Category Archives: History

Zuckerberg, Cowen & Collison Conversation on Progress

Source: Medium, Nov 2019

The meta question we’re really interested in is how does progress happen, how do we discover useful knowledge, how is that diffused, and how can we do it better?

if you have a growth rate that is 1 percentage point lower, over the course of a bit more than a century, you could have been three times richer with a higher growth rate

…by having a lower rate of productivity growth, in no given year does it feel that bad, but two, three generations later, you’re much worse off, it’s harder to pay off your debts, harder to solve climate change, harder to address a whole host of problems.

an important question for anybody interested in this area to think about is, well, how should we define progress? And what are the better and worse kinds of it.

Emergent Ventures is a new kind of philanthropy. There’s one layer of yes or no. People are encouraged to apply. If the payoff is 30, 40 years down the road, the attitude is, “Great.” Take a lot of chances. Worry about getting some winners and some risk and not expect the median project to be something that necessarily looks good when taken to a board.

That’s the niche that we felt through CZI that we can help to fill: instead of investing a million dollars in a lab, put $100 million or a couple hundred million dollars over time into building up really important scientific assets for the community. Like helping to fund scientists to go put together this Human Cell Atlas. Think about it as like the periodic table of elements but for biology — all the different kinds of cells in the human body.

The goal is just, if you look throughout the history of science, at least, most major scientific breakthroughs have been preceded by the invention of new tools that help people look at things in different ways. And so the theory is similar to what you’re going at of how you increase the compounding rate of progress.

I’m curious how you think about, in terms of studying this, how much this is like this history and history of science based on data that’s already out there versus “we should just try different models of things and encourage more creativity and more competition and try different things.”

It’s striking to me, if you look at American universities, the list of the top places in 1920 and the list today — it’s completely the same, except we’ve added on California. Otherwise, no change.

Procedures for tenure in the top 50 research universities — almost exactly the same. Whatever you think of those, there’s something gone wrong in the sector. There’s not enough experimentation with how you reward people.

I think we should be historically informed but ultimately, a certain amount of commitment, decision, and just willingness to experiment is going to be required.

Do you have a framework in your head for how would think about or prioritize study in different areas, or is it mostly just about finding really sharp people who have new ideas and funding them to do different kinds or work? How do you think about that overall?

COWEN: People who are curious. People who have bold ambitions. People who have what I call stamina — they just don’t even stop. People who are working in productive small groups that maybe through WhatsApp, in fact, or it could be their next door neighbors, their colleagues at a university.

UCKERBERG: Got it. So it’s very much like entrepreneurship in that way. You’re betting on the person more than the idea —

COWEN: But also the vision, right? There has to be a vision, and there are plenty of successful entrepreneurs who are not curious. So for intellectual progress, to really put curiosity very highly is part of my philosophy.

COLLISON: Yeah, tool building is not really subsidized or supported that well.

ZUCKERBERG: Yeah if you want to have a team of ongoing software engineers, you’re going to want an effort that’s going on for a while and that’s more than a couple of people. So kind of thing, I think, there’s a real niche that no one is doing that stuff at the scale it needs to get done. So just pushing on both of things.

COLLISON: Yeah, and there’s uniform agreement on that particular point with every biomedical scientist that I speak with. Tool-building is under-supported.

These aren’t things that are primarily gonna benefit us, right? If we were trying to benefit us, we wouldn’t be working on education. I think the health work is very long-term oriented. If we were focused on our own health, you’d be probably be doing more disease-specific work rather than fundamental science — or tool-building for fundamental science — which might even be a level more abstract that fundamental science to try to compound the rate of progress in science.

This conversation is interesting because I think it highlights somewhat of a distinction in — I guess my approach to learning or studying these things is more the “try different things and experiment” and then play it forward, generate new data that doesn’t exist and see how that goes.

And talking to you and seeing the work that you do, and I guess this is probably intrinsic to being an academic too, where more of the work is about looking at datasets that can exist and studying what is already there rather than trying to create the new datasets or approaches. There are two approaches that I think complement each other but are actually quite different in terms of how you approach learning about how to do the best work going forward.

or any of these really important questions about how should science be organized, or which kinds of policies generate the most economic growth, or how one should support the diffusion of innovation, or whatever — I don’t think there exists definitive data on that question. I don’t think by just going deep into the literature you’re going come up with clear answers that one can feel confident in going and executing it or implementing. I think of the data, such that it exists, and the exiting findings as food for hypothesis-generation.

Reserve Currencies have Limited LifeSpans

Source: ZeroHedge, Jul 2019

Being the world’s unit of account has given the United States what former French Finance Minister Valery d’Estaing called an “exorbitant privilege” by being able to purchase imports and issue debt in its own currency and run persistent deficits seemingly without consequence.

Google : Yahoo or Excite

Source: InternetHistoryPodcast, Nov 2014

in 1999, the search engine—then running number two to the reigning champion of search in the dot-com era, Yahoo—had the opportunity to purchase Google, the site that would eventually dethrone Yahoo as the king of search, for the low-low price of $750,000.

in 1999, Excite was running a distant number two to Yahoo in terms of “search” traffic. But Excite was a technology play, a true search engine, as opposed to Yahoo’s vaunted directory. Both companies, in addition to most of the other search engines out there (Lycos, Alta Vista, et al) had been busy transforming themselves into “portals,” the business model favored by Wall Street at the time.

… George Bell, who was the CEO of Excite at the time. He was the guy who nixed the Google deal. 

Volcker: Does Financial Innovation –> Economic Growth?

Source: WSJ, Dec 2009

I mean: Wake up, gentlemen. I can only say that your response is inadequate. I wish that somebody would give me some shred of neutral evidence about the relationship between financial innovation recently and the growth of the economy, just one shred of information. I am getting a bit wound up.

Do Innovations Do Much Good?

MR. VOLCKER: A few years ago I happened to be at a conference of business people, not financial people, and I was making a presentation. The conference was being addressed by a very vigorous young investment banker from London who was explaining to all these older executives how their companies would be dust if they did not realize the joys of financial innovation and financial engineering, and that they had better get with it.

I was listening to this, and I found myself sitting next to one of the inventors of financial engineering. I didn’t know him, but I knew who he was and that he had won a Nobel Prize, and I nudged him and asked what all the financial engineering does for the economy and what it does for productivity.

Much to my surprise, he leaned over and whispered in my ear that it does nothing—and this was from a leader in the world of financial engineering. I asked him what it did do, and he said that it moves around the rents in the financial system—and besides, it’s a lot of intellectual fun.

Innovate, but…

MR. VOLCKER: I am not sure that I said innovation in itself is a bad thing. I said that I have found very little evidence that vast amounts of innovation in financial markets in recent years have had a visible effect on the productivity of the economy. Maybe you can show me that I am wrong. All I know is that the economy was rising very nicely in the 1950s and 1960s without all of these innovations. Indeed, it was quite good in the 1980s without credit-default swaps and without securitization and without CDOs.

The Merits of “Meritocracy”

Source: The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2016

as historian Joseph F. Kett has shown, in a fascinating and subtle study of merit’s travails through three centuries of American history, there are at least two strikingly different ways in which merit has been understood in that history.4 The founding generation itself thought in terms of what Kett calls “essential merit,” by which he means merit that rests on specific and visible achievements by an individual that were thought, in turn, to reflect that individual’s estimable character, quite apart from his social “rank.” “Merit” was that quality in the person that propelled the achievements, his “essential character.” Those who did the achieving were known as “men of merit,”

over time, a different way of understanding merit began to emerge, an ideal Kett calls “institutional merit.” Rather than focusing on questions of character, this new form of merit concerned itself with the acquisition of specialized knowledge, the kind that is susceptible of being taught in schools, tested in written examinations, and certified by expert-staffed credentialing bodies.

We would do well to leave room for the Lincolns among us—especially if they are as raw and uncredentialed as the man who would become our sixteenth president was. Think of his great speech at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg in November 1863.

As many know, there were two notable speeches that day. The first, and the longest and most learned and most florid, was given by the supremely well-pedigreed Edward Everett, former president of Harvard—and the first American to receive a German PhD. But it was the self-educated frontiersman president who gave the speech whose accents ring down through the ages. Perhaps there is a pattern here to learn from.

Evolution of Mathematical Thought

Source: MIT Tech Review, Apr 2016
<Original: Arxiv, Mar 2016>

mathematical evolution by no means consists of a gentle flow of ideas from one generation the next. Instead, it is a maelstrom in which ideas and practices emerge, thrive, and evolve, sometimes dying out completely. This maelstrom is characterized by tipping points in which fields change dramatically in just a few years.

… insight into the way new ideas emerge and become important to human minds.

Religion and the Rise and Fall of Islamic Science 

Source: Harvard website, Dec 2015


Why did the “Golden Age” of Islamic science end? To explore this question, I gather data on scientific production from Harvard’s library collection and a catalog of books from seventeenth century Istanbul.
I document that the proportion of books dedicated to scientific topics declined in the medieval period, noting that the empirical patterns weigh against explanations attributing the decline to external shocks such as the Crusades, Mongol invasions, or colonialism.
Instead, the results link the decline to institutional changes starting in the eleventh century that altered the relative payoffs to producing scientific knowledge.
I discuss the role religious leaders played in generating these developments, concluding that the available evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that an increase in the political power of these elites caused the observed decline in scientific output.
I provide qualitative evidence that these newly empowered elites worked to restrict the production of scientific knowledge because they believed that unrestrained scientific research led to deism and atheism.
 I argue that where religious elites are more powerful they will favor an institutional and educational framework that discourages human capital accumulation that could detract from their control over the population