Longreads + Open Thread

Wealth, Speech, Taiwan, Legitimacy, Charter Cities, Licklider


  • Paul Graham on how people get rich now, and how they used to get rich before, with some interesting observations on why real estate and oil were once common sources of first-generation wealth. (Don't skip the footnotes!)

  • Some profiles of free speech absolutists, some of whom offer encrypted email ($) and others who offer hosting instead. It's always ambiguous whether people start out as free speech absolutists or back into those principles based on what speech they want to engage in and how that speech is restricted—but it's nice to give them the benefit of the doubt. Unless free speech absolutists are completely mythical, there are bound to be some of them with technical talent who feel a moral obligation to provide services even though they have to hold their noses at who buys them.

  • What a war over Taiwan would do. Material constraints play an important part in geopolitics: many of the specifics of World War Two make much more sense when you consider who needed oil and who had it. Chips are similar, in that they're the limiting component to the most advanced military technologies.

  • Reading past the snark, and this story about Facebook and Nick Clegg is a good look at how institutions legitimize themselves once they're important enough to need legitimacy. Facebook can do that in a couple ways: by getting better at moderation, by hiring prestigious people, and by creating formal procedures to handle edge cases.

  • Scott Alexander with a detailed look at Próspera, a charter city. Charter cities and adjacent concepts are very interesting: as it turns out, technologies that render location less relevant also make it easier to aggregate people who will all want to live in the same location. Próspera is not the only charter city model that will work, but it's an interesting template.


  • The Dream Machine: a biography of J.C.R. Licklider, and also a biography of the earliest years of the Internet and PCs. One thing this book drives home is how closely-connected all of these concepts are: the sorts of people who dreamed of a global network-of-networks were also the kinds of people who thought that we'd be interacting with computers in real time, using graphics, instead of through batch-processed commands. Some parts of the book are amazingly prescient (and it seems to describe the world's first hackathon taking place in 1971—in another example of the complexity of communication technology and location, the best way to debug a nation-wide network was to put a bunch of the people who ran it in the same room).

Open Thread

  • Any good longreads or books of interest to Diff readers? Drop in a link.

  • I've written about a few companies that create new property rights, or privatize the commons, most recently Cloudflare. Are there any good under-the-radar examples of this? Sometimes it's harmful, as in academic publishing, but sometimes it's a lot better to have an owner than not.