Category: Web/Tech

What does the stock market tell us about the T-Mobile/Sprint merger?

Here is an excellent post by Alec Stapp, easy to read but a bit hard to excerpt but here are the closing bits:

As a few others pointed out, these relatively small moves in AT&T and Verizon (less than 3 percent in either direction) may just be noise. That’s certainly possible given the magnitude of the changes. Contra Philippon, I think the methodology in question is too weak to rule out the pro-competitive theory of the case, i.e., that the new merged entity would be a stronger competitor to take on industry leaders AT&T and Verizon. We need much more robust and varied evidence before we call anything “bogus.” Of course, that means this event study is not sufficient to prove the pro-competitive theory of the case, either.

Olivier Blanchard, the former chief economist of the IMF, shared Philippon’s thread on Twitter and added this comment above: “The beauty of the argument. Simple hypothesis, simple test, clear conclusion.”

If only things were so simple.

Recommended.  Addendum: Philippon comments.

Toward a simple theory of YouTube and gaming

Outsiders and critics often think of YouTube and computer gaming as entertaining and quite superficial modes of cultural consumption.  I have increasingly moved away from that point of view, and to pursue the argument I will note that lately my favorite YouTube video is Magnus Carlsen doing 100 chess endgames in 30 minutes.  That is not recommended for most of you, but I believe that is part of the point.  I now think of YouTube as a communications medium with (often, not always) high upfront “investment in context” costs.  So if a lot of videos seem stupid to you, well sometimes they are but other times you don’t have enough context to understand them, or for that matter to condemn them for the right reasons.  This “high upfront costs” model is consistent with the semi-addictive behavior exhibited by many loyal YouTube users.  Once you start going down a rabbit hole, it can be hard to stop, and the “YouTube is superficial” models don’t really predict that kind of user behavior, rather they predict mere channel-surfing.

Did you know that Yonas, my Ethiopian contact in Lalibela, and recipient of royalties from my book Stubborn Attachments, loves YouTube videos on early Armenian church history?  He seems to know all about that topic.  A lot of those same videos would not make much sense to me.  I could follow them, but they wouldn’t communicate much meaning, whereas the Ethiopian and Armenian Christian churches have a fair amount in common, including in their early histories.

Has the popularity of PewDiePie — 103 million subscribers — ever mystified you?  I have in fact come to understand the material is brilliant, though not in a way I care about or wish to come to grasp in any kind of detailed way.  For me the entry costs are just too high relative to the kind of payoff I would achieve.  You really have to watch a lot of videos to get anywhere with grasping the contexts of his various jokes and remarks.

This also helps explain why there is no simple way to find “the best videos on YouTube.”

Perhaps computer games have some of the same properties.  They have great meaning to those who know their ins and outs, but leave many others quite cold.  Sometimes I hear people that things like “Twenty or thirty years from now, computer games will develop into great works of art.”  I doubt that.  To whatever extent computer games are/will be aesthetically notable, those properties are probably already in place, just with fairly high upfront context costs and thus inaccessible to someone such as I.

The high upfront costs, of course, mean a high degree of market segmentation and thus perhaps relatively high profits for suppliers, at least in the aggregate if not in every case.

Could it be that these top cultural forms of today have higher upfront costs than say appreciating 18th century Rococo painting?

In any case, trying to understand the cultural codes of 2020 is a truly difficult enterprise.

For this material, I wish to thank a related conversation with S.

My Conversation with Tim Harford

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

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Here is one bit near the opening:

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

And another segment:

HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.


COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.


COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form.  I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.

Peter Thiel reviews Ross Douthat

The word “self-recommending” now takes on a stronger meaning yet, here is the review.  Here are the closing two paragraphs:

It is a paradox of our time that the path to radical progress begins with moderation. Extreme optimism and fatalistic pessimism may seem to be stark opposites, but they both end in apathy. If things were sure to improve or bound to collapse, then our actions would not matter one way or the other.

Not only do our actions matter, I believe they matter eternally. If we do not find a way to take the narrow and moderate path, then we may find out that stagnation and decadence were all that kept immoderate men from stumbling into the apocalypse.

Self-recommending!  Here is my own short and very positive review of Ross’s book.

Coronavirus would be worse without the web

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Scientific information about the coronavirus has spread around the world remarkably quickly, mostly because of the internet. The virus has been identified, sequenced, and tracked online, and researchers around the world are working on possible fixes. The possibility that the failed ebola drug remdesivir may help protect against the virus is now well known and the drug is being deployed. The notion of using an HIV cocktail plus some anti-flu drugs against the coronavirus also has been publicized online. The final word on those potential fixes is not yet in, but the internet accelerates the spread of knowledge, along with its application.

Researchers from India prematurely published a claim that the coronavirus resembles in some critical ways the HIV virus, and their presentation hinted at the possibility something sinister was going on. The online scientific community leapt into action, however, and very quickly the theory was struck down and a retraction came almost immediately. I saw this whole process unfold on my Twitter feed in less than a day.

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of two possible downsides, first panic buying and second too much state-led “digital quarantine” of individuals.  In addition, I wish to thank @pmarca and also Balaji Srinivasan for some ideas relevant to this column.

The smart phone as pacifier

In light of consumers’ growing dependence on their smartphones, this article investigates the nature of the relationship that consumers form with their smartphone and its underlying mechanisms. We propose that in addition to obvious functional benefits, consumers in fact derive emotional benefits from their smartphone, in particular, feelings of psychological comfort and, if needed, actual stress relief. In other words, in a sense, smartphones are not unlike “adult pacifiers.” This psychological comfort arises from a unique combination of properties that turn smartphones into a reassuring presence for their owners: the portability of the device, its personal nature, the subjective sense of privacy experienced while on the device, and the haptic gratification it affords. Results from one large-scale field study and three laboratory experiments support the proposed underlying mechanisms and document downstream consequences of the psychological comfort that smartphones provide. The findings show, for example, that (a) in moments of stress, consumers exhibit a greater tendency to seek out their smartphone (study 2); and (b) engaging with one’s smartphone provides greater stress relief than engaging in the same activity with a comparable device such as one’s laptop (study 3) or a similar smartphone belonging to someone else (study 4).

That is by Shiri Melumad and Michel Tuan Pham, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Loo markets in everything

If you need a toilet while on the go, trust Toto Ltd. to come up with a solution. Just summon one up with your smartphone, the company says.

The toilet manufacturer unveiled the “mobile toilet concept” at the CES tech show held in Las Vegas in early January. The company intends to develop an exclusive app that brings a portable restroom trailer to a spot near the location the call is made.

Here is the full story, via Nigel B.

Extending the Race between Education and Technology

There is a new and updated take on this topic by Autor, Goldin, amd Katz:

The race between education and technology provides a canonical framework that does an excellent job of explaining U.S. wage structure changes across the twentieth century. The framework involves secular increases in the demand for more-educated workers from skill-biased technological change, combined with variations in the supply of skills from changes in educational access. We expand the analysis backwards and forwards. The framework helps explain rising skill differentials in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, but needs to be augmented to illuminate the recent convexification of education returns and implied slowdown in the growth of the relative demand for college workers. Increased educational wage differentials explain 75 percent of the rise of U.S. wage inequality from 1980 to 2000 as compared to 38 percent for 2000 to 2017.

Emphasis added, here is the full NBER working paper.  For background, here is my old NYT column on their earlier work on this topic.

Note that for the most recent rise in inequality across 2000-2017, most of it has happened within educational groups.  The less polite way of putting that — my words not those of the authors — is that the real marginal product of education is explaining less of the variation in earnings, or in other words the higher earners are drawing upon something they are not getting at school.

Students of the “education as signaling” debate also should note that, due to these results, now a) signaling is more relevant for your early wage offer, and b) signaling is less relevant for your eventual wage profile, which in fact is now more determined by your personal level of skill.

My chat with Brendan Fitzgerald Wallace

He interviewed me, here is his description: “My conversation with economist, author & podcaster Tyler Cowen covering everything from: 1) Buying Land on Mars (for real) 2) Privatizing National Parks 3) Setting up aerial highways in the sky for drone delivery 4) Buying Greenland 5) London post Brexit 6) Universal Basic Income 7) Why Los Angeles is “probably the best city in North America” 8) How real estate can combat social isolation & loneliness 9) Cyber attacks on real estate assets and national security implications. 10) The impacts, positive and negative of Climate Change, on real estate in different geographies. 11) Other esoteric stuff…..”.

Here is the conversation, held in Marina del Rey at a Fifth Wall event.

How bad are smart phones for people and kids?

The latest research, published on Friday by two psychology professors, combs through about 40 studies that have examined the link between social media use and both depression and anxiety among adolescents. That link, according to the professors, is small and inconsistent.

“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry…

The new article by Ms. Odgers and Michaeline R. Jensen of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro comes just a few weeks after the publication of an analysis by Amy Orben, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, and shortly before the planned publication of similar work from Jeff Hancock, the founder of the Stanford Social Media Lab. Both reached similar conclusions.

“The current dominant discourse around phones and well-being is a lot of hype and a lot of fear,” Mr. Hancock said. “But if you compare the effects of your phone to eating properly or sleeping or smoking, it’s not even close.”

Here is the full NYT piece by Nathaniel Popper.

My Conversation with the excellent Reid Hoffman

This one is better than the other available conversations with Reid, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWTeam summary:

Reid joined Tyler to talk about all these leverage points and more, including the Silicon Valley cultural meme he most disagrees with, how Wittgenstein influenced the design of LinkedIn, mystical atheism, what it was like being on Firing Line, why he’s never said anything outrageous, how he and Peter Thiel interpret The Tempest differently, the most misunderstood thing about friendship, how to improve talent certification, what’s needed from science fiction, and his three new ideas for board games.


COWEN: If we think of Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, they could arguably, by the standards of many people, be called weird. I’ve reviewed all the books you’ve written and a lot of your public talks. I can’t recall you saying a single thing that’s outrageous in any way whatsoever. Why aren’t you weirder?

HOFFMAN: [laughs] Maybe I mask it better. That’s my Straussian element, that I hide my weirdness. I would say that a little bit of it comes down to a theory about what is the right way of evolving discourse.

I think I probably do have a variety of views that people would think is weird. I, for example, think of myself as a mystical atheist, which is neither the full atheist category nor any religious category, but some blend in the middle. Or the fact that I actually think that the notion of capitalism is one of the world’s leading interesting technologies, but it’s not a particularly good philosophy, and you’d think that’s odd for an entrepreneur or an investor, and so forth.

So I have areas where I would say groups of people would think I’m weird. I may not highlight it because I tend to always speak in a way to, how do I think I help us make the most progress? And I would only say the weird things if I thought that was the thing that would result from that.

COWEN: So there are weird things that are in your mind?

HOFFMAN: Yes, yeah.


COWEN: How did your interest in the late Wittgenstein influence the construction and design of LinkedIn? I’m sure they ask you this all the time in interviews.

HOFFMAN: [laughs] All the time. The question I’ve always been expecting. I would say that the notion of thinking about — a central part of later Wittgenstein is to think that we play language games, that the way that we form identity and community, both of ourselves and as individuals, is the way that we discourse and the way that we see each other and the way that we elaborate language.

That pattern of which ways we communicate with each other, what’s the channel we do, and what’s the environment that we’re in comes from insights from — including later Wittgenstein, who I think was one of the best modern philosophers in thinking about how language is core to the people that we are and that we become.

COWEN: What else from philosophy influenced the construction and design of LinkedIn?

Recommended.  For help in arranging this Conversation I am very much indebted to Ben Casnocha.

The new culture of matching

When Jenica Andersen felt the tug for a second child at age 37, the single mom weighed her options: wait until she meets Mr. Right or choose a sperm donor and go it alone.

The first option didn’t look promising. The idea of a sperm donor wasn’t appealing, either, because she wanted her child to have an active father, just like her 4-year-old son has. After doing some research, Ms. Andersen discovered another option: subscription-based websites such as and Modamily that match would-be parents who want to share custody of a child without any romantic expectations. It’s a lot like a divorce, without the wedding or the arguments.

Here is more from Julie Jargon at the WSJ.

How is Twitter disrupting academia?

Kris on Twitter asks that question.  I have a few hypotheses, none confirmed by any hard data, other than my “lyin’ eyes”:

1. Twitter exists as a kind of parallel truth/falsehood mechanism, and it is encroaching on traditional academic processes, for better or worse.

2. Hypotheses blaming people or institutions for failures and misdeeds will be more popular on Twitter than in academia, but over time they are spreading in academia too, in part because of their popularity on Twitter.  Blame makes for a more popular tweet.

3. Often the number of Twitter followers resembles a Power law, and thus Twitter raises the influence of very well known contributors.  Twitter also raises the influence of the relatively busy, compared to say the 2009 world where blogs held more of that influence.  Writing blog posts required more time than does issuing tweets.

4. I believe Twitter raises the relative influence of women.  For one thing, women can coordinate with each other on Twitter more easily than they can in academic life across different universities.

5. Twitter can damage the career prospects of some of the more impulsive tweeting white males.

6. On Twitter is is easier to judge people by their (supposed) intentions than in academia, so many more people will be accused of acting and writing in bad faith.

7. On Twitter more people do in fact act in bad faith.

8. Hardly anyone looks better on Twitter, so that contributes to the polarization of many professions, especially economics and those professions linked to political issues.  Top economists don’t seem so glamorous any more, not even in their areas of specialization.

9. Academic fields related to current events will rise in status and attention, and those topics will garner the Power law retweets.  Right now that means political science most of all but of course this will vary over time.

10. Twitter lowers the power of institutions more broadly, as institutions typically are bad at Twitter.

What else?

40-year-old tractors are now a hot commodity

Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques.

Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

“There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson said. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”

BigIron Auctions, a Nebraska-based dealer that auctioned 3,300 pieces of farm equipment online in two days last month, sold 27 John Deere 4440 tractors through 2019.

The model, which Deere built between 1977 and 1982 at a factory in Waterloo, Iowa, was the most popular of the company’s “Iron Horse” series of tractors, which used stronger and heavier internal components to support engines with greater horsepower. The tractors featured big, safe cabins, advancing a design first seen in the 1960s that is now standard.

A sale of one of those tractors in good condition with low hours of use — the tractors typically last for 12,000 to 15,000 hours — will start a bidding war today. A 1980 John Deere 4440 with 2,147 hours on it sold for $43,500 at a farm estate auction in Lake City in April. A 1979 John Deere 4640 with only 826 hours on it sold for $61,000 at an auction in Bingham Lake in August.

Maybe there is a great tractor stagnation or in some cases even retrogression?  Here is more from Adam Belz, via Naju Mancheril.

Emergent Ventures, sixth cohort

Sonja Trauss of YIMBY, assistance to publish Nicholas Barbon, A Defence of the Builder.

Parnian Barekatain.

Anna Gát, for development as a public intellectual and also toward the idea and practice of spotting and mobilizing talent in others.

M.B. Malabu, travel grant to come to the D.C. area for helping in setting up a market-oriented think tank in Nigeria.

Eric James Wang and Jordan Fernando Alexandera joint award for their work on the project Academia Mirmidón, to help find, mobilize, and market programming and tech talent in Mexico.

Gonzalo Schwarz, Archbridge Institute, for research and outreach work to improve policy through reforms in Uruguay and Brazil. 

Nolan Gray, urban planner from NYC, to be in residence at Mercatus and write a book on YIMBY, Against Zoning.

Samarth Jajoo, an Indian boy in high school, to assist his purchase of study materials for math, computer science, and tutoring.  Here is his new book gifting project.

One other, not yet ready to be announced.  But a good one.

And EV winner Harshita Arora co-founded AtoB, a startup building a sustainable transportation network for intercity commuters using buses.

Here are previous MR posts on Emergent Ventures.