Category: Web/Tech

Is this the very best book ever written?

No, I don’t mean Proust, Cervantes, or the Bible.  I mean Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.

To be sure, it is not the greatest book qua book, or even in the top tier (though it is very good and Marsh is very smart and knowledgeable).

It is possible it has become the greatest book of all time because of YouTube.  Scroll through the pithy, one-page or sometimes even one-paragraph reviews of the various songs, and play them on YouTube while you are reading.

I had not known of Marvin Gaye’s “One More Heartache,” or Aretha Franklin’s “Think.”  Nor had I known the live version of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from 1966 (though is it really “Slurred and obtuse as Little Richard reading Ezra Pound”?).  I heard again many favorites as well.

Let’s be honest, amusia aside, do not humans love music more than books?  By no means does everyone read, but virtually everyone listens to music, and with some degree of passion. It therefore follows that “book + music” is better than book, right?  Whatever virtues the book may have are still contained in “book + music,” or more generally “book + YouTube.”

Have we now entered an age where all or most of the very best books are part of “books + YouTube”?

Of course I’m not trying to sell you on music or for that matter on Dave Marsh.  What about reading Abraham Pais, Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity, accompanied by these videos?  Might the possibility of YouTube combination make that the 37th best book of all time, displacing Braudel or Flaubert?

Should not at least 2/3 of your reading be books accompanied by YouTube?  And if not, why not?

Inquiring minds wish to know.  Perhaps there is a book accompanied by YouTube that gives the answer?

Is a quality book better or worse if there is no useful way to combine it with YouTube?

Addendum: You will note that the Cowen-Tabarrok Modern Principles text can be combined with our micro and macro videos on YouTube, and thus it is one of the best books, not just our favorite.

My Conversation with Hollis Robbins

Here is the audio and video, here is part of the CWT summary:

Now a dean at Sonoma State University, Robbins joined Tyler to discuss 19th-century life and literature and more, including why the 1840s were a turning point in US history, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Calvinism, whether 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained are appropriate portraits of slavery, the best argument for reparations, how prepaid postage changed America, the second best Herman Melville book, why Ayn Rand and Margaret Mitchell are ignored by English departments, growing up the daughter of a tech entrepreneur, and why teachers should be like quarterbacks.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You’ve written a good deal on the history of the postal service. How did the growth of the postal service change romance in America?

ROBBINS: Well, everybody could write a letter. [laughs] In 1844 — this was the other exciting thing that happened in the 1840s. Rowland Hill in England changed the postal service by inventing the idea of prepaid postage. Anybody could buy a stamp, and then you’d put the stamp on the letter and send the letter.

Prior to that, you had to go to the post office. You had to engage with the clerk. After the 1840s and after prepaid postage, you could just get your stamps, and anybody could send a letter. In fact, Frederick Douglass loved the idea of prepaid post for the ability for the enslaved to write and send letters. After that, people wrote letters to each other, letters home, letters to their lovers, letters to —

COWEN: When should you send a sealed letter? Because it’s also drawing attention to itself, right?

ROBBINS: Well, envelopes — it’s interesting that envelopes, sealed envelopes, came about 50 years after the post office became popular, so you didn’t really have self-sealing envelopes until the end of the 19th century.

COWEN: That was technology? Or people didn’t see the need for it?

ROBBINS: Technology, the idea of folding the envelope and then having it be gummed and self-sealing. There were a number of patents, but they kept breaking down. But technology finally resolved it at the end of the 19th century.

Prior to that, you would write in code. Also, paper was expensive, so you often wrote across the page horizontally and then turned it to the side and crossed the page, writing in the other direction. If somebody was really going to snoop on your letters, they had to work for it.

COWEN: On net, what were the social effects of the postal service?

ROBBINS: Well, communication. The post office and the need for the post office is in our Constitution.

COWEN: It was egalitarian? It was winner take all? It liberated women? It helped slaves? Or what?

ROBBINS: All those things.

COWEN: All those things.

ROBBINS: But yeah, de Tocqueville mentioned this in his great book in the 1830s that anybody — some farmer in Michigan — could be as informed as somebody in New York City.

And:

COWEN: Margaret Mitchell or Ayn Rand?

ROBBINS: Well, it’s interesting that two of the best-selling novelists of the 20th-century women are both equally ignored by English departments in universities. Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind is paid attention to a little bit just because, as I said, it’s something that literature and film worked against, but not Ayn Rand at all.

And:

COWEN: What’s a paradigmatic example of a movie made better by a good soundtrack?

ROBBINS: The Pink Panther — Henry Mancini’s score. The movie is ridiculous, but Henry Mancini’s score — you’re going to be humming it now the rest of the day.

And:

COWEN: What is the Straussian reading of Babar the Elephant?

ROBBINS: When’s the last time you read it?

COWEN: Not long ago.

Recommended throughout.

Why don’t people talk about breaking up Microsoft?

By the excellent Alec Stapp, here is the closing bit:

Or perhaps Microsoft has successfully avoided receiving the same level of antitrust scrutiny as the Big Four because it is neither primarily consumer-facing like Apple or Amazon nor does it operate a platform with a significant amount of political speech via user-generated content (UGC) like Facebook or Google (YouTube). Yes, Microsoft moderates content on LinkedIn, but the public does not get outraged when deplatforming merely prevents someone from spamming their colleagues with requests “to add you to my professional network.”

Microsoft’s core areas are in the enterprise market, which allows it to sidestep the current debates about the supposed censorship of conservatives or unfair platform competition. To be clear, consumer-facing companies or platforms with user-generated content do not uniquely merit antitrust scrutiny. On the contrary, the benefits to consumers from these platforms are manifest. If this theory about why Microsoft has escaped scrutiny is correct, it means the public discussion thus far about Big Tech and antitrust has been driven by perception, not substance.

Here is the whole article.  I would say there is very little about the current version of Microsoft that challenges the supposedly correct status relations in American society.

My Conversation with Masha Gessen

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Masha joined Tyler in New York City to answer his many questions about Russia: why was Soviet mathematics so good? What was it like meeting with Putin? Why are Russian friendships so intense? Are Russian women as strong as the stereotype suggests — and why do they all have the same few names? Is Russia more hostile to LGBT rights than other autocracies? Why did Garry Kasparov fail to make a dent in Russian politics? What did The Americans get right that Chernobyl missed? And what’s a good place to eat Russian food in Manhattan?

Here is excerpt:

COWEN: Why has Russia basically never been a free country?

GESSEN: Most countries have a history of never having been free countries until they become free countries.

[laughter]

COWEN: But Russia has been next to some semifree countries. It’s a European nation, right? It’s been a part of European intellectual life for many centuries, and yet, with the possible exception of parts of the ’90s, it seems it’s never come very close to being an ongoing democracy with some version of free speech. Why isn’t it like, say, Sweden?

GESSEN: [laughs] Why isn’t Russia like . . . I tend to read Russian history a little bit differently in the sense that I don’t think it’s a continuous history of unfreedom. I think that Russia was like a lot of other countries, a lot of empires, in being a tyranny up until the early 20th century. Then Russia had something that no other country has had, which is the longest totalitarian experiment in history. That’s a 20th-century phenomenon that has a very specific set of conditions.

I don’t read Russian history as this history of Russians always want a strong hand, which is a very traditional way of looking at it. I think that Russia, at breaking points when it could have developed a democracy or a semidemocracy, actually started this totalitarian experiment. And what we’re looking at now is the aftermath of the totalitarian experiment.

And:

GESSEN: …I thought Americans were absurd. They will say hello to you in the street for no reason. Yeah, I found them very unreasonably friendly.

I think that there’s a kind of grumpy and dark culture in Russia. Russians certainly have a lot of discernment in the fine shades of misery. If you ask a Russian how they are, they will not cheerfully respond by saying they’re great. If they’re miserable, they might actually share that with you in some detail.

There’s no shame in being miserable in Russia. There’s, in fact, a lot of validation. Read a Russian novel. You’ll find it all in there. We really are connoisseurs of depression.

Finally there was the segment starting with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Russia proper. Let me start with one. Why is it that Russians seem to purge their own friends so often? The standing joke being the Russian word for “friend” is “future enemy.” There’s a sense of loyalty cycles, where you have to reach a certain bar of being loyal or otherwise you’re purged.

Highly recommended.

Employees less upset at being replaced by robots than by other people

Generally speaking, most people find the idea of workers being replaced by robots or software worse than if the jobs are taken over by other workers. But when their own jobs are at stake, people would rather prefer to be replaced by robots than by another employee, according to a new study.

Here is the link, via the excellent Kevin Lewis, who will not soon be replaced by a robot.

The clothing of the future

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and they chose an excellent photo to go with it.  Excerpt:

A lot of current clothing innovations focus on gimmicks. There is a “Social Escape Dress,” which can “emit a cloud of fog when the wearer is feeling stressed.” Maybe that is fun, but what economic problem does it solve? And won’t it stress the wearer more? I suspect that the more durable clothing innovations will be more practical.

The first major practical problem is that clothes have to be cleaned, a time-consuming and sometimes expensive process. To remedy this problem, imagine a futuristic closet with cleaning and dry-cleaning functions (the materials of the clothes themselves could evolve to make this easier and less dangerous). A wardrobe system that cleans itself would be a big plus for many people. While I don’t see this technological advance as imminent, neither do I see it as unreachable.

A second major problem with clothes is that they have to be stored. Urban space is currently quite scarce and expensive, a reality unlikely to change anytime soon. Easily foldable and contractible clothes and shoes will therefore be at a premium, but of course the question is how to get them back into proper shape with a minimum amount of effort. That again suggests a home device — far more efficient than the iron — to get clothes into proper shape, which in turn will allow for more clothes to be rolled up and put away. Cleaning your clothes and storing your clothes are closely related problems, and in my optimistic vision they will be solved together.

Another source of big welfare gains could be quite prosaic:

At the upper end of the market, it is possible to make exclusive fashion more affordable, while still looking great. In a given fashion season the number of “in” styles could continue to expand, through the use of social media such as Instagram. That makes the market more competitive. Indeed it is already a trend that you can look “cool” and sophisticated without having to buy the most expensive dress from Milan or Paris. More market niches allow for the production of more reputation and glamour.

There is much more at the link.

Has anyone said this yet?

Consider the right-wing, conservative, and libertarian movements — is there a good word for them as a general collective?  For now I’ll use “conservative,” while recognizing that the lack of generally recognized standard bearers means that “conservative” and “radical” these days blur into each other, and furthermore conservative and libertarian views have areas of real and significant conflict.

Who is today the most influential conservative intellectual with other conservative and libertarian intellectuals?  (I once said Jordan Peterson is the most influential intellectuals with the general public.)

It seems obvious to me that this is Peter Thiel (admittedly I am a biased observer, for a number of reasons, one being that the Thiel Foundation is a supporter of Emergent Ventures).  Quite simply, if Peter gives a talk with new material in it, it gets discussed more than if anyone else does.

What else might his qualifications be for “most influential conservative intellectual”?

He has had a major hand in the tech revolution, and with his later view that technology is stagnating more generally.

He is the talent spotter par excellence, having had a hand in the rise of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Eric Weinstein, and others.

A major hand in Trump/populism/nationalism, or whatever it should be called.  I should note that Peter is often highly influential with those who disagree with him about Trump.

Spoke/wrote/co-authored a bestselling book — Zero to One — which also was a huge hit in China.  And the samizdat lecture notes, from Peter’s Stanford talks, were a big hit in advance of the book.

A major hand in the critique of political correctness, and the spread of that critique.

He foresaw that globalization might contract rather than keep on expanding.  The final answer isn’t in yet on this one, but so far Peter is looking prescient.

A major hand in causing people to rethink higher education, through his Thiel Fellows program.

A major hand in stimulating the interest of others in Girard and Strauss, and maybe someday Christianity?

This point has nothing to do with how much you agree with Peter or not.  It simply occurred to me that no one had said this before, or have they?

By the way, here is David Perell on Peter Thiel on Christianity.

Net neutrality for me but not for thee?

To be perfectly clear, I would prefer that 8chan did not exist. At the same time, many of those arguing that 8chan should be erased from the Internet were insisting not too long ago that the U.S. needed to apply Title II regulation (i.e. net neutrality) to infrastructure companies to ensure they were not discriminating based on content. While Title II would not have applied to Cloudflare, it is worth keeping in mind that at some point or another nearly everyone reading this article has expressed concern about infrastructure companies making content decisions.

That is from the excellent Ben Thompson and yes you should pay for his tech email newsletter.

A Toolkit of Policies to Promote Innovation

That is the new Journal of Economic Perspectives article by Nicholas Bloom, John Van Reenen, and Heidi Williams.  Most of all, such articles should be more frequent and receive greater attention and higher status, as Progress Studies would suggest.  Here is one excerpt:

…moonshots may be justified on the basis of political economy considerations. To generate significant extra resources for research, a politically sustainable vision needs to be created. For example, Gruber and Johnson (2019) argue that increasing federal funding of research as a share of GDP by half a percent—from 0.7 percent today to 1.2 percent, still lower than the almost 2 percent share observed in 1964 in Figure 1—would create a $100 billion fund that could jump-start new technology hubs in some of the more educated but less prosperous American cities (such as Rochester, New York, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). They argue that such a fund could generate local spillovers and, by alleviating spatial inequality, be more politically sustainable than having research funds primarily flow to areas with highly concentrated research, such as Palo Alto, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In general I agree with their points, but would have liked to have seen more on freedom to build, and of course on culture, culture, culture.  At the very least, policy is endogenous to culture, and culture shapes many economic outcomes more directly as well.  I’m fine with tax credits for R&D, but I just don’t see them as in the driver’s seat.

*Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language*

That is the new book by Gretchen McCulloch, here is one excerpt:

The passive-aggressive potential of the single period started being reported in thinkpieces in 2013…The string of dots got a thinkpiece in 2018, though it has been popping up in comment threads since at least 2006, while it cousins, the hyphen and string of commas, have been less extensively reported but have occasioned long comment threads on blogs and internet forums.  Despite the fears mongered by headlines, it’s not the case that the passive-aggressive meaning has killed all other uses of the period.  The linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, who’s definitely younger than the peak dot-dot-dot generation, did a study of periods in his own 157,305 text messages.  He found that, true, periods were rare in short, informal messages — ones less than seventeen characters or containing lol, u, haha, yup, ok, or gonna.  But they were still often found in messages longer than seventy-two characters or containing words like told, feels, feel, felt, feelings, date, sad, seems, and talk.  The added weight of the period is a natural way to talk about weight matters.

Most books on the internet I find vacuous, this one had some material of interest, though perhaps for some people it is too navel-gazing.  But if you are going to spent that much time staring at a screen, and typing text into little boxes, surely you might wish to understand it better.  Most of all, I enjoyed the discussion of how different generations have learned to use the internet somewhat differently, depending on when they started.

Inventor CEOs

One in five U.S. high-technology firms are led by CEOs with hands-on innovation experience as inventors. Firms led by “Inventor CEOs” are associated with higher quality innovation, especially when the CEO is a high-impact inventor. During an Inventor CEO’s tenure, firms file a greater number of patents and more valuable patents in technology classes where the CEO’s hands-on experience lies. Utilizing plausibly exogenous CEO turnovers to address the matching of CEOs to firms suggests these effects are causal. The results can be explained by an Inventor CEO’s superior ability to evaluate, select, and execute innovative investment projects related to their own hands-on experience.

That is from Emdad Islam & Jason Zein, forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Neal Stephenson

Here is the transcript and audio, and here is the CWT summary:

If you want to speculate on the development of tech, no one has a better brain to pick than Neal Stephenson. Across more than a dozen books, he’s created vast story worlds driven by futuristic technologies that have both prophesied and even provoked real-world progress in crypto, social networks, and the creation of the web itself. Though Stephenson insists he’s more often wrong than right, his technical sharpness has even led to a half-joking suggestion that he might be Satoshi Nakamoto, the shadowy creator of bitcoin. His latest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, involves a more literal sort of brain-picking, exploring what might happen when digitized brains can find a second existence in a virtual afterlife.

So what’s the implicit theology of a simulated world? Might we be living in one, and does it even matter? Stephenson joins Tyler to discuss the book and more, including the future of physical surveillance, how clothing will evolve, the kind of freedom you could expect on a Mars colony, whether today’s media fragmentation is trending us towards dystopia, why the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest triumph, whether we’re in a permanent secular innovation starvation, Leibniz as a philosopher, Dickens and Heinlein as writers, and what storytelling has to do with giving good driving directions.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If we had a Mars colony, how politically free do you think it would be? Or would it just be like perpetual martial law? Like living on a nuclear submarine?

STEPHENSON: I think it would be a lot like living on a nuclear submarine because you can’t — being in space is almost like being in an intensive care unit in a hospital, in the sense that you’re completely dependent on a whole bunch of machines working in order to keep you alive. A lot of what we associate with freedom, with personal freedom, becomes too dangerous to contemplate in that kind of environment.

COWEN: Is there any Heinlein-esque-like scenario — Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where there’s a rebellion? People break free from the constraints of planet Earth. They chart their own institutions. It becomes like the settlements in the New World were.

STEPHENSON: Well, the settlements in the New World, I don’t think are a very good analogy because there it was possible — if you’re a white person in the New World and you have some basic skills, you can go anywhere you want.

An unheralded part of what happened there is that, when those people got into trouble, a lot of times, they were helped out by the indigenous peoples who were already there and who knew how to do stuff. None of those things are true in a space colony kind of environment. You don’t have indigenous people who know how to get food and how to get shelter. You don’t have that ability to just freely pick up stakes and move about.

And:

COWEN: What will people wear in the future? Say a hundred years from now, will clothing evolve at all?

STEPHENSON: I think clothing is pretty highly evolved, right? If you look at, yeah, at any garment, say, a shirt — I was ironing a shirt today in my hotel room, and it is a frickin’ complicated object. We take it for granted, but you think about the fabric, the way the seams are laid out.

That’s just one example, of course, but you take any — shirts, shoes, any kind of specific item of clothing you want to talk about — once you take it apart and look at all the little decisions and innovations that have gone into it, it’s obvious that people have been optimizing this thing for hundreds or thousands of years.

New materials come along that enable people to do new kinds of things with clothing, but overall, I don’t think that a lot is going to change.

COWEN: Is there anything you would want smart clothing to do for you that, say, a better iPad could not?

STEPHENSON: The thing about clothing is that you change your clothes all the time. So if you become dependent on a particular technology that’s built into your shirt, that’s great as long as you’re wearing that shirt, but then as soon as you change to a different shirt, you don’t have it.

So what are you going to do? Are you going to make sure that every single one of your shirts has that same technology built into it? It seems easier to have it separate from the clothing that you wear, so that you don’t have to think about all those complications.

There is much more at the link, including discussions of some of his best-known novels…

That was then, this is now

The data came from Facebook:

During Obama’s initial 2008 bid for office, his team had already embraced technology in a greater capacity than any before it, assembling massive email lists and other targeted initiatives that earned Obama historic fundraising tallies. But for 2012, campaign manager Jim Messina wanted to take things even further.

To get there, his staff needed to link what had previously been disjointed databases of voter information (collected by volunteers, pollsters, and other campaign workers) into a single, comprehensive pool unrivaled in detail and scope. Whereas most voter logs used by campaigns often list only names and telephone numbers, Obama’s advanced tool dove into specifics like age, race, district, and voting history: it allowed field workers to rank voters intelligently and not waste time chasing unlikely votes.

Here is the article from The Verge, via the excellent Ben Thompson.  I recall similarly glowing coverage from The New York Times.