Weekly Digest 7/26/18

Christopher Balding on his nine-year teaching experience in China – I’m a Chinese immigrant who left at the age of 6, so I didn’t really get the chance to learn about the culture and views of the people in the mainland. It’s funny to me that the distinctive things Balding points out about Chinese people are the things I dislike most about them: cutting in lines, valuing money above all else, and openly pointing and talking about foreigners in Chinese. Balding also contrasts the political climate of China and the U.S. with proper, much-needed perspective. (4,550 words)

Econtalk episode with Michael Matheson Miller on his documentary Poverty Inc. – Russ and Michael talk about the harms that poverty-fighting NGOs can inflict on the countries they’re purporting to help. For example, NGOs give away things for free, which crowds out local businesses and causes the locals to depend on receiving those products for free. In a country like the U.S., if we were given free things, like free rice, those rice farmers could do something else, But, in undeveloped economies, farming rice might be the only task available to them, and crowding them out would simply cause their unemployment. Interesting discussion that illustrates how charitable giving, even those with the best of intentions, can go awry. (69 min.)

“Housing Costs Reduce the Return to Education” – The return on education has increased, but most of the jobs of college graduates are in big cities where rent is spiraling out of control (like NYC & SF). The richest cities should allow much more housing to be built, but unfortunately that probably will never happen. (300 words)

Fantastic Radiolab episode on Dutee Chand – Dutee, a female Indian track athlete, was breaking national records until she was banned from the sport. A test found she had extremely high levels of testosterone and therefore declared that she was now a man. The effects on her personal life are also in the episode. The vile history of how gender was determined for the Olympics is also interspersed in the story. Ultimately, the episode shows the arbitrariness with which we determine gender in sport. (36 min.)

Weekly Digest 7/19/18

Latest Hardcore History “Supernova in the East I” – Every episode of Hardcore History is a must-listen for me (though I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t gone back and purchased the old ones to listen to). This episode chronicles the lead-up to WWII in Japan. Dan Carlin goes over how the Japanese government co-opted its cultural history to make its citizens extreme (“just like us, only more so” is how Carlin put it I believe). Japan industrialized and caught up to the first world powers in a very short time, and the fervent zeal of its citizens is why. That cultural indoctrination is why some Japanese soldiers were still fighting as if WWII never ended up to the 1970s. (271 min.)

Tyler Cowen interviews Vitalik Buterin – Must-listen; self-explanatory. (52 min.) Transcript here (8,550 words)

Scott Alexander on fundamental value differences – “But ‘remember, liberals and conservatives have fundamental value differences, so they are two tribes that can’t coexist’ is the wrong message. ‘Remember, everyone has weak and malleable value differences with everyone else, and maybe a few more fundamental ones though it’s hard to tell, and neither type necessarily line up with tribes at all, so they had damn better learn to coexist,’ is more like it.” In other words, most fundamental value differences aren’t actually so. (3,300 words)

“Are ethical asymmetries from property rights?” – KatjaGrace lists interesting ethical asymmetries that we have and proposes that they arose from our conception of property rights (at least that was my interpretation). However, I think that gets the causality backwards. Instead, I think we first had the conception of “do no evil.” From there, our ethical asymmetries and our conception of property rights arose. (800 words)

Weekly Digest 7/12/18

Our ever-shifting expectations – Alex Tabarrok describes a new study in which our conception of blueness changes as the number of blue dots change. As a result, our conception of sexism and racism will also change, which is mostly good since we’ll grow less racist and sexist over time, but also can be bad since it can feel as if we’re not making progress. No doubt another way of explaining the backlash in our current political environment. (900 words)

David Sims on HBO’s new strategy – HBO is trying to become more like Netflix, by cranking out a ton of content. Inevitably, this will lower the quality of its shows. If I’m interpreting Sim’s view correctly, then he and I agree that HBO is making a big mistake. What distinguished HBO from all other networks, including Netflix is its superior content. HBO has more high-quality, prestige shows than anybody else, the key reason for its continued success. Diluting the quality to produce more quantity will make it like any other network. Trying to become like Netflix is the wrong strategy for HBO; excuse the tautology, but nobody is better at being Netflix than Netflix. (1,000 words)

“Melatonin: Much More Than You Wanted to Know” by Scott Alexander – 0.3mg is the optimal dose based on countless studies, meaning that the dosage of melatonin you take is probably too high. Anything up to 1 mg is probably still okay. Also, the melatonin cycle of teenagers is shifted later, so they sleep later and wake up later, which is why every sleep scientists recommend schools start later, to no avail. (4,650 words)

Ed Yong on future pandemics – The U.S. is the most prepared country in the world, but even its preparations are not extensive enough, especially if a disease like the 1918 influenza breaks out. Supply chains will be severely constrained when an epidemic breaks out, creating a shortage of medical equipment. Helping poor countries is probably the best way to fight zoonotic diseases, since that is where the diseases originate. Yong also notes that Trump has not yet had to deal with an epidemic and worries that Trump’s behavior will exacerbate the situation. (9,000 words)


Weekly Digest 7/5/18

Exposé on how the Stanford Prison Experiment was a sham (7,300 words) – Ben Blum details the facts contrary to Zimbardo’s narrative: prison guards were encouraged to act “tough” instead of organically developing those tendencies; prisoners were not permitted to quit the experiment, meaning they were actual prisoners; the famous video of a prisoner breaking down was just an act; and on top of all that, before the experiment even began, Zimbardo had a result in mind for the “experiment” that he wanted to use for his own political agenda.

Gene Fama, a founding father of the efficient market hypothesis and Richard Thaler, a founding father of behavioral economics, in conversation. What more do you need? (2200 words)

Ben Evans dispels misconceptions about artificial intelligence and talks about the right and wrong ways to think about what machine learning can deliver. (2300 words)



Why Doesn’t Apple Improve Their Podcast App?

The podcast industry is booming, with $314M in ad revenues in 2017 and projected ad revenues of $659M by 2020. It still has a long way to go to catch up to the $18B radio ad market, but as anybody who listens to podcasts understands, the listening experience is infinitely greater. The biggest improvement is the freedom in what to listen; you get to choose what to listen to, whenever you feel like it. There are less ads on podcasts, and if you’re diligent, you can even skip them. You can adjust the speed of the podcast, or rewind if you missed a key point. Radio ad revenue is stagnating while podcast ad revenue is skyrocketing, and given the superior experience of podcasts, it is safe to say that podcasts are the future.

Podcast listeners quickly become podcast evangelists. I personally recommend podcasts more than anything else to my friends, and I do so fervently. Almost everybody who listens to podcasts on a consistent basis will rave about what an intimate experience it is. FDR famously utilized the power of the radio, JFK the TV, and Obama and Trump social media. I’m not saying podcasts will reach the same heights as those other mediums, and in fact, I’m skeptical it ever will, but listening to podcasts is certainly a unique experience. After listening to podcasts long enough, you develop a certain connection with podcast hosts. Even though you don’t personally know them, they start to feel like your friends. You hear them casually chat with other people and sometimes, they talk about intimate things, in the same way that you would with a friend. Bill Simmons, Joe Rogan, and Tim Ferriss, to name a few, have all mentioned this phenomenon, where listeners would come up to them and talk to them as if they were long-time friends. Of course, the podcast host has no idea who the fuck you are, but the stranger approaching the host forgets that. The stranger has been listening to that same host over the course of hundreds of episodes and sometimes, they know the host even better than many of their friends. Many other podcast hosts have noted how great podcasts are at communicating empathy (a loaded term at this point, but I can’t think of any other, maybe compassion, but that doesn’t sound right either). This American Life is probably the best podcast out there for doing so. Maybe this will change as the podcast industry grows larger, but right now, podcasts foster a connection in a way that only the best movies and TV shows do. Perhaps it comes from the fact that you can listen to podcasts wherever you are; you can listen to it while washing the dishes, while walking around a park, or on your monotonous commute to work. Regardless of why podcasts are so effective, the key point is that it is. Celebrities have recognized that and either started their own, or started going on other people’s, Bernie Sanders being the most prominent politician to start his own.

That was all just a long preamble to describe the explosive growth in the podcast industry and the importance of podcasts to its listeners, which brings me to my question: why doesn’t Apple improve their podcasts app? I’m honestly confused. Apple as an organization prizes design above all else. Its superiority in design and recognizing things consumers didn’t even know they wanted is what led to the advent of the iPhone. This is the same company that got rid of earphone jacks. Yet, when it comes to podcasts, an industry that Apple created by the way, its design is anachronistic. Compare the difference between Apple’s podcast app (left) and Overcast (right), the podcast that I use.


Apple’s podcast player has much less functionality. People who regularly listen to podcasts generally prize one thing above all others: the ability to listen to as many podcast episodes as possible. In Overcast, the user is given a sliding scale to adjust the speed of the episode to find a speed that is most comfortable. Apple’s app, comparatively only has 4 options: 0.5x, 1x, 1.5x, or 2x. This is extremely frustrating for me because for many of the podcasts I listen to, 1.5x is too slow and 2x is a little too fast. I’d prefer something in between. I’m sure many others have the same complaints or similar ones between 1x and 1.5x. Overcast also gives you the option of Smart Speed, which reduces the length of silences and Voice Boost, which tries to equilibrate volume. And, Overcast lets you change the time of the skip forward and skip back buttons, which is really useful in skipping ads. There are many more nitpicky features that I won’t get into such as Smart Resume, Smart Playlists, and on and on.


I’m not saying Apple should bring all of those features to its app, but a company that prizes design above all else should recognize that consumers would at least want a sliding scale of playing speed. Smart Speed, Voice Boost, and changing the length of the skip forward and skip back buttons would also be nice-to-have features. Apple’s market share of the podcast market is probably around 50% at this point. Its market share has steadily decline throughout the years, though that’s driven mostly by the Android market. Nevertheless, the inferiority of its podcast player certainly can’t help. Apple is able to maintain such a large share simply because it is the default player on iPhones; the power of defaults is strong indeed. But, as the podcast industry grows, people, especially the heaviest consumers, are going to look for a better listening experience. Podcast consumers are generally highly-prized consumers too. They’re younger and richer than the generally population, which means many are rich, highly-educated millennials, the crown jewel of the advertising industry. Their data is very valuable and given the intimate experience of podcasts, as mentioned earlier, I’d argue that the data is very accurate. Now, I’m not well-versed in whether Apple collects general data from its podcast app, so correct me if I’m wrong, but given the importance of artificial intelligence in the coming years, and its ravenous data needs, podcast data should be very valuable to Apple.

Even if the data point is moot, there are still other ways for Apple to monetize its app. At least part of Patreon’s revenue comes from podcasts. Apple has a very large consumer base and its podcast hosts are always looking for ways to monetize. Apple could create a membership option for podcasts that would give creators another revenue stream and the option to create premium content for subscribers. Apple would of course get a cut, like Patreon currently does. Having that option built into the Apple podcast app would result in higher rates of adoption, since users wouldn’t have to go onto another app. The additional revenue would further spur the podcast industry, which would further incentivize larger players, both advertisers and hosts, to come into the space.

So, back to the question in the title: why doesn’t Apple improve its podcast app? I’m not really sure. At the very least, there are some bare-bones improvements that it could easily make to reduce the amount of users leaving the app. There are also improvements that it could make that might increase the already explosive growth of the industry, which would also create a new revenue stream for Apple. Maybe it views that stream as a tiny brook, but a company that prizes design above all else should at least strive to live up to its reputation.