A (surprising) profile, a surprising result,a Maharaja(h) in the Yorkshire Dales, Driverless Cars and (non)ergodicity

Can you guess what this article is about, who has written it, and when?

The dirty little secret on Wall Street is that the men responsible for its current reputation were not exceptionally bad. They were just ordinary people placed in unusual circumstances.

“Knowing somebody” to “get the job done” is older than you thought, is applicable in more places than you’d expect, and last across a longer time horizon than you’d have expected. Well, I don’t know about you, but each of these was true in my case.

The main empirical analysis of this article compares a snapshot of the location of mission stations in Africa in 1903 to the precise locations of projects funded by the World Bank in 1995–2014. The unit of analysis is derived from a grid of 55km×55km square cells covering the African mainland and Madagascar. The results imply that the presence of (at least) one mission station increases the probability that an area is allocated a development project by approximately 50 percent.

A rather macabre excerpt, but to me a revealing one. On “The Maharajah of the Yorkshire Dales

The first ethnically Indian minister in Britain was Parmjit Dhanda. He too found a rural seat, out in the West Country, in Gloucestershire. People were almost always polite and pleasant to him, but one morning he came out and found a severed pig’s head on the bonnet of his car.

The year was 2010.

 

Vox explains the current state of affairs when it comes to driverless cars, and how long that might take (short answer? A little bit longer, but no idea exactly how long. Sorry.)

There are two core statistics useful for evaluating how advanced a self-driving car program is. One is how many miles it has driven. That’s a proxy for how much training data the company has, and how much investment it has poured into getting its cars on the road.

The other is disengagements — moments when a human driver has to take over because the computer couldn’t handle a situation — per mile driven. Most companies don’t share these statistics, but the state of California requires that they be reported, and so California’s statistics are the best peek into how various companies are doing.

On both fronts, Google’s sister company Waymo is the clear leader. Waymo just announced 20 million miles driven overall, most of those not in California. In 2018, Waymo drove 1.2 million miles in California, with 0.09 disengagements every 1,000 miles. Coming in second is General Motors’ Cruise, with about half a million miles and 0.19 disengagements per 1,000 miles. (Cruise argues that since it tests its cars on San Francisco’s difficult streets, these numbers are even more impressive than they look.)

A topic that more students of economics should know about: (non)-ergodicity.

First is a very micro level concern: behavioural biases. The whole idea of endowment effects and loses aversion make sense in a world dominated by non-ergodic processes. We hate losing what we have because it decreases our ability to make future gains. Mathematics tells us we should avoid being on one of the many losing trajectories in a non-ergodic process.

Kindle, Vancouver, Onions, Government Size and Quizzing

Five articles that I enjoyed reading this week, with a couple of sentences on why I think you might benefit from reading them.

The extent to which Amazon, via the Kindle, tracks your reading habits. Most of this article did not come as a surprise to me, and of course the Kindle and the books on it are as cheap as they are precisely because Amazon makes money by tracking precisely what this article says they do. Personally, I am OK with that – but you might want to read this before you make your own decision.

Could Amazon’s monopoly over the publishing industry change the nature of books themselves? As a result of the economic pressures of the streaming industry, the length of the average song on the Billboard Hot 100 fell from 3 minutes and 50 seconds to 3 minutes and 30 seconds between 2013 and 2018. Will books be the next art form to be altered? Greer said it is possible.

“Never underestimate the power, or willingness, of tech companies to do almost anything to make a little extra money – including shifting the entire way we make music or read and write books,” she said. “They are perfectly willing for art to be collateral damage in their pursuit of profit.”

The equilibrium is being solved for in Vancouver, by observing the lack of an equilibrium in other cities. On Uber, Lyft, British Columbia, and the last mover advantage:

“A decade after Uber got its start, and eight years after Lyft changed the ride-hail model by allowing anyone to use their everyday car to pick up passengers, British Columbia thinks it has nailed how to regulate these companies, which have often slipped into the gray areas between transportation and labor laws. Call it the last mover advantage. Government officials in the province have spent years studying how other places dealt with an influx of ride-hail vehicles—and the sometimes unfortunate effects they had on local transportation systems.”

Vivek Kaul explains one application of the law of unintended consequences in this article in the Livemint, about onions.

When prices of an essential commodity, like onions, go up, state governments can impose stockholding limits. This leads to a situation where wholesalers, distributors and retailers dealing in the essential commodity need to reduce the inventory that they hold in order to meet the requirements of a reduced stock limit. The idea is to curb hoarding, maintain an adequate supply of the essential commodity and, thus, maintain affordable prices. This is where the law of unintended consequences strikes. Instead of ensuring prices of the essential commodity remain affordable, ECA makes it expensive.

Small governments aren’t necessarily great governments, but large governments don’t always do well either. But if you must choose when it comes to government, size does too matter! Via Marginal Revolution.

The plots do not support the hypothesis that small government produces either greater prosperity or greater freedom. (In reading the charts, remember that the SGOV index is constructed so that 0 indicates the largest government and 10 the smallest government.) Instead, smaller government tends to be associated with less prosperity and less freedom. Both relationships are statistically significant, with correlations of 0.43 for prosperity and 0.35 for freedom.

Samanth Subramanian on the joy of quizzing.

To attend these contests, quizzers rearrange the furniture of their lives, budgeting their time away from their families, or ensuring that they don’t travel overseas for work during a quiz weekend. I know one quizzer who switched jobs because his city’s quiz scene wasn’t active enough; I know another who scheduled his wedding to avoid a clash with a quiz. Once, while we were waiting around for a popular annual quiz to begin, a friend remarked that his wife was heavily pregnant; he hoped she wouldn’t go into labour over the next few hours. That would be unfortunate, we agreed.
“No, you don’t understand,” he said. “If my daughter’s born today, that means she’ll have a birthday party on this date every year. Which means I can never come to this quiz again.”

Corporate panchayats, feni, finance and fiscal deficits

Five articles that I enjoyed reading this week, and figured you might as well.

  1. “Nearly 80% of the village’s estimated 36,000 residents enrolled as members in the movement, which, at that point, was a non-governmental entity. They were all given an electronic card based on economic status. Several benefits, from free medical treatment to discounted groceries, were delivered based on this categorization, undertaken solely based on the company’s internal surveys.In 2015, probably for the first time, a corporate house directly entered the electoral arena in India. It was Kitex. Despite a unified opposition, Twenty20’s candidates won 17 of the 19 gram panchayat seats, cornering over 70% of the polled votes.”
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    A corporate panchayat in Kerla. This was fascinating on so many levels!
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  2. “Vaz begins the tour with an introduction to feni and its history. Considered Goa’s greatest spirit, this colourless clear liquid is said to date back centuries; some believe coconut feni predates the Portuguese capture of Goa. A potent drink with a strong aroma, it is made with coconut or cashew. The cashew feni possesses a Geographical Indication registration since 2009 as a speciality alcoholic beverage from Goa.”
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    On feni tourism.
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  3. “Fiscal Deficit represents Net Borrowings by the Government in a year. Difference between the Debt and Liabilities at the beginning and at the end of a Financial Year also represents Net Borrowings during the year. Fiscal Deficit should therefore equal change in the Debt and Liabilities during the Financial Year. All government expenditure, revenues and debts are required to be carried out through the Consolidated Fund of India (CFI). If it is done so, the fiscal deficit of the Government should equal to the additional debt incurred during the year, all recorded in the CFI.”
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    A 29 point essay on the state of India’s fiscal deficit and debt, by Subhash Chandra Garg. The excerpt is of the first point in its entirety, and the rest of the essay is about why 1. doesn’t quite work. Great read!
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  4. “But what have the Nifty stocks done? 10 years ago, the Nifty had a bunch of stocks. Let’s run a thought experiment. If you had invested an equal amount (Rs. 10,000) in every single Nifty stock in January 2010 and completely forgot about it, what would have happened?”
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    The excellent Deepak Shenoy being, as usual, excellent.
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  5. “After all, according to National Accounts Statistics (NAS) that produce the estimates for national income, consumer expenditure is around 60 per cent of the GDP. Investment (or gross fixed capital formation, to be precise) is about 30 per cent of the GDP, and its growth rate has plummeted to less than 1 per cent according to latest estimates. And while government expenditure has grown at a high rate (around 10 per cent), it is only about 10 per cent of the GDP. Accordingly, growth in investment and government spending contribute 1.3 percentage points to the overall GDP growth rate, and so to get an overall 5 per cent growth rate, consumer expenditure should be growing at higher than 5 per cent.”
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    The rest of this thought-provoking piece by Maitreesh Ghatak explains why a fiscal push will almost certainly be a bigger bang for the buck than the official data might show. Macroeconomics is hard!

Etc: Inequality, Gigerenzer, solstices, technology today, and Sir Abed

Five links that I read about recently that I figured you might enjoy reading too.

  1. “A decade ago, the writer Deborah Solomon asked Donald Trump what he thought of the idea that “all men are created equal.” “It’s not true,” Trump reportedly said. “Some people are born very smart. Some people are born not so smart. Some people are born very beautiful, and some people are not, so you can’t say they’re all created equal.” Trump acknowledged that everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law but concluded that “All men are created equal” is “a very confusing phrase to a lot of people.” More than twenty per cent of Americans, according to a 2015 poll, agree: they believe that the statement “All men are created equal” is false.”
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    The New Yorker on inequality. I learnt about luck egalitarianism by reading this article, but it is a good overview of the topic more generally.
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  2. “There is a low-tech way design your portfolio. It’s simply called 1/N formula or equality heuristics. Simple divide your funds equally across funds. It sounds too simplistic for the complex world of finance, and unlikely to impress any investor from whom you are raising funds (unlikely to impress you if someone is asking for your money, saying 1/N is their portfolio allocation strategy). ”
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    A nice profile from Founding Fuel of Gigerenzer’s work, ideas and productivity.
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  3. “I’m informed, however, that this 20 minute error in the Hindu solar calendar is deliberate, and that this has been put in place for astrological reasons. Apparently, astrology follows a 26400 year cycle, and for that to bear out accurately, our solar calendar needs to have a 20 minute per year error! So for the last 1700 or so years, we have been using a calendar that is accurate for astrological calculations but not to seasons! Thankfully, the lunar calendar, which has been calibrated to the movement of stars, captures seasons more accurately!”
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    The catchily titled Noenthuda blog explains more about Makar Sankranti and the summer solstice.
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  4. “…few companies are pure “tech” companies seeking to disrupt the dominant cloud and mobile players; rather, they take their presence as an assumption, and seek to transform society in ways that were previously impossible when computing was a destination, not a given. That is exactly what happened with the automobile: its existence stopped being interesting in its own right, while the implications of its existence changed everything.”
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    Contextualizing technology today, by Stratechery.
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  5. “The idea is to give an extremely poor family an asset — say a cow or a goat or bees — that can increase its income over time. BRAC is hardly the first group to use this model; another prominent one is Heifer International. But BRAC combines the donation with a mix of services that has proved highly effective — including training and coaching on how to use the asset, cash grants to tide the family over while getting a new enterprise started, and help with health care and education.”
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    As the title of the blog post says, a profile of the most influential poverty fighter you’ve never heard of. Education matters!

Etc: Grandmothers, writers, Robert Solow (among others)

I recently had the honor (and pleasure) of meeting Paul Seabright, and to prepare for the meeting, I read, after many years, In The Company of Strangers. Hopefully, a review will follow soon. But there were a lot of interesting snippets in the book that led me down many a random trail in the jungles of the internet. They explain some of the links that have been chosen for your reading pleasure today.
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  1. “Defined broadly, menopause is the programmed end of fertility in a female animal. Human women, of course, are well aware that their fertility will decline with age and cease after a certain point, typically around age 50. In the animal kingdom at large, however, menopause is an oddity — and a long-standing evolutionary mystery. An organism’s ultimate goal is reproduction. Why sacrifice that consummate purpose? Even more puzzling, why would an animal naturally become infertile and then go on living for years? Throughout history, scientists have proffered numerous theories. But studying the biological phenomenon of menopause is difficult, in part because it seems to be so rare.”
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    Paul Seabright mentions this briefly in his book, and this article explains why menopause is so very important for the human species.
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  2. “I’ve often thought to myself that if Substack had existed when I’d first started writing, I might have approached my work very differently. As a writer who built an audience around a niche topic, I’ve wondered why it is so hard to make money directly off of one’s work. I’ve been lucky that my interests overlapped with the software industry, but what if I’d been obsessed with cataloging perfumes instead, or the causes of Britain’s Industrial Revolution? Many content creators are now able to strike out on their own, thanks to platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and Twitch, but writers, journalists, analysts, researchers, curators, and other independent obsessives mostly seem to make money by indirectly translating their reputation into something they can get hired for.”
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    This is something I’m only very vaguely thinking about right now – starting a much more systematic newsletter than I currently manage at the moment. Folks who read this blog via email, please feel free to drop me an email explaining what you like about it, what you don’t, and what else I could do. Thank you.
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  3. ““I think the way people do economics today is too much governed by the availability of data,” he says. “A lot of the articles that I see written in the journals seem to exist not because there is a problem here that needs to be solved, or a puzzle that needs to be explained, but because I have come upon this enormous bunch of data, [and figure] these data have to include the answer to some question.” But, he adds, that’s “natural,” given the sheer amount of data on hand and the pressure to publish.”
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    Amruuta, on Twitter, was kind enough to share this link with me, about Robert Solow, his long and justly celebrated career, how good he has proven to be as a mentor, and so much more.
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  4. The amazing – a word entirely appropriate in this case – Scott Alexander on what he learnt in this past decade.
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    “There’s an argument that I should learn less each decade, since I’ll be picking higher and higher fruit. My own knowledge can advance either because civilization advances and I hear about it, or because I absorb/integrate older knowledge that I hadn’t noticed before. Civilization advances at a decade per decade (or maybe less; see the Cowen & Southwood paper above), but each year it becomes harder and harder to find relevant older knowledge that I haven’t integrated yet. I plausibly only have five more decades to live, and I don’t think I’d be happy only advancing five times this amount over the rest of my life, let alone less than that.”
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  5. “The key thing about human beings is that our environment is as much each other as it is a particular natural ecology, and that component of our environment, the social component, has changed spectacularly in the last ten millennia. Therefore, the things we do can’t possibly be explained in a very simple way as having evolved through ordinary natural selection for the environment in which we find ourselves today. So we have to patch together an argument consisting of two parts. The first part is to say: What do we think human beings were like, physically and psychologically, as a result of their evolution in the African woodland savannah until about 10 millennia ago? Then we have to ask: How can we imagine that you launch that set of capacities out on the open sea of human social interactions where suddenly things get fantastically complicated, we start dealing with situations we never had to deal with before, with modern society as the result.”
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    I thoroughly enjoyed reading, once again, In The Company of Strangers. An interview with Paul Seabright about the book, and some other things besides.

Etc: Links for 10th January, 2019

Links that I read during the week that I found interesting.

 

  1. Russia plans to have the ability to cut itself off from “the” internet, but keep “its” internet running.
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  2. One of my students might be embarking on a PhD in neuroeconomics, and reading up about the topic got me here. Interesting videos, and a neat set of publications.
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  3. Spinach is, is not, no is, no is not, never was, always was, is, isn’t a good source of iron. Via the excellent Navin Kabra.
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  4. A profile of Qassem Suleimani in the New Yorker, from almost seven years ago.
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  5. Learn SQL by solving a murder mystery.
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  6. The last link this Monday was about NIP. Rathin Roy is doubtful about the Indian government’s ability to execute on the plan.

Etc: Links for 3rd Jan, 2020

  1. Tim Harford sings praises of gaming:
    “But for most gamers the point of games is that they are enjoyable in a deeper way than most mere entertainments. They create moments of enchantment to rival the finest music or theatre. A good game has you solving puzzles, throwing yourself into improvised acting, and then helpless with tears of laughter. The friendships I’ve forged over the gaming table have been the ones that have lasted.”
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  2. On living in a commune in San Francisco. Beer isn’t welcome anymore, apparently.
    “I made my first mistake early on. It came at one of the dinner parties, which tended to happen spontaneously: one person would sit down quietly to eat a stir fry, before others joined them with takeout or leftovers. I brought a case of beer, which seemed to offend the zest for self-improvement that defined the commune. Sleep, and getting enough of it, was the topic du jour. Entire dinners were spent discussing the finer points of sleep tracking, which monitoring gadgets worked best (the Oura Ring was popular); how best to optimise a bedtime schedule; what to eat; what not to drink. I felt like a Neanderthal, supping beer and interjecting to add that surely it was important to enjoy yourself now and again. This sat oddly with a group that was on a different path towards self-actualisation. Alcohol disrupts sleep, it turns out.”
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  3. A fascinating article on… feathers.
    “Feather stuffing, once the height of luxury, has become ubiquitous. Over the past quarter-century, our global demand for warmth – even on a short shopping trip – has led to a tripling of the global trade in feathers by volume. Never mind being light as a feather, the raw plumage that drifts across borders each year is equal to the weight of nearly 90,000 cars. And 80% of those feathers come from one country: China.The trade in feathers is not a simple case of supply meeting demand. The down in our coats is, in fact, a by-product of the ducks and geese that end up on dinner tables. In terms of price per weight, down feathers – the soft, fuzzy ones on the bird’s breast – are the most valuable part of a duck, worth $25-50 per kg, roughly ten times as much as the meat. But a typical bird yields some 2.5kg of meat compared with just 15 grams of down, so a duck’s value lies mostly in its flesh. The soft feathers account for just 3% of its value, so abattoirs see those fluffy hairs not as a treasured commodity but detritus.”
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  4. Curbed chooses bike sharing as the biggest thing to have happened in the previous decade.
    “Studies have shown that bike share can help boost some transit ridership and may even be safer than riding personal bikes. The average cyclist death rate is 21 deaths per 100 million trips, but through 2014, after seven years of bike share in U.S. cities and 23 million rides, not a single person had been killed riding a bike-share bike. By the time U.S. bike share rides hit 100 million, which happened sometime in early 2017, only one death had been reported.”
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  5. On simplifying quadratic equations.

Etc: Links for 27th December, 2019

  1. Because it contains an article on dying, and an article on pooping. Why not?
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  2. Thanos, Neal Stephenson and Chernobyl.
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  3. Conching and sports, among other things.
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  4. Baader-Meinhoff, jackfruits et al.
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  5. On the animal kingdom.

Etc: Links for 20th December, 2019

  1. The coolest things that David Perell learnt in 2019. He has a paragraph on Twitter, from Bill Gurley, that I wholeheartedly agree with. Tempers run high on Twitter, true, but it is a magnificent learning tool for me.
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    “One of the examples is a famous New York City physician who was renowned for his ability to predict that patients would get typhoid. He predicted the sickness time and again. He would palpate their tounge (feel around their tongue) and predict, weeks before patients had a single symptom, over and over, and became famous, and as one of his colleagues said, he was a more productive carrier of typhoid than even Typhoid Mary because he was giving his patients Typhoid with his hands. In that case, the feedback he was receiving was reinforcing exactly the wrong lesson.”
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  2. Two articles that I got to read as a consequence of subscribing to Joanna Lobo’s Newsletter (if you are interested in writing, either as a hobby or a career, this is a newsletter worth subscribing to). The first is about the perils of comfort food…
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    “Every meal was meticulously pre-portioned and packaged for every individual. We never ate family-style, which was how I grew up eating, and how I learned that portion control is often not within your control: You are not just eating for yourself, and the choice to eat (and how much) often symbolizes love and affection more than physical nourishment. What is considered a “serving” when your chopsticks keep dipping back into shared plates and the diet app you use doesn’t even know what 鱼香茄子 (Chinese eggplant with garlic sauce) is? How can you not overeat when people were heaping dishes onto your plate without you asking? Is it rude to not finish that tofu someone offered you? What is fullness?”
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  3. “A Zomato spokesperson tells Open they are currently in the process of doing away with their food-reviewing levels. The titles have already been removed from the mobile app, the spokesperson says, and they will soon be removed from the website too. According to her, this has nothing to do with complaints about soliciting money, or restaurants and connoisseurs coming together to bump up an establishment’s ratings. “We are just coming up with a newer version, a new engagement tool for users,” the spokesperson says over the phone.”
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    A long read about gaming restaurant reviews.
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  4. Bourbaki’s influence is still alive and well. Now in “his” 80th year of research, in 2016 “he” published the 11th volume of the “Elements of Mathematics”. The Bourbaki group, with its ever-changing cast of members, still holds regular seminars at the University of Paris.
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    A lovely essay from the Madras Courier about Bourbaki, the “guy”.
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  5. Lots of links to work through in this video, but worth your time! Stats nerds only.

Etc: Links for 6th December, 2019

Five articles about my favorite sportsperson

 

  1. “Dear Maya, It’s June 25, 2032 and it’s your 18th birthday. I don’t have anything profound to give you except for this thumb drive about an unusual man. Roger Federer didn’t fight for peace or solve world hunger, but he did what most could not. In an era of athletic conceit and inflated skill, he lived for roughly 20 years at the unique intersection of art, accomplishment and decency.”
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    Rohit Brijnath.
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  2. “Four years ago, trying to comprehend the phenomenon of Federer’s late career, which even then seemed like it had lasted an astonishingly long time, I wrote that the best athletes usually have a “still” phase. First they’re fast. Then they’re slow. In between, there’s a moment when they’re “still” fast — when you can see the end coming but can’t deny that, for now, they remain close to their best. Federer, I wrote, had spent longer in that “still” phase than any great tennis player I could think of.”
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    Brian Philips, amazed at how long Federer has been awesome… written in 2015.
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  3. A Wikipedia article about the greatest rivalry in sport.
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  4. “I was broken after the final at Wimbledon then. I was equally gutted after the final today. There’s a difference in outlook though. Back then, I hated the opponent with every small bit of childish rebellion could gather. Today, I respect Djokovic. I acknowledge his presence as the superior player of the day. And I thank him for a being a part of a spectacle I will never forget my entire life.”
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    For the tennis aficionados, care to take a guess what match is being spoken about? Sumedh Natu in top formSumedh Natu in top form.
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  5. If you are as much a fan of reading and watching tennis as I am, you knew what the fifth link was going to be. If you aren’t, and are reading this for the first time, I envy you.