Etc: Links for 15th November, 2019

  1. Bibek Debroy about Abhijit Banerjee’s father. This was fascinating!
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    “There were people who didn’t have an exceptional publication record. They were simply superb teachers.Dipak Banerjee was one of them. Except for a paper on utility he wrote while he was at LSE (London School of Economics), he rarely published. He was an exceptional teacher who produced exceptional students. Bhaskar Dutta, Subhashis Gangopadhyay, Dilip Mukherjee and Debraj Ray should be familiar names. They (all Dipak Banerjee’s students) edited a collection of essays in his honour in 1990. Mihir Rakshit primarily taught us macroeconomics and Dipak Banerjee primarily taught us microeconomics. Mihir babu’s teaching was precise. He never deviated from the topic. Dipak babu’s teaching was also precise, but he deviated from the topic and told us “stories”, especially at tutorials. In the course of these stories, we learnt he had two sons. He wasn’t worried about his younger son, who was “street smart”. But he worried about his elder son, who wasn’t that street smart. We learnt this elder son was called Jhima and that he had a middle name of Vinayak because he was born in Mumbai and because his mother (Nirmala Banerjee) was a Maharashtrian.”
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  2. A short article about the “perils” of Amazon Prime
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    “”Because of multiple Prime orders, Amazon has had to think more about packaging. Recognizing some customers’ “wrap rage,” they are using more bubble envelopes. Aware that the excessive space occupied by smaller inexpensive items increases transport costs, they’ve been developing algorithms that match box size to contents to avoid “over-boxing.” And they want manufacturers to know that online packaging needs to be compact rather than attractive.”
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  3. “We therefore predicted that reactivating previously unsolved problems could help people solve them. In the evening, we presented 57 participants with puzzles, each arbitrarily associated with a different sound. While participants slept overnight, half of the sounds associated with the puzzles they had not solved were surreptitiously presented. The next morning, participants solved 31.7% of cued puzzles, compared with 20.5% of uncued puzzles (a 55% improvement).”
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    Fascinating is an understatement – Alex Tabarrok on being productive while sleeping.
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  4. “For me, sleep is the #1 important factor for my cognitive productivity. I typically get between 6½–7¼ hours per night. Much less, and I feel my brain turning to goo when I try to do anything cognitively demanding. I track my sleep with a fitness tracker so I can anticipate when I should expect a “bad day” and plan accordingly.”
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    On the importance of sleep, and holidays. Please look up Jensen’s inequality as well.
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  5. “…music streaming subscriptions are typically far cheaper in emerging markets than they are in the US and Europe, but hardware built to play that music – often from the very same companies running the music services – is significantly more expensive.”
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    I pay 179 INR per month for Spotify – for six family members. INR 189 per month for YouTube Premium – for six family members.

EC101: Links for 24th October, 2019

Five articles about spends during the festive season in India this year:

  1. “Whether government stimulus packages announced so far will have an impact on festive consumption is a big question. An even bigger question is whether consumers, who are coping with flat-lining incomes and a poor job market, will respond to the incentives offered by companies. If this Diwali fails to sparkle in terms of consumption demand growth, outlook for the next few quarters will get much gloomier.”
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    The ET explains the importance of the Diwali season sales for India’s economy. A useful set of charts.
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  2. “Sawai Makwana, 41, who runs a hair salon and a cafe in Jaipur, is a worried man. This will be my worst Diwali in nearly 30 years, he says. A third-generation hair stylist, Makwana says his business took its first hit in 2016, as a result of demonetisation. Matters have grown progressively worse since he has been forced to close down a section of his salon and sack 14 of his 16 employees. Male customers, who would spend an average of Rs 2,500, have either stopped coming or now just ask for a basic haircut that costs Rs 300, he laments.”
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    Always (always!) be wary of biased sampling and poorly researched articles – but here’s an article from India Today about the same topic.
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  3. TechCrunch on how Amazon and Flipkart are dealing with the crisis.
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  4. On the growth in Tier 2, 3 and 4 towns and how they impact these sales.
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  5. And circling back to the ET, early reports seem to indicate that things weren’t quite as bad as was being feared.

India: Links for 14th October, 2019

  1. An interview with Amartya Sen.
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  2. Amazon is planning on entering the food delivery business in India. This ought to be fun.
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    ““We have disrupted every business we have entered, be it ecommerce, payments or entertainment,” a senior Amazon executive told Moneycontrol on condition of anonymity.The launch is slated to happen around Diwali at the end of this month.”
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  3. Let’s drop the pretense that India’s fiscal deficit is 3.5% of GDP. Let’s drop the target itself. And the article doesn’t say it, but I have always wondered, why divide by GDP in the first place?
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    “Even if these changes don’t deliver credible budgeting, there is no great virtue in stipulating that 3 per cent is the desired level of fiscal deficit at the Centre. As T.C.A. Srinivasa-Raghavan has argued more than once in these pages, that number was simply copied from the European figure, although the economic context for India is radically different from that in Europe.”
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  4. An analysis of Yes Bank.
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    “Yes Bank – The “Kohinoor” of Rana Kapoor has seen him exit in an unglamorous way. He had pledged the stock in favour of his daughters’ borrowings, and the lenders decided to selll. The stock fell 25% in a day, and hit a 10 year low at Rs 30.”
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  5. A short, and entirely positive review of Devendra Fadnavis’ tenure.

Tech: Links for 9th July, 2019

  1. “In it, astronaut Sally Jansen has been working to come to grips with a Mars mission that went disastrously wrong, and NASA ended its crewed missions into space. But while she’s trying to move on, scientists detect an object designated 2I/2044 D1 entering our solar system, and when it begins to slow down, they realize that it’s an alien artifact. Jansen is called in to try and intercept the object and figure out what is behind it before it reaches Earth.”
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    Science Fiction is a great way to learn a lot and have a lot of fun while doing so, and for that reason, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the premise of this book. In similar vein, I recently (and finally) finished The Three Body Problem, and can heartily recommend it.
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  2. “The camera was loaded with machine vision algorithms trained by Hamm himself. They identified whether Metric was coming or going and whether he had prey in his mouth. If the answer was “yes,” the cat flap would lock for 15 minutes and Hamm would get a text. (In a nice flourish, the system also sends a donation, or “blood money” as Hamm calls it, to the National Audubon Society, which protects the birds cats love to kill.)”
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    There are many people who bandy about the word AI these days, but this very short read (and within it, a very entertaining video) helps you understand how it could by applied in myriad ways.
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  3. “LightSail 2 is more ambitious and will actually try to maneuver through space, and even boost itself into different orbits using sunlight. The new mission’s mission control website will let people around the world follow along, including the 23,331 people who contributed to the project’s Kickstarter campaign, which raised $1,241,615 for the spacecraft.”
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    A third link from the same website (either The Verge is on fire, or I am being lazy today), but the best of the lot, in my opinion. It is now possible to crowdfund a satellite launch that contains a sail – and you can now watch your investment in space as it flies above your head. What a time to be alive.
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  4. “But while Tufte’s concerns are not limited to charts, he has spent a lifetime thinking through what he called the “perennial” problem of how to represent a multidimensional world in the two dimensions of the page or screen. At the end of the day, he pulled out a first edition of Galileo Galilei to show how the great minds of the past had grappled with the same issues. He rhapsodized over Galileo’s tiny, in-line sketches of Saturn, which clearly inspired his own advocacy of “sparklines” (tiny charts embedded in text at the same size as the text), as well as some beautifully precise illustrations of sunspots.”
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    Data visualization, medical visits, Galileo and sparklines. As they say, self-recommending.
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  5. “And with 92 percent of future jobs globally requiring digital skills, there’s a focus on helping students develop skills for careers that don’t yet exist. Last year, Sweden declared coding a core subject to be taught from the first year of primary school. And there is an appetite for these skills among students, too, with 85 percent of Brazilians from 16-23 indicating that they want to work in the technology sector. ”
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    Well, there’s a thought – I refer to Sweden’s decision. One, complements, not substitutes. Two, the links are worth following in this link – this is a subject very close to my heart.

Tech: Links for 25th June, 2019

I have linked to some of these piece in the past, but this set of posts is still useful in terms of creating a common set of links in one place for you to understand how to think about Aggregation Theory. If you can afford it, I heavily recommend Stratechery!

  1. “What is the critical differentiator for incumbents, and can some aspect of that differentiator be digitized?
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    If that differentiator is digitized, competition shifts to the user experience, which gives a significant advantage to new entrants built around the proper incentives
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    Companies that win the user experience can generate a virtuous cycle where their ownership of consumers/users attracts suppliers which improves the user experience”
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    Begin here: this piece explains what aggregation theory is all about, and why it matters.
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  2. “Super-Aggregators operate multi-sided markets with at least three sides — users, suppliers, and advertisers — and have zero marginal costs on all of them. The only two examples are Facebook and Google, which in addition to attracting users and suppliers for free, also have self-serve advertising models that generate revenue without corresponding variable costs (other social networks like Twitter and Snapchat rely to a much greater degree on sales-force driven ad sales).”
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    Aggregators on steroids: what exactly makes Google and Facebook what they are? This article helps you understand this clearly. Also read the article on super aggregators itself.
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  3. “There is a clear pattern for all four companies: each controls, to varying degrees, the entry point for customers to the category in which they compete. This control of the customer entry point, by extension, gives each company power over the companies actually supplying what each company “sells”, whether that be content, goods, video, or life insurance.”
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    This article explains the FANG playbook, and how they became what they are today: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google.
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  4. “To explain why, it is worth examining all four companies with regards to:Whether or not they have a durable monopoly
    What anticompetitive behavior they are engaging in
    What remedies are available
    What will happen in the future with and without regulator intervention”
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    Ben Thompson states just above this paragraph that he is neither a lawyer nor an economist. But the last two questions in the list above show that he’d make a pretty good economist. He is, in essence, asking what is the opportunity cost of breaking up these firms. As the song goes: with the bad comes the good, and the good comes the bad.
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  5. “All those apps are doing is providing an algorithm that lowers search costs and makes booking easy. Expedia didn’t design, build and maintain the airplane that flew him to Sydney; build or operate the airport; train pilots; or find, produce, refine and transport the necessary jet fuel to power the plane over its continental voyage. Uber didn’t design and manufacture the car used to transport him to his hotel; find, produce, and process the raw materials that go into it (such as steel and aluminium); or actually drive him from the airport to his hotel. AirBnB didn’t design, build, maintain, or clean the house he stayed in, nor supply it with electricity. UberEats and OpenTable didn’t grow and process any raw foodstuffs, or use them to cook a meal, and TripAdvisor didn’t design, manufacture or operate any of the tourist attractions he visited.In fact, all these companies did was write some pretty simple code that made matching buyers with sellers easier and more efficient, and the real question that should be being asked is whether these platform companies are extracting too much value from the supply chain relative to their value-add, and whether that is likely to be a sustainable situation in the long term, or will invite potential disruption and/or an eventual supply-side/regulatory response.”
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    BUT, on the other hand, perhaps this is just old wine in a new bottle?

Links for 9th April, 2019

  1. “What is not useful is the sense that measuring GDP is the problem, and measuring gross national happiness is the solution. Few societies have ever really focused on either. We should all be happy about that.”
    Tim Harford reminds us that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In this case, the article is worth reading for understanding how GDP can’t really be measured, and how that may not be a bad thing. In addition, please read the article to understand that Bhutan probably isn’t all that “happy” a country in the first place!
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  2. “Given the pressure on all unions to negotiate higher-than-average wage increases, using monetary policy to reduce inflation would inevitably aggregate spending to fall short of the level needed to secure full employment, but without substantially moderating the rate of increase in wages and prices. As long as the unions were driven to negotiate increasing rates of wage increase for their members, increasing rates of wage inflation could be accommodated only by ever-increasing growth rates in the economy or by progressive declines in the profit share of business. But without accelerating real economic growth or a declining profit share, union demands for accelerating wage increases could be accommodated only by accelerating inflation and corresponding increases in total spending.”
    Monetary nerds only, it should go without saying! David Glasner runs a blog called Uneasy Money, which is well worth reading, but only if you want to find yourself steeped in all things monetary. This post takes a slightly critical view of Arthur Burns tenure as Fed Chairman.
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  3. “Amazon’s economists game out real estate decisions, set the lowest prices that will deliver a profit, precisely determine what customers care about and whether advertisements are working — all using machine-learning algorithms that automate decision making on a massive scale. It’s the kind of asset that smaller companies can’t always pay for, allowing Amazon to pull further and further away from the competition.”
    Amazon has, in case you didn’t know, probably the world’s largest collection of PhD’s in economics. This article helps you understand what it is that they do once they’re in Amazon. A helpful read if you are considering building a career in economics.
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  4. “The White House explains why it’s predicting such big growth: the TCJA will cause a surge in business investment by “substantially raising the target capital stock and attracting increased net capital inflows.” And this rise in the capital stock will cause a surge in productivity. Except that there’s no sign of a surge in business investment: the report cherry-picks a few numbers, but overall orders for capital goods, probably the best real-time indicator, are showing nothing much (that 2015-6 slump, by the way, was about fracking, which fell off for a while when world oil prices plunged)”
    Paul Krugman is less than impressed with the 2019 Economic Report of the President, and provides data to show why he is less than impressed. The chart that follows the excerpt is worth looking at too.
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  5. “There’s one biosignature that Seager, Guyon, and just about everyone else agree would be as near a slam dunk for life as scientific caution allows. We already have a planet to prove it. On Earth, plants and certain bacteria produce oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis. Oxygen is a flagrantly promiscuous molecule—it’ll react and bond with just about everything on a planet’s surface. So if we can find evidence of it accumulating in an atmosphere, it will raise some eyebrows. Even more telling would be a biosignature composed of oxygen and other compounds related to life on Earth. Most convincing of all would be to find oxygen along with methane, because those two gases from living organisms destroy each other. Finding them both would mean there must be constant replenishment.”
    That’s just one of many, many excerpt-able pieces from a very long, but also very rewarding article about the search for ET. Take your time with this one – about an hour or so, and pay particular attention to the infographics.

Links for 12th March, 2019

  1. “We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”
    Umberto Eco on an exhibition that he is going to have at the Louvre… on lists. He explains why he likes the idea of lists so much – and says it’s not just him. Listicles are as old as humanity, and are around because we want to make the infinite understandable.
  2. “The drama started earlier this week, when Warner “revoked a previously agreed-upon publishing license” for India, according to Spotify, “for reasons wholly unrelated to Spotify’s launch in India.” Existing global deals don’t cover expansions into new territories, so when Spotify enters a country like India, it has to make a separate deal. With Warner pulling out, Spotify attempted to side-step a direct deal with the label using a controversial amendment in Indian law, which says “broadcasters” can obtain a license for copyrighted works even if the copyright owner denies use. In response, Warner fired back with a request for an injunction, forcing the case to the Indian court system.”
    I have subscribed to the service, and am quite happy with it so far. I also subscribe to Google Play music, but find Spotify’s playlists better organised, especially be genre. Google Play Music, as I see it, has two advantages: it allows you to upload up to 50 GB of your own songs to it’s servers, and you can then play them from anywhere. Second, it has the WB catalog – which Spotify doesn’t, and this article explains why.
  3. “Using the Excel app, you can take a picture of a printed data table on your Android device and automatically convert the picture into a fully editable table in Excel. This new image recognition functionality eliminates the need for you to manually enter hardcopy data. This capability is starting to roll out for the Excel Android app with iOS support coming soon.”
    I have tried it, and it works – albeit imperfectly. But if you have ever struggled with the beast that is MOSPI – or anything like it, this is likely bring a tear to your eye.
  4. “I think we’re at the point of no return. The omnichannel train has left the station. What would I do if I ran a retail business today? First, I would accept the fact that customers now love to shop both online and offline, and they expect two-day shipping for certain products and near flawless execution. The bar has been set high by Amazon. Then I would create a game plan that leverages my existing physical assets like warehouses, distribution centers and stores to offer new services like ship-from-store or pickup-at-store. I would also build new fulfillment centers specifically to fulfill online orders and ship to customers’ homes.”
    More useful for the infographic atop the excerpt above. The fourth section of the infographic is a mix of optimism and handwaving to me – unless you replace the word “will” by “should”. Also see the Stratechery article about value chains.
  5. “It is worth noting that individual citizens of some of the world’s most volatile regions have asked WMI for cloud seeding services. A growing body of research addresses the idea that many wars and conflicts are stoked by environmental problems, which are often underlain by weather problems. Increasing drought across north-central Africa has ruined crops, starved the populace and is thought to have enabled Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s invasion of northern Mali in 2012. A paper published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal stated that drought in Syria between 2007 and 2010 was the worst since instrumental record-keeping began, and caused widespread crop failure, mass migration and helped spark the Syrian conflict.”
    A Longread article on cloud seeding or “weather mod”. Worth it to understand what technology optimism means in practice, and to understand how long the attempted history of weather modification has been, and also for the photographs. For the photographs, I would recommend viewing this on the desktop.