Longreads + Open Thread

Wrestling, Genomes, World's Fair, Defense, Cities, Flying Cars

Longreads

  • Professional wrestling is, for whatever reason, an intuition pump used by the right and left as a metaphor for what's wrong with the economy. My theory is that it's the lowest-status sport with millions of fans, and when those fans happen to be writers, they know they have to bring their A-game when they write about their favorite sport. It's a bit like Tyler Cowen's heuristic of ordering the least appetizing thing on the menu. Selection effects often reveal useful information.

  • The NYT has a good piece on how genome sequencing has gotten astoundingly cheap. On mRNA vaccines: "They never had the virus on site at all; they really just used the sequence, and they viewed it as a software problem."

  • The case for a new world's fair.

  • Tanner Greer has a very pessimistic look at US military capabilities over the next decade. Defense seems to be one of those industries where the macro picture is pretty bad—there's a persistent trend towards less bang and more bucks—but there are individual bright spots where new technologies from cost-competitive companies are radically increasing capacity. So it's a race between a negative linear trend and a positive compounding one—at least, hopefully.

  • Vox interviews Enrico Moretti on the optimistic case for cities. Moretti notes that some people didn't entirely flee cities, but moved to suburbs instead. If partial work-from-home is the future, then the amount of suburb a given city can support should rise (commute 2 days a week instead of 5 and you can deal with a longer commute). And that implies that smaller cities may be able to support big-city amenities since the total population they reach is bigger.

Books

  • Where is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past sounds like it's going to be a book about retro-futurism and the Great Stagnation, with flying cars as a vivid metonym for what might have been. It is that, sure, but the book also has some rather detailed chapters about how close we came to having flying cars, the economics of various flying car setups, etc. (As part of his research, the author bought a plane and at least one drone.) The book is great, frequently quotable, and packed with quotes from other quotable people (for example, when talking about a particular air travel regulation: "It's not about flying. It's not about aircraft. It's not about maintenance of aircraft. It's not about who is qualified to do maintenance. It's an addendum, with three separate references back into the regulatory corpus, to the rules regarding who is allowed to do paperwork about maintenance.") The book is full of ideas, and if even a tenth of them are right, the world will be a visibly better place once they're implemented. Another interesting point: every paradigm-shifting technology, from fire to agriculture to writing to machine tools to software, is in some sense self-replicating. That’s quite a pattern, and useful for thinking about how important other technologies can be.

Open Thread

  • Now that we're a year past the market low from the Covid Crash, it's interesting to look back at the best/worst deals struck in that period. (Generally "best" for whoever was writing checks, worst for anyone who really needed cash.) Which ones stand out as especially well-timed?

  • A question from a reader: other than Shopify and Valve, what are some case studies in a company moving one layer more abstract in the supply chain? (Valve went from games to mostly game distribution; Shopify went from selling snowboards to building software to let anyone sell anything.)

  • As always, please drop in any links/books that would be of interest to Diff readers.