Less Lightning Links at Length #1

These are the things that I couldn’t fit into a Covid post even in the Not Covid section, but which aren’t big enough to deserve their own spin-off posts, and which are not time-sensitive.

With Covid winding down, I had the opportunity to work though some of that backlog this week. Rather than have a huge Not Covid section I’ve moved those here to their own post.

This post was written before Russia invaded Ukraine. I was going to keep adding to it, but at this point I am unlikely to be in a place to do that soon, so instead I’m posting what I have.

This also gives me a chance to see which ones do deserve their own posts, and spin those off. An experiment.

#1: Downtown In Trouble (WaPo)

Megan McArdle argues that downtowns are in deep trouble. Thanks to remote work, the argument goes, they may be missing a quarter of their people, and no one is facing up to this. What about the resulting lower rents?

Lower rents can ease the pinch, and in many areas they’ve already become more flexible. But Joseph Gyourko, a real estate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, notes that only helps so much. If a significant number of the workers are gone on any given day, “You just don’t need as many Starbucks, or haircut places,” he told me, and “those folks are going to disappear. Some of these buildings, non-office buildings, will become empty. We won’t need as many.”

Converting offices to housing? In San Francisco or New York sure if there is no better option, but in general not economical.

Places like SF and NYC are not the problem here. There was a lot more demand for those downtowns than there was supply. If a quarter of current workers drop out to do remote work, there are plenty of others willing to take their place. For now there are empty offices because people are waiting for conditions to change, both companies unwilling to give up or shrink office space and landlords who do not want to lock in lower rents. At equilibrium, the markets will clear, the offices will be almost as packed as ever, so the number of visitors will stay almost the same, although some companies will buy more office space per person at lower prices so there will be slightly fewer people. But rents should adjust to make that small decline not a major issue for retail or restaurants.

Even if total needs do decline, there’s no reason not to fill all the space with useful things. If utilization goes down a bit and rents adjust for that, that seems fine. There should also be more things willing to go to downtown that rely on people coming in (including from outside the city) in order to use them. For example in NYC, the old gaming store Neutral Ground was downtown and quite large, but went broke when it tried to rent in too expensive an area. It could make a comeback.

Thus, in places in plenty of demand the limiting factor is lack of construction and space, so if there was previously nothing to worry about there mostly still isn’t that much to worry about.

But where there was already worry, worry more.

“I worry about Upstate New York, the Midwest,” says Gyourko. Rents there are too low to justify residential conversions — so low that there’s also little room to cut them in hopes of luring new tenants.

Exactly. There is a limit how far commercial rent can fall, and those are places where residential conversions also aren’t good choices. A huge problem then potentially results when the market does not clear and buildings sit empty. These are largely places surviving by inertia. People already live there and are anchored there, but long term few move there, many of the most ambitious move away and the economics keep getting worse even with cheap rents.

There are three potential solutions I could think of.

The first solution is that if you have a bunch of cheap housing and cheap business rents, and a lot of work is remote, shouldn’t that allow one to make something happen? I find it super valuable to live here in New York City, but others do not need that and have less ability to pay the housing costs. I ran the experiment living in Warwick, New York, and while I had less fun the economics were quite great and mostly everything was fine except for not knowing anyone and not meeting people because of the pandemic. It makes sense to consider relocating to such places if they get super cheap, either as a business (where the cool kids can choose to do remote work and the not-cool kids can have an office and very low rent) or as an individual that remotes in. It definitely feels like there’s something to be done here.

The second solution is to admit defeat, and build more housing in the places people want to live instead of trying to prop up places that no longer make economic sense.

The third solution is immigration. There are tons of high-skill people who would happily live in such places and cause the relevant markets to clear, while making everyone involved better off, and we don’t allow them to do this. Perhaps we should reconsider this policy.

#2: Noah Smith Interview with Ryan Peterson

Previously: An Unexpected Victory: Container Stacking at the Port of Long Beach

Ryan offers additional color on what happened with the tweetstorm and the port specifically and the problems with the supply chain in general. He talks physical specifics, which is great.

On the tweetstorm in particular, he does not talk about how he amplified the message, but he does confirm it was not his first boat ride and he already knew what he was going to find, although the trip doubled as a chance to pick another passenger’s brain. And also that boat rides are cool, so why not take one? Smart thinking if you like boat rides, as many do.

The basic problems in Ryan’s mind are:

  1. Americans have more money.
  2. Americans can buy less useful services.
  3. Therefore, Americans want a lot more goods.
  4. The supply chain is not set up to scale rapidly enough, insufficient slack.
  5. This is partly just-in-time logistics, due to demand for Return on Equity (ROE).
  6. With high ROE demand we removed all our ‘shock absorbers’ from the system.
  7. Part of this is a huge systematic underinvestment in the ports over 20+ years.
  8. We can’t even physically dock the largest ships even at our biggest ports.
  9. We underinvest in the ports in part because they are owned by cities.
  10. A city with a port realizes only a small portion of the gains from a well-run port.
  11. There are lots of hard coordination problems and sub-optimal systems.
  12. Federal government has a role to play to help and isn’t doing it.
  13. We need better tracking and information flow. Current info systems suck.
  14. Self-driving trucks, tunnels and hyperloops would be highly useful.
  15. He says his company, Flexport, solves (some of) this.

He downplays the extent to which this is civilizational inadequacy at work and we are no longer capable of taking bold action to solve physical problems like inefficient, insufficient and obsolete ports, or even replacing terrible information tracking systems. It’s definitely there though, if you’re listening.

The basic story is that:

  1. We’ve been muddling through with a barely adequate system for a long time.
  2. No one cares enough to get the ports or other systems upgraded.
  3. Everyone was forced to maximize share prices so no one built in any slack.
  4. When Covid hit, supply went down but mostly demand went up a lot.
  5. Our systems could not handle the demand.
  6. We didn’t do much to fix this and since it’s all temporary, we mostly can’t.

I’m slipping in that last part, because Ryan does not discuss the question of whether or not there should have been disruptions, or how many and how big.

Our ports should be in better condition, or systems should work better in many ways, and we should have taken various logistical steps to mitigate the issues we saw. That much seems obvious.

Yet there’s also a strange sense of entitlement that seems implied in these situations and discussions, as well as those about inflation. There is this idea that we should be able to handle large unexpected surges in demand, that prices should not adjust too much, delays shouldn’t be too bad and everyone should still be able to get the new basket of goods they want at the old prices, then in 2023 go back to the old baskets. And that our failure to provide this shows something terribly wrong. We didn’t collectively invest enough in the necessary slack and flexibility.

Ryan calls what happened a ‘hundred-year storm.’ I notice that hundred-year storms seem to happen quite a lot more than every hundred-years. There have also been a lot of ‘perfect storms’ as when an Odd Lots show referenced a ‘perfect storm’ impacting the price of nails and Joe Wiesenthal noted how many other such storms seemed to be out there. Maybe our standards are off a bit.

Let us take the claim at roughly face value, and presume that the Covid-19 pandemic was a level of supply chain disruption one expects once a century. How much should one prepare for such a contingency? How much should that change one’s thinking?

As a private corporation, rather than slam the focus on “return on equity” I would argue that the levels of disruption we have seen seem entirely appropriate given a situation where:

  1. Surge in demand is likely temporary.
  2. Logistical problems are likely temporary.
  3. People hate when you raise prices and will hate you for it forever.

What are you supposed to do? How much extra money could they have made by making themselves more robust to the situation?

We might be sad that we are seeing large surges in prices, but that is how one allocates scarce resources, especially with all the extra money that got printed. If anything the prices have adjusted too little, as people are not making enough hard choices to postpone consumption and engage in intertemporal substitution, and we know this because prices are being held back due to fear of pissing off customers.

We might be sad we see seeing large delays, but that is what happens when you can’t raise prices enough.

There would, in a world in which prices were adjusting correctly, not only be a team transitory that thinks inflation won’t permanently be high, but a ‘team temporary’ that thinks the inflation we did see will partly reverse itself because it is measuring high prices that are being used to allocate goods for which we have a temporary shortage such as cars. Some effect would remain from the extra money printed, but only some.

Anyway, the practical question is if this is the state of our supply chain, what are the levers we might usefully pull?

  1. There are places where one could profit by providing better coordination or information flow, because current offerings are rather pitiful. That seems like something one could do in private business, and this seems like a lot of what Ryan and Flexport are centrally trying to do. It could be combined with doing actual shipping, or not combined.
  2. There are some low-hanging-fruit marginal changes that make things flow better. Since everything depends on everything else and there are bottlenecks in a lot of places, and problems can compound, improving the right bottleneck (like empty container storage, if that happens to be the important one at a given time) can be big. This is what the Tweetstorm was about.
  3. One could attempt bigger changes to upgrade our infrastructure at our ports, with our land transport or otherwise. This is tougher. Ryan seems right that the first step is making sure someone has the authority and responsibility to look into such things (which also helps with #2). Mostly this seems like it involves a general pivot into the Doing of Things in general.
  4. If one thinks that slack is being undersupplied going forward one could attempt to use that as a competitive advantage, but maze levels (note to self: need an explainer link for the future) are likely too high for this as no one will appreciate what you are offering, neither customers nor investors. So you’d need to be able to sustain this for a very long time despite being actively punished for it, which means a full alternative stack.
  5. Other cultural shifts that could help would include raising the status (or even better the actual conditions in ways they care about rather than ways you think they should care) of those who do the jobs that reinforce the supply chain including truckers, and of gaining more acceptance for using temporary higher prices to clear markets rather than delays or reduced quality. The big one, again, would be to value Doing Things more than stopping people from doing things, in various ways.

#3: Thread on Thefts Off Trains Leaving Los Angeles

When I first saw the photos of the train tracks surrounded by stolen packages, it definitely did not look great but did not give an idea of the scale of the problem.

Yes, obviously there was at minimum a huge litter cleanup problem. The boxes and junk are not being removed from the tracks. If these were the same packages sitting there for weeks or months on end, that is an eyesore and should be dealt with, but is not a ‘threat to national supply chain’ or ‘end of the rule of law’ sized problem.

This thread offered important context.

Union Pacific hires its own officers who are authorized to patrol, protect and arrest along the train line. This does not seem like it should be necessary but seems fundamentally fine. The train line introduces risk of theft, how it operates changes that risk, and the costs involved in that are being internalized. They claim they are making a bunch of arrests and deterring a bunch of theft.

The numbers indicate it is not working. Thefts are way up, 350%+ in October 2021 versus October 2020, with 90 containers compromised per day.

What’s wrong? According to the letter Union Pacific sent, they have yet to be contacted for a single court proceeding after over 100 arrests.

It has gotten so bad that UPS and FedEx are looking to route their packages around Los Angeles, and UP itself is seriously considering changing its operations to avoid Los Angeles County.

The LA County DA responds that UP is not sufficiently securing its trains and cut back on its staffing, less cases are being brought to the DA than in the past, and that other train lines are not experiencing similar problems.

A large portion of the comments responding to the thread were some version of ‘blame capitalism’ or ‘blame poverty’ or ‘oh poor Amazon’ for literal robbing of trains shipping stuff to regular people. This is indicative of why we have this problem.

That is what happens when the basic law of ‘don’t take other people’s stuff,’ second only to ‘no spill blood,’ is not enforced.

To what extent is this Union Pacific failing to do the legwork and secure its trains, versus the failure of Los Angeles to prosecute? Hard to tell. Curious if we can figure out the mix at work here.

#4: Tyler Cowen Claims Wokeness Has Peaked (Bloomberg / MR Summary)

The model Tyler is using here is confusing to me. Part of that is whether he’s actually pointing at Wokeness or if he’s pointing out some sort of generic left-wing prescriptivism since it prominently includes mask mandates. I agree there is a large correlation there, and for obvious reasons, but it still seems distinct to me.

The post also seems to confuse rates versus levels. The school board elections in San Francisco and the events in Virginia and the failure to fully cancel Joe Rogan (although he was forced to apologize and had a number of his past broadcasts censored) all point to the current level of the power of wokeness not being as high as some might have feared or hoped. That seems clear.

What it does not establish is the rate, which is what would determine whether something has or has not peaked. Are these fights that one would have expected different results from in the past in a way we could attribute to a ‘decline in wokeness’?

I think the answer is no. If there was the ability previously to cancel Rogan they would have done so earlier, as the attacks that landed were not based on new material but rather an assembly of old material. One could argue no one tried, but given Rogan’s importance that seems like an odd defense. And no one with Rogan’s importance, to my knowledge, has been successfully hit by this level of cancellation for offenses in this reference class.

Events in Virginia were a swing of a few points relative to what one would expect from partisan lean given the political leanings in general. As Tyler has noted in the past, many ideas the woke treat as the only acceptable viewpoint have always been in the minority. Sometimes they become majority views in the future, but nothing about Virginia seems like signs of an obvious decline rather than (mostly rather weak) evidence about the current levels.

Even if we did say we are seeing a short-term rise in some forms of backlash, that does not seem to impact the long-term trajectory of woke. Tyler agrees that woke will continue to gain in power in academia, will continue to dominate HR departments and so on, and that the young are more woke than the old. I notice I am confused why some amount of political pushback in response to those who take things too far or are seen as out of touch would alter the trajectories.

Perhaps the implicit model is that wokeness is a bandwagon. People join the woke team in large part because they think wokeness is gaining in status and power, and because they fear the power of the woke. Fear of being ‘on the wrong side of history’ and being retroactively attacked for even at-the-time acceptable views causes a race to get ahead of the curve, both within and outside the movement. No one knows what might set such folks off, so preemptive caution grows, and seeing that is self-reinforcing, and so on. So in this model Tyler’s post that wokeness has peaked is part of the mechanism by which it peaks – people notice it has peaked and are less afraid and less willing to go along with requests that seem crazy, and that too is self-reinforcing, especially as the woke in this story grow increasingly ‘out of touch’ and launch fights they cannot win.

The model could also be that wokeness has become self-limiting, and this is a sign that it has gone far enough that it has been the victim of evaporative self-cooling, doubling down on parts of the agenda that others are unwilling to accept, and sufficiently important to others that they are causing backlash. If the penalty for lateness is death, and increasingly more and more of the things one might do in life are defined as being late, eventually a rebellion will result. In addition, enforcement of such rules can only go after so many people at once. Being able to attack not only norm breakers but those who support, associate or even refuse to sufficiently loudly condemn norm breakers depends on norms remaining mostly enforced. So the more people defy such demands, the lower the cost to defy demands, until such demands become unenforceable and the whole thing collapses.

In this model, these failures to enforce norms will then snowball, thus the imposition of the type of norms in question likely has peaked.

I also worry that Tyler is noticing a local peak in Democratic party popularity and mistaking it for something else, when the median voter theorem and dialectic will presumably be hard at work and cause things to continue to swing back and forth.

From what I have seen, most of the anti-woke people I know do not share the view that wokeness has peaked. They expect wokeness to continue to grow in power for some time. The woke people I know are often raising alarm bells about how terrible particular things are, and how things are going backwards and everything is dystopian hell, but mostly I think they too continue to expect to make advances. The arguments for this seem strong.

Another argument is that Canada seems to be taking away freedom to transact from those who are expressing anti-Narrative viewpoints too loudly or in unapproved ways, and setting up the infrastructure to do this to people more broadly. This has many implications for how such dynamics might play out in the future and elsewhere.

Yet my personal felt and lived experience is that the presence of ‘paradox spirits’ of wokeness peaked in the summer of 2020. Before then, I felt increasing danger that I might say the wrong thing. Since then, I have felt steadily decreasing danger. Part of that is writing constantly that gives me feedback and data on where there is and is not such danger, and getting more experience and confidence, so there’s a simple alternative hypothesis to explain why things seem this way. My hunch is that a lot of this is the result of the pandemic, where ‘experts’ made far too many attempts to stifle obviously true things that had major direct physical impacts on our lives and also kept changing their stories and being rank hypocrites and talking obvious nonsense, and forced us all to re-engage much more with the physical world and have less tolerance for the theater of the absurd.

I give Tyler a better chance of being correct here than I expect most people I know to give him of being correct, but mostly not for the stated reasons. Also not sure where Ukraine fits into this.

This is more like a normal but lengthy Not Covid section.

#6: Small Notes on Ukraine

Mostly I’m not covering the Ukraine situation due to my ignorance but I will share that Putin convened a meeting of his security council to debate whether to sign documents… that he had already signed two hours ago. Quite the demonstration. My current model, although without proof and without high confidence, is that Putin is intentionally choosing non-sensical and transparently false justifications to make it clear he does not believe he needs justification to do this.

Also, if you were ever wondering what the Virtuals vs. Physicals divide looked like in its Platonic form, we have a winner.

#7: Pizza Party

As I replied on Twitter, the real test is what the student does next.

There are so many levels of profound wrongness at play here. I can certainly imagine someone not realizing that pizzas come in different sizes, but the student points this out explicitly. I can imagine, having not thought about different sized pizzas, concluding Luis must have eaten more pizza, but that would also requires directly contradicting the question.

There is no non-motivated way to make this error. Also notice that Rao’s objection leans more centrally on the second problem, that there is another authority telling you there exists a solution, rather than on the part where the kid’s answer is obviously correct.

The thread continues.

What’s funny is Rao essentially makes the exact same mistake and assumes that Luis and Marty are eating too much pizza. Whereas we know that Luis had a smaller pizza, so it is very far from clear that Luis had an unusually large amount of pizza. For all we know he ate one of those little ones you heat up in a toaster and didn’t even finish it.

I agree with Rao that teachers are unusually smart on average, simply not sufficiently unusually smart that our educational system successfully allows them to learn how to add two single-digit fractions.

#8: Shop Around

Bryan Caplan says that our failure to shop around and bargain causes us to pay full price for major purchases, and that this causes us to miss out on big savings. What’s up with that? A lot of this is people really, really, really hate mild social awkwardness, and the potential to save a bunch of money often is not enough to compensate for that, slash they are adaptation executors and not fitness or profit maximizing. Yes, ‘ask for a discount’ works great, but people by default still mostly won’t do it. I do encourage you to do it more. Shopping around is also often valuable and can be less awkward, but requires a bunch of annoying work. There are others where ‘do a bunch of filling out of paperwork and demonstrating you are willing to do that’ gets you paid, because it shows you are a customer who cares about savings and also are worth pursuing because this makes you unlikely to default.

Where I would challenge Bryan is on the idea that credit cards don’t need to charge 18% interest in general, or that real estate agents aren’t often worth 6%. For the credit cards, a lot of people do default and there are various costs to absorb. I don’t think the credit card market is highly uncompetitive. Quite the opposite. I think that a low interest rate is a perk that is desired mainly by two groups. One is at high risk of default, and they want to do this to string balances along, and they’re bad customers. The other are the people gaming the system for perks, and mostly you don’t want them either. What you want are the customers who want to use your cards to earn ‘reward points’ and cash back, they pay their bills and you make your money on the fees and occasional chance to charge them a big interest rate when they mess up.

For real estate agents, I think Bryan is not understanding the marginal value provided here. Real estate markets are not efficient. It is not that it costs $60k to sell a million dollar home, it is that the difference in chance of selling and expected price between an expert and not an expert is quite large, and the $60k is typically split between the two agents. To the extent that these markets are efficient, it is because they are pricing in a ton of non-obvious stuff.

As a buyer, our real estate agent stopped us from bidding on multiple places that would have been major life mistakes to buy, found us a large number of candidate places and dismissed many others without our having to see them, explained why and how she was doing all this and why we should consider valuing various things, and finally helped us figure out what the right place was when we saw it and then move quickly enough to put in the right bid and get it. Then she walked us through various other stuff we needed to do to finish the deal, and how to guard against various forms of fraud and a bunch of other stuff I’m sure I am forgetting. It was a ton of high-skilled work and required a lot of hard-won experience. Yes, it was a big commission, but a lot of that stuff is super valuable.

Certainly in a situation like the one that now exists in many places, where houses will get dozens of bids within a day or two and go well over asking price, the difference between taking profit maximizing actions and not doing so could easily well exceed 6%.

The question to me is not why the price and overall transaction costs are on average this high. The question is why the price is standardized. Quality, including being aligned with you rather than trying to maximize commissions per hour, matters a ton here and is well worth even more, whereas a shoddy agent is worth a lot less. Yet as I understand it prices are mostly standard, except for a few discount agents who do very little.

#9: Miscellaneous

I wonder if anything will come of Paul Graham finally realizing this consciously.

Older but good thread from 25 January summarizing the pre-K findings that have come out recently, drawing the obvious conclusion that it is bad to let subsidized pre-K crowd out other child care and so we should help parents by giving them money.

MIT completely dominated the Putnam competition. My experience with the Putnam was that the one year I took it, the prep sessions started out with about ten students and by the end I was the only one attending. Then I didn’t get my test back, same as I didn’t get the USAMO back, and I lost interest. The skill and dedication payoff curves in such things are enormous, and they almost seem designed to drive all but the most determined away to save on having to grade answers. But man, this is ludicrous. If you’re reading this and have the opportunity to go to MIT, maybe found a business instead but if you’re going at all it seems crazy to go to any other college. Makes me sad I didn’t spend one of my seven allowed applications trying even though statistically speaking I was about (checks notes) 0.00% to get in.

Beware trivial inconveniences, moving and architecture editions. Making these things easier would be quite the big game.

Especially given that this is causing labor markets to not clear or, in a much more troubling frame, not even fully exist.

Andrew Yang points out that only 40.5% of collage students are men and young men have a bunch of other problems as well that essentially no one is talking about. There’s a bunch of stuff going on with young people that seems deeply out of balance and screwed up, of which I have little understanding.

Was a few weeks ago but remember that time The White House put this out?

Where they added 5.5 to the Y-axis which made the bar on the right look bigger?

The part I just realized was the response they put out.

Proofread. Yeah. So we’re going with mistake. I’m very curious how that happened.

Guess who also totally killed himself while not on suicide watch.

Jean-Luc Brunel: Jeffrey Epstein-linked fashion agent found dead in cell

Detained associate of late billionaire faced charge of underage rape

On top of doxing those who donated money to support what they at least thought was a protest, there’s also been media efforts to dox the founders of the bored ape yacht club. I do understand they are wanted in several jurisdictions for poor taste, but maybe their desire for anonymity is more about the death threats around NFTs.

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I happen to think such things hold great promise as game pieces and enable the creation of things people value, especially when they are put on blockchains like Tezos that don’t have to burn lots of energy and therefore carbon. Others have made their own feelings clear.

This is niche so not for everyone, but fascinating for those who are interested in such dynamics: Jorbs goes deep into the history of competitive Slay the Spire.

How advice works.

The Workers of the World Unite poster has the big advantage that they hand you the poster and all you have to do is hang it in the window.

It is odd the extent to which money can’t easily be exchanged for even highly normal services.

It would be one thing if the only way to get the best people would be to know people who knew them, but needing to use networks to get anyone at all implies something bigger is amiss. Yet it seems like this is exactly the situation where, yes, Capitalism Fixes This and the problem is insufficient amounts of capitalism. A plumber who won’t come to your house in exchange for money is a sign that services are being distributed on some other basis. The super-generous version of this is that there are socially enforced price controls messing things up (e.g. you get punished for price discrimination so they can’t charge ‘top dollar’ to a new client) and thus service providers can’t be compensated for the uncertainty of a new client who might not treat them right.

Bryan Caplan tried to survey to see if there was a correlation between being a STEM person and supporting nuclear power, instead only learned that if you know to read Bryan Caplan you know to support nuclear power and also are probably a STEM person.

I do not know of an actual intelligent individual who opposes the construction of nuclear power plants or the widespread expansion of the use of nuclear power. Again, I need to write Policy Debates Should Appear One Sided.

Wordle, a simple five-letter-word six-guess one-word-per-day mastermind game, grew popular on Twitter then was bought by the New York Times. A thread here explains that no, The New York Times may have removed ‘offensive’ words like “slave” but did not make Wordle harder. I presume that having fewer words makes the game slightly easier. Which leads to a counter-thread saying that the recent words actually have been harder but it is likely the luck of the draw. I offer a third perspective, which is that Wordle at NYT actually is harder and the reason is because it is less fun now. Which makes it harder.

Also, a reminder of how some people think about what it means to be ‘hard’ (reminder: Wordle’s entire game is six guesses to solve for a five letter word where we tell you which letters are right and which are in the right place after a wrong guess):

Quote from a New York Times article:

On this centenary of James Joyce’s colossus, we can borrow a thought from W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”: Is “Ulysses” hard because it’s great, or do people assume it’s great because it’s hard?

“It’s hard because Joyce put a lot in there,” Dan Mulhall, the Irish ambassador, told me. “A lot of people are drawn to the novel because of its complexity and derive a lifelong satisfaction from delving into it more deeply. It’s like Wordle for serious readers.”

Don’t make me tap the sign. Or if you must, don’t make me tap it twice.

IRB is there to protect us from this cold, harsh world.

Reminder that aggressive individual trading tends to go quite badly. That does not mean one must confine oneself to index funds, I definitely do not do that and I think (although it is of course Not Investment Advice) that picking stocks to hold medium to long term is actively good for various reasons, but constantly buying and selling or hopping on trends tends to end badly even before tax issues. Also note the top result here, where is our ETF to short stocks being bought on Robinhood (seriously, what’s the ticker so I can buy some of it, I totally expect this to persist) and also the EMH keeps getting falsified.

Tenure is denied at MIT, it is discovered that decisions made in office meetings at large organization are the result of office politics and that those who care about getting ahead via office politics are using such considerations to make such decisions. Your model should not find any of these claims surprising. Merit is still a public good for the department, so the extent to which it still matters is a good way to track the local maze level.

What was the Tesla master plan and what does that tell us about start-up plans?

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The question is to what extent the above was the real plan, either planned or realized, and to what extent the actual plan was:

  1. Raise money.
  2. Build sports car.
  3. Use that car to raise more money including government aid.
  4. Use that money to build a more affordable car.
  5. Use that to raise more money including government aid.
  6. Use that money to build an even more affordable car.
  7. While doing above, be the world’s greatest Twitter troll to help raise the money.

Tesla is far more ‘real’ than most similar companies. Its success depends on its ability to create superior versions of important physical goods, including making real technological advancements, and on its ability to sell those high quality goods for premium prices. Electric cars are the real deal. Yet Elon Musk has been around long enough to know what steps his master plan was missing. He had to know the vision of a Tesla that grew using reinvested profits from selling its cars was only going to be a reality after a large number of growth cycles based on raising capital. Yet telling the story in the master plan was key to the raising of the funds.

An argument from Tyler Cowen that quarters are better than semesters and very short classes would be even better, because they would allow more exploration of professors and classes are too long anyway – that classes should be as short as possible but no shorter. This seems basically right to me if you are using the learning model of education rather than the signaling one, and basically wrong if one is using the signaling model. My other worry here is that forcing college students to finish things they no longer have intrinsic motivation to continue and that are not a good fit for their skills and interests, and especially that are sometimes over their heads and that force them to muddle through and guard against failure, may be one of the things college is testing and/or teaching, and removing longer commitments would damage this. I would also worry that giving easier outs would cause students to even more reliably choose easier classes and paths over harder ones and think even more in the short term, which would not be good either. Seems complicated and non-obvious.

Founder of Twitter asks why not choose Ghost over Substack to get greater freedom.

Some people explained and clearly had much fun doing it.

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The way I see it: Ghost gives you the option to self-host (as does WordPress), but most people are not interested in handling all of that. I am happy to have that option in case something happens but I can always migrate to such a place when and if such things happen, and also it’s not obvious the extent to which this was the point of censorship vulnerability in one’s technology stack. The serious comparison was hosting from Ghost versus hosting from Substack. The freedom issues in terms of censorship didn’t seem to then obviously run one way or the other, and the customization options mostly aren’t things I much value unless I get to do cool things that require hiring help to add features (for example, I’d love to add automatic links from certain key phrases and also automatic pop-up boxes with quick explanations when one hovers, especially for concepts unique to this blog).

Thus, it came down to other issues. Substack charges higher fees on earnings, gives you less ability to customize and provides you with less good analytics. So far its default SEO also seems quite bad, although I didn’t consider that at the time. In exchange, it has an editor I liked better, it makes for easier discovery and easier subscriptions especially paid subscriptions because people are already used to subscribing and have already given their payment information, and generally makes things smoother. The starting up experience is much better, they had someone who helped me with it and it was very easy to get things to a good state, also there was no charging money up front which maybe should not matter but totally does.

Bottom line came down to “Substack is a better shovel-ready product even though it may have less long-term upside, but if things get to the point where I can go in deeper then I can always migrate.”

Now that I have larger readership and more support, it’s starting to be more interesting to consider ways to get additional features that would enhance things further, and I’ll want to look into that over the coming year. I think I made the right decision, but conditions are changing.

Is Deontology Incompatible with Progress (as in Progress Studies)? That depends on what your deontological rules are, and especially what your rules are for how to change the rules over time. If one frames deontology as a focus on prohibitions and preventing bad things being more important than prescriptions and ensuring new good things, then yes, absolutely, you’re creating what Vitalik calls a vetocracy. Lots of veto points are an enemy of Progress. Also these are two masters, which means you cannot properly serve them both at once. If your deontology is oriented differently I do not see that serious of a conflict here. I also don’t see any conflict with virtue ethics. Utilitarianism tends to be the way people in favor of Progress think and how they justify their arguments, but the case for Progress in no way requires it. I continue to (in my totally-lacking-formal-anything-kind-of-way) view this all largely as ‘if you think your implementation details of [utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics] isn’t isomorphic to a valid implementation of either of the other two, your implementation is invalid’ so you can do anything with all three, it’s more that they each make different things easier to see and consider, and point us towards different foci and modes of thought. Things I’d love to explore more in tons of detail at some point.

Different approaches to gerrymandering: Democrats in New York get ambitious, Republicans in Texas guard against bad outcomes. It seems like not enough people are asking the question of what is more likely to tip control of Congress. The goal is not to maximize the number of seats, it is mostly to maximize the chance you have slightly more than half of them. So a gamble that kills you super hard when you would have lost the majority anyway seems strategically wise to me.

I’ve been reading and following Ozimek for a while. He’s remarkably good.

And of course, Zero Hedge predicted -250k.

So this happened.

So essentially the algorithm mostly did exactly what it is designed to do, which is to point customers towards products they are likely to want, except that in this case what they want to do is commit suicide. Which indeed does call for a manual override of the algorithm to have it offer such folks help instead, but I don’t see another way to prevent this from happening.

Remember that Alzheimer’s drug the FDA had no business approving but approved anyway? Looks like Medicare is refusing to cover it. Let’s see if we can make that a habit.

Marshmallow test study fails to replicate and finds nothing whatsoever, but in a small homogeneous sample of kids who almost all ended up completing college. I don’t see this as a contradiction so much as a hint of what the test is measuring. Part of me wants to categorize this as ‘failure to replicate this study will fail to replicate’ but I also agree the test likely is not measuring what they originally assumed it was measuring.

Looks like Robin Hanson should try out auctioning the topic of a future post?

Overwhelming support. Probably I should try this as well.

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49 Responses to Less Lightning Links at Length #1

  1. Jon S says:

    Business idea related to increasing slack via making price gouging more palatable to customers:

    Create a brand of EMERGENCY SUPPLIES with prominent labelling, and suggested retail prices on the packaging (on the order of 2x-10x normal prices for those items). In large print explain that the prices are high to compensate for storage space, as items potentially sit in reserve unused for years.

    Your business could run your own warehouses, but mostly your product is marketing – you allow retailers who invest in their own slack (by stockpiling your products) to sell expensive goods in a crisis without directly raising prices and hopefully with less backlash.

    Anyone think this could work? Please go Do it!

    • TheZvi says:

      My presumption is that this would not work, in the sense that people would still be pissed off at you for charging too much and if you did it at scale politicians would crack down on you.

  2. cakridge2 says:

    I think this is a good post for a somewhat off-topic question. What is the vase and why shouldn’t we worry about it?

  3. Thegnskald says:

    Personally I think Tyler Cowen is calling the peak of wokeness something like six years too late.

    In a deeply racist society, nobody calls out racism, so you can go your entire life without seeing racism, so long as you never encounter the people who people are racist towards (and much of a racist society is built around preventing you from encountering them). From the perspective of such a person, racism doesn’t peak when there is the most racism, but when there is the most reporting of racism, which requires a substantial anti-racist movement.

    Likewise with wokeness; the increasing awareness of wokeness, and the increasing reporting on it and its problems, mean its peak has already passed.

    • Anonymous-backtick says:

      “In a deeply racist society, nobody calls out racism, so you can go your entire life without seeing racism, so long as you never encounter the people who people are racist towards (and much of a racist society is built around preventing you from encountering them).”

      This sounds like you need to temporarily taboo “racism” to figure out what it is you actually want to avoid. e.g. if Idaho or Japan has barely any day-to-day experience of racial conflict because it’s relatively homogeneous and there aren’t really opportunities for it, and L.A. (at least before its recent black exodus) or Miami has a lot of day-to-day racial conflict because the opportunities abound, isn’t the former category the nicer kind of place to live re “racism”, regardless of the prevalence of whatever hidden attitudes there are?

      • Anonymous-backtick says:

        Like, for the other side of the comparison, I didn’t really care about the opinions of the progressives around me 5 years ago. They didn’t impact my life in any way. Even if those opinions are less common now, my workplace is moving rapidly towards obnoxious and illiterate policies for language policing and it drives me nuts.

      • Thegnskald says:

        I was analogizing to racism to express an idea that is more easily understood in that context; a deeply racist society isn’t one in which people routinely complain about racism. You have to have a lot of anti-racist sentiment in the water for it to even make sense to complain about some particular sheriff in some particular county being racist.

        The fact that we hear so much about wokeness is itself a sign that wokeness has already passed its peak. Something that was invisible is now visible. Remember – The Shadow University was written in 1998.

        When did most people even hear about wokeness, to notice that it was a thing? I can basically guarantee that it’s when it started to become popular to criticize it.

        Couldn’t we call this the point at which people started complaining about political correctness? No; complaints about political correctness were, fundamentally, a complaint about a policy.

        Couldn’t we call this the point at which people started complaining about social justice warriors? Yes, for the relatively small group of very-online people who would have a clear idea of what you’re talking about. For many people, this term only ever cashed out as “outgroup bad”.

        I’d guess wokeness peaked sometime around 2014, personally.

        • Anonymous-backtick says:

          Sure, I got all that from your first comment. I’m saying that measuring wokeness strictly by quantity, ignoring intensity, does not capture what people harmed by wokeness care about.

    • Mike Bloomberg Approves of this Message says:

      I have been gauging wokeness based on the sort comments left on the YouTube video “Fatty Boom Boom” by Die Antwoord. Based on that measure, wokeness peaked about 3 years ago.

      Also Zvi: love your analysis, but dude, spend less time on Twitter.

      • TheZvi says:

        I love all three parts of this comment.

        My hope is that I will be able to spend less time on Twitter as Covid winds down, although now I’ll need to check it for the war, at least for a bit.

  4. AnonCo says:

    re: Electricians in the South.

    I live geographically close to Polimath and work in the industry. This is a fascinating problem, known to basically everyone in this area of the country who has tried to get anything done themselves.

    File it under: Reality has a surprising amount of detail. This is worthy of a long blog post itself.

    Considering our Electrician – it’s mostly as you said. Here is how the playing field looks to him:

    1. Have long standing relationships with lots of General Contractor new home builders. Get tapped to bid on various jobs, win some of them. Do work, get paid market rates – with little or no interaction with the homeowner. Risk of non-payment or poor-review is very small. Also job is large so better worth the time.

    2. OR Have “approved contractor” status with large tract-home mega builders (think cookie cutter neighborhoods.) These mega-builders may have a dozen approved Electrician contractors, but these mega-builders never stop building. ever. You will always have work. They care even less about customer satisfaction and job quality, and by extension you as a sub barely have to care at all. Provided you mostly show up and do mostly-kind’ve the work required without too many outright failures that cause inspection failure you will get paid. Job is often very large so worth lots of time.

    3. Still be a regular person in society with friends and family in the community – many of whom will periodically ask you to do jobs. You do them to high quality and reasonable cost, with very high certainty of payment and very low risk of poor review. I must emphasize that this alone is usually enough to fill up a full time work schedule of an individual or small (2-5 person) crew.

    4. At the very bottom of the list: Accept jobs directly from unknown customers. Here is where Google / Yelp / Angieslist and the almighty Moloch of construction trades: HGTV come in. There are only 2 buckets for these customers to fall into:
    -Older people who will be wildly offended and put off by even the most modest prices. Certainly not enough to justify choosing over Buckets #1-3
    -People who’s entire frame of reference for anything construction in the physical world is HGTV – which includes wildly inflated (deflated?) exceptions for what things cost, how long they should take, and how it should look in the end. Risk of non-payment is huge.

    If you were not one of these people you would have been included in somebody’s Bucket #3 and gotten the work done.

    Or they will google things like: “How much should I expect to pay for X”. The numbers are all published by industry giants HGTV-subculture type websites (like Houzz) but the data all flows from Buckets #1 and #2, which benefit enormously from operating at scale, so already expectations are skewed.

    The nearly certain result of doing a job for anybody in bucket 4 is a poor review on Google / Yelp / Angieslist, which will drag down your business and reputation. The chances of threading the needle on: Timing, Cost, and Satisfaction to a customer in bucket #4, when the opportunity cost comes from customers in Bucket #1-3, is virtually zero. If you do a good job, it took you too long. If the price was good you didn’t do enough.

    To add flywheel affects to the above: The only providers who are unable to fill up buckets #1-3 are the worst of the worst. They have no choice but to go bucket #4 and receive their poor reviews, etc etc.

    To what extent this is a failure of capitalism…I don’t know…?

    • TheZvi says:

      That makes a ton of sense. It’s a ‘failure of capitalism’ in the sense that people have stupid ideas of market prices – I care $500 about getting my pipe fixed, but have this idea that it “should” cost $100 and the opportunity cost for the plumber is $200, so the market fails to clear. And it’s a failure in the sense that when there is a risk of nonpayment or bad review you need to charge for that, but people think that is ‘overcharging.’ So, again, problem.

      What’s the solution? Would be an interesting post. One possibility is to create a marketplace that is transparent where plumbers can post rates, and then people can see that rates are what they are and realize they need to pay up (and then you give a discount once you confirm someone is good people).

      • albrt says:

        This does not just happen in the south. I live in flyover and I am in the process of (slowly) moving back to a different part of flyover where I grew up. It is sometimes frustrating not to be able to get the good tradespeople to return my calls, but fortunately I have friends who can vouch for me.

        I am also self-employed. I can tell you that the main benefit of being self-employed is that you don’t have to deal with a-holes if you don’t want to. One of the nice things about flyover is that so many of the a-holes have moved to California or New York (or maybe now Portland or Austin).

        What’s the market solution? I guess Blackstone should buy up local contractor licenses, and open a chain of flyover contractors to give poor service at high prices to people from California and New York. The high school kids in flyover could use the work.

    • Seb says:

      It’s interesting how similar this is to the situation of stonemasons in Ontario (my family has been stonemasons for 3 generations now so I’ve seen this a lot).

      The additional wrinkle I’d like to add is that, for the most part, demand for trades up here significantly outstrips the supply of skilled tradespeople. In our family business it’s gotten to the point where we can basically set our own prices and never take a job with even the tiniest amount of hassle involved.

      This supply issue is, I would argue, the result of a few decades worth of social pressures to go to university and get technology-related jobs. I don’t know a single person my age who was ever encouraged to attend a trade school or apprentice as a tradesperson while in school. So, what you end up with is a glut of university educated people with basically useless degrees, and a paucity of skilled tradespeople available for regular folks to call.

  5. jurajda says:

    +1 Good example of T. Cowen’s latest maxim, ““context is that which is scarce”

  6. TheZvi says:

    You can argue that if someone wants to commit suicide we should help them commit suicide, but that is an extreme minority view and very explicitly illegal, so Amazon does not have that option even if they agree with you.

    • George H. says:

      First I agree with what you said, suicide is a crime, and aiding someone is then also a crime. And Amazon should fix this. Second (IMO) young adult suicide always looks like a tradgedy. (And I just want to help these people somehow.) But finally, I would like to have a little white pill that I could take in my old age… Hopefully I die of a heart attack in the middle of the night, like my dad. But my mom died from Alzheimers, and if I end up living long enough and get that, then I’d really like a white pill. (that kills me painlessly). Not so much because life for someone with Alzheimers sucks. (early and middle stage of Alz, were fine.) But mosty because the end of the disease (which can last a while) does suck and needs 24 hr care. I’d rather a white pill, and leave that money for my kids.

      • Basil Marte says:

        Suicide is a crime? I mean, if someone does something inconsiderate like jumping in front of a train/subway then sure, disincentivizing such a manner of execution to whatever extent is possible (e.g. by slapping the next-of-kin with a fine) is reasonable. But if someone commits suicide in a way that causes barely more inconvenience or risk to anyone than if they died of a heart attack in their home, why on earth would that be a crime?

  7. Basil Marte says:

    > The third solution is immigration. There are tons of high-skill people who would happily live in such places and cause the relevant markets to clear, while making everyone involved better off, and we don’t allow them to do this.
    New immigrants are the most “mobile” in location choice, and won’t go to Podunk. If we are talking about partial-remote work (regularly 1-4 days per week on site, rest remote) then <3 hours per direction commutes are still necessary. (E.g. Warwick, functioning as a suburb of a megalopolis, but not Podunk.)
    If on the other hand 100% remote is acceptable, then internet infrastructure permitting, the best location choice is to not migrate, assuming the labor market is already cleared. If it isn't, then …frick, the decision to migrate will be a big wasteful signal of desirable personality traits.

  8. The ETF I want is a Vanguard total index fund ETF that sells a stock if it’s on the top X stocks in robinhood, and then rebuy’s it if it falls below the top X+Y stocks, name would be NO MEMES ticker symbol NOME

  9. bugsbycarlin says:

    “So essentially the algorithm mostly did exactly what it is designed to do, which is to point customers towards products they are likely to want, except that in this case what they want to do is commit suicide. Which indeed does call for a manual override of the algorithm to have it offer such folks help instead, but I don’t see another way to prevent this from happening.”

    I’d like to go on record with a dark story.

    Around the time you wrote Quotes from Moral Mazes, I was a Search Ranking engineer at Amazon Search (formerly A9, if you know the space). I did some work writing ML search ranking models, a lot of work writing tools to compare, evaluate, and diagnose ML models, and like everyone else, a regular “pager duty” rotation putting out specific fires. Often the specific fires were specific ranking issues, not unlike (not quite the same as) this recommender issue.

    One day, my brother called to let me know that he was looking for Thor t-shirts on Amazon, and ran across neo-nazi-but-plausibly-deniable-but-totally-neo-nazi shirts. I decided to file a ticket on myself and try to get the problem fixed.

    Working through the proper channels, the ticket was eventually escalated to the legal department. They were silent for a few days, so I followed up. The lawyer stated in no uncertain terms that company policy was that legal would make an internal decision, and I wouldn’t be informed of the result, or even when the decision was reached. I pushed back, they pushed back harder, and I failed to get the shirts removed.

    I would like to confirm anyone’s belief that it is is sort of unfortunately the internal company ethos that Amazon will sell you anything they’re not facing legal pressure not to sell.

    When I saw the news story about the recommender engine and the suicides, my stomach dropped, because I thought “there’s a good chance that someone like me on the recommender team fought with the lawyers several times to get the suicide recommendations removed, only to get the full snow job, then quietly lived alone with the knowledge until they saw this article, and *now* Amazon is going to correct, and now that sad sack engineer is going to cry themselves to sleep on a soft pile of dirty money”.

    Was and is one of the better Moral Maze examples I ever saw.

    • J.S. Bangs says:

      I’m not quite as salty as Anon, here, but I concur with their assessment that you’re not the good guy of the story you shared. People should have the right to buy and sell nazi-lite stuff on Amazon if they want to. If the lawyers refused to act against someone selling legal products of that sort, then the lawyers were right.

      • bugsbycarlin says:

        Thank you, that was a lot nicer, and it gives me something to work with.

        I may be coming at it from what you’d consider an odd angle.

        I’m strongly in favor of the seed diversity of ideas (ie, that no viewpoint should be stamped out, that it’s ideal for there to remain some people with each viewpoint). So I back this in terms of personal speech. I even back the idea that these people should be able to retain their employment at a place like Amazon, should not be ousted for their viewpoints.

        But I’m also in favor of stringent constraints (community, moral, state, whatever) on the actions of modern corporations, because they have so much power. I think Amazon should allow basically all speech, externally and internally, but I don’t think they should be able to transact or profit from speech outside the Overton window, because they have so much power to shift it.

        I grant that this is de facto maintenance of the existing Overton window; if the guy can buy a BLM shirt but he can’t buy a Nazi-lite shirt, he gets the message that only one of those two ideologies is socially acceptable. But despite downsides, I strongly prefer this to the alternative where me and the engineers and the lawyers and our bosses get to decide where it shifts.

        That may be because I was *also* employed at Google News in the early 2010s. I suspect you can imagine the kind of inappropriate power in that organization and other ones like it.

        • Anonymous-backtick says:

          How is it the engineers and lawyers shifting the Overton window, if they just let the algorithm make unbiased predictions of what people want to buy based on past purchases? (Ignoring for a second the possibility of some political group gaming the algorithm by selling really cheap products with their message to large numbers of Amazon Mechanical Turks.)

        • George H. says:

          Huh, (the next is meant as sarcasm) So you were one of the guys writing the algorithims that enhanced the divdes in our country? Nice job. :^)
          Seriously, what is socially acceptable, depends on where you live in this country. I live in Trump country, BLM signs in your yard would lead to your ostracization. (not that I have any desire to put a BLM sign in my yard. I mostly support of the police ) But this does lead to preference falsification, how many people in my area would like to put up a BLM poster if it had zero social costs?

        • bugsbycarlin says:

          @George: (no sarcasm) Yes. Yes I was one of them. I did not like the power I had and I did not like the power the people around me had and I especially did not like the way we had it without oversight.

          Because @Anonymous-backtick, you see, there’s no such thing as “just let the algorithm”. There’s editorial choice involved in every machine learning model. Do I choose the model which down-ranks the least acceptable 5% of merchandise as agreed by everyone on my floor, or do I chose the model which doesn’t do that? Of course, the one which doesn’t, you say, but then that model shows products which are way off brand (clothing that’s too cheap for Soft Lines, which wants to sell higher quality stuff, pure story-porn books for Kindle, which wants to give off the impression of being a bit classier than that)? Of course not, that doesn’t fly in business. So we have a big debate about what’s unacceptable (business) and what’s unacceptable (moral) and somehow try to police one and not the other. And then each engineers gets 10 or 20 search quality tickets while on call, and personally decides (largely without moral oversight) which ones to work on and which ones to turn down, and you can’t make me work on all of them, because some of them are “whaaa, my 12 pack of electrical cables is ranked third now and it used to be ranked first”. And let’s circle back to that floor of people making consensus. Supposed we’re all well educated upper middle class from only a few ethnicities and 85% male. Might we be making biased assumptions about what’s the neutral standard? Maybe ordinary people really do love the cheapest, cheapest, cheapest possible clothing per pound, and we’re not giving that proper weight. Now imagine the same thing but it’s Google not Amazon and the question is “this model ranks the consensus highest quality sources better but demonstrably down-ranks conservative newspapers, which one do we choose?” And what’s more, at the Amazon or Google size, there’s a feedback loop. What we show today has a significant effect on the tastes and preferences of tomorrow.

          So, @Brett Bellmore, there’s literally no such thing as “do your jobs, and facilitate MY choices. That’s what I’m paying you to do, not be my nanny.” You’ve made a grossly reductive assumption about how that could possibly be done, and literal nobody, no company, does what you want, because the pure blunt utility company isn’t remotely the best at being tuned to customer preference, and they lose. Facilitating your choices means 100,000 man hours of work behind the scenes balancing competing interests and making editorial calls so that you could have the illusion that you made all the choices yourself.

        • Anonymous-backtick says:

          Porn has a longstanding history of being both bad for business and carveout-censorable-without-creating-a-slippery-slope. If the cheap clothing is what the customers really are buying, then *yes* let the algorithm recommend it to the next guy. I am not convinced by these examples.

    • bugsbycarlin says:

      I am vocally in favor of the right to end one’s own life on one’s own terms, and I am fairly anti-statist. You’re going to have to come up with other reasons why I said the things that I said. You could also play a No True Scotsman card.

    • TheZvi says:

      Understood. You are permanently banned. Go away.

    • TheZvi says:

      To make sure you get this since I’m going to delete various stuff now – got your message, thank you very much, and you are permanently banned. Go away and do not come back.

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      Speaking as a customer of Amazon, though, that’s exactly the way I want Amazon to act.

      From the customer’s perspective, Amazon is a utility for finding things you want, and buying them. The last thing you want Amazon to be doing is getting in the way of your doing that, because some guy working in IT takes offense at a product. To be frank, I don’t give a bucket of warm piss what Amazon, or people working there, think I should be able to buy. If it’s a legal product, get the heck out of my way.

      I don’t want my financial service deciding I can’t spend my own money on legal things. I don’t want the phone company deciding who I can talk to. I don’t want my GPS disapproving of a destination.

      I just want you to do your jobs, and facilitate MY choices. That’s what I’m paying you to do, not be my nanny.

      I dropped Paypal like a hot potato when they decided they weren’t going to process payments for legal products and services they didn’t like. I dropped Farcebook when they started sticking their heads into a private group I was a member of, and telling us to start censoring our conversations, (And guess what we find objectionable, because we’re not telling you!) or else.

      And, as inconvenient as it would be, I’ll drop Amazon if it gets serious about curating what I’m allowed to buy with my own money.

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      By the way, while you’re on the line…

      Why does Amazon insist on aggregating reviews for “similar” products?

      When I’m shopping for a 2TB SATA hard drive, the absolute last thing I want to encounter while reading the reviews is a review for a 1TB or 4TB hard drive, perhaps with a different interface or RPMs or cache size, which happens not to mention the exact specs of the drive they’re reviewing, and so I think it’s a review for the product I’m actually contemplating buying.

      It’s amazingly irritating, I don’t know of anybody who has noticed the practice who isn’t pissed off about it.

      • bugsbycarlin says:

        See my long reply further up the thread.

        tl;dr Your idea of a simple utility that simply facilitates your natural choices is kind of a fiction we build for you.

      • bugsbycarlin says:

        Actually, let me make a specific addendum about the aggregated reviews.

        Amazon doesn’t aggregate reviews.

        That’s the result of Amazon being a utility company for the other side, the sellers. To the best of its ability, Amazon strives to be the DIY wild west for sellers.

        That means sellers are free to combine products under one umbrella ID. It means minimal crack downs on spam and review gaming, and it means basically no crackdowns on weird games where sellers shuffle around their inventory between IDs.

        The review you see is a review for that product ID. If it’s a 2TB SATA drive and you see a 1TB review, that means either there was a fake review that didn’t get the details right, or the product ID used to be used for a 1TB SATA drive. Or, Amazon let the seller combine products under an umbrella, and they put a bunch of different drives there.

        Pure utility service isn’t a very good idea, you do have my apologies that the system is a mess, and I’m really glad I don’t work at Amazon anymore!

  10. hello_there says:

    >The goal is not to maximize the number of seats, it is mostly to maximize the chance you have slightly more than half of them. So a gamble that kills you super hard when you would have lost the majority anyway seems strategically wise to me.

    Not necessarily. If you’re the Democratics and only control Congress by 1 seat, you can pass all your non-controversial bills as easily as if you controlled Congress by 100 seats. But if you have a controversial bill, one that a lot of people think goes too far, the right-most Democratics like Joe Manchin will simply defect and not vote for them. But if you had a super majority with a 100 seat advantage, even if a lot of right-leaning Democratics defect because you’re pushing controversial bills, you can still pass them.

    Also,

    >Self-driving trucks, tunnels and hyperloops would be highly useful.

    What advantages do hyperloops have that trains do not?

    • Basil Marte says:

      None. If you make a graph of {fixed cost, operating cost, ton/year capacity} then Hyperloop is far inside the production possibilities frontier. Self-driving trucks are going to push that frontier outward, just as in the past narrow-gauge railways were on it (the clearest period material I found was http://www.gutenberg.org/files/44341/44341-h/44341-h.htm).

      In a bounded-(dis)trust frame, it had been pointed out amply that the Hyperloop study was:
      – written by a car manufacturing company;
      – was throwing FUD at CAHSR in particular;
      – about the only thing the originators did with the idea — further work was carried out by effectively unrelated (AFAIK) companies.
      My reading of the tea leaves is that the writers underestimated what a clusterfuck CAHSR was on its own terms and decided to throw caltrops.

  11. Curt Thomson says:

    Kind of incredible: Went to the Bryan Caplan piece (comments included) and ctrl-f on “NAR” – Nothing. That’s the National Association of Realtors. I always thought they were the number 2 lobbying group in the country, second to the trial lawyers, but everything I look up now shows them easily number 1. Over 80 mil a year. If anyone thinks that kind of coin regularly dropped in DC doesn’t contribute to “30K to sell a 500K house” the only thing I can respond with is “are you feeling OK?”.

  12. Seb says:

    Since this is a long “not covid” thread, I wanted to ask: Zvi, have you seen the raw power in this Naya Runeforge deck in Standard? I’m a garbage player and this deck is winning an insane amount of matches with very little skill input from me.

    • TheZvi says:

      I have not even read the spoiler for Neon Destiny or played a game. I’m out. I realized that I was unwilling to meet the minimum requirement of time investment to keep up, it didn’t interest me and I’d rather focus on other games. Alchemy was last straw. Maybe I’ll be back, maybe not. So can’t offer an opinion.

      • Seb says:

        Alchemy is a GREAT last straw. I play Pauper only in real life, and I mess around on Arena in my spare time, so I’m not exactly the most enfranchised player, but yeah, the time and money it takes to keep up nowadays is absolutely ridiculous.

        That being said, I do miss your MTG writing.

  13. Joshua Brule says:

    > I think (although it is of course Not Investment Advice) that picking stocks to hold medium to long term is actively good for various reasons

    Could you give us a “tl;dr” on these reasons? I would guess that if increasingly large amounts of money are passively invested then this would increase volatility. But that doesn’t seem like a reason that a retail investor should start picking stocks.

    • TheZvi says:

      Tax optionality, actually thinking about the world, and if you are reading this I think you can do better than the average by avoiding the really stupid choices even if you’re mostly otherwise random.

  14. aliceryhl says:

    > An argument from Tyler Cowen that quarters are better than semesters and very short classes would be even better, because they would allow more exploration of professors and classes are too long anyway – that classes should be as short as possible but no shorter.

    I took my bachelor’s at the University of Copenhagen, and I am currently doing a master’s at the Technical University of Denmark. At my bachelor’s they actually used the model with quarters rather than semesters (with two classes at the time), and at the master’s they use the standard semester model. I definitely preferred the model with quarters (they call it “block structure” with four blocks).

    • Lambert says:

      The UK tends to have 3 terms of 9-10 weeks

    • Brockenborings says:

      When I attended Georgia Tech lo these many years ago (class of ’83), we used the quarter system and I thought it made much more sense than the semester schedule. Holidays lined up well, the classes did not drag on as much, and you had more chances to schedule electives you might want.

  15. Rotten Bananas says:

    1) All the solutions you give open fronts in the Cultural War or economic contest of Red vs Blue, since all the relocations are heavily driven by political alignment: https://www.npr.org/2022/02/18/1081295373/the-big-sort-americans-move-to-areas-political-alignment

    4) If Canada’s push to remove selected undesirables’ exposure to the financial system is combined with cancel culture, it will be a potent weapon against critics and dissidents of the dominant cultural ideologies, and validation for the rightwing view of cancel culture being weaponized against particular (Conservative) political camps. This is probably the 1st time financial attacks on dissidents become officially sanctioned anywhere in the West. If the criteria of Peak Wokeness being signaling, it might be, but if it’s purges, it might get worse until we reach Stalinist levels of paranoia. This would actually harm the SJ causes wokeness (as a heterogenous movement and ideology) claim to stand for, stained by association, and in turn create countersignals for explicitly bigoted causes. Might get to a point where White Nationalists’ claim to be freedom fighters is taken seriously, as Sovereign Citizens already do.

    (You missed #5)

    7) To add in more sophistry, define “more”. Weight of pizza? Fullness?

    8) There are cultures where haggling is a norm in say, street bazaars, since there is no fixed price tag on anything. Or that some price aggregators do the comparison for you.

    9) Peer Review Telling You To Add Diversity Stuff For Pre-Human Papers and Sign That Negotiate With Itself For Dubious Advice mean Clown World antics.

  16. David W says:

    “Remember that Alzheimer’s drug the FDA had no business approving but approved anyway?”

    Type 1 and Type 2 errors. You can’t get an FDA that will approve an omicron variant covid vaccine, or Paxlovid, or anything else that makes your life better, if you’re going to complain about a drug that’s merely safe and (probably) ineffective. I wish they’d approve ten more aducanumab-tier drugs, because I know that would come with a hundred drugs that are definitely net good.

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