Audiobook Bleg

In general, I prefer reading content rather than listening to it.

I read much faster, for one. And while it is certainly true that I can listen at 2x, it still is faster in my case to read. Plus, no matter how hard I try, listening at 2x doesn’t seem like a – for lack of a better word – nice experience. I know I should be defining this better than simply saying “not nice”, but that’s the best I can do for the moment.

There are exceptions, of course. If it’s an Amit Varma podcast, 2x is an imperative (although I do know folks who listen at 1x). And given the quality of each episode, and given the fact that transcripts aren’t yet available, the opportunity costs are worth it. But in general? Reading trumps listening.

But even in the case of Amit’s podcast, my preferred location for playing it is in my car. I get far too easily distracted during walks – could be a chain of thought that develops because of something that was said on the podcast, could be a dog that walks past me, or it could be a nice little bout of daydreaming. Shouldn’t be happening, and I ought to be worried about my attention span, but now what to do?

In a car, though, it is a different story. The hassle of trying to drive a car through the dynamic jigsaw puzzle that is Pune’s traffic is the perfect semi-distracted environment in which I just have enough attention to give to the podcast and nothing else.

But audiobooks? Never been able to consume them. I’ve tried with a couple, but rarely gone past the first two chapters. I did listen, with my daughter, to a couple of Harry Potter novels during the lockdown (Stephen Fry was a major reason why), but that apart, I haven’t had much luck.

Recently though, David Perell recommended a book called “The Goal”, and specifically recommended the audiobook. I’ve been listening to it, and it has been a very enjoyable listen. I’m about halfway through, and in this case, definitely plan to finish it.

  1. It’s got a lot of dialogues, and the audiobook does a nice job of making them seem very stylistic and entertaining.
  2. The rhythm of the conversations sounds much better when you’re listening to it, and because the book doesn’t contain a lot of dry descriptive sentences, the format really works.
  3. Each chapter is fairly short – about ten minutes or so, and these bite sized chunks work for me when listening.
  4. There is also some background music that plays at the start and during the chapter, and that enriches the experience of listening, at least for me.
  5. The concepts that are being spoken about in the book are directly related to economics, and the treatment is novel enough for me to remain interested.
  6. The fact that these concepts are interwoven with at least two different stories involving the protagonist make for an interesting tale, and that acts as a lovely bonus. It’s a hook that has kept me interested so far.

All of which was to explain to you why I like this particular audiobook – and to explain why I’m more than willing to try some other audiobook content once this one is done.

So: here’s the bleg.

What audiobooks do you think I might like?

Please do let me know, whether in the comments or however else you like.

On Serendipity, Housing and a Request

Just the other day (the 15th of September, if we want to be exact), a student from GIPE sent across a video that I found to be very interesting. So interesting, in fact, that I scheduled it for this coming Sunday’s post. It is about housing in Singapore, and I’ll leave it at that for the moment.

And then, just yesterday, I finally got around to reading some of Shruti Rajagopalan’s interviews of doctoral candidates and postdoctoral researchers for her excellent podcast: Ideas of India. The third interview in the series is of Tanu Kumar, a postdoctoral fellow at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute.

That’s where the serendipity bit in the title of today’s post comes in – the interview is in some ways closely related to the video. (Interesting aside about the etymology of the word serendipity. Got nothing to do with anything, but hey, it’s Friday)

Tanu Kumar’s paper is about housing subsidy programs, and how they might affect political behavior. The paper is about the effects of a housing subsidy program in Mumbai, and local political participation, it would seem, went up among the beneficiaries of the program.

Just a broad overview of this paper is that the Indian government—and actually, governments everywhere—they invest a lot in making housing affordable and accessible to lower-income residents. So, I wanted to understand how these programs actually affect beneficiaries and shape their behavior and their decision-making.
Because these programs are such a large scale—maybe even 5 percent or more of the Indian population benefits from them—any effects on political behavior would have implications for the broader political landscape. What I find is really in line with what you just said—benefiting from a subsidized housing program in Mumbai makes people more politically active at the local level. They’re more likely to complain about local services, attend meetings about local public issues, and they also know more about local politics.
What’s particularly interesting is that they actually care more about local-level community issues like water, electricity, and sanitation. This is different from what we’ve seen in the past, where we find the people who benefit from different programs might participate less in politics. And the difference here is the outcomes that I focus on. I’m focusing more on, really, everyday politics, everyday making of complaints and stuff in cities to make services better as opposed to voting and turnout.

Read the whole thing, but the reason I found the discussion so interesting is because my intuitive guess would have been that political engagement will go down, not up after getting the benefits of a subsidy such as this. Tanu Kumar thinks that one reason political engagement at the local level is going up is because people have more capacity (time) to spend on these issues.

RAJAGOPALAN: What do you think is driving this? Is it because now people have succeeded once through winning the lottery for subsidized housing that it changes their perception of what is possible in terms of the interaction with the state? Is it that now the need for housing has been satisfied, they push their clientelist efforts towards getting other things?
Is it a locational thing? Now that the housing problem has been solved, they are geographically fixed, but they’re also fixed electorally. Now they know that they are constituents of a certain group of people, and maybe now they want to push more, given the geographical elements. Maybe some of these things wouldn’t transfer if it were a different kind of subsidy which wasn’t so geographically rooted. What do you think is driving this push for greater participation?

KUMAR: There could be many different things going on. It would probably vary across the whole population. But what I think is actually going on is two things. First of all, people have greater political capacity. They’re wealthier. They have more time.
I don’t really see more political participation across the board, but I actually see it targeted in a very specific way, like targeted around local, very community-level services. There is probably some element of having better expectations or changed expectations of what the government might provide, but it’s also action that’s very motivated by protecting the value of these homes, is what I argue.

I have two questions. First, it is interesting that the beneficiaries choose to spend their greater capacity (time or money) on local political issues rather than elsewhere. Why might this be?

Tanu Kumar in a way answers this question, for she says that folks are motivated to protect the value of these homes. What I find fascinating is that if this is true, then the beneficiaries truly believe that the best way of protecting the value of these homes is through greater involvement in local politics – which is a Very Very Good Thing Indeed.

And my second question: if it really is skin in the game that is at play – and that is the simplest way to think about this, correct? – then how should we think about doing more about it at the local grassroots level? And not just for housing, but other goods?

Which brings me to the last part of the title of today’s post…

Do any of you know where I might get to read more about whether involvement in local politics goes up given public housing subsidies? Did this happen in Singapore? In Hong Kong? In other parts of the world?

If yes, it would make the argument for subsidies in public housing (among other things) even stronger, and that is a topic worth thinking about, no?

Ways to Learn Outside of College

Outside of college doesn’t necessarily mean not enrolling in college. It means complementing whatever it is that you’re learning in college.

  1. Listen in on Twitter. I’ll use economics as an example, but I’m sure this applies to practically any subject. Listening in means quite literally listening in to people in the field having a debate about, well practically anything. #EconTwitter is a useful way to get started. This tweet, for example, was fourth or fifth in the “Top” section at the time of writing this blogpost.
  2. Learn what lists on Twitter are, and either follow lists made by others, or start creating your own. This list, for example, is of folks on Twitter who have been guests on The Seen And The Unseen (TSATU).
  3. We’ll resume our regular programming from the next point onwards, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock, listen to The Seen And The Unseen. Multi-hour episodes, well over two hundred of them. Each of them with guests who are experts in the real, meaningful sense of the term. Each backed with impeccable research by Amit Varma. All for free. What a time to be alive.
  4. Following topics on Twitter is often more useful than following people on Twitter, although as always, TALISMAN.
  5. Why not read about each Nobel Prize in economics, say at the rate of one a week? Here’s the complete list of Nobel Prize winners. Here’s the 2020 prize winners page. If you are an undergraduate student, focus on the popular science version. If you are a Master’s student, read the more arcane version. Of course, nothing prevents you from reading both, no matter what level of economics you are comfortable with. 🙂 An idea that I have been toying with for a year: a podcast about the winners, created in the style of this podcast. This also ought to be done for all of India’s Prime Ministers, but that is a whole separate story.
  6. Blogs! There are far too many blogs on economics out there, all of them unbelievably excellent. Some are directly about economics, some are tangentially about economics, some aren’t about economics at all, and those are the very best kind. Read more blogs! Here’s how I read blogs, if that helps.
  7. YouTube. 3Blue1Brown, Veritasium, Kurzgesagt, Sky Sports Masterclasses on Cricket (yes, seriously), and so, so, so many more! One of my targets for the coming months is to curate my YouTube feed the way I have curated my Twitter feed. Suggestions are always welcome!
  8. Podcasts.
    Amit Varma responded on Twitter recently to a question put up by Peter Griffin. The question was this. Amit’s reply was this.
    Alas, this applies to me. My podcast listening has gone down due to the pandemic. One, because I have not been in a frame of mind to listen for extended periods of these past eighteen months. Two, because my listening was usually while driving. But still, podcasts. My top three are (or used to be): Conversations With Tyler, EconTalk and TSATU.
    (And one day, so help me god, I will write a blog post about WordPress’ new editor. Why can one not embed a tweet in a numbered list in the 21st year of the 21st century?! And they call this a modern editor! Bah.)

Questions about Veritasium (as just one example), and how that might possibly relate to economics might arise in some reader’s minds. Two responses: don’t compartmentalize learning. Ask, for example, about the economics of producing videos such as these. Second, learning about other subjects (interdisciplinary learning in fancypants English) is helpful in many, many different ways. Ditto with Sky Sports Cricket Masterclasses. Learn about training like an athlete, and then watch Adam Gilchrist talk about training with his dad. (The first couple of minutes, that’s all).

The larger point about the list is this: there really is no excuse left to not learn a little bit more about any subject. Learning can (and should) be a lifelong affair. And the role of college, especially in the humanities, is to help foster that environment of learning, and to act as guides for young folks just about to embark on their (lifelong) journey of learning.

Or, to put it even more succinctly, we need to have classrooms act as complements to online learning, not as a substitute for it. And that needs to happen today, not some vague day in the future.

Back to College

I am very interested in the future of higher education.

I have learnt much more outside of the classroom than inside, and this was truest when I was a student. I want to stick around in higher education because I want to try and change this for everybody in college today.

Change it through two ways:

  1. Make classes more interesting than they were back in my day. Also make them more interesting than the typical run-of-the-mill classroom experience today. (This is a hard problem, it requires hard work and it does not scale. But learning how to teach better is an invaluable experience.)
  2. Help change college into something more than drab old sit-in-class for six hours a day, six days a week. What a horrible way to learn!

This current semester, I want to try and get as many projects off the ground as possible. This has meant getting some BSc students started on projects of their own, it has meant involving some of them in work I am currently engaged in, and it has meant trying to get some workshops going.

Some of these things will stick, and grow into something much larger than just my involvement. Others will fail. That’s ok. This semester is about trying out new things.

One of these things is a podcast.

I had tried this out in 2019 (link here), completely as a solo effort, but I got only five episodes in. 2020 is a mess I’d rather forget. And now, in 2021, we’re back with another season of Back to College.

What is Back to College?

The idea is simple: speak to people about how they would approach college differently, if they got the chance to do it all over again.

  • What would you do more of, what would you do less of?
  • What technologies that are available today would have been a blessing, and how could they also have been a curse?
  • Is bunking a science or an art? How should you choose which classes to bunk, and which to not – and why?
  • How would you have built out networks better?
  • Would you give exams the same importance with the benefit of hindsight? Why or why not?
  • Which books helped you?
  • How overrated are textbooks, or are they not? Why?
  • What in your current job are you able to do well because of what you learnt in college?
  • What in your current job makes you wish you had been taught differently in college?
  • … and the list goes on and on and on.

We’re beginning with Gokhale alumni, and we’ll add more folks in as we go along. But the idea is to build a repository of interviews for folks to listen to, any time, to get an idea about the careers they want to get into.

And this time around, it ain’t a solo effort. I have the energy of youth on my side! Praneet, Rahul, Vaishnavi, Simran, Shashank, Jay, Anshi, Nivida and Amogh are helping me out on this project, and the hope is that eventually, this will become a completely student run thing.

New episodes will be up every Friday, and we have two out already. Neha Sinha spoke with me about public policy, and Binoy Mascarenhas and I chatted about urbanization. In each case, of course, I touched upon some of the questions above. This Friday will be a conversation I had with Rohith Jyothish on understanding the ‘P’ in GIPE.

Please do give it a listen, and to all the GIPE alumni reading this, please – pretty please! – don’t hesitate to reach out if you think you would like to be on the podcast. We’ll set up a time at your convenience. (Non-GIPE folks, same offer applies to you in about a couple of months. I’ll do another post then).

Thank you, as always, for reading – and now for listening too!

Links from Folks About the Corona Virus

Prashant Jain sends in this website:

Rohit Kumar (not Srivastav, my apologies for the error!) sends along this PDF: The-Pensford-Newsletter-3.23.2020: I don’t agree with most of it, but it does provide an interesting point of view about the cost benefit analysis.

Also from Rohit, a podcast in which economists from Goldman Sachs try to get a grip on where the American economy is headed.

Harsh Doshi has a podcast up about living through the lockdown. The first episode is he interviewing Dr. Sanjay Baru.

Prof. Asawa shared a blog written by SA Aiyar in the TOI about how our stimulus needs to triple from its current level – at least.

Amit Varma Interviews Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah

Given the book review I put up last Monday, this seemed like an excellent recommendation:

Economic policy affects each of us — and yet, India has gotten it wrong for decades. In their groundbreaking new book, Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah write not just how to do policy, but how to think about policy. They join Amit Varma in episode 154 of The Seen and the Unseen to share their learnings, first principles onwards.


Etc: Links for 28th June, 2019

Five articles on the state of the music industry today


  1. “A “middle tier” of new artists, operating away from the million-dollar advances of streaming’s biggest acts, are increasing their share of the format’s economics. Or, to phrase it another way, streaming, slowly but surely, is creating a commercial ecosystem in which more artists are able to make a living — and forcing the biggest-earning megastars on the planet to share a chunk of their annual wealth.”
    I’d recommend a deeper dive into the data for sure, but an interesting article nonetheless. Who is earning the streaming dollars?
  2. “If we were to rewind just a few years ago, the idea of Spotify delivering drive-optimized playlists interspersed with news may not have sounded totally outlandish but it would nonetheless have only felt a distant possibility. But now that Spotify has extensive podcast capabilities under its belt and a very proven willingness to insert podcasts throughout the music user’s experience, the concept of what constitutes a playlist needs rethinking entirely…largely because that is exactly what Spotify has just done. The industry needs to start thinking about playlists not as a collection of music tracks but instead as a targeted, personalized and programmed delivery vehicle for any combination of content. In old world parlance you might call it a ‘channel’, but that does not do justice to the vast personalization and targeting capabilities that playlists, and Spotify’s playlists in particular, can offer.”
    If you haven’t heard of – they were recently purchased by Spotify (as was Gimlet Media). Both of these are in the podcasting business. This article makes clear why Spotify acquired them.
  3. “Please write. And I don’t say that because my podcast is all written. Even shows in the venerable genre of Two People Talking About Stuff become so much tighter, so much more listenable if you take the time to write an introduction to the conversation to orient the listener. Tell them where they’re going. Make them want to go there with you. And then get going.”
    This advice applies to more than just podcasts. But speaking of podcasts and audio in general, a somewhat useful set of advice regarding starting one of your own.
  4. “Without Madonna, we don’t have Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and maybe even Janelle Monae. The doubles she played with during each of her transformations — not only the religious Madonna but the virgin, boy-toy, material girl, dominatrix, dancing queen, mom, yoga mom, adopting mom and, now, sexagenarian claiming her space among artists two generations younger — were fun-house representations of conventional femininity. They refracted and reflected a future most of us didn’t know was coming before she showed it to us.”
    On the importance of Madonna to culture at large today, and her ongoing importance to the music industry.
  5. “Six years ago, when Thom Yorke memorably expressed his feelings about the music industry by calling Spotify “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse,” it was hard to argue with him. At that point, global sales of recorded music were headed for their 13th decline in 14 years, with the overall value of the industry nearly cut by half since the turn of the century. It looked like the digital revolution really did turn the music business into a moldering husk. But now, like any good zombie during an apocalypse, the industry is once again primed to devour the world on a massive scale.”
    And as a fitting coda to the series, reflections on the Phoenix like rise of the music industry, and where it might head to in the years to come.

Tech: Links for 11th June, 2019

  1. “Microsoft now generates about $7.5 billion in annual revenue from web search advertising. That is a pipsqueak compared with Google’s $120 billion in ad sales over the last 12 months. But it’s more revenue brought in by either Microsoft’s LinkedIn professional network or the company’s line of Surface computers and other hardware.How did Bing go from a joke to generating nearly three times the advertising revenue of Twitter? Bing is emblematic of what Microsoft has become under Satya Nadella, the CEO since 2014: less flashy and less inclined to tilt at windmills in favor of pragmatism.”
    A nice (and at least to, somewhat surprising) read about how Bing isn’t an utter failure – far from it. It isn’t Google, of course, and probably never will be, but the article highlights how starting Bing was in retrospect useful for many different reasons.
  2. “One effect of Donald Trump’s sanctions on China’s tech giant Huawei seems to be a growing nationalistic sentiment among some Chinese consumers: sales of iPhones have fallen in recent months, while Huawei products have seen an uptick. It isn’t hard to find patriotic slogans backing the embattled company on social-media platforms such as Weibo.”
    The article speaks about the possible “Balkanization” of technology, and one can easily imagine a fairly dystopian view of the future as a consequence of this. Not saying that this will happen, to be clear – but the possibility should be contemplated.
  3. “Lena Edlund, a Columbia University economist, and Cecilia Machado, of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, lay out the data in a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. They estimate that the diffusion of phones could explain 19 to 29 percent of the decline in homicides seen from 1990 to 2000.“The cellphones changed how drugs were dealt,” Edlund told me. In the ’80s, turf-based drug sales generated violence as gangs attacked and defended territory, and also allowed those who controlled the block to keep profits high.The cellphone broke the link, the paper claims, between turf and selling drugs. “It’s not that people don’t sell or do drugs anymore,” Edlund explained to me, “but the relationship between that and violence is different.””
    Staring at phones the whole day may actually have saved lives. Who’d have thought? The rest of the article is a nice summary of other hypotheses about why crime in the USA went down over the years.
  4. “The current state of monetization in podcasting mirrors the early internet: revenue lags behind attention. Despite double-digit percent growth in podcast advertising over the last few years, podcasts are still in a very nascent, disjointed stage of monetization today.”
    A rather long article about podcasting as a business today, but I found it interesting. The reasons I found it interesting: I have a very small, fledgling podcast of my own, monetization in podcasting hasn’t taken off, and I remain sceptical that it ever really will, and most importantly, listening to podcasts is truly instructive.
  5. The camera app VSCO is unlike its social counterparts. Though it has a feed similar to Facebook’s News Feed and Twitter’s Timeline, it doesn’t employ any of the tricks meant to keep you hooked. VSCO doesn’t display follower or like counts, and it doesn’t sort its feed with an algorithm. Instead of optimizing toward keeping you on its app, VSCO — which last reported 30 million monthly active users — simply encourages you to shoot and edit photos and videos, regardless of whether you post them or not.
    Speaking of monetization, this newsletter tells you how VCSO has funded itself – and speaks about pricing in general when it comes to technology today.

On Podcasts

I did my undergrad from Ferguson College, Pune (’01-’04) and then my masters from Gokhale Institute, Pune(’04-’06). The only way for us then to access what economists were talking about was by reading newspapers/academic papers/textbooks.

Blogs had started to make an appearance on the scene by then, but weren’t all that popular a forum. And podcasts were virtually unheard of (or at least I and my friends then had never heard of them). One thing I really and truly envy about people who want to learn economics today is the mind boggling variety of resources that are available for free online.

In fact, if anything, the problem today is one of too much, not too little. There is easily accessible material online, but it can often get difficult to figure out what one should start with. Which is the idea behind this current series of posts: books you might want to read to start learning about economics, how to read stuff apart from books – and now, podcasts that you might benefit from.

With one important caveat: this series of recommendations isn’t just about economic podcasts, but about stuff from elsewhere as well. But all of it is fun, informative and free.

In this post, I’ll provide a brief overview of what podcasts are, how to listen to them and why they are useful. And on the five succeeding days, I’ll speak about one particular podcast, and specific episodes from that podcast that I have enjoyed more than others.

I don’t know (nor care) what the technical definition of podcasts is. To me, they are audio blogs. And by that I mean two things: podcasts can be subscribed to, the way you can subscribe to a blog. But in addition, there is a level of informality that a podcast naturally has, which makes it more accessible, friendly and approachable than a stuffy academic paper.

It is one thing to read a paper titled “Using Big Data to Estimate Consumer Surplus: The Case of Uber” and quite another to listen to Steven Levitt talking about it with Stephen Dubner, for example.

And that, to me, is why podcasts are, at the same time, insanely awesome and grossly underrated. Insanely awesome because there has never been a time before in human history where you can take a walk in your neighbourhood while listening to a Nobel Prize winning economist joke around with a journalist, and in the process teaching us about behavioral economics. And grossly underrated because schools, colleges and workplaces ought to be outsourcing a large amount of learning to podcasts – they’re free, freely available, and ridiculously accessible (same with blogs, of course, and YouTube videos).

How should one listen to podcasts? Use an app on your phone is the easiest answer. I use an app called PocketCasts, but it is a paid app. Google has an app called Google Podcasts which is free. If you are an Apple user, your phone ought to have a Podcast app, which is free. Or if you like paying for quality apps, then you might want to try Overcast. Each podcast also has a website, if listening to podcasts on the computer is your thing.

Here’s the thing: humans have, for the longest time learnt by listening to stories. In other words, we listen to people talking, and we learn. Today, you, I and everybody else has the opportunity to listen to the best and the brightest people in the world talk, and therefore learn. And the more we do not tap into this resource, the more criminal the waste.

Strong words, perhaps – but justified ones, in my opinion.