodoxy.

– As capital supply increases, the importance of differentiation on other axes increases. VCs have a growing incentive to personally market their product.

– VCs lack conventional bosses who could sanction them if they say something ill-advised on Twitter.

– VCs face some of the most asymmetric return distributions of any profession. Two instances of being correct can outweigh being wrong in every other case.

– Much of what supposedly-controversial VCs say is not actually contrarian but widely shared but repressed since most people have a strong disincentive to attract opprobrium. This disparity heightens the oddity of VC twitter.

– Unlike many occupations that profess to be about ideas but often put form above substance, VCs in some substantial sense actually are. What can seem like naivete is often a genuine engagement with the basic questions.

– Therefore, in our shared pursuit of novel ideas, we should give thanks to VC Twitter. Which category of Twitter users is most similar?

Should we expect those seeking VC money to tweet in similarly idiosyncratic ways?  They too face long odds on particular projects and tend to end up in equity-heavy positions.  Should the most “conservative” tweeters be those with high perks but no job security, for instance still untenured professors?  Heads of philanthropic foundations?

Overall, I find it striking that most individuals use Twitter for “double down” strategies, rather than “portfolio diversification” insurance strategies.  For instance, people who pursue overall risky courses of career action don’t play it safe on Twitter as a kind of career fall-back or insulation.  Perhaps that means at the margin “marketing” is more scarce and valuable than “insurance,” and thus start-ups — and venture capitalists — should pay heed to that.

Is 5G underperforming?

…Samsung, which makes both handsets as well as 5G network equipment, told investors on its own call that it expects its 5G business in South Korea to “shrink somewhat compared to last year.”

That last revelation is sobering. South Korea was the first market to deploy 5G services on a wide basis. Service launched in April 2019, but by year’s end consumers already were complaining that it didn’t live up to the hype. Part of the problem is that services marketed under the 5G label can vary widely in terms of speed and availability. Some aren’t much faster than existing 4G networks. And the fastest—including those using millimeter wave technology—currently are available only in certain dense urban areas due to their signal limitations.

Meanwhile, 5G devices remain expensive. Samsung’s new 5G phones range in price from $999 to $1,399.

Here is more from Dan Gallagher at the WSJ.  All the more reason to make sure your 5G rollout has the right provider.

Sunday assorted links

1. “Burundi’s parliament has voted to pay $530,000 (£400,000) to President Pierre Nkurunziza and provide him with a luxury villa when he leaves office.

2. The Body Shop: “And there’s only three questions to get a job. It’s, ‘Are you authorized to work in the U.S.? Can you stand for up to eight hours? And can you lift over 50 pounds?’”

3. Here is a new NIMBY song, a kind of anti-recommended.  The tree song, people are calling in on Twitter.  A reflection of our time?

4. Elizabeth Bruenig on epilepsy (NYT).

5. The Get Smart “cone of silence” is now a commercial reality (NYT).

6. How to donate a piece of your brain to science — while you’re still alive.

7. Six hundred U.S. citizens right now quarantined on 15 military bases in this country.

Does political polarization limit corruption?

Using panel data from the US states, we document a robust negative relationship between state-level government corruption and ideological polarization. This finding is sustained when state polarization is instrumented using lagged state neighbor ideology. We argue that polarization increases the expected costs of engaging in corruption, especially deterring marginal low-level corruption. Consistent with this thesis federal prosecutorial effort falls and case quality increases with polarization. Tangible anti-corruption measures including the stringency of state ethics’ laws and independent commissions for redistricting are also associated with increased state polarization.

That is from a new paper by Michael Melki and Andrew Pickering.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

What does the stock market tell us about the T-Mobile/Sprint merger?

Here is an excellent post by Alec Stapp, easy to read but a bit hard to excerpt but here are the closing bits:

As a few others pointed out, these relatively small moves in AT&T and Verizon (less than 3 percent in either direction) may just be noise. That’s certainly possible given the magnitude of the changes. Contra Philippon, I think the methodology in question is too weak to rule out the pro-competitive theory of the case, i.e., that the new merged entity would be a stronger competitor to take on industry leaders AT&T and Verizon. We need much more robust and varied evidence before we call anything “bogus.” Of course, that means this event study is not sufficient to prove the pro-competitive theory of the case, either.

Olivier Blanchard, the former chief economist of the IMF, shared Philippon’s thread on Twitter and added this comment above: “The beauty of the argument. Simple hypothesis, simple test, clear conclusion.”

If only things were so simple.

Recommended.  Addendum: Philippon comments.

Who is excellent and why?

A few of you have written in and asked me why some people, such as Kevin Lewis and Samir Varma, are designated as say “the excellent Kevin Lewis” on Marginal Revolution.

It is simple — I view this recognition as resulting from a combination of their intelligence and persistence, and thus their excellence in finding and sending me links and interesting commentary.  (I have met them both, and they do seem to have other virtues, but those other virtues are not the ones being recognized here.)  The word is completely unironic.  I view “belief in excellence” as one of the underlying philosophies of MR, and also belief in the notion that excellence should be mentioned and promoted.

In this sense, those designations are quite similar to the ongoing series “My Favorite Things [xxxx]“.

This designation of excellence is also related to why MR does not spend a great deal of time on all of the political depredations of our time.  Yes, they are important, but I fear that focusing on them too much would a) make me stupider, and b) distract from an underlying vision of excellence I wish to communicate.  I am too selfish to wish to be made stupider in that manner.

More generally, for any media source you are reading, what is the underlying vision of excellence?  Or are they just pukers?

If you can trace their underlying vision of excellence (or lack thereof), you will understand much of their material much better.

Toward a simple theory of YouTube and gaming

Outsiders and critics often think of YouTube and computer gaming as entertaining and quite superficial modes of cultural consumption.  I have increasingly moved away from that point of view, and to pursue the argument I will note that lately my favorite YouTube video is Magnus Carlsen doing 100 chess endgames in 30 minutes.  That is not recommended for most of you, but I believe that is part of the point.  I now think of YouTube as a communications medium with (often, not always) high upfront “investment in context” costs.  So if a lot of videos seem stupid to you, well sometimes they are but other times you don’t have enough context to understand them, or for that matter to condemn them for the right reasons.  This “high upfront costs” model is consistent with the semi-addictive behavior exhibited by many loyal YouTube users.  Once you start going down a rabbit hole, it can be hard to stop, and the “YouTube is superficial” models don’t really predict that kind of user behavior, rather they predict mere channel-surfing.

Did you know that Yonas, my Ethiopian contact in Lalibela, and recipient of royalties from my book Stubborn Attachments, loves YouTube videos on early Armenian church history?  He seems to know all about that topic.  A lot of those same videos would not make much sense to me.  I could follow them, but they wouldn’t communicate much meaning, whereas the Ethiopian and Armenian Christian churches have a fair amount in common, including in their early histories.

Has the popularity of PewDiePie — 103 million subscribers — ever mystified you?  I have in fact come to understand the material is brilliant, though not in a way I care about or wish to come to grasp in any kind of detailed way.  For me the entry costs are just too high relative to the kind of payoff I would achieve.  You really have to watch a lot of videos to get anywhere with grasping the contexts of his various jokes and remarks.

This also helps explain why there is no simple way to find “the best videos on YouTube.”

Perhaps computer games have some of the same properties.  They have great meaning to those who know their ins and outs, but leave many others quite cold.  Sometimes I hear people that things like “Twenty or thirty years from now, computer games will develop into great works of art.”  I doubt that.  To whatever extent computer games are/will be aesthetically notable, those properties are probably already in place, just with fairly high upfront context costs and thus inaccessible to someone such as I.

The high upfront costs, of course, mean a high degree of market segmentation and thus perhaps relatively high profits for suppliers, at least in the aggregate if not in every case.

Could it be that these top cultural forms of today have higher upfront costs than say appreciating 18th century Rococo painting?

In any case, trying to understand the cultural codes of 2020 is a truly difficult enterprise.

For this material, I wish to thank a related conversation with S.

San Antonio Zoo Valentine’s day markets in everything

For $25, you can name a rat after your dreaded ex. This rat, who now bears that terrible person’s name, will then be fed to a snake on February 14.

And yes there is price discrimination too:

FYI, you can also pay $5 to the San Antonio Zoo to have a cockroach named after your ex if you’d like to go a cheaper route.

Here is more, via Ellen F.  Should this be understood as a reductio ad absurdum of “takedown culture”?  Somehow I don’t think so.  I am in fact surprised that our gentle age would permit such an emotionally hostile practice.  For what is this a “gateway drug?”  What if you believed in a strange kind of voodoo and thought such feedings in fact placed causal pressure on the so-called real world?  I would be surprised if this market still were up and running in three years’ time.

Why Didn’t Ancient Rome have Dungeons and Dragons?

Why didn’t ancient Rome have Dungeons and Dragons? I am talking, of course, about the game. Anton Howes presents the general problem:

A theme I keep coming back to is that a lot of inventions could have been invented centuries, if not millennia, before they actually were. My favourite example is John Kay’s flying shuttle, one of the most famous inventions of the British Industrial Revolution. It radically increased the productivity of weaving in the 1730s, but involved simply attaching a little extra wood and string. It involved no new materials, was applied to the weaving of wool — England’s age-old industry — and required no special skill or science. Weaving had been “performed for upwards of five thousand years, by millions of skilled workmen, without any improvement being made to expedite the operation, until the year 1733”, was how Bennet Woodcroft — one of the nineteenth century’s most important historians of technology — put it. (Lest you doubt that description of Woodcroft, he was, in addition to being an inventor himself, the man who compiled and categorised England’s entire patent record up to 1852, and who collected the inventions that would later form the basis of London’s Science Museum, particularly some of the earliest steam engines — among the most important machines in human history — that grace its engine hall today. My hero!) Weavers had been around for millennia, as had shuttles: one is even mentioned in the Old Testament (“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, And are spent without hope”). As a labour-saving invention, Kay’s flying shuttle was even technically illegal.

I keep coming back to this example, because it goes against so many common notions about the causes of innovation. When it comes to skill, materials, science, institutions, or incentives, none of them quite seem to fit. But I keep seeing more and more such cases. There’s the classic example, of course, of suitcases with wheels – why so late? Was the bicycle another candidate?

…The economist Alex Tabarrok calls these cases “ideas behind their time”. I tend to just call them low-hanging fruit. Hanging so low, and for so long, that the fruit are fermenting on the ground. I now see them everywhere, not just in history, but today — probably at least one per week. And I now have a new favourite example, suggested yesterday on Twitter by Jordan Chase-Young: tabletop role-playing games.

Was it lack of the right the bureaucratic mindset? Lack of numeracy? Lower population densitie? Were such games invented but then lost to history? Ultimately Howes rejects these explanations, I think correctly.

Physically, there was nothing that actually stopped the invention of such games centuries or even millennia earlier. It required no special level of science, skill, or materials. So why did it take so long? Rather than there being any constraints, soft or otherwise, I think it’s simply because innovation in general is so extremely rare. It’s a matter of absence, rather than of barriers. The reason we have had so many low-hanging fruit throughout history is just because very few people ever bother to think of how to do things differently. We are, most of us, quite set in our ways. So even today, when there are many more inventors alive than at any previous point in human history, the fermenting fruit still abound.

Innovation doesn’t happen very often. How many people have ever invented a new way of doing anything? If stasis is the norm, then we should expect that many great ideas are routinely overlooked. For an economist this is an uncomfortable thought because we tend to think that profit opportunities are quickly exploited (no $500 bills on the ground). But while that is certainly true for choices within constraints it may not be true for choices that change constraints. This is also consistent with Paul Romer’s views on the combinatorial space of possible innovations—when the combinatorial space is vast and the explorers few, the innovations will be few and far between. What times, places and institutions generate more explorers?

Jason Crawford on twitter has more background and thoughts.

When defense is not a public good

Security measures that deter crime may unwittingly displace it to neighboring areas, but evidence of displacement is scarce. We exploit precise information on the timing and locations of all Italian bank robberies and security guard hirings/firings over a decade to estimate deterrence and displacement effects of guards. A guard lowers the likelihood a bank is robbed by 35-40%. Over half of this reduction is displaced to nearby unguarded banks. Theory suggests optimal policy to mitigate this spillover is ambiguous. Our findings indicate restricting guards in sparse, rural markets and requiring guards in dense, urban markets could be socially beneficial.

That is from Vikram Maheshri and Giovanni Mastrobuoni, forthcoming in Review of Economics and Statistics.  Via Peter Deffebach.