- Anna Hensel at Modern Retail has an oral history of the rise and fall of 15-minute delivery. It's partly a story of how scaling is qualitatively different at different paces: going from 2x growth to 4x growth requires a greater than 2x improvement in operations, since 1) there are more complex interactions to worry about, and 2) mistakes are made at larger scale. Especially notable: the people interviewed for the article have mixed opinions on whether the business can work at all.
- Steve Appleford profiles Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, but really writes about the decline of the entertainment mogul. When content gets matched to audiences based on algorithmic signals, it's harder for dealmakers and talent-spotters to have a place. After all, a dealmaker is just an inefficient implementation of an auction algorithm that sometimes takes sick days, and a talent-spotter is limited by both the scope of their attention and the biases in their taste. On the other hand, the quantifiable elements of any business tend to get commoditized over time, while the more qualitative ones can be persistently valuable. So the piece might be an elegy for one generation of media executives, but not for the entire category.
- Philo at MD&A looks at the case for and against regulating airlines' prices again, inspired by recent arguments in favor of more price controls. (There's a kind of funny class marker involved in adults being secondhand-nostalgic for the days of better service and regulated fares. It's one of those "tell me your family was quite well-off by the 1970s without telling me" things.) The highlight of the piece is a comparison of prices from the 1970s to today. Airline regulation affected travel across states, so California and Texas were natural experiments showing what deregulation could look like. Comparing flights within states (e.g. SF to San Diego) to flights of similar distance that cross state lines (NYC to Raleigh) shows that prices dropped significantly more for those interstate routes.
- Astral Codex Ten has a series on how the media do not, generally, lie, with a follow-up here. The main thrust is that the stories you find misleading are often using accurate data in a way that, charitably, reinforces an alternative narrative, and that, uncharitably, tells a completely different story. So some news stories end up being like the classic description of The Wizard of Oz: "Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again." One note on the post, though, is that the methodology is hard to get right: search engines work pretty hard to suppress some kinds of content, so Googling a contentious topic will often yield the most anodyne results related to it. So the people best positioned to know if their media outlet of choice is lying are the one who read it regularly and unfiltered—and those people are, of course, reading something whose views they broadly find agreeable.
- Sarah M. Brownsberger writes about words shifting their part of speech in The Hedgehog Review. "We flew to a non-towered airport, self-concealed in a low-rise urban area, and groaned over the health-care options in our new-employee on-boarding pre-package. We wondered: Were we condensing phrases to terms because we were typing with our thumbs? Had we come to expect listeners and readers to autocomplete and fill in syntax? Had work jargon saturated private life because Americans worked such long hours? Had a generation told by daycare providers that they were good toy-picker-uppers grown up to make a norm of behaviorist verbing?" This is one of those bits of cultural commentary that occupies an unsteady middle ground between making a bombastic claim about cultural decline, and just making a bunch of funny observations about the modern world. Of course people get skeptical of linguistic changes as they get older. We all learn rules as we learn to read and write, and those rules are fundamentally arbitrary. So the asset of proper usage turns into the liability of dated usage, and that's unfortunate. It is sometimes a good exercise to rephrase jargony comments in simpler and more direct language, to see if they're ridiculous, tautological, or just a more compact way of saying something useful.
- Slouching Towards Utopia: This book bills itself as an economic history of the Long Twentieth Century, from 1870 to 2010, when economic growth was propelled by 1) a series of transformative organization technologies like research labs, globalization, and the corporation, and 2) politicians who agreed with the author, Brad DeLong, on issues of regulation and distribution. The book has a number of great tidbits—by 1870, almost every product could be moved more cheaply between countries by ship than within them by road, for example. But the book also has a persistent habit of dismissing counter-narratives without really digging into them, which is unfortunate. It might be a better book for people who disagree with DeLong, who will get some new information and some arguments to wrestle with.
- Aristocracy of Talent: A history, and qualified defense, of meritocracy. This book has some wonderful anecdotes about the long struggle to put competent people in charge—and the subsequent struggles to a) properly define "competence" in a way that didn't end up rewarding existing elites or rising sociopaths, and b) to deal with the further consequences of necessarily less holistic selection criteria. The book does a great job of steelmanning some weird historical trends: selling military positions, for example, was both a way to get prospective officers to precommit to winning fights because they paid for their commissions by looting, and a way to avoid paying expensive pensions to officers, since they could sell their office on retirement.
- The Passenger: Cormac McCarthy writes wonderful fantasy novels in which every member of the underclass spends their off hours poring over the OED to find obscure new words to use ("The man’s a seducer of prelates and a suborner of the judiciary. He’s an habitual mailcandler and a practicing gelignitionary, a mathematical platonist and a molester of domestic yardfowl.") The book feels more nihilistic than it really is.
- Drop in any links or comments of interest to Diff readers.
- New years are a good time to reset, both for individuals and for companies whose fiscal year aligns with the calendar year. Last year, for example, the market turn corresponded roughly with the end of the year (the Nasdaq peaked in November but was trading within 3% of that peak at yearend, and the Nikkei peak in 1989 was on the last trading day of the year). Who's resetting what this year?
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