Longreads + Open Thread

Email, Kipping, YOLO, Variance, WASPs, China,


  • An Email from Bill is a 1993 New Yorker piece sent over by a Diff reader. It's a great look at how people interacted with email when it was a novel technology. Email partly took over the world by replacing phone calls within companies, but also because the email-centric companies grew a lot faster than the phone-focused ones.

  • Ernst Jünger once had a throwaway line to the effect that Renaissance Florence was enough of a slice of the human condition for Machiavelli to write books that people still find insightful. Oliver Bateman feels this way about the weightroom: Kipping as Ethos and the work of squatting are wonderful meditations on life, achievement, and suffering, all through the lens of completing a set number of reps with good form.

  • Uber's Crazy YOLO App Rewrite: a story of breakneck software development, last-minute decisions, and sleep deprivation.

  • Philo of MD&A has thoughts on when and why people pursue variance over expected value: if there's a leaderboard, and the rewards for being on it are high enough, it makes sense to accept a lower expected return for higher odds of being #1. One place where this would be expected to show up, but often doesn't, is electoral politics. But in finance, business, and some parts of academia, it's the rule.

  • Aaron Renn has a great piece on the WASPs, through the work of sociologist E. Digby Baltzell. A common pattern is for a phenomenon like social class to get codified some time after it peaks; it's only during a retreat that the establishment wants to set firm boundaries on itself. This piece is a great look at how the old establishment gradually got more exclusive and more homogeneous, and eventually lost control.


  • The Making of American Industrial Research AT&T and General Electric created the first major corporate R&D labs in the US. Their model was partly an extension of Edison's lab, partly an effort to copy German heavy industry cartels, and partly something new.

  • Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built: Alibaba is a good metaphor for the modern Chinese economy: originally focused on helping exporters sell goods outside the country, later profiting from increased consumption within China, and ultimately constrained by the government's skeptical attitude towards successful private enterprises.

  • The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957: part one of a three-part trilogy; the next two books cover the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Do not expect this volume to be any less bleak, though; it features sieges, purges, execution quotas, and starvation. One interesting note from early in the book is that China's post-1978 expansion is, in some ways, a recreation of the country's 1920s and early 1930s expansion. China was a major recipient of foreign direct investment in export-focused companies, and in the 1930s Shanghai was the city with the second highest proportion of foreign-born residents globally, after New York.

  • On China: Henry Kissinger's book is in one sense useful because he had conversations with China's leaders regularly from the early 70s to the present. On the other hand, he and his interlocutors were diplomats, so everything both sides said was phrased very carefully. The most important theme in the book is how much the US/China relationship was driven, from both sides, by concerns about the USSR. It's ironic that a country that split with the Soviets because they were too negative about Stalin ended up tied closely to the US as a consequence.

Open Thread

  • As always, please share any pieces that would be of interest to other Diff readers.

  • An open question on DeFi: which DeFi projects are doing the best job making non-margin loans, what do they lend to, and how much of their work is automated?