Links December 2019

More on tacit knowledge, this time from Samo Burja: “Before video became available at scale [through YouTube], tacit knowledge had to be transmitted in person, so that the learner could closely observe the knowledge in action and learn in real time — skilled metalworking, for example, is impossible to teach from a textbook. Because of this intensely local nature, it presents a uniquely strong succession problem: if a master woodworker fails to transmit his tacit knowledge to the few apprentices in his shop, the knowledge is lost forever, even if he’s written books about it. Further, tacit knowledge serves as an obstacle to centralization, as its local transmission provides an advantage for decentralized players that can’t be replicated by a central authority. The center cannot appropriate what it cannot access: there will never be a state monopoly on plumbing or dentistry, for example.”

The pyramids were built tacit knowledge: “Although we failed to match the best efforts of the ancient builders,” noted team leader Mark Lehner, “it was abundantly clear that their expertise was the result not of some mysterious technology or secret sophistication, but generations of practice and experience.” (link)

And yet another instance of knowledge loss: “In 2007, as the government began overhauling the nation’s stockpile of W76 warheads—the variety often carried by Ohio-class submarines—officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration realized they couldn’t produce an essential material known as ‘Fogbank.’ What purpose this substance actually serves is classified, but outside experts have suggested that it’s a sort of exploding foam that sits between the fission and fusion portions of hydrogen bombs. The Government Accountability Office reported in March that NNSA’s effort to recover its Fogbank-making ability had resulted in a yearlong, $69 million delay in the refurbishment project. And a government official with knowledge of the situation tells Mother Jones that further Fogbank-related delays are imminent.”

A fascinating look at the decline of Blockbuster: “The company posted a net loss for every year but two between 1996 and 2010. And while Netflix was founded in 1997, its revenue wasn’t even a blip in the industry until the 2000s…When movie studios turned to the DVD format, they departed from their years-long strategy, opting to offer new movies at prices anybody could afford. Walmart, Best Buy and other box retailers quickly became among Blockbuster’s biggest competitors, as they could price movies at or even below wholesale costs, using them as loss leaders to drive traffic. Oh, and those DVDs were also lighter and cheaper to send through the mail, giving rise to Netflix’s initial mail-service business and allowing for a more practical kiosk rental model (i.e. Redbox).”

The basket-case that was Blockbuster can be compared to Family Video, which started in Springfield, IL, my hometown: “Keith acknowledges that his movie rental empire won’t last forever, but he sees Family Video as an easy way to expand his real estate portfolio, which has no obvious expiration date. The formula is simple: Open a store, use rental sales to pay off the mortgage and hold on to the property. ‘In five years we’ll still be here,’ he says, grinning. ‘We’re going to hang on for quite a while.'”

Smartphone “addiction” doesn’t satisfy the criteria for addiction, according to new research: “In a sample of smartphone users, we measured three variables (mood, anxiety, and craving) on four occasions, which included a 24-hour period of smartphone abstinence. Only craving was affected following a short period of abstinence. The results suggest that heavy smartphone usage does not fulfill the criteria required to be considered an addiction.”

From Alec Stapp, a paper looking at how Soviet growth was understood in economics textbooks from 1960 to 1980: “What we find repeatedly is over-confidence in the potential for Soviet growth and an asymmetric response to past forecast errors. More than this, the textbooks report faster Soviet income growth combined with a constant ratio of Soviet–US income.”

From Brad DeLong, a helpful reminder that, “The ‘elasticity of substitution’ is an emergent property. It has very little to do with ‘technology’ if only because there is not one single technology in the economy. There are lots of different types of machines and lots of ways to use workers and machines to produce things.”

Part of the reason that the Wright Brothers were the first to achieve flight is because they ran experiments to understand the density of air: “Since the 18th century, engineers had been using Smeaton’s coefficient to calculate the density of air. After running over 50 simulations using their wind tunnels, the brothers determined its value to be 0.0033, and not 0.005…Fixing the Smeaton’s coefficient, they solved the problem of lift. They also used the data from wind tunnels to design wings with better lift-to-drag ratio and used them to build their 1902 flying machine, which performed significantly better than their previous gliders.”

Is YouTube a pipeline for Alt-Right content? That is very difficult to find in research. From Kevin Munger & Joseph Phillips of Penn State: “But despite considerable energy, Ribeiro et al. (2019) fail to demonstrate that the algorithm has a noteworthy effect on the audience for Alt-Right content. A random walk algorithm beginning at an Alt-Lite video and taking 5 steps randomly selecting one of the ten recommended videos will only be recommended a video from the Alt-Right approximately one out every 1,700 trips. For a random walker beginning at a ‘control’ video from the mainstream media, the probability is so small that it is difficult to see on the graph, but it is certainly no more common than one out of every 10,000 trips.”

First published Dec 5, 2019