Graph of a Golden Age

Northwestern University economics professor Robert J. Gordon’s NBER working paper on the decline of economic growth in the United States got me thinking about the relative value of inventions.  His argument that the second Industrial Revolution produced inventions that significantly changed productivity is correct, but it wasn’t about light bulbs, indoor plumbing, and entertainment.  Underlying all of the inventions mentioned by Gordon was the real reason the U.S. experienced such a Golden Age of economic growth:  the harnessing of cheap energy in the form of oil.

Golden Age

Golden Age

Gordon’s argument could be simplified to look at one invention:  oil.  The second industrial revolution and resulting productivity revolution in the United States resulted from harnessing the cheapest energy humanity has ever known.  It was in the harnessing that the other inventions became important, which is what Gordon gets at with his conceptual model of innovation being an initial invention followed by a series of refinements on that invention that eventually fully harness it.  Oil was the original invention that triggered the Golden Age.  We are now on the other side of the Golden Age, where our cheap energy source is no longer cheap.

I suspect one could look at past Golden Ages of other civilizations and find a similar pattern, that Golden Ages are triggered by sudden access to a new source of energy that makes energy far less expensive than it ever had been in the past.  Whether that source of energy is slaves, coal, or oil, I bet the pattern would hold, that after innovation and growth exhausted enough of that new energy to make it more expensive, the Golden Age ended.

Posted in Boom Bust, Innovation, Natural Resources, Resources

A few new words for studying privacy and business

Lately I’ve been thinking about the growing use of digital breadcrumbs to create predictive services based on an app’s idea of my persona.  For example, today’s NYT’s article about predictive search apps that have “read your e-mail, scanned your calendar, tracked your location, parsed traffic patterns and figured out you need an extra half-hour to drive to the meeting.”  The article’s titled “Apps That Know What You Want, Before You Do.”

Much jargon here.  As I look further at the social and business implications of these technologies, I propose the following terms to clarify discussion

  • youkie:  the person as the cookie.  This seems to be the Holy Grail of digital marketing and refers to the ability for a company to track everything an individual does across all digital and physical terrain.  See youkie enthusiast Tobias Peggs’s blog post hinting at the “gazillions” of dollars of profits awaiting the person who figures this out.
  • pers0na (persona with a number 0 instead of a letter o):  the digital person that your smartphone, apps, and other services think you are.
  • gretel:  a more concise term for digital breadcrumbs (gretels), the information you provide for free with your very existence in the digital world.

These two terms should make it easier to discuss where the digital and real worlds collide.  For example, by posting this online a marketer could add an interest in privacy and business to my pers0na, linked to my youkie and built from all the gretels in this post.

Posted in Business, Innovation | Tagged

The New Nouveau Riche

If F. Scott Fitzgerald were writing today, his book would be called The Great @Gatsby

George Packer’s New Yorker piece on Silicon Valley’s attitude toward equality and justice makes it clear there is a new roaring twenties going on somewhere in California.

People in Silicon Valley may be the only Americans who don’t like to advertise the fact if they come from humble backgrounds. According to Kapor, they would then have to admit that someone helped them along the way, which goes against the Valley’s self-image.

  $9,000,000 wedding, anyone?

Posted in Uncategorized

US Supreme Court says companies can patent ‘synthetic DNA’

The US Supreme Court just ruled on a biotech case and created a legal distinction between “naturally occuring DNA” and “synthetic DNA.”  Companies cannot patent naturally occurring DNA but can patent synthetic DNA.

How will this impact 3d printing companies?  Are biotech companies going to expand into 3d printing with the expectation that printed tissues and DNA will be patentable?  Something to watch.

Posted in Innovation

Thought of the Day

Jeffrey Sachs on EconTalk:

“We really need to focus a lot more of our time and understanding on change, on understanding long-term, structural change.


“I wouldn’t say that [we economists are] at a healthy moment as a profession right now.  We should figure out how to take a strong set of theoretical ideas that are very good but do not define the world because they define too many worlds, too many possibilities, and link them more adequately to evidence and a richer set of evidence and a better way to do the empirical work.”

Posted in Academia, Research | Tagged ,

the digital rights amendment

Originally posted on

The defenders of the NSA’s mass surveillance raise a point worth discussing – much of what is being done is legal. They point out that the NSA programs were authorized by Congress, reviewed by Courts, and run by the executive. They also read the Fourth amendment in a very narrow way. Personally, when I read that the people will be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” I’m pretty sure that means electronic communication. It would be bizarre if this right only applied to technologies present in 1789. “Papers and effects” seems to imply a lot of stuff, but the Courts and the executive seem to disagree.

This suggests to me that may we need to make mass surveillance explicitly illegal. How? The Digital Rights Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their transactions made through electronic media and other forms…

View original 111 more words

Posted in Uncategorized

The language of scams

I responded to an apartment ad on, and after a few e-mails it became obvious I was dealing with a scam artist.  Here’s the language and method they’re trying to use.  All bold type is from the original.

Hello Nicholas,
Thanks very much for your interest in my property, also thank you so much for the information provided.

I would be glad to inform you that I have agreed to give the property to you, which means your application has been accepted. Everything is okay and I’m pleased with your application. So as I shall be giving you the property; Please I want you to take good care of the property for me as if its yours, because this is the only property I have.

Further more, I would want you to make the first month rent payment of $800 as an upfront in order to send all the necessary documents and the keys of the House to the address provided on your application.

Please I require you to kindly re-confirm the delivery address.

The below listed documents will be sent to you via DHL courier service to your address and it will be next day home delivery to you.
(1)Entrance and the rooms Keys
(2)Paper/Permanent apartment form(Containing your reference details)
(3)Payment Receipt.
(4)Full address and description of the apartment.

Please Nicholas, you have to promise me that you will take good care of the property because this is very important. So kindly get back to me if you are ready to make the payment of the first month rent ( $800 ) through Money gram in order to make the shipment of the keys and the documents to the provided address tomorrow and I will get back to you with the shipment tracking number for you to receive the package and move into the Apartment.

I will be waiting to reading back from you in order to give you my details to make the Money Gram transfer.
Thanks and God bless you.



Posted in Business