Is surfing the internet dead?

I saw a few people asking this on Twitter lately, but my views don’t quite fit into a tweet.  Ten to fifteen years ago, I remember the joys of just finding things, clicking links through to other links, and in general meandering through a thick, messy, exhilarating garden.

Today you can’t do that as much.  Many media sites are gated, a lot of the personal content is in the walled garden of Facebook, and blogs and personal home pages are not as significant as before.  Then there is the email subscription newsletter, whether free or paid.  All you can do in fact is visit www.marginalrevolution.com and a few other sites and hope their proprietors have not been sleeping since you last stopped by.

That said, I do not feel that time on the internet has become an inferior experience.  It’s just that these days you find most things by Twitter.  You don’t have to surf, because this aggregator performs a surfing-like function for you.  Scroll rather than surf, you could say (“scrolling alone,” said somebody on Twitter).

And if you hate Twitter, it is your fault for following the wrong people (try hating yourself instead!).  Follow experts and people of substance, not people who seek to lower the status of others.  And if you’re really feeling the internet to be rather empty, head on over to Twitter search, still the most underrated single thing on the internet today (the MR search function is another underrated corner of the internet).  Type in words of interest, such as “Ethiopia,” and what comes up will be gold.

It’s a different method today, and it uses a more centralized portal, but no the internet is not in decline.  Not yet at least.

Ben Thompson on data portability and Facebook

The problem with data portability is that it goes both ways: if you can take your data out of Facebook to other applications, you can do the same thing in the other direction. The question, then, is which entity is likely to have the greater center of gravity with regards to data: Facebook, with its social network, or practically anything else?

Remember the conditions that led to Facebook’s rise in the first place: the company was able to circumvent Google, go directly to users, and build a walled garden of data that the search company couldn’t touch. Partnering or interoperating with companies below the Bill Gates Line, particularly aggregators, is simply an invitation to be intermediated. To demand that governments enforce exactly that would be a massive mistake that only helps Facebook.

Link to the post, with further explanation, is here.  You can and should subscribe to Ben here.  Here is my earlier post on data portability.

What I’ve been reading

Economic Science Fictions, edited by William Davies.  I didn’t quite come away with a takeaway from this book, but still I feel obliged to pass knowledge of it along to you.  It is a bunch of essays about economic themes in science fiction, and/or how the two “genres” might be more closely integrated, with a lead essay by Ha-Joon Chang.

Allen C. Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History.  Could this new book be the single best brief introduction to Reconstruction available?  Recommended.

Emily Dufton, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.  I loved this book, which I also consider a paradigmatic example of how to write a wonderful non-fiction work.  Throughout it is clear, substantive, balanced, passes various ideological Turing tests, and it focuses on essentials, as well as framing everything in terms of broader theories of social change.  It is sure to make my best books of the year list, and if she had ten other books I would buy them all sight unseen.  Here is Dufton’s home page.

Bekelech Tola, Injera Variety from Crop Diversity.  She explains where all the different types of injera come from.  I hadn’t realized for instance that teff is sometimes mixed with maize, or sorghum flour, or cassava powder, all in the service of variety.

Wednesday assorted links

1. How futures trading affected Bitcoin prices.

2. “Without air conditioning, each 1°F increase in school year temperature reduces the amount learned that year by one percent.

3. Ethiopia on me on Ethiopia: “In the US very well educated and very sophisticated cosmopolitan people have no sense of how nice things are in Ethiopia and how well things are going. These include people with PhDs in economics familiar with Davos for a regular economic meeting.”

4. vbuterin on privacy.

5. The invisible asymptote: “More people are more skilled at being hurtful in text than photos.”  A good post with many points of interest.

6. Should central banks become banks?

China Ethiopia donkey estimate of the day

There are estimated to be 44 million donkeys in the world, almost all of which are maintained for work. China has the highest population (eleven million) followed by Ethiopia (five million)…

Here is the source, via pointers from Yves-Marie Stranger and Michelle Dawson.  That estimate seems to be from the 1990s, the article has much more data of donkey interest, and it is a good example of Cowen’s Second Law and indeed Cowen’s First Law: “It has been made clear that the estimates of donkey populations presented here should be treated with great caution.”

And here is a 2011 report on donkeys, horses, and mules in Ethiopia.  Ethiopia has the third largest total equine population in the world.

Michael Nielsen, standing on one foot

A highly sophisticated MR reader demanded a dose of Michael Nielsen.  I wrote to Michael, and he was kind enough to oblige.  Everything that follows is from Michael, here goes:

I started with the question “What might amuse Tyler?”, and it became very easy.

Three opinions that may amuse MR readers:

1. Peter Thiel has said: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 (280) characters.” Thiel is wrong: 280 characters are much, much better than flying cars. Twitter is misunderstood as being an online service; it’s merely the online component of a much improved offline experience. Twitter DM’s are a superpower, one of the most valuable ways of connecting people ever invented. More on one way of using Twitter here.

2. Movies are primarily a visual form; movie criticism and the popular conversation about movies are primarily a literary form, and informed by literary sensibilities. This is why good movies such as Transformers are so underrated. People who dismiss such movies are mostly revealing their own ignorance.

3. Many corners of the internet have a culture of judgement or argument. Typical subtexts in online conversation are: is this good or bad? What’s wrong with it? But until and unless healthy conversational norms are formed, argument and judgement are mostly useless status-seeking by participants. Much better is a “Yes, and” culture.

Three books or papers which should be better known:

1. Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons.  Ostrom dismantles the market / government dichotomy, sketching out ways common pool resources (and, to some extent, public goods) can be provided using non-market, non-government solutions.

2. Alex Tabarrok’s paper introducing dominant assurance contracts. Cryptocurrencies have huge potential as a way of creating entirely new types of market, using ideas like this. This potential is mostly unrealized to date.

3. Bret Victor on Media for Thinking the Unthinkable.

Blog posts don’t really get going until about 5,000 words in. Here are three favourites of mine:

1. Thought as a Technology, on how imaginative designers invent fundamentally new modes of thought.

2. If correlation doesn’t imply causation, then what does?

3. Using Artificial Intelligence to Augment Human Intelligence (with Shan Carter).

Despite the fact I’m well short of 5,000 words, I’ll stop here.

You can follow Michael on Twitter here.

Dental DNA Beatle rent-seeking markets in everything

A DENTIST who bought John Lennon’s tooth is looking for potential love children of the late-Beatle in a bid to stake a claim to his £400million estate.

Dr Michael Zuk, 45, from Alberta, Canada, purchased the legendary songwriter’s decayed molar at auction in 2011 for around £20,000…

Speaking with The Sun Online, the dentist has sensationally revealed that he plans to stake a claim to the music icon’s vast estate using DNA from the body part.

He said: “I am looking for people who believe they are John Lennon’s child and have a claim to his estate and hopefully I can legitimise their claim.

“John was a very popular guy who was having sex with lots of women and I doubt birth control was on his mind.

…“I would ask anyone who is participating to sign a commission agreement which would mean if they were related they would pay my company a percentage of their inheritance.

“Like a finder’s fee.”

Here is the story, via Michael J.

P.s. Solve for the equilibrium.

Tuesday assorted links

Will Ethiopia be the next China?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, noting that they have been averaging about ten percent growth for the last decade.  I basically make a “deep roots of state capacity” argument, here is one excerpt:

Ethiopia also had a relatively mature nation-state quite early, with the Aksumite Kingdom dating from the first century A.D. Subsequent regimes, through medieval times and beyond, exercised a fair amount of power. Most important, today’s Ethiopians see their country as a direct extension of these earlier political units. Some influential Ethiopians will claim to trace their lineage all the way to King Solomon of biblical times.

In other words, the process of organized, national-level governance has been underway for a long time. It was this relative strength of Ethiopian governance that allowed the territory to fend off colonialism, a rare achievement. It is also why, when you travel around the country, a lot of the basic cuisine doesn’t change much: Dishes are seen as national and not regional…

Like many Iranians, they think of themselves as a civilization and not just a country. They very self-consciously separate themselves from the broader strands of African history and culture. And, as in China, they hold an ideological belief that their country is destined to be great again.

Do read the whole thing.

Facts about drugs, including fentanyl

But with mobile phones, texting, and social media, transactions can now be arranged electronically and completed by home delivery, reducing the buyer’s risk and travel time to near zero and even his waiting time to minimal levels. In the recent Global Survey on Drugs, cocaine users around the world reported, that their most recent cocaine order was delivered in less time, on average, than their most recent pizza order.

That is from Mark Kleiman, but most of the blog post is about fentanyl.  It is one of the best posts I have read all year, recommended.

Fighting to keep your slaves

How did personal wealth affect the likelihood southerners fought for the Confederate Army in
the American Civil War? We offer competing accounts for how we should expect individual
wealth, in the form of land, and atrociously, in slaves, to affect white men’s decisions to join the Confederate Army. We assemble a dataset on roughly 3.9 million white citizens in Confederate states, and we show that slaveowners were more likely to fight in the Confederate Army than non-slaveowners. To see if these links are causal, we exploit a randomized land lottery in 19thcentury Georgia. Households of lottery winners owned more slaves in 1850 and were more likely to have sons who fought in the Confederate Army than were households who did not win the lottery. Our results suggest that for wealthy southerners, the stakes associated with the conflict’s threat to end the institution of slavery overrode the incentives to free-ride and to avoid paying the costs of war.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Andrew B. Hall, Connor Huff, and Shiro Kuriwaki, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Who’s complacent?

Or is he just an *******?:

An upstate New York judge Tuesday ordered a 30-year-old man to move out of his parents’ house after they went to court to have him ejected.

Michael Rotondo told the judge he knows his parents want him out of the split-level ranch they share. But he argued that as a family member, he’s entitled to six months more time.

State Supreme Court Justice Donald Greenwood rejected that as outrageous, the Post-Standard of Syracuse reported.

Rotondo told reporters he’ll appeal.

Mark and Christina Rotondo brought the court case after several eviction letters offering money and other help were ignored.

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

Monday assorted links

1. For Ethiopian Christians, Pontius Pilate is a saint.

2. “Ethiopia to allow all Africans to visit without visas “very soon.””

3. In praise of Rob Wiblin.

4. “Over the past 24 months ransomware has become increasingly commoditised with the creators of more recent variants offering revenue-sharing agreements to “affiliate partners”. There is no longer a guarantee that insureds will get their data back, even if they pay the ransom. The “professionalism” associated with earlier strains of ransomware – where call centres were provided to talk victims through accessing Bitcoins in order to pay the ransom and get their data restored – has now all but gone.”  Link here.

5. Composer Charles Wuorinen is “almost a libertarian.”  And he is cranky about contemporary culture (NYT).  And MIE: Dark Chocolate Dessert Hummus.

6. “But if built properly, these cryptocurrencies stand to play a dramatic role in making the Internet global (again).”  And I had never seen the word “cryptonanism” before.

Minimum wage up, fringe benefits down

Gordon Tullock used to make this claim, as have I on many occasions:

This paper explores the relationship between the minimum wage, the structure of employee compensation, and worker welfare. We advance a conceptual framework that describes the conditions under which a minimum wage increase will alter the provision of fringe benefits, alter employment outcomes, and either increase or decrease worker welfare. Using American Community Survey data from 2011-2016, we find robust evidence that state-level minimum wage changes decreased the likelihood that individuals report having employer-sponsored health insurance. Effects are largest among workers in very low-paying occupations, for whom coverage declines offset 9 percent of the wage gains associated with minimum wage hikes. We find evidence that both insurance coverage and wage effects exhibit spillovers into occupations moderately higher up the wage distribution. For these groups, reductions in coverage offset a more substantial share of the wage gains we estimate.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Jeffrey Clemens, Lisa B. Kahn, and Jonathan Meer.

Carl-Henri Prophète emails me

I totally agree about Ethiopia being easy to visit. I went there last December and was baffled by how safe it was. I went outside and easily hailed a Taxi at 11 pm (the blue and white ones that everybody take in Addis not the special ones made for tourists). I’d never find a real Taxi in Port-au-Prince after 8 pm. Except the special (and very expensive) ones you can call on the phone.

What stroke me the most was how cheap Ethiopia was compared to Haiti and low income countries in Africa (especially Tchad, where my wife works). I think this is a major problem for countries like Tchad or Haiti (or Nigeria): they grew too expensive before getting even remotely rich. And this gives me hope that Ethiopia could achieve some significant success in tourism and exports in the coming years. By the way, I think that why a country like Ethiopia is cheaper than Haiti or Chad remains a question to be seriously investigated.

However, the Internet in Haiti is way better and cheaper. Cars in Haiti are also substantially cheaper (3 times cheaper at least, thanks in part to the US being so close). I also think the Internet is largely better and cheaper in Nigeria compared to Ethiopia. This made me think about something you wrote about the future of economic development, with people in countries like Haiti or Nigeria getting more satisfaction from the Internet and relatively cheap electronics instead of jobs and income. My impression is that it’s one of the very few low income country not taking this route currently…

Here is Carl-Henri on Twitter.