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!
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India: Links for 24th June, 2019

  1. “Was the earlier system, based largely on ASI (Annual Survey of Industries) for manufacturing (registered and unregistered), perfect? No, it wasn’t. Is the MCA-based system perfect? No, it isn’t. Despite problems with MCA, is the MCA-based system superior to the ASI-based one? The consensus (I didn’t use the word unanimity) among experts seems to be that it is.”
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    Bibek Debroy’s article discusses Arvind Subramanian’s paper. That excerpt above is probably the best way of thinking about it – and as I’ve said before and will say again: if thinking about GDP measurement doesn’t give you a headache, you aren’t doing it right. By the way, two of the twitter threads this past Saturday were about the same issue: worth reading, in my opinion.
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  2. “In manufacturing, the increase in informalisation is due to two reasons, according to a 2018 study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations: first, because of dispersal of production from larger to smaller units; and second, because of the creation of an informal workforce subject to fewer regulations, the fact that employing contract (or informal) workers reduces the bargaining power of the regular or formal worker, suppressing wages overall.”
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    Indiaspend reviews the state of employment in the country, and finds that there is far too much informalization – but also that this is increasing  over time. In this regard, the best book, by far, to read is Bhagwati and Panagariya’s “Tryst with Destiny”.
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  3. “Indian macro policy has been operating under an implicit 2-4-6-8 framework, which are the targets for the sustainable current account deficit, the desired level of retail inflation, the consolidated fiscal deficit target embedded in law and the aspirational rate of economic growth. There is a need to take a fresh look at this macro policy playbook for two reasons. First, the individual targets have been decided at different points of time by different parts of the economic policy ecosystem rather than emerging from a common analytical project. Two, there are reasons to doubt its internal coherence given that India has rarely been able to meet all four targets simultaneously over the past decade.”
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    The always excellent Niranjan Rajadhakshya comes up with a useful framework to keep a tab on India’s macro levers: 2-4-6-8 is a very useful mnemonic. The rest of the paper speaks about whether this framework makes sense!
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  4. “This crisis has systemic written all over it because the market can no longer distinguish financiers that are illiquid from those that are insolvent.”
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    I’m calling it: there’s a major crash just waiting to happen in the Indian equity (not just equity) markets, no matter what is done. Speaking of what is to be done, the five suggestions here make a lot of sense. Andy Mukherjee doing what he does best.
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  5. “India’s firm size distribution is excessively small, even compared to other developing countries. Also, complementarily, the number of really large firms are also excessively small. We have a “small is bad” problem. What is driving the small-ness? Is labour regulations responsible for discouraging businesses from “placing too many workers under one roof”? Is there anything else driving or contributing significantly to this trend?”
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    Bhagwati and Panagariya once again. Also, urbanization matters! Artificial dispersion of industries or people (same thing) tends to not work. Gulzar Natarajan on what needs to be done to increase productivity in India.

Etc: Links for 21st June, 2019

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

Links for 2nd April, 2019

  1. “The growing use of digital transactions—by consumers, investors, tax payers—as well as the rise of newer forms of data collection has the potential to revolutionise Indian public policy. It is unlikely that these newer forms of data will completely replace the more traditional numbers derived from surveys, national accounts and administrative data. They will more likely complement each other. Government agencies will increase their dependence on big data analytics in the coming years—though the risks to individual privacy should not be underestimated.”
    Niranjan Rajadhakshya on big data, data collection, and how we might reach conclusions on the basis of both over time. The papers he mentions towards the end are also worth reading in their own right!

  2. “According to the Handbook Of Statistics On Indian Economy 2016-17, since the 1991 reforms, the Union government’s revenue has increased 25 times and state government revenues have increased 28 times in nominal terms, and about 4 times in real terms. Economic growth and the consequent increase in revenue also increases the ability of the government to focus on inequality and deal with sector-specific distress.”
    The article is about why economic growth is important for poverty alleviation, an as the article itself says, this is both an obvious point, but also one that bears repetition. But the excerpt above was notable for me: obvious in retrospect, but worth thinking about. Government revenues have gone up significantly since liberalization.

  3. “In 2014, the Delhi High Court found both major parties guilty of violating foreign-exchange laws when they accepted a donation from London-based commodities giant Vedanta Resources Plc.(The suit, filed by a former top bureaucrat and the Association for Democratic Reforms, was against the political entities and Vedanta wasn’t a party. The company didn’t respond to request for comment. The BJP and Congress argued the donations weren’t foreign because the Vedanta units that channelled the money were registered under Indian law.)
    The law passed last year changed the definition of a foreign company all the way back to 1976, effectively nullifying the court’s verdict because Vedanta’s overseas parent owned less than 50 percent of the Indian unit.”
    A somewhat depressing, if all too predictable read about campaign financing in India. There isn’t that much more to say  do read the whole thing, though.

  4. “This jellyfish doesn’t mean to brag, but it’s both beautiful and immortal. If it gets sick, or even stressed, it just reverts into it’s younger self so it can get strong and mature again, bouncing between youth and adulthood forever.”
    It’s impossible to choose one particular thing to highlight – please (for a change!) read every single comment. Nature is an impossibly weird thing, and we know far too little about it.

  5. “One of the great sources of leverage is other people. You can get leverage via directing folks to do things (a superpower whose impact I probably underappreciated when running my business solo). You can also get it by making them more effective at doing things.”
    A very long essay, perhaps rambling in part – but a great read nonetheless. About a whole variety of things, but mostly about productivity, I’d say – the self and the organization, both.

Links for 13th March, 2019

  1. “For most projects I’ll never look at anything in ARCHIVES again. But of course it’s easy to do so if I want to. And the fact that it’s easy is important, because it means I don’t have nagging concerns about saying “this is finished with; let’s put it in ARCHIVES”, even if I think there’s some chance it might become active again.As it happens, this approach is somewhat inspired by something I saw done with physical documents. When I was consulting at Bell Labs in the early 1980s I saw that a friend of mine had two garbage cans in his office. When I asked him why, he explained that one was for genuine garbage and the other was a buffer into which he would throw documents that he thought he’d probably never want again. He’d let the buffer garbage can fill up, and once it was full, he’d throw away the lower documents in it, since from the fact that he hadn’t fished them out, he figured he’d probably never miss them if they were thrown away permanently.”
    It is exhausting just reading it, but a very long article from Stephen Wolfram o how he organizes his life. You don’t have to go quite as all out – but you might learn a trick or two about organizing your life better by reading this article. God knows I need all the help I can get.
  2. “Nonetheless, this work suggests a potentially serious problem. Many situations in economics are complicated and competitive. This raises the possibility that many important theories in economics may be wrong: If the key behavioral assumption of equilibrium is wrong, then the predictions of the model are likely wrong too. In this case new approaches are required that explicitly simulate the behavior of the players and take into account the fact that real people are not good at solving complicated problems.”
    If I was to be (excessively?) cynical, I’d say this would mean that economists know nothing. But that isn’t necessarily true – Herbert Simon’s work on bounded rationality come to mind here. But the article is interesting about how to think about excessively complicated stuff – such as life.
  3. “In a low-saving, low-investment economy like the US, it’s a little hard to conceive that its possible for savings and investment rates to be too high for a country’s economic health. But that’s where China has been, and shifting away from established patterns is rarely simple.”
    To range across domains, there is this line from dietary studies that goes something like this: “It is the dose that makes the poison”. But if the USA suffers from too low a savings rate (maybe), China has the opposite problem. And this article does a great job of explaining the how and the why.
  4. “Historically, interim budgets in India have consistently overestimated revenue growth and underestimated expenditure growth. An analysis of the projected, revised, and actual budget figures since 1991 by Deepa Vaidya and K. Kangasabapathy of the EPW Research Foundation showed that deviations from budget estimates tend to be extraordinarily high for budget estimates presented in interim budgets ”
    This should surprise nobody, but budgets shouldn’t be trusted. Households budgets tend to have the same biases and errors that government budgets do, and for mostly the same reason – they’re drawn up by humans, who will be tempted to gloss over inconveniences. This article is full of interesting infographics that help you understand this point better – and also makes the point that an independent fiscal council is both necessary and overdue. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
  5. “But as the global giants arrive, they have been driving up salaries, rents, and reputations. Now some fear that the multinationals that once nurtured this fledgling technology powerhouse are unwittingly damaging the potent but fragile mix of entrepreneurship, military training, and chutzpah that drew them to it in the first place. That, they worry, could prevent it from developing into a mature digital economy.”
    Can you guess, before you click on the link, which country we’re talking about? Reading this article should make you want to read more about industrial organization, low interest rate environments, and urbanization – three of the biggest issues in economics today.

Links for 12th March, 2019

  1. “We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”
    Umberto Eco on an exhibition that he is going to have at the Louvre… on lists. He explains why he likes the idea of lists so much – and says it’s not just him. Listicles are as old as humanity, and are around because we want to make the infinite understandable.
  2. “The drama started earlier this week, when Warner “revoked a previously agreed-upon publishing license” for India, according to Spotify, “for reasons wholly unrelated to Spotify’s launch in India.” Existing global deals don’t cover expansions into new territories, so when Spotify enters a country like India, it has to make a separate deal. With Warner pulling out, Spotify attempted to side-step a direct deal with the label using a controversial amendment in Indian law, which says “broadcasters” can obtain a license for copyrighted works even if the copyright owner denies use. In response, Warner fired back with a request for an injunction, forcing the case to the Indian court system.”
    I have subscribed to the service, and am quite happy with it so far. I also subscribe to Google Play music, but find Spotify’s playlists better organised, especially be genre. Google Play Music, as I see it, has two advantages: it allows you to upload up to 50 GB of your own songs to it’s servers, and you can then play them from anywhere. Second, it has the WB catalog – which Spotify doesn’t, and this article explains why.
  3. “Using the Excel app, you can take a picture of a printed data table on your Android device and automatically convert the picture into a fully editable table in Excel. This new image recognition functionality eliminates the need for you to manually enter hardcopy data. This capability is starting to roll out for the Excel Android app with iOS support coming soon.”
    I have tried it, and it works – albeit imperfectly. But if you have ever struggled with the beast that is MOSPI – or anything like it, this is likely bring a tear to your eye.
  4. “I think we’re at the point of no return. The omnichannel train has left the station. What would I do if I ran a retail business today? First, I would accept the fact that customers now love to shop both online and offline, and they expect two-day shipping for certain products and near flawless execution. The bar has been set high by Amazon. Then I would create a game plan that leverages my existing physical assets like warehouses, distribution centers and stores to offer new services like ship-from-store or pickup-at-store. I would also build new fulfillment centers specifically to fulfill online orders and ship to customers’ homes.”
    More useful for the infographic atop the excerpt above. The fourth section of the infographic is a mix of optimism and handwaving to me – unless you replace the word “will” by “should”. Also see the Stratechery article about value chains.
  5. “It is worth noting that individual citizens of some of the world’s most volatile regions have asked WMI for cloud seeding services. A growing body of research addresses the idea that many wars and conflicts are stoked by environmental problems, which are often underlain by weather problems. Increasing drought across north-central Africa has ruined crops, starved the populace and is thought to have enabled Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s invasion of northern Mali in 2012. A paper published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal stated that drought in Syria between 2007 and 2010 was the worst since instrumental record-keeping began, and caused widespread crop failure, mass migration and helped spark the Syrian conflict.”
    A Longread article on cloud seeding or “weather mod”. Worth it to understand what technology optimism means in practice, and to understand how long the attempted history of weather modification has been, and also for the photographs. For the photographs, I would recommend viewing this on the desktop.