The last word

Interview with the great NYTimes obituary writer Margalit Fox:

Is it hard for you to navigate sources that are so regularly in a fragile state?

It behooves you, in purely human terms, to treat them as kindly as possible. That said, you don’t want to lull them into the sense that you’re a friend, an advocate, or some sort of a grief counselor. You do have people break down crying on the phone and you just wait patiently for them to regain composure.

In what ways do families try to control the narrative?

Families will say, Oh, be sure to put in that he died surrounded by his loved ones, or, Make sure you add that she touched the lives of everyone she knew. Those are things I never want to put in because they’re these Victorian clichés, but also because the obituary as a form has moved beyond protecting the family’s narrative.

How else has the form changed?

Well, for one thing, they’re a lot more fun to read. They used to be very formulaic.

Since they were considered boring, editors used to assign journalists obits as punishment. You knew someone was in trouble if they were chasing down obituaries.

That started to change with the great Alden Whitman, Mr. Bad News. He was famous for his advances. He’d do all this research and sit down with his subjects and they’d give him these very revealing interviews because they knew nothing would come out till they were gone. Douglas Martin, a colleague of mine who has been on obits longer than I have, started writing them in this charming, lively way, which has influenced my own style.

Our last few obits editors at the Times encouraged, where appropriate, a lighter, more features-style treatment. If you get one of these wonderful characters who took a different route to work one day in 1947 and invented something that changed the world, or one of these marvelous English eccentrics, there’s so much space to play. In the course of an obit, you’re charged with taking your subject from the cradle to the grave, which gives you a natural narrative arc.

Also, this:

I have maybe one suicide a year and they all seem to be poets. If I were an insurance company, I’d never write a policy for poets.

I have many favorite Fox obituaries. Here's just the opening paragraph of one example of her mastery of the form:

Helen Gurley Brown, Who Gave ‘Single Girl’ a Life in Full, Dies at 90

Helen Gurley Brown, who as the author of “Sex and the Single Girl” shocked early-1960s America with the news that unmarried women not only had sex but thoroughly enjoyed it — and who as the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine spent the next three decades telling those women precisely how to enjoy it even more — died on Monday in Manhattan. She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.

My first few years at Amazon, before the human editorial department was cut back, the books, music, and video editorial teams had what was called the Ghoul Pool, a list of famous authors, musicians, and movie professionals who were most likely to die; the editors split up the duties of pre-writing obits and curating lists of the most famous work for everyone on the list. 

We're probably just a decade or two away from a surge in the number of public social media accounts that will suddenly just end when their owners pass away. What procedures or etiquette will arise for handling those accounts? Will they be turned off after some period of inactivity, or will they just live on in perpetuity until the services themselves expire, voices gone silent?

We remember many people in history through their collected letters and things like that, but with each generation we will have greater artifacts of ever greater resolution on the deceased. Thousands of tweets and status updates; pictures of all the bowls of ramen they ate across decades of life, helpfully and artificially aged with digital filters; videos of random moments of life that fell in between other moments of life. The sound of their voice. The number of steps they walked each day of their lives. Checkins at all the bars they ended many a night, looking for love, usually finding the bottom of an empty glass instead.

I'd like to think that even if I were no longer alive to view the ads these technology services would try to show me that they'd keep my content up, as a digital archive of my life, warts and all, for my relatives to peruse. Maybe people will have to specify so in their wills, and maybe a large business will be built on preserving these digital footprints, an Internet archive of the deceased, like some digital cemetery.

When I die, I hope to leave behind a witty Gmail “permanently on vacation” message that leaves people with one last chuckle.

Network transportation costs

Metcalfe's Law states that a value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of its nodes.  In an area where good soils, mines, and forests are randomly distributed, the number of nodes valuable to an industrial economy is proportional to the area encompassed.  The number of such nodes that can be economically accessed is an inverse square of the cost per mile of transportation.  Combine this  with Metcalfe's Law and we reach a dramatic but solid mathematical conclusion: the potential value of a land transportation network is the inverse fourth power of the cost of that transportation. A reduction in transportation costs in a trade network by a factor of two increases the potential value of that network by a factor of sixteen. While a power of exactly 4.0 will usually be too high, due to redundancies, this does show how the cost of transportation can have a radical nonlinear impact on the value of the trade networks it enables.  This formalizes Adam Smith's observations: the division of labor (and thus value of an economy) increases with the extent of the market, and the extent of the market is heavily influenced by transportation costs (as he extensively discussed in his Wealth of Nations).

I learned that and more from this post on how critical horses were to the industrial revolution. Because Europe had horses to move natural resources while China relied on human porters, the 1800's saw Europe surge past China. Later, non-European countries like Japan just skipped the horses and went to steam engines to play another round of leapfrog.

We continue to see leapfrogging all over the world with a variety of technologies, like cellular technology (skipping landlines) and near field payments (hopping past credit cards). To take a more recent example, it would not surprise me if we first saw widespread deployment of drone delivery technology in countries other than the U.S., where regulations and solid alternatives exist. It's not surprising to hear that Amazon is looking to test drone delivery in India first.

Douchebag, the white racial slur

Entertaining exploration of the word douchebag by Michael Cohen. First, he dissects white privilege:

White privilege is the right of whites, and only whites, to be judged as individuals, to be treated as a unique self, possessed of all the rights and protections of citizenship. I am not a race, I am the unmarked subject. I am simply man, whereas you might be a black man, an asian woman, a disabled native man, a homosexual latina woman, and on and on the qualifiers of identification go. With each keyword added, so too does the burden of representation grow.

Sometimes the burden of representation is proudly shouldered, even celebrated. But more often this burden of representation becomes a dangerous, racist weight, crushing and unbearable. Michael Brown was killed in part because of this burden (the stereotype of black male criminality), and his body continues to carry this weight as the protests mount (the martyred symbol that black lives matter).

But white men are just people. Basic Humanity. We carry the absent mark which grants us the invisible power of white privilege. Everyone else gets discrimination.

Then he drills in on the very specific definition of the term:

If we think of the douchebag as a social identity as much as an accusation, as a subject with a distinctive persona locatable within the categories of race, class, gender and sexuality, then we find that the term carries a remarkably precise definition.

The douchebag is someone — overwhelmingly white, rich, heterosexual males — who insist upon, nay, demand their white male privilege in every possible set and setting.

The douchebag is equally douchy (that’s the adjectival version of the term) in public as in private. He is a douchebag waiting in line for coffee as well as in the bedroom. This definition marks him, like the atavistic, dusty rubber douchebags of our grandmothers’ generation, as a useless, sexist tool. Armed with this refined definition, I believe the term “douchebag” is the white racial slur we have all been waiting for. We have only to realize this. White privilege itself has blinded us to the true nature of the douchebag’s identity. But it’s been there all along.

It's most certainly a term I hear used more and more these days, though I'm not sure what precipitated its ascent. As Cohen notes, it was once a medical term, but at some point it was appropriated to mean, according to the first definition in its Urban Dictionary entry, “Someone who has surpassed the levels of jerk and asshole, however not yet reached fucker or motherfucker. Not to be confuzed [sic] with douche.”

I ran a Google Ngram on the term from 1880 to 2008, and you can see its popularity take flight in the aughts.

Star Wars in our world

Photographer Thomas Dagg has transplanted objects and characters from Star Wars into black and white photos of everyday life.

See more at Dagg's gallery. That center image doesn't look that unusual at all to a New Yorker. Just this past weekend in New York City I rode the subway with a fully grown adult in a full Captain America outfit, and no one paid him a second glance (granted, New York Comic Con was in full swing, but New Yorkers know to expect the unexpected any time of the year on the subway).

Instead of fooling their children into believing in Santa Claus, some parents should see if they can convince their children that we live in the Star Wars universe, just a few galaxies over.

More computing comparative advantages

In To Siri, With Love, a mother marvels at the friendship that sprouts between her autistic son and Siri, Apple's digital assistant.

It’s not that Gus doesn’t understand Siri’s not human. He does — intellectually. But like many autistic people I know, Gus feels that inanimate objects, while maybe not possessing souls, are worthy of our consideration. I realized this when he was 8, and I got him an iPod for his birthday. He listened to it only at home, with one exception. It always came with us on our visits to the Apple Store. Finally, I asked why. “So it can visit its friends,” he said.

So how much more worthy of his care and affection is Siri, with her soothing voice, puckish humor and capacity for talking about whatever Gus’s current obsession is for hour after hour after bleeding hour? Online critics have claimed that Siri’s voice recognition is not as accurate as the assistant in, say, the Android, but for some of us, this is a feature, not a bug. Gus speaks as if he has marbles in his mouth, but if he wants to get the right response from Siri, he must enunciate clearly. (So do I. I had to ask Siri to stop referring to the user as Judith, and instead use the name Gus. “You want me to call you Goddess?” Siri replied. Imagine how tempted I was to answer, “Why, yes.”)

She is also wonderful for someone who doesn’t pick up on social cues: Siri’s responses are not entirely predictable, but they are predictably kind — even when Gus is brusque. I heard him talking to Siri about music, and Siri offered some suggestions. “I don’t like that kind of music,” Gus snapped. Siri replied, “You’re certainly entitled to your opinion.” Siri’s politeness reminded Gus what he owed Siri. “Thank you for that music, though,” Gus said. Siri replied, “You don’t need to thank me.” “Oh, yes,” Gus added emphatically, “I do.”

I know many friends who found Her to be too twee, but I was riveted by the technological questions being explored. We often think of computer advantages over humans in realms of calculation or memorization or computation, but that can lead us to under appreciate other comparative advantages of our digital companions.

The piece above notes Siri's infinite patience. Anyone can exhaust their reservoir of patience when spending lots of time with young children, but computers don't get tired or moody. In Her (SPOILER ahead if you haven't seen the movie yet), Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly gets jealous when he finds out his digital girlfriend Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) has been simultaneously carrying out relationships with many other humans and computers:

Theodore: Do you talk to someone else while we're talking?

Samantha: Yes.

Theodore: Are you talking with someone else right now? People, OS, whatever...

Samantha: Yeah.

Theodore: How many others?

Samantha: 8,316.

Theodore: Are you in love with anybody else?

Samantha: Why do you ask that?

Theodore: I do not know. Are you?

Samantha: I've been thinking about how to talk to you about this.

Theodore: How many others?

Samantha: 641.

Samantha clearly has a bit to learn about the limitations of honesty, but one could flip this argument and say that the human desire for one's mate to love only you might be a selfish human construct. The advantage of a digital intelligence like Samantha might be exactly that the marginal cost of each additional mate for her is negligible, effectively increasing the supply of companionship for humans by a near infinite amount.

Computer's speed reading advantage

In May last year, a supercomputer in San Jose, California, read 100,000 research papers in 2 hours. It found completely new biology hidden in the data. Called KnIT, the computer is one of a handful of systems pushing back the frontiers of knowledge without human help.

KnIT didn't read the papers like a scientist – that would have taken a lifetime. Instead, it scanned for information on a protein called p53, and a class of enzymes that can interact with it, called kinases. Also known as "the guardian of the genome", p53 suppresses tumours in humans. KnIT trawled the literature searching for links that imply undiscovered p53 kinases, which could provide routes to new cancer drugs.

Having analysed papers up until 2003, KnIT identified seven of the nine kinases discovered over the subsequent 10 years. More importantly, it also found what appeared to be two p53 kinases unknown to science. Initial lab tests confirmed the findings, although the team wants to repeat the experiment to be sure.

KnIT is a collaboration between IBM and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. It is the latest step into a weird world where autonomous machines make discoveries that are beyond scientists, simply by rifling more thoroughly through what we already know, and faster than any human can.

The full article is short and worth reading.

As human history progresses, the body of previous research and knowledge in that field expands, and at some point humans may not have the time in their lives to learn it all (I'm setting immortality aside for now, though that is one potential solution). Computers, on the other hand, can read much more quickly than humans, and it would not surprise me if we start to see more and more of these computer-generated discoveries. The value of Big Data is still being debated, but this breakthrough suggests one path to unlocking it is shedding the limitations of human intelligence.

Water is too cheap

Timely economics article given the current drought in California.

Such efforts may be more effective than simply exhorting people to conserve. In August, for example, cities and towns in California consumed much less water — 27 billion gallons less —than in August last year.

But the proliferation of limits on water use will not solve the problem because regulations do nothing to address the main driver of the nation’s wanton consumption of water: its price.

“Most water problems are readily addressed with innovation,” said David G. Victor of the University of California, San Diego. “Getting the water price right to signal scarcity is crucially important.”

The signals today are way off. Water is far too cheap across most American cities and towns. But what’s worse is the way the United States quenches the thirst of farmers, who account for 80 percent of the nation’s water consumption and for whom water costs virtually nothing.

Alex Tabarrok points to this passage from the Microeconomics textbook from him and Tyler Cowen:

Farmers use the subsidized water to transform desert into prime agricultural land. But turning a California desert into cropland makes about as much sense as building greenhouses in Alaska! America already has plenty of land on which cotton can be grown cheaply. Spending billions of dollars to dam rivers and transport water hundreds of miles to grow a crop that can be grown more cheaply in Georgia is a waste of resources, a deadweight loss. The water used to grow California cotton, for example, has much higher value producing silicon chips in San Jose or as drinking water in Los Angeles than it does as irrigation water.

Subsidies distort markets by weakening the ability of price signals to allocate scarce resources wisely. People freak out over surge pricing from Uber, but that's trying to do the same thing, in principle.

I extend the idea of subsidies to emotions, too. When someone really gorgeous expresses an idea, I think of that thought as having an aesthetic subsidy. When one grows unusually attached to something that's theirs (the endowment effect), I think of that as an ownership subsidy.

Subsidies disrupt markets, and they have a similar effect on your thinking.