Weekly Digest 9/27/18


Ben Thompson on the departure of Instagram’s founders – Many news publications are blaming Zuckerberg for their departures, but Ben Thompson illustrates why Instagram’s founders leaving was inevitable. Prior to it being acquired by Facebook, Instagram had an extremely compelling product, but no monetization engine. Enter Facebook. Facebook had been thinking of ways to monetize its product from the beginning and could integrate Instagram seamlessly into its ad ecosystem. On top of that, Facebook could provide Instagram with the infrastructure to scale exponentially without hiccups. Thompson provides Snapchat as a contrast to Instagram. Snapchat also has a compelling product, but is floundering without a great way to monetize, and potential new users are staying with the Facebook-Instagram behemoth instead. Instagram’s acquisition was great for both Facebook and Instagram, a perfect win-win acquisition: Instagram’s founders could focus on the product while Facebook provided the infrastructure for it to scale and monetize seamlessly; Facebook gained a company that lets it reach a different consumer segment at, what appears in hindsight, a big discount. (2,400 words)

Nikita’s “software disenchantment” – I wish I could properly understand Nikita’s rant. Unfortunately, without a programming background I can’t. His premise makes sense to me. Hardware is magnitudes stronger than it was a decade ago, yet websites, computers, and phones take forever to load or boot up. Why? Because of bloat. Commenters replied that software is a relatively new industry and that this issue will be fixed over time. As someone who wonders why everything takes so long to load still, yet has no background in this area, I hope so. (2,800 words)

An Army officer on tequila’s role in Mexican relationships – A reminder that there are many different types of sipping liquors besides whisky. Tequila is one such example, so when dining in Mexico for business or government trips, don’t shoot it like you would with your buddies. (1,400 words)


Dan Carlin on the USS Indianapolis – All of Dan Carlin’s stuff is must-listen and this is no exception. I didn’t know about the USS Indianapolis before listening to this and the whole thing was engrossing; I’ll make sure to read the book Carlin uses eventually. For those who don’t know, the USS Indianapolis was the ship that delivered the parts of the first nuclear bomb in WWII. It got sunk by a Japanese torpedo after delivering the parts and its crew was stuck in the middle of the ocean in shark-infested waters for days. They didn’t get discovered immediately because the mission was top-secret, among other reasons. It’s a story about humans being pushed to the edge and in many cases over the edge of human limits. (53 min.)

Russ Roberts interviews Rodney Brooks – Great interview on artificial intelligence. I was most fascinated with their discussion about Isaac Newton. Brooks talked about Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote about a sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic and then used Newton as an example. If we showed Newton, one of history’s greatest minds, an iPhone and all of its capabilities, he would have no conception of its limits. The iPhone can play videos and map the world, has access to Google which gives us the world’s knowledge, plays music, video chats with other people, etc. Faced with this, Newton would think it was capable of anything. One example of the iPhone’s limits that Brooks gives is that it needs to be charged. Yet, as he points out, Newton would never have anticipated that limitation based on everything he just saw the iPhone do. In some ways, our understanding of AI is like Newton’s understanding of the iPhone. The technology is so far beyond our current conception of what is possible that we can’t understand its limitations. The two also discuss a lot of other cool interesting stuff that I’ll leave for you to discover. (65 min.)

Weekly Digest 9/20/18

Scott Alexander on causes – We used to think complex traits like intelligence were caused by one gene (an intelligence gene). However, the more we learn about genetics, the more genes we believe cause intelligence, from one to a few to dozens to now thousands. Scott says this applies to depression, psychiatry, and science more broadly, which I completely agree with. I’d argue that it applies to disciplines outside of science as well. For example, many historians will get angry when others attribute a single cause to WWI or the fall of the Roman Empire, as these earth-shattering historical events tend to have at least a few, if not many causes. (1,700 words)

Alex Tabarrok on the STEM gender gap – There’s a gender-equality paradox which is that the countries with the highest levels of gender equality (Finland, Norway, Sweden, etc.) have the lowest ratio of women to men in STEM education. There are traditionally two explanations for this paradox: 1. countries with the highest levels of gender equality are the richest countries with a welfare state that allows everyone to pursue what they actually want, and females are less interested in STEM or 2. males have greater variability so there are more of them at the top but also at the bottom. This post provides an alternate explanation. Women are better than men on average in STEM, but they’re even better on average in the humanities. Therefore, women will go into the fields where they have a larger gap in ability, leaving men STEM fields. In economic terms, men have a comparative advantage in STEM because they’re less bad in STEM than in the humanities. (1,000 words)

Esquire profile of Robert Caro – I could read profiles of Robert Caro all day. He has spent over 40 years on his Lyndon Johnson series which is far longer than I’ve even been alive. I like reading about the pivotal moments in the lives of ultra-successful people because it reminds me of the role chance plays in everyone’s life. It’s utterly crazy to think someone like Robert Caro might not have gotten published. (7,100 words)

Two articles on the Sam Harris-Ezra Klein feud here and here – As a fan of both Sam Harris and Ezra Klein, the feud didn’t make much sense to me. I still feel both people could’ve been more charitable to the other, but these two analyses on the feud better helped me understand it. The one sentence summary would be that in the argument, Sam Harris was a decoupler (separate the history of racism from discussion of scientific facts) while Ezra Klein was a contextualizer (the history of “science” to promote racism and racism in general means that discussion of scientific facts cannot be separated from a discussion of racism and politics in general). (3,100 and 7,900 words respectively)