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.
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Links for 31st May, 2019

  1. “For economists, the idea of “spending” time isn’t a metaphor. You can spend any resource, not just money. Among all the inequalities in our world, it remains true that every person is allocated precisely the same 24 hours in each day. In “Escaping the Rat Race: Why We Are Always Running Out of Time,” the Knowledge@Wharton website interviews Daniel Hamermesh, focusing on themes from his just-published book Spending Time: The Most Valuable Resource.”
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    Almost a cliche, but oh-so-true. The one non-renewable resource is time. A nice read, the entire set of excerpts within this link.
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  2. ““Bad writing makes slow reading,” McCloskey writes. Your reader has to stop and puzzle over what on earth you mean. She quotes Quintilian: “One ought to take care to write not merely so that the reader can understand, but so that he canot possibly misunderstand.” This is harder than it sounds. As the author of several books, I’ve learned that many readers take out of a book whatever thoughts they took into it. Still, what else is worth aiming for if you want to communicate your ideas?”
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    As the first comment below the fold says, she herself doesn’t follow her own advice all the time (and yes, that is putting it mildly), but the book that Diane Coyle reviews in this article is always worth your time. Multiple re-readings, in fact. Also, I am pretty good at writing bad prose myself, which is why I like reading this book so much.
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  3. “Popper acknowledged that one can never know if a prediction fails because the underlying theory is false or because one of the auxiliary assumptions required to make the prediction is false, or even because of an error in measurement. But that acknowledgment, Popper insisted, does not refute falsificationism, because falsificationism is not a scientific theory about how scientists do science; it is a normative theory about how scientists ought to do science. The normative implication of falsificationism is that scientists should not try to shield their theories by making just-so adjustments in their theories through ad hoc auxiliary assumptions, e.g., ceteris paribus assumptions, to shield their theories from empirical disproof. Rather they should accept the falsification of their theories when confronted by observations that conflict with the implications of their theories and then formulate new and better theories to replace the old ones.”
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    I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that the author of this essay should read the book reviewed above first – but if you aren’t familiar with falsification, you might want to begin by reading this essay.
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  4. “Upheaval, by Jared Diamond. I’m a big fan of everything Jared has written, and his latest is no exception. The book explores how societies react during moments of crisis. He uses a series of fascinating case studies to show how nations managed existential challenges like civil war, foreign threats, and general malaise. It sounds a bit depressing, but I finished the book even more optimistic about our ability to solve problems than I started.”
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    Bill Gates has this annual tradition of  recommending five books for the summer – and I haven’t read a single one of the five he has recommended this year. All of them seem interesting – Diamond’s book perhaps more so than others.
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  5. “Books don’t work for the same reason that lectures don’t work: neither medium has any explicit theory of how people actually learn things, and as a result, both mediums accidentally (and mostly invisibly) evolved around a theory that’s plainly false.”
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    To say that I am fascinated by this topic is an understatement – and I have a very real, very powerful personal incentive to read this especially attentively. That being said, I can’t imagine anybody not wanting to learn about how we learn, and why we learn so poorly.

Links for 24th May, 2019

  1. “A few months ago, as I was reading Constance Reid’s excellent biography of Hilbert, I figured out if not the answer to this question, at least something that made me feel better about it. She writes:
    Hilbert had no patience with mathematical lectures which filled the students with facts but did not teach them how to frame a problem and solve it. He often used to tell them that “a perfect formulation of a problem is already half its solution.”
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    A very short, but oh-so-readable essay from Paul Graham. Please read it for a variety of reasons, but mostly to understand that reading is a long term activity with a lot (a lot!) of positive payoffs in the long run.
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  2. “When the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) measures economic output, it categorizes spending with the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA). Some of this spending, which is counted as C, I, and G, is spent on imported goods.1 As such, the value of imports must be subtracted to ensure that only spending on domestic goods is measured in GDP. For example, $30,000 spent on an imported car is counted as a personal consumption expenditure (C), but then the $30,000 is subtracted as an import (M) to ensure that only the value of domestic production is counted (Table 3). As such, the imports variable (M) functions as an accounting variable rather than an expenditure variable. To be clear, the purchase of domestic goods and services increases GDP because it increases domestic production, but the purchase of imported goods and services has no direct impact on GDP.”
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    From within the link to the Noah Smith article yesterday, a good, short explainer of GDP, and why imports don’t “reduce” from GDP.
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  3. “In economics, there is no free lunch. While TV channels feel that they are saving money by not paying the experts, what they get in return is a total mess and not some meaningful, coherent programming, in which people can take away some learning at the end.”
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    Vivek Kaul explains why people on the news shout so much. Incentives – it’s all, always, about incentives!
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  4. “In a 2009 summary paper of their respective decision-making sub-fields, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein spell out the conditions required for expertise to exist. They discover that in order for expert intuition to work, the practitioner needs to inhabit a domain where:The environment is regular. That is, the situation must be sufficiently predictable, with observable causal cues.
    There must be ample opportunities to learn causal cues from the environment.”
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    An interesting article about whether ideas from one domain should be used in another, and under what circumstances.
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  5. “Whether the East Asian Model will take hold in East Africa and beyond is not a given. But it also isn’t a stretch to see how the African “Lion economies” could accelerate their transformation by embracing the formula that successively produced the Asian Tigers and China.In his seminal Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen equated personal freedom with economic development. But to reach that objective requires traversing through the phase of “development as imitation” of successful models that came before.”
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    Can Africa achieve in this century what Asia did in the previous one, following the same playbook? This is going to be the most important question for this century, and this article helps you understand how to think about it. One useful way to start thinking about it, at any rate.

Links for 9th May, 2019

  1. “Matters came to a head in the summer of 1745. Nanasaheb Peshwa was in Satara and his grandmother, Radhabai, lived in Pune. Seeing the water crisis, she ordered that no water be drawn from the river for the gardens. However, her order was challenged and a letter of complaint was written to the Peshwa in Satara.”
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    A very nice article in the Pune Mirror about the cities water supply, and how it originated and was developed over time. Also, if you haven’t heard it already, you might want to listen to this short introduction to Visvesvarya.
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  2. “This isn’t to say we don’t learn from these exercises. We do. In both India and Tanzania, we learn that citizens value public services. In Tanzania, the researchers then led deliberative discussions about cash transfers, and some respondents highlighted that “social services encourage a collective voice that helps increase accountability, while cash transfers would focus people on private interests and leave room for corruption.”Listen to the voices of citizens. But before throwing the cash transfer baby out with the bathwater, let’s make sure those citizens have clear information about their trade-offs.”
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    Beware well-intentioned surveys – read this article to find out why. Questions in surveys – and the framing of these questions – should give you a headache. If they don’t, you haven’t thought enough about ’em!
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  3. “Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world,” wrote the poet Mary Ruefle. Four centuries earlier, while ushering in a new world order, Galileo contemplated how books give us superhuman powers — a sentiment his twentieth-century counterpart, Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996), echoed in his shimmering assertion that “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
    Do you subscribe to BrainPickings? You really should – and clicking through to this link is a good enough reason to start. Amit Varma had a column in the Times of India about much the same thing the other day, which is also worth reading for a rather more, um, practical example of the benefits of reading.
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  4. The lungi is more than just a South Indian sartorial choice. But what are the origins of this popular garment? It is difficult to state this with certainty. The lungi’s well regarded cousin, the dhoti, seems to have, on the whole, cornered much of the attention, in terms of research into its history on account of its elevated social standing.”
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    The Madras Courier on the lungi – its origins, how to wear it, and its apparent near universality.
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  5. “The new regulations have been harder on some of the smaller developers who lack the wherewithal to navigate the labyrinth that is getting construction permits on time causing many to exit the market. The Authority has no jurisdiction to hold different government departments to account for withholding or delaying approvals without a valid cause. Without accompanying reforms that ease the complex permissions process and bring about transparency and predictability in rule implementation, the objective of easing housing supply bottlenecks to lower house prices and benefit homebuyers is going to meet with limited success. ”
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    A short take on what ails the real estate sector in India. And the answer that this paper gives is that there may be too much regulation of the sector, not too little. A classic example of unintended consequences. This paper, from that article, is also worth reading.

Links for 1st April, 2019

  1. “For many in technology, New & Improved means faster with more of every measurable parameter. More memory, more pixels, more storage, more bandwidth, more resolution. In devices, the tendency has been to communicate “new & improved” through an increase in screen size. We are subject to this to such an extent that phones are becoming unusable with one hand, stretching screens to the edge of the device and then wrapping those screens around the edges and then even folding the screens so that we have to unfold or unroll to use the product. Maybe an origami phone is in the works.But there is a parallel movement where “New & Improved” means smaller. This is the trend to miniaturization. Smaller is better because it’s more portable, more conformable. Things sold by the ounce are better than things sold by the pound. The best computer, the best anything, is the one you have with you and having it with you is more likely if you can take it with you. So that which you can take with you is the best. QED.”
    On the face of it, a review of the iPad mini. But the excerpt above is also a useful way to think about improvements in general – how much of learning, for example, has become better because of ‘miniaturization’?
  2. “It is yesterday once more. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has put forth an old solution for a perennial problem. It has suggested, through a discussion paper, the need to create ‘Wholesale & Long-Term Finance Banks’. The discussion paper argues that with the “deepening of the financial sector” there is a need to evolve a structure where apart from universal banks, “differentiated banks provideservices in their areas of competitive advantage”. The thesis is that this would enable fulfilling long-term financing needs of the growing economy.”
    This is from a while ago – nearly two years ago, in fact, but is worth reading, especially if you are a student of finance in India. The article is a good summary of the many, many efforts made by the government to arrange for long term financing in India – and how they just haven’t worked out – and are unlikely to work out in the future as well.
  3. “And what might Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves have thought of Ms. Grande’s song? Todd S. Purdum, the author of “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution,” said the masters of musical theater enjoyed being in the thick of popular culture. But most important, he said, they were never ashamed of commercial success.“They would love the ka-ching of it,” Mr. Purdum said.”
    Have you heard the song seven rings? I haven’t, although as the article goes on to tell you, if you do go ahead and hear it, two long dead musical geniuses from the past will become richer. Copyright, property rights, music, licensing rights, streaming, the economics of music – all in there.
  4. “Then with the Kindle and the iBooks coming along, that allowed me to start treating books like I treat blogs. When I go to blog, I’ll actually skim through lots of articles until I find one that looks really interesting and then I’ll read that whole article all the way through and maybe take notes. Now I treat books the same way. I’ll skim through a large number of books. I’ll put them down. I’ll jump around, back, forward, middle, until I find a part that’s interesting. Then I’ll just consume that piece. I won’t feeling guilty about having to finish the entire book.I just view it as a blog archive. A blog might have 300 posts on it and you could read just the two, three, five that you need right now. I think you can think of a book the same way. Then that opens the world wide web of books back open to us instead of it being buried somewhere.”
    Books as a series of blog posts is a remarkably useful, and dare I say it, comforting idea. It probably is a more useful way to think about reading books, and about not reading them. I didn’t finish reading the entire transcript, but hope to get around to listening to the podcast soon.
  5. ““In a fight between a fly and a lion,” he wrote, “the fly cannot deliver a knockout blow and the lion cannot fly.” Using conventional methods “have at best no more effect than a fly swatter. Some guerrillas are bound to be caught, but new recruits will replace them as fast as they are lost.”I know very little about Kashmir, and I am aware of how little I know every time I read a little bit more about it. But this particular analogy leaped out at me, and helped me think about not just the insurgency problem in Kashmir, but about guerilla warfare in general. The entire article is worth reading, by the way. Multiple times, in fact.