Twitter Stories

Back in the day, when I had structure, regularity and a schedule here on EFE, Saturday used to be about five tweets that I enjoyed reading that week.

Which, on reflection (and some gentle prodding from Navin Kabra) wasn’t the brightest idea, because that’s what likes and RT’s are for on Twitter. So how about maybe a brief write-up based on a tweet that I read recently?

This week’s tweet that turns into a post is based on a variety of things. First, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The Black Swan is kind of like Thinking Fast and Slow, in the sense that everybody claims to have read it, and very few people actually have. If you haven’t read all of his books, please get started. The order doesn’t really matter, but if you’re asking, my favorite is Anti-Fragile.

There’s a lot to like about his books, his tweets and his outlook towards life, and this tweet is one example (note that I am talking about the pics in the reply, not the original tweet):

Now, the original tweet, reposted as a stand-alone:

So what is the company about?

Nasser Jaber is cofounder of the Migrant Kitchen, a catering company and social impact organization that hires immigrants, migrants, and undocumented workers to both train them in commercial cooking as well as help gain their cuisines more exposure in the marketplace.

Read the whole article! I got to learn about quipe (kibbeh, apparently), and esfiha (the spelling differs based on context, so my apologies if I got it “wrong”), among other things.

Twitter is a wonderful, wonderful way to learn more about the world, but it is like a garden, in the sense that constant weeding is required. But when you tend to it just so, it is completely worth the effort!

If you have had moments of serendipity on Twitter that you’d like to share, please, send them along. @ashish2727 on Twitter.

Thanks, and enjoy the weekend 🙂

Agriculture in England and India, Immigration, Water and Healthcare

Five articles I enjoyed reading this week – and hopefully you will as well

The change that is coming over farming can be summarised in simple economic terms. Intensive agriculture prioritises a bumper harvest – the annual dividend – while the new approach emphasises the preservation of the initial capital – the land itself. For a glimpse of how this new investment priority will affect British farming, it suffices to visit those progressives who have already, to varying degrees, made it their own.

The Guardian Long Read on agriculture (in England). Horizons (one out of choices, horizons, incentives and costs) remain underrated in economics classes, as this article points out. But there is much more to read here: recommended!

It developed an app-based platform that registers orders directly from buyers, analyses category-wise demand, fixes dynamic prices depending on daily demand, and transfers the orders to its network of 1,000+ farmers. Farmpal’s price comparison feature ensures that farmers can sell their produce at rates higher by 20 to 30 percent than what they would normally get in the mandis.
“This is one of our main promises to the farming community. We are able to offer them premium prices because technology eliminates at least four to seven middlemen from farm to fork,” the founder explains.

While on the topic of agriculture, this from Maharashtra, India: Farmpal.

Caplan’s case isn’t entirely about economics: he also makes a moral appeal. Consider the case of “Starving Marvin,” who needs food and is prepared to purchase it legally. On his way to the market, he is turned away by an armed guard. If Marvin subsequently dies of starvation, Caplan asks, is the guard guilty of murder? The philosopher Michael Huemer, who first introduced this hypothetical, in 2012, concluded that the answer was yes. He writes, “If a person is starving, and you refuse to give him food, then you allow him to starve, but if you take the extra step of coercively interfering with his obtaining food from someone else, then you do not merely allow him to starve; you starve him.” Caplan doesn’t go that far, but he does argue that the guard is wrong to prevent Marvin from feeding himself.

Read the paper, read the book, read this profile of Bryan Caplan, and his quixotic quest to get all of us to accept a world without borders.

Geologists and hydrologists, who worked on implementing the project, shared similar views and hailed Jalyukta Shivar. This was mainly due to the interventions undertaken in the existing water reserves, planned de-silting activities, among many others. However, experts agreed that the scheme was not appropriately implemented. Now with Jalyukta Shivar no longer in existence, focused efforts of the past five years, in most likelihood, will go down the drain unless a similar scheme is introduced. With rainfall variations getting more pronounced, in addition to depleting groundwater reserves, the state will need concrete interventions to tackle future water requirements, experts recommended.

As Tyler Cowen is fond of saying, solve for the equilibrium. On the politics of water conservation in Maharashtra.

America’s mediocre health outcomes can be explained by rapidly diminishing returns to spending and behavioral (lifestyle) risk factors, especially obesity, car accidents, homicide, and (most recently) drug overdose deaths. [Please read this post for the full explanation]

The diminishing returns are evident in cross-sectional analysis. Higher-income countries like Norway and Luxembourg spend twice as much as the likes of Spain and Italy and probably experience worse average outcomes.

Via the excellent Navin Kabra, a very, very long article on healthcare in America. Excellent if you are a student of America, healthcare or microeconomics. At the intersection of the three, it becomes mandatory reading. Pair up with Baumol’s Cost Disease (although the name is misleading, it is the most popular way to this phenomenon is referenced)


Etc: Links for 10th January, 2019

Links that I read during the week that I found interesting.


  1. Russia plans to have the ability to cut itself off from “the” internet, but keep “its” internet running.
  2. One of my students might be embarking on a PhD in neuroeconomics, and reading up about the topic got me here. Interesting videos, and a neat set of publications.
  3. Spinach is, is not, no is, no is not, never was, always was, is, isn’t a good source of iron. Via the excellent Navin Kabra.
  4. A profile of Qassem Suleimani in the New Yorker, from almost seven years ago.
  5. Learn SQL by solving a murder mystery.
  6. The last link this Monday was about NIP. Rathin Roy is doubtful about the Indian government’s ability to execute on the plan.

Etc: Links for 8th November, 2019

  1. “Munch would have probably seen any marks from this period of the painting’s life as part of its artistic development. He wanted people to see how his works evolved and changed over their lifetime, and saw any damage they incurred along the way as a natural process, even leaving artworks unprotected outdoors and in his studio, stating ‘it does them good to fend for themselves’.”
    I cannot for the life of me remember how I chanced upon this link – all that I remember is that it came out of an interesting Twitter thread. 10 factoids about The Scream.
  2. “It’s called the “dinner party problem”: A table of four or fewer people may happily converse as one, but a party of five or more will splinter fairly quickly into separate conversations of two or three four people each. What is it about the number four?”
    It really should be called the panel discussion problem. The conclusion to the short article deserves to be highlighted!
    “It’s possible our brains evolved to manage only the conversations in which we have a chance of swaying the group to our side. Otherwise, what’s the point of talking?”
  3. I’ll happily admit to the fact that the math is way beyond my capabilities – but it made for enjoyable viewing, if nothing else. The Mandelbulb, or the 3D version of the Mandelbrot set. This is via Navin Kabra, who should immediately be followed on Twitter.
  4. “Are Indigenous and Western systems of knowledge categorically antithetical? Or do they offer multiple points of entry into knowledge of the world, past and present?”
    A very interesting article in the Smithsonian on what is knowledge, and how is to be gleaned, understood and used.
  5. A rather old, but nonetheless interesting article from Scroll on the Salim-Javed partnership breaking up.

Navin Kabra on Game Theory and Blockchain: Notes

Navin Kabra was on campus yesterday, to talk about blockchain. More specifically, game theoretic aspects of blockchain. The talk was excellent throughout, and lasted well beyond the scheduled 90 minutes (and I mean that as a compliment!)

What follows are my key takeaways of the talk (although I have cheated just a little bit):


  • Navin began the talk with a brief summary of the prisoner’s dilemma, the Nash equilibrium, repeated games and iterative games
  • He briefly touched upon the surprising success of the tit-for-tat algorithm
  • He mentioned the Schelling point

The Use Case

  • He then got into the need for a technology such as blockchain. He used land records and trust issues from this area as a use case.
  • When I buy land, or an apartment, from somebody, the following issues emerge:
    • How do I know that the land is yours to sell?
    • How do I know that you are you?
  • Of these, we focused more on the first one: how do I know that the land is yours to sell?
  • Without blockchain, the idea is to go to a centralized repository, and check who owns the land. If it is indeed the person who wants to sell you the land, great. If not, ask the prospective seller to buzz off.
  • But how do I make sure that the prospective seller is who she says she is?
  • One way to prevent this from happening is by using modern cryptography to digitally sign these land records. Navin didn’t mention this in his talk yesterday, but here’s one recommendation to learn more about this topic: The Code Book.
  • But what if the prospective seller has sold the land to somebody else, and gotten that transaction struck off the official record?
  • Enter blockchain

The Basic Idea

  • Take a block of transactions, and apply a seal to them. A digital seal, although the idea is the same as a mohar.
  • But that’s not enough: what we then do is also use an identifier for this block of transactions, that is generated in a unique, but random way, from the previous block of transactions (this is called a hash).
  • If somebody were to hack into this block of transactions and change something, it would therefore change the hash for the next block, rendering the next block untrustworthy.
  • This dependency works across the entire chain of blocks, hence “blockchain”.
  • Better still, this entire chain of blocks is not stored on one central server, but across many different servers – this is the distributed ledger concept.

The Distributed Ledger

  • So why would these different servers (or rather, their owners) want to be a part of this?
  • So here’s the incentive mechanism: servers solve an algorithm that isn’t difficult, but is time consuming. Whoever solves the next chunk of this algorithm gets to seal the next block, and alerts all other servers about having done so.
  • Once all servers get this alert, they all update the chain of blocks so that everybody has the same version of events. This, of course, happens automatically.
  • The server that sealed the latest block gets as reward: bitcoins.


  • These bitcoins are, in essence, a reward mechanism for making blockchain work.
  • Once folks start trading these bitcoins, especially in exchange for stuff from the real world, the value of bitcoins goes up.
  • We didn’t explicitly speak about this yesterday, but here’s my understanding: It becomes, as with any other currency, a medium of exchange, and also a store of value. (The unit of account bit is more troublesome, and I won’t get into it right now)
  • That reward mechanism is randomized, in the sense that any computer/server is equally likely to crack the next chunk of the algorithm. The more computing power you have, over timethe more you will get a higher share of bitcoins.
  • The number of bitcoins that can be mined is limited, and the number that is released per chunk of algorithm solved may change as a function of the number of computers trying to compete. In other words, the incentive mechanism is built in (I was rather impressed with this)
  • There are ridiculously large buildings in China stocked to the roof with servers whose sole objective is to mine bitcoins.

Game Theoretic Aspects of Blockchain

  • This is as pure an experiment in game theory as one could hope for.
  • You have people, necessarily anonymized, who can’t communicate with each other, who are trying to mine bitcoins
  • Also, you have folks who are, again necessarily anonymized, trying to transact using bitcoins.
  • Should they cooperate with each other or not? What are the implications? Since I’m already at around 750 words right now, I’ll outsource this part. Do read it, it is a very good summary of both game theory as well as its application to blockchain.


  • I enjoyed the fact that the numbers 42 (check the last bullet point, especially. But also, see this), 1729 were used in the presentation. This had nothing to do with anything, but Easter Eggs are always fun.
  • Also, yesterday I learnt (is YIL a thing? It should be)
  • I (and I think I speak for all the students who were present yesterday) would love to learn more about applications of Bitcoin. If there are folks in Pune who would like to come talk about this at Gokhale Institute, please get in touch! ashish at econforeverybody dot com


Finally, a huge thank you to Navin! The talk was hugely informative, thought provoking and easy to understand – and that’s a very rare combination indeed.