Category: Web/Tech

Which search engine does the most to limit conspiracy theorizing?

Web search engines are important online information intermediaries that are frequently used and highly trusted by the public despite multiple evidence of their outputs being subjected to inaccuracies and biases. One form of such inaccuracy, which so far received little scholarly attention, is the presence of conspiratorial information, namely pages promoting conspiracy theories. We address this gap by conducting a comparative algorithm audit to examine the distribution of conspiratorial information in search results across five search engines: Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo and Yandex. Using a virtual agent-based infrastructure, we systematically collect search outputs for six conspiracy theory-related queries (“flat earth”, “new world order”, “qanon”, “9/11”, “illuminati”, “george soros”) across three locations (two in the US and one in the UK) and two observation periods (March and May 2021). We find that all search engines except Google consistently displayed conspiracy-promoting results and returned links to conspiracy-dedicated websites in their top results, although the share of such content varied across queries. Most conspiracy-promoting results came from social media and conspiracy-dedicated websites while conspiracy-debunking information was shared by scientific websites and, to a lesser extent, legacy media. The fact that these observations are consistent across different locations and time periods highlight the possibility of some search engines systematically prioritizing conspiracy-promoting content and, thus, amplifying their distribution in the online environments.

Here is the full paper by Aleksandra Urmana, Mykola Makhortykhb, Roberto Ulloac, and Juhi Kulshrestha.  Of course it is also worth investigating which search engine does the most to “censor” true conspiracy theories.  Are there any?

Via Aleksandra Urman.

Lessons for remote work, from professional chess

During the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional (offline) chess tournaments were prohibited and instead held online. We exploit this unique setting to assess the impact of remote–work policies on the cognitive performance of individuals. Using the artificial intelligence embodied in a powerful chess engine to assess the quality of chess moves and associated errors, we find a statistically and economically significant decrease in performance when an individual competes remotely versus offline in a face-to-face setting. The effect size decreases over time, suggesting an adaptation to the new remote setting.

Here is the Economic Journal paper by Steffen Künn, Christian Seel, and Dainis Zegners.  Via tekl.

Do AI-powered mutual funds outperform the market?

We evaluate the performance of artificial intelligence (AI)-powered mutual funds. We find that these funds do not outperform the market per se. However, a comparison shows that AI-powered funds significantly outperform their human-managed peer funds. We further show that the outperformance of AI funds is attributable to their lower transaction cost, superior stock-picking capability, and reduced behavioral biases.

I am not sure “AI-powered” is entirely well-defined here, but the result is of interest nonetheless.  Here is the paper by Rui Chen and Jinjuan Ren, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*Where is My Flying Car?*

Engineer J. Storrs Hall is the author of this new Stripe Press book.  Let’s be honest: you might think this is just the usual blah blah blah, heard it a thousand times since 2011 kind of treatment.  But no, it is a detailed and nuanced and original treatment — at times obsessively so — of why various pending new physical technologies, such as nuclear power and nanotech, never really came to pass and transform our world as they might have.

Definitely recommended, worthy of the best non-fiction of the year list.  Here is the Stripe Press website for the book.

Simple advice for watching and understanding on-line chess

Yes, the computer evaluations are extremely useful.  But they are measuring the quality of the position when two computers are playing.  Yet most of the games you care about tend to be two humans playing each other.  And those humans do not play like computers.  The computer might say the game is even, and maybe it is with perfect play, but one side can be much harder (easier) to play than the other.  So I suggest this trick.  Go to, which covers top games (only).  Scan down the vertical list of all possible moves and consider the distribution of outcomes.  If the top move is great for White, but all the others are not, robustness is low, especially if the top move for White is not super-obvious (such as recapturing a Queen, etc.).  If all the sequences look very good for White (Black), you will know that for humans the position probably is somewhat better for White than the single computer evaluation number will indicate.  Robustness against human error will be present.

For the Carlsen match, here is a good Twitch stream, currently with Caruana as commentator.

Model this Apple pricing decision

Apple has one new product that’s already so back-ordered it won’t arrive in time for Christmas. It’s a polishing cloth. Priced at $19.

Unveiled in October after Apple showed off its new line of gadgets, the soft, light gray square is made of “nonabrasive material” and embossed with Apple’s logo. During tests, the rag worked like other microfiber cloths that list for less than half that price. So…why $19?

As it happens, Apple’s pricing strategy rarely allows accessories to fall below that threshold. The 6.3-inch swatch of fabric sits beside 17 other Apple-branded items on the company’s website—a mélange of charging cables, dongles and adapters—each priced at $19. Some, such as the wired earbuds and charging adapter, were once included with new iPhones.

Those $19 Apple items—together with the Apple Watch, AirPods and other small gadgets—are part of the company’s growing Wearables, Home and Accessories category, which had more than $8 billion in revenue in the quarter that ended in October.

Almost every Apple price ends in the number “9.”  Would it matter if we all carried around $30 bills?  There is further discussion in this Galvin Brown WSJ piece.

Via the excellent Samir Varma.

Monetary theory and crypto

No, I don’t mean money/macro, such as debates over ngdp targeting or transitory inflation.  I mean old-fashioned monetary theory.  Try all these pieces.  Obviously, many of those particular authors are now deceased or retired.  But take the field in general — has it had anything interesting to say about crypto developments?  I don’t expect it to have predicted crypto, or its price, any more than I expect macroeconomists to have predicted recessions (see Scott Sumner on that one).  But surely monetary theory should be able to help us better understand crypto?  And its price.

How much has it succeeded in that endeavor?  (I have read and on MR cited a number of NBER and other academic working papers on crypto, over the years.)  Or are you better off reading “amateur” pieces on Medium and other sources cited on Twitter?

What should we infer from your answer to these questions?

Surely any failings here are restricted to monetary theory alone.

My Conversation with David Rubinstein

Here is the audio, video, and transcript — David has a studio in his home!  Here is part of the CWT summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss what makes someone good at private equity, why 20 percent performance fees have withstood the test of time, why he passed on a young Mark Zuckerberg, why SPACs probably won’t transform the IPO process, gambling on cryptocurrency, whether the Brooklyn Nets are overrated, what Wall Street and Washington get wrong about each other, why he wasn’t a good lawyer, why the rise of China is the greatest threat to American prosperity, how he would invest in Baltimore, his advice to aging philanthropists, the four standards he uses to evaluate requests for money, why we still need art museums, the unusual habit he and Tyler share, why even now he wants more money, why he’s not worried about an imbalance of ideologies on college campuses, how he prepares to interview someone, what appealed to him about owning the Magna Carta, the change he’d make to the US Constitution, why you shouldn’t obsess about finding a mentor, and more.

Here is an excerpt from the dialogue:


And please note that David has a new book out, The American Experiment: Dialogues on a Dream.

How the crypto skeptics changed their minds

That is a Walter Frick feature story at Quartz, the other answers are interesting throughout, here is my contribution:

What was your original reaction to cryptocurrencies and blockchain?

Just for a bit of background, I wrote a series of papers on monetary economics, and then a book (Explorations in the New Monetary Economics, with Randall Kroszner) which argued that technological changes were going to fundamentally revolutionize monetary institutions and finance over the next few decades. Those papers start in the mid-1980s and the book comes in the early 90s. So I was primed to see this coming, but in fact utterly failed.

I just wasn’t expecting crypto!

When bitcoin first came out, someone sent me the link and I put it on my blog Marginal Revolution —we were one of the first places to report on it.

But after that, the thing seemed to sour. It looked like a bubble. I didn’t see the use cases for bitcoin. So I became pretty crypto negative. Perhaps I was also turned off by the dogmatism shown by many crypto advocates.

What changed your perspective on blockchain’s potential?

A few things. First, in decentralized finance (DeFi) I began to see viable and important use cases. Superior returns for depositors might now drive broader crypto adoption

Second, after a market price crash, prices came back. That suggested to me this was not just a bubble. Crypto had its chance to go away and never come back, but it didn’t. Third, I have seen incredible energy and vitality in the crypto community. Many of the best discussions are held there, it attracts amazing talent, and the conversations are overwhelmingly positive. All big pluses and signs of a movement that is going somewhere. I am still broadly agnostic, but now see the positive scenarios as more likely than the negative scenarios.

What projects or trends in crypto are you most excited about right now?

DeFi, or Decentralized Finance.

NFTs, not only for the art world but also as a new system of property rights for the metaverse, and as a new method of fundraising.

Use of crypto to lower the costs of sending remittances abroad to poorer countries.

What would you recommend our readers watch / listen to / read / follow to better understand crypto’s potential?

I am learning the most through conversations, meetings, and WhatsApp chatter—I am not sure how that easily can be replicated!

Books and most articles on this topic are simply too out of date, even if they are factually accurate, which is not always the case. The fact that the field is moving so fast is another reason for optimism.

The symposium is a good way to catch up quickly on many different views.

Is the growing geographic concentration of innovation flattening out?

U.S. invention has become increasingly concentrated around major tech centers since the 1970s, with implications for how much cities across the country share in concomitant local benefits. Is invention becoming a winner-takes-all race? We explore the rising spatial concentration of patents and identify an underlying stability in their distribution. Software patents have exploded to account for about half of patents today, and these patents are highly concentrated in tech centers. Tech centers also account for a growing share of non-software patents, but the reallocation, by contrast, is entirely from the five largest population centers in 1980. Non-software patenting is stable for most cities, with anchor tenants like universities playing important roles, suggesting the growing concentration of invention may be nearing its end. Immigrant inventors and new businesses aided in the spatial transformation.

That is new research by Brad Chattergoon and William R. Kerr.

Explaining NFTs

Writing at the Harvard Business Review, Steve Kaczynski and Scott Duke Kominers have en excellent explanation of how NFTs create value–the best I have read.

NFTs don’t just provide a kind of digital “deed.” Because blockchains are programmable, it’s possible to endow NFTs with features that enable them to expand their purpose over time, or even to provide direct utility to their holders. In other words, NFTs can do things — or let their owners do things — in both digital spaces and the physical world.

In this sense, NFTs can function like membership cards or tickets, providing access to events, exclusive merchandise, and special discounts — as well as serving as digital keys to online spaces where holders can engage with each other. Moreover, because the blockchain is public, it’s even possible to send additional products directly to anyone who owns a given token. All of this gives NFT holders value over and above simple ownership — and provides creators with a vector to build a highly engaged community around their brands.

It’s not uncommon to see creators organize in-person meetups for their NFT holders, as many did at the recent NFT NYC conference. In other cases, having a specific NFT in your online wallet might be necessary in order to gain access to an online game, chat room, or merchandise store. And creator teams sometimes grant additional tokens to their NFT holders in ways that expand the product ecosystem: owners of a particular goat NFT, for example, were recently able to claim a free baby goat NFT that gives benefits beyond the original token; holders of a particular bear NFT, meanwhile, just received honey.

Thus owning an NFT effectively makes you an investor, a member of a club, a brand shareholder, and a participant in a loyalty program all at once. At the same time, NFTs’ programmability supports new business and profit models — for example, NFTs have enabled a new type of royalty contract, whereby each time a work is resold, a share of the transaction goes back to the original creator.

This all means that NFT-based markets can emerge and gain traction quickly, especially relative to other crypto products. This is both because the NFTs themselves have standalone value — you might buy an art NFT simply because you like it — and because NFTs just need to establish value among a community of potential owners (which can be relatively small), whereas cryptocurrencies need wide acceptance in order to become useful as a store of value and/or medium of exchange.

Read the whole thing. Kaczynski and Kominers also offer good advice to firms and organizations interested in creating NFTs. It remains true, of course, that there is a lot of foolish and wasted spending in the space–that’s typical of most new asset classes where the rush to get into the space throws up a lot of noise making the signal more difficult to detect.

Addendum: Don’t forget you can buy the Marginal Revolution NFT! You will be purchasing from the new owner (we sold it) but I believe we get a royalty which also illustrates an advantage of the NFT model.

Image: SupDucks6484.