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?”
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    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?
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  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.
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  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.”
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    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.
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  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).”
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    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.
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  5. A very long, mostly depressing article on an intellectual purge in Turkey.
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Tech: Links for 23rd July 2019

  1. “Cichon’s find shows us that when thinking about their overall impact on the planet, it’s not helpful to think in isolation about producing 2 billion iPhones. Instead, we should think about a counterfactual: What would have been produced over the past 12 years in a smartphone-free world? The answer, clearly, is a lot more: a lot more gear, and a lot more media.”
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    You might think that this piece is about technology. But it is at least as much about opportunity costs.
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  2. “Comparably high pricing has long been seen as a roadblock to success for Netflix in India, where competitors charge significantly less for their paid video services. For instance, Disney’s Hotstar service only charges consumers INR 365 for a full year of paid access.”
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    Will Netflix lower its prices in India? What do competitive markets have to say about this?
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  3. “China has been stealing our intellectual property and conducting cyber-warfare, and China is an unusually dirty country dirtying up the planet. Trump’s 25% tariffs on China should be reframed as a carbon tax.
    You don’t want people negotiating trade treaties who are dogmatic about free trade. The worse job they do, the better job they think they are doing. You need people who are skeptical to be negotiating trade treaties, in order to get a better deal for the U.S. You don’t want them to be playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” in the background.”
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    Notes from a Peter Thiel speech. If you want to learn how to do contrarian thinking, there probably isn’t a better person around.
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  4. “Of all the fables that have grown up around the moon landing, my favorite is the one about Stanley Kubrick, because it demonstrates the use of a good counternarrative. It seemingly came from nowhere, or gave birth to itself simply because it made sense. (Finding the source of such a story is like finding the source of a joke you’ve been hearing your entire life.) It started with a simple question: Who, in 1969, would have been capable of staging a believable moon landing?”
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    I am (emphatically!) not saying that the moon landing was a conspiracy. I just enjoyed reading this article because it is a good exercise in the following exercise: I don’t believe it – not for a second. But if it were to be true, how might it have been done?
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  5. Not the most well written article you’ll find, and the advertisements aren’t fun to switch off – but a useful list of startups in the education space. As you might imagine, a topic I find very interesting indeed.

Etc: Links for 12th July, 2019

  1. “Often failure is simply failure, and a setback is exactly what it seems. But sometimes the obstacle that has been placed in our path might provoke us to look around, and perhaps to discover that a better route was there all along.”
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    Tim Harford on the Doris Day effect
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  2. “If I have to be curt, they’re famous for being famous. Another way of understanding how a family (+ dogs+friends+assistants) has risen to unprecedented levels of fame and fortune is by the Principle of Cumulative Advantage. This principle is also known as the Matthew Effect, and refers to the phenomenon of those who already have an advantage acquiring more of it. This concept is applicable to both financial and social capital.”
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    …and since the previous article mentioned it, Reshu Natani in Think Pragati on the Matthew Effect.
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  3. “The last time I saw Bourdain was a few months ago, at a party in New York, for one of the books released by his imprint at the publishing house Ecco—of his many projects, his late-career role as a media rainmaker was one he assumed with an almost boyish delight. At the bar, where I’d just picked up my drink, he came up and clapped me on the shoulder. “Remember when you asked me if I was a feminist, and I was afraid to say yes?” he said, in that growling, companionable voice. “Write this down: I’m a fuckin’ feminist.”
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    A lovely essay on the late Anthony Bourdain. Just in case you haven’t, do read this – the article that started it all.
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  4. “5-MeO-DMT is produced in large amounts by Bufo alvarius, a rare species of toad commonly known as the Colorado river toad or the Sonoran desert toad. When preyed upon, the toad secretes a venom that repels predators by causing them to, in scientific terms, trip balls. Psychonauts discovered that you can milk the toads’ venom, dry it out, and smoke it. The substance’s close relative, DMT, is an active ingredient in the traditional shamanic brew known as ayahuasca, but what they say about smoking the toad is that it’s like riding a rocket to the same place of total ego death that ayahuasca takes you to by riverboat.”
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    That, the excerpt above, is not what this article is about. It is about Mike Tyson. He, as the title says, smokes the toad.
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  5. “There are many ways to achieve success and fulfillment that do not involve attending an elite college. Instead of encouraging people to pursue options well-matched to their abilities, however, we tell young people that their self-worth hinges entirely on the brand name on their college diploma. This creates a perverse incentive to do whatever it takes to get into their dream school, to amass tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, and to select a major based not on the professional opportunities it will open to them but on the ease of the program’s academic requirements. Small wonder we now have a generation drowning in debt and struggling to meet the traditional benchmarks of adulthood.”
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    A long, but very reasoned rant about education in America, and about how it isn’t quite as good as it is made out to be. Also, that rare article that distinguishes between education (teaching) and research.

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.

ROW: Links for 12th June, 2019

  1. “Readers will by now be familiar with the list of industries impacted by the US China trade war. These include soyabeans, cars, steel, and semiconductors.But one commodity is increasingly important to how the tensions play out: students. The Chinese state media is now saying the government will issue a warning on the risk of studying in the US”
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    The FT reports on how Chinese students will now be discouraged from going to American Universities – in a sense, an expected move, but you would be surprised at just how dependent universities in America today are on foreign students. Interesting times.
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  2. “To summarize, based on the above I doubt that actual Chinese growth is more than 1% below the reported figures, at least up through 2018. Of course it’s possible that things have changed in 2019; if so I expect that to show up in upcoming airline travel data for China.”
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    Scott Sumner patiently reminds us that we should look at the data before making a claim, and having looked at the airline data, he rejects the notion that there is a dramatic slowdown in China. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle.
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  3. “Vietnam, like China really doesn’t import very many manufactures from the United States. That’s partially a function of the fact that the value added in Vietnam is often low, and thus Vietnam cannot afford a lot of top of the line U.S. capital goods (yet). But it is also a function of the fact that many of the global value chains that generate large (often offshore) profits for U.S. firms don’t give rise to that much U.S. production these days. There just isn’t much sign that the Asian value chains stretch back to include U.S. factories and workers. Fabless semiconductor firms that design chips likely export their designs to a low tax jurisdiction before they license their designs to an Asian contract manufacturer. The rise in Vietnam’s exports hasn’t been associated with a commensurate rise in exports from the United States to Vietnam.”
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    Brad Setser takes a look at whether Vietnam is the new China, and concludes that it kind of is, and kind of isn’t.
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  4. “It is not surprising that the CPC has worked so hard to extirpate the Tiananmen Square massacre from public memory. History – including the horrors of Mao Zedong’s rule – is too volatile a substance for the Chinese dictatorship. China’s leaders hold up their system of government as a model for other countries. But how can a regime be confident in the sustainability of its values and methods if it is afraid of its own past?”
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    Chris Patten (who knows a thing or two about this issue) reviews the Tiananmen square massacre, and ponders on what it means for China and Hong Kong today.
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  5. “Despite a small increase in young and female lawmakers—like Ms Suematsu, who is in her forties—local politics is still dominated by old men. “In these municipalities, candidates are so old they have a hard time putting up election posters,” says Shigeki Uno of the Nippon Institute for Research Advancement, another think-tank. Indeed, three-quarters of town and village assembly members are over 60. The oldest, aged 91, holds a seat on a city assembly in Shizuoka, in central Japan.Young people are loth to stand because local politics is not a financially rewarding profession. The law bans assembly members from holding other jobs concurrently. Their pay averages around ¥300,000 ($2,740) a month, hardly enough to support young families. “It’s basically a job for the retired,” sniffs Mr Uno. And for little pay, the workload is onerous.”
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    The Economist reports on Japan, and it’s ageing population – and what that means for democracy on the ground, at local elections.

India: Links for 10th June, 2019

  1. How does the Reserve Bank of India aim to spread awareness about key topics to as many people as possible across the entire country. It uses a concept called Financial Literacy Week, among other things. Posters and leaflets will be circulated to rural banks, and a mass media campaign will be carried out throughout June (on Doordarshan and All India Radio) – this time, with a specific target in mind: farmers. (Via Mostly Economics)
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  2. “In the circumstances, measures that can minimise wastage and increase the local holding capacity of farmers so as to stagger supply release can be an area of engagement to increase farm incomes. In many respects, this may perhaps be the most promising medium-term intervention to increase farm incomes.”
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    Gulzar Natarajan asks how farm incomes can be increased. He suggests a way to increase storage capacity and improve it over time. Completely agreed – but I’ll reiterate (and I think he’ll agree), the best way to have farm incomes go up is to have lesser people be engaged in agriculture.
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  3. Anantha Nageswaran comes up with a thoroughly delectable set of links about “advice” for the new government in India. Each of the links is well worth reading. In fact, I would recommend that an hour going through these links is well worth your time.
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  4. “Agriculture is a like any other business—the farmer needs the freedom to enter into contracts, use it to raise credit, tie up insurance, seek advisory and inputs to get a fair return on his land. The instrument for this is contract farming—whether individually or in a group backed by a regulatory mechanism. Paracetamol policies like loan waivers have detained the modernisation of agriculture, resulting in poor output from a large mass of precious land and half the workforce. ”
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    This actually is one of the links in 3. above, but it is too good to not share in it’s own right. As Prof. Nageswaran says, full marks!
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  5. “The GLP was initiated in August 2018 through a partnership between Pratham and the Uttar Pradesh Basic Education Department and sought to target all primary school children in UP. There were three aims: (i) significantly improve their learning levels in basic reading and arithmetic, (ii) introduce and sustain innovative teaching-learning practices in schools, and (iii) build monitoring, mentoring, and academic support capacity at block and district levels. After some delays, by January 2019, the programme reached classrooms across all 75 districts.”
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    Read, and hope. The most encouraging thing I have read in 2019.

Links for 1st May, 2019

  1. “As McKinsey points out, governments, businesses and individuals will all have to embrace change and figure out the best ways to move towards digitisation — including on such basics as land records and business transparency (which could improve access to bank credit). There are also many aspects of this wave of digitisation that are not to the good—including the impact of toxic social media, the loss of privacy, and so on. The rules for this new world will have to be framed carefully to prevent business capture as well as political misuse, and to protect citizens from predatory action. What is required is to minimise the costs as much as to maximise the benefits. Still, the over-riding message is clear: The prospects of digitisation are so overwhelmingly advantageous, if not also inevitable, that those who become laggards in adapting to the new reality are the ones that will be left behind.”
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    T N Ninan (author of the excellent The Turn of the Tortoise) writes about the potential of “digital” India while reviewing a McKinsey report about the same topic. The scope, details and aspects of such a topic simply cannot be dealt with in a single post – but with that in mind, this is worth reading.
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  2. “The Right to Education Act in 2009 guaranteed access to free primary education for all children in India ages 6-14. This paper investigates whether national trends in educational data changed around the time of this law using household surveys and administrative data. We document four trends: (1) School-going increases after the passage of RTE, (2) Test scores decline dramatically after 2010, (3) School infrastructure appears to be improving both before and after RTE, and (4) The number of students who have to repeat a grade falls precipitously after RTE is enacted, in line with the official provisions of the law.”
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    That is the abstract of this paper. Also, have you read this book? Also, have you listened to this podcast? Also, keep an eye out for this Sunday’s video.
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  3. “China’s TFP surged in the 1980s following the agricultural and ownership reforms, in the 1990s following the state enterprise reforms and the creation of a modern housing market, and in the 2000s as China prepared for and was then able to exploit WTO membership.The key takeaway is that China’s one-party system deservedly has won plaudits when it has been most ambitious with regard to economic reforms and experimentation with market mechanisms. But this is not the case, for example, before the 1980s and again since 2012, when reforms were suppressed or stifled and inputs were boosted, but without any improvements.”
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    An interview that remains interesting throughout if you are a student of economics, or China and especially the intersection set. Troubling times ahead for the Chinese economy, it would seem – and on account of a variety of short term reasons, and one very important long term one – TFP.
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  4. “That was when he saw the light. Two small, black, rectangular boxes were stacked next to an outlet on the far side of the guest room, both facing the bed. From afar, they looked like phone chargers. But when Vest got closer, he realized they were cameras, and they were recording.”
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    Airbnb, technology, privacy and customer relations. A great way to learn that There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
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  5. “In 1960, 13.4% of the population age 20-74 was obese (as measured by having a Body Mass Index above 30). In 2016, 40% of the population was obese.
    In 1970, 37.1% of those age 18 and older were cigarette smokers. By 2017, this has fallen to 14.1%.”
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    Just two out of many, many interesting tidbits about America today, and America back then.