Archive for the ‘The Internets’ Category

Personally I’ve never been one for indicating a dating relationship on Facebook. Dating is about sampling with a relative ease of entry and exit, so why add a complication to what’s supposed to open and free? The appropriate use of the relationship status is for the more consequential and permanent arrangements of marriage and the like, says I.

Strolling around Grant Park this evening, my neighborhood park at least until the end of my March, I was listening to this article on my iPod and thinking about Facebook’s introduction of “civil union” and “domestic partnership” to its list of relationship options.  It occurred to me that the very reason I dislike Facebook for casual relationships is exactly why GLAAD was glad to see the updated options: Facebook confers legitimacy to a relationship.

It took me .26 seconds to find this video:

The status update is done lightheartedly here, but wouldn’t this actually be the most culturally relevant ritual for most marriage ceremonies today? Isn’t it the case that modern marriages are made most tangible in the minds of friends and family not through certificate or ceremony, but cyberspace? Sure, relationship statuses are presumably almost always backed by government guarantee, but I wonder if that will ebb in importance as cultural norms trump state fiat.

The libertarian in me gleefully looks on.


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In addition to being a frequent talking head on Ken Burns’ films such as The Age of the Roosevelts (coming in 2014!), you may know George Will from his columns in the Washington Post. I don’t often read him, but several blogs have approvingly linked to his column today, which offers a word of caution to those certain of Egypt’s future:

[T]here is a cottage industry of Barack Obama critics who, not content with monitoring his myriad mistakes in domestic policies, insist that there must be a seamless connection of those with his foreign policy. Strangely, these critics, who correctly doubt the propriety and capacity of the U.S. government controlling our complex society, simultaneously fault the government for not having vast competence to shape the destinies of other societies. Such critics persist because, as Upton Sinclair wrote in 1935, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Here’s an aphorism (otherwise known as a pre-Twitter blog post) I crafted just over two years ago:

Those who display the most vehement distrust in the ability of their government to act well in domestic affairs will often be the most fervent believers in the ability of their government to act well in foreign affairs.

The similarity is striking, is it not? One wonders whether Will happened upon my pithy wisdom and immediately pilfered it for his own use, or whether it has merely taken him two years fully to absorb the complex richness of my devastatingly original observation. Speculation could indeed run wild, but forbearance would be seemly.

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Sitting in a dank room lit only by a single candle a few nights ago, an acquaintance of mine explained a thought of his about Africa. As we sipped our homemade banana beer (which I believe was responsible for an unpleasant trip to the toilet a few hours later), he talked of how both literal and metaphorical darkness is such a salient element of the Africa experience.

In a continent of little electricity and black skin, literal darkness subsumes detail and nuance. Faces become floating eyes and teeth, potholes and washouts in dirt roads become shadowy rivulets of an unknown depth. Metaphorical darkness manifests itself in the disconnectedness caused by lack of trade, routes, education. Candles of knowledge are rare; rarely are they lit; rarer still can they be used to light other candles.

Images make the point best. Bill Easterly just posted three good ones on his blog (click on the images for larger sizes and/or the source):

The first is of seafaring routes from a World Bank report:

The second is a map of IP addresses and thus internet connectivity:

The third is of airline routes:

The last two are ones I’ve found in the past. Here’s country size based on GDP:

And a more famous one again showing Africa’s disappearance:

Some economists are now using light data as a proxy for economic growth.

Darkness can be illuminating.

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Then, if ever, come perfect days.

A few months ago, I blogged about a WSJ article describing Berlin’s problems with boars. I so liked one of the pictures accompanying the article that I decided to link to it in the post, but for a reason I can’t recall had to download it to my hard drive and upload it myself to Flickr to do so.

Little did I know this simple action would thrust me athwart the snorting sounder of international copyright laws!

From my Flickr inbox last week (names have been changed to protect the guilty from further trouble):

Hi there,
I am the photographer and owner of the copyright of the boar photo in your photo stream.
Intended or not, the usage and posting of this image is illegal and an abuse of international copyright laws.
Please, remove the image from your photostream IMMEDIATELY and delete it from your computer.
If that has not been done until Monday, 15th June, 2009, I shall pass this on to my media lawyer.
Best wishes,
Herr Harrumph

As it happens, I had not had much to drink on what was an unseasonably warm June day, so my response was a bit dry:

No problem. We certainly wouldn’t want any more people to see the photo than absolutely necessary. Regards, Jeff

The jocular reply:

A man with an attitude. Rarely found these days. Congratulations.

And what is so rare as a day in June? A man with an attitude, perhaps, or a German who appreciates sarcasm?

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I, like undoubtedly millions of others, enjoy greatly the guerrilla-style train station dance routines of the past couple years, and the Antwerp Central Station is indeed a beautiful locale in which to have one:

So chipper and sprightly for a country with one of the world’s highest suicide rates!

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Two members of the GMU mafia who have done much to shape my worldview in the past few years, Robin Hanson and Tyler Cowen, did a Bloggingheads “diavlog” together (quite the portmanteau, diavlog, no?). Here’s a taste of the topics:

Tyler vs. Robin on the merits of cryonics (12:23)
Does fiction weaken your grasp of reality? (06:52)
Are economists evil? (12:10)
How to estimate the value of a person’s life (06:04)
Will prediction markets ever really take off? (08:06)
Has fame made Tyler boring? (02:27)

Vodpod videos no longer available.

They both have PhD’s in economics and are tremendously intelligent, but whereas Robin has more of the cold analytic attitude consistent with his background in physics and computer science, Tyler, the bearded one, is a self-described “cultural omnivore” who reads and travels voraciously and has written a popular ethnic dining guide to Washington DC.

For most the video will probably be esoteric and dry, but I watched it straight through with a dumb grin on my face as soon as I discovered it. This is partly because they talk about things I have an interest in, but mainly because I’ve read and interacted with these guys on their blogs and Facebook for several years now and so I feel I know them in a way seemingly belied by the fact I’ve never met them personally; there’s something wonderfully 21st-century about reading the acknowledgments section to a book and being as familiar with the names and relationships described therein as one of the author’s academic colleagues might be.

But generally, the video also reminds me of how much value from internet access I get above what I pay. I’ve often tried to guesstimate what my consumer surplus for internet is, and it’s easily in triple figures.  Friends may consider me a pretty miserly guy overall , but I would gladly let an ISP gouge me out the wazoo as long as the connection was fast and always on.

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One of my more disruptive habits is watching a lot of interviews, debates, and lectures online. Many’s the time when work or bed was delayed because of some 8-part video on YouTube that grabbed me and refused to let go. In the past week, this habit led to the curious coincidence of seeing two Charlie Rose interviewees use economic logic to discuss something about their professions, which of course I got a kick out of.

Marc Andreessen, who pioneered the web browser (and who has appeared on this blog before), spoons out his serving 39 minutes in.

ANDREESSEN: Silicon Graphics was a fantastically successful computer company in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that actually got put out of business by the PC. The engineers got freed up as a consequence of SGI being put out of business by the PC, went to work, and among other things are now at companies like Nvidia and ATI, that make these graphics chips and pose a significant challenge to Intel. Right? And so the cycle repeats.

The key thing happening there is innovation happened, right, and somebody — in that case, right, somebody benefited, somebody got damaged. But the process of damaging right at that point, Silicon Graphics, was a tragedy as far as Silicon Graphics was concerned, but it freed up those brilliant engineers to go on and create the next generation of technology.


And it’s that level of sort of, you know, turnover and dynamism and spin-offs and start-ups and venture capital that keeps the whole thing going.

It’d be hard to get a better example of creative destruction than that.

In the second interview, Conan O’Brien claims we’re in a “Golden Era of TV” (11’30”)*.

ROSE: Why do you think that is?

O’BRIEN: I think–the competition…There’s so much more television now, and I think to stand out, the writing had to get better.

And I think there’s a freedom in television that a lot of people aren’t finding in the movies. So, I’ll watch a Lost episode–I don’t know what’s going to happen. I really don’t know who’s gonna to live, who’s gonna die, I don’t know what they’re going to find. You watch an episode of 24, you watch an episode of House, and I think the overall quality of the ideas is a lot higher sometimes than what you see in the movies.

And I think it might be because there’s more competition, and I think clearly increased competition has been good for late night shows as well. There are more late night shows and there’s more comedy on television, and it’s forcing all of us to work harder than we probably would have.  If I had a monopoly on late night shows, I don’t know that I’d be working as hard as I do.

Straightforward stuff straight from Smith, but wait, there’s more (16’25”)!

ROSE: Do Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert represent anything new? A trend, or a direction?

O’BRIEN:…[I]t’s the degree to which you can specialize now, do you know what I mean? I think in a three network world, it was hard to specialize to that degree. Now, these different shows–you know, Jon’s done it brilliantly and Stephen Colbert has done it brilliantly–they can specialize. There used to be shows that could comment on the news but then had to do other things as well. You really feel like well now they have the freedom to just take, in a half-hour, take that to a further degree than it’s been taken before.

Adam Smith claimed the division of labor as one of the primary sources of the wealth of nations. If I’m better at milling wood and you’re better at milking cows, we will be more productive by specializing in what we’re good at and trading for the rest rather than aiming for self-sufficiency.  This wealth-creating division of labor is, however, “limited by the extent of the market.” If you and I are the only people on earth, in other words, it’s unlikely I’ll be earning my keep as an art critic.  Conversely, a large market allows for large degrees of specialization, just as hundreds of cable channels allow for more specific shows.

Conan later wonders whether TV will continue such that “everyone is working a certain very specific niche.” It’s not clear how he feels about that proposition, but Adam Smith did fret about a worker so specialized he only performed “a few simple operations” for his job. This man, says Smith, “has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention” and “naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”


*I couldn’t agree more. Movies rarely strike my fancy these days, but there are many TV shows I enjoy tremendously.

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