Notes from Vietnam

  1. Half the width of the footpath is for businesses, and this is formally/informally understood. The reason for the “/” is that in some cases, there is a white line running along the length of the footpath that kinda sorta officially sets the boundary.
  2. The other half is not necessarily always for walking, it can be used for parking too. In this sense, walking in Hanoi was very similar to walking in India. Some cafes actually have little wooden blocks that are kept adjacent to the footbath, so that bikes can be pushed onto the footpath. Can be used by paying customers of the cafe only, of course.
  3. Traffic is as chaotic as India, but pedestrians assume that the vehicles will stop for them (and they do). Here, of course, it is the other way around.
  4. Coffee rules. I approve. We stayed next to a lake, and sitting on one of those small chairs and sipping on black coffee is a wonderful way to spend an hour or so.
  5. I couldn’t help but wonder if the word “banh” comes from “pain” in French, which means bread. But apparently not.
  6. The drop-off in quality of visible infrastructure is as startling as it is in India. You know how the areas around where the bigwigs stay and immediately outside the airport in your city are much better than the neighbourhoods where aam janta stays? Hanoi is exactly like that, but marginally cleaner.
  7. You can’t go wrong with the food, and in more ways than one. Almost all of the stalls and shops along the main roads and with fronts opening up on the streets are tourist friendly, and the food is excellent.
  8. When I say tourist friendly, I don’t mean to say the rest of the city is not friendly. I mean the dishes are tourist friendly. Which is why a food tour is recommended – because you’ll never get to even see some of the more “hidden” places. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the balut. I did, but couldn’t manage more than one bite.
  9. There is a lot more to Vietnamese cuisine than just the pho and the banh mi, and the best way to learn about it is to walk, mostly through the old part of town. Walking is also the best way to experience the city.
  10. The higher the rating for a place on Google Maps, and the more the number of ratings, the more likely it is that the place is a favorite with tourists. This is a good example, but there are many such places. This will be good food, but it won’t be truly Vietnamese. It will be a somewhat decent version of heavily touristified Vietnamese cuisine.
  11. But when you’re traveling with a ten year old, that may not be a bad thing. What are you optimizing for?
  12. But while walking to your restaurant of choice, feel free to stop and try as much of the food from the street side shops as you possibly can. Surprises abound on virtually every corner.
  13. I observed shop-owners and friends sit down for a meal in their shops, or in front of their shops, on more than one occasion. A sense of community is palpable, and if not a meal, often a cigarette and a coffee, or a beer. Wonderful.
  14. Staring at your phones isn’t a thing if you are in charge of a streetside shop. At least, isn’t as much of a thing as it is in India. Note that these things are hard to quantify!
  15. Don’t order a dish for yourself in restaurants. Order, instead, lots of small dishes and share.
  16. The food is not spicy. The flavors are, as a rule, more subtle than in, say, Thai cuisine, or Malay cuisine.
  17. Our food tour guide told us that cats are considered unlucky in Vietnam because the meowing of cats sounds similar to the word “poor” in Vietnamese. Huh.
  18. I was hoping for better bakery products.
  19. Don’t waste a meal by going into a truly fancy place. If your time is limited, have every single meal in as many local places as possible.
  20. The Vietnamese National Museum of Fine Arts is well worth a visit, and you could easily spend half a day there, if not more. The ground floor and the third floor were my favorites.
  21. Bottomline: heavily recommended!

Organs Printed in Space

… and I still can’t tell you exactly how (or why). But if you can tell me the how and the why, I’m all ears!

Complementary Goods Explained

Workers returning to the office and socialising after pandemic lockdowns helped lead to a 15% surge in sales of deodorants, according to the maker of Dove, Rexona and Impulse.

A friend is fond of pointing out and celebrating teachable moments, and I’m going to struggle to find better examples of complementary goods!

By the way, I’ll be in Vietnam this entire week, first in Hanoi and then in Hoi An, so food recommendations, and other tips – very much in that order – are very welcome.

This link was shared with me via a WhatsApp group which shares one interesting link a day, and the group is set up in such a way that only the admins can send messages. Social media done right, if you ask me.

Bishan Singh Bedi’s 5 for 55 at Brisbane in ’77

If you are a cricket fan, I fail to see how you can watch this video just the one time:

Supply, Demand, Productivity (and, of course, 70 hours!)

Via Navin Kabra

My Random Question to My First Year Students

I just wrapped up a semester of teaching at the Gokhale Institute. It is my favorite course (Principles of Economics) to teach, at my favorite place, so a bittersweet moment of sorts.

And the last class was an extended five random questions session, with lots of fun questions coming my way. One of which, it turns out, was a request for me to ask them a random question. Fun request, and here is what I have asked them:

“You get to redesign higher education from the ground up. All higher ed institutions are scrapped, and society, industry and academia will go along with the institutions, culture and regulations that you choose to construct/create to make higher education as good as it can possibly be – good itself being defined howsoever you like.
What will you do, and why?”

They have all the time in the world to answer, and of course it is not mandatory to do so. But should you choose to answer, I would love to hear it! So please, do let me know the how, the what and they why of your proposal to change higher education in India for the better.

Happy Diwali, everyone!

(I hope to post everyday next week, but am very much on leave. We’ll see!)

Ashok Gulati on How We Tame Food Inflation in India

Sisyphus was lucky to be given the task of pushing that boulder. If they really wanted to be cruel, they could have asked Sisyphus to write about India’s agricultural policies.

Given that a number of state elections are coming up, one can understand the central government’s overdrive to tame food inflation. Obviously, it does not want inflation to be an issue in election campaigns. But how we tame food inflation, and at whose cost, is important to analyse for rational policy making.

Thus begins Ashok Gulati’s recent column on taming food inflation in India – and it becomes angrier from there on in. And with good reason.

  1. We now have a minimum export price on basmati rice, of $,1200 per tonne. The typical export price for this commodity for the last five years or so has been not more than $1,000 per tonne, so let’s call this what it really is: a ban on exporting basmati rice.
  2. So if there is supply, and the government artificially curtails demand, what do you think will happen to the price? Who will get this lower price?
  3. Plus, demand has been curtailed not in India, but abroad (say, for example, in Dubai). Who will help meet this demand in Dubai? Farmers in Pakistan – so it would seem the Indian government has put in place policies to help Pakistani farmers. Go figure.
    Here’s how Ashok Gulati puts it:
    “Externally, it must be remembered that it takes years to develop export markets, and by putting such a high MEP, India is basically handing over our export markets to Pakistan, who is the only other main competitor of basmati rice. Is this a conscious policy decision?”
  4. There’s this rather depressing statistic in the piece:
    “It may be noted that in 2013-14, the last year of the UPA government, India’s agri-exports touched $43.27 billion, up from $8.67 billion in 2004-05 when it took over power at the centre. This is almost a five-fold growth in 10 years. If the same momentum had been maintained during the 10 years of NDA rule, agri-exports should have touched $200 billion. But in reality, they may not touch even $50 billion this year (2023-24).”
  5. Finally, Ashok Gulati also points out that our R&D expenditure on agriculture is 0.5% of our agri-GDP. And that, as he says, is simply too small a number, and needs immediate doubling, if not tripling.

Very few things in life are as frustrating as analyzing India’s agricultural policies in general. And within this set of policies, our muddled thinking about agricultural exports takes the cake.

Principles of Economics, Chinese Education Edition

Two of my favorite things to talk about on this blog come together very nicely in this lovely blogpost from Andrew Batson.

I love to talk about whether people have asked, and thought clearly, about the answer to the question “What are you optimizing for?”. And second, opportunity costs are everywhere.

The blogpost is about “The Education of Li Keqiang”, China’s former premier who passed away recently:

The general temptation to see Li as representing an alternative school of thought and the potential for a different political trajectory is as strong as it is unsupported by real evidence.

Reading this blog post is a good way to learn a little bit about China’ modern history (and then, of course, to use these learnings to want to learn even more about China’s modern history!).

For example, did you know that college entrance examinations only came to be in China in 1977 (after 1966)? You may want to ask how students got selected in universities before that:

The makeup of the student body was curious as well. None of them had to take an entrance test to gain admission—a surprising development given that China was the historic originator of the concept of qualifying public service examinations. Many of the students we met had spent two to three years working in farms and factories; most of them, they said, got into Beida on the recommendation of the farmers and laborers they had worked with. Other students had previously served in the army and were similarly recommended.
The prerequisites for admission were simple: good health, work experience, and high “political consciousness.” Academic prowess was much less important than a student’s commitment to the ideals of the Chinese revolution and to the belief that working with one’s hands was better than book learning. As part of what Beida officials called the concept of “open-door schooling,” students were expected to extend their education beyond the classroom and to engage in street cleaning, farming, and assisting factory laborers with compiling “revolutionary histories” of their workplaces. These would help develop their moral, physical, ideological and intellectual character, we were told.
The guiding principle for all the subjects was a rigid Maoist perspective, including the doctrines of “combining theory with practice,” of “learning by doing,” and of “being socially relevant.” Students said that high grades were unimportant. Academic performance was rated as excellent, good, or fair but no one failed. Each class automatically moved from one level to another every year. Individual achievement was downplayed. Assignments were completed collectively, including the writing of essays and even sitting for examinations. In another break with tradition, where it once used to take four or six years to complete a degree like physics, the requirement had been reduced to two or three years.

I haven’t read the book I’ve linked to above, and that excerpt is from Andrew Batson’s blog. But what I note is that China was not optimizing for selecting students on merit, nor was it identifying the best students on merit. You may want to quibble with me about whether judging students on merit is fair or not – but surely we can agree that this was not a good way to decide who your best students were.

Regardless of our opinions about whether this was a good system or otherwise, the Chinese themselves were quite clear that it was very far from being a good system. Soon after Mao’s death, the Chinese decided to optimize for merit. 1977 was the first time (after 1966) that students would be selected in universities on the basis of an entrance examination. Demand, to put it mildly, was high:

According to the memoirs of former vice-premier Li Lanqing, the demand for the college entrance examination was so high that the government ran out of paper on which to print the exams; the problem was solved by using paper that had been allocated for printing Mao’s Selected Works. FlorCruz’s account makes it clear how the return to exam-based meritocracy was very much a form of “class struggle” in reverse, an explicit decision to valorize the groups that had been targets during the Cultural Revolution and downgrade those (the workers, peasants, soldiers) who had been valorized.

The post goes on to tell us that Xi was a part of the 1975 batch, while Li Keqiang was a part of the 1977 batch. But in the end, it seems to not have made that much of a difference – Xi and Li were both optimizing for rising up in the CCP, and the liberalism that people “expected” from Li Keqiang therefore never materialized.

The opportunity cost of being liberal was too high, more’s the pity.

Robin Hanson on MS Dhoni (well, kind of)

Does adding the phrase “well, kind of” make a clickbait-ish title less clickbait-ish? Asking for a friend.

My favorite book to read about cricket when I was growing up was a book called “Cricket Skills and Techniques: A Comprehensive Guide to Coaching and Playing“, written by Douglas Wright. The only reason it was my favorite is because that’s the only book on cricket coaching that we had at home. Don’t ask me how we ended up having that copy at home, because nobody at home played (or coached) cricket. Still, in those bad old days of no cable television, let alone the internet, I must have read that book dozens of times.

Written in 1971, it was as stodgy about the “how to play cricket” approach as it is possible to be. The whole “back and across”, bat coming down straight, “flick on the legside only when the ball is outside of the leg stump” approach. It’s been years, but I really do doubt if the word “lofted” was used even once in the entire book.

Think of it this way: if Suryakumar Yadav were to occupy one end of the spectrum, the batting techniques in this book would lie at the other.

Would somebody steeped in thinking about batting like this ever have selected MS Dhoni to be a batsman for India, let alone the captain of the Indian Test Cricket team?

Robin Hanson says that academia suffers from the same problem:

I conclude that each typical academic journal not only sees itself as covering a limited topic area, it also sees itself as being willing to consider only a limited range of concepts and argument types. Furthermore, these limits are quite strongly selective; the vast majority of statements that ordinary people actually generate on such topics, even when they are trying to talk seriously, are seen as unsuitable.

There is, in other words, A Correct Way to do research. Just like there is A Correct Way to hold the bat, and A Correct Way to hit the ball. And deviations from ACW are not to be acknowledged, let alone tolerated.

And the point that Robin Hanson is making is that if an academic journal be thought of as the Indian cricket team, and a paper within it as MS Dhoni, well, that paper would never have been published – let alone be thought of as one of the best papers ever to have been published.

And the question that needs to be asked, of course, is how many Dhonis have been left out in the cold when it comes to academic research?

Hanson’s blog post goes a bit deeper, and asks why this should be so. Why are the gatekeepers in academia so very khadoos? Because, he posits, they think it to be the rational approach. They claim, he says, that:

To make progress on our topics, our discipline’s concepts and methods are quite sufficient. Sure others might in principle use other concepts and methods to draw relevant conclusions on our topics more easily than do we, but the chance of that usually seems so low that we just habitually ignore all purported candidates of this sort. There are just not usually clues that could plausibly indicate such a scenario well enough to get us to consider including heterodox articles in our journals, or to consider citing them in our articles. The enormous costs to us of evaluating the quality of such heterodox contributions completely swamps any value they might have to offer.

You might miss out on the odd Dhoni if you are a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, in other words, but that’s fine, because you will have to evaluate a million Dhoni look-alikes who simply aren’t anywhere near as good. But just looking at the few who are the best and in the traditional mould is enough to find the absolute best in the country. So why bother with all those ugly hoikers of the ball? Stick to what we know!

This “leaves money on the table”, of course. Many unorthodox cricketers (academic papers) could be unearthed if only we broadened our methods of evaluation a little bit.

For me this issue highlights the great potential of innovations in how we evaluate contributions. Today, a reviewer typically takes an hour or two to review a dense 4-8K word research paper, where anyone in a discipline needs to be qualified to evaluate any article in that discipline (again, really sub-discipline). In this case, yes, everyone in a discipline must know well the same concepts and methods, and so each discipline can’t accept many such concepts and methods.
But, it should be possible to instead have different people review different aspects of a paper, so that the concepts and methods of a paper don’t have to be limited to just one sub-discipline. Some academic reviewers could specialize in evaluating the concepts and methods of ordinary conversation, to make those available to paper authors. And it should be possible to get quick less-expert less-formal evaluations from betting markets, with bettor incentives tied to much-rarer more expert and expensive evaluations. Using such methods, academic journals should be able to consider submissions using a much wider range of concepts and methods.

And well, we did broaden our methods of evaluation in cricket! We did find Suryakumar Yadav, and dozens, if not hundreds, of wonderful (and unconventional) cricketers. How did we do this? As Amit Varma has pointed out so many times, by getting the correct incentives in place – by having a tournament called the IPL, in other words. Scouts for teams in the IPL are looking for people who will get the results that are needed, techniques be damned (and yes, I know Dhoni made his debut three years before 2008. The point still stands, I’d argue).

How should we get the Indian Publishing League going? Robin Hanson (and I!) would like to know:

Note, however, that such innovations have long been possible, and I have personally seen such proposals enthusiastically rejected. Turns out disciplinary authorities who have risen to the top of their fields via their mastery and control over acceptable concepts and methods may not be eager to invite competition for their prestigious positions from a wider range of people using strange concepts and methods. And as long as no parties near the academic world are able to defy the power of their prestige, this is how things will remain.

What is the Liar’s Dividend?

Well, what is it? Here’s a definition:

The benefit received by those spreading fake information as a consequence of the environment in which there is a great deal of fake information and hence it is unclear what is real and what is fake.

The first and immediate problem with deep fakes, or pictures generated with AI, isn’t the fact that they exist. Just the idea that it could exist is enough.

Fake images are problematic in and of themselves. But they are also problematic because it is now all too easy to deny that real images are, well, real.

Amid highly emotional discussions about Gaza, many happening on social media platforms that have struggled to shield users against graphic and inaccurate content, trust continues to fray. And now, experts say that malicious agents are taking advantage of A.I.’s availability to dismiss authentic content as fake — a concept known as the liar’s dividend.

That picture of a murdered (insert religion and nationality of choice here so as to not offend your sensibilities) child?

Real if it is a convenience for our worldview, fake if it isn’t. And it is very, very easy to convince yourself of the truth value of either of these statements, because who can tell these days?

And so fake images being fake isn’t the only problem.

Real images can also be dismissed as being fake. They are being dismissed as being fake.

The greatest trick AI ever pulled, it turns out, was in convincing the world that it might exist.

Here’s the original definition of the liar’s dividend:

Hence what we call the liar’s dividend: this dividend flows, perversely, in proportion to success in educating the public about the dangers of deep fakes

Realize the utterly delightful paradox: the better we get at convincing people of the problem of deep fakes, the easier it is to convince them that parts of reality itself are fake.

If you want to make your Monday even cheerier, do read the whole paper.