Weekend Longreads + Open Thread
Meritocracy, Capitalism and Religion, Jane Street, Eggheads, Apollo, Autism
Helen Andrews on meritocracy. She makes the interesting point that many broadsides against meritocracy end by—suggesting a better implementation of meritocracy! It's as if North Korea dissidents all condemned their government for insufficient juche. It's a good piece on legibility, and the difficulty of re-founding old institutions.
Tyler Cowen and Benjamin Friedman on capitalism and religion: a fascinating interview on the cultural substrate of the Western, and particularly US, way of doing business. It's easy to miss how much norms vary over time and place, so this conversation is a good way to zoom out.
The FT on Jane Street ($). It's a surprisingly important firm. Depending on whether you're in tech or finance, they're synonymous with Ocaml or ETFs. As it turns out, having a good franchise in two separate domains is a good way to make a fortune in both: "In the first six months of 2020, Jane Street made $6.3bn in adjusted profits, up more than 1,000 per cent from the same period in 2019, and its first-half net trading revenues were $8.4bn."
Caleb Watney on The Egghead Gap the US's successful twentieth-century strategy of soaking up as much intellectual talent as humanly possible. This is a small piece of the overall immigration debate—the numbers involved are comparatively tiny, and high-skill jobs have more agglomeration effects. I previously wrote about the US's comparative advantage in skilled immigration ($) last month (a later part of that newsletter mentions a rally in an obscure retailer, GameStop).
Nintil argues that the Great Stagnation is ill-specified. The question is not "What happened in 1970?" but "What things were happening from roughly 1930 through 1970, and why did they trail off after that point?" Aggregate productivity growth is the accumulation of many industry-specific changes, which interact in complicated ways. (If you'd told someone in 1950 about the coming ubiquity of air conditioning and passenger jets, would they have been savvy enough to buy real estate in Singapore and Las Vegas?)
From Righto: 38 years of computing history in a box. This blog is indispensable if you're interested in computer history, with occasional digressions into things like mining bitcoin with a pencil and paper.
Making Silicon Valley: Like many people, I learn history in reverse. Whatever was happening when I was growing up feels like the default state of humanity, but the more things change, the more important it is to work backwards and figure out why they were that way in the first place. This book largely focuses on what SV worked on before chips and software—there's a lot on magnetrons, klystrons, mass spectrometers, and the like. One of the highlights, from a very different time: when Varian refused to tell the military what its profit margins were, military procurement officers convinced a team of Varian engineers to quit, join another company, and start selling a clone of their product.
Digital Apollo is a very interesting book about the efficient frontier between humans and computers. It's a great story about coevolution at a fuzzy technical boundary: the space program was designed around technical limitations, human skill, and narrative. Having human beings land on the moon was a much more charismatic story than putting a robot there, but it was also a practical decision driven by latency problems and the low resolution of cameras: as it turns out, the surface of the moon had more boulders than 1960s-era cameras could spot. In 1969, the best hardware for running a dynamic lunar navigation program was still contained in a human head. This book is worth reading to understand how far back some project management difficulties go.
The Pattern Seekers: Simon Baron-Cohen on autism and ancient human history. This book advances a hypothesis that could find itself somewhere between a stretch and a tautology: that traits we associate with the autism spectrum, like an extreme tendency to systematize, led to the first inventions and thus modern civilization. While assortative mating has probably made autism more common—and a profusion of non-face-to-face means of interaction have made it much more salient—it is worth thinking about how neurodiversity has affected humans over long periods. The book is a good way to tie together the prehistoric invention of simple tools and art to the increasingly abstract, systematized world we live in today.
If the auto sector switches away from internal combustion engines by the mid-2030s, what's in short supply? And what's in oversupply?
What social norms will develop in the period between when vaccines have been deployed to some people and when herd immunity has been achieved? Will the vaccinated continue to wear courtesy masks?
Now that AMC is well-capitalized, what happens to the movie theater industry? Was their fundraise a roundabout way to transfer a bit more money to Disney shareholders?