Category: Web/Tech

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.

The new version of “throwing away the key” — our prison regulatory state is failing us

According to Arizona Department of Corrections whistleblowers, hundreds of incarcerated people who should be eligible for release are being held in prison because the inmate management software cannot interpret current sentencing laws.

KJZZ is not naming the whistleblowers because they fear retaliation. The employees said they have been raising the issue internally for more than a year, but prison administrators have not acted to fix the software bug. The sources said Chief Information Officer Holly Greene and Deputy Director Joe Profiri have been aware of the problem since 2019.

The Arizona Department of Corrections confirmed there is a problem with the software.

As of 2019, the department had spent more than $24 million contracting with IT company Business & Decision, North America to build and maintain the software program, known as ACIS, that is used to manage the inmate population in state prisons.

One of the software modules within ACIS, designed to calculate release dates for inmates, is presently unable to account for an amendment to state law that was passed in 2019.

Senate Bill 1310, authored by former Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, amended the Arizona Revised Statutes so that certain inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses could earn additional release credits upon the completion of programming in state prisons. Gov. Ducey signed the bill in June of 2019.

But department sources say the ACIS software is not still able to identify inmates who qualify for SB 1310 programming, nor can it calculate their new release dates upon completion of the programming.

“We knew from day one this wasn’t going to work” a department source said. “When they approved that bill, we looked at it and said ‘Oh, s—.’”

Here is the full story, via Zach Valenta.

Causes of the sex drought

Among young men, declines in drinking frequency, an increase in computer gaming, and the growing percentage who coreside with their parents all contribute significantly to the decline in casual sex. The authors find no evidence that trends in young adults’ economic circumstances, internet use, or television watching explain the recent decline in casual sexual activity.

Here is more from Scott J. South and Lei Lei, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Singapore sentences of the day

Singapore has developed a “globally inter-operable” standard based on blockchain technology to facilitate cross-border verification of health documents, such as pre-departure COVID-19 test results, said Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan on Friday (Feb 26).

Speaking at the Committee of Supply debate for the Prime Minister’s Office, Dr Balakrishnan said that these notarised pre-departure test results will be available on the SingPass mobile app. The Government will also look into extending this to vaccine certificates.

Here is the full story.  Of all those sentences and catch phrases, perhaps “Committee of Supply” is my favorite.

“Beeple is an artist”

Beeple is an artist.

He makes digital art—pixels on screens depicting bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, and sometimes grotesque images. He smashes together pop culture, technology, and postapocalyptic terror into blistering commentaries on the way we live. A recent frame depicted Donald Trump wearing a leather mask and stripper’s pasties, taking a whip to the coronavirus bug (title: “Trump Dominating Covid”). On the day Jeff Bezos announced he was kicking himself upstairs, Beeple imagined the Amazon founder as a massive, threatening octopus emerging from the ocean as military helicopters circled above (“Release the Bezos”).

Beeple has 1.8 million Instagram followers. His work has been shown at two Super Bowl halftime shows and at least one Justin Bieber concert, but he has no gallery representation or foothold in the traditional art world.

And yet in December the first extensive auction of his art grossed $3.5 million in a single weekend.

Here is the full Esquire article, do check out the accompanying images.  The reproduced image is for sale here for one dollar.  Here is the home page of Beeple.  Here are more images.

The new world of digital art on the blockchain

In the 10 years since Chris Torres created Nyan Cat, an animated flying cat with a Pop-Tart body leaving a rainbow trail, the meme has been viewed and shared across the web hundreds of millions of times.

On Thursday, he put a one-of-a-kind version of it up for sale on Foundation, a website for buying and selling digital goods. In the final hour of the auction, there was a bidding war. Nyan Cat was sold to a user identified only by a cryptocurrency wallet number. The price? Roughly $580,000.

Mr. Torres was left breathless. “I feel like I’ve opened the floodgates,” he said in an interview on Friday.

The sale was a new high point in a fast-growing market for ownership rights to digital art, ephemera and media called NFTs, or “nonfungible tokens.” The buyers are usually not acquiring copyrights, trademarks or even the sole ownership of whatever it is they purchase. They’re buying bragging rights and the knowledge that their copy is the “authentic” one.

Other digital tokens recently sold include a clip of LeBron James blocking a shot in a Lakers basketball game that went for $100,000 in January and a Twitter post by Mark Cuban, the investor and Dallas Mavericks owner, that went for $952. This month, the actress Lindsay Lohan sold an image of her face for over $17,000 and, in a nod to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, declared, “I believe in a world which is financially decentralized.” It was quickly resold for $57,000.

Blockchains of course are being used to designate which copy is the authentic one.  Is it such a big step from photography to this?  Here is more from Erin Griffith at the NYT.

Addendum: The next step presumably is to introduce some price discrimination.  Yes, there can be a “most authentic” original copy.  But after that, how about some intermediate categories?  “Well, this is the almost-original copy, defined on the “brother blockchain” here is another, somewhat closed related copy, defined on the “cousin blockchain,”” just as Japanese prints had different editions, etc.

Profile of Youyang Gu, data scientist

In mid-April, while he was living with his parents in Santa Clara, Calif., Gu spent a week building his own Covid death predictor and a website to display the morbid information. Before long, his model started producing more accurate results than those cooked up by institutions with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and decades of experience.

“His model was the only one that seemed sane,” says Jeremy Howard, a renowned data expert and research scientist at the University of San Francisco. “The other models were shown to be nonsense time and again, and yet there was no introspection from the people publishing the forecasts or the journalists reporting on them. Peoples’ lives were depending on these things, and Youyang was the one person actually looking at the data and doing it properly.”

The forecasting model that Gu built was, in some ways, simple. He had first considered examining the relationship among Covid tests, hospitalizations, and other factors but found that such data was being reported inconsistently by states and the federal government. The most reliable figures appeared to be the daily death counts. “Other models used more data sources, but I decided to rely on past deaths to predict future deaths,” Gu says. “Having that as the only input helped filter the signal from the noise.”

The novel, sophisticated twist of Gu’s model came from his use of machine learning algorithms to hone his figures.

Here is the full Bloomberg piece by Ashlee Vance, I am especially pleased because Youyang was an Emergent Ventures winner.  Here is Youyang Gu on Twitter.