The finest handpicked things from the stinking and burning dumpster fire that is the interweb.

Month: November 2023

Chosen suffering

This edition includes topics such as retirement crises, life hacks, social media reduction, and climate change.

A few wonderful thoughts

This wonderful post on lichens starts with two profound quotes:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” the great naturalist John Muir wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century. “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” the great naturalist Loren Eiseley wrote a century later as he considered the meaning of life. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

As an aside, the lyrical writing of Maria Popova is a joy to read. I hope I can write 1% as well as she can one day. If you are not reading her writing, what the hell are you doing in life? Also, I just bought her book Figuringa few days ago, I can’t wait to devour it.

I found these two gems in Kris Abdelmessih’s wonderful newsletter:

Paul Bloom on choosing your suffering:

It may be the major theme of my book–is about the importance of chosen suffering. I have a very different opinion about unchosen suffering, we can talk about that. The importance of chosen suffering is part of a good life, which is, I think the projects that make life worth giving[?] involve suffering. We often know this ahead of time.

And, having kids is such an example. For one thing in having kids, at least for me–maybe I’m prone towards anxiety–is really an experiment in feeling mild dread for the rest of my life. Loving such fragile creatures–and they remain fragile even into their 1920s–it is like there is a hangman’s noose sitting around your neck all the time.

And then they will separate from you. If you do it right, if you are lucky and if you’ll do it right, these creatures that you love and devoted your life to, will leave you. And, actually, if you do it right they will think a lot less about you than you will think about them. Because[?] they’re into their own lives. It’s such a perverse project. And I think it’s a very human one.

This video is a succinct summary of choosing your suffering. The idea is from his book The Sweet Spot, I’ve yet to read the book but it’s on my wish list:

BTW, there seems to be a risk free arbitrage opportunity or Amazon is fooling us.

This reminds of one of my favorite Jerry Seinfeld quotes:

Someone says to you “Oh you have it so easy. You’re so naturally funny and blah blah blah.” Yes, you are naturally funny and you do have that ability to figure that stuff out. But they don’t realize the amount of work that goes into it. It’s like going into the gym every day. It’s hard, you know how you walk in every day and you go “Oh geez I gotta do this again.” Yeah it sounds like a tortured life and you say it is, it is, it is. But you know what your blessing in life is? When you find the torture you’re comfortable with – courage, it’s kids, it’s work, it’s exercise. Yes it’s not eating the food you want to eat. Right, find the torture you’re comfortable with and you’ll do well.

Kris Abdelmessih on responsibility:

b) Get to having real responsibility as fast as possible

Responsibility = risk and risk accelerates learning. A little more responsibility than you think is appropriate will stretch you — if you want to rise to that you likely will. If you don’t feel stretched, even if you’re making good money, the human capital part of your ledger is being docked. Rest-and-vest attitudes are deceptively expensive in the long run — don’t ever adopt one in your 20s and 30s (and probably not after that either).

A few bangers from Jim O’Shughnessy’s tweet full of bangers:

“A good way to discover your shortcomings,” said the Master, “is to observe what irritates you in others.”

“Live your life as you see fit. That’s not selfish. Selfish is to demand that others live their lives as you see fit.”

“Seek to change yourself, not other people. It is easier to protect your feet with slippers than to carpet the whole of the earth.”

“If people want happiness so badly, why don’t they attempt to understand their false beliefs? First, because it never occurs to them to see them as false or even as beliefs. They see them as facts and reality, so deeply have they been programmed.”

I liked this post about lifehacks by Alex Guzey

seek ground truth and poke reality. don’t settle for proxies or for winning arguments.

never defer key beliefs. do everything possible to find ppl thinking from first principles rather than from what’s reasonable or what someone else believes

be suspicious if you haven’t felt awkward today

ppl good at thinking think that thinking is everything; people good at doing think that doing is everything. doers dismiss thinkers & thinkers are scared of doers.

if there’s something on your mind, write it down & get it out. maintain full attention on what you’re doing.

if you did a sequence of actions 3 times, make a checklist

if you have a thought and you don’t like it, you can tell your brain that you don’t like it and drop it.

add questions & ideas you want to get back to later to anki, snooze tabs, schedule them in asana.

if you’re not failing you’re not operating at the edge. if you’re not operating at the edge, you’re not learning as much as you can


Unpublic whispers

To reiterate what I wrote in a previous post, social media was fun, but it isn’t anymore. It’s become a performative hellscape where we’re all twerking and grinding for a “couple Elon bucks,” as Ryan Broderick put it elegantly. Opening Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn leaves you with a nauseating feeling—everything is just fake, plastic, airbrushed horseshit. Twerking—too much twerking—for likes and shares.

The greatest trick these platforms pulled was letting an entire generation delude themselves into thinking that they weren’t debasing themselves by twerking at the altar of attention. I say this because I’m no saint; I’ do my share of twerking and grinding.

An illustration of social media platforms as dance bars where people are dancing and grinding for social media likes, shares and attention.  People are dancing even if they are tired and delirious because they crave the attention. Ok, but make it a little dark, foreboding and slightly dystopian

I’m writing this because I came across two brilliant posts by Thomas Bevan.

The End of the Extremely Online Era

The consequences of life lived online have bled through into the real world and this has happened because we have allowed them to. It’s a cliché to say that real life is now a temporary reprieve from the online, as opposed to the other way around. We pay the price for all of this via boarded up shops, closing pubs, empty playgrounds and silent streets as each individual stays at home each night, enchanted by the blue flicker of their own little screen feeding them their own walled in world of news and content and edutainment.

I believe it will end, this so-called way of life. Not through the Silicon Valley oligarchs spontaneously developing a conscience or being legislated into acting with a modicum less sociopathy. I don’t believe people will be frightened into changing how they act or suddenly shamed into putting their phones down for once in their lives. Such interventions don’t work with most addicts and more and more people are legitimately hooked on their devices than we are currently willing to countenance. No, I think this will all end, as T.S Eliot said, with a whimper. People will simply lose interest and walk away. Because the internet now is boring. People spend all day scrolling because they are trying to find what isn’t there anymore. The authenticity, the genuinely human moments, the fun..

The Internet is Boring

We can do what we want here. We’ve always been able to. The first step is admitting how bad things are (it’s no accident that by far the most popular thing I have ever written is about how dull and unsustainable this Extremely Online era is. I touched on something many have felt but not articulated). Our arts and culture are not good enough. We’re not good enough, and so there is no misunderstanding I say that in a spirit of love and encouragement. We are, both collectively and individually, capable of so much more than frenetically edited youtube shorts and trend chasing and parasocial relationships with influencers and impotent moaning about the present and rose tinted nostalgic longing for some pre smartphone past. We could be so much more. We could create art that is so much more truthful and searching and humane and ambitious (and that is also fearless and angry and rabble-rousing if need be).

These two posts capture my own vibes about being online. It just isn’t fun anymore. Ok, that’s a lie. It feels good when I am shitposting, but that dopamine rush quickly wears off, and it all starts being shit again. I’m not saying we all should rise up like the Luddites and smash our modems and slash our LAN cables like they did handlooms and head toward the forests. I think you can still be online without having to feel terrible, and it starts with being a little mindful of what we consume. Otherwise, we will be consumed. Being online can’t be at the expense of a divorce from the real world. In other words, pick your rabbit holes carefully—this website is my attempt at it.

Anyway, this bit stood out in the second post:

we have ways of meeting in private groups and hanging out and talking to each other via video as a prelude to meeting face to face.

The observation is spot on; people don’t seem to enjoy posting and sharing things publicly. It shows up in the the data as well.

We find that many measures of open participation, such as sharing and commenting, have declined across countries, with a minority of active users making most of the noise. Looking back, we can detect a period of peak sharing in some markets between 2016 and 2019, primarily driven by Facebook and by divisive events such as the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, and the vote on Catalan independence in Spain. But since then, online participation has shifted to some extent into closed networks such as WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, and Discord, where people can have private or semi-private conversations with trusted friends in a less toxic atmosphere.

The first time I noticed this trend was when I was writing a previous post on the travails of news publishers.

Public feeds of all social platforms are filled with garbage from “influencers” and “creators.” It’s just a sea of rote, anodyne, regurgitated bullshit out there. Add to this the relentless toxicity of the platforms, people seem to be spending more time in messages and private chat groups than share on public feeds. Even the head of Instagram admitted as much a few months ago:

Outside of TikTok, Mosseri is eyeing another competitor: encrypted messaging platform Telegram. Most of Instagram’s growth has been in stories and DMs, Mosseri said on the podcast. Mosseri has shifted resources to messaging, he said. “Actually, at one point a couple years ago, I think I put the entire stories team on messaging,” Mosseri added. DMs are also crucial for younger users. “If you look at how teens spend their time on Instagram, they spend more time in DMs than they do in stories, and they spend more time in stories than they do in feed,” Mosseri said. Young users below the age of 20 are also actively using Instagram’s Notes feature (think Y2K era AIM status), prompting new conversations and driving up overall engagement on the app among teens, Mosseri said. “But, the thing is, we’re not a messaging app,” Mosseri noted.

This is an interesting shift in how people are interacting on platforms. The implications for brands and marketers are obvious, but what it means at a larger level is anybody’s guess. On an interesting note, the activity on Substack Chat seems decent. It’s not as much as Twitter, but it’s much slower and saner than Twitter. I’ve no idea about the numbers, but it’ll be interesting to see Chat becomes popular.

On that note, here’s the link to my chat.

On a related note.

If you are in the market for a fresh and brand new reason to feel like shit, check your phone for stats on how many hours you use it in a day. Now, do the math on how much time you spend glued to your phone screen in a year. Immediately after that, let your sub-conscious human brain do what it does best: come up with rationalizations that you do plenty of useful things other than rage tweeting or subjecting the world to your narcissism on Instagram. After that, let your conscious brain murder your rationalizations, and you have my permission to feel like shit.

Josh Drummond on smartphone addiction

Yet. These days, as I scroll, it’s accompanied with the feeling that I’ve been conned. Looking at the numbers, it’s clear: I’ve spent more than a year of my life on smartphones and the return on investment is terrible. You could excuse the sheer amount of time spent if there’d been something to show for it — a big social media presence, the ability to code, learning a language on Duolingo, a consistent output of pretty much anything creative. But I can’t make any of those claims. I know life is about much more than “productivity,” but even with that caveat my phone time is staggeringly unproductive. I post perhaps twice on Bluesky or Mastodon on a big day. Instagram is maybe once a week. Nearly all the time I spend on my phone (and, if I am being honest, my computer) is in passive consumption. Lurking. I don’t have many good memories of the half of my life I’ve spent on screens, or in fact any strong memories at all; it’s all one amorphous, algorithmic blob of memes and blogs and socials and takes.


Good reads

How the Story of Soccer Became the Story of Everything

A good timeline of how shady billionaires, and private equity funds took over soccer.

Just as the Moneyball era produced a generation of baseball fans who talked like Nate Silver, soccer’s age of decadence has turned fans into current-affairs obsessives. Sovereign wealth funds, sanctions, and debt seep into Saturday-morning chatter with the same frequency as counter-pressing or expected goals. The forces shaping modern soccer into something bigger, better, and more morally bankrupt than ever are the same ones that have blown up everything else. Following the sport is an education in oligarchs, oil, corruption, media, partisanship, politics, and the financialization of everything. You don’t even have to like soccer to learn from it—because in a lot of ways, the story of the sport’s last two decades hasn’t been about soccer at all.

The End of Retirement

Every month you work, you save a part of your paycheck to be able to retire at 60–70, kickback, and enjoy the sunsets. But increasingly, it’s becoming obvious that the traditional notions of retirement are flawed and a mirage. The biggest problem is that people are living longer than ever, which means they need a whole lot more money to get by from 60 to 90 or 100. Then there’s the issue of ageism, even as countries around the world face a demographic crisis that is leading to worker shortages. Old people can’t find work, even if they want to. Then there are the underappreciated issues of longevity: we can’t live alone because we’re social creatures. As the often-repeated cliche goes, loneliness is as bad as smoking and obesity. This is a brilliant piece looking at the many problems of the retirement system and the challenges retirees face.

HERE’S A BLEAK prospect for many retiring Canadians: they will leave or be pushed out of the workforce too soon and without enough money. They’re financially prepared for the short and medium haul of life after work, but not the long one. They will go on to live too long, in too poor health (increased life expectancy has also increased the number of years people spend being sick), with a dwindling ability to support themselves or live independently. Ultimately, they’ll become wards of the state, housed in long-term care at great cost to the government and society. Sinha said: “This is where our destitute end up, in these government-run facilities.” According to a 2019 report by the National Institute on Ageing at Toronto Metropolitan University, long-term care costs are expected to triple from $22 billion to $71 billion by 2050. “It will be the equivalent of the modern-day Victorian poor house for our old,” Sinha said.

Pair this post with:

An ageing country shows others how to manage

This means finding ways for old people to keep working. Nearly half of 65- to 69-year-olds and a third of 70- to 74-year-olds have jobs. Japan’s gerontological society has called for reclassifying those aged 65-74 as “pre-old”. Ms Akiyama speaks of creating “workplaces for the second life”. But the work of the second life will differ from that of the first; its contribution may not be easily captured in growth statistics. “We have to seek well-being, not only economic productivity,” Ms Akiyama says. Experiments abound, from municipalities that train retirees to be farmers, to firms that encourage older employees to launch startups. The elderly “want dignity and respect”, says Matsuyama Daiko of the Taizo-in temple in Kyoto, which has a “second-life programme” that offers courses for retirees to retrain as priests.

World Population Prospects 2022: Summary of Results

Return of the Robber Barons A review of Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else

This widespread insensitivity of the rich, who have protected themselves against the economic hardships suffered by the lower 90 percent, is discouraging, and does not portend well for long-term social stability. It is extremely short-sighted and incompatible with the America that much of the world has come to admire and wishes to replicate.

The answer does not lie in invoking protectionist policies of the past. Globalization, as Freeland suggests, is irreversible. Rather, it lies in adjustment policies, which means a much better educated workforce, and social protection for those too old to adjust and recycle themselves into other decent-paying job opportunities. But this is a costly project, and the abhorrence of the rich for paying taxes makes this a serious challenge, especially in the United States. Freeland touches on all these points and properly lays great emphasis on quality education.


Global temperature hit upper circuits

Hat tip to David Mattin

“The ERA5 record now contains two days where global temperatures exceed the pre-industrial level by more than 2°C. That this should happen in the same month that world leaders will gather to take stock of progress towards meeting Paris Agreement commitments at COP28 sends a very clear message – the time for definitive action to tackle climate change is now,” said Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) Director Carlo Buontempo. “While exceeding the 2°C threshold for a number of days does not mean that we have breached the Paris Agreement targets, the more often that we exceed this threshold, the more serious the cumulative effects of these breaches will become,” he added.

How 2023 scorched our dinner plates

While the price action on temperature is bullish, there’s a tiny issue: we might starve to death. Otherwise, it’s all good.

A depressing summary of how rising global temperatures are affecting everything from soy, corn, and wheat to blueberries and olives.

TLDR: It ain’t good; we’re going to die.

This year added another spicy ingredient: Some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded on Earth. Extreme heat in 2023 diminished wheat yields in India, while drought took a bite out of rice in Indonesia. Disasters worsened by rising average temperatures also took a toll. Cyclone Freddy tore up fields of corn, rice, and beans across Malawi in March, the brunt borne by small subsistence farms. Severe weather also took a toll on livestock. Heat and drought stressed cattle herds across the US, Heads of cattle were already at their smallest numbers since records began in 1971. It’s even making cows produce less milk.

As if this wasn’t cheerful enough, climate change is impacting maritime trade as well. Again, if you are a glass-half-full person, you can argue that ships are the biggest source of emissions, and less ships going around is good.

But

80% of global trade by volume is carried on the seas. So, we might just starve.

Apart from that, it’s all fine.

Discovery Memes

As the Chart of the Week shows, ports in Panama, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador and Jamaica are suffering most from these delays, with 10 percent to 25 percent of their total maritime trade flows affected. But the drought’s effects are felt as far away as Asia, Europe and North America. The drought will hamper trade for months to come, with canal passages set to halve to 18 ships per day by February, down from 36 in ordinary times. Economies reliant on the canal for trade should prepare for more disruption and delay.

But.

You can either be a glass-empty guy and die of despair even before we are slowly cooked like charcoal chicken or make some money. Climate change can be good for your portfolio.

Tradingview: KraneShares Global Carbon Strategy ETF (Black), iShares MSCI ACWI ETF, SPDR S&P 500 ETF and iShares MSCI India ETF.

Chartbook Carbon Notes 7 – The IEA’s message to the oil and gas industry: wake up!

A brilliant post by Adam Tooze decoding the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook.

Either the oil and gas industry is silently gambling that the energy transition will not happen, that we remain in the so-called STEPS scenario, which spells disaster for the planet. Or, if one assumes that current trends continue and politics and other non-fossil business interests are now driving an inexorable energy transition, then one can hardly avoid the conclusion that the titans of the oil and gas sector are burying their heads in the sand. It is not the green energy advocates but the fossil fuel holdouts who are losing their grip on reality.

Pair this with, a summary of the report.

Immune health is all about balance – an immunologist explains why both too strong and too weak an immune response can lead to illness

I reject the premise of this post. On a daily basis, if you are not eating a minimum of 250 grams of supplement pills, perineum sunning (sunbathing your butthole), rubbing the hide of a dead rat on your thigh, and drinking your own urine, do you even care about your health?

For immune health, some influencers seem to think the Goldilocks philosophy of “just right” is overrated. Why settle for less immunity when you can have more? Many social media posts push supplements and other life hacks that “boost your immune system” to keep you healthy and fend off illness.

Because sustaining immune balance is critical, tinkering with the immune system through the use of supplements is not a good idea unless you have a clinical deficiency in certain vital nutrients. For people with healthy levels of nutrients, taking supplements could lead to a false sense of security, particularly since the fine print on the back of supplements usually has this disclaimer about their listed benefits: “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. Not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

Ridley Scott would’ve made a kick ass historian 😂

But don’t think that insulting an entire country is enough for Scott. Speaking to the Sunday Times’s Jonathan Dean last weekend, he also reserved some ire for historians, some of whom have suggested that Napoleon might not be the most rigorously accurate film ever made. Scott responded by addressing the entire historian community. “Excuse me, mate, were you there?” he raged. “No? Well, shut the fuck up then.”

The wine is still going down a treat and our conversation meanders wildly, from whether aliens exist (‘I think we’ve been monitored for years!’ roars Scott. ‘How did the Egyptians build the pyramids? Rolling 20-tonne stones on logs? F*** off!’) to the dangers of AI: ‘We’ve got to step on this shit now, and move forward with incredibly tight constraints. — The Standard


From my swipe file

I have a swipe file where I collect interesting links, quotes, etc. Here are a few things I added to it this week:

The Dalai Lama should’ve been a rapper. I came across this long quote on Tony Isola’s wonderful blog:

“We have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time; We have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems; more medicines, but less healthiness; We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor. We’ve built more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever, but have less communications; We have become long on quantity, but short on quality.
These times are times of fast foods; but slow digestion; Tall man but short character; Steep profits but shallow relationships. It is time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room.” ―Dalai Lama XIV

“To feel most beautifully alive means to be reading something beautiful, ready always to apprehend in the flow of language the sudden flash of poetry.” ―Gaston Bachelard


That’s it for this week. Go and suffer a little.

Violent kindness

I’ve been fascinated by behavioral economics for a long time. As presumptuous as it may sound, understanding how people behave adds an important dimension to the understanding of markets. It certainly has for me. In fact, the book I recommend the most when people ask me for finance book recommendations is The Behavioral Investor by Daniel Crosby.

When I first discovered behavioral economics, I was stunned at the pathetic creatures we humans are. I memorized a laundry list of biases and made arrogant proclamations that people are stupid, much like everyone else. But the more I read, the more apparent it became that this truism that people are biased and irrational is incomplete.

The development of behavioral economics was a paradigm shift in the history of modern finance, but then it kinda started losing its way. Many behavioral researchers became more preoccupied with discovering supposed biases, finding cute little effects, and party tricks. Over time, the sheen around behavioral economics started wearing off. First, the field has been facing a massive replication crisis [123] as study after study failed to replicate in different settings. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there have been massive scandals. A few months ago, two superstars of the field who studied dishonesty were accused of being, wait for it, dishonest!

Despite all this, I’m in the camp that behavioral economics can be useful. It’s a valuable tool in the toolkit of investors, regulators, policymakers, and governments. But coming back to the point, as I read more about behavioral economics, it started becoming obvious that there’s more to the notion that people are biased and irrational, but I didn’t know what it was. The aha moment for me was when I discovered this paper a few years ago.

In sum, the notion that human judgment is fundamentally flawed appears to have been flawed itself. When we observe humans in adaptively relevant environments, we can observe impressive design of human judgment that is free of irrational biases. Because of trade-offs in error costs, true biases might also prove to be more functional than one would think at first. Some genuine cognitive biases might be functional features designed by the wisdom of natural selection.

The premise of the paper was that the so-called biases are not flaws but rather evolutionary adaptations that helped humans survive for over 200,000–300,000 years. If we were so useless, how did we make it to the 21st century? Of course, this isn’t a novel argument, but I was too dumb and slow to discover it. Evolutionary theorists have been making these arguments since the 1950s and 1960s. Gerd Gigerenzer has been a vocal critic of mainstream behavioral economics and has been making the case that many of the so-called biases are not irrational but ecologically rational for decades. But I hadn’t explored the literature on evolutionary rationality in detail.

A week ago, I started writing an article, and I had to dive deeper into the evolution of human rationality. While I was exploring the evolutionary literature, I came across this talk by the erudite and famed neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky. I knew of him because I had bought his book Behave, which has been lying unread on my bookshelf for a while now. The talk was just wonderful. Listening to Robert Sapolsky was like listening to a scintillating poem about the biology of the human brain. I hadn’t heard anything that left such a deep imprint on me in a long time.

I want to highlight a few wonderful parts from the video:

The single strangest example of violence I’ve ever heard of—and this is one having to do with Indonesia in the 1960s—is when a coup overthrew the government and instituted a right-wing military dictatorship for the next thirty years. In the year afterward, approximately half a million Indonesians were killed by right-wing death squads. The writer V.S. Naipaul was traveling through Indonesia at the time and kept hearing this crazy story about how sometimes these death squads would show up at a village to kill everyone and bring along a traditional Indonesian gamelan orchestra. One day, he runs across one of these old, grizzled veterans of one of these death squads. He’s talking to the guy, who is proud to brag about all the villagers and civilians he killed, claiming he was saving the nation. Naipaul finally said, ‘You know this crazy thing about how sometimes you people would bring like gamelan orchestras to these massacres?’ The guy said, ‘Oh yes, yes, whenever we could, we would bring an orchestra along.’ Naipaul said, ‘Why would you do that?’ In one sentence, the guy looked puzzled and encapsulated everything that’s weird about our violence. He said, ‘To make it more beautiful, of course.’

The duality of human nature:

There is no other primate on Earth that could make sense of our violence when we’re bringing along orchestras to make it more beautiful. Now, the single most complicated thing about us as this miserably violent species is that, at the same time, we’re the most altruistic, most cooperative, and most empathetic species on Earth. And we’re getting better at it. Consider that every single thing up here was invented in the last century – all these ways in which we are extending a sort of umbrella of empathy and protection in all sorts of unlikely directions. How do we begin to possibly make sense of the biology of us at our best and worst?

This is my favorite part of the video on what it takes to understand human behavior:

Now, one of the things that is absolutely clear with that is that you’re going to get nowhere in understanding these features of our behavior if you decide that here is the part of the brain that explains everything that’s going on or here is the hormone, or the gene, or the childhood experience, or the anything, or the whatever that explains everything. Instead, if we’re going to make any sense of these complex, context-dependent behaviors of ours, we have to look at many layers. So, one of these behaviors happens – it’s wonderful, it’s appalling, it’s ambiguously somewhere in between. And we ask the biological question: why did that behavior just happen? And when we do that, we’re actually asking a whole array of questions: what went on one second before in that person’s nervous system that instructed those muscles to do that good, bad, or in-between behavior? But we’re also asking what was going on seconds to minutes before in the sensory world that triggered those neurons, and we’re also asking what was going on with hormone levels hours to two days before that made that organism more or less sensitive to certain sensory stimuli that caused that. And then back to adolescence and childhood, in fetal life, and back to when you were just a fertilized egg, and then back to what sort of culture your ancestors came up with, and what sort of ecosystems, and what evolutionary forces sculpted all of that. If you want to get a sense of it, you’re going to have to ask that question on all of these levels.

A few other interesting highlights, that blew my mind:

Dopamine is about reward, but even more so, it’s about the anticipation of reward. Remarkably, if you block the rise of dopamine, the organism doesn’t press the lever. It’s about the goal-directed behavior. It’s about the pursuit of reward rather than about reward itself.

Testosterone does not invent aggression; it exaggerates existing social patterns of aggression. It turns out that testosterone does something even more subtle than that. People are beginning to realize that what testosterone really does is make you do whatever you need to do to maintain your status when it is being challenged. For example, you can have an economic game where people get status by making generous offers and give people testosterone and they become more generous in the game. In other words, if you shot up a whole bunch of Buddhist monks with testosterone, they would run amok doing random acts of kindness all over the place.

Oxytocin doesn’t make us more pro-social and makes us more pro-social to people who feel like in us. If it’s a them, it makes us crappier and more xenophobic to them.

Your genes shape everything that happens in you, and the thing is your genes have no idea what they’re doing. Saying that a gene knows, for example, when it is going to regulate cell biology, saying that a gene knows what it’s doing is like saying that a cake recipe knows when you’re going to make the cake or decides when you were going to make the cake. Genes don’t regulate themselves; what regulates genes environment does.

The talk seems to based on this paper. Watch the video, you’ll love it.


Good reads

What If Money Expired?

What if the value of your money decayed over time, like potatoes? A fascinating history of a radical proposal for money that had an expiration date

Is his idea of an expiring currency any more absurd than the status quo we inherited? Perhaps his greatest contribution is to remind us that the rules of money can be reinvented, as indeed they always have. Money is a construct of our collective imagination, subject to our complacency, yes, but also to our inquiry, values and highest ambitions.

Nitrogen wars: the Dutch farmers’ revolt that turned a nation upside-down | Farming | The Guardian

The Dutch dairy industry is a significant contributor to nitrogen pollution, which is harming natural habitats. The government wants to combat nitrogen emissions by shutting down dairy farms and asking farmers to downsize their herds. To none’s’s shock, the farmers don’t like the idea of losing their livelihoods. The country has been rocked by massive protests by dairy farmers. The far-right politicians have co-opted the protests to peddle conspiracy theories and xenophobia. Climate change is a societal problem as much as it is an existential one.

There may be no proposal that will satisfy dairy farmers. Any solution for reducing emissions will require either fewer farms, or existing farms to function differently, or both. No solution can guarantee that incomes will be unaffected. As environmental protections become more urgent, it is likely that some people will simply have to change the way they work, just as others might be forced to change how they travel or cook.

The lie of “deinfluencing”

“The vast majority of content we consume when we’re on social media is by amateurs as opposed to professionals, and that’s a dramatic shift in terms of how we’ve gotten our media content over the years,” he says. “The notion of the amateur is that they’re doing it for love and not for money; they enjoy the creative expression, they have no ulterior motives. That has created the expectation in audiences that these folks are trustworthy, and that’s exactly what makes them valuable to then sell on behalf of marketers and corporations.”

The other China shock: How surging Chinese imports transformed global agriculture

To feed its manufacturing industry, and economic development more broadly, China became the world’s largest importer of fossil fuels and minerals. The black curves in Figure 1 clearly illustrates the relentless rise of Chinese manufacturing in terms of both exports of final goods and imports of inputs. Also visible in the figure is another, less publicised shock to the global economy: after joining the WTO in 2001, China quickly went from being a net exporter of agricultural products to being the world’s largest importer. China currently imports more than 10% of all internationally traded agricultural goods, and more than 5% of global agricultural production.

Is Netflix’s First-Mover Advantage at Risk?

Now look: none of this seems to have resulted in actual cancellations. Yet. Netflix hit 247 million subscribers worldwide at the end of the last quarter, at least in part thanks to a crackdown in password sharing prompting new signups. But first-mover advantage only really holds so long as people don’t start questioning the value of their subscription. And with more price hikes, a greater effort to shift customers to ad-supported tiers, a notable slowing in the creation of viral phenomena like Stranger Things and Tiger King, and the rise of cheaper services like Peacock and AppleTV+ alongside the so-called FAST (free ad-supported streamers) channels, Netflix is, for the first time in its history as the streaming leader, facing real questions of whether or not it is worth what it costs to subscribe.

How I Read. Non-secrets for voracious reading

I loved this piece on reading.

Reading requires a lot of effort and practice. Hearing language versus reading it engages different mental processes. Reading forces you to move more slowly. If an author explains an idea to you, the constraints of natural conversation mean that you can’t just pause for 10 minutes while you think deeply about what he or she just said and then subsequently resume the discussion. Books enable you to do that. Of course, you can pause on audiobook and think about what the author just said. Often, though, listening to audiobooks is accompanied by other tasks, making it harder to devote 100% of your attention to the ideas being discussed or the story being told.


What a joke!

This post is more a stream of consciousness than a thoughtful take. So don’t be a judgmental prick.


Laughter is a weird expression. We laugh when we’re happy, and we don’t want to be sad. We cry when something is funny beyond your expectations. We chuckle when we’re understood, and we laugh out loud when we’re misunderstood. We laugh to cope with the absurdity of life and the crushing weight of the unbearable. Laughter is a release valve for our deep-seated thoughts and an escape hatch from reality. You can inspire people, give them courage, and give them hope, all with a smile. Are there any other human expressions or emotions that can help us convey so many things?

We seem to have had the ability to laugh as far back as 14 million years. That means we learned to laugh before we could speak. Even human development follows the same pattern; babies first learn to laugh when they are about 3 months old, even if they are deaf and blind. There also seem to be brain structures and genetic components to laughter. In other words, laughter is the result of natural selection. Laughter is universal, and it has been observed across different cultures and even species.

When tickled, the higher primates (humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans) all display a laughter-like behaviour (Caron, 2002; Fry, 1994). Fry dates the “rudimentary elements of contemporary humor” to 6.5 million years ago — a figure representing the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens and chimpanzees. However, it appears that Fry inadvertently misses the last common ancestor of humans and orangutans, which is approximately 14 millions old (Dawkins, 2004). This means that the rudimentary origins of laughter could be at least 14 million years old. — The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor

Humor is awesome, it’s like a social Swiss knife.

Humor provides a variety of physiological, psychological, social, and economic benefits. Experiencing humor boosts positive emotions while mitigating the perceived intensity of negative life events, helps people cope with stress and anxiety, makes utilitarian pursuits more enjoyable, improves creativity and aspects of mental health, and helps people manage relationships. Similarly, people who are good at making others laugh have an easier time attracting romantic partners, making favorable impressions on others, and navigating potentially contentious social interactions, such as negotiations and Thanksgiving dinners.

A bunch of academics actually looked for the world’s oldest jokes. Here are some that they found:

The world’s oldest joke is revealed to be an ancient Sumerian proverb dating back to 1900 BC – Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap. The Sumerian version of this joke occurs in tablets dating to the Old Babylonian period and possibly even dates back to 2,300 BC. The study notes that this joke is almost the ancient equivalent of a well known quip by the actor John Barrymore – “Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock.”

Other jokes that also make it onto the world’s oldest list include a more conventional gag from 1600 BC – how do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish. This is featured on the Westcar Papyrus and is said to be about King Snorfru.

This begs the question: Why do we laugh?

It turns out that the answer is complicated. Philosophers, psychologists, and biologists have been writing about laughter for thousands of years, but there’s no universal theory of laughter. The OG Greek philosopher and stud Plato hated laughter. He considered laughter evil, a vice, and said that important people should never laugh—I’m sure he was a riot at parties with his stone face and foaming mouth. Epicetus, another stoic Greek nerd, allegedly never laughed once in his life. But, others say, he’s misunderstood, and he periodically dropped some bangers such as this:

I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later. — Epicetus

Aristotle, one of the most popular philosophers with six-pack abs and a student of the hilarious Plato, had a more measured view of laughter. He considered wit an essential part of life but then argued that some forms of “jesting” should be outlawed—what a grump!

Aristotle was ripped—look at them abs. Maybe it was because he had to constantly hold his laughter, and his core got a brutal workout. Given that you have to clench your hind parts to stop laughing, I’m sure his butt was toned as well.

Wikipedia

But not all philosophers were miserable pricks. With time, philosophers became less unfunny. Immanuel Kant was one of the first to explain why we laughed:

“In everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing”

The French philosopher Henri Bergson said:

Laughter is a social sanction against inflexible behavior, which requires a momentary anaestheia of the heart.

Bertrand Russell would’ve sold out stadiums if he were alive today. The man dropped some real bangers:

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

“There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.”

“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.”

“And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence”

“Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.”

Fast forward to modern times, and we can laugh without risking the wrath of philosopher curmudgeons. So people have had the luxury of thinking more about why we laugh. There are many theories, but here are some popular ones:

1) humor reflects a set of incongruous conceptualizations, 2) humor involves repressed sexual or aggressive feelings, and 3) humor elevates social status by demonstrating superiority or saving face. These ideas reflect separate cognitive domains and therefore are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

1) We laugh when we think we are superior to others or at the misfortune of others.

2) Laughter is an outlet to release pent-up nervous energy. Sigmund Freud thought that humor allowed an outlet for suppressed or taboo views like sex and violence.

3) We find incongruent things funny. In other words, laughter is the result of a violation of our view of reality, and we laugh when this incongruity is resolved. This is how a joke works: there’s a setup and a punchline.

“The way a joke typically works is as a setup which leads your mind in one particular direction, and there’s a punch line which goes off in a totally different direction, and then there’s a resolution that happens in the brain, and this brings the two things which are incongruous together, and if the incongruity and the surprise is sufficient then that triggers laughter, a sense of amusement, or both.” — Jonathan Silvertown

I was watching an interview with George Carlin, and he shared a joke from his brother that perfectly illustrates the idea of incongruity resolution:

What we should do is take all the mentally defective people in this country, give them government jobs and just sit back and watch things improve.

This one is from Anthony Jeselnik:

Man, my parents were strict. Mom and dad were strict. My mom and dad once made me smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. An entire pack of cigarettes in one sitting. Just to teach me an important lesson about brand loyalty.

Another good one from Hannibal Buress:

I’m not an environmental person. Sometimes I let the water run for 45 minutes before I hop in the shower just to do it. It keeps running; it won’t stop running. It feels, you feel all… It makes me feel like the Poseidon of my apartment building—let the water flow. It just keeps running. So wasteful but it feels awesome. You never know, I might be saving somebody. Say some dude is drowning in a lake or the river or whatever; he’s drowning, but the water only comes up to right there because I decided to play a game of Madden before I hopped in the shower. I’m a hero; my methods are just different than yours.

As I finished writing the previous sentence, I discovered this interview where he talked specifically about the topic of incongruity in comedy:

You talked about how comedy’s all about incongruities, contrasts, exaggeration. Do you think about those techniques or those principles of humor consciously?

It happens automatically. Sometimes there’s a conscious heightening, you’ll recognize you’ve just chosen an image to make a point. Then your mind will just suddenly throw something at you that’s stronger—a heightening, to raise the stakes, a stronger word, a more visceral image, something that lights up the imagination, much better than the original thought. So you’re aware that you’re heightening and exaggerating further but you don’t use the word exaggeration or anything like that. All that stuff is just happening. And sometimes, afterward, I’ll look at something and say, “If I were giving a comedy lecture, that would be a good example.” I often think in those terms.

Don’t take the word of cranky philosophers and academics; listen to a comedian itself on why we laugh:

Paul Provenza: Jimmy has a book coming out. You have a theory about why we even have comedy.

Jimmy Carr: It’s a little bit pretentious. Are you sure you wanna hear it cuz it’s pretentious? Okay, so I was trying to think about why actually why do we laugh. Why is there an advantage in an evolutionary sense and a Darwinian sense to laughing? I think when you hear a joke, basically when you notice something that is out of place.

Tim Mimchin: Incongruent.

Jimmy Carr: Right, something is incongruent. I’m saying that the “haha moment” of a joke is very similar to the “aha moment” of ah I’ve had an idea, so you’re rewarding noticing difference and linguistic ability, and those are the two things that have led to our increased development over the last 4,000 years. Humanity, when we started, we were wandering around in the Savannah and you would look at a field and you would see a lion in it you’d notice that difference.

Chris Harddwick: Not bullshit! God put us here; he made us out of clay in a fucking garden and he ripped out one them goddamn ribs and made a pussy.

Jimmy Carr: He makes a very strong point. I would counter, but I just I think there is a I think there is an advantage. I think our culture has done very well out of laughter out of humor out of seeing something a little bit differently and I think you know the last couple hundred years.

Tim Michin: What do we still have to buy the book?

Jimmy Carr: We release endorphins when we laugh and then people come to comedy shows it is to it there’s a release of endorphins in your you’re happy.

Chris Hardwick: Endorphins is another word for brain cum basically.

Jimmy Carr: Brain cum, you release brain cum, that is what I meant to say.

Why write this post?

Last year, Brian Gallagher wrote a wonderful post in Nautilus magazine on why we laugh. I had read the piece but had forgotten about it. I rediscovered the piece again a few weeks ago, thanks to some algorithms—see, they aren’t all bad—and the timing couldn’t have been better.

In the last month or so, I’ve been bingeing on interviews with comedians. I don’t recall when I discovered stand-up comedy, but I’ve been a comedy nerd ever since. The only bright side of having to cross Silk Board every day is that you get a good chunk of time to do something useful in life as a Bengalurian. I loved listening to comedians so much that half the specials I’ve heard (not seen) were on my daily commutes, braving Bangalore traffic. I’ve gotten many perplexed stares at traffic signals as I laughed like an idiot.

Why?

To me, there are no better observers of the human condition than comedians. They are the sharpest observers of the absurdities of the world. You can learn more about the world and life from a brilliant comedian than from most news shows. The best comedians are good at shifting perspectives and framing things. They make you go, Hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way. They push the envelope on the thorny issues of the day. The most subversive power that comedians wield is their ability to give people the luxury of talking about touchy topics because they push the limits of what is acceptable and what is not. Of course, not all comics are good at it, but the best ones are.

Roy Wood Jr: The best jokes land in one of two places. It’s either the audience absorbs it as “wow, I didn’t know that” or “I didn’t look at it like that,” or it’s “that’s what I’ve been trying to say.” — Ted

The best comedians not only make us laugh but also think, and we are better off as a species because of that. Jimmy Carr nailed it when he said this on the Modern Wisdom podcast:

Jimmy Carr: For me, comedy has a function in society that no one is calling, which is we’re pushing the Overton window. We we’re always at the edge of what is and what isn’t acceptable. Like, I’m not just talking about like I happen to tell edgy jokes, that’s not what this is. It’s I’m seeing things as they are but kind of with new eyes. That’s sort of what Comics do – even the most kind of mainstream observational comedy have done well. You’re sort of questioning the reality, you’re saying ‘well this is, this is uh this is not normal, this is not how things should be, this is weird am I the only one thinking this is it just me that’ kind of Trope of comedy and it pushes what we what we think about the world, it pushes what’s acceptable.”

Chris Williamson: You said that comedians are often ahead of the curve on social issues.

Jimmy Carr: I think they are. I think like comedians really do kind of it’s the canary in the mine. It’s the sort of test in the air of what you can say and you know politics lags behind.

Chris Williamson: So does culture, you know. If you want to know what are going to be the biggest talking points amongst normal people in about 18 months time, look at the jokes that comedians are making today.

Jimmy Carr: Well I think there’s a there’s a there’s a argument to be said that comedy lives in sort of a space between public and private discourse, and it strikes me that there’s never been a wider gap between public and private discourse – what people are saying in bars and homes and on social media to their friends and and what the party line, you know, you sort of the party line’s pretty strong at the moment on what you can and what you can’t say. You know if you want to see where power really lives, what can’t you say? It’s interesting right. What can’t you say in a society? What isn’t acceptable in the world? You get into very interesting topics.

I think the best comedians are modern-day philosophers. I’ve been telling my friends and colleagues that George Carlin is a modern-day Aristotle for years now. It’s not just me; here’s Morgan Housel speaking to Tim Ferriss:

Tim Ferriss: Could you just define that term so we understand what we’re talking about? The the term is “happiness”.

Morgan Housel: I would say happiness is you wake up grinning ear to ear. Happiness is you’re out at a bar with your friends. Happiness is you hear the funniest joke you’ve ever heard, and that’s what I think people strive for and they think that money’s going to give to them and it won’t. But I think contentment is you just wake up with a low or virtually no level of anxiety. You’re like, I’m good. I’m pretty happy — I’m pretty satisfied with my career. I’m satisfied with my relationships. I’m satisfied with the house that I live in. That’s not happiness though. I think money can reduce the number of sad days that you have, but it’s probably not going to increase the number of happy days that you have. Now, that’s awesome. If you can do that, that’s a huge life improvement, but it’s not happiness.

Tim Ferriss: Unless you have standup comedy budget and you go to more standup comedy shows.

Morgan Housel: See, that’s actually a great point.

Tim Ferriss: I’m not really kidding. That’s something that I do quite a lot of.

Morgan Housel: I’ve been on such a comedy binge lately, just Netflix specials. And I’ve said this many times, but I think comedians are the only good thought leaders because when you listen to good comedy — 

Tim Ferriss: They’re the only practical philosophers left.

Morgan Housel: Exactly. And not only do you laugh, but you get smarter. I think George Carlin was a bonafide genius. I think Bill Burr is a genius. Those guys understand human behavior better than any psychology PhD does.

This Will Durant quote on the link between comedy and philosophy is on the money:

“A sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship to philosophy; each is the soul of the other.” ― Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

Here’s Lawrence Yeo:

The comedian Tim Dillon was once asked about Jocko Willink’s book, Discipline Equals Freedom. The interviewer wanted to know if Tim thought that discipline was important to cultivate, and if it was a key ingredient to his success.

To that, Tim quipped, “Hey, how about freedom equals freedom? Has he ever thought of that?

Comedians are the great philosophers of our day, primarily because humor is all about framing wisdom in an absurd way. And Tim’s response is a great example of this dynamic in action.

Of course, it goes without saying that I am projecting my views on the comedians that they probably don’t agree with. This act of imposing your hopes and beliefs on people, especially comedians, reminds me of a few things. One is this post on Reddit from a guy who hates it when people call comedians philosophers.

Look, I love George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Stewart Lee, but I’m really hesitant to call them philosophers. Carlin was the closest in that category, and he certainly had philosophical insights, but he was by no means a philosopher. Most comedians raise insights, but they don’t give any answers, which is half the job of a philosopher. That and most of them aren’t as inclined to inform, as they are to entertain.

This person has a point about entertainment vs. insight. This reminds me of an episode on The Green Room with Paul Provenza, a talk show with a panel of comedians involving Jimmy Carr:

Tim Minchin: I don’t do comedy about politics in the domestic politics sense. The reason I do comedy about logic, religion and belief systems is because I feel like I can go ‘well, that’s fucking wrong’ and ‘this is why that’s fucking wrong.’ And that’s why I avoid politics cuz I cannot ‘well but again, I get what’s right and wrong about it.'”

Jimmy Carr: It’s a different thing for me as a comedian. I’m purely an entertainer. I’ve got no message at all. All I’m doing is trying to make people laugh. I’ve got no… I don’t think anyone should be listening to me, particularly.

Here’s Bill Burr on why he became a comedian:

“I thought I became a comedian because I loved comedy and I liked making people laugh,” Burr says. “But I became a comedian because by the time I was 23, I was so walled-off and fucked-up that doing stand-up was the easiest way to go into a room full of strangers and make them like me so that no one would hurt me. I was onstage with the mindset of a 6-year-old from 23 to about 37.”

Here’s George Carlin:

John Stewart: When you were a kid growing up, yeah, you wanted to be Danny Kaye, he and Bob Hope. So, look, how do you think this thing is working out so far?

George Carlin: Well, I knew I wanted to stand up, and you know, I’d be silly and have people say, ‘ain’t he cute and clever,’ and that’s all it was, a reward, a psychic reward, you know? When you’re a kid, and you find out that you can get the attention of adults, approval, and a little bit of respect, and you just hunger for it, you keep going back for it.

And finally, the legendary and amazing Norm Macdonald:

When you’re a comedian, they expect you to know things nowadays. You know what I mean? It didn’t used to be like that. Like during the Vietnam War, they wouldn’t go, “I wonder what Red Skeleton thinks on this?” But nowadays, like I’ve heard they go, “A comedian is the modern-day philosopher, you know?” Which first of all, it always makes me feel sad for the actual modern-day philosophers who exist, you know?

Every comedian is different.

Legends like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin despised the limits on free speech and reveled in rebelling against the hypocrisy of society at great personal risk. Both were arrested numerous times for violating obscenity laws that were prevalent across America. They took aim at the notion that profane words would somehow corrupt society and destroy social values. They inspired a generation of comedians to express themselves freely.

“I want to help you if you have a dirty-word problem. There are none, and I’ll spell it out logically to you. Here is a toilet. Specifically-that’s all we’re concerned with, specifics-if I can tell you a dirty toilet joke, we must have a dirty toilet. That’s what we’re all talking about, a toilet. If we take this toilet and boil it and it’s clean, I can never tell you specifically a dirty toilet joke about this toilet. I can tell you a dirty toilet joke in the Milner Hotel, or something like that, but this toilet is a clean toilet now. Obscenity is a human manifestation. This toilet has no central nervous system, no level of consciousness. It is not aware; it is a dumb toilet; it cannot be obscene; it’s impossible. If it could be obscene, it could be cranky, it could be a Communist toilet, a traitorous toilet. It can do none of these things. This is a dirty toilet here. Nobody can offend you by telling a dirty toilet story. They can offend you because it’s trite; you’ve heard it many, many times.” ― Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People

Richard Pryor, one of the greatest comedians ever, was the son of a prostitute and a pimp and had a hellish childhood. He lived his nightmares and dealt with his demons on stage, and in doing so, he shone the light on what it meant to be a black man in America. Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and others followed in his footsteps and became geniuses in their own right for their searing dissections of American social and cultural mores.

Jerry Seinfeld, as Ricky Gervais put it, is “the purest observational comic.” Don Rickles is one of the greatest insult comics ever, and he never wrote down anything. Everything was off-the-cuff.

Today’s comedians are different, and of course, comedy itself is never one thing. It mutates and changes like a virus as it interacts with society, lived experiences, culture, and money. Today’s comedy is arguably more political than ever. It’s funny when you consider the fact that more people watched Jon Stewart for their news than real news shows; he was the most popular fake newsman in America. John Oliver, who got his start under Jon Stewart, continued the tradition. You can see this need to be political among Indian comics as well. It’s a weird thing to see them talk about the absurdities of politics while they go to great lengths to tell us they are not experts.

Maybe people like me are living vicariously by projecting our ideals onto comedians. Maybe there are very few comedians who consider themselves social justice warriors or psychologists without credentials. Maybe by building them up into something they are not, we can express our deep-seated beliefs and frustrations. It’s just like imbuing useless objects with meaning through stories, religion, and just plain time—a musician’s underwear + 50 years = a collectible.

But hey, what do I know?

But whatever the case, comedians are incredibly insightful. Every time you listen to them, you can pick up a thing or two. For example, the last time I heard Bill Burr, I wrote a post on a few things about money I learned from him.

I’ve been listening to long-form interviews with comedians for the past month or so, and I can’t get enough. They’re wired differently, and their views on work, life, and love are fascinating. I loved this quote from Jimmy Carr that perfectly captures what makes comedians special:

As British comedian Jimmy Carr and writer Lucy Greeves put it in their book, Only Joking: What’s So Funny About Making People Laugh?, “Stand-up comedy is a peculiar performance art form. In a room filled with people, the comedian is the only one facing the wrong way. He’s also the only one who isn’t laughing. For normal people that’s a nightmare, not a career aspiration.”

Here’s what I’ve been watching and listening to:

Talking funny with Jerry Sienfeld, Chris Rock, and Ricky Gervais

Jimmy Carr – The Secret Hacks For Living A Fulfilled Life

I’m halfway through this one, and it’s just amazing. I highly recommend listening to it.

A beautiful interview with George Carlin, one of my idols

I had goosebumps right at the intro:

We are honoring this, this time around, an icon, a fellow who has really changed comedy as we know it. Literally, he’s celebrating 50 years of entertainment this year. He’s gone through more changes than most people do in a lifetime, and he’s invited us along on those changes. And sort of like the Beatles, we’ve gone through those changes with him. And he spent 50 years, think about that, 50 years making us laugh and, more importantly in some people’s opinion, he spent 50 years making us think. As you welcome, please, Mr. George Carlin.

Seth MacFarlane is a goddamn genius

I enjoyed this conversation of Anthony Jeselnik and Whitney Cummings

I just started watching these

Dave Chappelle with Naomi Campbell

The Power of Laughter with Nuar Alsadir

How Social Media Forced Political Comedy to Evolve | Offline with Jon Favreau

Things on the playlist:

The Evolution of Humor with Biologist Jonathan Silvertown

How Social Media Forced Political Comedy to Evolve | Offline with Jon Favreau

Breaking Bread with Wayne Federman

Jon Stewart interviews the legendary George Carlin

A few good reads

Why do we laugh? New study considers possible evolutionary reasons behind this very human behaviour

Why do we laugh when someone falls down? Here’s what science says

The evolutionary origins of laughter are rooted more in survival than enjoyment

What’s So Funny? The Science of Why We Laugh

Truth Is What a Comedian Makes of It

The Rise of “Clapter” Comedy

Was George Carlin really a prophet?

How Funny Does Comedy Need to Be?

Philosophy of Humor

I’ll leave you with a few things.

A brilliant quote:

A thing is funny when—in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening—it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution. If you had to define humour in a single phrase, you might define it as dignity sitting on a tin-tack. Whatever destroys dignity, and brings down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny. And the bigger the fall, the bigger the joke. — George Orwell

A few of my favorite bits

Norm Macdonald on the Germans

George Carlin on Stuff

The yellow cake bit from Chappelle Show

One of my all-time favorite jokes from the amusing Norm McDonald

Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes

Happy Diwali, folks, and go crack some inappropriate jokes about Diwali food-induced farts killing the cracker industry and leading to the unemployment of millions of minors.

Amusing ourselves to death

Ok, here’s what I found on the dumpster fire that is the interweb this week:

  1. Alain de Botton on a healthy mind.
  2. The end of open social media.
  3. Out the money reads: Did SEO ruin the internet, future of NGOs, climate change impact in poor countries, downside of EVs and more.
  4. Raghuram Rajan on the 2008 crisis, central banking, inequality, unconventional monetary policy, and more.
  5. Bond markets are going electronic in Europe.
  6. In the money reads: emerging markets resilience, performance chasing, college wage premium, personality traits, career success, and more.

A few good thoughts

I came across writer Alain de Botton’s beautiful post on the wondrous human mind, thanks to The Marginalian. Here are a few evocative excerpts:

So efficient and hushed are our brains in their day to day operations, we are apt to miss what an extraordinary and complicated achievement it is to feel mentally well. A mind in a healthy state is, in the background, continually performing a near-miraculous set of manoeuvres that underpin our moods of clear-sightedness and purpose.

A healthy mind knows how to hope; it identifies and then hangs on tenaciously to a few reasons to keep going. Grounds for despair, anger and sadness are, of course, all around. But the healthy mind knows how to bracket negativity in the name of endurance. It clings to evidence of what is still beautiful and kind. It remembers to appreciate; it can – despite everything – still look forward to a hot bath, some dried fruit or dark chocolate, a chat with a friend, or a satisfying day of work. It refuses to let itself be silenced by all the many sensible arguments in favour of rage and despondency.

A Therapeutic Journey: Lessons from the School of Life | Extract | Hat tip to Maria Popova

Another beautiful quote I found on the site:

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”

―John Milton

Rummaging through quotes on Goodreads has become a new pastime for me. I’ve heard a version of this quote from other accomplished and smart people that I look up to as well:

“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

― Neil deGrasse Tyson

“Sometimes, carrying on, just carrying on, is the superhuman achievement.”

―Albert Camus

Jim O’Shaughnessy shared this:

Anthony de Mello’s four truths:

1. Attachment or Happiness, you must pick one.

2. You didn’t pick your original attachments, you can rewrite them.

3. To be truly alive, you must have Perspective.

4. No thing or person outside you has the power to make you happy. Only you can.


Out of the money

The end of open social media

It’s hard not to look at statistics like this and be shocked, even though we know them at some level. It’s nuts.

Statusbrew

The first popular social network in my circle was Orkut by Google. I don’t have a good recollection of what I used to do on the platform; it couldn’t have been anything useful. Soon, Orkut withered as Facebook became popular. I have fairly good memories of the dumb things I used to do on it. The earliest memory I have of Facebook is using the poke feature. Remember that? It’s something you did to annoy your friends.

Business Insider

These were good times. Social platforms were still called social networks, not social media. You checked in with distant friends, shared memories, rediscovered old acquaintances, found your soulmates, and sometimes even did accidentally useful things. Fun times. Hundreds of social media platforms came and went, but Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram remained popular. They became part of our daily lives. Without realizing it, we were getting hooked on the tiny dopamine hits of likes, pokes, shares, and retweets. But it was still okay; we were just having innocent fun.

Somewhere along the way, social networks became social media, and it all went to shit. The trouble started when social platforms started pushing news and branded content compared to updates from friends. Instead of poking each other, we started arguing about politics and other divisive topics. The platforms wanted engagement, and what better way than to enrage people? This strategy started to backfire starting around 2015.

Platforms had started to go to shit long before, but the 2016 US election, in which Donald Trump won, was the moment when the developed world went, “Oh shit, we have a problem.” Trump brought out the worst in people, and political polarization exploded. Social platforms became outlets for people to express their politically motivated hatred and animosity. The incentives of the platform to peddle extreme stuff further inflamed the situation. It wasn’t just the US; partisanship and polarization rose in several countries across the world, and platforms were at the heart of the issue. Social networks not only became places where you bickered and argued over pointless shit with people you otherwise liked but also with random people from Albania and Montenegro.

The platforms—Facebook in particular—did a sharp U-turn around 2017–18 as they deprioritized news content, but it was too late. There was a time when the narrative about social platforms was that they would connect people and even make the world a better place. Remember the Facebook and Twitter revolutions in Middle Eastern countries like Tunisia, Iran, and Egypt? Of course, the role of platforms in popular uprisings was vastly overstated. This period marked the end of the fun era of social networks. The shift from “social networks” to “social media” was complete.

It’s just stunning that the narrative about social networks went from them being saviors of democracy to destroyers of civilization. Today, social media platforms are charged with abetting genocide, dividing people, tearing apart the social fabric, and unleashing a global mental health crisis among young people.

After their divorce with news, the priorities of the platforms changed. They no longer cared about pointless shit like connecting people and making the world a better place. Platforms are businesses, and business interests dictate the direction they take—it’s shareholder capitalism, baby. The shareholders and venture capital investors were clear on what they wanted—they wanted moar growth, more clicks, moar engagement, and moar money. Moar more!

Unlike most other businesses on Earth that live and die by their customers’ demands, social media services are caught trying to satisfy both their users and the people actually paying for it all: investors and advertisers. 

The needs of these groups are dramatically different. Users want what the platform was originally for — be it ephemeral messaging, sharing photos, or otherwise. Surprising, energized spaces to connect with friends in a new way. But these use cases inevitably have a limit. You can only post so many photos. You only have so many friends to message. And for investors and advertisers, that’s a problem. So each social network has to find ways to make you send another photo, or it has to deploy a brand-new feature and encourage you to use that, too. More usage, more space for ads, more money for investors. — Ellis Hamburger

Platforms get all the blame, but it’s not like the users were innocent. It takes two to tango. The engagement-engagement loop disfigured the platforms. The platforms were influencing us, and our behavior was influencing them. I want to be clear that it’s easy to paint platforms as technological manifestations of Darth Vader. Are they responsible for all the ills that plague society? The research is unclear on that, but they had arole,e and that much is clear.

When I spoke with Nyhan, he told me much the same thing: “The most credible research is way out of line with the takes.” He noted, of extremist content and misinformation, that reliable research that “measures exposure to these things finds that the people consuming this content are small minorities who have extreme views already.” The problem with the bulk of the earlier research, Nyhan told me, is that it’s almost all correlational. “Many of these studies will find polarization on social media,” he said. “But that might just be the society we live in reflected on social media!” He hastened to add, “Not that this is untroubling, and none of this is to let these companies, which are exercising a lot of power with very little scrutiny, off the hook. But a lot of the criticisms of them are very poorly founded. . . . The expansion of Internet access coincides with fifteen other trends over time, and separating them is very difficult. The lack of good data is a huge problem insofar as it lets people project their own fears into this area.” He told me, “It’s hard to weigh in on the side of ‘We don’t know, the evidence is weak,’ because those points are always going to be drowned out in our discourse. But these arguments are systematically underprovided in the public domain.”

How the hell did we think that bringing the entire world online and letting everyone talk to each other would end well?

A global broadcast network where anyone can say anything to anyone else as often as possible, and where such people have come to think they deserve such a capacity, or even that withholding it amounts to censorship or suppression—that’s just a terrible idea from the outset. And it’s a terrible idea that is entirely and completely bound up with the concept of social media itself: systems erected and used exclusively to deliver an endless stream of content.

But now, perhaps, it can also end. The possible downfall of Facebook and Twitter (and others) is an opportunity—not to shift to some equivalent platform, but to embrace their ruination, something previously unthinkable. Ian Bogost, The Atlantic

Fast forward to 2023. Social media platforms feel like landfills. Gone are the days when embarrassing pictures of your friends and family used to fill our feeds. Now they are full of branded bullshit, exaggerated nonsense, engagement bait, hustle porn, and endless regurgitation of content that people steal from each other or, worse yet, copy from Wikipedia. Every day, tons and tons of fresh garbage are delivered to landfills. We don’t even care about the stench anymore because we’re used to it.

Then there are those short videos. People have become zombies as they watch one short video after another. Talking to another human being, staring at the birds in the distance, or, god forbid, stepping outside into the real world has become unimaginable. Swiping to find the next 60-second video is preferable compared to the agony of living. An entire generation of brain-dead people just hunched over and swiping up, desperate to escape life.

Add it all up, and the social web is changing in three crucial ways: It’s going from public to private; it’s shifting from growth and engagement, which broadly involves building good products that people like, to increasing revenue no matter the tradeoff; and it’s turning into an entertainment business. It turns out there’s no money in connecting people to each other, but there’s a fortune in putting ads between vertically scrolling videos that lots of people watch. So the “social media” era is giving way to the “media with a comments section” era, and everything is an entertainment platform now. Or, I guess, trying to do payments. Sometimes both. It gets weird. — David Pierce, editor-at-large of The Verge

In 2023, one thing that seems clear is that the era of open social media is over. Social networks just stopped being fun. We’re no longer social media “users”, we’re performers. Platforms have become performative hellscapes where people have to debase themselves to make a buck. People are twerking for Zuckbucks, Elonbucks, and YouTube bucks. In response to the fickle whims of the social algorithmic overlords, people, sorry “creators,” are having to demean themselves even more by escalating their ridiculousness.

Elon Musk woke up and asked him the question: What’s the best way to blow $44 billion? His answer was to buy an ossified social media platform and make it even worse than it was before. Zuck wanted to liberate humans from the tyranny of Silk Board and move us to the metaverse, but he’s taking a liking to the real world again. LinkedIn has become a parody of real life. A weird platform where even the most banal things are exaggerated. Things like “I farted in the elevator, and it changed my outlook about how to be professional, here are 5 things I learned.”

WSJ

TikTok has become a cultural juggernaut in the US but faces an uncertain future after being banned in a large part of the world. For now, it’s the home of awkward and anxious teens craving the attention and validation of strangers in hopes that it will cure their acne outbreak. Instagram is no longer a cozy platform for amateur narcissists and terrible photographers. It’s filled with people peddling all sorts of nonsense, from magical jade stones that cure baldness if you put them in your butt to get-rich schemes. It’s a grifter’s paradise.

What comes next?

I’ve no idea, but here are some trends to watch out for.

  1. Twitter seems to be circling the drain as high-profile users leave the platform and other users reduce their activity. Elon’s new rightward turn and the boosting of right-wing nutcasesares turning the platform into a wasteland.
  2. Facebook is becoming less popular by the day.
  3. The future of social media may be a lot less social. There’s growing evidence to show that people are moving to private places like WhatsApp, Discord, Telegram, Instagram DMs, etc.
  4. Decentralized social networks like Mastadon and Bluesky are growing but are still light years away from the scale of centralized platforms.

I found this excerpt from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death interesting. I fear he may be right:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”

― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

In my own experience, apart from the occasional shitposting, my social media posting activity had gone down. I doomscroll on Twitter because that’s where all the smart people are. It’s the only way I know of discovering the best articles, research, etc.

In the past couple of months, I’ve been increasingly using the Substack app. The explore feed is remarkably good, and the Substack algorithm is doing a good job of surfacing well-written perspectives. I haven’t found Substack Notes, a Twitter replacement, all that useful yet. The idea of this website was also, in a way, a reaction to the shittiness of social media platforms. I wanted to build a simple site where I could collect and organize some of the best things on the internet instead of dancing like a monkey to the whims of the platforms. Having said that, I may have to dance a little because I share the links to the posts on this website on the same platforms.

Dive deeper

Tiktok’s enshittification

The Internet Could Be So Good. Really

Social media is doomed to die

Why the Internet Isn’t Fun Anymore

We’re Nearing Opinion Overload

Fidelity has marked down the value of Twitter/X by 65%

It’s not just you. LinkedIn has gotten really weird.

I have more thoughts on the topic, but that’s for the coming weeks.

Good reads

The people who ruined the internet

“All the assholes that are out there paying shitty link-building companies to build shitty articles,” he said, “now they can go and use the free version of GPT.” Soon, he said, Google results would be even worse, dominated entirely by AI-generated crap designed to please the algorithms, produced and published at volumes far beyond anything humans could create, far beyond anything we’d ever seen before.

“They’re not gonna be able to stop the onslaught of it,” he said. Then he laughed and laughed, thinking about how puny and irrelevant Google seemed in comparison to the next generation of automated SEO. “You can’t stop it!” 

The end of the NGO?

The Oxfam scandal wasn’t the first of its kind. As far back as 2002, a report conducted by the UN Refugee Agency and Save the Children UK in west Africa found that agency workers from local and international NGOs, as well as UN agencies, were among the “prime sexual exploiters of refugee children”. Aid workers were accused of “using the very humanitarian assistance and services intended to benefit refugees as a tool of exploitation.”

The report, which included allegations against employees of some of the world’s biggest aid agencies, led only to patchy efforts to address the problem. 

Years into a climate disaster, these people are eating the unthinkable

A gut wrenching story of how climate change is devastating the poorest regions on the planet.

Her entire days are “devoted to the lilies,” she said, and collecting them has proved so punishing — two-hour walks, hours more in the water, lugging them back home — that she’s developed chronic coughs, regular fevers, and found herself many mornings asking if she could bear to return to the water. “As long as my children are alive,” she’s told herself, “I’ll keep going.”

Why Norway — the poster child for electric cars — is having second thoughts

Electric vehicles are not an unalloyed good. A cautionary tale of Norway, where over 80% of cars sold are electric.

So I flew across the Atlantic to see what the fuss was about. I discovered a Norwegian EV bonanza that has indeed reduced emissions — but at the expense of compromising vital societal goals. Eye-popping EV subsidies have flowed largely to the affluent, contributing to the gap between rich and poor in a country proud of its egalitarian social policies.

Worse, the EV boom has hobbled Norwegian cities’ efforts to untether themselves from the automobile and enable residents to instead travel by transit or bicycle, decisions that do more to reduce emissions, enhance road safety, and enliven urban life than swapping a gas-powered car for an electric one.

Pair this this article on the myths of electric vehicles

Your guide to the guides for fixing the internet

I loved the wonderful framing of how technologies evolve.

But I’m also personally a big believer in the idea that once you have a name for something happening online it’s already over. Whether it’s a meme or a trend or, in this case, a general vibe, the minute there’s a consensus as to what it is, it’s already its over to some degree. Which means I sort of think whatever that new status quo is, it’s already arrived and that the rut we feel like we’re in is possibly already over. Somewhere, at least. And while I share the affliction that all tech writers have, in that I crave applying some kind of order to the chaos of how technology evolves, the truth is that it just does a lot of the time. And there is some pocket of the web out there that has already defined our digital future. We just haven’t noticed it yet. (Though, it’s probably whatever furries are doing right now.)

Reading without purpose

I loved this post. Reading without purpose is a habit I’ve been deliberately trying to cultivate. This blog is based on the same premise—read without a purpose and share the good things.

At one point, Grant asked Nolan how he finds something that he’s passionate about. Nolan responded, in part:

“For me, it’s all about trying new things. If you’re going to write, you want to read a lot before you write, without any purpose. I love watching TV, love watching movies, preferably with no sense of purpose. Just being open to things that might inspire you—and staying open.”

Nolan reads “without any purpose.” I would argue, though, that there is a purpose in that: to find something that stimulates you but that you couldn’t have known to look for. I often wander bookstores, which I think of as places to find interests that I didn’t know I had.


In the money

Raghuram Rajan

Former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan is not a popular figure in certain Indian political circles. Whether you agree or disagree with him, he’s still one of the sharpest thinkers on issues of monetary policy and financial stability. He recently appeared on The Joe Walker Podcast, a favorite of mine, and I enjoyed listening to the conversation.

https://open.spotify.com/episode/0o22s1pSV3qSkTTl7VHKlm?si=cm6arA6_SZaB54jBEoE8EQ

A few highlights from the conversation:

On his famous 2005 speech

In 2005, he gave a speech at the Jackson Hole symposium warning of hidden risks to the global financial system arising from distorted incentives. The event was supposed to be a celebration of the legacy of Alan Greenspan.

I remember leaving home and telling my wife, “This speech will either make or break me,” because I had an inkling that I was saying something important. 

But I also knew that I was going out on a limb because I would look really stupid if I’d said, “Look, there are these risks building” and nothing actually happened. And, interestingly, at the end of the speech I went up to say hello to Chairman Greenspan and he was obviously not pleased. What was interesting was there were two private-sector people also there who were telling him, “Look, you’ve got to stop us from taking these risks.” And what was interesting was, that was the missing piece that somehow we had all convinced ourselves that the smartest guys in the room would have figured out how to manage the risks. 

On his “let them eat credit” view

Well, there was a sense – which, again, like all ideas, there’s an element of good intent and truth to it – the sense that if we make credit easier, if we allow people to buy houses, for example, and they can ride the house appreciation, that’s good for their wealth, that’s good for their portfolios, but it also can take some of their worries away, including worries that they don’t have good jobs, they don’t have adequate human capital, et cetera.

Too much credit pushed too easily can actually do harm and even the people who get the credit can be harmed because they can get it at the wrong time. As prices are really going up they may not be able to afford the houses, they may not be able to afford the consumption that it made possible, they drew down on their home equity lines, and then found that house prices collapsed and there’s no equity anymore, in fact they were deeply in debt. 

On the perils of pushing easy access to credit as means to financial inclusion

And so, there is more of a sense now that public policy plus the private sector may make it too easy to access for the disadvantaged to access credit, and they themselves may not have the capacity to understand what is reasonable. In fact, they’ll take whatever comes because their discounting of the future is much higher – “Sick child today. Let me try and get the child to a hospital. What if I have to borrow.” But then the loan has to be paid tomorrow. That’s when the lenders start hounding this person. I myself, while I was in India, was much more focused on pushing payments and other services as the lead into inclusion, rather than pushing credit as the first thing. Because it struck me that the problem with pushing credit was that before people know how to manage their finances, if they get easy credit, there’s a likelihood they will overborrow and then face problems down the line.

On central bank independence

I do think that central banking is a very political job. It may seem technocratic and, yeah, you think about what R-star is and you set interest rates with that in mind. 

Where you think R-star is completely political. I shouldn’t say completely political; it cannot be devoid of politics. But your language, your persuasion, the extent of hostility that you face – all that is political

I don’t think they are. Technically, as a central bank chief, some countries will make it very hard to fire you. Does that mean that you can do what you want? No.

I don’t think it’s wise to completely put the central bank outside of any kind of control. I think unelected officials should have some oversight by the elected representatives of the people. I think there’s an optimal point where you respect them and you try not go too far away from what is politically acceptable. But there are times when there is something you need to do which will cause pain, which somebody who wanted to be elected in the next election would perhaps not espouse, but which you think is needed not just for the next election cycle, but for many election cycles down the line. 

That’s when, if you have enough independence as a central bank, you can make the tough choice. But to completely ignore the elected representatives of the people all the time? Well, sometimes they actually have sensible ideas which you should be paying more attention to. 

On incentives

The Goldman Sachses of the world – why would they go out on a limb? Why would they risk their firm’s capital? The missing piece, which to some extent I alluded to in the paper, was distorted incentives in the financial system – and that led to the tail risk-taking. The smartest guys were not immune to bad incentives. 

On why just lowering interest rates after the 2008 crisis didn’t work

In other words, you had to do structural reforms. And this sounds like the annoying sort of old geezer who says whenever things are slowing down, “All you young pups, you always want to stimulate. You actually need to fix the underlying problems. Structural reforms.” But I do think, as a number of people have suggested, one of the problems with the low demand in industrial countries stems from inequality that the lower end could consume more, would consume more, but doesn’t have the incomes. But how do you generate more incomes at the lower end? You have to make them more capable of getting good jobs, which means focus on capabilities, skill building et cetera. And for all the talk about the China effect on the US, I think the reality is the US has a lousy system of training people in response to trade shocks. The trade adjustment mechanisms simply don’t work. 

Tangential rabbit holes

Incentives and self-delusions

As I was writing this post, I came across psychologist Adam Mastroianni’s brilliant post on Goodharting ourselves, a reference to Goodhart’s law and how it applies to individuals as well.

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”

Dr. Rajan’s observation on incentives reminded me of this passage from Mastroianni’s post:

It’s not just me, of course. I’ve seen people melt down over lots of dumb games: Monopoly, Scrabble, Mario Kart, mini golf, charades, bowling, trivia, and croquet. Losing your cool after losing a game is mildly mortifying, but if 15 minutes of struggling for made-up points is enough to turn you into a howling, friendship-shredding monster, imagine how low you can sink when there’s actual money and prestige on the line. If you take a high-paying job to “provide for your family” and then you never see that family and they end up hating you, if you claw your way to the top only to find that you still feel as empty up there as you did at the bottom, if you get so obsessed with success that you lie and cheat to get it, then guess what: you got Goodharted.

Dive deeper into the history of the 2008 global financial crisis.

I’ve been fascinated by the 2008 financial crisis for a long time, and I had written about it a little in an old post as well. One of the definitive books on the crisis is Crashed by historian Adam Tooze. I highly recommend the book, but if you want a quick summary, you can watch this video as well. Adam Tooze is an information monster. He has the remarkable ability to consume a torrent of information and spit out accessible summaries and explanations of complex phenomena. I highly recommend reading anything he writes, including his Substack. He’s a regular on panels and podcasts, talking about a wide range of important economic developments. In the upcoming editions, I will try to summarize some of his talks.

He also hosts a weekly podcast that I recommend listening to.

European bond markets are going electronic

I have some experience trading bonds in India. It’s a market that’s stuck in time, where everything happens over calls and WhatsApp messages. Despite all the regulatory moves to increase liquidity in bonds on the exchanges, things haven’t changed much. All the bond trading has now been pushed to request for quote’ (RFQ) platforms on the exchanges, but the price negotiations still happen on calls. The trades are executed on RFQ instead of off-market transfers.

Bonds will never trade like equities in exchanges; it’s not the nature of the instrument, and it’s a global thing. Most retail investors are also better off not buying single-name papers and should stick to bond mutual funds. Which means on-market liquidity will always be limited.

But it looks like things are changing in Europe:

But while algorithms work well on the small trades that account for 60 per cent of European bond market activity, they’re not yet trusted with big and complicated stuff. Only liquid, recently issued bonds with a large outstanding basis and a high credit rating are considered sufficiently low-touch to be fed into the system. So while the median European trade is now electronic the category still only accounts for 30 per cent of total volume, Barclays finds.

Ken Rogoff on why emerging markets haven’t been resilient despite soaring US interest rates. He attributes this to central bank independence, but if you scroll up and read what Raghu Rajan says, he says the notion of central bank independence is a bit of a myth.

But the single biggest factor behind emerging markets’ resilience has been the increased focus on central-bank independence. Once an obscure academic notion, the concept has evolved into a global norm over the past two decades. This approach, which is often referred to as “inflation targeting,” has enabled emerging-market central banks to assert their autonomy, even though they frequently place greater weight on exchange rates than any inflation-targeting model would suggest.

Performance-chasing is an universal truth

The red line in the chart indicates that fund managers have about five years before their investors turn their backs on them. After five years of underperformance, there is no stopping disappointed investors from leaving the fund. My personal experience with investors is that five years is a long time. Most investors will get nervous after six to twelve months of underperformance and leave you after two to three years of underperformance.

Yet, this research points to a simple investment strategy for fund selectors. Look at funds that underperformed in years six to ten before today. These are the funds that tend to follow styles that are likely to come back into favour in the next five years. And that may have a better chance of outperforming going forward than the funds that did well in the last five years or so.

Fascinating discussion on the college wage premium in the United Kingdom and United States

What this chart is showing is that as each wave of graduates has entered the UK’s jobs market, on average they’re finding lower-grade jobs than the last, whereas in the US, each new wave of grads is met by a new wave of well-paid graduate jobs.

Other countries have the same rise in graduate numbers without the same decline in graduate earnings, because they’ve created good jobs. When people say Britain sends too many people to uni, they’re saying we’re not a country where skilled people can expect to find skilled jobs.

Short-changed graduates are just another symptom of the British economic disease. If you have low investment and low or zero productivity growth, then when your grads enter the job market, they’ll have fewer and weaker opportunities than grads in a country that had higher growth

FT

On a related note, research on what personality traits predict good career outcomes

In this research, we examined whether personality changes from adolescence to young adulthood predicted five early career outcomes: degree attainment, income, occupational prestige, career satisfaction, and job satisfaction. The study used two representative samples of Icelandic youth (Sample 1: n = 485, Sample 2: n = 1,290) and measured personality traits over 12 years (ages ~17 to 29 years). Results revealed that certain patterns of personality growth predicted career outcomes over and above adolescent trait levels and crystallized ability. Across both samples, the strongest effects were found for growth in emotional stability (income and career satisfaction), conscientiousness (career satisfaction), and extraversion (career satisfaction and job satisfaction). Initial trait levels also predicted career success, highlighting the long-term predictive power of personality. Overall, our findings show that personality has important effects on early career outcomes—both through stable trait levels and how people change over time. We discuss implications for public policy, for theoretical principles of personality development, and for young people making career decisions.

Hat tip to Jay Van Bavel

That’s it for this week. Lift your head up from those screens, go smell the fresh polluted air of Bangalore, meditate about life at silk Board, and enjoy a long silent stroll on the main roads of Bangalore (becos we no footpath have).

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