Etc: Links for 29th Nov, 2019

  1. “When the British actor Jonathan Routh published the first edition of his Good Loo Guide (“Where to Go in London”) in 1965, he singled out the device for mention every time he found one. Only five toilets, out of more than a hundred, held hand dryers – of the pedal-operated kind that, in the 1965 movie Help!, inhale the jacket sleeves of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Mostly, Routh encountered towels of cloth or paper, and quite often, he had to pay to use these products. (“Do loos ever advertise their attractions?” he wondered, while extolling the virtues of the splendid restrooms of Hyde Park in the 1968 update. “Has anyone ever seen an ad saying ‘Just arrived – new free electric hand-drier at the so-and-so loos.’”) Even in the third and final edition of the guide, released in 1987, I counted more instances of electric razors, armchairs and pre-pasted disposable toothbrushes than of hand dryers.”
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    The excellent, excellent Samanth Subramanian in this lovely article about (of all things) paper towels and hand driers. Yes, really. What’s more, Samanth won the Financial/Economic story of the year award for this write-up. Read the book by clicking on his name here, also read Following Fish, and definitely read this article itself. Congratulations, Samanth!
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  2. “And which book takes the very top prize for best of the year? You can’t compare the Alter to the others, so I will opt for Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift and also Pekka Hämäläinen’s Lakota America, with Julia Lovell on Maoism and Alain Bertaud on cities as the runner-ups. But again a strong year all around.”
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    Tyler Cowen’s list of books he found worth his time in 2019. As he would say, self-recommending.
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  3. “So what’s a desperate founder to do? Smith impulsively flew to Las Vegas and played blackjack with the last of the company money .Amazingly, when he came back the next week, he had turned the remaining $5,000 into $27,000 – just enough for the company to stay in operation for another week.

    In the book “Changing How the World Does Business: FedEx’s Incredible Journey to Success – The Inside Story,” Roger Frock, a former senior vice president of operations at FedEx, describes the scene when he found out what Smith did. “I said, ‘You mean you took our last $5,000 – how could you do that? [Smith] shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘What difference does it make? Without the funds for the fuel companies, we couldn’t have flown anyway.'””
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    A lovely story about how Fedex came back from the dead.
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  4. “The money of the world’s mega-wealthy, though, is heading there in ever-larger volumes. In the past decade, hundreds of billions of dollars have poured out of traditional offshore jurisdictions such as Switzerland and Jersey, and into a small number of American states: Delaware, Nevada, Wyoming – and, above all, South Dakota. “To some, South Dakota is a ‘fly-over’ state,” the chief justice of the state’s supreme court said in a speech to the legislature in January. “While many people may find a way to ‘fly over’ South Dakota, somehow their dollars find a way to land here.””
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    Oh hey, Tiebout. Whassup.
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  5. “Behavioral finance is finance. That individual human beings can sometimes do silly things, for reasons to do with either nature or nurture, is not under dispute. That they may make these same mistakes in the aggregate is no longer heretical. That is the gift of those that have been “misbehaving” by attacking hallowed, efficient market doctrine. Economists now can consider potential irrationality versus a standard model of profit-maximizing utility without being disinvited to (those wild and crazy) economist parties. Economists can now suggest that cognitive biases can affect asset prices without threatening their tenure.”
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    The term may be overrated – the logic isn’t: in defense of behavioral finance.

RoW: Links for 23rd October, 2019

Five books that I have read about our neighboring countries that helped me understand them a little bit better. If you ‘re looking for books to read during the holidays, this list might help:

  1. From a while ago, and set many decades ago, but I loved reading The Glass Palace. Anything by Amitav Ghosh is worth your time, I’d say, but this helped me learn more about Myanmar.
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  2. Samanth Subramanian is a magnificent writer, and that is not hyperbole. In this book, This Divided Island, he brings us a raw, disturbing and depressing account of Sril Lanka today, and how it is divided, perhaps beyond repair, on grounds of ethnic and religious conflict. He doesn’t pull his punches, but more: he doesn’t take sides. If you are looking to understand Sri Lanka today, this is the book to read.
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  3. How did Bangladesh come to be Bangladesh? What was Pakistan’s role in it? What was India’s? What was – and this might come as a surprise to some – the USA’s? The Blood Telegram answers these questions, and more besides, in a always interesting read about the war of 1971.
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  4. And two recommendations about Pakistan. The first is a book by Stephen Cohen: The Idea of Pakistan. Is Pakistan an army with a country or the other way around? Why? Will this change in the future. What is (or what used to be) the political calculus of the United States of America when it came to Pakistan? This book answers these questions, and then some.
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  5. And finally, Pakistan: A Hard Country, by Anatol Leivin. A Ukraininan journalist who has spent some time in the country, and is equally horrified and fascinated by it. Somewhat sympathetic in its treatment, it still helped me understand the country a little bit better – without, of course and unfortunately, ever having been there.

EC101: Links for 19th September, 2019

  1. Are we all Japan now?
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  2. A review of the Jalan comittee report.
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  3. Eric Maskin writes an appreciation of Kenneth Arrow’s ouevre.
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  4. A New Yorker profile of Stephanie Kelton.
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  5. Bookmarked as want to read.

Notes from Launching the Innovation Resistance by Alex Tabarrok

After Murali’s talk in Gokhale Institute the previous week, I got around to reading this book. What follows are some of the highlights from my reading of the book on Kindle, along with a quick review of the book.

Key takeaways (for me):

  1. Alex Tabarrok ends his own post on the book over on MR by saying “although we share a few common themes that perhaps due to differences in personality Tyler focuses on describing problems while I am more excited to promote solutions!”
    That comes through in both the title of the book as well as what I think is they key question for Tabarrok: “What combination of incentives and foundation will bring the greatest innovation to the modern world? How can we create a 21st-century Renaissance?”
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  2. “But there is also a more fundamental critique: After hundreds of years of experience, there is surprisingly little evidence that patents actually do promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”
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    This has been an eye-opener for me: both from Murali’s talk as well as this book. There just isn’t that much evidence that patents have worked.
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  3. “Firms innovate because they know that if they don’t, someone else will. In this kind of industry, instead of stimulating innovation strong patents may create a “resting on laurels” effect. A firm with strong patents may reduce innovation, secure in the knowledge that patents protect it.”
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    And it may actually be even worse! Patents may actually discourage innovation, let alone protect it.
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  4. “Overall, however, the ODA did create real innovation, and as the number of new drugs for rare diseases increased, the mortality rate for people with rare diseases fell.”
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    The Orphan Drug Act seems to have been one of the few things that can be used as an argument in favor of patenting.
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  5. “When asked to rate various sources of competitive advantage only 4 percent of corporate managers regarded patents as highly effective. Much more effective was getting a head start, learning by doing, and investing in complementary sales and service.”
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    “The aircraft patent-war slowed innovation in the American aircraft industry so much that just prior to World War I the government forced the industry to share its patents for reasons of national security.”
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    …were real eye-openers for me
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  6. So what might be the solution, if not patents?
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    “The major vice of a prize fund is that it replaces a decentralized process for rewarding innovation with a political process.” In this regard, you might want to read this book, by Peter Diamandis
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  7. “I see two views of humanity. In the first view, people are stomachs. More people mean more eaters and less for everyone else. In the second view, people are brains. More brains mean more ideas and more for everyone else.”
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    And patents, of course, are a way to restrict ideas.
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  8. “From Florence in the 14th century to Great Britain in the 19th and the United States in the 20th, the leading economic power has always been a leading educational power.”
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    Alex Tabarrok goes on to speak about the usual econometrician’s worries about a statement like that, but all that notwithstanding, this is exactly why India’s education standards (outcomes?) need to be way higher.

 

Overall, definitely recommended.

Etc: Links for 21st June, 2019

  1. “We are doomed not because we have damaged the environment, not becasue we are running out of water; not because we have run up too much debt; not because we have accumulated too much wealth in too few hands but because we know not and refuse to admit we know not.”
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    In other words, our refusal to acknowledge the unknown unknowns. The link within the article is worth a link in its own right, but that apart, this article is worth reading because of the author’s horror at how little we know, and how little we care about how little we know.
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  2. “Let’s look at the numbers, shall we? The author has written 179 books, which have been translated into 43 languages. Twenty-two of them have been adapted for television, and two of those adaptations have received Golden Globe nominations. Steel releases seven new novels a year—her latest, Blessing in Disguise, is out this week—and she’s at work on five to six new titles at all times. In 1989 Steel was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having a book on the New York Times best-seller list for the most consecutive weeks of any author—381, to be exact. To pull it off, she works 20 to 22 hours a day. (A couple times a month, when she feels the crunch, she spends a full 24 hours at her desk.)”
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    A staggering read, for many reasons. Tyler Cowen often asks guests on his podcasts about their “production function”. Danielle Steele’s production function is positively scary. Honestly, I envy people who can willingly work so hard because they want to.
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  3. “Since then, liver cells, heart cells, lung cells — in the words of Charles Weitz, “just about every tissue we’ve looked at” — have turned out to beat their own time, in addition to taking cues from the suprachiasmatic nucleus. “Almost every cell in our body has a circadian clock,” said Satchin Panda, a clock researcher at the Salk Institute. “It helps every cell figure out when to use energy, when to rest, when to repair DNA, or to replicate DNA.” Even hair cells, for instance, divide at a particular time each evening, Panda has found. Give cancer patients radiation therapy in the evening rather than in the morning and they might lose less hair.”
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    A fascinating article on the many, many clocks in our body – and why some parts of our bodies seem to not have these clocks – with disastrous consequences.
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  4. “The key signal that tornadoes were coming in the US is a phenomenon known as the Madden-Julian oscillation. Similar to El Niño, it’s a periodic swing in temperature and moisture. But unlike El Niño, the MJO originates over the Indian Ocean rather than the Pacific Ocean, it varies on a week-to-week scale rather than over the course of years, and the pattern moves eastward rather than staying put.”
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    An article that helps us understand the weather a bit better – but if anything, I think it tells us how little we know about the weather! This one is about why the USA saw so many tornadoes recently.
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  5. “My guess is that writers could contribute more at the margin by blogging than by composing books. But perhaps blogging is a more difficult skill.”
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    I had linked a while ago to a lovely essay by Andy Matuschak about books – Arnold Kling reviews that essay, and gives us his thoughts about books, blogs and podcasts – and also about scarcity, opportunity costs and substitutes.

ROW: Links for 19th June, 2019

This week, here’s a selection of five articles that help you understand issues in America a little bit better.

 

  1. “The old consensus that the US needed to help address the “root causes” of migration, by investing in the Northern Triangle countries and making it more appealing for people to stay, was never supposed to be an immediate solution to anything. Of course, Trump’s view of migration makes it less likely that anyone will be able to start work on long-term solutions that might bear fruit down the road. It is almost certainly, in the meantime, going to get worse before it gets better.”
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    Vox gives us a clearer picture on the migration crisis at the southern US border. Yes it is bad, yes, there is a crisis, and yes, it likely will get much worse before it gets a little better, for a variety of reasons. All of which are explained in this piece.
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  2. “Of course, if it hadn’t been for Roe, there also wouldn’t have been more than 50 million abortions since 1973; whether that’s a good or bad thing will be left as an exercise for the reader. But many abortions would have been performed anyway, because before the court took the issue away from voters, polls showed public opinion steadily trending in favor of legalized abortion, and the procedure was already legal in several states.”
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    Are you familiar with Roe v Wade? If you aren’t, read up about it first. Then read up about what Alabama is up to today. And finally read this article. And also consider following Megan McArdle (the author of this piece)
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  3. “Rather, regardless of what any deal achieves, the two nations appear to have entered a protracted era of competing for technological advantage, in areas ranging from aerospace and telecommunications to artificial intelligence, all with big military as well as commercial implications. Managing tensions over the issue is an increasingly important part of the U.S.-China relationship, for both sides.”
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    The Christian Science Monitor on what the trade war, or the new cold war (or whatever else it is that you want to call it) really is all about.
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  4. “This resonates with my own view. A large, established enterprise can be thought of as a cultural institution, with particular rules, norms, systems, processes, and institutional knowledge ingrained throughout the firm. In a stable environment, this corporate culture is a valuable asset. But as the business environment evolves, a firm’s culture can inhibit its ability to adapt. Cultural assets can depreciate, and one of the most difficult tasks for top management is to know when and how to replace elements of a culture that otherwise had served to keep the enterprise sturdy and reliable.”
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    Arnold Kling reviews a book that has appeared on these pages before, but the reason I put this article up here is because it helps you understand an important point about America today: it’s reviling of the corporate culture is very real – and Tyler Cowen says perhaps misplaced. Useful to think about how one should think about what made America great, and how perhaps it is changing – for the better or otherwise is your opinion entirely.
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  5. “Before I left, I asked the black waiter, Darick Thomas, how he felt about my hat. “I don’t care. At all. Really. At all! I look at a hat and that doesn’t tell me who the person is,” he said. “I’m not against Trump. He says some smart things; he says some dumb things.” Darick didn’t vote. “Voting is the illusion of choice for the masses,” he explained.”
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    What happens if you were a MAGA hat in a famously liberal restaurant in LA? This is, of course, at best an anecdote – but an enjoyable one, nonetheless.

Links for 29th May, 2019

  1. “And so India will continue to grow at her sluggish pace; socialism will continue to thrive; Air India will continue to fly; and Modi will continue to waste a fifth of our yearly budget on PSUs. Modi always knew that the secret to winning elections is socialism. What he has learnt now is the secret to running India. It is to gamble.”
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    I have posted this link not because I agree with the conclusion (I don’t), but because I share the sense of pessimism when it comes to matters pertaining to economic reforms, or the lack of them. India needs me, and the author, to be completely wrong about our pessimism.
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  2. “Zahran Hashim, 33, radical preacher and alleged ringleader, found little acceptance in his hometown Kattankudy, in eastern Batticaloa. Mosques in the predominantly Muslim town rejected him outright. Their members even complained to authorities, before he went absconding in 2017 after a clash with a fellow priest who challenged his interpretation of Islam.But soon, a team of young Muslim men — and one woman — from other, mostly Sinhala-majority, areas eagerly joined him on his Easter mission to carry out a suicide attack on churches and high-end hotels in and around Colombo and Batticaloa. All nine bombers were in their 20s and 30s.”
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    A mostly depressing, but also revealing, portrait of the nine people who perpetrated the terror attacks in Sri Lanka recently.
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  3. “There are striking parallels between the philosophies of Trump and NIMBY urbanists. Trump asserts that America is “full” and so wants to restrict the flow of immigrants. The urbanists, who tend to be Democratic and highly educated, assert that their cities are too crowded and so want to restrict the supply of housing. The cultural valence of the two views is quite different, but the practical implications have a lot in common — namely, a harder set of conditions for potential low-skilled migrants to the U.S.”
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    As he so often does, Professor Cowen reminds us why studying economics is entirely worth our time. In this case, he explains why NIMBYism, and high minimum wages are at least as anti-immigration as are, well, walls.
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  4. “Our goal is to defeat the snail in a race.”
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    Possibly the shortest extract I have put up ever, but it is hard to improve on that sentence. For once, I won’t speak about what the link is about. Try guessing what it might be about before clicking here!
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  5. “What’s happening here is much more complicated than an imagined zero-sum game between the defenders of books and library futurists. The decline in the use of print books at universities relates to the kinds of books we read for scholarly pursuits rather than pure pleasure, the rise of ebooks and digital articles, and the changing environment of research. And it runs contrary to the experience of public libraries and bookstores, where print continues to thrive.”
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    The Atlantic on substitutes and complements. On books actually, but read this article to understand how to think about the implications of thinking about complements and substitutes