Professor Michael Thaddeus at Columbia argues that Columbia is cooking the books for its U.S. News rankings. It's always nice to have a consistent way to rank-order different otherwise-incommensurable things, and a lot of software products are in some sense designed to do that. What's an email inbox if not an attempt to rank your inbound messages by priority? What's the purpose of an online dating app if not to rank prospective mates for you? But all of these are gameable, so the right ranking to bet on is not the one that has the best initial premises but the one that's the most adaptable when it’s being gamed.1
This David Remnick interview with Russian historian Stephen Kotkin in The New Yorker is worth reading for the contrast with this thread questioning a number of Kotkin's judgments. As it turns out, the weird thing about 21st-century Russia is that it's closer to the European norm over the last few centuries. So the deep question raised by Russia's invasion of Ukraine is not Russia-specific, but instead how durable the entire postwar order is.
Nilay Patel interviews Matt Mullenweg of Automattic on WordPress and more. Guiding the software that runs 43% of the world's websites is a big responsibility, and this piece is a thoughtful look about how to do that effectively. One interesting detail is that internal decisions at Automattic are recorded in an internal blog-like collaboration platform called P2. “Dogfooding” is powerful, and it can’t be a coincidence that this successful platform manages itself using a variant on its own product.
Skift has an oral history of the month global travel shut down. For all the talk about airlines in particular being financially unprepared for the pandemic, it's worth noting that these companies are constantly dealing with emerging events that throw their schedules and growth plans into disarray—recessions, oil price spikes, labor issues, terrorism, military conflicts, volcanic eruptions, etc. So they're already geared towards sudden changes in plans, just not of this magnitude.
Jordan Schneider of Chinatalk on how China's foreign ministry is changing, and how's it's not. One notable claim: "[O]ne of the really striking things about the Foreign Ministry is the consistency in its culture from 1949 all the way through to today...the civilian army model is very well suited to conduct a diplomacy system with the peculiar expectations and limitations that the Chinese communist party places on the conduct of foreign policy."
- The Dollar Trap: How the U.S. Dollar Tightened Its Grip on Global Finance: a look at the paradoxes of reserve currencies. In the post-Financial Crisis environment, the US’s creditworthiness was questioned for the first time in generations, and yet this seemed to benefit the dollar relative to other currencies. There have been reserve currencies before, but none at a time when global flows of goods and capital are so rapid, and that creates all sorts of interesting paradoxes. The book hammers home the argument that, for all the negative things one can say about the dollar as a reserve asset, the hard question to ask is what could come close to replacing it.
- Drop in any links or thoughts that might be of interest to Diff readers.
- One big change in the world that predated the Russia/Ukraine situation but has gotten more intense since then is countries rethinking which industries are strategic: skepticism of TikTok and Huawei had been around for a while, but now in addition to social media and telecommunications hardware, countries are rethinking defense, energy, and food. What else gets added to the strategically-important list (and what gets dropped)?
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- A contract role using web scraping to track growth in a rapidly changing market. (Remote)
- A company creating a new product in the insurtech space is looking for engineers. (Remote)
- A company improving the fund closing process for VCs is looking for a product manager. (NYC)
- A company which gives retail investors in emerging markets access to US equities is looking for frontend engineers (React/React Native) and backend engineers (node.js). (US time, remote)
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Which is not to say that gaming the rankings is all bad. Credit score sites will literally give users advice on how to boost their rankings, and there's an entire industry devoted to getting people (modest) improvements in standardized test scores. In both cases, they're making the metric partly a proxy for willingness to take unusual actions in order to improve it, and while that makes the ranking noisier in terms of the specific thing it's supposed to measure, they make it more accurate in terms of measuring something broader—someone who is willing to make a few phone calls to boost their credit limit in order to get a better credit score is probably also willing to make a similar time investment in shuffling money between accounts in order to pay their bills on time. ↩