Month: July 2021

Mark Zuckerberg and the metaverse

And I actually would go so far as to say that I think that might be one of, if not the biggest technological challenge that our industry will face in the next decade. We tend to really celebrate things that are big, right? But I actually think miniaturizing things and getting a supercomputer to fit into a pair of glasses is actually one of the bigger challenges. But once you have that, so you have those glasses and you have your VR headset, I think that’s going to enable a bunch of really interesting use cases.

So, one is you will be able to, with basically a snap of your fingers, pull up your perfect workstation. So anywhere you go, you can walk into a Starbucks, you can sit down, you can be drinking your coffee and kind of wave your hands and you can have basically as many monitors as you want, all set up, whatever size you want them to be, all preconfigured to the way you had it when you were at your home before. And you can just bring that with you wherever you want.

If you want to talk to someone, you’re working through a problem, instead of just calling them on the phone, they can teleport in, and then they can see all the context that you have. They can see your five monitors, or whatever it is, and the documents or all the windows of code that you have, or a 3D model that you’re working on. And they can stand next to you and interact, and then in a blink they can teleport back to where they were and kind of be in a separate place.

So I think for focus time and individual productivity, I think being able to have your ideal setup, we call this “infinite office.”

Here is the full interview, interesting throughout.  Via Fergus McCullough.

Why do they keep the books wrapped in Mexican bookstores?

Yes, wrapped in clear shrink wrap.  So you can’t page through them and see what the book might be like.  I can think of a few hypotheses:

1. They don’t want you standing in the bookstore reading the thing, rather than buying it.  A bit like some U.S. comics news stands in days past.  Yet this doesn’t seem so plausible for longer books or most novels.

2. They want the books to look nicer and less grimy.

3. How about price discrimination?

Imagine there are two classes of readers.  The first is poorer, and only buys books when he or she knows the book is truly desired.  Harry Potter might be an example of such a book.   You want to read what everyone else is reading, to talk about it at school, and you don’t need to scrutinize p.78 so closely before deciding to purchase.

The second class of buyer is wealthier and usually will be buying (and reading) more books, indeed for those people book-buying is a significant habit.  That buyer wants to be on top of current trends, wants to have read whichever book is “best” that year amongst the trendy set, and so on.  If book quality is uncertain, such individuals will end up paying a de facto, quality-adjusted higher per unit price per book.  If you can’t sample the books in advance, you will end up buying some lemons, and you can’t just pick out the cherries.

Wrapped books thus extract more surplus from the second class of buyer and do not much discourage the first class.  The general point is related to the economic analysis of bundling and also block-booking — you have to buy a whole bunch of items to get the things you want.

I wonder if they would mind if I removed the wrapping to take a look before purchasing?  Maybe the store employees would be indifferent, but how about the retail outlet CEO?  The publisher?  The author?  Model this!

Or maybe that is just the way they do things.

How to find the best food in Oaxaca

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

First, if you do it right, most of your best meals will be eaten before 3 p.m., sometimes even before 10 a.m. Most “comida popular,” as it is called, is sold in the earlier parts of the work day, as the evening meal is typically eaten at home with family. Those are the supply chains you wish to catch, because they will have the freshest food and ingredients. Treat your dinner as an afterthought, but plan the earlier part of your day carefully.

Start by getting up fairly early and avoiding the hotel breakfast, which is rarely excellent even in the fanciest places.

The best thing to do is to walk or take a cab to a food market around 8 or 9 a.m. Look for a lone woman selling tamales, and don’t be afraid to ask around for her, since her place in the market will not be so obvious. Everyone in the market, however, will know her station. In Oaxaca, you might try 20 de Noviembre market or Mercado de Abastos, but tamales can be found in other locations as well, sometimes also in the parks or in various neighborhoods, carried around in baskets.

Then order as many tamales as you can; you won’t find it easy to spend more than $5 on your meal. Of particular interest are the tamales de mole, tamales de amarillo (the word means yellow, but they’re actually orange), and the tamales de rana with tomatoes. In addition to the fillings, you can enjoy the thrilling experience of eating corn near the locations where corn was first bred and engineered by indigenous Mexicans before the Spanish conquest. You’ll feel like you’ve never tasted corn before.

…Don’t worry about sanitation; the tamales have been steamed at high temperatures and kept hot, and they are served promptly. They’re typically gone by 10 a.m., a sign of both their quality and their safety.

Recommended, there are further tips at the link, including about the world’s best barbecue, which is in Mexico, not Texas or North Carolina.

Saturday assorted links

1. New Kalshi prediction markets in beta form.

2. The Austin Vernon blog.  Or better link here.

3. The game theory of the infrastructure bill.

4. Should doctors be on first name terms?  And U.S. rules that Bezos and Branson are not “astronauts.”

5. Using lottery winner results to predict that effects of UBI.

6. Interview in Spanish about Covid issues.  And this far into the pandemic and the CDC still is systematically failing us.

7. Leopold on Germany’s and Europe’s political stupor.

Why I Am Angry

Agnes Callard explains:

… at times it is only the angry who are in a position to apprehend the magnitude of some injustice. For they are the ones willing to sacrifice all their other concerns and interests so as to attend, with an almost divine focus, to some tear in the moral fabric. When I am really angry, it is not even clear to me that I can calm down—the eyes of the heart do not have eyelids—and the person making that request strikes me, to adapt a locution of Socrates’, as trying to banish me from my property, the truth. They are calling me “irrational,” but they seem not to see that there are reasons to be angry.

Why current American politics is less screwed up than you think

There is no better way to show this point than to look at Germany, which has highly reasonable political dialogue and at least in the center German politics is not so ideological.  And there is indeed a center!  Furthermore, politicians address their voters like adults and offer reasonable reasons for the policies they are proposing.

But in terms of discovery and resolution there is a significant downside:

What’s more, coalitions that used to be unthinkable, such as between the Christian Democrats and the Greens, are now the norm in many states — and may well be the only option after September’s elections. Parties, understandably, are reluctant to forcefully campaign against one another. Why make an enemy of a future friend?

Here is the full piece by Anna Sauerbrey.  For all its reasonableness, German politics has been a major failure point over the last twenty (?) years.  The country has a mediocre infrastructure, mediocre primary education system, it is far behind the curve on tech, it is unwilling to pay to defend itself and meet NATO standards, its foreign policy is partly captured by Russia, it is moving away from nuclear power, it responded poorly to the recent floods, it was slow to line up vaccines and relied on awful EU procurement policies, among numerous other failings.  It has enough wealth and accumulated cultural and social capital to withstand these failings, but it has consistently underperformed for some while now.  Matters rarely get settled in an innovative direction and they are masters of complacency and can-kicking.  But at least the major parties do not criticize each other too much.

I would in fact much prefer the policy landscape of the United States, where the two parties are hardly afraid to attack each other, often in the most ridiculous of terms.  Just keep this comparison in mind the next time you despair over the course — and aesthetics — of U.S. politics.

Why has the Indian diaspora been so successful?

Dwarkesh writes to me:

Why do you think the Indian diaspora has been so successful? Just selection of the best immigrants from a large pool of candidates or something else too?

Yes, there are plenty of Indians, and surely that matters, but I see several others factors at work:

1. The Indian diaspora itself is large, estimated at 18 million and the single largest diaspora in the world.

2. A significant portion of the better-educated Indians are hooked into English-language networks early on, including through the internet.  The value of this connection has been rising due to the rising value of the internet itself.  That is a big reason to be bullish on the Indian diaspora.

3. India has been growing rapidly enough so that people understand the nature and value of progress, yet the country remains poor enough that further progress seems urgent.

4. Many Indian parents seem intent on expecting a great deal from their children.  The value of this cannot be overemphasized.  This effect seems to be stronger in India than in say Indonesia.

5. There is especially positive selection for Indians coming to America.  You can’t just run across a border, instead many of the ways of getting here involve some specialization in education and also technical abilities.  Virtually all migrated in legal manners, and here is some interesting data on how the various cohorts of Indians arriving in America differed by wave.

6. More speculatively, I see a kind of conceptual emphasis and also a mental flexibility resulting from India’s past as a mixing ground for many cultures.  Perhaps some of this comes from the nature of Hinduism as well, even for non-Hindu Indians (just as American Jews are somewhat “Protestant”).  Indians who move into leadership roles in U.S. companies seem to do quite well making a very significant cultural leap.  I cannot think of any other emerging economy where the same is true to a comparable extent.  In any case, the intellectual capital embedded in Indian culture is immense.

7. Those Indians who leave seem to retain strong ties to the home country, which in turn helps others with their subsequent upward mobility, whether in India or abroad.  In contrast, Russians who leave Russia seem to cut their ties to a higher degree.

8. I feel one of the hypotheses should involve caste, but I don’t have a ready claim at hand.

Here is the take of Stephen Manallack.  Here is Times of India.  (And by the way, here is Shruti’s piece on India’s 1991 reforms, not irrelevant to the diaspora.)

What else?

Friday assorted links

1. “He has struggled to access inheritance payments that have been withheld for more than 15 years, as trustees claim he’s mentally incompetent to receive the money.

2. Daniel Drezner on how to address your professor.  And related ideas from Michael Strain.  And here you can find a list of British titles, hilarious.

3. Fire law incentives.

4. “In the encounters, which lasted 52 and 79 minutes, the chimpanzees formed coalitions and attacked the gorillas.”  The gorillas did not win.

5. Some Indian street food vendors are richer than you might think.

6. The new DeepMind proteins advance (NYT).  And Technology Review coverage.

7. The Icelandic literary world.

*The Morning Star*, by Karl Knausgaard

Yes, it is the real Knausgaard again, writing under lockdown and delivering a nearly 700-pp. novel that does indeed sound like Knausgaard but is not (strictly) autobiographical.

Here is a Swedish review, excerpt:

I read mostly the novel as an entertaining study of non-reflective life, an exploration of how a secularized society chooses to refrain from considering what does not fit the common explanatory models provided by our various sciences….

Here is a Kirkus review:

A sui generis metaphysical yarn, engrossing in its particulars if broadly rambling.

I would say it is not as viscerally satisfying as the best parts of My Struggle, but about half of it is quite good, the pace is fairly quick, and I had no trouble wanting to finish the book.  Some surprises come at the end, and KK is increasingly a “religious thinker” in my sense of that term.

Two more parts will be written, and those will clear up all of the remaining mysteries.

Claims about the art world (and other things)

Unsurprisingly, [Marc] Spiegler rejects the notion that an increased digital presence could undermine the necessity for the art world to fly to [Basel] Switzerland. “Having content available ahead of time builds momentum and increases, rather than diminishes, people’s desire to come.”

Comparing the fair to a music concert, Spiegler says: “The more live sets a DJ has online, the better attended their shows are. It hypes people up. The fairs are fun, people like seeing each other, they’re not going to stop wanting that.” Indeed for many, Art Basel 2021 will mark the welcome return to a once packed social calendar on the art world circuit, filled with invaluable in-person exchanges. Here’s hoping for a rager.

That is from Kabir Jhala at The Art Newspaper.  It does seem the Basel Art Fair will be held in person this September.

Do honorifics pass a market test?

Following on my discussion from the other day, it is worth thinking about whether new institutions or sectors work very hard to set up a lot of honorific titles.  So many of our standard honorifics come from quite old sectors, such as the military or religion or the nobility.  Are the new sectors seeking to copy those practices?

The world of gaming is quite new, and I do not think it does much to award generalized honorific titles per se, noting that naming competition winners as victors is a fundamentally different practice.

The world of tech is (mostly) pretty new, and it too does not rely much on titles.  Stock options are more important!  Of course you might call someone “employee #37,” but do they go around referring to “Programmer Smith”?  Yes Smith deserves “respect,” but somehow they don’t take it in that direction.

If honorific titles are so wonderful, why do most new institutions seem to be honorific-shy?  Surely a lot of the benefit from such honorific titles ought to be internal to the organization.

(As an aside, I think of women as being treated much better in think tanks and research centers than in academia, and in relative terms having superior opportunities.  And yet there are no formal honorific titles such as “Professor” in the former institutions.  I am not suggesting causality here, but still it seems that the more informal systems are hardly a train wreck for women as a whole.)

Clearly, titles do benefit particular individuals, such as those who are currently not receiving enough respect in their jobs.  But for larger groups as a whole, does it make sense to double down on the honorifics strategy?  In a world where say YouTube stars have more and more influence each year?  Where actual performance in most sectors is easy to measure than ever before?  Is it really so great to so validate the notion of “having done all your homework”?  Honorifics impose lots of costs on the broader group by formalizing hierarchies and making them based on the achievement of arbitrary credentialized plateaus, such as receiving a Ph.D.  Would you really want to invest in the group that wanted to move in the honorifics direction?  Or would you instead think of them as fighting yesterday’s war of ideas?

Can you think of significant new sectors that are investing in honorific titles?  If not, what should you infer from that?  You might claim that titles in the military are tried, true, and tested, and you would be right.  But at the margin should we have greater or less emphasis on titled honorifics as the world changes moving forward?  What are the market data telling us right now?

You already know what I think.

Electric shock devices on humans now allowed once again

A Massachusetts school can continue to use electric shock devices to modify behavior by students with intellectual disabilities, a federal court said this month, overturning an attempt by the government to end the controversial practice, which has been described as “torture” by critics but defended by family members.

In a 2-to-1 decision, the judges ruled that a federal ban interfered with the ability of doctors working with the school, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, to practice medicine, which is regulated by the state. The Food and Drug Administration sought to prohibit the devices in March 2020, saying that delivering shocks to students presents “an unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury.”

Although the F.D.A.’s ban was national, the school in Canton, Mass., appears to be the only facility in the United States using the shock devices to correct self-harming or aggressive behavior…

The treatment, in which students wear a special fanny pack with two protruding wires, typically attached to the arm or leg, can deliver quick shocks to the skin when triggered by a staff member with a remote-control device.

Here is the full NYT story.  You might argue this treatment can be useful in many cases, but what exactly is the error rate here?  How high an error rate should we be willing to accept?  What recourse do the victims have, noting that many probably live under guardianship?  How might you model the incentives of the staff at the facility who use this?  How well do “prison guards” behave more generally?

As a side note, I think this matter should be handled by legislation rather than the FDA.

Thursday assorted links

1. The Great Apes also have time inconsistent preferences.  And NBC Sports to cover world chess championship.

2. The Norwegian century we were never woke.

3. A case for gdp-linked bonds.

4. Taco-eating job pays surprisingly well.

5. Retroactive public goods funding, partly by Sage Vitalik.

6. Izabella Kaminska on the paradox of DeFi, original paper here.

7. Minerva, higher ed innovator, is now fully accredited.