RoW: Links for 18th September, 2019

  1. How was London’s tech scene built?
    ..
    ..
  2. If you ever get the chance to pick a train journey…. for me, this one, for sure.
    “And so it was no small relief when, there the next morning, was the train at the platform. Its Chinese provenance was confirmed by the ethnicity of the “Captain” ushering people aboard, and by our salmon-colored tickets, the same as those issued by China’s National Railway.An hour later, we were enjoying a rare sensation: swift, ceaseless movement through a sub-Saharan landscape.”
    ..
    ..
  3. Or wait, hang on
    “For most of human history, it was impossible to grasp the range of the habitable world in a single day. Beginning in the mid-20th century, one could fly from a cool region to a hot region in one day. But that was an artificial experience—you missed everything in between. That all changed in 2012, when China built a high speed rail line from the north to the south of the country. Now you could board a train at 9am in cold, snowy Beijing, and get off 8 hours later in tropical Guangzhou, at the same latitude as Havana.

    A few years later the line was extended further south to Hong Kong, where you arrive an hour later. For the first time ever, humans can see the gradual change in landscape from the temperate zone to the tropics, all in a single day.”
    ..
    ..

  4. “In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow.”
    ..
    ..
    Especially given the context, the rest of this first paragraph is some of the finest writing I have ever read. That is not an exaggeration.
    ..
    ..
  5. “But improving American higher education would be the final plank of the Tyler Cowen industrial policy.”
    ..
    ..
    Tyler Cowen on industrial policy in America.

ROW: Links for 31st July, 2019

  1. “There are things government could do if it were bold enough. How about a series of state-specific visas to foreigners, designed to encourage them to settle in Alaska and other underpopulated states? Alaska’s population could well rise to more than a million, and then the benefits of a good state university system would be more obvious, including for cultural assimilation. In fact, how about a plan to boost the population of Alaska to two or three million people? What would it take to get there?”
    ..
    ..
    Especially read together with the last paragraph, this article is an excellent example of straight thinking – and one wonders where this might apply in India’s case?
    ..
    ..
  2. I’m breaking one of my own rules (but hey, that’s kind of the point of owning this blog), but here’s a short video about a tyre scultpure out of Nigeria.
    ..
    ..
  3. “Nonetheless, reading the testaments of people who’d come through a period of great uncertainty in the late 1920s and early 1930s, with the liberal order seemingly spent, it’s hard not to hear faint echoes in our current plight. As they do now, people then craved simple, emotional answers to complex economic and political problems.”
    ..
    ..
    Learning more about the lives of ordinary people in the past is something I want to do more of. Germany and Germans when they realized the Russians were coming.
    ..
    ..
  4. “The official history of China’s economic reforms is rather more sanitized, but the memoirs of Gu Mu (谷牧), who was vice premier in the 1980s and in charge of foreign trade, do help show how export discipline was applied in the Communist bureaucratic system (see this post for some more interesting tidbits from Gu’s memoir).”
    ..
    ..
    If there is one book that I would want a student of modern Asia to read, it would be Joe Studwell’s “How Asia Works”. This article begins by tipping its hat to that book, and speaks about how China instilled a sense of export discipline.
    ..
    ..
  5. A very long, mostly depressing article on an intellectual purge in Turkey.

Tech: Links for 16th July, 2019

  1. “On July 3, I challenged readers of my Big Internet Math-Off pitch to try to find the way to divide 24 muffins among 25 people that makes the smallest piece as large as possible. ”
    ..
    ..
    Click on this link to get a sense of a truly interesting math problem, and how to think about them.
    ..
    ..
  2. “Sitting in a hotel lobby in Tangier, Morocco, Charity Wayua laughs as she recounts her journey to the city for a conference on technology and innovation. After starting her trip in Nairobi, Kenya, where she leads one of IBM’s two research centers in Africa, she had to fly past her destination for a layover in Dubai, double back to Casablanca, and then take a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Tangier. What would have been a seven- to eight-hour direct flight was instead a nearly 24-hour odyssey. This is not unusual, she says.”
    ..
    ..
    An interesting set of links contained in this link, which speaks about how AI is being used in Africa – and you also get a sense about the opportunities and limitations in Africa.
    ..
    ..
  3. “Then there’s Matthew Porter. He requires only a camera, model cars, and a bit of Photoshop to send muscle cars flying in his new book, The Heights. It’s a resourceful, low-tech homage to some of the most iconic, memorable stunts in the car-chase genre. “There’s just nothing more visceral than a car in the air,” he says. “It’s aspirational and romantic.””
    ..
    ..
    These kind of tech articles are the most fun to read. Tinkering around can yield surprisingly good (and fun!) results.
    ..
    ..
  4. “Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.”
    ..
    ..
    That is from a lovely essay by Isaac Asimov on creativity.
    ..
    ..
  5. “A group of researchers have now used this technique to munch through 3.3 million scientific abstracts published between 1922 and 2018 in journals that would likely contain materials science research. The resulting word relationships captured fundamental knowledge within the field, including the structure of the periodic table and the way chemicals’ structures relate to their properties. The paper was published in Nature last week.”
    ..
    ..
    A very short, but no less delightful read on some of the more mind boggling applications of AI.

RoW: Links for 3rd July, 2019

 

Five articles to help you understand China today a little bit better (well, one is on North Korea, axshually)

  1. “There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far — I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.”
    ..
    ..
    A long, but fun read on how and why Chinese (both kinds) is so difficult to learn – and do think about what this might tell us about China.
    ..
    ..
  2. “But that is the wrong way to approach the challenge. In the near term (1-4 years), the US certainly could inflict a lot of damage on China through tariffs, bans on technology purchases, and other trade-war policies. But it would also inflict a lot of damage on itself; and in the end, the Chinese would suffer less. Whereas the Chinese government can buy up Chinese-made products that previously would have been sold to the US, thereby preventing mass unemployment and social turmoil, the US government could scarcely do the same for American workers displaced by the loss of the Chinese market.”
    ..
    ..
    Brad DeLong argues against the anti-China line that almost everyone in America seems to toe to these days (Biden almost excepted)
    ..
    ..
  3. “Total food production figures, however, are not the end of the story. The important question is who gets access to food, rather than just how much is harvested. Theoretically, North Korea could produce 10 million tons of food, but if all of it ends up in Pyongyang, there would still be massive shortages in the countryside. Here is where markets matter. The WFP assessments are based on the assumption that most food consumed in North Korea is still handed out by the government through the public distribution system (PDS); they do not take account of the role of markets in the food distribution system.”
    ..
    ..
    38North on how bad the food situation is in North Korea. Markets matter!
    ..
    ..
  4. “This is a useful reminder that decentralization is not an immutable feature of the Chinese system, or something that happened automatically just because China is a very large country. Clearly Gu saw that in the 1970s the Chinese system was too centralized to be efficient, and that it needed to be more decentralized. (Jae-Ho Chung’s book Centrifugal Empire: Central-Local Relations in China also argues that the Maoist emphasis on local autonomy in the 1970s was largely rhetorical, with most localities compelled to follow the same political campaigns and economic priorities.)”
    ..
    ..
    For a variety of reasons, decentralization really matters – here’s how China learnt this lesson.
    ..
    ..
  5. “At the heart of China’s Going Out policy is a media offensive launched in March 2018, an initiative coordinated by the broadcast group Voice of China and carefully monitored by Communist Party censors. In addition, the state-run news agency Xinhua was expanded and now claims to be the largest news wire in the world.”
    ..
    ..
    A fascinating read on how China is reshaping the media narrative in Africa.

Links for 24th May, 2019

  1. “A few months ago, as I was reading Constance Reid’s excellent biography of Hilbert, I figured out if not the answer to this question, at least something that made me feel better about it. She writes:
    Hilbert had no patience with mathematical lectures which filled the students with facts but did not teach them how to frame a problem and solve it. He often used to tell them that “a perfect formulation of a problem is already half its solution.”
    ..
    ..
    A very short, but oh-so-readable essay from Paul Graham. Please read it for a variety of reasons, but mostly to understand that reading is a long term activity with a lot (a lot!) of positive payoffs in the long run.
    ..
    ..
  2. “When the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) measures economic output, it categorizes spending with the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA). Some of this spending, which is counted as C, I, and G, is spent on imported goods.1 As such, the value of imports must be subtracted to ensure that only spending on domestic goods is measured in GDP. For example, $30,000 spent on an imported car is counted as a personal consumption expenditure (C), but then the $30,000 is subtracted as an import (M) to ensure that only the value of domestic production is counted (Table 3). As such, the imports variable (M) functions as an accounting variable rather than an expenditure variable. To be clear, the purchase of domestic goods and services increases GDP because it increases domestic production, but the purchase of imported goods and services has no direct impact on GDP.”
    ..
    ..
    From within the link to the Noah Smith article yesterday, a good, short explainer of GDP, and why imports don’t “reduce” from GDP.
    ..
    ..
  3. “In economics, there is no free lunch. While TV channels feel that they are saving money by not paying the experts, what they get in return is a total mess and not some meaningful, coherent programming, in which people can take away some learning at the end.”
    ..
    ..
    Vivek Kaul explains why people on the news shout so much. Incentives – it’s all, always, about incentives!
    ..
    ..
  4. “In a 2009 summary paper of their respective decision-making sub-fields, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein spell out the conditions required for expertise to exist. They discover that in order for expert intuition to work, the practitioner needs to inhabit a domain where:The environment is regular. That is, the situation must be sufficiently predictable, with observable causal cues.
    There must be ample opportunities to learn causal cues from the environment.”
    ..
    ..
    An interesting article about whether ideas from one domain should be used in another, and under what circumstances.
    ..
    ..
  5. “Whether the East Asian Model will take hold in East Africa and beyond is not a given. But it also isn’t a stretch to see how the African “Lion economies” could accelerate their transformation by embracing the formula that successively produced the Asian Tigers and China.In his seminal Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen equated personal freedom with economic development. But to reach that objective requires traversing through the phase of “development as imitation” of successful models that came before.”
    ..
    ..
    Can Africa achieve in this century what Asia did in the previous one, following the same playbook? This is going to be the most important question for this century, and this article helps you understand how to think about it. One useful way to start thinking about it, at any rate.

Links for 11th March, 2019

  1. “Well, I hope the ongoing changes in policy towards the Chinese government, most of which I think are justified as a direct response to Chinese government actions, do not also lead to a general prejudice against ordinary Chinese people or all things Chinese.So far, we haven’t seen that, at least not much.For example, Trump, who’s been utterly shameless in provoking racial and ethnic tensions when it comes to African-Americans, Latinos, Mexicans, Africans — maybe I’m missing something, but I haven’t seen the same sort of thing on China yet.Trump seems to put China mostly into the trade/jobs economic section of his brain, rather than the “chaos/social upheaval/white nationalism” section of his brain. (And that’s one reason why, so far, lots of Democrats and independents have supported his policies, along with the Trumpists.)”
    That second paragraph worries me a little bit, although I am unsure of my analysis. Economics and culture (very roughly, that’s how I think about the two concepts mentioned above) aren’t independent. The more I read about economics, the more I think each feeds upon the other, and that too, continuously. Such compartmentalization seems too simplistic. The rest of the interview is also worth reading – and as somebody who appreciates great questions, I loved the very last one.
  2. “In March 1951, a frustrated Kodak threatened to sue the U.S. government for the “considerable amount of damage to our products resulting from the Nevada tests or from any further atomic energy tests…” Finally the company and the government came to an agreement. The AEC would provide Webb, by now the head of Kodak’s physics division, with schedules and maps of future tests so that Kodak could take the necessary precautions to protect its product. In return, the people of Kodak were to keep everything they knew about the government’s Nevada nuclear testing a secret.”
    The world is stranger than you can know, and imagine. It is also scarily stupid in ways one simply couldn’t have contemplated. A sobering read about how Kodak discovered scary stuff about America’s nuclear bomb experiments – and was essentially asked to keep quiet about it.
  3. “Perhaps because most of us are descendants of immigrants thrust into an artificial construct of a nation, or maybe because we live in a country that is constantly renewing and rebuilding, one of the few tangible things that connects us to the past and our cultural identity is food.”
    Ten dishes you might want to try in Singapore, with a little bit of history thrown in. I am sad to report that I haven’t tasted all of them yet.
  4. “Many local African churches have reached out to Chinese workers, including incorporating Mandarin into services. A number of Chinese, in turn, have welcomed the sense of community and belonging that these Christian churches offer. And a small but growing number of ethnically Chinese missionaries from Taiwan and other countries are specifically targeting Chinese nationals in Africa, preaching to them with a freedom they’d never be allowed in the People’s Republic.”
    If the rest of the world is worried about Africa being unduly influenced by neocolonial China… China, it turns out, is worried about being influenced by evangelical Christianity from Africa.
  5. “If you missed reports of the shenanigans at Canada’s McMaster University last week, then the following article by academic Kevin Carrico is well worth a read. Universities are letting a minority of Chinese students behave in ways that are utterly unacceptable. One speculates that they do this because many universities depend heavily on Chinese students for fee income, because they and their academics fear the Chinese Communist Party, and because university administrations tend to be pretty weak-kneed.”
    I had linked a while back to events in Canada, at a university. Joe Studwell, author of the fantastic How Asia Works, links to an article that provides perspective on this issue.

Links for 6th February, 2019

  1. “Drawing about 250 cubic kilometres (sic) per year – more than a fourth of the global total – India is the world’s largest user of groundwater. More than 60 percent of India’s irrigated agriculture and 85 percent of drinking water supplies are dependent on groundwater, according to World Bank estimates”
    The Madras Courier writes on India’s impending – some would dispute the use of that word – water crisis. We simply don’t take it seriously enough, and if you want a good application of the importance of property rights, the power of pricing, and the difficulty of formulating effective policy from the top down, this is a good read.
  2. “…as Lardy suggests, in the absence of an extraordinary course reversal in government policies, as the role of the state impinges on private dynamism, growth in China will likely slow substantially over the medium term. Even with a major policy shift that provides greater scope for (domestic and foreign) private activity, a substantial pickup in growth would surprise us more than a continued decline.”
    The excellent Money and Banking blog reports on the bearish case for China in the medium to long term, on the basis of a close examination of it’s macroeconomic performance and policies of the past thirty years or so. One thing to try and understand about China is whether there is a recession underway or not in China (almost certainly, in my opinion). The second thing to try and figure out is why. That’s what this is about.
  3. “Russia sold twice as much weaponry to African countries in 2017 as it did in 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Between 2013 and 2017, Russia supplied 39 per cent of Africa’s imported arms — compared with 17 per cent from China and 11 per cent from the US. ”
    In retrospect, hardly surprising – although I must admit I didn’t know much about this. Also, reading this article gave me my word for the day: Francafrique. It’s a term worth Googling.
  4. “Anyone considering starting a marketplace business should be aware of the types of marketplaces and the potential network effects that they could benefit from. Those who are already in the thick of building a marketplace or market network should create products and features that enhance and accelerate those network effects that can propel their success forward.”
    Any microeconomics student in India today knows about competing for market share. How many, I wonder, know about competing to build the market itself? This rather long article focuses on building out your thinking about building a market – and the nuances involved in thinking along these lines.
  5. “If all the past US intelligence estimates could be declassified, I suspect readers would find a wealth of accurate predictions, particularly with regard to technical developments in the WMD programs, but far fewer when it came to prognosticating what the North Korean leadership would do. That’s the point of pursuing face-to-face diplomacy with Pyongyang, to get a clearer picture of what is possible and what isn’t as well as to learn more about what makes the North Koreans tick.”
    Or put another way, predicting production is easy. Predicting personalities – not so much. A good read to understand the problems of trying to figure out what North Korea is up to – and teasing out the predictability (or lack thereof) of the human aspect.