Apple’s new services strategy. Apple is commoditizing (some) of its complements: music, movies, TV.

Apple announced their music and movie services will be available on non-Apple hardware. Whoa! This is huge. Ben Thompson correctly highlighted the importance, saying this shift in strategy (link $) “is not just fascinating, it’s frankly a bit stunning.” And “I think these announcements are a much bigger deal than people realize: Apple is absolutely sacrificing its traditional hardware business model, at least when it comes to TV black boxes and smart speakers, in favor of a content-centric services strategy.”

Why such a big deal? Apple’s incredible success was built on a consistent model: use proprietary software and services to make money selling hardware. That was true for the Apple II, Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, Watch. Despite near bankruptcy in 1997, the Apple business model remained sacrosanct. Side note: I’d argue iTunes for Windows with iPod was an exception that proved the rule.

Apple’s vertically integrated software/hardware stack allowed them to create premium experience. And premium profits. But also meant Apple services were hindered strategically. A strategy tax if you will. Because the optimal services strategy (think Google) is horizontal, putting your services on all platforms and devices. The marginal cost of extending an existing service to another platform is low, so in some sense services “want” to be everywhere. More users -> more data -> better services.

Suddenly Apple is putting Apple music on Amazon Alexa speakers. Apple movie and TV shows on Samsung, LG, Vizio and Sony TVs. And allowing AirPlay to those TVs, the ability to send content from your phone to your TV. Apple is destroying the proprietary value of their hardware. Most significantly Apple TV and HomePod, but also to a lessor extent the iPhone itself. What gives?

What’s happening now in 2019 is something I wrote about in 2013, in a post which I think holds up well.

But longer term, say 5, 10 or even 15 years, the Apple services strategy tax creates a third possible Apple bear story. Phones are becoming more and more about services. Let’s say the phone-services split was 90-10 for the first iPhone. It was primarily about what you held in your hand, not what’s in the cloud. Let’s say it’s now at 50-50. You can see where this is going. It’s possible that in a world where the phone-services split is 10-90 the other way, a company which focuses exclusively on services could wind up with a better overall premium phone experience than a company which focuses on complete systems. The strategy tax could actually dislodge Apple from the premium end of the market. Clearly this is a long term speculative scenario, but it’s a plausible future. Especially if you segment the market, where segments focused more on services will reach their tipping point earlier.

Apple makes money selling premium hardware, but what the people are paying for is premium experience. That’s the job to be done. And right now Google maps, Google email, Google voice assistant, etc are all better than Apple. Nonetheless, since I wrote that post in 2013, Apple has continued making enough moderate (if lagging) progress on its services, plus has innovated on its hardware (Face ID, camera, displays, integration of Mac and iPhone, custom ARM processors, integration of Apple Watch and Airpods) to keep their overall experience better. But this approach is showing cracks. Hence the new services strategy.

My guess is Apple’s new services strategy is, in select areas, to commoditize the complements. From Joel Spolsky’s classic post:

A complement is a product that you usually buy together with another product. Gas and cars are complements. Computer hardware is a classic complement of computer operating systems. And babysitters are a complement of dinner at fine restaurants. In a small town, when the local five star restaurant has a two-for-one Valentine’s day special, the local babysitters double their rates. (Actually, the nine-year-olds get roped into early service.) All else being equal, demand for a product increases when the prices of its complements decrease. Let me repeat that because you might have dozed off, and it’s important. Demand for a product increases when the prices of its complements decrease. 

By putting music, movies, TV on all platforms, Apple has decided to stop making those services a premium differentiator for their hardware. They are commodities. Anyone can get them. Even customers who never buy Apple hardware. Hmmm….. what about the $3 billion Apple spent buying Beats in 2014? I’d say flushed down the toilet.

To be fair, there’s another possibility. Apple may be attempting to simultaneously create premium horizontal services with music/movies/TV, and retain their traditional premium vertical stack hardware business. Ben Thompson suggests this possibility when he says “In short, it seems that Apple can have its (services) cake and eat it too: offer exclusive content across all platforms, while preserving its integrated experience (and iMessage) for its moneymakers.”

Perhaps. But the strategy conflict remains. Making a cross platform service means avoiding proprietary customization. Exactly what made those services work better on Apple hardware. That said, I know enough about huge corporations to know how this will play inside Apple. The people in the music/movie/TV services group want it to be best in market. And that’s fine. Good for them! Perhaps they’ll succeed. But even if they become the best, they won’t differentiate Apple hardware. To the hardware teams at Apple, those services are now pure commodities, and the cheaper those commodities become, the more valuable their hardware complement.

The big open question here is which other services at Apple are candidates to go horizontal. If my commoditize the complement theory is correct, it should be all services which don’t move the bar on selling Apple hardware. Let’s try three buckets:

  1. Cross platform now: music, TV, movies, itunes
  2. Cross platform likely: books, all media content, parts of iCloud
  3. Cross platform unlikely: Siri, iMessage, maps, App store, Apple pay

At first I wanted to put Siri into bucket #2. The strategy trade off is acute for voice interface. Google and Amazon can partner with everyone, getting more users and data, making their voice interfaces better and better. Apple lags. But on the other hand, Apple is famously future product oriented. And I started thinking about which future product might benefit most from tight hardware/software integration. The (or at least one) answer is augmented reality (AR) glasses. So even though the pressure for Siri to go horizontal right now is large, I suspect it’ll remain proprietary. I moved Apply pay into bucket #3 for the same reason. Whenever Apple AR glasses arrive, buying stuff with Siri voice and Apple pay will be frictionless. And in tech, frictionless is money. Pure money.

Update January 15 (two days after original post): Apple just announced they are partnering with search provider DuckDuckGo on Apple maps. Maps is a critical strategic capability, so perhaps my guess on Apple’s new services strategy was wrong. That said, I stand by my fundamental point that to the extent a service is available everywhere, it becomes a complement to selling hardware, creating an economic incentive to keep the margin on those widely available services low. And to be clear, partnering with a particular search provider is very different from putting Apple maps on Android. Which remains extremely unlikely. In any case, a lot happening right now with Apple services strategically. Something to keep a close eye on for 2019.

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Sunday Links 23-Dec-2018: US-China cold war, moving to superstar cities, internet shaming

I accidentally published this post yesterday with no content. Just a blank post. Sorry about that. Below is the real thing.

1. US-China, begun the cold war has. The Cold War between the US and Soviet Union ran from 1945-1990. With the arrest of the chief financial officer of Huawei (maker of networking and mobile equipment), exports of the opioid fentanyl, and longstanding accusations of theft of tech IP, it seems like the US is headed toward a cold war with China.

Donald Trump instigated the anti-China shift. But both for better and for worse, I suspect it was inevitable. Which means the US-China cold war will outlast Trump. Here’s Ivan Krastev:

In most European capitals, policymakers and the chattering classes want to believe that before too long, Mr. Trump will be gone and the world order — including the close alliances between Europe and the United States — will return. But here’s the dirty secret that I learned in my three months in Washington: That’s not true.

The Trump moment in the end may resemble the Truman moment, when over a short period America dramatically changed its views of the world. This may be hard for Europeans to swallow, but it’s the message I am bringing back with me from Washington. The post-Trump world will not be the pre-Trump world.

Mr. Trump’s presidency has ushered in two significant changes that are likely to have staying power. First, with his administration, Americans have lost confidence in their exceptionalism. 

Second, under the Trump presidency, rivalry with China has become the organizing principle of American foreign policy. Republicans and Democrats disagree on almost everything today, but one area where there seems to be effective bipartisanship is that America must change its policy toward China.

Here’s Tyler Cowen, on similar lines:

Like it or not, the United States is the global hegemon.  In my view this is an overall positive, but for our purposes today let’s just take it as given.

If you are the global hegemon, and another country, largely hostile to your political values and geopolitical desires, engages in widespread subversion of your power and influence, you must in some way hit back.  Otherwise you will not be global hegemon for much longer.  And unlike India or the EU, China desires to build an international political and economic order which would destroy liberalism as we know it.  Imagine a world where autocracy is a much more widespread norm, the Xinjiang detentions and North Korean nuclear weapons are considered entirely appropriate behavior, Taiwan is a vassal state, and few Asian countries could allow their media to print criticism of the Chinese government, for fear of retaliation.  Institutions such as the WTO would persist only insofar as they created loopholes which gave China the benefits of membership without most of the obligations.

What really solidified my views is Peter Turchin’s books, such as Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Turchin argues human society at mass scale came about through the crucible of war. War forged cooperation within large polities, as do or die against foreign threat. External enemies and internal cohesion are two sides of the same coin.

Viewed in this light, the second world war and the subsequent cold war were secret drivers of US cohesion during the latter half of the twentieth century. Which means it’s not social media, Facebook, Trump, the internet, or Russia that’s to blame for our recent outburst of tribal conflict. It’s merely a return to normalcy, after the collapse of our previous enemy the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the lesson here is not to pretend we can achieve a world with no external enemies. Else things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Human cooperation within requires an external enemy without. If so, the goal should be to keep those inevitable rivalries in check. Avoid hot war. Avoid brinkmanship like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead, the best we can hope for is to be like rival sports teams who (mostly) play by the rules. After each round we shake hands and say “good game my friend, good game”.

2. Moving to superstar cities. Below is a chart of the number of people moving per year (blue bars), and the mover rate (black line). Notice the downward trend of the black line. The mover rate was 20% in 1948, declining to 10% in 2018.

source: US census, via Timothy Taylor

Christopher Mims argues that “Technology is creating an economy in which superstar employees work for superstar firms that gather them into superstar cities, leading to a stark geographic concentration of wealth unlike any seen in the past century.” The solution is to have people move to these superstar cities. The problem is housing costs have skyrocketed in these same cities, which means only superstar employees can move there. So we should do more of what Minneapolis just did, remove zoning barriers to cheaper housing in superstar cities. This idea of housing restriction as bad and divisive policy seems to be slowly gaining ground over the past few years.

Along these lines, also see these two recent articles: 1) How rising rents contribute to homelessness, 2) Benefits of upzoning near transit and jobs.

3. Internet shaming. Helen Andrews had an early (2010) experience with internet shaming when her former fiance ranted about her failings as a human being, which went viral on YouTube. She recently wrote about internet shaming more generally. It’s a rather long post, but I thought it very good. Here’s one bit:

The more online shame cycles you observe, the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie. ­Matthew Yglesias once claimed that the reason he mocked David Brooks for his divorce was because Brooks had written columns about the social value of marriage, but I do not believe him. He did it because it’s fun to humiliate your political opponents. Moira Donegan claims that she created the Shitty Media Men List—a clearinghouse of anonymous accusations optimally parked for maximum dissemination in the Google Spreadsheet cloud—for altruistic reasons and with no thought of its being used to hurt anyone, but I do not believe her. If it was about protecting women in media from harassment, then why no attempt to sort the true accusations from the false? Why the coy protestations that “I thought that the document would not be made public,” when of course she knew that it would be spread far and wide, or she wouldn’t have bothered creating it?

Read the entire piece here.

4. Track by track breakdown of Fleetwod Mac’s song Go Your Own Way. If you are interested in how pop songwriters put together songs, Song Exploder is the podcast for you. How much I like it depends on the song and artist. But in this recent episode they picked an all time classic pop song. Lindsey Buckingham does the track by track (drum part, acoustic guitar, vocals, base, etc) walk through of how the song was put together. I thought it was excellent. link

And that’s all for today. Thank you for your time!

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Sunday Links 16-Dec-2018: Bitcoin bubble or scam or platform, Waymo cars, population mountains

Here’s what I’ve read recently that’s worth linking and commenting on. 

1. Is bitcoin a scam, a bubble, or a (nascent) platform?  I’d answer yes, partial yes, and a maybe. Let’s go one at a time.

First up: scam. Kevin Drum argues Bitcoin Is a Long Con Aimed at Those Least Able to Afford It. Quote:  “As near as I can tell, the Bitcoin market is split between cutthroat Chinese miners running huge racks of servers, and hopeful but clueless marks who would be better off putting their money into lottery tickets. So this is the test: Are you a cutthroat Chinese miner running huge racks of servers? No? Then you’re one of the clueless marks. Sorry.”  The data here is clear enough, with a study finding 80% of ICO offerings in 2017 were scams. One of the most famous being Centra, where music producer DJ Khaled and boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr had to pay fines to the SEC. I disagree with Kevin Drum that bitcoin is only a scams. But the answer is yes, there are plenty of bitcoin/ICO scams.

Second up: bubble. Below are two charts which I created using The first gives bitcoin value with a linear scale. The second uses log scale, which makes it easier to spot bubbles.

1. Bitcoin market price in USD, linear scale

2. Bitcoin market price in USD, log scale

Looking at the data, Noah Smith argues Yep, Bitcoin Was a Bubble:

Formally, an asset bubble is just a rapid rise and abrupt crash in prices. Defenders of the efficient-market theory argue that these price movements are based on changes in investor’s beliefs about an asset’s true value. But it’s hard to identify a reason why any rational investor would have so abruptly revised her assessment of the long-term earnings power of companies in 1929, or the long-term viability of dot-com startups in 2000, or the long-term value of housing in 2007.

Scott Sumner disagrees with Smith, arguing Bitcoin is not a bubble:

His [Smith’s] main piece of evidence is that the price rose sharply and then fell sharply.  But that sort of price pattern also occurs in 100% efficient markets that are highly volatile because the fundamental value of the asset is hard to ascertain.  And if there ever was an asset with a value that is difficult to ascertain, it’s Bitcoin.  I have no clue as to what Bitcoin should be worth, and I doubt anyone else does either. 
Bubble theories are only true if they are useful, and they are not useful.  The people who said it was a bubble at $30 were implicitly giving you advice not to buy.  Ditto for those who said it was a bubble at $300.  This advice was exceedingly non-useful; in fact if you followed the advice of bubble proponents you missed out on the opportunity to earn a massive profit investing in Bitcoin.  That’s why I don’t follow the advice of bubble theorists; it’s not useful.  BTW, I don’t own Bitcoin for unrelated reason; I prefer index stock (or bond) funds.

I happen to believe Smith and Sumner are both correct, with their disagreement being (mostly) semantic. Let me explain. Sumner argues declaring bubble offers no predictive value. You can’t make money from it. Bitcoin bubble has been declared again and again. Are the bubble declarer’s now rich? Nope. He hates the term bubble. Price volatility by itself doesn’t prove bubble. Some assets are just hard to price. I believe Smith would concede the point about predictive value. 

Smith’s additional point is bitcoin prices were driven by irrational emotion and momentum. And here I think Sumner would concede (though he’d argue all prices work more or less that way). 

So in the end whether to declare bubble is semantic. It’s a no from a “true value” point of view, since true value pricing of bitcoin is impossible for the present. But a yes from what’s driving the emotion and volatility (and yes scams). I’d lean toward a yes.

Third: bitcoin as nascent platform. Chris Dixon has been one the most articulate advocates of blockchain as platform. I’d paraphrase him as saying early in a platform lifecycle, things decentralize. Think early PC era against IBM. But later things get recentralized, for example the late Microsoft PC era. Then came the early internet decentralization. Followed by the Google/Amazon/Facebook/Apple recentralization. So what’s next for decentralizing? Dixon believes it’s blockchain. See his post here, or this recent interview.

Unfortunately a historical analogy isn’t proof. In particular one problem jumps out. Is this new platform ready to go right now? Or is it too early (the bane of all tech investors)? To see what I mean, compare this list of too early versus timed correctly: Apple newton v iPhone, Segway v electric scooters, Webvan v FreshDirect, Flooz v well…bitcoin, google glass v whenever AR glasses finally take off. You get the idea. Crypto currencies may become the next decentralizing platform, but it’s far less clear that’s happening now. For example: Out of 43 Blockchain Startups, Zero Have Delivered Products. It’s possible we’ll need another tech generation before things are ready.

To sum up. There are plenty of bitcoin scams, but don’t go overboard and say it’s a scam for VCs to make crypto investments. Bitcoin is bubbly, but be careful how you argue. As for blockchain as a decentralizing platform, timing is everything. Which means….maybe.

2. Waymo’s driverless cars not so ready to go. Announced as ready to roll out in December, the roll out happened, and….pretty quiet. From Timothy B. Lee: “It now looks to me like Waymo is nowhere close to ready for fully driverless operation in its initial <100 square mile service area, to say nothing of the rest of the Phoenix metro or other cities.” Also: “This means I have no idea how long it will take for Waymo (or anyone else) to reach full autonomy. It could take six months or it could take six years. Maybe Waymo will be forced to throw out big chunks of what they’ve built so far and start over.” Waymo (sister company to Google) is perceived as farther ahead than anyone else. So if they’re not ready, unlikely anyone else is either.

3. Ben Thompson on the state of tech at end of 2018. It’s a good post. Here’s the key paragraph:

This, then, is the state of technology in 2018: the enterprise market is thriving, and the consumer market is stagnant, dominated by the “innovations” that a few large behemoths deign to develop for consumers (probably by ripping off a smaller company). Meanwhile a backlash is brewing on both sides of the political spectrum, but with no immediately viable outlet through competition or antitrust action, the politics surrounding technology simply becomes ever more rancid.

4. Lyft continues gaining on Uber. Uber had 92% US market share in Feb 2015, 75% in Oct 2017, 69% in Oct 2018. Lyft went from 7% Feb 2015, to 25% in Oct 2017, to 28% in Oct 2018. Nice chart in the article. Both companies are going public in first quarter of 2019. More here.

5. Visualizing population density as 3D. An excellent data visualization. Population density as elevation, making big cities very spikey. If you click through, don’t miss zooming out from cities (starting with Paris) by scrolling right. Enjoyed this quite a bit. Recommended.

Source: Population Mountains

And that’s all for today. Thank you for reading. 

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Monday Links 26-Nov-2018: embryo selection is a bigger deal than CRISPR, China panopticon, Saudi relations, software eats photography

Here’s links and commentary on what I read this week. Chinese CRISPR babies tops the list. So let’s get started.

1. Embryo selection is a bigger deal than CRISPR. In a surprise announcement yesterday (Nov 25), Chinese researcher He Jiankui claimed to have created the first gene edited babies. He used CRISPR-Cas9 to disable a single gene CCR5 in IVF embryos, which when disabled makes someone less susceptible to HIV. Then he implanted the modified embryos, and the mother gave birth to twins. People were skeptical, but Harvard biologist George Church said the claims were “probably accurate. I’ve been in contact with the Shenzhen team and have seen the data”.

So will gene editing lead to super babies soon? No. CRISPR is an amazing tool to edit genes, but it’s reliability is moderate. This means it should be useful for parents who carry diseases caused by very few genes, such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s, BRCA1, sickle cell disease. Editing a single gene or two is feasible. But traits that people might panic about, such as height, athleticism or IQ, are driven by thousands and thousands of genes, each of tiny affect. And nobody can reliably edit thousands of genes. That’s at least a decade out. Perhaps longer.

Hence this was to some extent a proof of concept publicity and technology stunt. If the point was healthy babies, the gene selected for therapy should have been one causing something like cystic fibrosis. And not disabling a correctly functioning gene, even if that gene might potentially be used by HIV as a vector. Ed Yong has a good piece up quoting ethicists and geneticists who are outraged. And it appears He Jiankui’s university in Shenzhen was unaware of his research and is conducting an investigation. With that said, it’s obvious to everyone who follows this research that China is far more open to it than the US and Europe. So in that sense it’s unsurprising China is where this is happening, and where it will continue to happen in the future.

But if CRISPR is not (yet) a big deal for super babies, what’s feasible today? Answer: Embryo selection. Which was also in the news this week. Recall that thousands of genes impact things like health, disease risk, etc. You can’t edit all those genes, but you can roll them up into a single polygenic risk score. PGS scores can assess risk of diabetes, heart disease, and yes, IQ. PGS scores are not perfect predictors, since the randomness of development still drives much of the variance. But they can give an edge. There’s nothing really new to invent. Genetic testing of IVF embryos for disease is already a thing. And if you’re choosing embryos already, why not get PGS score info to help make your choice? Your intuition here should be if a parent could magically see probabilities of say, 25 potential children, and dimly forsee their height, IQ, disease risk, and then could pick the one whose odds are best. They’d still be your kids. But their chances in life would be better than random genetics. Thus the Guardian article this week: Super-smart designer babies could be on offer soon. But is that ethical? Note this article is not about CRISPR. But about PGS scoring against a set of IVF embryos, and selecting as per the parent’s preferences. To be clear, right now the focus is on preventing disease, so picking embryo’s which score well for not having health problems like diabetes or heart disease. But the approach is amenable to selecting any polygenic trait.

Bottom line: I think embryo selection will be the single most socially disruptive technology over the next decade. AI will have to wait its turn. And yes, CRISPR is looming in the wings, possibly useful now for mendelian diseases, or maybe even traits with simple genetics such as skin or eye color. But still not yet able to create super babies. This means using IVF to select for height, athleticism, IQ is what’s most impactful now. It pushes all the right buttons. Just imagine your reaction if the politician you hate the most (or one of their adult children) takes a genetic tourism trip to China to make sure their kids have that extra special IVF selection IQ edge. People will be incredibly angry. And this anger will slice deeper into the existing political realignment going on in the US right now. On both the left and right. The babies won’t disrupt directly, but the second order effects of elites using technology to cement their children’s position at the top will make people flip out. It’s coming. And in fact is here already.

2. China continues making progress on the panopticon. This is an incremental thing. Computers will watch us all the time. It will happen everywhere. But in authoritarian countries it will be the government who watches. In US and Europe it will be regulated tech companies, which hopefully will work out better. In any case, from this story:

China’s plan to judge each of its 1.3 billion people based on their social behavior is moving a step closer to reality, with Beijing set to adopt a lifelong points program by 2021 that assigns personalized ratings for each resident.

The capital city will pool data from several departments to reward and punish some 22 million citizens based on their actions and reputations by the end of 2020, according to a plan posted on the Beijing municipal government’s website on Monday. Those with better so-called social credit will get “green channel” benefits while those who violate laws will find life more difficult.

3. Tanner Greer speaks out for ending the US-Saudi relationship. His piece is titled: The Khashoggi’s Death is the Crisis We Have Been Waiting For. Here’s one bit:

The Middle East is a distraction. America will soon be a net energy exporter. The region’s oil holds no power over us any longer.


Let us have no illusions: Riyadh has more actual American blood on their hands than any other sitting regime in the world (with the exception perhaps of the military machine run out of Rawalpindi). This was all true before the Saudis more recent and more brazen attempts to break down the rules and norms of a civilized international order—kidnapping prime ministers, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in unnecessary wars, and so forth. If the Saudis are our ‘vital’ friends, we do not need even lukewarm enemies.

Greer sees geopolitical conflict with China as where things are headed, and the sooner the US gets out of the Middle East the better. I found his piece convincing. Worth reading.

4. The future of photography is code. Excellent piece on how capturing the real time data stream coming in from the lens allows software based image creation to exceed what you can do with just better lenses. Excerpt:

Similarly the idea of combining five, 10, or 100 images into a single HDR image seems absurd, but the truth is that in photography, more information is almost always better. If the cost of these computational acrobatics is negligible and the results measurable, why shouldn’t our devices be performing these calculations? In a few years they too will seem ordinary.

If the result is a better product, the computational power and engineering ability has been deployed with success; just as Leica or Canon might spend millions to eke fractional performance improvements out of a stable optical system like a $2,000 zoom lens, Apple and others are spending money where they can create value: not in glass, but in silicon.

Also see this related piece on how Google’s Pixel 3 is able to do amazing dim light photography based on machine learning combined with software based image synthesis. If you’re interested in photography I’d recommend both links above. If you want more, I’d suggest also reading Google’s post here as well.

5. Benedict Evans – The End of the Beginning. Slide shows and video of Evans discussing what the past 20 years of internet tech has done, and what the next 20 years will likely do. I thought it was quite good.


And that’s all for this week. Thanks for reading!





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Saturday Links 17-Nov-2018: Stagnant science, Chinese fan economy, Qualtrics, best burgers no more

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.








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Saturday Links 10-Nov-2018: Amazon HQ2 as farce, American aDNA, Head Start, do not summon the doxxing demon

Here’s links and commentary on what I found most interesting to read this week.

1. Amazon HQ2 enters the realm of farce. Since September 2017, Amazon has held an ongoing contest to decide which city would get their new second headquarters. Now it turns out there won’t be a second headquarters. Instead Amazon will open two smaller office complexes, one in Queens and the other in Crystal City, just outside of Washington D.C. In January I said:

Amazon’s new HQ location debate is a brilliant marketing move, especially with rising tech reg risks. It’s American Idol for pundits, with Amazon as the idol…. In my view the Amazon HQ2 show was and has always been a long game to grow Amazon’s soft power over federal tech regulators. An investment that will pay off handsomely as tech monopoly concerns continue to grow over the next decade. I’ll claim victory for my cynicism on the HQ2 contest if any D.C. area location is chosen. And really. You have to hand it to Jeff Bezos regardless of where HQ2 is finally winds up. It’s been an absolutely brilliant and successful marketing campaign already. Genius.

Crystal City is a DC location, so I’ll claim my prediction came true. In some ways I think Amazon played people so badly there may be a backlash. New York Times: In Superstar Cities, the Rich Get Richer, and They Get Amazon. Vox: The tragedy of Amazon’s HQ2 selections, explained.  Recode: Amazon’s HQ2 was a con, not a contest. Slate’s Will Oremus: the reason Amazon’s HQ2 was a farce…. What’s a little more clear now than in January is why the media was so clueless. In January I thought the overblown amount of press was driven by it being such an easy horse race story to write. So many cities prostrating themselves with tax breaks! Who will win? But now it’s more clear why (some) journalists got it wrong. They imposed their own view on how Amazon worked, assuming it was similar to a news organization. One built around consensus based teams, who value saying you aren’t in it to win it, and aren’t in it for the money. It’s about giving back. Think the culture of academia. But Amazon is a lean, laser focused, hyper competitive tech monopoly winner. They believe they hired smarter than anyone else. They play for keeps. Every move around HQ2 was precisely calculated to maximize Amazon PR. The only surprise is how many people were surprised.

2. Ancient DNA from the Americas. Prior to this week, 6 people from the Americas had their ancient DNA sequenced. With two new papers this week (1 and 2), now there’s 64 more, for a total of 71. With dates ranging from 500 to 10,900 year ago. There’s nothing shockingly new here in the broadest strokes, but plenty of new details. In particular once people made it across into Alaska, the Americas were populated rapidly.  On the order of 100s of years for North America, and a few 1000 years for South America.

image credit: Reconstructing the Deep Population History of Central and South America

The oddest question still not resolved is why some ancient Amazonians seem to have a trace of Australasian ancestry, which is quite distinct from the Siberian source populations which peopled the Americas. This trace has been found before, and was confirmed again in one (but not both) of the new papers. It’s possible this is a signal from an earlier group of humans who migrated into the Americans but then were mostly replaced. Or it could be just a subtle model artifact. Or maybe we should  blame Doctor Who’s TARDIS.

With more aDNA coming online, this mystery will eventually get solved. Those how soon is unclear. I’d recommend Lizzie Wade’s article as the best to read if you want to learn more: Ancient DNA confirms Native Americans’ deep roots in North and South America.

3. Head Start preschool programs seem to help, but not academically. From the start of Kelsey Piper’s article:

There’s a bizarre-seeming paradox sitting at the heart of research into early childhood education. On the one hand, there’s a sizable body of research suggesting that kids who go through intensive education at the ages of 3 and 4 don’t really come out ahead in terms of academic abilities. By kindergarten much of their advantage has receded, and by second grade researchers typically can’t detect it at all.

On the other hand, there’s an equally substantive body of research suggesting that early childhood education produces a profound, lifelong advantage. Kids who enter intensive preschool programs are less likely to be arrested, more likely to graduate, and less likely to struggle with substance abuse as adults. One study with a followup when the students were in their mid-30s found that they were likelier to have eventually attended and completed college.

then later the possible explanation:

In other words, early childhood education may change children’s lives not by teaching them things they’ll retain in elementary school, but simply by being in a safe, predictable, and consistent environment for them to play in — and by providing their parents with the stability to get and keep better jobs.

Here’s Piper’s article, plus also see Scott Alexander’s post for a slightly more skeptical look. If you only follow this casually, the main take away is preschool improves your life outcome by helping you socially, not (as one might assume) academically.

4. Do not summon the doxxing demon. Every tech wave births both new opportunities and new demons. Cheaper printing launched great newspapers and gossip tabloids. Movies begat Charlie Chaplin and The Birth of a Nation. Automobiles led to middle class mobility and the chance of owning your own home, but also to air pollution and drunk driving. The internet tech wave has been especially great for infovores (yep, that’s me). But also birthed doxxing, giving out someone’s personal information to incite retaliation. Of this tech wave’s new demons, doxxing is perhaps the most seductively evil.

Why? Well we could notice how Christine Blasey Ford, since the Kavanaugh hearings, has moved four times due to harassment, and can’t return to her job. The idea that Ford testified for personal gain is ridiculous.

But what I think exemplifies the seductive evil of doxxing best is what happened with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and then in turn to Matt Yglesias. Protesters targeted Carlson’s home, demonstrating and knocking on his door, chanting “Tucker Carlson, we will fight. We know where you sleep at night”, and spray painting his driveway. Then on twitter Matt Yglesias said “I honestly cannot empathize with Tucker Carlson’s wife at all – I agree that protesting at her house was tactically unwise and shouldn’t be done – but I am utterly unable to identify with her plight on any level.” I’ve read Yglesias for years. So at one level, I get it. As a progressive, Yglesias believes Trump is destroying the institutions of our country. So by supporting him, Carlson is hurting millions. I can feel the temptation of bringing home to the evildoer a taste of the pain they’ve wrought. And as a side bonus, yes, pleasing my ingroup followers on twitter.

Here’s a ThinkPogress story (former employer of Yglesias) arguing the protest was no big deal. But that is wrong wrong wrong! Banging on the door of your political opponent’s home is playing with fire. It should be declared completely off limits by all sides. Only a fool believes this tactic, once unleashed, won’t be used and abused by enemies. And so Yglesias became a target. His home address was doxxed on twitter, along with threats of violence. Yglesias deleted all his tweets. Unsurprisingly, twitter was slow in taking down the doxxing tweet. Read Will Oremus for details.

What’s even more terrible is I don’t think we’ve bottomed out. The more the doxxing demon is summoned, the more your own side feels tempted by its power.

5. Jurassic Art. I listened to this 99% Invisible podcast a while ago, but it stuck in my mind. It’s about how dinosaurs were originally thought to be sluggish, primitive beasts. So were drawn that way. I remember having an old T-Rex plastic toy when I was a kid. The T-Rex stood nearly straight up. So it could plod along.

But Bob Bakker and a few others came to believe dinosaurs were far more active and birdlike. Running positioned more like a road runner. The watershed change in view happened when Jon Ostrom used an illustration from Bakker in his 1969 paper defining the new species Deinonychus. That illustration became iconic, and was instrumental in changing our views of what dinosaurs were.

image credit: Ostrum’s 1969 Deinonychus paper

It’s a fun an interesting story. All about the power of an image to persuade. Recommended.

And that’s all for this week! Thank you for reading.

Link post

Monday Links 5-Nov-2018: Printing and Populism, Psychologists and free speech, new Apple maps

Here’s my weekly list of links and commentary.

1. Printing, Populism and Social Media. Razib Khan has a scathing take down on the ahistorical belief that the populism unleashed by social media is sui generis. I often think of what’s happening now with US politics as a return to normalcy. The post World War 2 era, with mass media gatekeepers and an agreed cold war enemy, was odd. Populism and tribalism were kept under check. Now the internet has once again pushed on the margin, continuing a 500 year historical trend, of making it easier to bypass gatekeepers. And with no currently agreed outside enemy, we’re back to normal. Fractious and tribal.

Khan writes with a rather dense prose style, but I greatly enjoyed this particular rant. Here’s the first two paragraphs:

The media needs clicks and people are rather myopic. This explains patently false pieces such as this in Buzzfeed, This Is How We Radicalized The World. It is a rather unorganized list of facts, but they are assembled in a way to convince and persuade the reading audience that modern information technology has facilitated the rise of political radicalism, as if it is something new and notable. So wrong it hurts.

Anyone who knows history will realize this is patently false. Anyone who is aware of the Taiping Rebellion, the October Revolution, or the unrest of 1848. Of course, that “anyone” is a small set of individuals because most people don’t know history. Their minds are devoid of most facts not having to do with the Khardashians. And journalists are not much better. Many of them are in the game of creating stories rather than interpreting the world. If public relations operatives are well paid propagandists on a short leash, many journalists are poorly paid propagandists compensated with the freedom to be fabulists.

You get the idea. Read the whole thing here.

2. Psychologists and free speech. Tanner Greer argues Psychologists fight for free speech because they are under threat in academia by proponents of critical theory (power makes truth), but not yet influenced by it so heavily they can’t fight back. Greer’s piece is Why Is the Fight for Free Speech Led by the Psychologists? Here’s one bit:

Haidt et. al. are confident they can win the debate if they are allowed to debate. For the heterodox anthropologist or sociologist the game is already over: their discipline has already been conquered. For the economist, the threat is too remote to take seriously. Behavioral science exists in that rare in-between: methodologically, it has the tools to fight back against the excesses of the activist. Socially, it provides a compelling reason for its practitioners to use them.

If you missed it, this week I wrote a related post, influenced by Greer, Why the new hoax papers on cultural studies merely confirmed everyone’s priors.

3. Shopping While Black: Past, Present and Future? Alex Tabarrok looks at how discrimination has sometimes been mitigated by new technology. Sears catalog, Uber, Amazon Go. It’s an economist’s take, so uses econ jargon. Read it here. The message is positive and I quite liked it. Especially the last sentence of this bit:

The moment a shopper enters the Amazon Go store, Amazon knows their name, address, entire shopping history, credit history and potentially much more. Moreover, a shopper’s every movement within the store is tracked to a level of detail that no store detective could ever hope to match. To the customer, especially the black customer, it may feel like they are no longer being watched but in fact they are watched more than ever before–the costs of technological monitoring, however, are mostly fixed which means that everyone is monitored equally. No need for statistical discrimination in the panopticon.


4. Life expectancy gains are mostly driven by end of child mortality. Max Roser’s charts are excellent. This is a good visualization of how most of the gains in life expectancy come from ending child mortality. Note how in 1851, >20% of children didn’t make it past 2 years of age. But that part of the curve is nearly horizontal in more recent years.

image credit: Our World in Data


5. Review of new Apple Maps. A deep dive by Justin O’Beirne into a recent upgrade to Apple Maps. O’Beirne does an outstanding job. If you are curious about what goes into the maps used on your phone, this is the post to read. It’s filled with side by side compares of old versus new Apple maps, plus compares Apple to Google. Especially interesting is O’Beirne argues Apple is using a very human intensive method of creating maps compared to Google. Which means Apple’s results are sometimes better, but far less consistent. link

And that’s all for this week!


Why the new hoax papers on cultural studies merely confirmed everyone’s priors

image credit: the most excellent xkcd, esp Munroe’s liberal repost policy

In 1996 Alan Sokal published a hoax paper in the cultural studies journal Social Text which was nonsense, asserting among other things gravity was a social construct. Sokal claimed: “The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ‘the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project’. They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.”

It’s now been almost a month since the disclosure of a new hoax sometimes called Sokal 2. Three academics James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian published hoax papers in cultural studies journals, with an intent to discredit them. The authors spent 10 months writing the papers, averaging one new paper roughly every thirteen days“. Of the 20 papers they created, 7 were accepted, while 4 more given a “revise and resubmit” (R&R). It’s worth noting no sociology journal accepted a paper or gave an R&R. All the acceptances and R&Rs came from cultural studies journals, most of them gender studies. Example title: Going In Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria, and Transphobia Through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use. You get the idea.

Now that the commentary has died down, it’s worth assessing what this means. If anything. Here’s my view of the key points/comments:

  • Cultural studies is the field most influenced by critical theory, which in it’s crudest form says ideological power defines social reality.
  • From Tanner Greer: “Academic critiques of the shoddiness of critical theory are inevitably interpreted as political attacks. Which makes sense, I suppose… at the end of the day critical theory is a political position, not an empirically grounded body of knowledge.” Yes, people like Foucault are more sophisticated than power=truth, and worth reading (or in my case, skimming). But if political power creates truth, critical theory by it’s own logic turns all disagreements into power relations disagreements, unbound from empirical correction. So even if all you want to do is improve cultural studies methodology, that doesn’t matter. What matters is who gains/loses power, so all attacks on cultural studies transform into attacks on the left.
  • Sokal’s original hoax showed cultural studies journals would publish nonsense. The new hoaxers were more ambitious in what they said they were doing: “Something has gone wrong in the university—especially in certain fields within the humanities. Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous. For many, this problem has been growing increasingly obvious, but strong evidence has been lacking. For this reason, the three of us just spent a year working inside the scholarship we see as an intrinsic part of this problem.” The hoaxers claim the entire University has gone wrong. That’s too much. After all, they couldn’t even get their sociology hoaxes published. And those overly wide claims backfired, hurting their ability to make more impactful, if far narrower arguments.  Cultural studies remains the field with the problem. Same as 1996.
  • Averaging a paper in two weeks indicates: 1) the hoaxers mastered the field in a few months well enough to spoof it (passing the more difficult than you’d expect ideological turing test), and 2) any field for which you can concoct a paper in a couple of weeks is not that rigorous.
  • Kevin Drum makes a similar point: “If an amateur with no background can spend three months brushing up on your field, and then immediately start cranking out papers that get accepted at serious, peer-reviewed journals, there is something badly wrong with your field. That’s it. That’s what the hoaxsters uncovered.”
  • More from Greer: “The hoaxers deliberately tried to create papers that were outlandish, bizarre, and bull-shittish as possible. What they ended up creating was creating were run-of-the-mill, slightly below average papers in critical theory.” And “It was 100% a stunt–but a stunt designed not just to attract attention to what the authors put in these journals, but to what is *normally* put in these journals.”
  • Several things are all true at once: 1) cultural studies/gender studies is a valid and important field, academics really do need to study oppression and gender/LGBT, 2) critical theory makes cultural studies not just prone to publishing nonsense, but immune from empirical self correction, 3) other fields also publish nonsense, but retain an ability to (oh so sloooooowly) empirically self correct, 4) the hoaxers would have been more successful if they had kept their rhetoric precisely and narrowly targeted at the non-empirical methodology of critical theory, rather than indicting the University and the left as a whole.

One of Marx’s most quoted lines is history repeats “first as tragedy, then as farce.”

While the original Sokal hoax was argued back and forth, in this go round no one even pretended they might change their mind. No one is shocked to discover there’s gambling going on in the casino.

Those who think critical theory in academia has taken a wrong turn (yes, that’s me), had their priors confirmed. But that’s also true for progressives. How did that play out? Let’s go to Zach Beauchamp, who has a good vox explainer on the topic. Beauchamp says “The hoaxers are right that there are problems in identity studies, and that one of those problems is political bias. But their experiment is not convincing evidence that these problems are necessarily worse or more fundamental than those that affect other fields, including ones that seem more ‘scientific’ like psychology or economics.” I disagree with the second sentence, though not the first. But Beauchamp gets to the crux of his critique by asking Lenin’s question who, whom? The authors of the hoax project self-describe as liberals. But who cares. What matters is those most pleased are people like Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who asked hoax coauthor James Lindsay to be on his show. Lindsay declined. Beauchamp concludes his piece: “the fact that this is the type of audience that’s excited about the Grievance Studies hoax says a lot about whose work the project is actually doing.” Fact check on priors confirmed: true. On all sides.

Link post

Sunday Links 28-Oct-2018: Spotify playbook, Ben Thompson on tech regulation, exponential overdoses, Hilary Greaves on consequentialism

Here’s links with commentary on what I thought interesting this week.

1. Mark Mulligan on the Spotify playbook to become its own music label. I’ve slowly come around to the idea that Spotify is on the cusp of becoming its own music label, and thus will commodtize the existing labels. Here’s Mulligan:

If Spotify is able to become more competitive (and therefore threatening) to labels and keep hold of them, it will all be down to market share. The less market share the big labels have on Spotify, the more negotiating power Spotify has. It is a classic case of divide and rule. If Spotify really wants to play the role of market disruptor (and so far we have strong hints rather than outright statements), it will need to whittle down the power of the majors before they call it and pull their content. Here’s a scenario for how Spotify could achieve that.

On the prisoners dilemma of the three major labels:

  • WMG and SME probably couldn’t afford to remove their content from Spotify but would be watching UMG, the only one that probably feel confident enough to do so
  • However, UMG would be thinking if it jumps first and removes its content, each of the other two majors would benefit from it not being there (and would probably be secretly hoping for that outcome)
  • Each other major would be thinking the same, and regulatory restrictions prevent the majors from discussing strategy to formulate a combined response

The ending

Maybe, just maybe, the labels have already missed their chance to prevent Spotify from becoming their fiercest competitor. The TV networks left it too late with Netflix…history may be about to repeat itself.

2. Ben Thompson on Platforms, Aggregation Theory and Tech Regulation. I link to Thompson often, and pay for his excellent subscription newsletter. But the video below is different in that it summarizes his thoughts on tech regulation in a single 20 minute video. It’s good!

Though not mentioned, Spotify becoming it’s own label by controlling the end user experience is right up Thompson’s alley. Thompson calls his framework Aggregation Theory.

While my blog is about tech and society, and not about topical news, there’s a tech regs angle to the recent domestic violence I want to mention. Cesar Sayoc is the suspect arrested for sending explosive devices through the mail to critics of Donald Trump. It turns out he was abusive and made death threats on twitter, but twitter ignored this. Though they later apologized. The point here is tech regs are coming for social media one way or the other. That’s why it’s important to have good frameworks for understanding why social media businesses do what they do. Otherwise we’ll wind up with regulations that backfire or misfire. It’s a hard problem, recently become far more pressing.

3. Three charts: drug overdoses, housing prices, TV audience aging.

Drug overdoses are on an exponential curve. Chart from recent paper Changing dynamics of the drug overdose epidemic in the United States from 1979 through 2016.

image credit: link to paper


Experts and economists believe the housing crisis is caused by building regulations and rent control preventing the natural increase in housing supply where people want to live. That is, build more houses to bring prices down. Not that complicated. The public believes, well, let’s just say they have it backwards. Story from the LA Times.

image credit: LA Times


Only olds are watching sports on TV. The shift is rapid.

sport age
image credit: Sports Business Journal


4. Philosopher Hilary Greaves on global priorities, consequentialism, and effective altruism. I really enjoyed this 80,000 hours podcast with Hilary Greaves. But you have to be interested in philosophy, consequentialism, and wonder what’s the most effective way to optimize for happiness in long term future. So it’s quite nerdy. But for what it is, it’s excellent throughout. Host Robert Wiblin does a good job keeping the interview on track, and Greaves is clear and articulate. So not for everyone. But if that subject piques your interest, click to look at the transcript or listen to the podcast.

That’s all for this week. Thank you for reading.

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Monday Links 22-Oct-2018: Warren and genetic testing, Polygenic scores and racism, Wealth increases gender differences

The over arching theme of my blog is how technology trends drive social change. And since genomics is on a Moore’s law price curve, no surprise it’s mentioned several times below. Genomics is a technology lurking in the background, growing exponentially more powerful, which will leap into prominence. First slowly, then all at once. And with that intro, here’s what I found interesting this week, and why.

1. Elizabeth Warren gets a DNA ancestry test. Elizabeth Warren is the front runner to capture the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. She has claimed Native American ancestry, which some disputed, so got DNA tested. Despite news to the contrary, the test showed she does indeed have such ancestry 6 to 10 generations back. Here’s Ross Douthat, who thinks the DNA test was a political mistake:

The DNA test thus simultaneously gives Trump an obvious way to keep the story going on his terms — just pick the lowest end of the genetic estimate and make sport of a “Pocahontas” who’s only one-1,000th Indian — while also annoying Indian groups and anyone on the left (including the actual minority candidates against whom Warren may run) invested in a vision of affirmative action as a righter of historic wrongs rather than just a means to elite self-congratulation.

My take is different. With DNA ancestry testing becoming commonplace, any random angry 2nd or 3rd cousin of Warren’s could take such a test, and out Warren in the process. So better to do it her way.

Furthermore, there’s a rather disturbing metalesson here. No matter what anyone says or does, people gravitate towards believing DNA is more real than cultural identity. It has an air of inevitability. Both those opposed to DNA identity, and those who lust after it, hasten the process. From a 2007 New York Times article by Amy Harmon:

Race, many sociologists and anthropologists have argued for decades, is a social invention historically used to justify prejudice and persecution. But when Samuel M. Richards gave his students at Pennsylvania State University genetic ancestry tests to establish the imprecision of socially constructed racial categories, he found the exercise reinforced them instead.

One white-skinned student, told she was 9 percent West African, went to a Kwanzaa celebration, for instance, but would not dream of going to an Asian cultural event because her DNA did not match, Dr. Richards said. Preconceived notions of race seemed all the more authentic when quantified by DNA.

“Before, it was, ‘I’m white because I have white skin and grew up in white culture,’ ” Dr. Richards said. “Now it’s, ‘I really know I’m white, so white is this big neon sign hanging over my head.’ It’s like, oh, no, come on. That wasn’t the point.”

The future is coming.

2. Amy Harmon on the racist use of polygenic scores. The same Amy Harmon quoted above from 2007 has a new piece this week Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed). The lactose tolerance angle is a good hook. Harmon’s thesis is DNA polygenic scores, which can now predict the probability of complex traits like educational attainment and IQ, are being used, or rather misused, by racists. Which is true of course. Racists use any tool at hand. So this is happening. Harmon’s piece got enough traction she had two follow ups here and here.

That said, if it were 1994, Harmon could simply quote Stephen J Gould to assert the “claim that racial differences in IQ are mostly determined by genetic causes….is as old as the study of race, and is most surely fallacious.” And be done with it. But instead she quotes Harvard geneticist David Reich’s 2018 op-ed, where he says “arguing that no substantial differences among human populations are possible will only invite the racist misuse of genetics that we wish to avoid.” It’s clear Harmon did a lot of background work before writing. But I suspect she found the quotes she got from today’s experts weak tea.

Let’s finish with this bit from Harmon, which captures our moment:

But another reason some scientists avoid engaging on this topic, I came to understand, was that they do not have definitive answers about whether there are average differences in biological traits across populations. And they have increasingly powerful tools to try to detect how natural selection may have acted differently on the genes that contribute to assorted traits in various populations.

What’s more, some believe substantial differences will be found. Others think it may not be feasible to ever entirely disentangle an immutable genetic contribution to a behavior from its specific cultural and environmental influences. Yet all of them agree that there is no evidence that any differences which may be found will line up with the prejudices of white supremacists.

3. More wealth means greater gender differences. New paper. Here’s the abstract:

What contributes to gender-associated differences in preferences such as the willingness to take risks, patience, altruism, positive and negative reciprocity, and trust? Falk and Hermle studied 80,000 individuals in 76 countries who participated in a Global Preference Survey and compared the data with country-level variables such as gross domestic product and indices of gender inequality. They observed that the more that women have equal opportunities, the more they differ from men in their preferences.

For example if everyone is very poor, everyone is a subsistence farmer. Few gender differences. But as society gets richer, people have more options, so do what they prefer. This means even slight differences in gender preference are amplified in wealthy societies. Wealth drives gender gaps. This idea has been around for a while. But it’s becoming more mainstream. Here’s a figure from the paper:


4. Sub-Saharan African population. French President Emmanuel Macron has been talking about African fertility and population. He’s concerned it will create a long term immigration problems for Europe. So now everyone else has chimed in. Here’s Bill Gates talking to Ezra Klein, The Economist, and Ross Douthat, to name a few.

But the essence can be gleaned from just two charts. First, the UN population forecast by continent:

pop forecast
image source: UN population forecast from world bank

The second is women’s educational attainment versus fertility. Most people are aware increased wealth per capita means lower fertility, but fewer are aware social scientists consider woman’s education to be the primary driver of this effect.

our world
image source: our world in data

So the question is whether Africa can get rich fast enough, with the increase in woman’s education attainment that implies, for fertility to decline gracefully.

5. Saved you a click. This is where I summarize a post in a sentence or two, so you don’t need to click through to read the whole thing. Unless you want to.

Let me finish with two last links. The first is an excellent podcast of Ezra Klein interviewing Jay Rosen on where media is headed. Recommended. The second is a powerful essay by Tom Scocca, on having children and time passing, Your Real Biological Clock Is You’re Going to Die. I thought it was wonderful.

That’s all for this week.