Category: Web/Tech

MR sentences to ponder

Also, I finally had a chance to meet Tyler Cowen and tell him that his blog played a bit part in how I ended up dating my now-wife. Back when we were messaging on OKCupid (to clarify: my wife and I were messaging; I have not contacted Tyler Cowen on OKC), I wanted to establish my Internet-nerd bona fides, so I mentioned that I’d been linked by a prominent economics blog. She mentioned that she had been linked by a very prominent economics blog. It was Marginal Revolution, both times. (Her post: on taking oneself seriously. My post is lost to history, but I believe it was about the causes and consequences of onion futures being illegal.)

Since Cowen is an expert on many topics, it should come as no surprise that he’s an export on MR lore, so he informed me that at least one couple has gotten married on the site. One economic story you can tell about the last hundred or so years is that, as economies globalize, we compete head-to-head with more people, and need to define our domains ever more narrowly if we hope to be #1. Apparently “used Marginal Revolution to get married” was, in fact, far too broad a domain for me to have any hope of excelling.

That is from Byrne Hobart, with the essay mostly on his recent visit to Bloomberg and the Bloomberg AI panel.

Maybe echo chambers are evolving because they are efficient?

Our analysis reveals that segregation into small, homogeneous groups can be a rational choice that maximizes the amount of information available to an individual. In fact, homophilic segregation can be efficient and even Pareto-optimal for society. Why is that? Our argument builds on the idea that people have not only different information, but also different preferences. These differences in preferences can prevent successful communication, because people do not want to reveal their information to those who are different, and distrust the motives of those who speak to them. It then becomes easier to exchange information in segregated, homogeneous cliques than in large crowds. Echo chambers, though they may cut off potential communication with a great number of people, make actual communication possible, and are hence useful for society.

That is from a new paper by Ole Jann and Christoph Schottmüller.  I believe Jann is currently on the job market from Oxford this year.  Here is their other paper on the economics of privacy.  And from Schottmüller: “The quality of
advice can be highest if the adviser’s competence is uncertain.”

Education sentences to ponder

More than 75 percent of online students enroll at an institution within 100 miles of their homes, according to recent research from The Learning House (and consistent across past surveys over time). A majority of online students visit campus to access services and support, or to attend events and in-person courses, in a true blending of online and in-person.

Here is a good Sean Gallagher survey on the rise of on-line degrees.

Can Token Curated Registries Actually Work?

A Token Curated Registry (TCR) is a mechanism to incentivize the creation of high quality lists in a decentralized setting. TCRs are becoming popular in the token space. As part of advisory work on mechanism design for the startup Wireline, I wrote a research note on TCRs. I am not as enthused as many others. Here are some takeaways:

Token Curated Registries can work but there is no guarantee that voters will coordinate on the truth as a Schelling point so care needs to be taken in the design stage to imagine other Schelling points. The less focal or more costly it is to discover the truth, the more vulnerable the mechanism will be to biases and manipulation via coordination or collusion.

To understand whether a TCR will work in practice attention needs to be placed on the information environment. The key practical issues are the cost of acquiring high-quality information and the value to an applicant of getting on the registry. Put simply, TCRs are likely to work when high quality information is available at low cost. Vitalik Buterin’s examples of Schelling points were (wisely) all of this kind. Extensions of the Schelling point model to TCRs which are trying to surface information that is much more uncertain, variable and disputed need to recognize the limitations.

It will often be more important to put effort into lowering the cost of acquiring high quality information than it will be to modify the particulars of the mechanism. If high-quality, low-cost information is available many mechanisms will work tolerably well. If high-quality, low-cost information isn’t available, perhaps none will.

Read the whole thing at Medium.

And do check out Wireline. Wireline isn’t going to Mars but it is creating what could be a significant and very useful protocol to find and connect software services to quickly produce decentralized applications that can scale on demand.

There is no published research cited in this article

Nor are any criticisms of that research presented.  The title and subheader of the piece (NYT) are:

A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley

“I am convinced the devil lives in our phones.”

Doesn’t a consensus have to be…scientific?  The article does cite many tech people who are limiting the screen time of their children.  That may well be a good thing.  But tech people also may not have the best balanced understanding of the scientific issues involved, or of how tech is used outside of tech communities (and their children) themselves.

Literally speaking, the headline refers only to a consensus in Silicon Valley.  But I do not myself see such a consensus out there during my visits, and it is not obvious within the article what the views of the dissenters might be, or how prominent or numerous those dissenters are.  Or even whether they are dissenters or the mainstream.  Furthermore, most readers will take this piece to be referring to a broader scientific consensus, which does not in fact exist.  And yes I have read some of the published research indicating that tech damages people’s mental capacities and, while such claims may end up being true, I do not find the current research very convincing.  In any case, such research ought to have been considered, pro and con.

We have now reached the point where tech is one of the worst covered subject areas by the U.S. and also British media.

Hope is not lost

While some say wisdom comes with age, younger Americans are better than their elders at separating factual from opinion statements in the news, according to a new analysis from Pew Research Center.

And the gap is noticeable:

About a third of 18- to 49-year-olds (32%) correctly identified all five of the factual statements as factual, compared with two-in-ten among those ages 50 and older. A similar pattern emerges for the opinion statements. Among 18- to 49-year-olds, 44% correctly identified all five opinion statements as opinions, compared with 26% among those ages 50 and older.

When looking at the 10 statements individually, younger adults were not only better overall at correctly identifying factual and opinion news statements – they could do so regardless of the ideological appeal of the statements.

Maybe social media aren’t so terrible after all.  And maybe cable TV is less than perfect?

That is from Jeffrey Gottfried and Elizabeth Grieco, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Liveblogging the Bloomberg session on AI

Noah Feldman is moderator, Noah Smith and Justin Fox and Leonid Bershidsky and Shira Ovide and Dina Bass are presenting…you will find my live-blogging in the comments section of this post.  Just keep on refreshing for the updates.

Livestream is here:

My Conversation with Ben Thompson

Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary opener:

Not only is Ben Thompson’s Stratechery frequently mentioned on MR, but such is Tyler’s fandom that the newsletter even made its way onto the reading list for one of his PhD courses. Ben’s based in Taiwan, so when he recently visited DC, Tyler quickly took advantage of the chance for an in-person dialogue.

In this conversation they talk about the business side of tech and more, including whether tech titans are good at PR, whether conglomerate synergies exist, Amazon’s foray into health care, why anyone needs an Apple Watch or an Alexa, growing up in small-town Wisconsin, his pragmatic book-reading style, whether MBAs are overrated, the prospects for the Milwaukee Bucks, NBA rule changes, the future of the tech industries in China and India, and why Taiwanese breakfast is the best breakfast.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why should I want a tech device in my home at all? Take Alexa — I don’t have one, I’m pretty happy, my life is simple. I don’t want anyone or anything listening to me. What does it do for me? I know I can tell it to play me a song or buy something on Amazon, but that’s one-click shopping anyway, could hardly be simpler. Why do devices in the home have any future at all?

THOMPSON: The reality is — particularly when it comes to consumer products — is that in the long run, convenience always wins. I think people will have them in their homes, and they’ll become more popular because it’s convenient.

You can be doing whatever you want; you can say something like, “Set a timer five minutes,” or “What temperature should I grill my steak to?” And you’ll get an answer with your hands busy, and altogether it’s going to be a more convenient answer than it would’ve been otherwise.


COWEN: How bullish are you on India’s tech sector and software development?

THOMPSON: I’m bullish. You know, India — people want to put it in the same bucket as, “Oh, it’s the next China.” The countries are similar in that they’re both very large, but they’re so different.

Probably the most underrated event — I don’t want to say in human history, but in the last hundred years — is the Cultural Revolution in China. And not just that 60, 70 million people were killed, or starved to death, or what it might be, but it really was like a scorched earth for China as a whole. Everything started from scratch. And from an economic perspective, that’s why you can grow for so long — because you’re starting from nothing basically. But the way it impacts culture, generally, and the way business is done.

Taiwan, I think, struggles from having thousands of years of Chinese bureaucracy behind it. Plus they were occupied by Japan for 50 years, so you’ve got that culture on top. Then you have this sclerotic corporate culture that the boss is always right, stay in the office until he goes home, and that sort of thing. It’s unhealthy.

Whereas China — it’s much more bare-knuckled competition and “Figure out the right answer, figure it out quickly.” The competition there is absolutely brutal. It’s brutal in a way I think is hard for people to really comprehend, from the West. And that makes China, makes these companies really something to deal with.

Whereas India did not have something like that. Yes, it had colonialism, but all that is still there, and the effects of that, and the long-term effects of India’s thousands of years of culture. So it makes it much more difficult to wrap things up, to get things done. And that’s always, I think, going to be the case. The way India develops, generally, because they didn’t have a clear-the-decks event like the Cultural Revolution, is always going to be fundamentally different.

And that is by no means a bad thing. I’m not wishing the Cultural Revolution on anyone. I’m just saying it makes the countries really fundamentally different.

Definitely recommended.

How streaming has changed song structures

From Martin Connor, here is a list of seven mechanisms, you can read the explanations at the link:

1. Streamings’ Data Collection Makes Songs Simpler

2. Streaming Sites’ Social Media Makes Songs Confessional

3. Small Streaming Profits Make Songs Shorter

4. Streaming’s Customizability Makes Songs Built To Order

5. Content Digitization Makes Songs More Diverse [TC: does that contradict some of the other general claims?]

6. Free Content Makes Songs More Collaborative [TC: and here’s the explanation for this one:]

Artistic competition is so fierce nowadays that artists need to constantly release music. One way to do this is to make songs shorter and simpler; another way is to get a producer to make the beat, a singer to make the chorus, and another rapper for the second verse. This leads to Migos member Offset, DJ Khaled, Justin Bieber, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne all appearing on the same 2017 song, “I’m The One.” It also means that fans start to see credits like those from Cardi B’s new album “Invasion of Privacy”. The 13 tracks on the album features 104 total writing credits, meaning 8 people per track. Its single “Be Careful” has 17 alone.

7. Video’s Increasing Dominance Makes Songs Into Soundtracks

Via the excellent Samir Varma.

Whiners, in this case whiners about Airspace

We could call this strange geography created by technology “AirSpace.” It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started…

The profusion of generic cafes and Eames chairs and reclaimed wood tables might be a superficial meme of millennial interior decorating that will fade with time. But the anesthetized aesthetic of International Airbnb Style is the symptom of a deeper condition, I think.

Why is AirSpace happening? One answer is that the internet and its progeny — Foursquare, Facebook, Instagram, Airbnb — is to us today what television was in the last century…

That is all from Kyle Chayka at The Verge.  I found this article interesting, well-written, and making a valid point.  Still, is it not mostly your fault if you are stuck in “Airspace,” as it is called?  Northern Virginia has some of the wealthiest counties in the United States, yet most of the terrain still is not Airspace or anything close to it.  Nor is most of San Francisco this way, or most of Manhattan, much less the other boroughs.  (And might you not prefer Airspace for the NYC subway?)  Seoul is a city which has its share of Airspace, but again is hardly dominated by it — the dense, low-slung neighborhoods of small restaurants are fascinating and mostly retro.

I think of Airspace as a 2-3% of our living space condition, yet a 2-3% that you can immerse yourself in if you are so inclined.

Which I am not.

Via edmundogs.

What should I ask Ben Thompson?

Yes, I will be doing a Conversation with Ben Thompson the tech commentator at Stratechery (worth the $$), no associated public event.  Here is Wikipedia on Ben:

Ben Thompson is an American business, technology, and media analyst, who is based in Taiwan. He is known principally for writing Stratechery, a subscription-based newsletter featuring in-depth commentary on tech and media news that has been called a “must-read in Silicon Valley circles”.

Here is Ben’s self-description.  Here is Ben on Twitter.  So what should I ask him?

Economists in the tech sector

…led by Pat Bajari, Amazon has hired more than 150 Ph.D. economists in the past five years, making them the largest employer of tech economists.  In fact, Amazon now has several times more full time economists than the largest academic economics department, and continues to grow at a rapid pace.

That is from the new Susan Athey and Michael Luca paper “Economists (and Economics) In Tech Companies.”