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Planet Money #902 (28 Mar 2019): The Phoebus Cartel

Listened to this one a few weeks ago and don't remember most of it. But half the episode was about the phoebus cartel, a case of planned obsolesence when lightbulb manufacturers decided that no light bulb should be allowed to last more than 1000 hours.

Writing this for Gell-Mann amnesia reasons: in the episode someone says there was no benefit to consumers from this, but I'd recently seen a technology connections episode on the subject saying that longer lasting incandescent light bulbs are less energy efficient (i.e. more heat less light) for physics reasons, to the extent that they could easily be more expensive over their lifetime. Seems like an important caveat that PM missed!

The other half was about psychological obsolesence, where manufacturers make long-lasting goods like cars cosmetically different to convince you you need a new one.

Planet Money #1717 (9 Feb 2024): A Lawsuit for your broken heart

Keith met woman, fell in love, got married, had kids. She helped with his BMX company and she'd post sickeningly cute things on facebook about how she had the best family.

Then Keith saw some very messages she was exchanging with some other guy (from him: «do you like how tall I am», «show me a bikini pic», that kind of thing). He got mad, called him, said «never fucking talk to my wife again» and thought that would be the end of it.

It was not the end of it. She had affair, they got divorced. A bit later he was catching up with an old school friend who'd been in a similar situation, and she told him she was suing the woman her husband had cheated with. You can do that?

These are heartbalm laws and they're kind of archaic. In the past if a woman got engaged and the man broke things off, she could be ruined, so she got to sue him for breach of promise. There's also seduction, where she could sue someone for lying her into bed. And criminal conversation, which is adultery. And the one relevant to the show, alienation of affections, where you can sue someone for damaging your marriage.

Most states have abolished these, partly because public perception moved towards women using these in ways that were unpopular, this is where the term "gold digger" took off. There were also a bunch of famous people who got sued.

But a few states still have alienation of affections, including North Carolina, which is where most of the suits are. Possibly because that's where most of the legal experts in them are.

Keith presents evidence that his marriage would otherwise have been happy: the sickeningly cute facebook posts, messages between him and his ex, messages from her to her girlfriends saying the marriage would have been fine if not for this other guy. (She subsequently married him.)

And because marriage is in part an economic arrangement, his lawyer also talks about the work that the ex had been doing for the company, and all the unpaid labor she was doing like childcare and washing dishes. The hosts point out it's kinda weird that Keith is suing some other guy for the unpaid labor his ex wife used to do. But that's what's happening, and Keith wins the suit and is awarded $8 million.

Other guy files for bankruptcy. Keith probably won't get anything from him, and still owes his lawyers thousands of dollars in fees. But he says it was worth it.


Wikipedia says his mission began on 08/29/1498 and ended on 01/07/1499 (so about 3 months).

It looks like this is just one leg of the return journey. In total the outward journey was about 10 months and the return was about 11, and both spent 3+ months without landing.

Hm, do you want to go into more depth? Intuitively I agree this is obviously distortionary, but I'm finding it awkward to think through the details of the distortion.

One thing that comes to mind is "if the market is at 10% but you think 5% is "correct" according to what seems like the spirit of the question, you're going to expect that the market just doesn't get resolved, so why bother betting it down". But I feel like there's probably more than that. (E: oh, the dynomight essay linked above mentions this one as well.)

Thanks! Yeah, I think that's making the same basic point with a different focus.

And that makes me more confident in changing the title, so doing that now. (Original title: "Conditional prediction markets are, specifically, conditioned on the thing happening".)

Maybe a pithier title would be "Conditional prediction markets are evidential, not causal"?

The problem was so common that shipowners and governments assumed a 50% death rate from scurvy for their sailors on any major voyage.

Sticking my neck out: roll to disbelieve that 50% of sailors on major voyages died in general, let alone specifically of scurvy.

Ways to change the claim that I'd find much more believable:

  • 50% of those who got scurvy died of it
  • A 50% death rate was considered plausible, and the possibility was planned for, but it wasn't common
  • "Major voyage" here is a much smaller category than I expect; think Magellan rather than Columbus.

Note that in general there's no contradiction between

"X is a very not-Y trait, in fact just about the least Y trait there is"


"Nevertheless, one can be X and also overall very Y"

Planet Money: The Maine Potato War

The standard potato today is the russet, mostly associated with Idaho and Washington, but in the... 70s? 80s?... it was some other kind from Maine.

These potatos were sold on the New York Mercantile Exchange, and in particular you could buy and sell futures there. Futures are good for hedging, farmers could lock in the price early to avoid risk of a crash, and buyers could lock it in early to avoid risk of a rise. You could also just speculate, with no intention of ever seeing a potato. Speculators are generally good for markets because they put a bunch of money in there which helps them flow better.

The big Western potato farmers didn't like that Maine potatos were on the exchange, because it gave them an advantage. So one year they entered the market with like a million dollars worth of contracts. (I vaguely recall that these were buy contracts, but I think it fits better with the rest of the story if they were sell.) Trading is weird for the year, and when things finally play out after close date, the Western farmers collectively owe the market millions of pounds of Maine potatoes, possibly more than existed in the entire state of Maine.

They try to get around it by offering russet potatoes instead, but buyers say no dice. So in the end they just default. They have to pay back the buyers plus pay heavy fines. I think banned from the exchange for a bit? Short term expensive for them.

But long term very good for them! Markets don't like defaults, so the Maine potatoes are removed from the exchange a bit later.

I think he is using the argument as a soldier.

I see. That's not a sense I pick up on myself, but I suppose it's not worth litigating.

To be clear, skimming my previous posts, I don't see anything that I don't endorse when it comes to literary criticism. Like, if I've said something that you agree with most of the time, but disagree with for literary criticism, then we likely disagree. (Though of course there may be subtleties e.g. in the way that I think something applies when the topic is literary criticism.)

You mention that “awesome” and “terrible” are very subjective words, unlike “blue”, and this is relevant. I agree. Similarly, media criticism is very subjective, unlike dress colors.

Media criticism can be very subjective, but it doesn't have to be. "I love Star Wars" is more subjective than "Star Wars is great" is more subjective than "Star Wars is a technical masterpiece of the art of filmmaking" is more subjective than "Star Wars is a book about a young boy who goes to wizard school". And as I said above:

I’m comfortable with “Luke is a Jedi”, and I think it’s importantly different from, say, “Yoda is wise” or “the Death Star is indestructible” or “the Emperor has been defeated once and for all”.

And I think the ways it’s different are similar to the differences between claims about base-level reality like “Tim Cook is a CEO” versus “the Dalai Lama is wise” or “the Titanic is unsinkable” or “Napoleon has been defeated once and for all”.

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