Category: Uncategorized

The new Covid equilibrium

Many people have stopped keeping track of where Covid is headed, if only because it is such a stressful and unpleasant topic.  To be clear, under current circumstances I favor complete “Covid laissez-faire,” though with subsidies for new and better vaccines.  Overall, things are not so peachy keen (NYT):

The central problem is that the coronavirus has become more adept at reinfecting people. Already, those infected with the first Omicron variant are reporting second infections with the newer versions of the variant — BA.2 or BA2.12.1 in the United States, or BA.4 and BA.5 in South Africa.

Those people may go on to have third or fourth infections, even within this year, researchers said in interviews. And some small fraction may have symptoms that persist for months or years, a condition known as long Covid.

“It seems likely to me that that’s going to sort of be a long-term pattern,” said Juliet Pulliam, an epidemiologist at Stellenbosch University in South Africa…

“If we manage it the way that we manage it now, then most people will get infected with it at least a couple of times a year,” said Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. “I would be very surprised if that’s not how it’s going to play out.”

I know many of you like to say “No worse than the common cold!”  Well, the thing is…the common cold imposes considerable costs on the world.  Imagine a new common cold, which you catch a few times a year, with some sliver of the population getting some form of Long Covid.  One 2003 estimate suggested that the common cold costs us $40 billion a year, and in a typical year I don’t get a cold even once.  That 2003 estimate also does not include the sheer discomfort of having a cold.

With a pinch of Long Covid in the distribution surely the current virus is a wee bit worse than that?  While many cases of Long Covid are malingerers and hypochondriacs, at this point it is clear that not all of them are.  Toss in some number of immunocompromised individuals (how many?).

Even under mild conceptions of current Covid, it is entirely plausible to believe that the costs of Covid will run into the trillions over the next ten years.

Death rates are not up, but more of the unvaccinated will die off with time and the rest of us will face this steady risk and planning annoyance for — how long?  Plus we’ll get lots of “colds,” some of them considerably worse than a cold.  And with what risk that it might mutate again and get worse? The next generation of vaccines probably will not be directly subsidized.  Which will mean much lower rates of uptake.  The point of maximum Covid immunity may well be behind us.  And you won’t be able to blame it all on lockdowns.

Please keep in mind that when it comes to your reactions I will read many of them as not much better than “I just don’t want to think about this, I am still in denial.”

Tuesday assorted links

1. How long-term space missions change the brain.

2. Innovation in NYC subway crimes (New Yorker).

3. “Right to repair” doesn’t have to work out well.

4. “I find that 501(c)(4)s do not have significant effects on [Congressional] candidate vote share when accounting for the spending of candidates, parties, PACs, and Super PACs.

5. The UFO hearings are on, and “For the majority of the incidents we had in last years report, the majority had multi-sensor data…”

What is the best interview question of all time?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, also picked by the WaPo.  Excerpts:

What are the open tabs in your browser right now?

…First, the question measures what a person does with his or her spare time as well as work time. If you leave a browser tab open, it probably has some importance to you and you expect to return to the page. It is one metric of what you are interested in and what your work flow looks like.

It’s not just cheap talk. Some job candidates might say they are interested in C++ as a programming language, but if you actually have an open page to the Reddit and Subreddits on that topic, that is a demonstrated preference…

The question also tests for enthusiasm. If the person doesn’t seem excited about any of those open browser tabs, that may be a sign that they are blasé about other things as well. But if you get a heated pitch about why a particular website is the best guide to “Lord of the Rings” lore, you may have found a true nerd with a love of detail. That will be a plus for many jobs and avocations, though not all.

There is much more at the link, and to consider some other competing questions, do see my new book with Daniel Gross Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World, publication date is today!

And do note that this particular question comes from Daniel.

Monday assorted links

1. New languages for Google Translate.

2. Travel notes from Ukraine.

3. Eric Topol on the current state of the virus.

4. A guy on YouTube mimicking John Lennon, with Yoko and George Harrison, singing Paul McCartney solo songs.  And now here is “John Lennon” doing “Band on the Run” album.

5. David Boaz honors George H. Smith.  And David Henderson on George.

6. Management secrets of Anna Wintour (Bloomberg).

Why don’t nations buy more territories from each other?

Here is a rather underwhelming list of such purchases in recent times.  West Germany buys three islands from the Netherlands in 1963?  Pakistan buys Gwadar from Muscat and Oman in 1958.  America buys the Danish West Indies in 1916.  In 1947, though the Soviet Union bought part of Lapland in Finland to enable a hydroelectric plant.

We all know about the Louisiana Purchase.  But that’s it since 1916!?  Is Wikipedia failing us?  I don’t think so.

Are there really no good Coasean trades between the two Irelands?  Israel and the Palestinians?  Armenia and Azerbaijan?  How about Chile selling Bolivia a wee bit of coastline?  I can think of a few reasons why territory purchases are these days so hard to pull off.

1. Incoming revenue is subject to a fiscal commons effect.  Some crummy noble does not get to spend it on himself.  And voters take government revenue for granted in most cases, and so do not perceive an increase in their expected retirement benefits from selling land to foreign powers.

2. In earlier times, a lot of land transactions were motivated by “they’re going to take it from us anyway, sooner or later.”  Did Napoleon really think he could hold on to all that land?  No.  He wisely got out, though sadly subsequent French governments did not do “buy and hold.”  Not to mention the Florida Purchase Treaty and Guadalupe Hidalgo.  At least until lately, wars of conquest have been in decline and that has meant a corresponding decline in country-to-country land transactions as well.

3. First mass media and then social media have succeeded in making land boundaries more focal to the citizenry.  Say Northern Ireland today wanted to sell a single acre to the Republic of Ireland.  This would be seen as a precedent, rife with political implications, and it would be hard to evaluate the transaction on its own terms.  Trying to sell a county would be all the more so.  Just look at the map — should there really be so much of “Northern” Ireland to the south of ROI?  Donegal, Derry, etc. — status quo bias, are we really at an optimum point right now?

4. Contested territories today often involve low levels of trust.  Selling pieces of the Irelands back and forth is likely enforceable (but does ROI want any of it?), but an Israel-Palestine deal is not.  Israel prefers to simply move the goalposts by increasing the settlements in the westward direction.  What is really the gain from pressuring one of the Palestinian leaders to sign a piece of paper recognizing this?  Most likely it would ensure his assassination and simply enflame tensions further.  Both parties might prefer unilateral action over a deal.

5. Land in general is far less valuable than in earlier times.  In theory, that could make it either easier or harder to sell land, but if some of the transactions costs (see above) are constant or rising in magnitude, that will make it harder.  Let’s say Colombia raised the funds to buy back part of the Darien gap — whoop de doo!  The country has plenty of empty land as it is.  The whole notion of Lebensraum, and I don’t just mean in its evil Nazi form, has taken a beating since World War II.

6. Russia and China block some deals that might make sense, or maybe America blocks them too.  Just run a Google search on “Arctic.”  China is doing the investing, but we won’t let them own it.  Russia doesn’t want America to own it.  Everything thinks Canadian control or ownership doesn’t amount to much.  Indigenous groups claim parts of it, but they cannot exercise effective control.  And so the whole region and issue festers and stagnates.

7. Consider a deal that does make sense: the U.S. buying Greenland from the Greenlanders and also Denmark.  Can we really in essence pay the 56,000 or so residents to give up their country and territory?  I am no expert on the politics there, but I suspect they are unwilling to vote their pocketbook.  (For one thing, I don’t see them posting a price on eBay or holding a garage sale.)  How about skipping the vote and just offering them free condos in Miami?  Let’s do it!  Still, you can see the problem.

What else?  And can you think of any current issues where a transactional approach might actually work?

How much should you criticize other people?

I mean in private conversation, not in public discourse, and this is not to their faces but rather behind their back.  And with at least a modest amount of meanness, I am not talking about criticizing their ideas.  Here are some reasons not to criticize other people:

1. “Complain less” is one of the very best pieces of wisdom.  That is positively correlated with criticizing other people less, though it is not identical either.

2. If you criticize X to Y, Y wonders whether you criticize him to others as well.  This problem can increase to the extent your criticism is biting and on the mark.

3. Criticizing others is a form of “devalue and dismiss,” and that tends to make the criticizing people stupider.  If I consider the columnists who pour a lot of energy into criticizing others, even if they are sometimes correct, it isn’t so pretty a picture where they end up.

4. If X criticizes Y, it may get back to Y and Y will resent X and perhaps retaliate.

5. Under some moral theories, X is harming Y if X criticizes Y, Y doesn’t find out, and Y faces no practical penalties from that criticism (for an analogy, maybe a wife is harming her husband if she has a secret affair and he never finds out about it).

Here are some reasons to criticize others:

4. Others may deserve the criticism, and surely there is some intrinsic value in speaking the truth and perhaps some instrumental value as well.

5. Criticizing others is a way of building trust.  In a three-way friendship with X, Y, and Z, if X establishes that he and Y can together criticize Z, that may boost trust between Y and X, and also increase X’s relative power in the group.  Criticizing “Charles Manson” doesn’t do this — you’ve got to take some chances with your targets.

6. Criticizing others may induce people to fear you in a useful way.  They may think if they displease you, you will criticize them as well.

7. Perhaps something or somebody is going to be criticized no matter what.  If you take the lead with the criticism, that is a signal of your leadership potential.

What else?  Is there anything useful written on this topic?

Saturday assorted links

1. Thomas Schelling 1963-64 syllabus and final exam.

2. On Srinivasan and sex.

3. Transitioning to post-quantum cryptography?

4. Do insects have culture?

5. There are fewer Karens.

6. “The FDA won’t allow European formulas to be sold here because of inane labeling concerns…

7. “New funding effort will deploy a corps of scientist ‘scouts’ to spot innovative ideas.

8. Biden administration seeking to stymie charter schools (NYT).  #TheGreatForgetting

What I’ve been reading

1. Paul Strathern, The Florentines: From Dante to Galileo.  It is not just Dante and Galileo, there is also Boccaccio, Petrarch, Machiavelli, Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo, Fra Filippo Lippi, Michelangelo, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and many more, all from one small region of Italy.  This book doesn’t answer how that all happened, but it is perhaps the best survey of the magnitude and extent of what happened, recommended and readable throughout, good as both an introduction and for the veteran reader of books about Florence.  While we are at it, don’t forget Pacioli and the first treatise on double-entry bookkeeping.

2. Geoff Dyer, The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings.  A hard book to explain, mostly it is about how careers end or collapse or implode, only some of it is about Federer.  “De Chirico lived till he was ninety but produced little of value after about 1919.”  Calling a book a “tour de force” almost certainly means it isn’t, but this book…is a tour de force.

3. Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.  One or two-page sections on the work habits of famous artists, the selection of names is intelligent and this book is like potato chips in the good sense of the term.

4. Asa Hoffman with Virginia Hoffman, The Last Gamesman: My Sixty Years of Hustling Games in the Clubs, Parks and Streets of New York.  A fun look back at the NYC chess world of the 1970s and trying to make a living as a chess and Scrabble hustler.  I knew Hoffman a bit back then, and even as a kid I wondered “is this guy happy?”  In the book he says he has largely been happy!  I am still wondering.  Maybe the secret is to play a game many discrete times where your losses are temporary and swamped by rapidly forthcoming wins?  I am reminded of the words of the recently deceased grandmaster and centenarian Yuri Averbakh (NYT): “The main thing was that I never obtained great pleasure from winning,’’ he wrote. “Clearly, I did not have a champion’s character. On the other hand, I did not like to lose, and the bitterness of defeat was in no way compensated for by the pleasure of winning.”

5. Christopher Duggan, The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy since 1796.  A good and very useful general introduction to the history of the latter part of the story of Italy.

What should I ask Vaughn Smith?

I will be doing a Conversation with him so what should I ask?  He is a carpet cleaner.  And there is this:

“So, how many languages do you speak?”

“Oh, goodness,” Vaughn says. “Eight, fluently.”

“Eight?” Kelly marvels.

“Eight,” Vaughn confirms. English, Spanish, Bulgarian, Czech, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian and Slovak.

“But if you go by like, different grades of how much conversation,” he explains, “I know about 25 more.”

Vaughn glances at me. He is still underselling his abilities. By his count, it is actually 37 more languages, with at least 24 he speaks well enough to carry on lengthy conversations. He can read and write in eight alphabets and scripts. He can tell stories in Italian and Finnish and American Sign Language. He’s teaching himself Indigenous languages, from Mexico’s Nahuatl. to Montana’s Salish. The quality of his accents in Dutch and Catalan dazzle people from the Netherlands and Spain.

He also has been:

…a painter, a bouncer, a punk rock roadie and a Kombucha delivery man.

Here is the full profile of Vaughn Smith.  And here on YouTube.  So what should I ask him?

Friday assorted links

1. Umbrex presents Tyler Cowen on Talent.

2. Devon Zuegel podcast with Andy Matuschak on…group message etiquette – peripheral vision – homegrown software.

3. The guys behind the Turkish drones (New Yorker).

4. Nintil review of Talent.

5. Catherine Rampell on the inflation conspiracy theory.  #TheGreatForgetting

6. Nadia on EA and idea machines.

7. Help launch meta-science with J-Pal and Heidi Williams.

How to make talent scouts work for you

With Daniel Gross, here is a (very much) shortened bit from Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creators, and Winners Around the World, published at a16z, excerpt from the chapter on when to use talent scouts:

It is worth thinking about why the scouting model works in this context [finding supermodels]. First, the relevant talent could come from many different parts of the world, and the number of people to be scouted is very large. It is hard to imagine a centralized process getting the job done. Second, many of the scouts plausibly have a decent sense of who might make a good model. Looks are hardly the only factor behind modeling success, but they are a kind of “first stop,” and expecting the scouts to judge looks well from first impressions is more plausible than expecting the scouts to use first impressions to judge talent well for skill in, say, quantum mechanics. Third, a follow-up investigation to judge the modeling talent of the chosen candidates is not extremely costly. You can have them in for a photo shoot and see how popular they prove in the market without having to invest millions of dollars right away…

Scouting is also becoming more important as the options for self-education are rising. With more people trying their hand at various avocations than ever before, that places more and more burden on talent search. We need to be more open to the accomplishments of self-taught individuals without traditional training, and that holds all the more true for the tech world, where many of the most important founders have eschewed the institutions of traditional education.

There is much more at the link, we also consider when scouting models fail relative to centralized evaluation, and which kinds of incentives should be given to scouts.

Thursday assorted links

1. Megyn Kelly interviews me, after about half an hour we get to Talent; the earlier inflation material will not be new to MR readers.

2. Rene Saenz: “What Cowenism Is,” a short essay.

3. Switzerland pondering whether Liechenstein is really very different, or not.

4. Kevin Kelly on Vanishing Asia.

5. New Vitalik/Glen paper, Puja Ohlhaver too.

6. The new project of Bloomberg UK (NYT).

7. Why are NSF applications down?

Some blurbs for *Talent*, with Daniel Gross

Talent” is what happens when two brilliant and profoundly iconoclastic minds apply their imagination to one of the hardest of all business problems: the search for good people. I loved it.”

–Malcolm Gladwell

“Talent is everything―whether in investing and building startups, or in other creative endeavors. Between product, market, and people, I’ve always bet on the last one as the biggest predictor of success. But while talent may be everywhere, it’s unevenly distributed, and hard to ‘find.’ So how do we better discover, filter, and match the best talent with the best opportunities? This book shares how, based on both scientific research and the authors’ own experiences. The future depends on this know-how.”

―Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz

“The most important job of any leader is to find individuals with a ‘creative spark,’ and the potential to discover, invent and build the future. If you want to learn the art and science of spotting and empowering exceptional people, Talent is brimming with fresh insights and actionable advice.”

―Eric Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Futures and former CEO of Google

“I do not know of any skills more worth developing than the ability to find exceptional undeveloped talent. I have spent many years trying to get good at that, and I was still astonished by how much I learned reading this book.”

Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, formerly of YCombinator

“Two of the premier talent spotters working today, Cowen and Gross have written the definitive history of identifying talent. Anyone who is interested in innovation, entrepreneurship, or the roots of America’s start-up economy must read this book.”Christina Cacioppo is CEO and co-founder of Vanta

You can order here on Amazon or here on Barnes & Noble.