Welcome to the talent wars

I believe (and hope) that the war as we know it is fundamentally an outdated concept. Jurisdictions (like Miami) will compete to attract talent, but that is not good news for unskilled labor, like gig workers.

  1. When we were fighters, we were fighting over herds of game and their territory,
  2. Then, the agricultural revolution came. The most important asset became fertile land, and the wars were fought over that.
  3. After the Scientific Revolution, we learned to process raw resources like metals, coal, and later oil.
  4. We are now experiencing the digital revolution. The new resource is going to be talent and talent is not easily captured in traditional warfare.
ValueAfter RevolutionWhat are wars fought overCountries that benefit
Fertile landAgricultural revolutionLand & peasants
You want to conquer easily arable land
Fertile Crescent, Mediterranean
Mined Resources (Metals, Oil)Scientific RevolutionResource-rich landColonial powers, plus resource-rich countries like Germany and the USA
TalentDigital revolutionNo wars, but hostile takeovers of talentAnybody who started educating in STEM like crazy 10 years ago

Two classes of employees.

Remote Work transition is certainly accelerating, but not everybody is benefitting from this situation. It has also lead to a new sort of class divide:

  • Talent” – highly skilled, and specialized experts that are constantly honing their craft and navigating the changing demands of the job market. During lockdowns, these people are known as the “Zoom Class” (because they can ride out the pandemic while working over zoom).
  • Gig workers“, who we treat as a utility, and depend on to provide us with the endless stream of Amazon purchases and Uber Eats orders. Also known as the “Heroes

Nick Rimedio, who serves on the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said the lockdowns had widened a class divide. While quarantine has been almost relaxing for what he called the wealthy “Zoom class,” it has been a nightmare for the poor and middle class who have storefronts or work service jobs in businesses in the area, he said.

New York Times

Talent is the new Oil

Automation is coming after our jobs, and I have written before how to protect yourself against that. But in the meantime, workers take time to train. With technological progress, complexity in many industries is unfathomable and requires highly trained labor. Which takes time, and can be rushed only to a point.

Training somebody to do basic programming tasks can be done in 6 months, but the way of thinking about the world needed to succeed in the information economy takes years to acquire.

We are post-scarcity on almost everything else, and I believe the talent will be the new frontier.

On the commodity metaphor

While drafting this newsletter, I wanted to compare “Gig Workers” to commodity and “Talent” to differentiable products. But I don’t think that’s entirely correct. There is a huge pool of the talent group that has commodity-like properties.

The majority of tech workers are uniform and replaceable enough. I’m sure that’s the case in many other specialized fields – creme de la creme will be irreplaceable, but the others will eventually be automated away.

The promised talent wars

War is a bit of a clickbait, but various initiatives around the world are trying to capitalize on the location independence of the “Talent” group.

  • When you bring together talented people who like to create things, Startups & new industries will take care of themselves. We have seen this in Florence, Venice, Paris, and later New York and Silicon Valley
  • These people tend to be compensated well (an argument can be made that unfairly so), which means higher tax revenue
  • They also have more discretionary income, some of which they will spend locally,
  • Children of educated&motivated people tend to turn out the same way. This is a flywheel for the community.

Miami

For a while now, Silicon Valley is downright hostile to the tech industry, behaving like an abusive partner that took your passport. Lockdowns took away any benefit of staying in San Francisco (meetups, conferences, and chance encounters), and multiple tech giants have adopted Remote Work (latest big news is Spotify pointing out that “Work isn’t something our people come to the office for, it’s something they do”).

Francis Suarez, the mayor of Miami jumped on the chance of turning the city into a tech hub and his efforts are inspiring. He is personally helping tech influencers move to his constituency, and now he’s reaching out to SV employees by the means of a billboard. In San Francisco.

“Thinking about moving to Miami? DM me”.

I’m not able to put together a coherent sentence about how transformative can it be to have supportive, effective, and accessible local legislation. Books will be written about the emergence of the Miami tech hub.

It’s not only about talent. It’s a fight for taxes

Municipalities seeking tax revenue is of course nothing new. But traditionally, the way to do that was to create jobs, which would both provide income to residents and attract talent.

Remote Work is changing that. Having a job in one place, and living in another is now possible, and something I myself practice. But in this new world, how do cities fight for taxes? Are they even entitled? The problem is already here.

Japan’s home tax

Every country with a “superstar” city has this problem: smaller towns are investing in family-friendly infrastructure and education, only to see its citizens move to the one superstar city and continue paying taxes there.

Japan has an interesting solution, called ふるさと納税 (Furusato Nouzei or, roughly, the Hometown Tax System). In an interesting quirk, a taxpayer can select a town at her discretion, and the towns started to compete on “gifts” they would send to incentivize choosing their municipality for the ‘donation.’ From Patrick Mckenzie:

The three farming communities we’re using all had a monthly subscription option for things produced locally, and they sound like e.g. “A rotating box of seasonal fruits produced in our town. Here’s the schedule: January, 500g of… February, a box of… The aesthetics of that are brilliant; fruit on our table will have come *from a place.* The economics are brilliant; probably half of the fruits are things we, like a typical Japanese family, wouldn’t generally choose to eat in a year.

For a while, cities even offered a “kickback” in the form of travel vouchers and other cach equivalents. Government had to put a stop to it in 2019. Read more in this essay and Tweetstorm for an incentive-exploration filled ride.

Furusato-tax.jp is a comparison site that lets you browse the best offers for the “thank you” tokens. Caviar? Wagyu beef? Sushi? They got you covered. This wouldn’t be possible without the Internet.

Specialized cities

Just as Japan’s towns are specializing in Wagyu-beef-for-tax-donation schemes, other cities are seeking to attract Nomads and professionals:

What will happen next?

Each of the revolutions outlined at the beginning of this post has shifted economic opportunities from incumbents to new countries:

  • The agrarian revolution has brought prosperity to those with fertile land and water access
  • The industrial revolution brought demand for steel, potassium, and eventually, oil, which meant prosperity for Germany and the USA
  • The Digital revolution will shift the production centers to places abundant in highly educated and motivated workers,

Two countries in particular are well positioned to benefit from this new world order:

  • China, which has a head start because the industry has already shifted here,
  • India, which I’m especially optimistic about, because of their proficiency in English. Programming languages are all modeled after English grammar and English is already lingua franca. For better or worse.

Since I like having skin in the game, I’m investing in the Indian stock exchange. I started this thread on Reddit, and people shared great pointers. One thing I took away from GameStop is that Reddit has sold financial advice.

While the world order will be reshuffled, cities will specialize in attracting a certain kind of worker, with unique preferences. The concentration of artists and professionals in cities like Florence has led to Renaissance, and I hope it will lead to something good this time as well.

And I also hope we’ll find a way to trickle down these benefits to gig workers too. Wars may be over, but revolutions can turn out bloody too.

Penguins and Effective Advice.

Last week’s deliberate newsletter issue about Tesla, Bitcoin, and Ducks turned out to be a spectacular success, so I have an important update to share with you today. Did you know how flamboyant Northern Rockhopper penguins are? Well, now you do.

Image courtesy: @kaleybrauer

Another important piece of information about penguins is that there are penguins in Africa! I had the privilege to swim with them in Cape Town.

Best Advice is what NOT to do.

My mom loves sharing unsolicited advice with me, and my grandpa is a master mansplainer. He would ask me for help on something I do for a living and later interrupt me to explain a detail I just told him. (I think I may have inherited some of this advice-giving enthusiasm since, well, here is another email from me.)

We live in a post-scarcity world of information. The shortage of opinion is not a problem we have to solve. Quite to the contrary – we are bombarded with options and would gladly defer to someone to remove some of the choice.

And yet, people still act as if “just another idea to consider” is something we crave. My personal pet peeve is googling an article full of general non-information ending with “you should act in accordance to your personal situation and consider other sources.”. I know that, but JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO.

If you want to be most helpful, here is my advice-giving algorythm™️ (also on Twitter):

  1. Ensure that the other party is indeed seeking advice. It’s very likely that they’re seeking support or encouragement. Professional problem-solvers tend to skip this step.
  2. Good advice is NOT a truckload of other things they could worry about. People seeking advice are overwhelmed already. The best help is curing that overwhelm.
  3. The best advice is: “at your stage skip all this and all that. Here is the step you should focus on. Here is how you start”.
  4. The best way to know is to ask “What have you tried?
  5. Remember that advice is about helping THEM. Not giving you an opportunity to finally regurgitate all you know about a topic and prove that you haven’t wasted 5 years studying it. Give them a starting point. The simpler the better and don’t overwhelm them with information.
  6. The best advice is “don’t worry about these 10 things. It’ll sort itself out, or you can look at this later”.

Julia Evans, in her article “How to Answer Questions in a Helpful Way” recommends prefacing the answer with even more prompts:

  • Rephrase a more specific question back at them (“Are you asking X?”).
  • Ask what prompted their question.
  • Ask, “Did that answer your question?

Surprising Consequences of the Internet

Superstar Cities Are in Trouble (the Atlantic)

The Remote Work experiment of 2020 has caused a massive exodus from the world’s biggest cities. Employers had no choice but to permit working from home, and that has allowed deliberate choice about where this home should be.

Beyond anecdotal accounts of bankers fleeing Manhattan and tech workers saying sayonara to the Bay Area, we have loads of private data to back up the story that superstar cities are in trouble.

Redistributing workers (and tax revenue) to smaller towns is the most exciting consequence of Remote Work. I have been betting on this outcome for a few years and I’m really happy to see it start.

Superstar pain could be America’s gain—not only because lower housing costs in expensive cities will make room for middle-class movers, but also because the coastal diaspora will fertilize growth in other places.

Working From Bed Is Actually Great (New York Times)

Continuing the trend of surprising consequences, it’s now socially acceptable to work from your bed! Mostly because nobody cares. What you do in your bed is your business, even if that means business.

Working from bed is a time-honored tradition upheld by some of history’s most accomplished figures. Frida Kahlo painted masterpieces from her canopy bed. Winston Churchill, a notorious late riser even during World War II, dictated to typists while breakfasting in bed. Edith Wharton, William Wordsworth and Marcel Proust drafted prose and verse from their beds. “I am a completely horizontal author,” Truman Capote told The Paris Review in 1957. “I can’t think unless I’m lying down.”

“Being in bed is great,” he said. “I wish, in general, there were fewer norms and standards around where it is and isn’t acceptable to work.”

Almost a Jurassic Park (Traveller)

Clive Palmer wanted to build a hotel resort in secret, so he disguised it as a “dinosaur park” in documents. He thought he’d get less attention that way.

“…Then, in Paris and London and Frankfurt and Beijing, they started writing these articles to say that we were going to clone dinosaurs here.”

“We had 500 scientists applying for jobs, which got me thinking – there must be something in this dinosaur thing,” he said.

Bitcoin, Tesla, Bears, and Ducks

Bitcoin and Tesla.

Yeah, I know – such a tech bro topic, right? I’m only going to mention this to squeeze in “I told you so”. I concluded last week’s Deliberate Internet issue with:

Maybe this all will accelerate cryptocurrency adoption similarly to COVID accelerating Remote Work? We’ll see.

Turns out Tesla has bought 1.5 Billion USD in BTC this January. Here is the Bitcoin price over the last week (32% increase):

Despite being a finance guru, and a clairvoyant to the future, I am more skeptical of BTC than your average tech industry worker. I don’t understand how debt is supposed to work in a Bitcoin-first economy, and it’s bugging me.

Debt is an integral element of the economic cycle and small or big “busts” are both expected, and necessary. You can learn more in this 30-min video by Ray Dalio.

Since Bitcoin has a “hard limit”, it cannot be inflated and in consequence – disallows Quantitative Easing. If you have an idea how QE will work in a BTC world, let me know (also let me know if you want me to expand on this question). Until then, I’m going to treat Bitcoin as a speculative investment vehicle.

A few things I wrote

I have drafted all these pieces some time ago, but haven’t found the time to publish them before. Enjoy!

Amazing things other people wrote

  • The Town That Went Feral
    I’ve mentioned one argument why I am careful around Bitcoin. The other being that it sounds a little too libertarian. People have learned to cooperate via social norms for a reason, and hard libertarians tend to learn that lesson a little too late. The Town that Went Feral is a story of Bears and Men. Particularly, libertarian Men.
    A group of libertarian activists attempted to take over a tiny New Hampshire town, Grafton, and transform it into a haven for libertarian ideals (…) Enter the Bears (…) Free Town Project began to come apart. Caught up in “pitched battles over who was living free, but free in the right way,” the libertarians descended into accusing one another of statism, leaving individuals and groups to do the best (or worst) they could. Some kept feeding the bears, some built traps, others holed up in their homes, and still others went everywhere toting increasingly larger-caliber handguns.
  • The Career Page Crisis
    Paul Millerd has browsed corporate career pages and has found claims ranging from unsettling to hilarious to cult-like.
    Companies started to market working at their companies and use language like “find your calling” or “do the most important work of your life.” AirBnB’s page tells people that they can “life their best life” at AirBnB.
  • Australian Duck Fashion Show
    Nuff said.

January 2021: GameStop, Parler, censorship, and crypto.

You thought 2021 is going to be an oasis of tranquility compared to the dumpster fire of 2020? After 31 days, there is A LOT to unpack in the events of January 2021, but I’m going to focus on events relating somewhat to the Internet. Keep in mind that this is all fresh and we’ll likely see consequences in the future:

USA Coup d’etat and subsequent bans.

Image
For a “foreign national” from a country that the USA has been patronizing, I can definitely empathize with the Kenyan national newspaper coverage of the situation.

An angry mob has stormed the US capitol trying to capture votes declaring the victory of Joe Biden as the next US president after Donald Trump. In more than 220 years, the capitol has not seen violence like this. More on Wikipedia.

Attackers coordinated via Parler – a social network with minimal focus on moderation, funded by right-wing activists. They were also encouraged by Donald Trump on Twitter. Following the attack:

  1. Twitter has banned Donald Trump’s account (for some illegally, for some too late)
  2. Parler has been banned by App Store, Play Store, Twilio, and Amazon Web Services. This has sparked a debate about the nature of private censorships and corporate control. Here is an excellent thread by Cory Doctorow.
    But we have a duopoly of mobile platforms, an oligopoly of cloud providers, a small conspiracy of payment processors. Their choices about who may speak are hugely consequential, and concerted effort by all of them could make some points of view effectively vanish.
  3. Researchers have also exposed a slew of security vulnerabilities, and what can only be described as comedy of errors in Parler.
    Leaving location data inside photos, exposing ‘private’ content publicly, and allowing everybody to create an admin account, and so on. Considering that some users (including public officials) were live streaming their insurrection, it’s just a treasure trove of legal evidence that’s going to be very helpful for law enforcement.

The bans and ‘censorships’ have sparked a debate since US Social Media platforms are benefiting from a regulation called “Section 230“. Platforms like Facebook are not liable for the content people post there unless they act as a publisher. An argument can be made that editorial decisions (aka bans) are making them more like a publisher, thus liable for stuff people post there. And there is A LOT of questionable user-uploaded content. We’ll see what happens next.

Stock Market Tea Party (aka Gamestop)

Look at the scale on the right. GameStop has gained over 1000% in the last month. The growth highlighted by Google is 67% TODAY.

We have seen some interesting behaviour in the Stock Market. Here is roughly the order of events:

  1. A company called GameStop is like a BestBuy for games. Since the company is being effectively replaced by the Internet, hedge funds have put bets on it failing,
  2. These bets on failure (aka Shorts) are leveraged – it means that they have the ability to put disproportionate loss or profit. The hedge funds were betting so much on GameStop failing that the sum of these bets was 140% of the stock’s total value. This makes no sense but is not explicitly forbidden,
  3. People on Reddit, in particular, a user named DeepFuckingValue, has figured out that if they can make GameStop stock rise, the hedge funds will start bleeding money because when the stock goes up, shorts expire in a way that makes the stock go even higher. It’s called “a short squeeze.”
  4. Most of the Redditors are trading via an app called Robinhood, which allows trading stocks for free. Their business model relies on selling your trading data before your trades close. The firm which buys that data (Citadel) presumably is doing automated sentiment analysis. Some people speculate that this sudden spike in interest has triggered bots that joined in on the trading, compounding the following issue:
  5. Reddit users banded together, motivated each other with hilarious memes, bought the GME stock, which made it skyrocket and bankrupted Melvin Capital (a particularly nasty group of scoundrels and also a 13 billion dollar hedge fund) in the process. DeepFuckingValue has turned 50 000 USD into 13 million.
  6. Wall Street freaked out. NASDAQ CEO has suggested halting trading for the big institutional players to “recalibrate their positions,” and CNBC has been showcasing a parade of ‘industry experts calling for stopping this.

The problem with “containing” the situation is that Redditors did nothing wrong. They have just beaten hedge funds at their own game. They were even more ethical than the usual crowd since they gambled with their own money, as opposed to somebody else’s.

The trick worked, because Redditors (and everybody who joined them) were not only seeking profit, they wanted to make the suits (hedge fund managers and other members of the financial inner circle) bleed. They were willing to risk a lot only to showcase how rigged the system is against the retail investor.

Since the communication is happening on Reddit, it’s producing some particularly funny memes:

If you want to know more:

As with Bitcoin, I invested a small amount in GME to have a little skin in the game. And as with BTC, it immediately taught me a lot about my own investing psychology. I found myself waking up in the middle of the night to see that I gained 130% and see a 50% loss 15 minutes later. I sold everything a day after buying to stop looking. You may want to play with tiny amounts like this – you will learn surprising things about your own behavior.

What happens next?

Where it comes to interpreting these events I’m torn between two angles:

  • These events have the potential to accelerate decentralization. Parler bans have shown that there is a handful of companies that can control (for better or worse) many other startups. The aftermath of GME-gate highlights that the “free market” isn’t really free. There is a handful of gatekeepers, including SEC and they’re showing utter contempt for the retail investor.
    We finally have viable alternatives, and multiple “tech celebrities” have put #Bitcoin in their Twitter Bios over the last week. Maybe this all will accelerate cryptocurrency adoption similarly to COVID accelerating Remote Work? We’ll see.
  • This is just too much. Humans have limited f*cks to give (or, put in intellectual terms: people have recency bias). Even as I’m writing this, I have trouble remembering the beginning of the month, so I find it hard to care about events from the first week of 2021.

I think that is enough for both January 2021 and this edition of Deliberate Internet. I hope next week I’ll have less to report.

Most Deliberate reads of 2020. Plus a Baby!

Yes, I know you were missing the weekly Deliberate Internet installments and they have been the only thing that helped you survive 2020. I missed writing them too, but I took a little break to welcome my baby girl to the world.

Yes – I am a dad now, so you may expect a little bit more parenting content, liberally spiced of course by my tech, remote, and post-soviet perspectives.

And Yes – if you want to see something more personal, I’ve published a letter to my girl on Piszek.com, where I share my hopes and fears for this new journey of parenthood.

Ten best things I’ve read in 2020

Artur, wouldn’t it be cool if it were 20? Ha! See – I am a smart parent and resist the urge to be cool, but instead, go with being practical. This is what dads do. I’m so ready, cargo pants and all.

Turns out I didn’t read nearly as much as in previous years. When the Western society’s complete and utter failure in handling the pandemic became clear, I became disillusioned by intellectualism. I’ve read fewer articles and books since apparently being well-read does not necessarily translate to better decision-making.

This theme is also clear from these recommendations below. I spent the entire year (as I suspect many of us did) wondering a bit “where did the things go wrong?”. I’m currently working on a draft titled “All the [postmodern] world’s a stage” where I explore blaming postmodernism – stay tuned (or email me if you have thoughts on the topic).

#1 What’s the deal with these new vaccines? [berthub.eu]

Reverse Engineering the Source Code of the BioNTech/Pfizer SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine is an accessible, fascinating analysis of medical history unfolding before our eyes. The author lists all the clever breakthroughs packed in this new breed of mRNA vaccines and explains why the framework holds promise for other diseases.

For computers, this is RAM, for biology it is RNA. The resemblance is striking. Unlike flash memory, RAM degrades very quickly unless lovingly tended to. The reason the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine must be stored in the deepest of deep freezers is the same: RNA is a fragile flower.

#2 Brief history of the Corporation [ribbonfarm]

A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100 sheds light on the corporations through the ages. Following the COVID-19 economic turmoil, we can expect some big government bailouts which will predictably spark discussion around corporations holding too much power. (Currently, we are witnessing that discourse around censorship following Parler bans, but that is an entirely separate topic.).

If we want to discuss this productively, we have to recognize that this is not a new situation, and learn from past mistakes. Venkatesh’s post is an excellent, and entertaining overview of corporate economic history.

Conventionally, it is understood that the British and the Dutch were the ones who truly took over. But in reality, it was two corporations that took over: the EIC and the VOC (the Dutch East India Company,  Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, founded one year after the EIC) the Facebook and LinkedIn of Mercantile economics respectively. Both were fundamentally more independent of the nation states that had given birth to them than any business entities in history. The EIC more so than the VOC.  Both eventually became complex multi-national beasts

#3 Keep your identity small [paulgraham]

We’ve seen some interesting political turmoil recently. Keep your identity small posits that most of the disagreements in today’s world come from attaching too much of your identity to an idea. If your entire self is invested in being from a certain tribe, you will protect that point of view even if it stops serving you.

So it’s not politics that’s the source of the trouble, but identity.

On Paul Millerd’s amazing Substack, I have written a similar piece expanding on the idea in the context of Remote Work.

#4 It’s time to build [andressen-horowitz]

I’m not the only one fed up with the West’s performance over the last year of the Pandemic (YES, it has been a year!). Marc Andressen, creator of the first Internet browser (and a Venture Capitalist now) has published a call-to-arms urging everyone to just start building: It’s Time to Build.

You don’t just see this smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build, in the pandemic, or in healthcare generally. You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.

#5 The Art of Gig [ribbonfarm]

The Art of Gig is an exquisite Cyberpunk-themed corporate satire. If you spent any amount of time around consulting business, this short story will take you for a ride filled with truths so deep your diaphragm will hurt from laughing.

A good leader, when asked, “Do you want to be perceived as a Strong Big Man Leader or a Humble Servant Leader” will always reply “both,” and mean “neither.”

#6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person [cracked]

Were it any other year, my biggest surprise would be recommending an article from Cracked.com. 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person is full of honest, timeless, and BS-free advice that we stopped receiving in Western Society. It’s also a quick read!

The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change.

#7 The Meritocracy Fallacy [princeton]

If you have achieved any modicum of success, it becomes very seductive to attribute that success to yourself. This is known as the “Fundamental Attribution Error” and yet, we have turned this into an ideology – the Meritocracy.

In A Belief in Meritocracy Is Not Only False: It’s Bad for You, Mark Clifton explains why it’s as the title promises – false, and bad for you.

In addition to being false, a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways. Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.

‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.

#8 How to pick a career [waitbutwhy]

I am not sure I’ve read this article in 2020, but it doesn’t matter. Go read “How to Pick a Career” because it may change your work life.

When it comes to careers, society is like your great uncle who traps you at holidays and goes on a 15-minute mostly incoherent unsolicited advice monologue, and you tune out almost the whole time because it’s super clear he has very little idea what he’s talking about and that everything he says is like 45 years outdated.

There are likely dozens of awesome career paths that beautifully match your natural strengths, and it’s likely that most other people trying to succeed on those paths are playing with an outdated rulebook and strategy guide. If you simply understand what the game board really looks like and play by modern rules, you have a huge advantage.

#9 The Internet of Beefs [ribbonfarm]

The Internet of Beefs is a strategic analysis of conflict modes on the web. It provides a framework for understanding how come there is so much vitriol on the web.

A beef-only thinker is someone you cannot simply talk to. Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they are doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect, and a provocation to conflict. From there, you can only crash into honor-based conflict mode, or back away and disengage

#10 The trees. Oh, the trees. [amazon]

My biggest (in every sense of the word) recommendation is “The Overstory” by Richard Powers. A beautiful, captivating piece of fiction about Trees and humanity’s place around them. I wrote a little bit about the Trees on the Internet in a previous issue.

What were your favourite reads of 2020?

Do you have something I should read in 2021? Please do share! I’m currently searching for good Parenting-related content for obvious reasons, but I’m very curious about any topic on my mental atlas.

And have a splendid 2021! I know I will.

A Crow for Christmas

Winter is coming! Or – more accurately – the Winter Hollidays.

I will spare you a reflection on what an exciting year it was – I think you may have noticed. But instead, I will give you a peek into these scary Victorian Christmas Cards:

Writers Block Block

A few months ago, I wrote about GPT-3 – a new, best-in-class Artificial Intelligence text generator created by OpenAI. This week, I got access to the algorithm and proceeded to create a WordPress plugin that will help me write new posts.

I will keep you updated, but in the meantime here is a poem half-written by my lovely wife and half generated by a machine:

Don’t ask me
Why I tried to
Swallow the Ocean again


No human heart
Can contain
Koalas war and Betelgeuse


Pieces of me
Cloud of debris
Around what’s left of our world


It was the Ocean
That swallowed me

My Wife on her blog

And it will be the Ocean
That spits me out again

No one knows
What I’m after

And I’m not sure
I’ll be able to find my way home

Writers Block Block via GPT-3

Surprising consequences

Human-Made Materials Now Outweigh Earth’s Entire Biomass

In a shocking twist of events that is surprising to noone, humans have produced more materials than the nature itself – reports a paper published in well, Nature.

Their research shows that human activity including production of concrete, metal, plastic, bricks and asphalt has brought the world to a crossover point where human-made mass – driven mostly by enhanced consumption and urban development – exceeds the overall living biomass on Earth.

The amount of plastic alone is greater in mass than all land animals and marine creatures combined, the study estimates.

I will refrain myself from comment, since my recent delivery lifestyle is producing a lot of waste, but… damn. BTW – here is a video explaining why recycling is a sham.

Do you know how many people live in megacities?

Megacities are one of the more iconic examples of humanity’s footprint. According to Gapminder research – when people have estimated how many people live in huge agglomerations, they guess about 30%. Our culture is full of references to urban life and stories of high-powered middle-class families working in ‘the city’.

But as Gapminder reports, Less than 8% of the world’s population live in megacities.

Since products, laws, commercials and TV shows tend to be designed in those megacities, they are overrepresented and their inhabitants most tended to. The most impactful aspect of Remote Work may be the chance the other 92% of the world population may finally get on the job market.

The future of Work Is Written

While we’re chatting here about Remote Work, The Increment has published a very insightful article about writing skills as essential skills of telecommuting. I particularly enjoyed tying “the new” with “the old”:

Constitutional governments are great examples of how written artifacts can survive—and influence work—across centuries. For example, the U.S. Constitution passed down detailed instructions on how to make decisions without telling future participants in the governing process what decisions to make.

The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has been working at a distance for centuries;

Science publishing holds us back. We need to do better.

This issue of Deliberate Internet is one of those deep dives fueled by curiosity. This time it’s about science journals, Sci-Hub, Open Access, and the ugly underworld of academic publishing.

I don’t recall much from my psychology studies. I have some vague notion of what I learned over the 5 years, but one of the strongest memories was a feeling of utter frustration over accessing the research papers needed to write my thesis. I would find a perfect avenue of research only to be stopped by a science journal paywall.

My research on a quirk of human memory called “source monitoring error” probably would not advance the COVID vaccine, HIV cure, or the hunt for clean energy sources. But others working on those problems may be missing a key breakthrough because their university may have not purchased access to that particular journal.

The dizzying progress of humanity over the last 500 years is all thanks to the scientific method:

  1. Come up with a hypothesis about the world
  2. Test it rigorously, trying to disprove it
  3. If it still stands, invite others to disprove it
  4. If they cannot disprove it – it’s accepted as fact
  5. Upon this foundation, new, more complex hypotheses can move the understanding of the world forward.

These few principles ushered a new age dubbed the Scientific Revolution. Humanity was able to advance technology to the point beyond any imagination. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Homo Deus:

During the Scientific Revolution humankind silenced the gods too. The world was now a one-man show.

Despite what your uncle may believe, the canonical unit of disseminating science is not Youtube.

The research paper is the “deliverable” of scientists’ work. But it’s nothing without a research journal to publish it in. Science and Nature are the most prestigious ones.

Amongst scientists, there is the mantra “publish or perish” – they need to earn points (quite literary) by publishing papers in journals. The system is designed in theory to incentivize sharing results, discussing them, and subjecting them to peer review.

It’s a system where everything comes under scrutiny – except the journals themselves. Science itself became a feudal system where scientists have to fight to get published AND pay the journals to access their peer’s research papers. As the aforementioned Science quotes in “Who’s downloading pirated research papers – everyone“:

“Publishers give nothing to the authors, so why should they receive anything more than a small amount for managing the journal?”

The article opens with the story of Amirkabir from Iran. His experience closely mirrors my own:

To read a 2011 paper in Applied Mathematics and Computation, Rahimi would have to pay the publisher, Elsevier, $28. A 2015 paper in Operations Research, published by the U.S.-based company INFORMS, would cost $30. (…) Purchasing the papers was going to cost $1000 this week alone—about as much as his monthly living expenses

A group of science journal publishers – with Elsevier as the biggest one – has monopolized the science publishing industry, with universities as their captive customers. They need to buy access for their staff and students so that they can do their research – and of course – publish the work themselves. From the same Science article:

(A statement) (…) university recently issued about the impact of journal subscription rate hikes on its library budget:

“Scholarly resources are not luxury goods,” it says. “But they are priced as though they were.”

Why don’t scientists just release their papers in other journals?

Scientist incentivized to publish research papers present demand. It’s no wonder that the supply side has popped up – and is serving stuff that is not up to snuff:

Spam email inviting me to publish in a research papers mere 15 hours ago. Mind you – I am not an acadamic.

A whole crop of “predatory journals” is publishing any paper – for a fee.

Predatory publishing has been a real problem. In 2013 John Bohannon submitted a paper called “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” with purposefully deeply flawed methodology and got published in 60% of journals he submitted it to – including those backed by Elsevier and Wolters Kluver.

If you need a stronger proof that something is not right – a team of researchers annoyed at an email just like the one I received submitted a paper called “Get me off your fucking email list”, and got published:

Possibly one of the best research papers ever published.

These journals want to “prop themselves up” with established names and are eager to get scientists on their “editorial team” to serve as figureheads. A Polish team of researchers has submitted a blatantly fake resume of “Anna O. Szust” (from Polish: Anna F.raudster ) and of course – in many cases, they (or Anna) were invited to lend the name (Time magazine).

In this cesspool of fraud, spam, and lies, scientists are desperate to get their names into at least a half-decent journal, so they buckle up and pay.

Enter Sci Hub

Frustrated like everyone else (except Elsevier execs), but much more resourceful and determined – Alexandra Elbakyan created Sci-Hub in 2011. The site is online “exchange” for Science Papers.

Here is how it works:

  1. Scientists with legitimate access to articles (and frustrated by the current situation) are lending their credentials needed to download research papers
  2. You search a paper by the URL or identifier number
  3. If it’s in the database, you can download it
  4. If it’s not – it will be downloaded using credentials from point 1.

Saying that Sci-Hub is big is an understatement. It’s now THE science article database. And no wonder – from the same Science article:

The numbers are just staggering,” one senior executive at a major publisher told me upon learning the Sci-Hub statistics. “It suggests an almost complete failure to provide a path of access for these researchers.” He works for a company that publishes some of the most heavily downloaded content on Sci-Hub and requested anonymity so he could speak candidly.

Researchers can now find all the papers they need in one place, without tracking down for weeks that elusive obscure paper that they really need. God, I wish I had something like this during my studies.

Wait, isn’t that illegal?

Yes, it very well may be. But I also think it’s ethical.

I am a fan of subscriptions, I build subscription tools for a living, and have written about them, but my excitement is predicated on the fact that they let the creator pursue bigger risks to make more art (or science).

Paying the science journals helps noone (except, again, Elsevier execs). Consider following facts:

  • WE are paying for the research and the work of the scientists (in the form of grants). They receive no compensation from the journal,
  • Journals provide no additional value. They are being paid because they have been paid in the past
  • Paper authors are ecstatic that their papers get downloaded more. It’s not only more fame and citations (the academia currency), but more peer review as well. They are in this game for science after all.

The cost of the current situation is not the $9.8 Billion that Elsevier is able to rake in yearly. It’s trillions in opportunity cost due to scientists not being able to pay and access the paper that they needed for their next breakthrough.

Open Access.

Scientists themselves recognize that something has to give and see the same obvious solutions that we do. From the Berlin Declaration of Open Access:

The Internet has fundamentally changed the practical and economic realities of distributing scientific knowledge and cultural heritage. For the first time ever, the Internet now offers the chance to constitute a global and interactive representation of human knowledge, including cultural heritage and the guarantee of worldwide access.

Berlin Declaration of Open Access has been published in 2003. The progress of adoption hasn’t been that rapid, so we need Sci-Hub in the meantime.

But despite technological progress, Science itself has been known to move slower at times. The above link to the Open Access declaration is published on Max Planck Society, and it was Max Planck who said that “Science progresses one funeral at a time“.

Premium Mediocre Hacks

In a recent interview with Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin brought to my attention the definition of the noun “Hack” (not like in Hacker, but “to be a hack”).

The word “Hack” came from Hackney – a borough of London, where they bred horses. The horses were utterly commoditized – decent, dependable, and nothing special – so the carriage drivers using them were called “Hacks”. Seth Godin concludes:

“Where your nickname came as being a hack in that you didn’t have a special horse, you simply had a horse. There’s nothing wrong with raising a hack. There’s nothing wrong with buying a hack. Being a hack is about giving the customer exactly what they want at a decent price.”

He later of course states the value of original work:

However, it is important to distinguish it from the magic / fraught topic of our art of that thing that lights us up. The work that we actually want to do. And so my book, the Practices about that gap between being a hack, selling as if you’re a hack and the other thing, which is the generous act of doing something magic of leading.

Premium mediocre

For some time now I lacked the label for a homogenized millennial culture I myself am part of. My apartment is full of IKEA furniture, I own an iPhone, and pre-covid I loved to frequent those hipster restaurants that serve you fries in a clay planting pot and it somehow all makes sense. Oh, and I have a beard. There is no escaping it now.

For a while, I thought the word “hipster” encapsulates this trend. As derogative as it is, I embraced it for a while until I stumbled upon Venkatesh Rao’s “Premium Mediocre”. I highly recommend giving “The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial” a good read, but for the brevity of argument – Premium Mediocre is the commoditized aspiration of a higher-class life:

Premium mediocrity is a pattern of consumption that publicly signals upward mobile aspirations, with consciously insincere pretensions to refined taste, while navigating the realities of inexorable downward mobility with sincere anxiety. There are more important things to think about than actually learning to appreciate wine and cheese, such as making rent. But at least pretending to appreciate wine and cheese is necessary to not fall through the cracks in the API.

Hacks and Premium Mediocre

Now, after hearing Seth Godin’s explanations of the word Hack, I know that IKEA is a Hack. It’s dependable and decently priced. “McDonald’s Signature Burgers” are utterly Premium Mediocre, as Venkatesh describes (“Anything branded as “signature” is premium mediocre of course.”), and the iPhone is somehow both luxury and premium mediocre.

“Hack” is the ultimate “great deal” for the consumer – it’ fair and dependable. It’s also nothing special – that’s why – as Seth notes – it’s a crappy deal for the creator.

Ending this monologue on a somewhat positive note, I hope that technology will automate producing “Hacks” so that we can all “do the other thing”.

Surprising consequences

Teens did surprisingly well during the quarantine

How’s that for a surprising consequence: apparently, despite the economic strife and missing their friends, the pandemic removed a mental health risk factor making teens miserable: school.

teens have been sleeping more during the pandemic, and teens who are sleep deprived are significantly more likely to suffer from depression. In 2018, only 55 percent of teens said they usually slept seven or more hours a night. During the pandemic, this jumped to 84 percent among those for whom school was still in session.
Fifty-six percent of teens said they were spending more time talking with their parents than they had before the pandemic, and 54 percent said their families now ate dinner together more often. Forty-six percent reported spending more time with their siblings. Perhaps most striking, 68 percent of teens said their families had become closer during the pandemic

The Atlantic

4-Question MBTI test

MBTI questionnaire (dubbed “16 personalities”) is quite popular in business settings and total pseudoscience (read Anne-Laure’s essay on the topic). I challenge you to compare results from the below “questionnaire” and the popular 16 personalities test used to help people choose careers.

Copenhagen interpretation of ethics.

“The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says that when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more.”

Because every joke is better when you explain it – read on about the Copenhagen interpretation of physics and Woke culture. Explaining jokes makes me twice as awesome, because I can tell a joke AND sound smart explaining it!

PS:

Jeśli umiesz po Polsku i myślisz o zakupie kampera – napisałem ostatnio giga-posta na ten temat. Wyjaśniam od czego zacząć, jak się zabrać za kupno kampera i jak go sprawdzić i zarejestrować

The roaring twenties and the prohibition are back!

Mirriam-Webster dictionary has hailed the “Pandemic” as the word of the year (2020 if you are a little behind on your calendar). It may very well be “Lockdown”.

At my work, with friends from all over the world, we are swapping stories of how our respective governments are dealing with (or not dealing) the pandemic situation.

Seemingly a universal approach is to close down gyms, swimming pools, restaurants, and other places where people tend to spend time together (I was surprised to learn that Jamaica didn’t lock down gyms but introduced a curfew instead and it worked. Go figure.).

In Poland, for example, only organized groups are permitted to exercise, but gym workout equipment and free weights cannot be accessed “on-demand” legally. Legally is the key word here – From the same friends, I get some anecdotal stories about underground gyms, saunas, and hair salons.

In “Secret Gyms and the Economics of Prohibition”, the NPR’s Planet Money Newsletter authors launch an investigation into the illegal ways the gyms are operating under new rules. The story may very well be recounting ordeals of getting alcohol in the 1920s:

“Take the case of Christina, a paralegal and gym enthusiast from Tucson, Arizona, who asked us not to give her last name for fear of being labeled a snitch “

Apart from underground speakeasy establishments, there is of course a grey area of businesses striving to survive and clearly pushing the interpretation of the law. Since outdoor dining is still permitted, enterprising restaurant owners are coming up with outdoor, well, buildings:

I admit it is hard to judge these efforts to help the business stay afloat. Setting aside the responsibility for creating conditions helping spread the infection, I am surprised how quickly the history makes a full circle.

We are back in the roaring 20s, meeting in underground illegal clubs to get our fix of the forbidden fruit (in this case, meeting in person).

I’m most curious what is the 21st century equivalent of Jazz.

Surprising Effects

Did you know that the Frequent Flyer programs are bigger businesses than the airlines themselves?

The Financial Times pegs the value of Delta’s loyalty program at a whopping $26 billion, American Airlines at $24 billion, and United at $20 billion. All of these valuations are comfortably above the market capitalization of the airlines themselves — Delta is worth $19 billion, American $6 billion, and United $10 billion.

Byrne Hobart explains in this fantastic article about classic airline economics:

Loyalty programs aren’t a great business paired with a terrible one, they’re the part of a single unified business that makes it viable. An airline without its highly profitable loyalty program is a company that faces high labor costs, volatile fuel prices, and a rapidly changing demand environment. With loyalty programs, that’s offset by a high-margin, high-growth side business.

Local women crochet sweaters to shield rescued elephants from cold, Elephant Conservation Care Center, India

Time for something heart (and elephant 🐘) warming!

Perverse Incentives, USSR, Deutsche Bank, and Remote Work

Do you ever find yourself thinking “Well, this process is just wasteful? What if we made a rule, so that X. Surely, it would be better“? So did the economical planners of the USSR.

Soviet economics had really 2 goals:

  • Give everybody employment
  • Feed 293 million people and finance the entire endeavour

To some extent, we can even call the experiment a moderate success – the unemployment was definitely defeated. That is a metric that market economies still struggle with, especially now – after covid-related employment shifts.

It’s the economic viability that was not very successful. The USSR was not only much less effective than the western counterpart – it just wasn’t working and could not continue much longer than in 1990.

But why was it so problematic? In Optimizing Things in the USSR Chris Said explores the optimization problems of the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet economy was planned top-down, the rules introduced a lot of unforeseen perverse incentives. For example, there was a permanent shortage of thin metal tubes:

Administrators would often track the total tonnage of a few broad classes of steel tubes in the models, rather than using a more detailed classification scheme. While their models successfully balanced the tonnage of tubes for the broad categories (the output in tons of tube-producing factories matched the input requirements in tons of tube-consuming factories), there were constant surpluses of some specific types of tubes, and shortages of other specific types of tubes. In particular, since tonnage was used as a metric, tube-producing factories were overly incentivized to make easy-to-produce thick tubes. As a result, thin tubes were always in short supply.

At every turn, there were incentives for wastefulness in the name of meeting the goals. Operators acting in good faith had to overcompensate by lying which introduced even more miscalibration to the planning process, thus creating even a bigger problem.

Even worse, in order to obtain more resources, factory managers in the USSR routinely lied to the central planners about their production capabilities
The situation became so bad that, according to one of the deep state secrets of the USSR, central planners preferred to use the CIA’s analyses of certain Russian commodities rather than reports from local Party bosses!

Perverse Incentives

Setting top-down incentives in the complex system can sometimes hilariously backfire. A fantastic Reddit Thread “What’s a rule that was implemented somewhere, that massively backfired?” lists some:

Can you beat the highscore?

My city has issues with loud bikes/vehicles. So as a deterrant, the city put up decibel meters that displayed how loud your engine is(…) people would pull up to these signs and rev the heck out of their engines to see who could get the highest decibel count.

Missing the “30 minutes or less” Pizza delivery?

When Domino’s said all pizzas would be delivered in 30min. or less or your pizza was FREE. All the delivery drivers kept getting in car accidents to get your pizza to you on time, so it wouldn’t come out of their paycheck

Something to think about if you are organizing a wedding:

A hotel I used to work for decided they were having an alcohol-free holiday party. This didn’t sit well with the people who’d been working there for years and were accustomed to a full bar at the party. The staff parking lot ended up being full of people drinking in their cars trying to get a good buzz to carry them through the party and most people ended up getting way drunker than they would have so the party was a shit show.

You cannot have an alcohol-free wedding (in Poland at least). It’s better if you supply the alcohol – at least you have some control over the quality.

The Cobra Effect

Any good list of perverse incentives cannot omit the “Cobra Effect” (Wikipedia):

The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi. The government therefore offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the worthless snakes free; the wild cobra population further increased.

“Cobra Effect” is a consequence of the solution that’s worse than a problem it aimed to alleviate.

Deutche Bank and Remote Work

Some people have lucked out during the COVID pandemic and I count myself among them. When I was moving my career towards remote employment 6 years ago, my head was full of remote beaches and waterfalls. However, I found myself very well prepared (comparatively of course) for the challenges of 2020, even with the beach & waterfall shortage in my life. I do realize, that not everybody has had the same fortune, and am very sympathetic towards supporting other workers and actively contribute.

Also, the brilliant minds at Deutsche Bank have decided to optimize this, very much like the Soviet planners. I will let myself copy the key points from CNBC:

  • Deutsche Bank survey found more than half of workers wanted to continue working from home for the 2-3 days a week after the pandemic.
  • According to the Deutsche Bank Research report, a 5% tax rate on those days on the average salary of a remote worker could raise $48 billion a year in the U.S., £6.9 billion in the U.K., and 15.9 billion euros in Germany.
  • This would cover the costs of grants for people who can’t work from home and are on lower incomes.

How can this go wrong? I will leave it out as an exercise for you! Can you find the most perverse incentive this creates? Send me an email!