Longreads + Open Thread

R&D Politics, Coffeehouses, Chargers, Digital Currency, Greedy Algorithms, Civil War


  • Swimming against the Current: This paper has a particularly interesting argument on how the federal government’s efforts on R&D remained concealed from mainstream political discourse in the latter phase of the 20th century. The Republican Party had to maintain a steady balance of providing support to their key business interests, without appearing to stray from their stated market fundamentalist principles and the Democrats wanted to pry away the support of key business interests from the Republicans by offering more support for R&D, without being accused of ‘loving big government’ by their adversaries. This led to ‘an awkward equilibrium emerg[ing] where both Republican and Democratic administrations work[ed] to keep the US developmental state hidden.’

  • Shaping the Public Sphere: This paper offers a nice comparison of English Coffeehouses and Parisian Salons during the Enlightenment. My favourite anecdote from the paper is an arbitrage run by the Londoners of the period. Coffeehouses offered access to the day’s papers, and the price of admission was only the price of a cup of coffee (a penny for unlimited refills).1 This squeezed the margins of the newspapers, who raised their prices for the coffeehouses in response. Coffeehouses retaliated by going direct-to-consumer and printing their own newspapers (which is easier than it sounds, because coffeehouses were the centre of gossip so it merely required someone to write down what they heard), and the newspapers vertically integrated as well, starting their own coffeehouses.

  • A long and fascinating interview with the CEO of charger manufacturer Anker. Especially fun: the electronics industry has a few $50bn-plus categories, like smartphones, computers, and tablets. But there are hundreds in the $3bn-$5bn size. Not exactly long-tail, but a big enough opportunity that an agile company can provide competitive products that are complements to big brands without having to worry that every single one of those products will eventually be crushed by said brands.

  • Interconnected on the strategic implications of China's digital currency efforts: it's a way for China to internationalize through closer ties with poorer countries that have relatively faster adoption of digital payments already, rather than a direct competitor to the dollar.

  • Rohit at Strange Loop Canon on greedy algorithms as a metaphor for politicized issues. Of course, many issues are naturally political, and hard to willfully de-politicize them. The cynical argument here might be that culture war issues are great, since they tend to suck up a lot of time and attention that could otherwise be devoted to turning more pragmatic questions into partisan ones.


  • The Impending Crisis is the essential text on the build up to the American Civil War. The mental model of this period which I've found to be remarkably durable is a game of 'historical chicken'. If you're not familiar, 'chicken' is the game where two drivers accelerate towards each other, and the first to pull out is 'the chicken'. The analogy can be applied to the North and South before the Civil War. Both sides were set on a collision course from early on and neither side appreciated how seriously the other took their desire to leave/maintain the Union, so neither ‘chickened out’. This book is an excellent chronology of how the collision happened, albeit lacking in facetious metaphors like this.

Open Thread

  • Drop in any links of interest to Diff readers.

  • Some organizations start out being exclusive and interesting, but end up being exclusive and dominated by social climbers. Which have avoided this pathology, and are there any good examples of an organization that went back to being more meritocratic over time?

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I’m running the modern equivalent of this arbitrage as I write this, using a coffee shop as a co-working space. There’s a balance to maintain on this arbitrage, where I want the coffee shop to feel as much like a co-working space as possible, so the more arbitrageurs, the better. But if too many people are hogging tables for most of the day (as I’m guilty of), coffee shops have to raise their prices in response, killing the arbitrage. (Right now, I’m pleased to say the coffee shop is ⅓ the price of a co-working space with a healthy population of regular co-workers, but there’s some network effects to co-working, and the price of coffee has been rising for a year so it’s unlikely my arbitrage continues to be as lucrative into the future.)