I saw a few people asking this on Twitter lately, but my views don’t quite fit into a tweet. Ten to fifteen years ago, I remember the joys of just finding things, clicking links through to other links, and in general meandering through a thick, messy, exhilarating garden.
Today you can’t do that as much. Many media sites are gated, a lot of the personal content is in the walled garden of Facebook, and blogs and personal home pages are not as significant as before. Then there is the email subscription newsletter, whether free or paid. All you can do in fact is visit www.marginalrevolution.com and a few other sites and hope their proprietors have not been sleeping since you last stopped by.
That said, I do not feel that time on the internet has become an inferior experience. It’s just that these days you find most things by Twitter. You don’t have to surf, because this aggregator performs a surfing-like function for you. Scroll rather than surf, you could say (“scrolling alone,” said somebody on Twitter).
And if you hate Twitter, it is your fault for following the wrong people (try hating yourself instead!). Follow experts and people of substance, not people who seek to lower the status of others. And if you’re really feeling the internet to be rather empty, head on over to Twitter search, still the most underrated single thing on the internet today (the MR search function is another underrated corner of the internet). Type in words of interest, such as “Ethiopia,” and what comes up will be gold.
It’s a different method today, and it uses a more centralized portal, but no the internet is not in decline. Not yet at least.
The problem with data portability is that it goes both ways: if you can take your data out of Facebook to other applications, you can do the same thing in the other direction. The question, then, is which entity is likely to have the greater center of gravity with regards to data: Facebook, with its social network, or practically anything else?
Remember the conditions that led to Facebook’s rise in the first place: the company was able to circumvent Google, go directly to users, and build a walled garden of data that the search company couldn’t touch. Partnering or interoperating with companies below the Bill Gates Line, particularly aggregators, is simply an invitation to be intermediated. To demand that governments enforce exactly that would be a massive mistake that only helps Facebook.
A highly sophisticated MR reader demanded a dose of Michael Nielsen. I wrote to Michael, and he was kind enough to oblige. Everything that follows is from Michael, here goes:
I started with the question “What might amuse Tyler?”, and it became very easy.
Three opinions that may amuse MR readers:
1. Peter Thiel has said: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 (280) characters.” Thiel is wrong: 280 characters are much, much better than flying cars. Twitter is misunderstood as being an online service; it’s merely the online component of a much improved offline experience. Twitter DM’s are a superpower, one of the most valuable ways of connecting people ever invented. More on one way of using Twitter here.
2. Movies are primarily a visual form; movie criticism and the popular conversation about movies are primarily a literary form, and informed by literary sensibilities. This is why good movies such as Transformers are so underrated. People who dismiss such movies are mostly revealing their own ignorance.
3. Many corners of the internet have a culture of judgement or argument. Typical subtexts in online conversation are: is this good or bad? What’s wrong with it? But until and unless healthy conversational norms are formed, argument and judgement are mostly useless status-seeking by participants. Much better is a “Yes, and” culture.
Three books or papers which should be better known:
1. Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons. Ostrom dismantles the market / government dichotomy, sketching out ways common pool resources (and, to some extent, public goods) can be provided using non-market, non-government solutions.
2. Alex Tabarrok’s paper introducing dominant assurance contracts. Cryptocurrencies have huge potential as a way of creating entirely new types of market, using ideas like this. This potential is mostly unrealized to date.
Blog posts don’t really get going until about 5,000 words in. Here are three favourites of mine:
1. Thought as a Technology, on how imaginative designers invent fundamentally new modes of thought.
3. Using Artificial Intelligence to Augment Human Intelligence (with Shan Carter).
Despite the fact I’m well short of 5,000 words, I’ll stop here.
You can follow Michael on Twitter here.
I totally agree about Ethiopia being easy to visit. I went there last December and was baffled by how safe it was. I went outside and easily hailed a Taxi at 11 pm (the blue and white ones that everybody take in Addis not the special ones made for tourists). I’d never find a real Taxi in Port-au-Prince after 8 pm. Except the special (and very expensive) ones you can call on the phone.
What stroke me the most was how cheap Ethiopia was compared to Haiti and low income countries in Africa (especially Tchad, where my wife works). I think this is a major problem for countries like Tchad or Haiti (or Nigeria): they grew too expensive before getting even remotely rich. And this gives me hope that Ethiopia could achieve some significant success in tourism and exports in the coming years. By the way, I think that why a country like Ethiopia is cheaper than Haiti or Chad remains a question to be seriously investigated.
However, the Internet in Haiti is way better and cheaper. Cars in Haiti are also substantially cheaper (3 times cheaper at least, thanks in part to the US being so close). I also think the Internet is largely better and cheaper in Nigeria compared to Ethiopia. This made me think about something you wrote about the future of economic development, with people in countries like Haiti or Nigeria getting more satisfaction from the Internet and relatively cheap electronics instead of jobs and income. My impression is that it’s one of the very few low income country not taking this route currently…
Here is Carl-Henri on Twitter.
An interesting piece by Praphul Chandra on CryptoEconomics:
Once you move past the speculative pricing of cryptocurrencies and ICOs, Blockchains are fundamentally a way to create economies. The ability to create new tokens or currencies (monetary policy) and to distribute and allocate these tokens according to economic incentives (mechanism design) will lead to the creation of new forms of commerce & economies.
…The ability to use algorithms for the creation, allocation & destruction of new tokens (e.g. ERC20) allows solution (mechanism) designers to offer incentives & reward desirable behavior. The fundamental idea is not new. Alternative currencies like airline miles & loyalty points are used by enterprises to influence consumer behavior even today. What is new is the scale with which it is possible to do this with the advent of Blockchains.
…CryptoEconomies will enable us to study economies at a scale like never before. In principle, we should be able to study the impact of micro on the macro (e.g. impact of change in economic incentives on token price) at the most granular scale. Similarly, we should be able to study the impact of macro on the micro (e.g. impact of new token creation on individual behavior).
The amount of data available in a cryptoeconomy is truly astonishing. Imagine an entire economy in which every transaction is recorded and so is, in principle, every single person’s entire transaction history. New economies like this will give rise to new economics.
Mostly about AI, here is one bit:
My guess is that AI is very, very good at decoding human interactions and human expressions. If you imagine a robot that sees you at home, and sees your interaction with your spouse, and sees things over time; that robot will be learning. But what robots learn is learned by all, like self-driving cars. It’s not the experience of the single, individual self-driving car. So, the accumulation of emotional intelligence will be very rapid once we start to have that kind of robot .
It’s really interesting to think about whether people are happier now than they were. This is not at all obvious because people adapt and habituate to most of what they have. So, the question to consider about well-being and about providing various goods to people, is whether they’re going to get used to having those goods, and whether they continue to enjoy those goods. It’s not apparent how valuable these things are, and it will be interesting to see how this changes in the future.
Kahneman tells us that his forthcoming book is called Noise, though I don’t yet find it on Amazon. Here is an HBR essay of his on that topic.
Blogging might be more erratic, if so I apologize. Please don’t think I am getting sick of this — I am not — it’s just that convenient internet connections might be hard to come by in the more rural parts of the country.
Like from 2017:
Ethiopia has cut off internet access nationwide until at least June 8 to try to stop cheats from posting high school exam papers on social media, a government official said on Thursday.
The good news is they just turned internet access “back on” last month. Let’s hope it stays that way.
At the very least, I have posts on autopilot. Let’s hope I can add to those, and at the very worst MR will be back to normal and normally timed service in less than ten days. The modal scenario is that in fact you will get more than average, but I can’t promise that either. Wish me luck.
High street newsagents are to sell so-called “porn passes” that will allow adults to visit over-18 websites anonymously.
The 16-digit cards will allow browsers to avoid giving personal details online when asked to prove their age.
Instead, they would show shopkeepers a passport or driving licence when buying the pass.
For the pointer I thank a loyal MR reader.
I first met Eric at a Victor Niederhoffer Junto event in New York City, and I have kept in touch with him over the years. I’ve never thought of Eric as “intellectual dark web,” whatever that might mean, and I don’t even much associate him with the web, much less darkness (intellectual, yes). I would also note that, although I’ve spent a fair number of hours chatting with him, and was interviewed by him once, I could not characterize his political views in any simple way. And I was surprised to learn that the article described him as having supported Bernie Sanders.
I would say this: if you wish to sit down and chat with someone, and receive new and interesting and original ideas, Eric is one of the most “generative” people I know, easily in the top five or higher yet. And I know a number of very smart others who would concur in this claim. Quite simply, that is the source of Eric’s influence and semi-fame.
I don’t pretend any comprehensive knowledge of Eric’s views, and I don’t doubt he might believe many things I would diagree with, starting with claims about Bernie Sanders. But the third paragraph of this post is the most fundamental intellectual fact about Eric, and if one does not know that, one does not know Eric.
Addendum: Eric also has research in mathematics and physics which I am not close to being able to assess: “Weinstein claimed in his dissertation research that the self-dual Yang–Mills equations on which Donaldson theory was built were not unique as was believed at the time, putting forward two sets of alternate equations based on spinorial constructions.”
Google: Today, we’re announcing a new policy to prohibit ads that promote bail bond services from our platforms. Studies show that for-profit bail bond providers make most of their revenue from communities of color and low income neighborhoods when they are at their most vulnerable, including through opaque financing offers that can keep people in debt for months or years.
Google’s decision to ban ads from bail bond providers is deeply disturbing and wrongheaded. Bail bonds are a legal service. Indeed, they are a necessary service for the legal system to function. It’s not surprising that bail bonds are used in communities of color and low income neighborhoods because it is in those neighborhoods that people most need to raise bail. We need not debate whether that is due to greater rates of crime or greater discrimination or both. Whatever the cause, preventing advertising doesn’t reduce the need to pay bail it simply makes it harder to find a lender. Restrictions on advertising in the bail industry, as elsewhere, are also likely to reduce competition and raise prices. Both of these effects mean that more people will find themselves in jail for longer.
As with any industry, there are bad players in the bail bond industry but in my experience the large majority of providers go well beyond lending money to providing much needed services to help people navigate the complex, confusing and intimidating legal system. Sociologist Joshua Page worked as a bail agent:
In the course of my research, I learned that agents routinely offer various forms of assistance for low-income customers, primarily poor people of color. It’s very difficult for those with limited resources to get information, much less support, from overburdened jails, courts, or related institutions. Lacking attentive private attorneys, therefore, desperate defendants and their friends and families turn to bail companies to help them understand and navigate the opaque, confusing legal processes.
…In fact, even when people have gone through it before, the pretrial process can be murky and intimidating….[A]long with walking clients through the legal process, agents explain the differences between public and private attorneys and the relative merits of each. Discussions regularly turn to the defendant’s case: Is the alleged victim pressing charges? Will the case move forward if he or she does not? When is the next court date? If convicted, what’s the likely punishment? Any chance the charges will get dropped?
One of the key functions performed by attorneys in the criminal process is to direct the passage of cases through the procedural and bureaucratic mazes of the court system. For unrepresented defendants, however, the bondsman may perform the crucial institutional task of helping to negotiate court routines.
Dill’s observation still rings true: bail agents and administrative staff (at least in Rocksville) act as legal guides for defendants who do not have private attorneys—and at times they provide this help to defendants with inattentive hired counsel. They provide information about court dates and locations, check the status of warrants, contact court staff on defendants’ behalf (especially when the accused have missed court or are at risk of doing so), and, at times, drive defendants to their court dates. These activities help clients show up for court, thereby protecting the company’s investments.
The bail agents are not purely altruistic, they are in a competitive, service business and it pays to help their clients with kindness and care. When I asked one bail agent why he was so polite to his clients and their relations–even when they had jumped bail–he told me, “we rely a lot on repeat business.”
Ian Ayres and Joel Waldfogel also found that the bail bond system can (modestly) ameliorate judicial racial bias. Ayres and Waldfogel found that in New Haven in the 1990s black and Hispanic males were assigned bail amounts that were systematically higher than equally-risky whites. The bail bondpersons, however, offered lower prices to minorities–meaning equal net prices for people of equal risk–exactly what one would expect from a competitive industry.
My own research found that defendants released on commercial bail were much more likely to show up for trial than statistical doppelgangers released by other methods. Bounty hunters were also much more likely than the police to capture and bring to justice people who did jump bail. The bail bond system thus provides an important public service at no cost to the public.
In addition to being wrongheaded, Google’s decision is disturbing because it is so obviously a political decision. Google has banned legal services like bail bonding and payday lending from advertising on Google in order to curry favor with groups who have an ideological aversion to payday lending and the bail system. Google is a private company so this is their right. But every time Google acts as a lawgiver instead of an open platform it invites regulation and political control. Politicians on both sides will see that Google’s code is either a quick-step to political power without the necessity of a vote or a threat to such power. Personally, I don’t want to see greater regulation but if, for example, conservatives decide that Google doesn’t represent their values and threatens their interests, they will regulate.
Google’s decision to use its code as law is an invitation to politicization. Moreover, Google is throwing away its best defense against politicization–the promise of neutrality and openness.
…the future of the relative cost advantage between e-commerce and physical retail is looking less clear. For much of physical retail, there’s the prospect of falling rents, making running a brick-and-mortar store more viable. For e-commerce, it’s a surge in ad rates, or customer acquisition costs, plus shipping bottlenecks that will make “free shipping” more onerous to offer. And profit margins on an e-commerce sale were lower than the profit margin on an equivalent brick and mortar sale to begin with. All of this is happening when e-commerce is only around 10 percent of total retail sales. Presumably, these challenges will be even greater as that share grows.
In his view, we should look for a renewed focus on bricks and mortar. Here is the full column.
In The Facebook Trials: It’s Not “Our” Data I wrote:
Facebook hasn’t taken our data—they have created it.
…Moreover, it’s the prospect of profits that has led Facebook and Google to invest in the technology and tools that have created “our data.” The more difficult it is to profit from data, the less data there will be. Proposals to require data to be “portable” miss this important point. Try making your Facebook graph portable before joining Facebook.
In an important post, Will Rinehart, adds detail:
Contrary to the claims of portability proponents, however, it isn’t data that gives Facebook power.
…Facebook’s technology stack, the suite of technologies that it uses behind the scenes, clearly shows the importance of scaling, as much of the architecture was developed in-house to address the unique problems facing Facebook’s vast troves of data. Facebook created BigPipe to dynamically serve pages faster, Haystack to efficiently store billions of photos, Unicorn for searching the social graph, TAO for storing graph information, Peregrine for querying, and MysteryMachine to help with end-to-end performance analysis. Nearly all of this design is open for others to use, and has been a significant boon to programmers in the ecosystem. The company also invested billions in content delivery networks to quickly deliver video, and it split the cost of an undersea cable with Microsoft to speed up information travel.
The vast investment that Facebook has put into programs for understanding and processing its users’ data points to the fundamental flaw in the argument for data portability.
…Requiring data portability does little to deal with the very real challenges that face the competitors of Facebook, Amazon, and Google. Entrants cannot merely compete by collecting the same kind of data. They need to build better sets of tools to understand information and make it useful for consumers.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one central bit:
Other than using blockchains to organize cryptocurrencies, imagine using them to record and decide who can store information about you. The blockchain is thus a potential substitute for some functions of Facebook, a corporation. Or imagine using the blockchain to allocate rights to your attention in cyberspace, who can send you ads, and who can send you an actionable email or induce you to complete a task, the latter an idea from Balaji Srinivasan of Coinbase.
No, you don’t have to sit down and personally bid on all of these decisions, but your AI bots can use micropayments and trade with other AI bots, based on your initial instructions. This new method of governance holds out the promise of using market mechanisms to order your life online, rather than relying on monopolies to do it for you.
Or, say, virtual reality worlds come to pass, where people plug in to relax, to take an exciting one-hour trip to Paris from their sofa, or to have cybersex. The property rights in those worlds might be allocated by blockchains and cryptocurrencies, again assisted by AI. That would create a parallel economy and indeed parallel legal systems, and those might spring up more rapidly than current administrative law will handle those new situations. In these new economies and legal systems that spring from blockchains, competition and rapid experimentation would be the norm.
I don’t think that all will happen, but in expected value terms it remains important.
Here is the transcript and audio, and this is the intro:
Marc Andreessen has described Balaji as the man who has more good ideas per minute than anyone else in the Bay Area. He is the CEO of Earn.com, where we’re sitting right now, a board partner at Andreessen Horowitz, formerly a general partner. He has cofounded the company Counsyl in addition to many other achievements.
Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: Why is the venture capital model so geographically clustered? So much of it is out here in the Bay Area. It’s spreading to other parts of the country. Around the world, you see Israel, in some ways, as being number two, per capita number one. But that’s a very small country. Why is it so hard to get venture capital off the ground in so many areas?
SRINIVASAN: That’s actually now changed with the advent of ICOs and Ethereum and crypto. Historically, the reason for it was companies would come to Sand Hill Road. One maybe slightly less appreciated aspect is, if you come to Sand Hill Road and you get VC financing, the VC who invests in your company typically takes a board seat. A VC does not want to fly 6,000 miles for every board seat if they’ve got 10 board seats and four board meetings a year per company.
What a VC would like in general, all else being equal, is for you to be within driving distance. Not only does that VC like it, so does the next VC in the B round and the next VC in the C round. That factor is actually one of the big things that constrains people to the Bay Area, is VC driving distance, [laughs] because VCs don’t want to do investments that are an entire world away.
With the advent of Ethereum and ICOs, we have finally begun to decentralize the last piece, which was funding. Now, that regulatory environment needs to be worked out. It’s going to be worked out in different ways in different countries.
But the old era where you had to come to Sand Hill to get your company funded and then go to Wall Street to exit is over. That’s something where it’s going to increasingly decentralize. It already has decentralized worldwide, and that’s going to continue.
COWEN: With or without a board seat, doesn’t funding require a face-to-face relationship? It’s common for VC companies to even want the people they’re funding to move their endeavor to the Bay Area in some way, not only for the board meeting. They want to spend time with those people.
We’re doing this podcast face to face. We could have done it over Skype. There’s something significant about actually having an emotionally vivid connection with someone right there in the room. How much can we get around that as a basic constraint?
And here is another:
COWEN: Right now, I pay financial fees to my mutual funds, to Merrill Lynch, all over. Anytime I save money, I’m paying a fee to someone. Which of those fees will go away?
SRINIVASAN: Good question. Maybe all of them.
COWEN: Why? What will they do that we haven’t thought of?
SRINIVASAN: Construction. There’s different kinds of drones. They’re not just flying drones. There’s swimming drones and there’s walking drones and so on.
Like the example I mentioned where you can teleport into a robot and then control that, Skype into a robot and control that on other side of the world. That’s going to be something where maybe you’re going to have it in drone mode so it walks to the destination. You’ll be asleep and then you wake up and it’s at the destination.
Drones are going to be a very big deal. There’s this interesting movie called Surrogates, which actually talks about what a really big drone/telepresence future would look like. People never leave their homes because, instead, they just Skype into a really good-looking drone/telepresent version of themselves, and they walk around in that.
If they’re hit by a car, it doesn’t matter because they can just rejuvenate and create a new one. I think drones are very, very underrated in terms of what they’re going to do.
Do read or listen to the whole thing.
Ms. Shen is a “programmer motivator,” as they are known in China. Part psychologist, part cheerleader, the women are hired to chat up and calm stressed-out coders. The jobs are proliferating in a society that largely adheres to gender stereotypes and believes that male programmers are “zhai,” or nerds who have no social lives.
…He said he was open to the idea of male programmer motivators but somewhat skeptical. “A man chatting with another man, it’s like going out on a date with a guy,” Mr. Feng said. “A little awkward, isn’t it?”
Ms. Zhang, the human resources executive who was part of the panel that hired Ms. Shen, stressed that it is important for a programmer motivator to look good. She said the applicants needed to have “five facial features that must definitely be in their proper order” and speak in a gentle way.
They should also have a contagious laugh, be able to apply simple makeup and be taller than 5 feet 2 inches.
…Ms. Shen said that she does not consider her job to be sexist.