Longreads + Open Thread
Cybernetics; Thermometers; Scams; Media; Publishing; Paper Belt
Dylan Levi King has a great piece on Palladium on Chinese cybernetics. There are some academic disciplines that fall out of fashion for a while because they run into technical limitations; I remember reading about neural networks in the early 2000s as an example of a hypothetically cool technique that wasn't really feasible. So sometimes it's a good idea to go back and look at a collection of ideas that got outcompeted and see what can still be learned from them—both about what works and what doesn't.
Anton Howes examines the history of the invention of the thermometer. A good case study in how invention is a process: the thermometer evolved from a cool tech demo into a useful tool, but that process took lots of trial and error. Sometimes tools get invented before they're useful, and then the confluence of a good use case and an existing solution suddenly makes them matter again.
Adam Ciralsky in Vanity Fair profiles a con artist who holds conferences that ostensibly give funds access to wealthy investors, but mostly end up with the fund managers just talking to one another and not raising any money. There is, as always, much much more to the story. It's interesting that basically any two-sided network will compete with scams that claim to have one side of the network sewn up and will sell access to the other. This happens in dating, apartment rentals, and hiring, too. Which makes these businesses especially hard to compete with: not only can bad actors claim to offer a better product, but they can spend more on marketing because they don't provide it, either.
James Fallows talks about how some media stories are really the same story over and over. It's a very meta post, about how it's hard for media companies to adapt their content to changing circumstances, especially if they're used to having more control over the narrative.
Ann Kjellberg writes in The Observer about how an antitrust lawsuit reveals what's going on in the book publishing industry: they're increasingly reliant on a few big hits, and the romance novel business has mostly moved to ebooks that evade the big publishers. Every industry analyst longs for a lawsuit that will force firms to reveal internal deliberations and talk about their underlying economics, and this case is no exception.
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Paper Belt on Fire (Out November 29th): a very fun look at the Thiel Fellowship from one of the people who launched it. This book is some of what you'd expect in tone, with few kind words for the university system. And the content is great; criticizing existing institutions is very fun, but building new ones is a challenge—which, so far, has delivered impressive results. This book also has some good stories of the venture business, including some very aggressive behavior from big funds (names are named, angry emails are quoted in full).
Drop in any links or comments of interest to Diff readers.
What are some good historical examples of interesting companies founded by people who had recently been laid off? When a company needs to do layoffs, it has to balance between the financial cost and the morale cost, and one way to reduce the morale cost is to try to cut once, and quickly. Take time to figure out exactly who stays or goes, and rumors about layoffs will spread. So the least-bad option for a company will probably involve losing some good people.
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