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.
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Etc: Links for 5th July, 2019

  1. “…in the series, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a member of the Academy of Sciences, lives in nearly the same kind of squalor as a fireman in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat. In fact, Legasov would have lived in an entirely different kind of squalor than the fireman did.”
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    This is one of many, of course, but that line above was particularly illuminating. A review of the excellent series, Chernobyl.
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  2. “The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.”
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    Neal Stephenson (whose books are excellent, and uniformly so) on productivity.
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  3. “Thanos, observing that there were too many people, decided to kill half of them. But this is curiously short-sighted for a man regarded by many as a policy prophet. Any exponential population growth process will soon replace the lost people: that is why exponential growth is such a headache in the first place. For example, if an economy’s resource footprint grows exponentially at a rate of 7 per cent, it doubles in just ten years — meaning that in less time than has elapsed since the first Iron Man movie, we could be back where we started.The only lasting solution is an economy that uses resources at a sustainable rate. Malthus’s qualms notwithstanding, contraception has been a very good start. The world population growth rate is steadily approaching a very sustainable-sounding zero.”
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    Tim Harford analyzes Thanos like only an economist can.
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  4. “Imagine you’re cooking a roast dinner for your family of four. You opt for beef with all the trimmings, safe in the knowledge that it’s a firm family favourite. But just as you’re about to serve up, your daughter announces she’s vegetarian, your partner texts to say they’re running late, and your son tells you he’s invited “a few” friends over for dinner too. Then, your dog runs off with the joint of beef while you’re desperately trying to work out how you are going to meet the needs of all these (quite frankly) very demanding and unruly individuals.”
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    The BBC on the problem of dynamic resource allocation. The excerpt, by the way, has nothing to do with the rest of the article.
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  5. “Because at the end of their pilgrimage, the weary are rewarded with two things: a footbath and a bowl of steaming noodles. The footbath is just a footbath, but the noodles are extraordinary. Su filindeu is—quasi-official designation here—the rarest pasta on the planet. The dish is made specifically for this occasion; its very existence revolves around this trek. So specialized and obscure and mind-bendingly intricate is it that only a few souls can make it. And only those who reach Lula will ever try it.”
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    The rarest pasta on earth. Why wouldn’t you want to read!

Links for 27th May, 2019

  1. ” In today’s world, we’re typically writing contracts in natural language, or actually in something a little more precise: legalese. But what if we could write our contracts in computational language? Then they could always be as precise as we want them to be. But there’s something else: they can be executed automatically, and autonomously. Oh, as well as being verifiable, and simulatable, and so on.”
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    Stephen Wolfram on computational languages, and what it might mean for all of us in the future. Can’t say I understood all of it right off the bat, to be honest – which is why I’ll be reading it again sometime later.
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  2. “I was interested in the notion that you could take a busy place — an airport and a marketplace, you can call it kind of a mall, with hundreds of shops and all that comes with it — and cohabit it with a magical park, which is nature at its best, which is relaxing and serene, and is the escape from all of that busyness.Airports are not exactly relaxed places, and I thought, what would be better than to create a place of total serenity?

    We’ve planted thousands of trees and all kinds of other vegetation. And now, six months since we planted it all, it’s already a lush jungle.

    You walk through the trails, and you forget you’re in a city, and you forget you’re in an airport, and you forget you’re in a building. You’re just out there in nature and, in that sense, it’s completely magical.”
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    Singapore’s Changi airport now has a seven storey waterfall apparently. Of course it does.
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  3. “Econtwitter is wonderful. Yesterday, an undergraduate emailed me to ask for book recommendations about the overlap between economics and philosophy. I recommended:Amartya Sen The Idea of Justice
    Michael Sandel What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
    Agnar Sandmo Economics Evolving
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    D M Hausman and M S McPherson and D Satz Economic analysis, moral philosophy, and public policy
    Then I asked Twitter, and here is the resulting, much longer, list. I won’t editorialise about them, although some are not good undergraduate intros in my view. One striking thing is how few recent overviews there are, however (as @esamjones also pointed out on Twitter). Huge thanks to all who made suggestions. This is a fantastic collective list.”
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    Whatever bookmarking method you use, add this to that resource. And as she mentions, #econtwitter, really is wonderful. Diane Coyle with a very important, very useful list. Undergrad resources for the intersection of economics and philosophy.
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  4. “If you missed the Chinese mission, maybe it’s because you were focussed on the remarkably inexpensive spacecraft from SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit organization, which crash-landed into the moon on April 11th, soon after taking a selfie while hovering above the lunar surface. The crash was not the original plan, and SpaceIL has already announced its intention of going to the moon again. But maybe you weren’t paying attention to SpaceIL, either, because you were anticipating India’s Chandrayaan-2 moon lander, expected to take off later this year. Or you were waiting for Japan’s first lunar-lander-and-rover mission, scheduled to take place next year. Perhaps you’ve been distracted by the announcement, in January, on the night of the super blood wolf moon, that the European Space Agency plans to mine lunar ice by 2025. Or by Vice-President Mike Pence’s statement, in March, that the United States intends “to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years.””
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    The New Yorker explains how the moon is becoming a rather crowded place, and is likely to only get even more crowded in the years to come – and also explains why.
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  5. “Santacreu and Peake compared research and development (R&D) efforts of the U.S. and China for the period 1999-2015. As of the most recent year, China’s R&D intensity, measured by R&D spending as a percentage of GDP, was 2.1% of GDP versus 2.8% for the U.S.However, China’s R&D intensity grew from less than 1% over the period studied, therefore increasing considerably faster than that of the U.S. “Because R&D intensity is a proxy for technological advancement, these data suggest that China is catching up to the U.S. in technology,” the authors wrote.”
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    Ask yourself this: in about thirty years from now, are you more likely to see the world’s innovation hub be in China or America? This article points to the likely answer.

Links for 23rd May, 2019

  1. “Ec 1152 is an introduction to that kind of economics. There’s little discussion of supply and demand curves, of producer or consumer surplus, or other elementary concepts introduced in classes like Ec 10. There is no textbook, only a set of empirical papers. The material is relatively cutting-edge. Of the 12 papers students are required to read, 11 were released in 2010 or after. Half of the assigned papers were released in 2017 or 2018. Chetty co-authored a third of them.And while most economics courses at Harvard require Ec 10 as a prerequisite, Ec 1152 does not. Freshmen can take it as their first economics course.

    “I felt increasingly what we’re doing in our offices and our research is just totally detached from what we’re teaching in the intro classes,” Chetty says. “I think for many students, it’s like, ‘Why do I want to learn about this? What’s the point?’”
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    Honestly, I am not really sure about this. My own take is that if anything, there is too much of an empirical bias in economics today, not too little. And this class seems to take that trend forward, which is… not great?
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  2. “Economists think historians are teaching it. Historians think it is being done by economists. But in truth the study of economic history is almost absent from the university curriculum. Economic history has fallen through the cracks. And economics students across universities are suffering because of its absence.My contention is that our economic past should play a far more central role in the education of economists today. Because I think the study of economic history will make economists into better economists. My mission is to make academic and professional economists aware of the key problems associated with missing out this training from the education of new economists. And then, once the problem is fully acknowledged and understood, to present easy-to-implement pedagogical solutions.”
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    This, on the other hand, I am all in favor of. Economic history needs to be taught. Forget needs to be taught, I need to learn more of it!
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  3. “It was one of the fastest decimations of an animal population in world history—and it had happened almost entirely in secret. The Soviet Union was a party to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a 1946 treaty that limited countries to a set quota of whales each year. By the time a ban on commercial whaling went into effect, in 1986, the Soviets had reported killing a total of 2,710 humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, the country’s fleets had killed nearly 18 times that many, along with thousands of unreported whales of other species. It had been an elaborate and audacious deception: Soviet captains had disguised ships, tampered with scientific data, and misled international authorities for decades. In the estimation of the marine biologists Yulia Ivashchenko, Phillip Clapham, and Robert Brownell, it was “arguably one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.””
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    Speaking of economic history, Alex Tabarrok at MR serves us a timely reminder about its importance.
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  4. “In democratic countries, we often talk about this concept called audience costs, which is, if you tell your public one thing and then you do another thing, your public is going to punish you for it. But leaders are not elected in China, so there’s a lot less popular-audience cost. And the regime prides itself on total control over the media and censors everything that it doesn’t like. So even if it, in reality, made important concessions to the U.S., it can simply hide that fact from the Chinese public. Of course, the educated public will find out about it, but so what? The vast majority of Chinese people will be almost completely ignorant of that fact, and that’s fine. So when the U.S. is negotiating with China it should not worry about things like that, because China prides itself on its total control over the media—and there’s a lot of documentation showing that they’re pretty successful in what they do.”
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    The first time I heard the phrase audience costs, which alone is reason enough for sharing this article. But the rest of the excerpt speaks to how audience costs can be waved away – and that is scary!
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  5. “When an American buys a chair from China for $50, it decreases net exports by $50, but it raises consumption by exactly the same amount. The two effects net out exactly. Unfortunately, the way economists decided to define GDP makes imports’ negative contribution to the equation highly visible but hides their positive contribution from view.”
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    And in a neat way to circle back to the set of links today, please read this link in its entirety. Econ 101 matters!

Links for 8th May, 2019

  1. “The god question is not easy to answer conclusively because god’s existence is a matter of faith, not science. There is no mathematical proof. God is a construct of belief. The great Austrian-American mathematician Kurt Gödel once attempted to prove the existence of god. His ontological proof of god, by definition, is more axiomatic and derived from semantic logic than from real mathematics. It was not long before it was discredited and the axioms questioned. Undeterred, a group of mathematicians from around the world is using open-source documentation to formalise Gödel’s proof to a level where it can be proven by computer programs. We will wait.”
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    Sachin Kalbag, a guy worth following on Twitter, writes about a near death experience he had some years ago, and asks questions about god, faith, belief and logic.
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  2. “You guys are so angry and militant, you’re going to cause havoc,” he recalls being told, delivering his anecdote with a comic’s timing. “You are not getting any arms. You are not ready to fight. You are raaaaw,” he says, disintegrating into laughter. Instead of war, the 21-year-old studied economics, ending up at the University of East Anglia in England. “When all this fighting is over,” he was told, “there will be a country to run.”
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    A short interview with Tito Mboweni – my only criticism is that it is too short, but then again, that’s the style of the Lunch with FT series. By the way, you might want to try Googling the series. Some extremely interesting interviews.
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  3. “The first two factory acts, one in 1881 and the other in 1891, neglected to shorten working hours. When the 1890 Factory Commission gathered workers’ voices, both male and female workers overwhelmingly demanded a shorter working day. Doorpathee told the commission: ‘It will be better if the hours are shortened.’ The 1891 Factory Act declared Sunday a holiday, limited the work day to 11 hours for female workers and seven hours for child workers (aged between nine and 14). But it left out adult males from the ambit of a shorter work day, and men continued to work between 13 to 16 hours per day.”
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    A truly lovely read about Bombay workers, their living conditions, and about the night schools that started in Bombay at that point of time.
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  4. “In short, strange as it may seem, industrialisation of India is the soundest remedy for the agricultural problems of India. The cumulative effects of industrialisation, namely a lessening pressure (of surplus labour) and an increasing amount of capital and capital goods will forcibly create the economic necessity of enlarging the holding. Not only this, but industrialisation, by destroying the premium on land, will give rise to few occasions for its sub-division and fragmentation. Industrialisation is a natural and powerful remedy…”
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    1918. Dr. Ambedkar wrote the essay from which this excerpt is taken in the year 1918. 101 years later, we still retain policies that keep people tethered to agriculture. Also worth reading is the rest of the article – and indeed, therefore the writings of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
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  5. “Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. (Respondents were so unsure of Ukraine’s location that the median guess was wrong by eighteen hundred miles, roughly the distance from Kiev to Madrid.)”
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    Never be too confident of anything, least of all about whatever it is that you think you know, is my key takeaway from this article – but implementing this is easier said than done!

Links for 2nd May, 2019

  1. “I think that most capitalists don’t know how to divide the economic pie well and most socialists don’t know how to grow it well, yet we are now at a juncture in which either a) people of different ideological inclinations will work together to skillfully re-engineer the system so that the pie is both divided and grown well or b) we will have great conflict and some form of revolution that will hurt most everyone and will shrink the pie.”
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    Written from an America centric viewpoint, but the article is worth reading for the wealth of data it shares, as also for the viewpoint about the need to reform capitalism.
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  2. “The solution, Wishnatzki believes, is to make a robot that can pick strawberries. He and a business partner, Bob Pitzer, have been developing one for the past six years. With the latest iteration of their invention—known around the farm as Berry 5.1—they are getting close.”
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    Strawberry fields forever. The article is worth reading because it speaks about robots, unemployment, demographics, immigration and the inevitability of agriculture becoming ever more mechanized.
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  3. “He also had a warning to anyone who assumes it will be “business as usual” once America’s Trump fever breaks. The idea that the Trump presidency is some sort of accident, he says, is a fantasy.”
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    An interview with the outgoing French ambassador to America. Worth reading on trade, Israel, Iran and much else besides.
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  4. “The Scrabble career of Nigel Richards went from great to astounding this week, after he won the French-language Scrabble World Championships. A New Zealand native, Richards has won several English-language titles; his new victory follows weeks of studying a French dictionary.”He doesn’t speak French at all, he just learnt the words,” his friend (and former president of the New Zealand Scrabble Association) Liz Fagerlund tells the New Zealand Herald. “He won’t know what they mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French I wouldn’t think.”
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    Oddly depressing, for multiple reasons. Takes the romance out of Scrabble, for one, but also points to the inevitability of automation.
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  5. “What’s woefully underexplored by economists is what the prevalence of caste implies to the Indian economy. A basic premise of the free market model is the absence of entry barriers—not just for firms keen to enter markets for goods and services, but also for people pursuing career options. In theory, companies that are under the pressure of competition to perform would want to hire workers in a way that maximizes the productivity of their workforce; a caste bias would probably stymie the cause of corporate efficiency. None of it may be overtly or even consciously done, but the effects of such a tendency could add up. Caste, thus, would result in an inefficient allocation of human resources across the economy. ”
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    Worth reading if you are starting to learn economics, and aren’t quite sure what competition and barriers to entry mean – but also if you are a student of India today.

Links for 22nd April, 2019

  1. “It all comes down to money, and in this case, MCAS was the way for both Boeing and its customers to keep the money flowing in the right direction. The necessity to insist that the 737 Max was no different in flying characteristics, no different in systems, from any other 737 was the key to the 737 Max’s fleet fungibility. That’s probably also the reason why the documentation about the MCAS system was kept on the down-low.Put in a change with too much visibility, particularly a change to the aircraft’s operating handbook or to pilot training, and someone—probably a pilot—would have piped up and said, “Hey. This doesn’t look like a 737 anymore.” And then the money would flow the wrong way.”
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    The most readable account I have read about what went wrong with the 737 Max. I do not know if it is correct or not, in the sense that I do not have the ability to judge the technical “correctness” of the piece – but I did understand whatever was written. A sobering read about checks and balances gone wrong in many, many ways.
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  2. “Hardly sounds plausible. But there it is: Donald Fagen and Walter Becker—two super-fans of the genres they creatively appropriated—made some incredible, snarling, cynical, viciously groovy easy listening music, and it has more than held up over the decades since they released their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill in 1972. Despite decades of critical praise and hit after hit, they also remain a profoundly misunderstood band.”
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    The article doesn’t actually deconstruct Steely Dan as much as they might have, but if you haven’t heard of the band, this is a good place to start to learn more about them, and then maybe listen to their music. But also a good way to learn about the benefits of non-conformity, and doing what you really like without worrying too much about the consequences – a powerful lesson!
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  3. “The iPad was not in the basket. Ollie, it turns out, had got hold of it and gone to town on the passcode, trying one idea after another, with the fury and focus of Alan Turing trying to beat the Nazis. It’s not clear how many codes Ollie tried, but, by the time he gave up, the screen said “iPad is disabled, try again in 25,536,442 minutes.” That works out to about forty-eight years. I took a picture of it with my phone, wrote a tweet asking if anyone knew how to fix it, and went downstairs to dinner.”
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    A short read from the New Yorker about, ostensibly, a toddler and an iPad, but also about empathy, technology, stuff going viral. Interesting because it is short, and we can all feel the pain.
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  4. “News floods the investment landscape about something strange in the land of debt funds. It turns out that:a) Kotak Mutual Fund has an FMP maturing April 8, and they won’t be able to pay the full maturity amount. They will pay some now, and the remaining “later”.

    b) HDFC Mutual Fund also has an FMP maturing soon. They will postpone the maturity of the fund if you so choose, by one year. But if you don’t vote to postpone, you will get the maturity value but a lesser amount than the NAV tells you.

    Whoa, you think. How can I be paid lesser than NAV? Isn’t that the very concept of an NAV? Isn’t it supposed to reflect what I’m supposed to be paid when I exit?

    Of course it is. And that’s why the mutual funds have had to take it on the chin for pretending it is not. Or rather, for ensuring it is not. But before that, let’s understand what the drama is all about.”
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    Deepak Shenoy warns us at the very outset that this is a long post, and he isn’t kidding. But that being said, it is a wonderful way of helping us understand what exactly went wrong with the FMP saga.
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  5. “Anticipating this discomfiting development long ago, Parliament passed an amendment during the Emergency years in 1976, freezing all delimitation as per the 1971 census, up to the census of 2001. Also, even after the redrawing of constituency boundaries, the total number of MPs per state was kept frozen. In 2000, another amendment postponed the day of reckoning to 2026. Thus, only after 2026 will we consider changing the number of seats in Parliament. Till then, everything is frozen as per the 1971 census. Remember, in 1971, India’s population was 548 million, and by 2031, the first census after 2026, it may well be close to 1.4 billion. The great apprehension is that redrawing boundaries and distributing the existing 550 MPs might mean that the south will lose a lot of seats to the north. Even if more members are added to the Lok Sabha, that incremental gain will mostly go to the northern states.”
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    This was written a year ago, but this is a problem that we should think more and more about in the years to come. Changing the shape of our Lok Sabha needs to happen by 2026. How is an extremely interesting question.