Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

April 18, 2018

More Indians on the internet than Americans

Filed under: Internet,Technology — Razib Khan @ 11:10 pm


The image is from a WSJ story: Why Tech Titans Are Betting on India, in 14 Charts.

March 8, 2018

Slack killed IRC? (sort of)

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 1:28 am

Interesting piece channeling some early internet nostalgia, Picking Up The Slack:
Internet Relay Chat beat Slack to real-time chat by decades and helped define much of our early online culture, yet way more people use Slack. Why is that?
. The article caught my attention because I use Slack at work, and have for a couple of years. In contrast, I probably check in to IRC once every few years now (I actually just installed an IRC client on my computer, it’s been so long).

And yet back during the summers between school years in college, I’d spend a fair amount of time haunting several IRC channels, mostly on UNDERNET. You met some weird people, some nice people, and some unpleasant people. Generally, my utilization of IRC was heavily cyclical, just like my reading and posting in USENET groups. If I had better thing to do, I’d go do them.

Perhaps one of the strangest things about IRC and USENET is a few people from those days actually ended up finding me on the web, with the rise of the paleoblogosphere. At least one long-time commenter knows me from a USENET group back in the late 1990s, while the RSS aggregator that pushes my total content feed was written by an anarcho-libertarian programmer and philosopher who I actually met first when he was a teen nerd in the Deep South.

That old internet culture is disappearing and becoming legend, just like the “homebrew computer” era of the 1970s was for my generation.

February 13, 2018

How Craigslist stays at 1 by not moving on from the year 2000

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 9:53 pm

In the open thread, I made a casual comment that I’ve become a bit more skeptical of market efficiencies lately. Remember, in the perfect market, the profit of the firms should converge upon zero. Is this to anyone’s benefit? Obviously, it is to the benefit of the consumer. But what happens in the long term when firms can’t make any money?

This crossed my mind recently in regards to Craigslist. Craigslist is notoriously no-frills and reflects an aesthetic and functionally stuck in the year 2000. The founder, Craig Newmark, is a pretty weird person. The company has 50 employees and does not maximize profit. But Newmark and Craigslist have had a culturally huge impact. They destroyed the newspaper classifieds.

And yet Craigslist stays stuck in the year 2000. This was obvious to me when they went after Padmapper. Padmapper was clearly a service which added value to Craigslist. And yet today I wonder if this behavior by Craigslist actually allows it to continue providing the services it does.

Imagine that Craigslist opens up its API and all sorts of other web applications develop around it. What I can imagine is that Craigslist would become the locus of massive and highly efficient arbitrages. Consider programs which match buyers and sellers in a way which minimizes the “deals” that sellers can today gain from buyers who are naive. Perhaps instead of two people going into an exchange, an ecosystem of “runners” who would transport products.

My thoughts on this are vague and cloudy, but perhaps reduced efficiency and rationality actually means Craigslist can persist for far longer?

February 6, 2018

Why SpaceX matters

Filed under: SpaceX,Technology — Razib Khan @ 8:37 pm


Unless you were sleeping under a rock today you saw what SpaceX did. I don’t really follow Musk closely. My friends in Silicon Valley speak highly of him. He shares an interest in some of the same topics I do (he’s a fan of Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence). But in general on an analytical level I think he’s a long-term thinker who may seem crazy, but actually is simply less pedestrian in his focus than the typical billionaire.

T. Boone Pickens has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Oklahoma State University…with the majority going to its athletic programs. And yet to my knowledge, Pickens’ philanthropy has attracted less opprobrium than Musk’s focus on quixotic topics such as hostile strong AI. Musk is weird. Pickens just furthers the cause of traumatic head injury so that his fellow Okhlahomans can cheer on Saturday.

Today at work one of my coworkers hooked up the conference screen to the coverage of the SpaceX launch and landing. I had one eye on the screen…when I saw the descent of the two boosters which landed successfully. I literally jumped out of my chair and ran over to watch them land. It was like seeing a CGI “artist’s conception” of the future of space travel come to life!

As many of you know I am not a fan of Joseph P Kennedy II. When I was a child in the 1980s he gave on the floor of the House of Representatives where he argued against funding for space exploration because of the opportunity cost in relation to social spending. His delivery was quite appallingly poetic from what I recall, something like “why must we take food from the poor so that spaceships can sail high above us?”

Because I was a science nerd with a child’s lack of understanding of the “real world,” where some people were poor and destitute, my reflex was very negative. I still remember Kennedy’s pained expression and can feel my rictus of rage. I probably didn’t appreciate the substance of Kennedy’s argument, but the spirit of it was clear to me.

Some might argue that we don’t need to make a choice. But what if we did? What if space didn’t return much on our investment?

These are fundamentally ancient arguments. In China, during Warring States periods there was a stylized debate between the partisans of Mozi, who we can characterize as a utilitarian, and the followers of Confucius, as to the value of frivolities such as music. Those who aligned with Mozi were fixated on human well-being on the most general and universal scale possible. Music and other cultural productions were pure aesthetic consumption which took away from labor which might otherwise have gone into alleviating human suffering. In the end, history weighed in on the side of the Confucians…with the exception of Communist revisionists in the 20th century.

Musk, and Jeff Bezos, envisage us as an inter-planetary (and perhaps extra-planetary) species. This is laudable so as to avoid the risk of mass extinction on a single “lifeboat Earth.” But perhaps humans becoming inter-planetary is like art? Perhaps it is part of our telos?

These are ideas explored in science fiction. In Against the Fall of Night Arthur C. Clarke writes about a human race which is immortal and geriatric, inward-looking and lacking the spirit of curiosity that defines us, except for a young boy named Alvin. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man prophesies a pedestrian future untouched by the chiliastic passions we see today in Islamic fundamentalism or the dragons of pre-liberal nationalism awakening. Space offers a way out of these two visions of conflict and ennui.

There is also a deeper evolutionary historical framework for understanding why we are fascinated by the possibilities of space, crazy as they are. Our own modern human lineage was the first to cross over from Sundaland to Sahul. No matter whether you accept a new date of 65,000 years BP, or the more traditional date of 45,000 years, modern humans show up in Australia very early after their exit en masse from Africa.

These humans crossed 90 kilometers of open sea. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond proposed that Australia may have been settled by a pregnant woman who clung to a floating tree branch. Genetics tells us this is false. Oceanian peoples went through a bottleneck, but not such an extreme one.

The implication is that the proto-Oceanian people who left Sundaland for Sahul did so as a unit, impelled by some cultural human prerogative. We may think that going to Mars is crazy, but we know Mars exists. What would have driven these proto-Oceanian peoples eastward into the great blue ocean? And how did they go east during the Pleistocene, before seafaring traditions?

The lesson from prehistory is that modern humans are a crazy species. We journey across the deep blue sea into the unknown. To a great extent, this is irrational for the groups and individuals who engage in this activity. The vast majority of voyagers probably expired. And yet something within us kept pushing some of us until we made it. In a different lingo, one might say that staying home, focusing on safety and comfort, is a local maximum. International space agencies and private firms such as Lockheed Martin were chasing the local maxima. That was safe and defensible. Only someone as crazy as Elon Musk would push SpaceX into an endeavor which was insane and likely to fail. And yet sometimes humans don’t fail, and crazy is actually saner than we could ever imagine.

January 28, 2018

The rapid fading of information

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 10:32 pm


In Robert Heinlein’s uneven late work Friday the mentor of the protagonist mentions that because of a possible collapse of technological civilization he maintains a collection of paper books.

This crossed my mind when I saw that Storify is shutting down. Or Kevin Drum’s reflections on the changes in blogging.

I’ve put a lot of content out there over the years. Probably on the order of 5 million words across my blogs. Some publications here and there. Lots of tweets. But very little of it will persist into future generations. Digital is evanescent.

But so is paper. I believe that even good hardcover books probably won’t last more than a few hundred years.

Perhaps we should go back to some form of cuneiform? Stone and metal will last thousands of years.

December 29, 2017

The iPhone killed commenting

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 12:41 am

Back when this domain received about 15 or 20 percent of the traffic it now receives there were many more commenters. What happened? One of the reasons the Sepia Mutiny weblog was shutdown was that as the commentariat withered after 2007 there was less motivation to keep a community going (there was none).

The explanation at the time was that people were moving conversations to Facebook. Today we would add Twitter and Reddit to the list of “culprits.”

But there’s another thing that is hard to ignore: about half the traffic that comes to this website is now on iOS or Android. That is, half the traffic to this domain is mobile.

I’m pretty sure that the nature of browsing content on a phone is such that it discourages the sorts of intense back & forth exchanges which were at one point the bread & butter of comments sections of weblogs in the ancient days of yore.

December 19, 2017

Samsung Galaxy S8 is pretty good

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 5:35 pm

One of the more convenient things with having a blog that has more than a few readers is that you can ask questions and get some answers.

Recently I was figuring out whether I’d go full-Apple, and get an iPhone. I got a lot of feedback, but ultimately I decided to to be boring and get a Samsung Galaxy S8.

The verdict? Bixby sucks. Everything else is pretty good. Would recommend.

November 24, 2017

Dodging the Apple Premium (still)

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 11:53 am

Because of what I have been provided by my employers over the last few years I’ve been working on a Macbook Pro. These are fine machines, but they have not converted me to being a convert to all things Apple. I have two machines with Ubuntu at home that I have no problem with using (one of them has a dual-boot where I have a copy of Windows which I use every six months or so to make sure that security updates are installed).

In any case, my current phone has been acting erratically over the past few weeks. Up until now I had been resisting getting a new phone because it wasn’t as if I really needed one…but when there is a jeopardy that your phone will decide to not boot up, one has to act.

So I was agonizing over the Samsung 8 or iPhone 8. I’ve had multiple Samsung’s before. And the Samsung 8 seemed fine. The flip side is that everyone in my office uses an iPhone 8, and I get crap for staying with Android. This is not a major issue…but I can’t lie, I’m curious about the iPhone.

In the end, I probably stayed with Android for one primary reason: people in the Apple ecosystem seem totally hostage to Apple. Upgrades are a total pain, and there are minor things I need to get fixed in regards to my Macbook Pro‘s OS which is going to require a “Genius.” The whole situation strikes me as farcical and not futuristic. I’d rather tinker with my Ubuntu distribution than wait in line at a crowded Mac store.

So pass for now….

October 7, 2017

Smartphones killed the fabulist

Filed under: Internet,Technology — Razib Khan @ 1:26 pm
EVIL!!!

In The Wall Street Journal Nicholas Carr has a bizarre but unsurprising op-ed, How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds:
Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens
. By the title, you can immediately pick out tells that should induce skepticism. “Research suggests” is usually indicating that the author has a hypothesis, and they went and searched the literature for research that confirmed their hypothesis. Carr actually did better than much of modern journalism. He found peer-reviewed literature, instead of quote mining, or selective elisions. Journalism, you have a story to tell, and you’ll make someone else tell it!

And to his credit, Carr cites the publications transparently, with links. Unfortunately, you see that in some cases the sample sizes are very small, and the statistical significance is marginal. In other instances, it doesn’t seem like there’s any real causality. One can’t know if there is a confound with who decides to take phones to class and who does not. It may be that those students who are very focused simply don’t take their phones. Finally, a lot of the research cited in the piece looks like it was sliced and diced to me.

This is where a little history and cognitive neuroscience would go a long way. Traditionalists have inveighed against new information technologies for the whole history of the human race. No doubt when complex syntax emerged some spoiled-sport argued that it was being abused to gossip and waste time.

Most people know that some of the ancient Greeks worried that the spread of literacy was eroding the power of memory. Less well known is that the printing press helped usher in the final decline of the art of memory.

And literacy does rewire our brains. In Reading in the Brain Stanislas Dehaene outlines just how certain regions of the brain focused on shape perception are co-opted to recognize letters effortlessly. This may not be without cost. Muhammed Ali was semi-literate, in part due to dyslexia, and a recent biographer has argued that he had better visual-spatial abilities in part because he didn’t waste his attention and focus on learning to read instinctively.

Nicholas Carr has now built a career in large part on skepticism of the internet and information technology. He knows exactly how to write viral stories which travel on the internet by criticizing the internet.

And it is certainly hard to deny the distracting effect of the internet. But that’s looking at the glass half-empty. One of the positives of the ubiquity of smartphones is that it has forced the retirement of so many bullshitters. Today people can make something up, and you can just “look it up.” Everyone is fact-checking everyone, and distracting from the fabulous bullshit stories and “facts” that a certain type of person has always specialized in.

Like free trade, it’s easy to see the downsides of the internet, and mine the social science literature to “prove” that you’re right. That’s one of the benefits of the internet, it lets you find scientific research which can confirm any assertion you make under heaven. Carr’s leveraging the literature to service his likely false arguments is one of the internet’s downsides.

September 20, 2017

Google still wants to be Apple (sort of)

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 9:47 pm

Google Is Buying HTC’s Smartphone Expertise for $1.1 Billion. This, after Google has already bought and sold Motorola. Remember when Microsoft bought part of Nokia?

The problem is that Apple and Samsung are starting to create a duopoly. And though most phones run Android, iPhones are much more profitable. There’s a reason many companies develop for iOS but not Android. A friend at Google years ago bemoaned how much more profitable iPhone owners were compared to those bought Android phones.

With all that being said the Apple launch and comments on this blog have convinced me I’m not going iPhone. I don’t know if I’ll go for an HTC, Motorola or Samsung. But for me a phone is functional, not an accessory. Perhaps that explains some of the psychological reasons that iPhone owners spend so much more money on apps….

September 13, 2017

America’s age of animated emojis

Filed under: iPhone,Technology — Razib Khan @ 10:09 pm

A few days ago I watched the unveiling of Apple’s new iPhone(s). Honestly, I was a bit underwhelmed…and I probably will stick with a Samsung. Of course, I know that the original iPhone was panned, and it created a whole sector and a lifestyle. We’re a bit jaded.

But this focus on lifestyle in the technology sector made me reflect on Peter Thiel’s techno-pessimism in the late 2000s, which prompted him to write Zero to One. I’m glad that the best and brightest are going to Silicon Valley in the 2010s, and not Wall Street as in the 2000s. They don’t do positive harm in my opinion, while they did in the 2000s by increasing risk and volatility. But Apple and Facebook seem to be about consumption rather than production. They don’t make us more efficient, effective, they don’t change our civilization in its bones.

There are worse places to be, but then I read that China is setting targets and goals in relation to moving from fossil fuels to electric cars. The Chinese make a lot of goals, and execution is often an issue. But they have aspirations. Do we?

Until then, animated emojis….

August 24, 2017

Android vs. iPhone

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 6:50 am

I’m thinking of updating the Samsung S8. But I’m getting some pressure at work to wait for an iPhone 8. In general I’m skeptical of the whole Apple ecosystem, but it isn’t as if good Android phones are cheap.

Any thoughts from readers who have switched back and forth?

July 29, 2017

The passing onto to better things…faster and faster

Filed under: iPhone,Technology — Razib Khan @ 2:15 am

As many of you know, Apple is doing away with the iPod Shuffle. One curious thing is that I’ve noticed several people buying these devices in the last week through my Amazon referrals. At $50 the price point isn’t high, but it does seem a bit much for an obsolete technology.

Which made me reflect on how quickly technologies become obsolete now. As the few people who read this blog and know me in real life are aware, between 2007 and 2014 I went everywhere with a Shuffle. I always had a backup Shuffle. This is not because I’m an audiophile. I’m not. I listened to podcasts.

Arguably the emergence of smartphones made the Shuffle redundant, but I found that the Shuffle was more portable than a smartphone. Ultimately what made me dump the Shuffle is that I went full d-bag and started doing the bluetooth thing. All of a sudden it didn’t matter where the phone was. I still have a Shuffle, but it’s in a drawer somewhere. Perhaps I have a backup too. I don’t recall.

I probably stuck with the Shuffle longer than most. As an old(er) person I’m reflecting now how fast “ubiquitous” technologies are getting obsolete. Faster and faster.

As a child of the 1980s VCRs were part and parcel of our technological furniture. By the early 2000s VCRs were in decline, with DVD rentals surpassing VHS in 2003. Cassettes were eclipsed by CDs in the early 1990s after a two decade reign, but CDs really didn’t master the space for more than ten years (at least in the USA). DVDs had a similarly short “moment.”

How much more can change though? Some of the transition occurred because smartphones, in particular the iPhone, swallowed up whole sectors (audio and photography). Other changes are due to the utilization of high speed internet for video. We got rid of our television in 2004, and for a while there I felt “out of the loop” on a lot of water cooler conversation. But now television has come to me, as binge watching on Netflix has become common.

What will change next?

April 4, 2017

Our conversations don’t matter so much

Filed under: Internet,Technology — Razib Khan @ 7:25 am

One of the things about being on the internet is your local social and communication network looms really large. Controversies or concerns in your part of the pool seem to take up all your energy and attention. But it’s a big world out there. I’ve been using the internet since 1994, and one of the aspects I’ve observed is how geographically insulated we are. Back then I remember being excited to have an e-mail exchange with a sysadmin in Oxford or a high school student in Quito (real examples). Today my conversations are much more narrowcast. Yet the internet is so much more diverse and there are billions instead of tens of millions conversing every day.

In my case I even have family which lives in a foreign country. Many of them are now my Facebook friends and we “like” each others photos, but that’s about it. There’s not much conversation. I suppose we are busy with life…but the internet perhaps foregrounds in some ways how little we have in common, because we can’t even be bothered to talk.

I’ve collected Google Analytics for the main Gene Expression domain since 2006. Below are the top ten nations in terms of accesses (the USA is 60% in 2007 and 50% in 2017, to give you a sense that the proportions haven’t changed much.

Top countries of origin for GNXP.com accesses by year
2017     2007
USA USA
UK Canada
Canada UK
Australia Australia
India Germany
Germany India
France Sweden
Sweden Finland
Japan Ireland
Netherlands France

There are many conversations out there happening in other languages and nations. I do wondre what they are.

November 20, 2012

The Kindle price

Filed under: Kindle,Technology — Razib Khan @ 7:11 pm

I’ve had a Kindle for a few years now. I read a lot on it. And yet I observed something recently: I’ve stopped going to the library much. This is a big deal for me…probably since the age of 7 I’ve clocked in at least one visit to the public library per week in my life. I never turn books in past due because of the frequency with which I patronize the public or university libraries which I’ve had access to in life. Until recently. Now on occasion books go overdue, because I don’t go very often.

In the short term the Kindle has been a boon. But I’m not sure if it’s good for us in the long term. I’d rather pay more for a device which allowed for easier usage of different formats, as well as looser distribution policies.

October 15, 2012

Twitter is not declining

Filed under: Technology,twitter — Razib Khan @ 11:09 pm

The Decline and Fall of Twitter?:

Even Twitter? Can Twitter be declining? Over at the Atlantic‘s Technology Channel I note that my own Twitter conversations are not quite as dynamic as they once were, and speculate about why that might be. I didn’t say this in the post, but I wonder whether it might have something to do with people who enjoy online conversations also enjoying new tools and toys: perhaps we get tired of Twitter not because it has a deficiency, but just because it’s been around a while. I’m not suggesting this in lieu of the explanations I offer there, but in addition to them.

I think this is an artifact of the fact that Alan Jacobs seems to have been a very early Twitter adopter. Here’s Google Trends for the USA for searches for Twitter:

Singularity Summit 2012: the lion doesn’t sleep tonight

Filed under: Singularity,Singularity Summit,Technology — Razib Khan @ 9:07 pm

Last weekend I was at the Singularity Summit for a few days. There were interesting speakers, but the reality is that quite often a talk given at a conference has been given elsewhere, and there isn’t going to be much “value-add” in the Q & A, which is often limited and constrained. No, the point of the conference is to meet interesting people, and there were some conference goers who didn’t go to any talks at all, but simply milled around the lobby, talking to whoever they chanced upon.

I spent a lot of the conference talking about genomics, and answering questions about genomics, if I thought could give a precise, accurate, and competent answer (e.g., I dodged any microbiome related questions because I don’t know much about that). Perhaps more curiously, in the course of talking about personal genomics issues relating to my daughter’s genotype came to the fore, and I would ask if my interlocutor had seen “the lion.” By the end of the conference a substantial proportion of the attendees had seen the lion.

This included a polite Estonian physicist. I spent about 20 minutes talking to him and ...

September 17, 2012

The end of Diaspora

Filed under: Diaspora,Technology — Razib Khan @ 9:15 pm

I didn’t even notice, Founders of Diaspora, Intended as the Anti-Facebook, Move On. Though I was skeptical about the prospects after one of the co-founders committed suicide. One of the reasons I took an interest is that I gave $50 to the project when it first made a media splash…but honestly I thought the chances of success were always pretty low. The chances of many worthwhile endeavors are low.

June 26, 2012

Technology that brought down civilization

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 9:58 pm

The IVF Panic: ‘All Hell Will Break Loose, Politically and Morally, All Over the World’:

For many, IVF smacked of a moral overstep — or at least of a potential one. In a 1974 article headlined “The Embryo Sweepstakes,” The New York Times considered the ethical implications of what it called “the brave new baby”: the child “conceived in a test tube and then planted in a womb.” (The scare phrase in that being not “test tube” so much as “a womb” and its menacingly indefinite article.) And no less a luminary than James Watson — yes, that James Watson – publicly decried the procedure, telling a Congressional committee in 1974 that a successful embryo transplant would lead to “all sorts of bad scenarios.”

Specifically, he predicted: “All hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world.”

The past is not always prologue, but it’s very instructive to look at newspapers from a given time period and see what the public mood was. Fear is a natural human reaction to new technology. My general bias is that technology itself usually isn’t as disruptive as social innovation. That being said, when technology is genuinely revolutionary it can have a much bigger impact than ...

June 18, 2012

The Facebook search plateau

Filed under: Facebook,Technology — Razib Khan @ 6:48 pm

I check on this every 6 months or so. Here’s the search trend for Facebook:

Everyone basically knows about Facebook now. Contrast this with Twitter:


All that being said, Twitter has such a smaller footprint compared to Facebook that it seems obvious that it will “peak” far below Facebook in both mindshare and public utilization. I do find it interesting that Facebook peaked literally months about The Social Network.

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