Why is Youtube giving me all these Cialis ads?

I’m a fan of listening to doo-wop and oldies on Youtube, so I feel like a data expert in music reviews written by sexagenarians. One phrase that sticks out for many reasons is, “this song got me laid.” I think that concept has higher frequency among old-timers because I can’t imagine someone sleeping with you for typing a song name into a search field. Yes of course that would work for someone who already had intimate feelings for you, or because finding out someone likes the same kind of music as you is sentimental. But how far back do you have to go before it signaled any sort of commitment? When was being able to produce a catchy song made anyone think, “Oh this guy is seriously throwing down on this date!” What’s the price of a Spotify subscription again?

Record collections are worthless

Back in the day, record collections were something you had to build yourself. They couldn’t be shared very easily by today’s standards. Music that needed to be played on demand was expensive and bulky. That meant not only did it cost money to buy records or CDs, but also you needed a dedicated place in your house and car to store them. To have a good time you need music, so at least 50% of the population had to be supplying their own record collections. So what you had was a huge inequality in the value of record collections in the population.

Owning this single from a one-hit wonder definitely got you laid.

However today that inequality has vanished, replaced by a vastly more equal distribution to music. For less than $20 a month, you can get your hands on a decent amount of music, delivered to wherever you are, it will be compatible with numerous devices, and it’s always updating. No seeking or going to the store needed. And that will get you access to about 90% of the music being demanded in your region. That’s a good deal! But going for the supreme collection is also now in the hands of so many more people. Pay more to get pretty much everything on the internet. That leaves out the few artists that explicitly remove their music off the entire internet, which (God willing) will remain a very small segment of musicians.

Can’t we just “chill”?

What does this new found equality mean for the quality of music, though? Will good artists get recognized faster (and possibly burn out faster) because popularity will travel like more like a short pulse rather than a long wave? Or will risk-aversion set into the industry, when artists trade quality for quantity as they take a shot at the lottery? Or will nothing fundamentally change because of this trend? I’d love to hear predictions.

One thing I am more or less certain of is that this trend where everyone has the same, massive record collection of will probably become the norm. It’s a good example of an iterated prisoner’s dilemma among record companies and artists, where they must individually decide whether they will stand in solidarity of each other to achieve common goals, or sell out their peer group to reap the rewards of mass distribution while their peers held firm. The winning strategy in this sort of situation tends to be tit-for-tat which is, respond to selling out with selling out and cooperation with cooperation. Since artists do not appear to be following the Wu-Tang strategy and are actively seeking mass distribution, and distribution companies are engaged in a race to the lowest price, it seems everyone is selling out. This will have the effect of forcing all new entrants to follow the same strategy, and so the cycle of selling out is here to stay.

What do you think? And do TPP/TIPP change the answer?

Humanity is better connected now than ever before, but the upshot is that will change

My Facebook friends often take short vacations, so it’s easy to get a sense of transit times and travel conditions. But it wasn’t until one of them took a long weekend to go from New York City to Easter Island and come back did I realize something strange about our world. It’s probably cheaper, faster, and more reliable than ever to travel as a human these days to pretty much anywhere else there is another human. We are at some sort of optimal triple point of travel. And though it is likely to get more optimal in the near future, if and when we venture into space the tide will turn.

The antipodes are lovely this time of year

Try booking a flight from NYC to Perth, Australia. Or Buenos Aires to Shanghai. I’ll guarantee you, all under $2000 and in under 2 days if you really wanted to. And the travel will be very standardized, you will be in airports and planes the whole way. That’s so incredible, but we barely give a thought to being able to travel so easily to literally the opposite point on the globe. Sure it may be beyond the means of a remote Tibetan herdsman to travel to meet some remote Patagonian herdsman, but at worst that’s a weeks journey using fairly reliable plane, bus, rail and car services that would, at most, require a small group of herders to crowdfund. The point is, in history it was not so.

Before the 20th century, going between continents was a one way trip for the vast majority of travelers / human cargo. For instance, the trip across the Atlantic was long for the European indentured servants that made it to America in the 18th century, at least 3 weeks sailing. That’s enough time for the weather to abruptly change the likelihood of your arrival, or for disease to kill you on board. And it was expensive, it took about 3 years of labor to pay for your one-way voyage. For most non-merchant travel of considerable distance, it was intended that you start an entirely new life at your destination. Even for the upper classes, a once-in-a-lifetime religious pilgrimage was all the tourism you could expect. It was nothing like nowadays, when children of Chinese peasants travel to see Paris, and no one thinks that is weird.

The solar system has a speed limit

All this is possible because of two trends: technology getting better and the average person getting richer. Both of these are likely to continue in our lifetimes, and affordable 1 hour travel between NYC and London is within the realm of possibility for me to see at the end of my life with modest technological and economic gains.

But what about when we go beyond our tiny sphere? Technology may turn the Moon into a vacation spot, but Mars? Even with the feeble predictive mind that I have, it seems highly likely that the vast majority of voyages to Mars would be one-way for quite some time. Even at the very fastest currently known to science, we couldn’t reach Pluto (which we learned this week may have water ice for us when we get there!) in faster than 5 and a half hours. The speed of light cannot be breached by our man-made trends.

It is speculative, but I think that the average time/cost/ease of travel between yourself and any other person will hit a minimum at some point. Perhaps there are people alive today that will witness it. In the year 3000, we could look back at the 21st century and wonder, “Wow we were so utterly connected back then! I wonder if anyone at the time knew it?”

Russia on a Pro-Oil crusade in Syria?

So as we know the Russian military has stepped forward from behind its pro-Assad proxies and is operating openly in Syria. In response the Anglosphere media is expressing shock and disgust at being caught off guard, while RT is showing off Russian cruise missile aggression against Syrian targets. Both sides have surprisingly similar narratives, one of Russia playing from a position of strength. But maybe not. Could it be that Russia is in a tight spot and Putin is fighting for survival?

Looking for deep causes to recent history, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than in the past 50 years the stability of Russia has depended on a high oil price. So perhaps expanding the war in Syria is a last ditch effort to raise it again.

Shared interests

Intentions to defeat ISIS and bring back some sort of stability to Syria and the region could be pure (I mean, who doesn’t want ISIS defeated?), but history reveals a Russia that is swayed by factors far removed from altruism. In fact, Russian disrespect for sovereignty in the greater Mid East has been (like so many nations) atrocious. Russia spent the better part of the 17th through early 20th centuries fighting the Ottoman and Persian Empires, opportunistically absorbing chunks of new territory every now and then from the waning Mid East powers. In what is known as “The Great Game”, it split the ‘Stans up with Britain during the 19th century. And in the 20th century, the Soviet Union had a heavy footprint in the region, especially when it co-invaded Iran with Britain in WW2 and after the Suez Crisis propelled it into Cold War Mid East politics. So at least historically, Russia has been willing to fracture the Mid East to suit its interests.

However there is something much more pressing to the Russian state than territory or influence right now: oil is hovering around $50 per barrel. And that’s too low compared to the $100 we had come to expect was inevitable just a few years ago. Among large economies Russia’s is uniquely sensitive to the current and future prices of oil, and this fact is frequently unappreciated by foreign observers. Unlike the American economy which is dominated by consumers that can consume more domestic goods when the oil price is low or falling, Russia produces much more oil than it consumes. It exports so much it offsets the harm done to consumption, meaning its economy rises with the price of oil. Naturally, this aligns it with OPEC and other surplus producer nations that, in aggregate, also benefit from higher oil prices. Conveniently enough, this pro-oil alliance includes Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States (that have been anti-Assad). It also includes Iraq and Iran, as well as other struggling countries like Libya and Venezuela. All-in-all we can judge the pro-oil team to be fairly anti-Western and thus increasingly aligned with Russian interests.

And what’s more anti-Western and pro-oil right now as supporting Assad and cornering ISIS back into the oil producing region of Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq? If a $10 increase in oil price corresponds to a 1.5% increase in Russian GDP, this war may easily be self-financing. Furthermore, if the war permanently coalesces these countries into a cartel that can coordinate supply cuts that gets the price near $100 per barrel again, even better for Russia! None of this would be without precedent, shared interests among producers are what lead to the oil embargo in 1973.

An empire resting on an economic fault line

But why does any of this imply desperation on Russia’s part, and why do I think Russian politics is particularly brittle with regards to the oil price? According to former economic minister Yegor Gaidar, a failing oil price was what brought down the Soviet Union (pdf). To summarize when the oil price falls abruptly as it did in 1985 (and now again in 2014), the money to play strongman is suddenly gone.

The Soviet economy was humming along until the 1970’s when it became clear that growth had stalled. By this time, the Soviets had already abandoned their ambitions for the Moon and the entire Soviet system was in decline. That’s why the oil shocks and increased real price of oil from the mid 70’s and to mid 80’s were a blessing to the leadership at the time. An elevated price for the Soviet’s chief export meant they had more capacity to pay for the food they desperately needed to import. Soon after the oil price crashed in the mid 80’s, so did the entire Soviet system.

Even though it is 2015, the Russian economy is fundamentally unchanged since Soviet times. Russian consumers import a lot of basics like food and sustain it by exporting oil primarily. The frailties that doomed the old Soviet economy were never fixed. However until 1 year ago, Putin had never been faced with anything but a positive trajectory for oil. For many reasons, oil is expected to stay closer to $50 than $100, and so with it comes the threat of instability Russia has not had to deal with since the turn of the millennium.

The chess board is set

So can Russia raise the oil price? Certainly, they can try by disrupting the oil producing regions. The Russian military can be a bull in a china shop if it needs to be, Chechnya taught us that. And certainly they have good will from Iraq and Iran, which would benefit from higher oil. In markets driven by expectations, that might be all it takes to scare the oil price up. But it gets complicated because raising the oil price by fighting ISIS in Syria may actually strengthen ISIS in Iraq. We have to remember ISIS itself benefits from higher oil prices too.

The US does not seem to harbor the public support needed for Obama or Congress to engage Russia militarily in Syria (though Turkey and NATO might nevertheless draw the US in). And it is not clear that Russia wouldn’t welcome US military intervention either, seeing as it would probably scare the oil markets and help achieve Russia’s economic goals. However, there are other ways the US can fight without being in Syria. For example, Congress could pass legislation supporting oil producers, with the ultimate goal being to make it economical for US to pump as much possible. There are a number of ways to do this including industry-specific loans or incentives, or subsidizing the myriad of technologies that are increasing fracking output. These legislative and executive measures might work to lower the oil price and negate some of Russia’s gains. A lower oil price would also hurt the long term viability of ISIS in the Fertile Crescent.

As for now, the greatest certainty is this: the Syrian people will suffer because it benefits powerful nations and industrial groups to make them suffer. Teams form around shared interests, and often time the shared interests of war are far removed from the ideological reasons they broadcast. As I hope this post illustrates, it might be to the advantage of some teams to increase the suffering in Syria.



This blog is a personal journal of my thoughts on a number of topics, including current events, culture, politics, science, history, economics and (occasionally) bears. But I’d rather not reveal my personal identity at the moment, and for those readers that know me IRL please keep the privacy thing going in the comments as well.

Probably the thing that bugs me the most about what I see, hear and read around me is a lack of context and perspective in the popular conversation. It’s the main reason I am starting this blog. I am not saying all my posts will be original ideas (I will to cite as accurately as I know), but they won’t be widely known. That’s the point, I want to raise the status of ideas and viewpoints I think are important. And ‘important’ does not imply I side with them, but I feel that they should compel readers either to change their opinions or strengthen their beliefs to deal with what I am talking about.

Another reason I want to do this blog is to keep a record of my thoughts and predictions at points throughout my life. Hopefully I will grow as a write and perhaps inspire others to help me grow. I’ve noticed a good readership can make a great blog or site so much better, so please leave comments and email me if you want to make a suggestion or contribute to content.