- Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker has a piece on NSO group, and the surprising customers who use its spyware tools. One subtext throughout the piece is that there's a motivation gap in security: the people building secure systems can take pride in a job well done, and know that they've made communications safer for everyone. On the other hand, the people exploiting these systems are having a lot more fun: "Its programmers speak with pride about the use of their software in criminal investigations... but also of the illicit thrill of compromising technology platforms." At one point, when a WhatsApp compromise was detected, they used it to send a special message to WhatsApp security: a link to Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up." (For what it's worth, NSO denies rickrolling WhatsApp.)
- Riva at Hard to Write sounds the alarm on behavior-altering pathogens. This is one of those rabbit holes that you should carefully consider going down. There are many unknowns about effects and magnitude, but it is broadly true that 1) some pathogens change personalities, most vividly with ants but with many other species as well, and 2) humans are carrying lots of parasites and infections, and we don't have a comprehensive look at their effects.
- Lauren Collins at The New Yorker profiles a French expert on serial killers who faked it until he made it and then got caught faking it. This story is a nice complement to this Vice article on crypto influencers who identify and shame grifters: they're both examples of how Internet communities can form around disliking someone, but can sometimes find very good reasons to dislike that person. These are probably not the healthiest of communities, but they do enforce some honesty. In the short term, the Internet makes it easier to lie, because you can trivially spin up a new identity and say whatever you want about your background, skills, and achievements. On the other hand, the Internet makes it harder to lie in the long run, because the claims you make can be searched and compared, and some people have the inclination to do just that.
- Madhumita Murgia in FT writes about Father Paolo Benanti, a Franciscan monk trained as an engineer who advises the Pope on technology ($). There's a cartoonish view that religion and technology are directly opposed, and a more moderate one that they're uneasy with one another, but the steelman view on the matter is that a religion speaking to eternal truths should make great efforts to understand new technologies, since transformative technology refines those truths. The question of whether a sufficiently advanced AI can choose to do evil, for example, forces you to think very carefully about the nature of choice and of evil, and those thoughts can carry over to less abstract maters.
- Philo at MD&A has a phenomenal piece on "Scarcity Truthers," i.e. people who deny that artificially scarce goods are a significant cause of inequality and poverty. Strongly recommended. A lot of it is about NIMBYism, but applies more broadly. He does a good job of taking some assumptions about the effect of new housing supply seriously enough to see where they fall apart. My favorite thought experiment here is that if building 100 new units of housing in the Bay Area causes 110 programmers to move there, thus reducing the effective stock of housing, then we can flip this around and say that we can create arbitrarily many high-paying jobs, and arbitrarily many massive tech companies, merely by building more housing. Assuming it's better to live in a rich and prosperous country than the alternative, this ends up being an argument that SF should rezone every residential neighborhood to set a fifty-story minimum. Of course, that model is not true, but looking at where it breaks and what it implies is still instructive.
- Sweat Equity: Inside the New Economy of Mind and Body is a series of chapter-length vignettes about fitness entrepreneurs. This was a major source for last Thursday's post. A lot of the growth in fitness is from charging people more for working out more intensely and consistently, and it's great to see that an industry grows as it gets better at aligning incentives.
- The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century: full of bizarre anecdotes—Ford was a very strange guy—this book is an in-depth look at Henry Ford's impact, and his many quixotic efforts to change the world more than the Model T did. Aside from the more infamous ones, these included trying to end World War I by chartering a "peace ship," (step two of this simple three-step plan was unspecified, and it did not work), having Ford-employed social workers convince employees to stop drinking and smoking, and attempting to spur a return to agrarianism while still selling lots of cars. Getting extraordinary results in any domain is unusual, and the people who accomplish this are very unusual, too.
- Drop in any links or thoughts of interest to Diff readers.
- I'll be writing some pieces on the automotive industry soon, and readers with strong views on EVs are invited to reach out. (Just hit reply.)
- There's been lots of recent speculation about an imminent recession. Which could certainly happen! But, aside from housing, which sectors are likely to slow down in a surprising way?
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