Category: Web/Tech

Is the Great Stagnation over?

– A working mRNA vaccine (first ever in humans!),

– Apple M1 chip,

– SpaceX rocket launch,

– GPT-3,

– Tons of cool companies IPO’ing and tons more getting started,

– V-shaped recovery

– Electric cars

– Crypto going mainstream

That is from a tweet by Nabeel S.Qureshi.  One could add warp speed, affordable solar power, the eggplant, and distanced work to that list, the latter also implying significant rent declines and child care cost declines for many people.

Around the time The Great Stagnation came out in 2011, I predicted that it was most likely to end within the next twenty years.  We are not there yet, but that claim is no longer looking so absurd.

Note that the vaccine-driven recovery will measure as a rise in labor inputs, but in reality it will be pure TFP.  In 2021 (but which quarter?), true TFP will be remarkably high, maybe the highest ever?

Why conspiracy theories are on the rise

There are certain ideas that are highly seductive, so much so that even “WEIRDOS” occasionally dabble in conspiracy theories. So why weren’t conspiracy theories a bigger part of life in the late 20th century? I believe this is because the media was almost completely controlled by WEIRD people. The news desks at ABC/NBC/CBS stuck to the mainstream version of events, unless they had clear evidence that the official were lying (say after the Ellsberg Papers came out.) So there was no major institution to form and disseminate conspiracy theories. These theories did exist back then, but never gained enough traction to have a big impact on society.

The internet changed everything. More specifically, it democratized information sharing all over the world. There are no more “gatekeepers”. Because less that 10% of the world’s population is truly WEIRD, the internet has made conspiracy theories the dominant epistemic style of the 21st century. Just as the 21st century will be a low interest rate/high asset price century (as I predicted years ago), it will also be a century of widespread conspiracy theories. I doubt whether I’ll live along enough to see another president who is generally accepted as legitimate.

That is from Scott Sumner, there is more at the link.

My Conversation with Jimmy Wales

It was excellent throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript, here is part of the summary:

Jimmy joined Tyler to discuss what happens when content moderation goes wrong, why certain articles are inherently biased, the threat that repealing section 230 poses to Wikipedia, whether he believes in Conquest’s Law, the difference between “paid editing” and “paid advocacy editing,” how Wikipedia handles alternative accounts, the right to be forgotten, his unusual education in Huntsville, Alabama, why Ayn Rand is under- and over-rated, the continual struggle to balance good rules and procedures against impenetrable bureaucracy, how Wikipedia is responding to mobile use, his attempt to build a non-toxic social media platform, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: I’m the rare person who actually has no sock puppets. Why not allow sock puppets? What exactly is wrong with them? So what if a person has more than one identity out there, as long as you can monitor the identity that is operating on Wikipedia?

WALES: That’s a great question. In fact, we do try to make a distinction between a sock puppet and a legitimate alternate account. We actually have procedures whereby you can declare a legitimate alternate account to the arbitration committee so that you’re insulated from any bad harms if it’s found out. Some of the keys are that we rely on trust.

One of the things that is really important to us — we do a lot of what we call “not voting.” It’s voting, but it’s really a straw poll. The votes — typically, they’re not the final word, and if somebody comes into a discussion and pretends to be five different people, arguing that something should be deleted, and there are two actual different people arguing that it should be kept, that’s deceptive. It kind of skews the balance.

People who are reviewing that say, “Well, I think we should keep it, but I see there are five people here with a different opinion, so maybe I’m wrong.” That bulking up your impact by double-voting on something, by pretending to be different people, is super problematic.

The other problematic sock puppeting is a sock puppet to conceal your conflict of interest. I remember we had one notorious case of a PR firm that had engaged in quite a lot of problematic editing.

One of their accounts — it made a lot of edits and pretended to be a retired fellow who was a car collector. There were all these pictures of old cars and so on. They had a whole persona created that seemed like a lovely chap who just liked to edit Wikipedia, but in fact, it was just somebody at the PR firm who was giving a cover, and I think that kind of deception is problematic.

The good examples of multiple accounts would be someone who wants to edit in a controversial area. As an example, let’s say you’re a well-known person, and suppose you took an interest in our entries on pedophilia, not because of any prurient interests but simply because you think this is actually an important topic of social impact.

Well, you probably wouldn’t necessarily want to be known at your university as the guy who edits the pedophilia articles on Wikipedia. That’s just not easy for people to be open about, even if you’re doing all the right things. So you might say, “Yes, I actually want to edit in some areas of World War II history under this identity, but I’m going to do some work over here, and I really prefer it not to be tied back to my real-life identity.” And that’s kind of okay, as long as you’re not voting in elections with two accounts and things like that.

Definitely recommended.

Post-Covid, is the U.S. falling behind China?

I don’t think so, as I argue in my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

If you are wondering whether China or the U.S. with its allies is more likely to make a big breakthrough, in, say, quantum computing, ask yourself a simple question: Which network will better attract talented immigrants? The more that talent and innovation are found around the world, the more that helps the U.S.

And:

Perhaps most important, the European Union has evolved from seeing China primarily as a customer to seeing China primarily as a rival. Even Germany, a longstanding advocate for closer ties with China, has become more skeptical. Furthermore, most European nations have ended up agreeing with the U.S. that Chinese telecom giant Huawei be kept out of the critical parts of their communications infrastructure.

It is also worth noting that GPT-3 came out of the Anglosphere, not China, even though we have been hearing for years that China may be ahead in AI.

Is AI centralizing research influence?

Increasingly, modern Artificial Intelligence (AI) research has become more computationally intensive. However, a growing concern is that due to unequal access to computing power, only certain firms and elite universities have advantages in modern AI research. Using a novel dataset of 171394 papers from 57 prestigious computer science conferences, we document that firms, in particular, large technology firms and elite universities have increased participation in major AI conferences since deep learning’s unanticipated rise in 2012. The effect is concentrated among elite universities, which are ranked 1-50 in the QS World University Rankings. Further, we find two strategies through which firms increased their presence in AI research: first, they have increased firm-only publications; and second, firms are collaborating primarily with elite universities. Consequently, this increased presence of firms and elite universities in AI research has crowded out mid-tier (QS ranked 201-300) and lower-tier (QS ranked 301-500) universities. To provide causal evidence that deep learning’s unanticipated rise resulted in this divergence, we leverage the generalized synthetic control method, a data-driven counterfactual estimator. Using machine learning based text analysis methods, we provide additional evidence that the divergence between these two groups – large firms and non-elite universities – is driven by access to computing power or compute, which we term as the “compute divide”. This compute divide between large firms and non-elite universities increases concerns around bias and fairness within AI technology, and presents an obstacle towards “democratizing” AI. These results suggest that a lack of access to specialized equipment such as compute can de-democratize knowledge production.

That is a new paper by Nur Ahmed and Muntasir Wahed.

Emergent Ventures winners, eleventh cohort

Andrew Dembe of Uganda, working on the “last mile” problem for health care delivery.

Maxwell Dostart-Meers of Harvard, to study Singapore and state capacity, as a Progress Studies fellow.

Markus Strasser of Linz, Austria, now living in London, to pursue a next-generation scientific search and discovery web interface that can answer complex quantitative questions, built on extracted relations from scientific text, such as graph of causations, effects, biomarkers, quantities, etc.

Marc Sidwell of the United Kingdom, to write a book on common sense.

Yuen Yuen Ang, political scientist at the University of Michigan, from Singapore, to write a new book on disruption.

Matthew Clancy, Iowa State University, Progress Studies fellow. To build out his newsletter on recent research on innovation.

Samarth Athreya, Ontario: “I’m a 17 year old who is incredibly passionate about the advent of biomaterials and its potential to push humanity forward in a variety of industries. I’ve been speaking about my vision and some of my research on the progress of material science and nanotechnology specifically at various events like C2 Montreal, SXSW, and Elevate Tech Festival!”

Applied Divinity Studies, this anonymously written blog has won an award for his or her writing and blogging.  We are paying in bitcoin.

Jordan Mafumbo, a Ugandan autodidact and civil engineer studying Heidegger and the foundations of liberalism.  He also has won an award for blogging.

Blog and Substack contest winners

To date there are three:

1. Anton Howes for his Substack Age of Invention.  He is a historian of invention, often but not exclusively focusing on the eighteenth century, here is Anton on Twitter.  As a separate matter, don’t forget Anton’s excellent recent book Arts & Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation.

2. Works in Progress.  Here is their About page: “Works in Progress is a new online magazine dedicated to sharing novel ideas and stories of progress, and features original writing from some of the most interesting thinkers in the world.”  The major individuals behind Works in Progress are Sam Bowman, Saloni Dattani, Ben Southwood, and Nick Whitaker, all with bios at the previous link, all strong intellectual forces.

Note also: “Works in Progress is always looking for new writers for upcoming issues and our blog. Reach out if you want to talk about writing for us, with a short summary or abstract of your piece.”

3. Alice Evans, lecturer at King’s College London.  Here is Alice on Twitter.  She is working on “”THE GREAT GENDER DIVERGENCE” What explains global variation in gender relations?” and here is her related blog on that same topic.  Here is her famous post on gender relations in north vs. south India.  Her home page also links to her podcast.

I do expect there will be further awards, and I will keep you posted (here is the original announcement).  If you just started writing a blog and submitted, you may still be in the running for the future. In the meantime, congratulations to these winners!

Vitalik Buterin’s Conversation with me

He is interviewing me, and yes he does close with a bout of Overrated vs. Underrated.  Here is the YouTube link, it starts at about 7:00, give or take a few seconds.  I thought it was very interesting, on both of our sides, more of a dialogue than an interview, the points of focus being crypto and tech utopianism.

Perhaps the next time we will get to The New Monetary Economics…

Novid — a pre-exposure notification system for Covid (and other things)

I find the (short) video easiest to follow:

Best of all, it is incentive-compatible. The founder Po-Shen Loh, a mathematician from Carnegie Mellon, wrote to me:

…for each positive case, don’t just ask the direct contacts to quarantine; instead, tell everyone how many relationships away COVID just struck (e.g., “3” is a contact of a contact of a contact). Then animate this over time like a weather radar…Keep everything anonymous.

Suddenly, the main purpose of the intervention is no longer to protect others from you (quarantining after being exposed). Instead, it is to directly protect you from others, because that early warning of approaching COVID lets you know it’s a good time to wear a better mask, or to be more vigilant about distancing, because the situation is getting hot. This appeals to self-protection instincts instead of altruistic instincts. Since this app is already in deployment, we know anecdotally, for example, of a person who installed the app because his kid was going to a university that was using the app. Why? So that he could be alerted in case COVID started spreading his way from the university via his kid.

Here is his associated preprint.  As economists, ought we not to feel that appealing to self-interest and love of family sometimes works?

Threadhelper, a new method for improving Twitter

Vasco Queirós, from the 7th cohort of Emergent Venture grant winners, has, with Francisco Carvalho, launched ThreadHelper – “A serendipity engine on the Twitter sidebar”. You can get it here.

ThreadHelper is a browser extension that finds you the tweets you need. It shows as a sidebar on the right hand side of your Twitter timeline and instantly and automatically searches bookmarks, retweets, and your past tweets for tweets that are semantically relevant to the tweet being composed. It can be used as a specific search that’s faster than Twitter’s or as a fuzzy search tool.

When in doubt, ask Alex Rampell

Alex is very very highly rated by those who know him, but still in the broader scheme of things significantly underrated as a Bay Area tech and finance thinker.  Here is Alex on SPACs:

If the best fundraise (IPO included) aggregates as many potential buyers as possible to raise money at the highest price with the least dilution and lowest fees, it’s hard to understand how a SPAC represents an improvement against those constraints. When a SPAC merges with a target (“de-SPACs”), it’s tantamount to an IPO. The SPAC (already publicly traded, with lots of cash on its balance sheet) and the target company agree on a pre-money valuation for the target; the money sitting in the SPAC becomes the “money raised” (IPO equivalent) with typically a PIPE (Private Investment in Public Equity, a further institutional fundraise / large block sale) done at the same time. As an example, a $500M SPAC might merge with a private company, ascribing a $4.5B valuation to the private company, meaning a $5B post-money valuation of the combined entity. How do we know *this* is the fair price? Should a company meet with one SPAC? Two SPACs? Three SPACs or four? Where is the price discovery?

And while the fee structure of SPACs will likely change, right now it is indisputably a more expensive option with less price discovery. Bankers are paid 5%+ for taking the SPAC public; SPAC investors typically get warrants with their investment; the SPAC sponsor typically gets 20% (of the pre-merger value of the SPAC) for finding a target, so 2% in the above example; a banker is normally hired and paid to handle the merger; a mini-roadshow happens to get approval from the SPAC shareholders AND to potentially secure more cash in the form of a PIPE, for which a banker is also paid.

Most of the post is on why IPOs are less inefficient than you might think, informative and interesting throughout.

Should government improve the quality of its software?

From a GitHub repository:

This GitHub repository is a back up of my FAERSFix scripts.

The FDA Adverse Effect Reporting System is a horrifically dysfunctional quagmire of shockingly bad data. The data is not just bad for severe epistemological reasons, it is also poorly organized and riddled with flagrant absurd errors.

These scripts smooth over the very messy process of acquiring and basic debugging of the data. At the end of the process a user can arrive at a local repository of the FAERS data that is sane enough to begin to think about some kind of sensible analysis. To understand the disastrous state of the original source data, see the source code of the scripts which is designed to be a readable self-documenting manual demonstrating how to correct this mess.

Since the FDA’s gremlins never rest, these scripts will become obsolete. If you would like to contribute updates or fixes, feel free to send me a patch or a pull request. Good luck!

I thank Chris E. for the pointer.

Clubhouse

I’ve tried it a few times, and I think it will become “a thing.”  You can read about it here, though it is time someone did a more current article.  It is the best forum invented to date for mid-size, friendly, intellectual chats.  Broadly speaking imagine a Zoom call, with competing topic-named rooms, the video turned off, and better queuing and calling upon people procedures.  It doesn’t seem to induce fatigue the way Zoom calls do.  The software has a fluidity and ease of use that I hardly ever see, as usually I hate new apps that people tell me to try.

I don’t know that it will ever be “my thing,” mostly because I can read so quickly, which raises my opportunity cost of consumption.  (Though you can read with it on in the background — is it ever the case that no one in the audience is listening?  Would that even matter?)  In any case, I suspect it will take some real mind-share away from Twitter and Facebook, and now is the time for you to start learning about it.

So far it is invite-only, though I assume it will be opening up more broadly.  Furthermore, an invitation is not so difficult to get.  Arguably there is a problem with who gets invited or deplatformed, though so far this seems to bother the (non-participating) people on Twitter more than it disturbs anyone performing on Clubhouse itself.

It is much more Tiebout-like than Zoom, so someday this also may be an incredible data source on what leads to useful conversations, which are the best governance rules, and so on.

What our new Chinese overlords desire for us

Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is a top 10 album this week — more than four decades after its release — thanks to a viral TikTok video that’s had everyone vibing along to “Dreams.” Rumours now ranks seventh on the Billboard 200 chart, the publication announced last night, the album’s first appearance in the top 10 since 1978, a year after it debuted.

Rumours’ newfound popularity is thanks to a viral video from Nathan Apodaca, who goes by 420doggface208 on TikTok, that shows him skateboarding down a road and sipping cran-raspberry juice straight from the jug, while “Dreams” plays over top. It’s been viewed more than 60 million times since being posted at the end of September, and it’s even inspired both Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks to sign up for TikTok over the past two weeks. Fleetwood recreated the viral video himself, while Nicks posted a video of herself lacing up roller skates and singing along. They have a combined 35 million views.

Here is the full story, via Fernand Pajot.