Category: Web/Tech

My Conversation with Lex Fridman

2 hours 9 minutes long, Lex is one of the very best interviewers/discussants in the sector.  Here is the video, here is the audio.  Plenty of new topics and avenues, including the political economy of Russia (note this was recorded before the massing of Russian forces on the Ukraine border).  Lex’s tweet described it as follows:

Here’s my conversation with @tylercowen  about economic growth, resisting conformity, the value of being weird, competition and capitalism, UFO sightings, contemporary art, best food in the world, and of course, love, death, and meaning.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Grseeycor4

Recommended.

Which are the most striking elements of Monkey Pong?

Watch this if you haven’t already:

What comes to your mind is an interesting kind of Rorschach test.  A few options (not necessarily endorsed by me) are:

1. Where did they get that background from?

2. Can I have some of what that monkey is drinking?

3. Wealth concentrations are going to make IRB regulations less relevant over time.

4. How many people want to play Pong against a wired monkey?  Will we employ or enslave monkeys to enable this?  What is in fact the relevant difference?

5. What else can that monkey (cognitively) do better than I can?

6. Which regulatory agency will have jurisdiction over the (presumably disabled) humans who want this as a medical treatment?  What about the non-disabled humans?  The Navy pilots?

7. Where does this all end?

8. Will this raise or lower the price of monkeys?

What else?

Vaccine passport sentences to ponder

From New York State:

Using Excelsior Pass is entirely voluntary, but it requires learning about the state’s system and mastering a few different websites and apps. It took me 20 minutes over Zoom to help an octogenarian set up his pass, though it was certainly simpler than mastering vaccine-appointment websites. And even when we thought we understood the system, Excelsior Pass didn’t always work: My tech-reporter colleague tried to use it to enter Yankee Stadium, but the system didn’t update with his clearance until after the game was over…

Testing Excelsior Pass, what surprised me most was how easy it is to fake. When you first sign up for your QR code on the state website, it asks a handful of questions based on your vaccination and testing records. But after that, you’re on the honor system — you can add the QR code to any phone without any more challenge questions.

Designed by IBM, here is the full story.  I get that different parts of the country (Michigan…surge vaccine supply!) may need to proceed at different speeds, but basically it is time to plan a full reopening, and it seems that vaccine passports are more likely to hinder than to help achieve that end.

How open and face to face will fall semester be?

I am pleased to see Cornell mandating vaccination for all of its students.  Of course other colleges and universities can do the same.  Even if they do not take that step, it still seems it will be “safe enough” to hold most classes in-person in the Fall, if not sooner.

And yet.

Here is what I think is the issue.  Universities these days are not very good at “leaving people behind,” at least not as an act of open and deliberate commission.  What about students or faculty who just had organ transplants and who thus might have compromised immune systems and also high vulnerability to Covid?  Rather than the Coase theorem being applied, schools might make professors offer a hybrid option, namely that some students take the class face to face, and other students take it over Zoom, with a computer hooked up to cover the classroom.

Of course the mixed mode doesn’t work very well.  I’ve learned from meetings that an all on-line meeting usually is (much) better than a mixed meeting where some people are present and others on-line, or in the old days on the phone.

So imagine universities giving every student the option to check a box: “I want this class on-line so please make it a hybrid option.”

Except they don’t make anyone prove that they just had an organ transplant.

And then ten percent of the students prefer to live in Pakistan, California, Florida — wherever.  Those students check the box to make the class a hybrid option.  What happens?

Many classes “might just suck.”

Another option is that the class evolves into mainly on-line as a least worst option.

Another option — #3 — is that the university forgets about the box-checking option but nonetheless uses this as a chance to evolve toward a larger and more sensible on-line presence.

#3 might happen, but I don’t think it will be in place by this fall.  And thus you can see my worry about the pending fall semester in many institutions.  Will they have the stones to say “No, we’re just going to offer this one face to face”?

Stay tuned.

What should I ask Pierpaolo Barbieri?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is the opening part of his Wikipedia page:

Pierpaolo Barbieri (Buenos Aires, May 17, 1987) is an economic historian, researcher, Executive Director at Greenmantle[and founder of Ualá, an Argentina-based personal financial management mobile app. He is the author of the book Hitler’s Shadow Empire: The Nazis and the Spanish Civil War. He has been featured in publications like Financial Times, New York Times, Foreign Affairs, El País, and The Wall Street Journal.

Ualá has been highly successful as of late in the payments space, including with the unbanked, and here is Pierpaolo on Twitter (mostly Spanish language).

So what should I ask him?

My Conversation with Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist and Egypt lover

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings really traveled, why conservation should be as much of a priority as excavation, the economics of looting networks, the inherently political nature of archaeology, Indiana Jones versus The Dig, her favorite contemporary bluegrass artists, the best archeological sites to visit around the world, the merits of tools like Google Earth and Lidar, the long list of skills needed to be a modern archeologist, which countries produce the best amateur space archeologists, and more.

Lots of talk about data issues and rights as well.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s something that struck me studying your work. Give me your reaction. It seems to me your job is almost becoming impossible. You have to know stats. You have to know trigonometry. You have to know geometry. In your case, you need to know Egyptian Arabic, possibly some dialect, possibly some classical Arabic, maybe some other languages.

You have to know archaeology, right? You have to know history. You must have to know all kinds of physical techniques for unearthing materials without damaging them too much. You need to know about data storage, and I could go on, and on, and on.

Hasn’t your job evolved to the point where you’re almost . . . You need to know about technologies, right? For finding data from space — we talked about this before. That’s also not easy. Isn’t your job evolving to the point where, literally, no human can do it, and you’re the last in the line?

PARCAK: I am, I guess, jack of all trades, master of a few. But that’s not true either because I have to know the remote sensing programs. I have to know geographic information systems. I have to be up to date on international cultural heritage laws.

I think I’m not special by a long shot. Every archaeologist is a specialist. This archaeologist is a specialist in the pottery of this period of time, or does DNA, or excavates human remains — they’re bioarchaeologists — or they do computation. We all are specialists in a particular thing, but that’s really broad. My unsexy, more academic term is landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human-environment interaction, which encompasses a lot of different fields and subfields. I’ve taken many courses in geology.

All of us who study Egyptology — we do a lot of training in art history because, of course, the iconography and the art and the objects that we’re finding. It takes a lot, but I would say most of the knowledge I’ve gotten is experiential. It’s from being in the field, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. I’ve spent countless hours in museum collections learning, touching objects.

Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s also the field of archaeology. That’s why so many people really love it — because you get to touch on so many different areas. I would never, for example, consider myself a specialist in bioarchaeology. I know a tibia. When I find pitting on a skull, I know what that could potentially mean.

But also, I’m in a position now where I’m a dig director, so that means I’m in charge of a large group of humans, most of whom are far smarter, more capable than I am in whatever they’re doing. They’re specialists in pottery and bone, in rocks — project geologist — and conservation in art. We have project artists. We have specialists in excavation, and of course, there’s my very talented Egyptian team. They’re excavating. I’m probably a lot more of a manager now than I ever expected to be —

COWEN: And fundraiser perhaps, right?

One of my favorite CWTs in some time.  And here is Sarah’s book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.

Google Trends as a measure of economic influence

That is a new research paper by Tom Coupé, here is one excerpt:

I find that search intensity rankings based on Google Trends data are only modestly correlated with more traditional measures of scholarly impact…

The definition of who counts as an economist is somewhat loose, so:

Plato, Aristotle and Karl Marx constitute the top three. They are followed by B. R. Ambedkar, John Locke and Thomas Aquinas, with Adam Smith taking the seventh place. Smith is followed by Max Weber, John Maynard Keynes and the top-ranking Nobel Prize winner, John Forbes Nash Jr.

…John Forbes Nash Jr., Arthur Lewis, Milton Friedman, Paul Krugman and Friedrich Hayek are the most searched for Nobel Prize winners for economics, while Tjalling Koopmans, Reinhard Selten, Lawrence Klein, James Meade and Dale T. Mortensen have the lowest search intensity.

Here are the Nobelist rankings.  Here are the complete rankings, if you are wondering I come in at #104, just ahead of William Stanley Jevons, one of the other Marginal Revolution guys, and considerably ahead of Walras and Menger, early co-bloggers (now retired) on this site.  Gary Becker is what…#172?  Ken Arrow is #184.  The internet is a funny place.

I guess I found this on Twitter, but I have forgotten whom to thank – sorry!

Twitter macro and Twitter economics

I’ll compare Twitter macro to blog macro throughout, and here is how I see the strengths and weaknesses of Twitter macro:

1. Super-fast speed of response, and less repetitive than the old blog world.  It is easy to comment right away on the most current happening.  Unlike with (some) blogs, no wind-ups are required.  On Twitter both good and bad ideas go viral far more rapidly.

2. It is more fun than blog macro, and attracts fewer hobby horse drones.

3. It is too easy to tell people that they “completely misunderstand” something, because links, while they exist on Twitter, are not the prime currency.  This leads to many bad tweets, typically tweets that…completely misunderstand something or someone, yet with less verification possible.

4. It attracts a younger set of writers than blog macro did.  That makes it both more left-wing and also less informed about economic history, recent decades in particular.  Very recent evidence and experience is considerably overstressed in its relevance, and this is reinforced by the fad-like nature of Twitter opinion.

5. Twitter macro is poor at spelling out the entirety of an empirical literature on an empirical question.  I am not sure whether this is intrinsic to the medium, but I observe this regularly.  Blogs in contrast are/were most likely to take a more exhaustive approach to literature survey, sometimes too exhaustive rather than focusing on the single best argument.

6. Twitter macro is poor for spelling out mechanisms.  Most coherent macro mechanisms do in fact take more than 280 characters to spell out.  Tweet storms are useful, but more for a series of sequential observations on some new data, rather than for mechanisms per se.  Overall Twitter is poor for “grasping the whole elephant” approaches to economics, and for that matter to other topics as well.

7. It is easier to learn from other people on econ Twitter, due to the “rapid scan” and retweet and “comment on tweet” properties of the system.  At the same time, econ Twitter is more prone to fads and bubbles of opinion, for broadly the same reasons.

8. Econ Twitter involves more “don’t really know anything at all” kinds of people, and sarcastic people, in the discussions.  Overall this has a negative external impact on the tone and thoughtfulness of those who do know something.  In the blog world, we all made each other a bit more “cross-checking, linking, and drone-like.”

9. I genuinely do not understand why more tweeters do not set up free blog or Substack accounts, and, if only five times or so a year, write a longer post or column explaining and defending their views and tying them into the broader literatures.  This seems to me to betray a certain kind of intellectual laziness, which the Twitter medium itself encourages and amplifies.

10. Entry barriers are lower with Twitter, so there is a much broader diversity of opinion.  This can be very good, but see #8.

11. It is easier to express meaningful agnosticism in a successful blog post than in a successful tweet.  This is one of the biggest problems with Twitter macro, and indeed with Twitter more broadly.  It is also hard to express trade-offs in a successful tweet, another major problem.  “We must do this” kinds of thinking are instead encouraged.

12. Both blog posts and tweets very often mix in normative judgments with the positive analysis.  But it is much harder to be sophisticated on the normative side on Twitter.  The morality is often third-rate or worse.

13. The one-sentence (supposed) refutation is very much overrated on Twitter, even serious Twitter.  Such dismissals are usually wrong, or at least seriously incomplete, and their possibility and popularity discourage people from developing deeper understandings.

14. Is Twitter so great for methodological self-awareness?  Yes, you could do a tweet storm but this kind of analysis, as embodied in this post itself, seems harder to do on Twitter, and harder to receive non-sarastic feedback on.

Profile of Beeple

Winkelmann grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, and quickly gravitated to technology. His father, an electrical engineer, taught him how to program. The only art classes that he ever took were in his freshman year of high school. At around the same time, a friend introduced him to the electronic-music label Warp Records, and to bands like Aphex Twin, the stage name of Richard David James. “What can one person and a computer do?” Winkelmann said. “That has always been a really cool concept to me, because it’s the equalizer, in a way.”

Winkelmann went to Purdue University and entered its computer-science program, but he eventually found himself adrift. Programming, he said, was “boring as shit.” Instead, he shot narrative short films with his Webcam and learned digital design. Inspired by the video artist Chris Cunningham and the British studio the Designers Republic, he created loops of animated geometric shapes synched to his own electronic music. He posted the results online. In 2003, when he was twenty-two years old, he took the name Beeple, after an old Ewok-like stuffed animal. He now collects Beeples from eBay. While we were talking, he grabbed one from his desk and held it up to show me. When Winkelmann covered the furry toy’s eyes, it emitted a wild beeping sound in protest. The name seemed apt, he said, because a similar interplay of vision and sound animated his videos.

Here is more from Kyle Chayka at The New Yorker.

India collateralized smart phone markets in everything

…the easiest way for retailers and online stores to get high-end devices into working-class people’s pockets has been through a new method of lending: collateralizing smartphones. Vendors are selling smartphones to first-time borrowers on high-interest payment plans financed by loan companies, but only after users install an undeletable app at the point of sale. The apps can then monitor repayment behavior throughout the duration of the loan. One late payment leads to instant blocking of the phone, rendering it useless. For loan providers and smartphone sellers, this form of lending opens their products to a new class of consumers

Datacultr uses a laundry list of techniques to force borrowers into paying. The app starts by sending audiovisual prompts in regional languages as reminders. If the user misses their first repayment, it forcefully changes the wallpaper on their cellphones. If Datacultr’s data scrape reveals a user to be a prolific selfie-taker, for instance, the app will send notifications every time the camera function is opened. If the user continues to default on the loan, frequently used messaging and social apps like Facebook or Instagram are progressively blocked, severely restricting the use of the device and ultimately shutting down all of the phone’s functionalities.

Be careful if you buy a used phone!  Here is the full story, via the excellent Samir Varma.

India Should Embrace Not Ban Crypto

Should India ban crypto in a return to foreign currency regulations of the past or embrace cryptocurrency? Shruti Rajagopalan has an excellent column reminding us of India’s old system of currency control under the License Raj.

If India proceeds with a rumored ban on cryptocurrency, it wouldn’t be the country’s first attempt to impose currency controls. This time, however, a ban is even less likely to succeed — and the consequences for India’s economy could be more dire. The country shouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

In the 1970s and 80s, at the height of what was known as the License Raj, Indians could only hold foreign currency for a specific purpose and with a permit from the central bank. If a businessman bought foreign exchange to spend over two days in Paris and one in Frankfurt, and instead spent two days in Germany, the Reserve Bank of India would demand to know why he’d deviated from the currency permit. Violators were routinely threatened with fines and jail time of up to seven years.

Imports required additional permits. Infosys Ltd. founder Narayana Murthy recalls spending about $25,000 (including bribes) to make 50 trips to Delhi over three years, just to get permission to import a $150,000 computer. Plus, since any foreign exchange that the company earned notionally belonged to the government, the RBI would release only half of Infosys’s earnings for the firm to spend on business expenses abroad.

Naturally a black market, with all its unsavory elements, emerged for foreign currency. The government doubled down, subjecting those dealing in illicit foreign exchange to preventative detention, usually reserved for terrorists. Businessmen selling Nike shoes and Sony stereos were arrested as smugglers.

The system impoverished Indians and made it impossible for Indian firms to compete globally. There’s a reason the country’s world-class IT sector took off only after a balance of payments crisis forced India to open up its economy in 1991.

…While details of the possible crypto ban remain unclear, a draft bill from 2019 bears eerie resemblance to the 1970s controls. It would criminalize the possession, mining, trading or transferring of cryptocurrency assets. Offenders could face up to ten years in jail as well as fines. Such a blanket prohibition would be foolish on multiple levels….

A related problem is that you may think you are banning a cryptocurrency but if you are banning something like Ethereum or Elrond what you are really banning is an experimental workspace, a platform capable of supporting an ecosystem of innovations in finance, art and new forms of cooperation and organization. As I said some time ago:

The Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) is a new organizational form potentially as important as the creation of the corporate form in the 1600s.

and that’s just one example of how crypto will–in one form or another–under-gird much of our life in the 21st century in ways we don’t yet fully see. Banning is premature to say the least.

Moreover, the irony is that India has one of the world’s most advanced identity and payments systems, the India stack. By integrating the India stack with crypto systems regulated similarly to foreign currencies under India’s Foreign Exchange Management Act, India could become a leader in fintech. Balaji Srinivasan presents practical steps forward:

Basically, India doesn’t need to take a risk with a novel ban on the financial internet. It can just modify FEMA to regulate decentralized cryptocurrencies and national digital currencies as foreign assets. A 64-page report by the Indian law firm Nishith Desai Associates outlines in detail how that could work. In brief, the report recommends:

  • Treating crypto as a foreign asset. FEMA provides language that could be used to expressly classify digital assets as “securities”, “goods”, “software”, or “foreign currencies” depending on their features and attributes.
  • Regulating exchanges with startup-friendly licensing. RBI could use FEMA to regulate crypto exchanges as “authorised persons” per the Act, thereby permitting them to deal in foreign currency. Some provision would need to be made to accommodate startups, perhaps by monitoring small new licensees under a regulatory sandbox framework. By repurposing this well-established regulatory mechanism, crypto-assets become subject to all the existing safeguards that the Act provides, including RBI oversight and KYC/AML.
  • Adopting KYC/AML rules. Most developed jurisdictions, including Australia, Canada, the EU, Japan, South Korea, and the US, have brought crypto-asset business activity within their AML regimes. Such an approach has also been recommended by the FATF. India can do this with a simple Central Government notification under the Prevention of Money-Laundering Act.

The FEMA-based model (or a close alternative) would allow us to turn all licensed, regulated Indian exchanges like CoinDCX, WazirX, Coinswitch, Zebpay, Unocoin, and Pocketbits into well-lit venues for trading cryptocurrency. Over time, they will also become huge drivers of remittances for Indians abroad performing remote work, thereby bringing capital into India.

Zero price markets in everything

Had enough Zoom meetings? Can’t bear another soul-numbing day of sitting on video calls, the only distraction your rapidly aging face, pinned in one corner of the screen like a dying bug? Well, if so, then boy do we have the app for you. Meet Zoom Escaper: a free web widget that lets you add an array of fake audio effects to your next Zoom Call, gifting you with numerous reasons to end the meeting and escape, while you still can.

You can choose from barking dogs, construction noises, crying babies, or even subtler effects like choppy audio and unwanted echoes. Created by artist Sam Lavigne, Zoom Escaper is fantastically simple to use. All you need do is download a free bit of audio software called VB-Audio that routes your audio through the website, then change your audio input in Zoom from your microphone to VB-Audio, and play with the effects.

Here is much more, via Schaffin and also Michael Rosenwald.

Those new Filipino service sector jobs

In the Philippines, one popular blockchain-based game is even providing pathways out of poverty and helping spread the word about novel technology. Created by Sky Mavis, a Vietnamese startup, Axie Infinity is a decentralized application (dapp) on the Ethereum blockchain where players breed, raise, battle and trade adorable digital critters called Axies.

Ijon Inton, an Axie player from Cabanatuan City, which is about 68 miles north of Manila in the province of Nueva Ecija, first learned about it in February of this year when his friend stumbled across an explainer video on YouTube. Intrigued by the “Play to Earn” element of the game, he decided to give it a go.

“At first I just want to try its legitimacy, and after a week of playing I was amazed with my first income,” said Inton, who is currently earning around 10,000 PHP ($206) per week from playing the game around the clock.

Inton soon invited his family to play, too, and after a few weeks, he also started telling his neighbors. A crypto trader since 2016, Inton helped his friends set up a Coins.ph account so they could buy their first ETH and get started. Now, there are more than 100 people in his local community playing to earn on Axie, including a 66-year-old grandmother.

Here is the full story, via Nicanor Angle.  How would you have responded to these sentences a decade ago?:

“We definitely want to get people who are outside of Ethereum, outside of the dapp space, outside of NFTs, into Axie,” Jiho said. He has observed other Axie play-to-earn community clusters in Indonesia and Venezuela, but thinks this might be the first evidence of a multi-generational household of dApp users.

What lies next in store for us?

No you are not insane, yes you are allowed to giggle

An artwork by Beeple which exists only as a digital file and was sold as a “nonfungible token” for a staggering $69.3 million at an online auction handled by Christie’s on Thursday was bought by an investor known only by a pseudonym and who paid for it with cryptocurrency, the auction house said Friday.

“It feel like I got a steal,” said the buyer, who goes by the pseudonym Metakovan, in a Google Meet interview (without video) that was arranged by Christie’s.

Metakovan, the founder of the Metapurse, a fund that collects “nonfungible tokens” or NFTs, said he would be paying for the work and Christie’s fees in Ether, a cryptocurrency. “As we speak, I’m sending the last transaction,” he said.

The work he bought, “Everydays — The First 5000 Days,” is a collage of all the images that the digital artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, has posted online since 2007. The image had been specially created, or “minted,” by the artist for Christie’s timed one-lot online auction as an NFT. Such digital collectibles have no physical existence, but are given proof of ownership and authenticity using blockchain technology. “Everydays,” a JPG, was the first digital-only NFT auctioned by Christie’s.

Here is the full NYT story.  Here is Metakovan speaking, along with an image.  And here is Metakovan (“King of meta”) on his own identity, he is a Tamil living in Singapore.