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November 2019

One very good thing coming out of the Silicon Valley culture is that having done one's best and failed at something bold and important is no longer a black mark. But I do think that it has gone much too far. Real artists ship. Real entrepreneurs can distinguish a bold exploratory gamble from a con game. The Financial Times calls this kind of thing "The Whole Economy is Fyre Festival". That is a good rubric to hold in the front of one's mind to understand a bunch of things these days: Scott Lemieux: Today Amongst Our Overcompensated and Underachieving Elites: "John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood is essential reading.... Throughout the book America’s most decorated elites are revealed as bad actors or easy marks (or in the case of David Boies, both.) Another example is alleged Trump administration Adult In The Room (TM) James Mattis.... Mattis not only served on Theranos’s board during some of the years after he’d retired from military service, while it was perpetrating the scheme, but he earlier served as a key advocate of putting the company’s technology (technology that was, to be clear, fake) to use inside the military while he was still serving as a general. Holmes settled the SEC case, paying a 500,000 fee and accepting various other penalties, while Balwani is fighting it out in court. (Holmes and Balwani are both battling criminal fraud charges.) Nobody on the board has been directly charged with anything. But accepting six-figure checks to serve as a frontman for a con operation is the kind of thing that would normally count as a liability in American politics.... Fundamentally, Trump’s rise to power is part of a broader epidemic of elite impunity in the United States. And Mattis’s ability to dabble in questionable activity, cash a few checks, and then skate away with his reputation intact is very much part of the problem...

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Comment of the Day: Graydon: "'Truth' and 'facts' are different; "truth" is a statement about the inside of someone's head. (Generally one's own head.)

"facts" are that stuff independent of any particular person's imagination of the world. Facts are inherently collective.

If you've got enough money, you can blur this hopelessly because there's a bug in the wetware and anything that gets repeated enough becomes true. It helps a lot if the repeated thing is simple.

Keeping a political process facts-based is a hard problem, because you're effectively expecting people to prefer an effective process to getting what they want. That's challenging.

So there's a structural advantage on the "repeat lies" side. Any sensible framework of laws would take this into account...

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Yes, rural Kansas is now, in some ways, reminiscent of seventeenth-century England. Why do you ask?: Cory Doctorow: In Kansas's Poor, Sick Places, Hospitals and Debt Collectors Send the Ailing to Debtor's Prison "Kansas is a living laboratory for far-right experimentation with extreme economic cruelty: a state where Medicare expansions were thwarted, where xenophobia has penetrated the state bureaucracy, where a grifty, incompetent lawyer has apologized for slavery and driven women out of his own party, even as neighboring states thrive by tending to the needs of working people, rather than the super-rich. As Kansas sinks into poverty and ruin, its people are growing ever-sicker: poverty is strongly correlated with poor health outcomes, especially in America, where being poor means you can't afford preventative care, and even more especially in Kansas, where limits on Medicare expansion exclude even very poor people from access to subsidized care. Enter hospital debt collectors. Propublica's Lizzie Presser reports from Coffeyville, Kansas, home to Coffeyville Regional Medical Center, the only hospital for 40 miles, now that its rivals have all shut down. In Coffeyville, magistrate judges are appointed, and need no special training to hold the office. Judge David Casement—a cattle rancher who never studied law—presides over medical debt cases, which he hears quarterly at 'debtor's exam' days. At these proceedings, debt-collectors—who do have law degrees, and whom the judge relies heavily on for legal advice—are allowed to quiz sick people, or the parents or spouses of critically ill or dying people, about their assets and income and to ask the judge to order them to divert what little they have to Coffeyville Regional Medical Center, minus the debt-collector's healthy cut. But sick, poor people can't always afford to travel to the courthouse: sometimes, it's because they have to go see a specialist (or take their kid or spouse to see one); sometimes it's because they had to sell their car to make a previous debt payment. When this happens, debt collectors like Michael Hassenplug from Account Recovery Specialists Inc (ARSI) can ask the judge to issue a warrant for the debtor, who is taken to the local jail and hit with 500 in bail. Many can't pay it, and stay in jail (Hassenplug insists that they're not in jail for their debts, but rather for their failure to appear), while others who manage to borrow the 500 often find that it is then surrendered to the hospital and its arm-breakers. Meanwhile, the debts mount: in addition to punitive, usurious interest, the hospital and its debt-collectors reserve the right to lard on fees, fines and penalties...

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Unpredictable and chaotic work schedules are turning out to be an extra source of inequity that is, at least to me, surprisingly large. About the only half-silver lining is that Britain appears to be even worse: Cesar Perez and Alix Gould-Werth: How U.S. Workers’ Just-In-Time Schedules Perpetuate Racial and Ethnic Inequality "n an attempt to minimize labor costs, employers in today’s U.S. economy saddle workers with last-minute and low-quality schedules. These schedules, sometimes referred to as “just-in-time schedules,” are unpredictable, unstable, and often provide workers with an insufficient number of hours. Today, sociologists Kristen Harknett at the University of California, San Francisco and Daniel Schneider at the University of California, Berkeley released new analyses drawing from surveys with 30,000 retail and food workers at 120 of the largest retail and food service companies in the United States to show who suffers from these schedules, and how...

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Heather Boushey: On Reddit "I’m Heather Boushey, president and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and author of the forthcoming book, Unbound: How Inequality Constricts Our Economy and What We Can Do About It. AMA! : politics.... The latest economic research from across academic disciplines shows the many ways that high economic inequality—in incomes, wealth, and across firms—serves to obstruct, subvert, and distort the processes that lead to widespread improved economic well-being...

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Wikipedia: Tale of Ragnar's Sons "When Sigurd Hring dies, Ragnar Lodbrok succeeds him as the king of Sweden and Denmark. Many foreign kings come to take parts of his kingdom as they think Ragnar is too young to defend it. Herrauðr, the earl of Götaland and one of Ragnar's vassals had a daughter, Þóra Borgarhjǫrtr, who was very beautiful. He gave her a lindworm, but after some time, it encircles her tower and threatens anyone who approaches it, except for her servants who fed it with an ox every day. At his symbel, Herrauðr promises his daughter to the man who kills the serpent. When Ragnar hears of this, he goes to Västergötland and dresses himself in shaggy clothes that he had treated with tar and sand. He took a spear and approached the serpent which blew poison at him. Ragnar protected himself with his shield. He speared the serpent through its heart. He then cut off the serpent's head, and when the people found out what had happened, he married Thora. Then, he proceeded to liberate his kingdom.

Mårten Eskil Winge: Kraka (Aslaug): "Ragnar and Thora had two sons, Eiríkr and Agnar, and after a few years Thora dies of illness. He then married Aslaug, also known as Randalin, the daughter of Sigurd and Brynhildr. They had 4 sons, Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Hvitserk, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye...

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Yes, play your position is good advice. But concern for the health of the public sphere—the willingness to call out lies, and so filter out of the discourse liars and their enablers—is now part of playing your position for everyone. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is not willing to do that. But he is at least willing to say he will ban "political" ads. And in the process of announcing the decision, he slags Facebook. But Jack will have difficulties: what is a "political" ad?: Jack Dorsey: 'Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought. Why? A few reasons: A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money. While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions. Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale. These challenges will affect ALL internet communication, not just political ads. Best to focus our efforts on the root problems, without the additional burden and complexity taking money brings. Trying to fix both means fixing neither well, and harms our credibility. For instance, it‘s not credible for us to say: “We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad... well... they can say whatever they want!” We considered stopping only candidate ads, but issue ads present a way to circumvent. Additionally, it isn’t fair for everyone but candidates to buy ads for issues they want to push. So we're stopping these too. We’re well aware we‘re a small part of a much larger political advertising ecosystem. Some might argue our actions today could favor incumbents. But we have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising. I trust this will only grow. In addition, we need more forward-looking political ad regulation (very difficult to do). Ad transparency requirements are progress, but not enough. The internet provides entirely new capabilities, and regulators need to think past the present day to ensure a level playing field. We’ll share the final policy by 11/15, including a few exceptions (ads in support of voter registration will still be allowed, for instance). We’ll start enforcing our new policy on 11/22 to provide current advertisers a notice period before this change goes into effect. A final note. This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address...

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Very Briefly Noted 2019-11-19:

  1. The Littlest JupyterHub: Distributing Materials to Users with nbgitpuller Generate nbgitpuller links for your JupyterHub

  2. Navy Safety Center: Photo of the Day: The Fridge

  3. Wikipedia: Mars Cycler

  4. Morgan Kelly: The Standard Errors of Persistence

  5. John Scalzi: Oh, Look, Another Silly Kvetch About Me: "This is where I renew my amused exasperation that Heinlein has been claimed as a plaster idol by the sort of fellow who thinks that in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he wouldn’t have been marched out of an airlock by now, and commensurately, that no one other than he and his little pals can claim him. Surprise, m-----------s, I get to claim him, too. Heinlein was edgy, brilliant, cranky, problematic, inconsistent, inspirational and influential. Lots of what he wrote hasn’t aged well at all, and lots of what he wrote still works a treat...

  6. Michael Schwarz (2018): Rise of the Machines: The Economic Implications of Autonomous Vehicles

  7. Michelle Pacansky-Brock: Benefits of a Liquid Syllabus

  8. md2pdf: Markdown to PDF

  9. Sci-Hub: Removing barriers in the way of science

  10. Library Genesis

  11. Pandoc: About Pandoc

  12. Isidore of Seville: Herodotus on the Web

  13. Bayes' Rule: Guide

  14. Wikipedia: Yoweri Museveni

  15. Amazon: Jabra Speak 510 MS: Professional Unified Communicaton Speakerphone

  16. Karl Marx (1847): Wage Labor and Capital

  17. Karl Marx (1853-6): The Eastern Question

  18. Hansard (27 April 1863): Cotton Manufacturing Districts

  19. Isidore of Seville: Herodotus on the Web

  20. Wikipedia: Russian Reversal 'Here in America, is very good, everyone watch television. In old country, television watch you...

  21. Imprisonment by Malthus and "Negative Liberty" 'it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufacturers and others to make fortunes. They have increased the comforts of the middle classes...

  22. Noah Smith: Harvard and Top Private Schools Should Increase Admissions a Lot: "Harvard Is Doing America’s Best Students No Favors: Top private schools should increase admissions a lot. Don’t worry: Quality won’t suffer...

  23. Sarah Frier: "Behold Mark Zuckerberg’s revised origin story for Facebook, as a way to give people voice during the Iraq war. (And compare to the Harvard Crimson on Zuckerberg’s hot-or-not tool in 2003...

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Abraham Lincoln: The Gettysburg Address: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this...

...But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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Richard Partington: How the Wheels Came Off Facebook's Libra Project "Support for Mark Zuckerberg’s mission to reshape global finance is slipping away slowly but surely: When Facebook announced plans to launch a digital currency earlier this summer, it added a full-blown revolution in global finance to its typically vaulting Silicon Valley mission statement: to create a digital currency alongside its efforts to bring the world closer together through networks. Over the past month, that mission has gone badly awry. The Libra cryptocurrency project now faces existential threats from world leaders and central bankers worried about its harmful potential: as a vehicle for money laundering, a threat to global financial stability, open to data privacy abuse, dangerous for consumers and stripping nations of the control of their economies by privatising the money supply. Seven high-profile partners in the Facebook-led consortium that is building the digital currency–known as the Libra Association–have quit in dramatic fashion in recent weeks, including PayPal, eBay, Visa and Mastercard, as concerns mount...

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Adam Smith: From Human Nature to Human Society

2.2) From Human Nature to Human Society: Hence the key importance of the human cultural invention of money in forming our large-scale human society: money means that any one of us can make a short-term one-shot exchange relationship with any other one of us, someone who we may well never see again. Money, you see, is manufactured trust, and it allows us to extend our societal division of labor to encompass, indirectly, nearly everybody else in the world.

For example, consider the 30-foot bronze statue of Athene Promakhos—Athena Fighting-in-Front—that the council and people of Athens had cast and installed on the Acropolis around -450. The Greek geographer Pausanias wrote that anyone approaching Athens by sea by day could see her gleaming helmet and the tip of her spear as soon as they had rounded Sounion Head at the southern tip of Attika. 70 tons of bronze supposedly went into the statue, which survived until 1204—63 tons of copper, 7 tons of tin. Copper was abundant. But where in the -5th century were the artisans of Athens to find 7 tons of tin? The historian Herodotos states that he could find nobody in Athens who knew where the tin was coming from: all anyone could say was that the ships had picked up the tin, already mined, in Sicily, and that they thought it came from “tin islands” in the ocean on the other side of Europe. But he could find nobody who would claim to have actually seen these tin islands, or this ocean on the other side of Europe. So he doubted the stories.

The answer, of course, was that the tin was in Cornwall, at the southwestern tip of the island of Britain. The societal division of labor, as governed by the market, was a mechanism that “knew” that 7 tons of tin needed to be mined in Cornwall and then shipped, probably via the English Channel-Seine-portage-Rhone-Mediterranean route, to Athens via Sicily. And so it happened. But, apparently, nobody anywhere in the value chain knew its entire extent. The market knew things that no human individual knew. And this was almost 2.5 millennia ago: the market knows much, much, much more now.

Language, weak dominance, gift exchange, and money have enabled us to progress from perhaps 10,000 of us 70,000 years ago living at a global average living standard of perhaps three 3.5 dollars a day to today’s world-girdling societal division of labor now 7.5 billion strong, with a global average standard of living no about $35 a day. We are now, collectively, on average, at least 10 times as well-off and 750,000 times as numerous as we were 70,000 years ago back in the environment of evolutionary adaptation when we last passed through a Darwinian bottleneck.

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Adam Smith's View of Human Nature

2) Economic Sides of Adam Smith’s Philosophy: 2.1. Starting Points in Human Nature: Adam Smith starts with the observation that humans are largely but not exclusively self-interested creatures: we are, largely but not exclusively greedy. Yet we have a complex and sophisticated societal division of labor. And that division of labor is essential to our prosperity. Indeed, it is essential to our survival: drop one or two of us into the Sierra Nevada, even in summer, and we will quite likely die. Drop 100 of us, and we will quite likely survive, and even flourish.

How can animals that are by nature greedy nevertheless cooperate on a large scale? That is the deep moral-philosophical question that we can see both of Smith’s big books—his The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations—as aimed at. As Robert Heilbroner puts it in his The Worldly Philosophers, Smith:

is interested in laying bare the mechanism by which society hangs together. How is it possible for a community in which everyone is busily following his self-interest not to fly apart from sheer centrifugal force? What is it which guides each individual’s private business so that it conforms to the needs of the group? With no central planning authority and no steadying influence of age old tradition, how does society manage to get those tasks done which are necessary for survival?...

Adam Smith says that our ability to create and maintain a complicated societal division of labor that is so productive rests on three facets of human nature:

  1. language, that makes us an anthology intelligence—what one of us knows or learns, pretty quickly all of us within and many of us without earshot will quickly learn;

  2. hierarchy, in that we tend to form and respect weak dominance hierarchies in which we can command and obey;

  3. gift exchange: we bind ourselves by forming gift-exchange relationships, what Adam Smith called our “natural propensity to truck and barter“. We firmly expect to be and are very happy when I we trade favors with each other, and we are uneasy when we feel as though we are always giving or always receiving, for we want the exchange of gifts and favors to be reciprocal, and roughly balanced.

Back in our environment of evolutionary adaptation, we could form gift-exchange relationships only with a few: our close neighbors, our good friends, and our near kin. Trust, you see, is necessary for a long-term gift-exchange relationship, and short-term such relationships are rare because each has to have and be willing to give up something the other wants or needs right now. And since we are largely self interested, trust is hard to generate and maintain without other binding social ties.

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Three Great Books to Have Read—But Not Nefessarily to Read

I have been remiss in posting here because I have had the unexpected load of getting together lectures for the last 40% of: Economics 105: The History of Economic Thought: Smith, Marx, Keynes.

So let me apologize for the dearth of material by stepping through my lecture notes:

1) Smith, Marx, Keynes: The aim of this course it to examine the history of economic thought through the lens of three major economic thinkers: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes, each of whom wrote one long, difficult, but undeniably great book. Adam Smith in 1776 published his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Karl Marx in 1867 published his Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (volume 1). John Maynard Keynes in 1936 published his The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (note the absence of the Oxford comma from Keynes’s title: Keynes was a British academic but not one from Oxford but rather from the University of Cambridge). In addition, read Robert Heilbroner’s excellent (if old) The Worldly Philosophers, a short survey of the history of economic thought, for context and background.

Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, and Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money are great books to have read, if not easy books to read. They are, in fact, downright painful. (Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers is, by contrast, painless, easy, and still great.) Learning how to read great but difficult books and make sense of them on your own is a very valuable skill to learn, but a difficult one to teach in any way but by doing it. Moreover, a great book is a great book only if the reader is ready and prepared to read it—and so learning to figure out how to become the kind of reader to appreciate a particular great book is another important skill to learn as well.

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Lecture Notes: Smith, Marx, Keynes: A View of the History of Economic Thought (UNFINISHED)

Well, I have wound up, by surprise, giving the last third of the lectures in Economics 105: The History of Economic Thought: Smith, Marx, Keynes. I admit I was not as averse to being imposed on by the Department as I might have been because I thought it might push me to get my head and my thoughts together.

Here they are—unfinished. But I should give the students an opportunity to see how I think about these thinkers and their works:

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Doug Jones: Copernicus Versus the Scientific Method 'Ptolemy needed to assume that the five planets (not counting the sun and moon) have both cycles (the big circles) and epicycles (the little circles).... Some of the cycles and epicycles vary independently, while others are exactly tied to the motions of the sun. For Mercury and Venus, the epicycles vary independently, taking different periods of time (88 days, 225 days) to complete a circuit. Their cycles, by contrast, take exactly one Earth year to complete a circuit. Furthermore, the deferent, the point at center of each epicycle, is always exactly in line with the sun. For Mars, Jupiter and Saturn on the other hand, it’s the other way around. The cycles vary independently (1.88, 11.86, and 29.46 years to make a complete circuit). But the epicycles take exactly one Earth year... [and] the line from deferent to planet is exactly parallel to the line from Earth to Sun.... Copernicus’s model, by contrast, doesn’t just replace five circles (the cycles for Mercury and Venus, and the epicycles for Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) with one (for the Earth going around the Sun). It also automatically explains why the five superfluous cycles show an otherwise unexplained synchronic parallelism. People who read Copernicus 1543 book carefully (not many at first) could see he had a real explanation for something that’s just a mysterious coincidence in Ptolemy.... Solomonoff induction... can explain why Copernicanism is a better theory.... Bayes’ Rule.... And where do scientists get their prior probabilities?... Solomonoff... He argues that we can use the theory of algorithmic complexity, as developed by Kolmogorov.... If your theory were turned into a computer program, how long would the program be? The longer the program, the lower the prior probability, where probabilities fall off exponentially with length of program...

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