Saturday Links 02-Feb-2018 Amazon health, faithland, driverless trucks, rules for life

1. Amazon Healthcare. My current favorite example of tech and healthcare is the Mycin system. A 1978 AI expert computer system that was better than pathologists, yet never adopted due to incentives. So better technology is important, but if you can’t shift incentives, it’s completely useless. Health is hard. And using the word “AI” doesn’t magically change incentives. Which brings us to Amazon’s health announcement. Since most tech initiatives in health are doomed to fail, Amazon health is interesting only if Amazon is ambitious enough to completely revamp the American healthcare system. On a decades long time horizon. Well. Ben Thompson walks through how that might happen. Key quote: “Amazon’s goal is to basically take a skim off of all economic activity.” Speculative post, but excellent throughout.  Recommended.

2. Map of religious belief as percentage of population.  Red is high percentage of local population with faith. Blue is low. Very well done. Especially the names for high faith regions: Utah Island, North Texas Ridge, Midewestern Ridge.  The map is by Alex Egoshin. Link: Vivmaps Website. Link: Vividmaps on twitter. Worth clicking through to see the map in full detail.

Faithland by Alex Egoshin. vividmaps.com

3. Driverless trucks may create more trucking jobs. In technology, cars remain one of the classic cases of unanticipated second order consequences. People anticipated cars long before they were widely adopted in the 1920s. But nobody anticipated all the second order consequences: highway congestion, suburbs, shopping malls, road rage. Likewise it was hard to anticipate that automated teller machines would not decrease jobs for bank tellers. What happened was costs fell, so banks opened more branches. And yes, we should be skeptical of Uber funded studies on driverless trucks. Yet the claim that falling costs in long haul may lead to more trucking employment, especially on short haul is not crazy. Depending on your taste, I’d recommend either Timothy Taylor’s economics/technical post, or Alex C. Madrigal’s more popular one. Last graf from Taylor’s post:

Just to be clear, I’m not endorsing the scenario that 10 years from now, there will be a million autonomous trucks on US highways and even more truckers in the short-haul business. But I am endorsing the broader point that a simple “technology replaces jobs” story–even one as seemingly straightforward as how autonomous trucks will affect the number of truck drivers–is always more complex and sometimes even counterintuitive to how it may appear at first glance.

4. Modern stories have a good guy/bad guy narrative, older stories did not. The original essay argued folk tales did not start as moralistic good versus evil. What happened was Grimm’s fairy tales reworked those original stories to become good versus evil. And they became nationalistic good v evil as well. Tanner Greer points out that many older stories were already good v evil. But I think the overabundance of good v evil in modern narrative is real enough. Scott Alexander has a response which is better than the original piece. Scott points out three reasons for the shift to good v evil: 1) rise of egalitarian norms (aristocrats don’t need to demonize their enemy), 2) widening circle of moral concern (nowadays we only believe it’s ok to harm people if they are bad), and 3) good v evil stories as really just way better. The third point is key. Quote: “properly-written good-vs-evil stories are just better, in a memetic sense, but it took a long time to get the formula right. Coca-Cola is better than yak’s milk, but you’ve got to invent it before you can enjoy it – and just having a vague cola-ish mix of spices in water doesn’t count. But once you invent it, it spreads everywhere, and people throw out whatever they were doing before.” See Scott’s essay The Invention of the Moral narrative. Last note – Scott’s post is almost a corollary to his excellent essay from 2016 – Western culture is really just universalist culture.

5. Typeset in The Future book. Dave Addey is coming out with a book form version of his typeset-in-the-future blog posts. Fall of 2018. These are sly and humorous takes on sci-fi movies through the lens of fonts and typography. Announcement here. This isn’t for everyone, so maybe try Addey’s post on the movie 2001 to see if it’s your kind of thing. I think it’s great.

6. Megan McArdle’s 12 rules for life. I was pleased to see her post get a lot of views (see here and here). I noticed that half the rules are about not picking unecssary fights. And there’s an unstated 13th rule running through the entire piece: have a sense of humor about life. Quite enjoyed it. Here’s the link. Let me finish by quoting rule #9:

Somewhere around that same eighth-grade mark where we all experimented with being mean, we get the idea that believing in things makes you a sucker — that good art is the stuff that reveals how shoddy and grasping people are, that good politics is cynical, that “realism” means accepting how rotten everything is to the core. 

The cynics aren’t exactly wrong; there is a lot of shoddy, grasping, rottenness in the world. But cynicism is radically incomplete. Early modernist critics used to complain about the sanitized unreality of “nice” books with no bathrooms. The great modernist mistake was to decide that if books without sewers were unrealistic, “reality” must be the sewers. This was a greater error than the one it aimed to correct. In fact, human beings are often splendid, the world is often glorious, and nature, red in tooth and claw, also invented kindness, charity and love. Believe in that.

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