Steve Jobs on Google’s artistry

Let me preface this post by saying that I think Steve Jobs was a genius. A really brilliant, far-seeing, hard-working creative master. Many of the things that I value in life owe a lot to him. But he made some bad calls, and the rest of this post is about one in particular. (I will have to resist referring to him as “Steve”, as I have usually done.)

According to news accounts of his authorized biography, Jobs was absolutely furious at Google for “stealing” Apple’s product when they produced their own smartphone. (I’ve been an elitist Mac user for years, but when it finally came time for me to buy a smartphone I bought an Android phone. I just like it better.) And indeed, the Google phone wouldn’t exist without the iPhone’s having created the standard for functionality and design. But “stealing”? Really?

While many observers had long assumed that Apple, riding high on the success of the iPhone, had a mostly dispassionate and detached view of Google’s smartphone operating system, Isaacson reveals that exactly the opposite was true. The book quotes Jobs as saying, “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong… I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

And when Jobs met with the executives at Google to discuss the matter directly, he apparently went even further in expressing his distaste for Android, telling them, “I don’t want your money. If you offer me $5 billion, I won’t want it. I’ve got plenty of money. I want you to stop using our ideas in Android, that’s all I want.” According to the author, the meeting did little to cool tensions between the two companies.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” That’s a quote from great artist…Steve Jobs. Apple is credited with the first GUI for personal computers, but this idea came from Xerox PARC. Several years later, Apple sued Microsoft for copyright violation for taking the “look and feel” of the Apple GUI for the Microsoft GUI. Interestingly, Xerox sued Apple on the same grounds in the middle of Apple’s lawsuit. (As it turns out, PARC’s claims were dismissed.) And not just the GUI, the mouse as well came from PARC.

So it seems a little hypocritical of Jobs to make this allegation. But with copyright the creator of an idea or product doesn’t always get to be the one with a legal right to it, and since Apple has legal rights maybe that’s what mattered to him. Not that Google was essentially following his own advice. And certainly not that “intellectual property” is a bad joke that leads precisely to these kinds of ridiculous disputes.

What got me thinking about this post in the first place was speculating about what would have happened if he hadn’t died early. He positively stated that he was willing “to go thermonuclear war” to destroy Google. As it is, I think we consumers are a lot better off having the system that prevails right now in smartphones when compared to any possible post-“thermonuclear war” scenario. Not to mention that—while copyright law has a lot of strange ins and outs that I’m not expert in—I have trouble believing Apple would have won a significant victory over Google in such a conflict. On top of that, both sides would be in much worse financial positions when the dust settled. I hate to think this way, but if Jobs had to die early, perhaps it’s better that he did before he tried to take down the Android.

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Three kinds of colonialism

[Note: a lot of people find this post when searching “kinds of colonialism” on Google. This is only a small part of a much larger discussion. Also see the update posted below.]

It seems to me that the discussions of colonialism I’ve read paint with a broad brush over what are really different phenomena. There are:

1. English North American-style colonialism. In this case, the mother country and the colonies were largely the same culture (or, à la David Hackett Fischer, family of cultures). In the U.S. and Canada, each of the component cultures were originally under the dominion of Britain, and carried largely intact over the waters. In this case, switching affiliations would be a simple procedure, though the ramifications might be costly.

2. British and French Empire-style colonialism. In this case, a foreign culture imposed itself on top of existing cultures that were different. [I simplify, but not too much, by leaving American Indians out of this picture.] British India was ruled by Britons who were a distinct group from their numerous subjects. One could not simply switch affiliations. This may be largely due to race, but the cultural differences were vast as well. Even for those Indians who supported British rule, it was clear that they could never get to the top of the system.

3. Spanish-style colonialism. This third kind started out as the second kind but very quickly changed into its own unique form. In this case, the conquering culture and the conquered cultures merged to form a third category. In Mexico City this phenomenon was weak, with “pure” Spanish forming the ruling caste, but in the majority of the conquered territories the mestizo blend was preeminent. In an extreme case like New Mexico there was a statistically insignificant amount of “pure” Spanish people, and mestizos could become part of the ruling group at the stroke of a pen. The cultures ceased to be in conflict and melded together.

I know that these are oversimplifications—as for instance there was still a large number of genetically and culturally distinct American Indians in New Mexico—but this is a lot closer to the picture than covering these very different phenomena by the single word “colonialism”. Even among careful minds language can lead to sloppy thinking, especially when one word covers so much mental territory.

[Update 2014-07-30] This post was supposed to be just a short sketch trying to separate ideas that often get conflated. I realized recently that there’s another angle that’s missing: the economic/sociological interpretation of colonialism. While a lot of scholarly literature talks about colonialism, much of it is derived from Marxian analysis. However useful this segment of the literature is, Marxian economics, i.e. the part that Marx and his early followers thought to be the core of the entire project, is hopelessly flawed. The kernel of Marxism is the (incorrect) labor theory of value. It’s understandable that Marx conceived of value this way, as value was not well understood by any economic thinker until the Marginal Revolution in the 1870s—just like Ptolemy was not stupid in basing his astronomy on geocentric foundations, just wrong. Now that the state of knowledge has advanced we are able to tell that Marxian economics is a dead end. However, it’s since spread into other fields.

Other errors include:
(1) believing that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was a universal law. In fact, feudalism was rare worldwide, confined mainly to Europe, Japan, and possibly parts of India.
(2) conflating mercantilism with the market economy (and/or capitalism, which is a term filled with so many components as to be more misleading than helpful in most contexts). Most, possibly all, colonial projects, in the broadest sense of the word, were mercantilist. The classical economists that Marx opposed were thoroughly opposed to mercantilism on technical grounds.
(3) basing a whole lot of political and sociological analysis on top of a flawed theory of value, an underpants-gnome-style theory of prices, and a methodologically unsound explanation of group or “class” action.

It’s point (3) that leads into most discussions about colonialism, which I suspect is often why people arrive at this post from Google. Say what you have to say to get your A, but make sure you do not following Marx in these errors if you want to understand the world as it actually works.

The technocrats behind the curtain

Karl Smith has a very interesting point about technocracy:

As I recently told a correspondent: if we are doing our jobs right then people shouldn’t even know that technocrats exist. They should never think about us. They should think about the things they care about; their children, their friends, their love interests, their dreams. If they know about the technocracy then the technocracy has failed.

This implies the 1940s-era assumption that technocrats can run the economic system more or less neutrally. A lot of people who are smarter than I am still believe this, but I don’t.

David Friedman and organized crime

I went to an informal seminar of David Friedman’s tonight based on his academic workshop and developing book about Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. I encourage you to read the available material so far, as it’s very interesting law & economics. He mostly talked about the section on Amish law, with some comments also about Gypsy and Somali law. During the Q&A he solicited feedback about other possible areas to explore for the book, and somehow organized crime came up.

Friedman’s thinking about organized crime is that it’s not quite as organized as it’s made out to be. The optimal size of the firm is determined by economies and diseconomies of scale. One of the things larger organizations need is constant information flow between the different levels, and one problem with organized crime is that this information can put people in jail, so it would tend to flow less. This would be a minimizing tendency on the size of the firm. [I am paraphrasing his words here.] As he writes in Price Theory:

My own conjecture is that what the Mafia really is, at least in part, is a substitute for the court system; its function is to legitimize the use of force. To see how that might work, imagine that you are engaged in some criminal enterprise and one of your associates pockets your share of the take. Your obvious response is to have him killed–murder is one of the products sold on the market you are operating in. The problem with that is that if people who work with you get killed and it becomes known that you are responsible, other participants in the illegal marketplace will become reluctant to do business with you.

The solution is to go to some organization with a reputation, within the criminal market, for fairness. You present the evidence of your partner’s guilt, invite him to defend himself, and then ask the “court” to rule that he is the guilty party. If it does so–and he refuses to pay you appropriate damages–you hire someone to kill him; since everyone now knows that he was in the wrong, the only people afraid to do business with you will be those planning to swindle you.

That, I suspect, is one of the functions that the Mafia and similar organizations serve on the criminal market. This is a conjecture about organized crime, not something I can prove; but it is not, so far as I know, an implausible one.

This came up at the talk, and he suggested that organized crime, far from being a large group (or several) is more likely a lot of smaller “family businesses” that deal with each other as more-or-less independent groups.

All of this so far is very reasonable, and I wouldn’t dispute it entirely. But I brought up the Mexican drug cartels as a possible counterexample. It seems to me that these organizations actually might be fairly large. I think immediately of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, “the Lord of the skies”. Carrillo earned this nickname by having a fleet of 27 Boeing 727’s for drug distribution. This, of course, suggests a fairly large and somewhat hierarchical organization, even if the actual street-level distribution is carried about by smaller, related but separate groups.

Carrillo is dead—allegedly—but several cartels are still operating, shipping really massive amounts of drugs at this very moment. Based on what I know and have observed, I have no trouble believing that the organizations really can be quite large.

A cause of skepticism is that most of the information about these groups comes from various government agencies, and it’s in the best interests of these agencies to inflate the power and numbers of their opponents. That’s certainly true. But Mexican news agencies view this as more of a domestic issue and don’t fetishize the DEA and CIA in the way that American news agencies do. A lot of the ideas I’m suggesting here come from them, so it’s not obvious that I’m way off base here.

(Yet another reason is in considering the gruesome warnings that cartels routinely leave for others: hacked-up, tortured bodies with messages attached. These are always signed with the names of the large organizations, even if they happen over fairly large geographical areas. It could be that the Zetas, for instance, are more of a confederated franchise system, but I don’t see messages indicating subunits within the Zetas, just the Zetas. I haven’t thought this one out as much, but at first glance it seems ok.)

I briefly mentioned at the talk, and can expound here on another reason why his objection might not hold for the cartels, which is that the free flow of information dangerous to the organization is less of a problem in Mexico. The legal system is so corrupted by Prohibition, with so many members on the take or too intimidated to speak out, that loose lips don’t sink near as many ships there as they would here. (Note that this could also apply in other relatively corrupt legal systems like Russia’s, Colombia’s, or Afghanistan’s.)

This is perhaps a minor point, but one worth thinking about.

Intellectual Focus

A question I’ve been wrestling with lately, and one that surely has come up before, is what to think about in graduate school. On one hand, if there were ever a time to be single-mindedly devoted to one subject, this is the time. Every spare amount of intellectual energy, in this view, ought to be devoted to (in my case) economics. On the other hand, an intellectually curious person has trouble behaving this way. I think it’s good for the brain to have other pursuits to keep it in prime condition.

I can imagine the correct proportion is somewhere in the middle, I just haven’t figured out where yet.

Drug calculations

By now you’ve probably read the news that deaths from painkillers are rising. This is indeed bad news, but the story carries with it the same assumption made in illegal drug cases: the drug or drugs in question can’t be used responsibly except under the supervision of a doctor. With illegal drugs, all use is abuse; with semi-legal drugs, all use without a prescription is abuse.

Here’s a case to consider: you hurt yourself somehow and a doctor prescribes you Vicodin. You have, say, twenty, and you consume seventeen in the manner told to you by your doctor by the time the pain stops. Now you have three left. You noticed that in addition to helping with your pain, the drug also gave you a mighty pleasant feeling. A month goes by before one day you’re feeling less than 100%. You remember the precautions your doctor told you. You take one of your leftover Vicodins in a totally safe manner. Now, according to drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, you’re a drug abuser. You’re part of the “drug abuse epidemic”. You’re an accident waiting to happen. Take it a step further: you simply take one, safely, without any pain or other health-related motive. You just want to feel good for a while. Should that be a crime?

I know there’s a big difference between washing down a handful of pills with a 40 oz. and the scenario I just described. But in Kerlikowske’s statistics there isn’t.

These stories, when they pretend to be balanced, include the legitimate desire for patients with severe and/or chronic pain to counter it. And that’s one reason to avoid letting scary stories rush us to foolish action. But another is the desire, not generally recognized as legitimate, for people to get high. People like to feel good. People have been discovering and inventing ways to do this since prehistory. (It’s not my cup of tea, but there’s a very large and influential group of people who believe that when God Incarnate came to earth, the very first miracle he performed to show his divine nature was assisting people to this end.)

Balancing the needs of people who are in pain against accidental overdose deaths is one thing, but balancing the needs of people who are in pain and people with a legitimate desire to alter their biochemical state against accidental overdose deaths is the proper calculation if you must do one.

Food stamps

The WSJ blog Real Time Economics reports that about 15% of the US is on food stamps. David Hackett Fischer’s “backcountry” part of the US figures heavily, as do a few other states.

I’ve read that the Obama administration has sought to make it easier for people to get food stamps, and this of course has differing interpretations. One is that they genuinely want struggling people to get the extra help they need. The other is that expanding the program—making more people dependent on the government and on this administration specifically—bolsters their chances for the next election. Since the decision did not spring forth from Obama’s forehead alone we can fairly assume a mix of the two. But clearly, in an ideal world, nobody would be on food stamps. How can we get there from here?

Here I’m going to rely on some anecdotal evidence, but since I was the observer I trust it. I lived in New Mexico recently, and between finishing college, being underemployed, and partying probably a little too much I knew lots of people on food stamps. The impression that I got, overwhelmingly, was that very few people consider food stamps a temporary measure. People might not have thought about food stamps all that much, but when it occurred to them that they could qualify, many of them considered it free money for the taking. From what I could observe, it didn’t correlate with a change in anyone’s behavior all that much, and when it did, not for what an omnipotent but benevolent observer would consider the better. You were poor, you got food stamps, and then you were slightly less poor. End of story.

I don’t doubt that many people who get food stamps want to make their journey through those ranks as short as possible, or that many people actually do land that next job and leave the program. But I’m not sure at all that in the bulk of cases there’s a lot that can be done, policy-wise, to get people out of the program other than tightening the conditions of the program.

Hidden tyrannicides?

Bryan Caplan recently tweeted this:

What other mass murdering regime inspired Stauffenberg-style tyrannicide? Imagine an American officer plot to kill Pres over Indian Wars.

Twitter’s space limitation makes it interesting for some things and not very good for others. One of those other things is a proper consideration of this question.

Even if the Allies had not captured a large number of German documents intact, the world would still have known the broad outlines of this assassination plot. The German government publicly acknowledged the attempt. As far as I know there are larger gaps in the Soviet records available to us, for the obvious reason that the German records were seized before they could be destroyed and the Soviet records were not. An incredible amount of Soviet material is available, to be sure, but much of this was released for specific reasons, i.e. was selectively released for political or diplomatic purposes.

Plots were announced by the Soviet government—always after having been discovered and eliminated—with high frequency. But the nature of Soviet propaganda makes it hard to know which were actual plots against the leadership and which were masks for some kind of purge or other. Simply put, I have trouble imagining that nobody in the Soviet leadership thought to eliminate Stalin during the incredibly bloody years of his reign before World War II. What doesn’t seem obvious a priori is how real plots would have been dealt with.

It seems, based on what we know of the Great Purge, that there was almost no substance to the criminal accusations of the majority of people who were killed then. They were eliminated for potential disloyalty to the regime in order to consolidate power. However, the regime gave this at least the thinnest pretense of legality. Clearly, questions could have arisen, and this was a CYA procedure. This makes it seem as if my hypothetical plotters, people who really intended to kill Stalin, would have been executed quietly and put into the deepest memory hole possible.

On the other hand, the propaganda value of a real plot vs. that of a fake plot is identical, since the public never knows anyway. This makes it seem possible that some of the show trials we know of were “real” trials.

Either way, we’d never know.

Anti-DC interlude

The Washington Post reports that the D.C. metro area picked up 7,000 people aged 25-34 during the recession. What do they come up with?

“It’s the economy and hipness,” said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, who analyzed the census data comparing the 2005 to 2007 period with 2008 to 2010. “Young people are going to places that have a certain vibe. If there’s a recession, they want to ride it out in a place like that. And Washington has the extra advantage of being a government town that’s not as hard-hit by recessions as others.”

Now compare that with this:

Bert Sterling, who scours census statistics to compile lists of the best places to live — and who lives in Portland — said he expects the Washington area eventually will revert to a more traditional role, as a place to establish a career and eventually move on.

“Washington is known as a center for power and, during the recession, has taken on the image of a place where the jobs are,” he said. “I haven’t heard anyone say Washington is hip and cool. But I don’t know if you want your seat of government to be too cool and quirky.”

(It boggles the mind why William Frey would say that D.C. is hip at all. The only thing I can think of is that he presumably lives inside the Beltway and, as such, barely has an idea that there’s a world outside of it worth living in.)

Rather than acknowledge that economic emergencies are great times to get government jobs, as 15 minutes on the Reason blog will tell you, the WP gives us this.

Languages, languages, especially English

I’ve often wondered how exactly English came to be so dominant as a world language. The British deserve the credit for getting this started, but after that it’s a little fuzzy. Other countries, most notably Spain and France, had empires as well. The French language is spoken, at least by elites, in many countries, but most of these are former colonies. Spanish is spoken by a large number of people as well, but mostly as a first language. Yet English has by far the largest number of non-primary speakers, over a billion.

The long history of the British empire, as I said, got this started. But before they were dominant there was the Spanish empire, which now pales in linguistic influence. The relevant difference may be that Spain’s empire was (relatively) geographically concentrated, while Britain’s possessions were far-flung across the world.

One key component in the 20th century is the fact that two great-power nations used it. There are other great powers, but no two with a language in common. In a case of 2 vs. 1 vs. 1…, it looks like the language shared by two powers wins. (Austria-Hungary and Germany shared a language, but I have trouble classifying Austria-Hungary on the same level as the US and UK, and even within Austria-Hungary most people would have preferred speaking another language than German.)

I still don’t have a great answer, but a study mentioned in Die Welt today says that English is the most efficient language, so perhaps that’s another reason.