Category: Web/Tech

Why is Expedia banning Haiti?

Haiti’s tourism sector is up in arms over recent travel warnings from the U.S., Canada and France that have led to at least one booking company — Expedia — blacklisting the country’s two international airports and hotels as illegal.

People seeking to book flights and hotel rooms on Expedia and subsidiaries Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotwire and CheapTickets are being blocked from doing so following violent protests that erupted on Feb. 7. Though Haitians were shuttered in for more than a week, with schools and businesses closed, international carriers like American, Spirit and JetBlue kept flying.

But Expedia didn’t seem to care…

The block, said an Expedia spokesperson, is linked to the State Department Level Four travel warning.

“Once governmental advice reaches a certain level of travel concern, we take action to close off destinations on our sites,” said Philip Minardi, director of communications for the Expedia Group. The block will remain in effect until the advisory lifts, he said.

Here is the full story, I find this troubling.  On top of everything else, State Department Level warnings are inefficiently sticky.

*VC: An American History*, by Tom Nicholas

An excellent and original economic history of venture capital, with lots of new material, brought together in a convenient and readable form.  Here is one excerpt:

…nineteenth century whaling can be compared to modern venture capital in at least three respects.  First, whaling was the archetypical skewed-distribution business, sustained by highly lucrative but low-probability payoff events.  Voyages often lasted several years and and covered geographic areas in the search for elusive whale pod.  The long-tailed distribution of profits held the same allure for funders of whaling voyages as it does for a venture capital industry reliant on extreme returns from a very small subset of investments.  Although other industries across history, such as gold exploration and oil wildcatting, have been characterized by long-tail outcomes, no industry gets quite as close as whaling does to matching the organization and distribution of returns associated with the VC sector.

The book also covers VC in the Industrial Revolution, to what extent Mellon and Morgan can be thought of as venture capitalists, the institutionalization of venture capital in the 1950s, how the limited partnership structure came to VC, the roles of Intel and Genentech, Sequoia Capital, and the growth of a true Silicon Valley ecosystem.

How about this?:

During the 1970s, San Jose State University was graduating more scientists and engineers than Stanford or Berkeley, while local community colleges within the California system provided crucial access to technical training programs.

Recommended to anyone with an interest in the topic, you can pre-order here.

The political culture that is China

News from the Middle Kingdom seems to be coming out systematically worse than what you might have been expecting, at least these days.  Here is an update on censorship and content control:

The platform has been designed with a built-in “Xi Study Points” system (学习积分系统) that allows users to accumulate points on the basis of habitual use of the platform, from reading and viewing of content to the posting of comments and other forms of engagement. It has been widely promoted by local governments and ministries and departments across China, and there have also been reports that some work units have ordered employees to attain specified point levels, with disciplinary measures to be imposed for those who fail to comply…

The app defines several periods of activity as “lively intervals,” or huoyue shiduan (活跃时段), during which users engaging with the platform can earn double points — 0.2 for each article or video, 2 points for a full 30 minutes of use, and so on. The intervals are Monday through Friday from 8:30 PM to 10 PM, and on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 AM to 10:30 AM, and 3:30 PM to 4:30 PM. The system, then, incentivises Party members, once home from the office and done with family dinner, to spend golden hours of otherwise discretionary personal time engaging with “Xi Jinping Thought.”

Interesting and frightening throughout, via Comrade Balding.

Amazon winners and losers

WINNERS:

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam: He did a good job on the first Amazon deal for Virginia, and now can try to lure more of the company here.  There is a new reason to keep him in office and also to start paying attention to a different issue.

Nashville and the Southeast more generally: That part of the country has fewer local NIMBY activists and is less likely to elect figures such as AOC.  Texas too.  Is it possible that I live in the sanest part of the country?  Wouldn’t that be funny?

The Bay Area: NYC is no longer such a fierce competitor at the macro level, with the potential to become the new center of gravity for the tech world.  The Bay Area can breathe a bit more easily now, at least as long as clustering remains the name of the game.  Yet this one is double-edged, because it also means the Bay Area has less incentive to solve its rather pressing problems and dysfunctions.

Valentine’s Day: It will be used to announce more dramatic break-up events, and thus become all the more emotionally fraught, in both positive and negative directions.

Hoboken and Jersey City: They are nicer than Manhattan anyway and with better day-to-day food options, right?  Right?  Queens won’t be obviously outcompeting them as a home for a new, high-quality business site.

Regional development subsidies: It was awfully easy for Amazon to walk away from this “deal.”  Expect to see higher subsidies and tighter deals in the future.

LOSERS:

Queens: Most of the residents wanted the project to come.

Amazon: The company will find it harder to access the top talent of New York City, and the top talent that is willing to live in New York City.  Let’s hope this is a blessing in disguise, and a new path toward discovering hitherto untapped sources of talent.

New York City: Yes, Google is expanding in Chelsea but more and more NYC is becoming a city of finance and tourism and restaurants.  Can a location have the Dutch disease and cost disease at the same time?  Stay tuned to find out.

YIMBYs: One of the world’s most valuable, efficient, and also popular companies could not make stick a deal to expand and create tens of thousands of high-paying jobs and pay more taxes.  What hope do the rest of us have?

Seven lessons about blackmail

That is the title of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opening bit:

Every now and then, a few apparently random news events come together and influence how you see the world. My most recent lesson is that blackmail and blackmail risk are a lot more common than I had thought.

And:

…the main villains in these privacy losses are not the big internet companies. While it is murky exactly how the Bezos photos leaked, it seems to have involved old-fashioned spying and the interception of text messages (and possibly a renegade brother). Silicon Valley didn’t sell his data. As for Northam, the yearbook is from the pre-digital era, dug up in a school library. This information was not on the internet, though of course it did play a role in spreading it.

Third, billionaires can be pretty useful. As Bezos asked in his open letter on Medium: “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” In this case, both the billionaire and the medium of communication are the good guys.

Fourth, fears of a new era of blackmail based on Photoshopped images and so-called deep fakes (phony but convincing video) may be overblown, or at least premature. In the cases of both Bezos and Northam, the authenticity of the source material (text messages and photos) is not really being questioned, and both stories are receiving intense scrutiny. Rather, the debate is over the provenance and significance of the information.

There is much more at the link.

My Conversation with Jordan Peterson

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

Jordan Peterson joins Tyler to discuss collecting Soviet propaganda, why he’s so drawn to Jung, what the Exodus story can teach us about current events, his marriage and fame, what the Intellectual Dark Web gets wrong, immigration in America and Canada, his tendency towards depression, Tinder’s revolutionary nature, the lessons from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fixing universities, the skills needed to become a good educator, and much more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: Your peers in the Intellectual Dark Web — the best of them — what is it they’re wrong about?

PETERSON: Oh, they’re wrong about all sorts of things. But at least they’re wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I think Sam Harris, for example — I don’t think that he understands. I don’t think that he’s given sufficient credence to the role that religious thinking plays in human cognition.

I think that’s a huge mistake for someone who’s an evolutionary biologist because human religious thinking is a human universal. It’s built into our biology. It’s there for a reason. Although Sam is an evolutionary biologist, at least in principle, with regards to his thinking, he’s an Enlightenment rationalist when it comes to discussing the biology of religion, and that’s not acceptable.

It’s the wrong time frame. You don’t criticize religious thinking over a time frame of 200 years. You think about religious thinking over a time frame of 50,000 years, but probably over a far greater time span than that.

COWEN: So if that’s what Sam Harris doesn’t get —

PETERSON: Yeah.

COWEN: If we turn to senior management of large American companies, as a class of people — and I know it’s hard to generalize — but what do you see them as just not getting?

PETERSON: I would caution them not to underestimate the danger of their human resources departments.

Much more than just the usual, including a long segment at the end on Jordan’s plans for higher education, here is one bit from that:

Universities give people a chance to contend with the great thought of the past — that would be the educational element. To find mentors, to become disciplined, to work towards a single goal. And almost none of that has to do with content provision. Because you might think, how do you duplicate a university online? Well, you take lectures and you put them online, and you deliver multiple-choice questions. It’s like, yeah, but that’s one-fiftieth of what a university is doing.

So we’ve just scrapped that idea, and what we’re trying to do instead is to figure out, how can you teach people to write in a manner that’s scalable? That’s a big problem because teaching people to write is very, very difficult, and it’s very labor intensive and expensive. So that’s one problem we’d really like to crack. How can you teach people to speak? And can you do that in a scalable manner as well?

Definitely recommended, even if you feel you’ve already heard or read a lot of Jordan Peterson.

What does a Twitter-driven politics look like?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the final bit:

But what does this new, more intense celebrity culture mean for actual outcomes? The more power and influence that individual communicators wield over public opinion, the harder it will be for a sitting president to get things done. (The best option, see above, will be to make your case and engage your adversaries on social media.) The harder it will be for an aspirant party to put forward a coherent, predictable and actionable political program.

Finally, the issues that are easier to express on social media will become the more important ones. Technocratic dreams will fade, and fiery rhetoric and identity politics will rule the day. And if you think this is the political world we’re already living in, rest assured: It’s just barely gotten started.

The policing culture that is China

Short-video app TikTok has a reputation for being beloved by young people the world over, but it’s also surprisingly popular with Chinese police officers.

In early January, China Police Network, a news portal run by the Ministry of Public Security, announced that 175 new TikTok channels had been created by police stations, SWAT teams, traffic police, and prisons in the month of December, bringing the country’s grand total to nearly 1,200 such accounts. That month, they churned out over 13,000 videos attracting a combined 4.8 billion views.

Since June of last year, China Police Network has kept a monthly tally of the most popular law enforcement accounts and videos on TikTok — or Douyin, as it’s known in China. While police in other countries have plugged into social media and cultivated fan followings on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, their Douyin-loving counterparts in China stand out in terms of scale and the wide range in both quality and content of their videos.

The January post mentions a comedic clip made by an account called Shishou Public Security that received over 800,000 likes. The video depicts a middle-aged woman tearfully describing her myriad contributions to the economic empowerment of women as mournful music plays in the background — before the camera flips to police officers unmasking her as the madame of a brothel.

The article also congratulates Siping Police Affairs for becoming the first police account in China to eclipse 10 million followers and praises the success of police hashtag campaigns such as #SayNoToDrunkDriving.

Since its launch in China in September 2016 and its expansion to international markets as TikTok a year later, Douyin boasts around 800 million downloads worldwide. The platform’s premise is simple: Users create and share 15-second videos, some of which wind up going viral. The police presence on Douyin has yielded a manic mix of content, from humdrum notices of arrests and other official business to reposts of pandas at play to original comic sketches with didactic denouements.

Here is more from Kenrick Davis at Sixth Tone.

Engagement with “fake news” on Facebook is declining

In recent years, there has been widespread concern that misinformation on social media is damaging societies and democratic institutions. In response, social media platforms have announced actions to limit the spread of false content. We measure trends in the diffusion of content from 569 fake news websites and 9,540 fake news stories on Facebook and Twitter between January 2015 and July 2018. User interactions with false content rose steadily on both Facebook and Twitter through the end of 2016. Since then, however, interactions with false content have fallen sharply on Facebook while continuing to rise on Twitter, with the ratio of Facebook engagements to Twitter shares decreasing by 60 percent. In comparison, interactions with other news, business, or culture sites have followed similar trends on both platforms. Our results suggest that the relative magnitude of the misinformation problem on Facebook has declined since its peak.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Allcott, Gentzkow, and Yu.

A MimbleWimble Explainer

TechnologyReview: In July 2016, someone using the name Tom Elvis Jedusor (the real name of Lord Voldemort, the main villain in the Harry Potter universe, in the French edition) posted a link to a text file in a chat room frequented by Bitcoin researchers. Voldemort’s document described MimbleWimble, a blockchain system that would hide the identifying information associated with Bitcoin transactions.

…The person who started Grin [one of the first new currencies built on a blockchain that implements MimbleWimble] is also pseudonymous, going by the name Ignotus Peverell (the original owner of Harry’s invisibility cloak), and has never been seen. Peverell recently used a text-to-speech program to address attendees at a Grin conference.

So to sum up, Grin is a new currency on the MimbleWimble blockchain imagined by Lord Voldemort and implemented by the invisible Ignotus Peverell.

…Eric Meltzer, an investor for crypto-focused Primitive Ventures, recently estimated that $100 million of “mostly VC money” has already been invested in Grin mining operations.

California fact of the day

UCLA students call about 11,000 Uber and Lyft rides that never leave campus every week, raising concerns about the environmental impact of unnecessary trips.

Here is the article, via Jessica Roberts.  I can’t say I am crazy about the framing however — have you tried walking across UCLA campus?  You could just as soon write an article criticizing the people who don’t do bulk shopping, thereby creating unnecessary car trips to the store.  Students who live on campus hardly seem like the worst environmental offenders or anywhere close to it.

Markets in everything those new service sector jobs

Advansun, 39, is a full-time “sleep writer” in Toronto. He writes with one goal in mind — to lull people off to la-la land.

Advansun publishes his bedtime stories for adults on the popular app Calm.com, where they are voiced by famous actors like Matthew McConaughey.

Calm.com says its roster of 120 sleep stories has been listened to more than 100 million times.

“I think we are putting a modern take to something that’s pretty timeless,” he says. “We are giving grownups permission to drift off to sleep to a story, and that’s not something a lot of people have thought about before.”

Advansun says the key is to get the attention of the listener and then “hold it gently” without ever jostling them awake. He maintains this is a tough balance to achieve … especially since Advansun is trained as a screenwriter (think plot twists, car chases and explosions).

“I certainly didn’t set out to write stories that put people to sleep,” he jokes. “I have sort of fallen into it, and I adore it. It’s not only quite rewarding, it is a great challenge as a writer.”

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

Does Amazon have an investing advantage?

Thought experiment: How would Amazon enter the venture capital business?

Use data from AWS to inform investment decisions

Amazon can leverage its proprietary data from AWS (Amazon Web Services).  Amazon’s edge is that most of the best technology start-ups are built on its services.  Amazon has a lot of information about how much these companies are spending, what services they use, what technologies they use, and more.

The AWS data could be extremely predictive and give Amazon early signs that companies are growing fast or reaching an inflection point.  And it can use the data as a better diligence check of a company … for instance, the data could help determine which companies that claim they have “AI” are real and which are just marketing.

Using this data to invest in public companies would likely not be legal since it could be deemed as inside information.   But using it for private companies is something Amazon could do.

There is much more at the link from Auren Hoffman.

You still underestimate YouTube

Birmingham was brought to a standstill on Saturday, with motorists abandoning cars and the city gridlocked for hours after thousands of teenagers flooded the city centre to see a 19-year-old YouTuber make a 30-second public appearance at a cosmetics store.

Many shoppers were forced to cancel their trips, while parts of the bus network ground to a halt and road traffic was at a standstill, as fans hoped to catch a glimpse of James Charles, who is known for his online makeup guides.

Here is the full story, via Anecdotal.