Pleasantly surprised to find a lot of good things to read this week. Here’s my commentary on what I read.
1. Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck. Excellent piece by Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen arguing science has reached diminishing returns. More people and more money are going into it. But less progress. Some didn’t like the methodology of using Nobel Prize winners. And of course it’s quite reasonable to disagree. But often what makes an argument important is it frames a question properly. In particular I liked this bit:
If it’s true that science is becoming harder, why is that the case?
Suppose we think of science—the exploration of nature—as similar to the exploration of a new continent. In the early days, little is known. Explorers set out and discover major new features with ease. But gradually they fill in knowledge of the new continent. To make significant discoveries explorers must go to ever-more-remote areas, under ever-more-difficult conditions. Exploration gets harder. In this view, science is a limited frontier, requiring ever more effort to “fill in the map.” One day the map will be near complete, and science will largely be exhausted. In this view, any increase in the difficulty of discovery is intrinsic to the structure of scientific knowledge itself.
An archetype for this point of view comes from fundamental physics, where many people have been entranced by the search for a “theory of everything,” a theory explaining all the fundamental particles and forces we see in the world. We can only discover such a theory once. And if you think that’s the primary goal of science, then it is indeed a limited frontier.
But there’s a different point of view, a point of view in which science is an endless frontier, where there are always new phenomena to be discovered, and major new questions to be answered. The possibility of an endless frontier is a consequence of an idea known as emergence. Consider, for example, water. It’s one thing to have equations describing the way a single molecule of water behaves. It’s quite another to understand why rainbows form in the sky, or the crashing of ocean waves, or the origins of the dirty snowballs in space that we call comets. All these are “water,” but at different levels of complexity. Each emerges out of the basic equations describing water, but who would ever have suspected from those equations something so intricate as a rainbow or the crashing of waves?
Sean Carroll has often pointed out that since about 50 years ago, the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. Which supports the analogy of exploring a continent above. What’s great about that last paragraph above is it shows the argument one is forced to make to argue science progress is still rapid. There must be enough emergent phenomena to explore. Collison and Nielsen cite computer science and genomics as examples. Overall I agree. Though to be clear, if science is getting harder, arguably the right response is investing more, not less. Which seems to be what’s happening. Read it here.
2. China’s internet fan economy. Surprisingly, a Chinese pop star, Kris Wu, beat out American pop star Ariana Grande in the iTunes charts this week. How’d that happen? Here’s Adam Minter:
For years, Chinese fans have gone beyond simply buying the music of their favorite stars and engaged in organized mass efforts to boost their chart positions and brand equity, and to influence their artistic decisions. Fans of the Chinese boy band TFboys have, among other activities, bought up an entire run (120,000 copies) of Harper’s Bazaar featuring a member on the cover, purchased billboards in Times Square to wish happy birthday to another member, and prepared custom textbooks for yet another member when he was prepping for China’s college entrance exam.
The success of this multibillion-dollar “fan economy” has been so profound that Chinese brands are now actively trying to profit from it. Western companies looking to break into the mainland market would be wise to pay heed.
The underlying point here is the fan economy model now common in China could well spread everywhere else. Worth paying attention to. link
3. James Allworth on the experience economy. Allworth walks through why SAP bought Qualtrics for $8 billion. Qualtrics captures and measures customer experience, and that’s a better model for retaining customers than traditional enterprise software tools, which measure income and spend. He uses the example of Uber, where users rate their drivers (and drivers rate their customers). While traditional taxi service just measure the money. That’s why Uber and Lyft provide a better experience, becuase they actually measure it, and so can manage it. Companies will adapt if they want to continue to compete. link
4. Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis. Long, deeply researched feature story in the New York Times on how Facebook fought off critics of how it handled fake news and Russia. There were plenty responses. Of those, I liked Benedict Evan’s point: “The one lesson giant tech companies never learn from their predecessors: believing you’re doing the right thing, actually doing the right thing, and everyone else believing you’re doing the right thing are three different things. And often only the third one matters.” And Christopher Mims: “Having been a reporter and also a human for a long time I find it entirely credible both that Sheryl Sandberg’s underlings genuinely thought she stymied their efforts to investigate Russia interference *and* that she has no memory of ever doing that and might not have intended to”. If you follow tech/Facebook/social media, this story is worth reading since it will frame things for Facebook going forward. link
5. Why do some Amazonians appear to have Australiasian ancentry? Back in 2015, it was found that some Amazonians appear to have ancestry which most closely matches Papua New Guineans and Aboriginal Australians. A very odd result. Last week some new papers using ancient DNA found similar results. There seem to be roughly four possibilities: 1) it’s an untrue artifact created by flawed models, 2) undetected population stratification in the original people who populated the Americas, 3) a first wave into the Americas was then almost completely overrun leaving no trace in North America, 4) Australiasians reached South America by boat and were mostly overrun. Just for fun, I’ll go on record as saying #4. Australiasians made it to Indonesia and Australia. Some Australiasian group made it to South America, either from the east or the west, who knows. They had a culture highly adapted to coastal living, so perhaps mostly settled there, before they got overrun. With more ancient DNA, this will get eventually resolved. I’m looking forward to that happening.
6. I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It. An excellent essay on how naming a mom and pop place the best burger in America wound up shutting it down. Reflective, a bit sad, discusses how the internet era works. Recommended. link
And that’s all for this week.