Tech: Links for 13th July, 2019

Five articles by Michael Nielsen. If you aren’t familiar with Michael Nielsen, this is a great place to start!

  1. His version of how to write better.
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  2. A scientist’s explanation of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem.
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  3. May this come true, and right soon.
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  4. “In the US House of Representatives, 61 percent of Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act, while a much higher percentage, 80 percent, of Republicans voted for the Act. You might think that we could conclude from this that being Republican, rather than Democrat, was an important factor in causing someone to vote for the Civil Rights Act. However, the picture changes if we include an additional factor in the analysis, namely, whether a legislator came from a Northern or Southern state. If we include that extra factor, the situation completely reverses, in both the North and the South. Here’s how it breaks down:North: Democrat (94 percent), Republican (85 percent)

    South: Democrat (7 percent), Republican (0 percent)

    Yes, you read that right: in both the North and the South, a larger fraction of Democrats than Republicans voted for the Act, despite the fact that overall a larger fraction of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Act.”
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    One of my favorite problems from statistics: Simpson’s Paradox. And an old frenemy: correlation is not causation.
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  5. Memory, and how to get better at it.

EC101: Links for 20th June, 2019

  1. “One needs to be cautious in these type of businesses trading at higher multiples as slip in any one of the parameters – decline in sales and profit growth, build up of debt, deterioration in working capital, capital misallocation – wrong acquisitions and expansions will lead to derating of the stock quickly. The company has shown no signs of these as of now and investors need to keep a close look at these.”
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    A vastly under-rated skill among economics students. The theory of (and in this case also the application of) reading a balance sheet. Read this article to get a sense of how to read one – and in an ideal world, try to write a similar article about a firm of your choice.
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  2. “In other words, to quote Simon, “so long as the rate of interest remains constant, an advance in technology can only produce a rising level of real wages. The only route through which technological advance could lower real wages would be by increasing the capital coefficient (the added cost being compensated by a larger decline in the labor coefficient), thereby creating a scarcity of capital and pushing interest rates sharply upward.” In other words, the price of capital would have to rise by more than the price of consumption.”
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    Under what circumstances will advances in technology cause the real wage rate to go down? The vastly under-rated Herbert Simon provided an answer to this question way back when – read this article to find out its rediscovery.
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  3. “Now that the crisis is in the rearview mirror and the current expansion is nearing the longest on record, is it possible to go back to having a balance sheet as small as in 2007? The answer is no. The amount of currency in circulation has grown so much that it is not possible to shrink the balance sheet to its earlier size. This is good news because it reflects a growing economy. The larger balance sheet also reflects banks wanting to hold more reserves at the Fed. Banks partly hold these highly liquid and essentially risk-free assets to meet new liquidity regulations designed to improve the resilience of the overall financial system.”
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    A short, but useful essay about the huge expansion to the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet, and why it is unlikely to shrink anytime soon. A useful read for students of monetary economics.
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  4. “The correlation phrase has become so common and so irritating that a minor backlash has now ensued against the rhetoric if not the concept. No, correlation does not imply causation, but it sure as hell provides a hint. Does email make a man depressed? Does sadness make a man send email? Or is something else again to blame for both? A correlation can’t tell one from the other; in that sense it’s inadequate. Still, if it can frame the question, then our observation sets us down the path toward thinking through the workings of reality, so we might learn new ways to tweak them. It helps us go from seeing things to changing them.”
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    The phrase is burned onto my brain, as it is for everybody else who ever attended a statistics class. “Correlation is not causation” Sure, it isn’t – but this article warns us against the over-use of this phrase, and how it might have ended up making us not think deeper.
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  5. “The Baumol effect reminds us that all prices are relative prices. An implication is that over time prices have very little connection to affordability. If the price of the same can of soup is higher at Wegmans than at Walmart we understand that soup is more affordable at Walmart. But if the price of the same can of soup is higher today than in the past it doesn’t imply that soup was more affordable in the past, even if we have done all the right corrections for inflation.”
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    A short, but very readable interpretation of the Baumol effect – and as this excerpt makes clear, also a great reminder of the fact that all prices, everywhere and always, are relative.

Links for 22nd May, 2019

  1. “Perhaps the most typical thing about Bergstrom’s gambling was that for him, as for so many others, the money seemed to signify something else. Gamblers often describe how, when the chips are on the table, money is transformed into a potent symbol for other psychic forces. In Bergstrom’s case, the action on the craps table seemed, like a love affair, to be a referendum on his self-worth.”
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    What are the motivations for gamblers? How do they view money? Is it the means to an end, is it a metaphor, is it symbolic? How might the lessons one gleans from reading something like this be applied elsewhere? For these reasons, a lovely read.
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  2. “Virat Kohli, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Dinesh Karthik, KL Rahul, Kedar Jadhav and Ambati Rayudu are all collectors if you go by their IPL batting. I had mentioned in the copy (which later got edited out) that it is worrisome that the Indian batting lineup ahead of the World Cup has a sort of sameness to it.Fortunately, while they all bat the same way in T20 cricket, they are all different kinds of beasts when it comes to One Day Internationals.”
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    Beware of relying too much upon data, but that being said, the cricket fans among you might want to subscribe to this newsletter, which analyses cricketing data to come up with interesting ideas about the upcoming world cup.
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  3. “Well, you know what Graham understood, I think, better than probably anyone who had written about investing before him is that there’s a big difference between what people should do and what they can do. Another way to think about this is that distinction between what’s optimal, and what’s practical. And we pretty much know how people should invest. Investing is – as Warren Buffett likes to say “It’s simple, but it’s not easy.” And dieting is simple, but not easy. In fact, a lot of things in life are simple, but not easy. And investing is a very good example. I mean, if all you do is diversify, keep your costs low, and minimize trading. That’s pretty much it. It’s like eat less, exercise more. Investing is just about as simple, but it’s not easy. And so Graham understood that people are their own worst enemy, because when they should be cautious, they tend to take on risk.”
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    David Perell interviews Jason Zweig, and it is an interview worth reading, and perhaps even re-reading. I have linked here to the transcript, but if you prefer listening, you should be able to find out the link to the podcast.
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  4. “Any time a central bank – unless it has a completely sealed closed economy – raises or cuts interest rates, it is taking currency and interest rate risk vs. the major reserve currencies, even if it is not directly buying or selling foreign currency.”
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    A short, clear and concise article about the RBI’s rupee-dollar swap.
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  5. “Diets have changed most dramatically in Africa, where 18 countries have diets that have changed by more than 25 percent. Sugar consumption in Congo, for example, has increased 858 percent since 1961.”
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    A truly excellent visualization – worth seeing for a multitude of reasons: data about nutrition, visualization techniques being just two of them. And that statistic about sugar consumption in Congo is just breathtaking.

Links for 20th May, 2019

  1. “The debate could have been depoliticized if the CSO was more sensitive to criticisms, and had made proactive disclosures on the error estimates of different sub-sectors of GDP, with explanations for why output estimates for some sectors were more reliable than that of others. In fact, the first national account estimates presented by Mahalanobis after India’s independence carefully noted the data gaps and limitations of the estimates, as well as the error margins associated with each sectoral estimate. Providing such error estimates would also have drawn wider attention to data gaps, and could have helped MoSPI garner the requisite resources to fill those gaps.”
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    An article entirely worth reading if you are interested in India’s statistical organizations – from independence until today, the tale has been one of slow and painful deterioration.
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  2. “In short, Indian agriculture has undergone a phenomenal change over the last decade that it is no more dependent on just foodgrain or one sector. In fact, it has emerged as a versatile sector that still provides employment to over 50 per cent of the country’s population (per 2011 census) and keeps the economy ticking in rural areas despite the vagaries of weather.”
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    A useful place to get a good summary of Indian agriculture over the last decade or so. But I would argue that the key point is that there are far too many people employed in this sector – and that is the real problem.
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  3. “The four main factors they identify are as follows. First, there are historical institutions such as slavery and colonial rule. Second, the impact of cultural norms linked to religion, trust, family ties and beliefs. Third, there are geographical factors such as the terrain, temperature shocks and the frequency of floods. Fourth, historical accidents, such as the way national boundaries are drawn, also have an impact. These four factors together play an important role in the development trajectory of a country through time. The question is, what can be done to overcome these constraints in case they are a barrier to development? Can anything be done at all?”
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    Using cricket to learn about development economics. Or is it the other way around? Exactly the kind of article the world sees far too little of!
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  4. “The state legislators who are passing these bills know they will be challenged in court. They also know they will probably lose. But their sights appear to be set higher than their state jurisdictions: With a solidly conservative majority on the Supreme Court, anti-abortion advocates are eager to seed the challenge that could one day take down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 opinion that legalized abortion up to the point of fetal viability. At the very least, they hope the Supreme Court will undercut Roe and subsequent decisions that reaffirmed abortion rights, the idea being that each legal challenge makes it a little harder to obtain an abortion in the United States.”
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    Have you heard of Roe vs. Wade? Might you be curious to learn about what exactly culture has to do with economics, as we discussed in the link above? A useful, if unfortunate example is this article.
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  5. “What concerns health practitioners is the high transmissibility of the bug. “We studied the fungus in January, 2017, when we found it had colonized the skin of a patient who was referred to the Trauma Care ICU from another hospital. But within four days, it (bug) had spread to all the other patients admitted in the unit. All nine of them,” said professor Arunaloke Chakrabarti from Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh.”
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    Just in case your Monday wasn’t depressing enough. Be afraid – be very afraid.

Links for 17th May, 2019

  1. “Despite the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, except in a few states, there has been little progress at decentralization—to both rural and urban local bodies. Most state governments have been reluctant to devolve the functions, funds and functionaries for delivering public services at the local level. The functions assigned are unclear, funds uncertain and inadequate, and decision-making functionaries are mostly drawn from the state bureaucracy. Local bodies do not even have powers to determine the base and rate structure of the taxes assigned to them. The states have not cared to create institutions and systems mandated in the Constitution, including the appointment of the State Finance Commissions, and even when they are appointed, states have not found it obligatory to place their reports in the legislature. In fact, the local bodies are not clear about delivering local public goods, with the prominent agenda of implementing central schemes obscuring their functions.”
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    M. Govinda Rao pulls no punches in pointing out how and why decentralization hasn’t (and likely will not) taken place in India. This is a conversation more people need to be having in India – and in particular, to aid meaningful urbanization.
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  2. “I love this paper because it is ruthless. The authors know exactly what they are doing, and they are clearly enjoying every second of it. They explain that given what we now know about polygenicity, the highest-effect-size depression genes require samples of about 34,000 people to detect, and so any study with fewer than 34,000 people that says anything about specific genes is almost definitely a false positive; they go on to show that the median sample size for previous studies in this area was 345.”
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    Slate Star Codex helps us understand the importance of learning (and applying!) statistics. The website is more than worth following, by the way.
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  3. “Sucking the life out of a mango is one of those primal pleasures that makes life feel worthwhile. The process is both elaborate and rewarding. The foreplay that loosens up the pulp inside, the careful incision at the top that allows access without a juice overrun, and then the sustained act of sucking every bit juice from the helpless peel. Senses detach themselves from the body and attach themselves to the mango, and even mobile phones stop ringing. The world momentarily rests in our mouths as we slurp, suck and slaver at the rapidly disappearing pulp. The mango is manhandled vigorously till only the gutli remains which is scraped off till it has nothing left to confess. As is evident, there is no elegant way to eat this kind of mango, no delicate and dignified method that approximates any form of refinement, which is just as well, for the only way to enjoy a mango is messily.”
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    An excellent column about an excellent fruit – there isn’t that much more to say! I completely agree with the bit about serving aamras front and center, rather than as an afterthought, by the way.
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  4. “Welcome to the 4th Annual Top Economics Blogs list. For the 2019 edition, we’ve added many newcomers, as well as favorites which continue to provide quality insight year after year. Like lists in previous years (2018, 2017, 2016), the new 2019 list features a broad range of quality blogs in practically every economic discipline. Whether you are interested in general economics or prefer more specific topics such as finance, healthcare economics, or environmental economics; there is something here for you. You will also find blogs which focus on microeconomics, macroeconomics, and the economics of specific geographical regions.Whether you are a student, economics professional, or just someone with a general interest in how economic issues affect the world around you, you’re certain to find the perfect blog for your specific needs.”
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    The most comprehensive answer to that most perennial of questions: what should I read?
    Bonus! If you’re wondering how to keep up with all of this, this might help.
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  5. “India should do the same with our state capitals. The Union government can create fiscal and other incentives to encourage state governments to shift their capitals to brown- or green-field locations. Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Jaipur or Lucknow, for instance, will continue to thrive even if the state government offices move out. Their respective states will benefit from a new urban engine powered by government.”
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    I have been sceptical about the feasibility of doing something like this – my reading of urbanization has always been that it more of an organic process – cities grow (or not) of their own accord, and rarely as a planned endeavor. But maybe I’m wrong?

Links for 1st May, 2019

  1. “As McKinsey points out, governments, businesses and individuals will all have to embrace change and figure out the best ways to move towards digitisation — including on such basics as land records and business transparency (which could improve access to bank credit). There are also many aspects of this wave of digitisation that are not to the good—including the impact of toxic social media, the loss of privacy, and so on. The rules for this new world will have to be framed carefully to prevent business capture as well as political misuse, and to protect citizens from predatory action. What is required is to minimise the costs as much as to maximise the benefits. Still, the over-riding message is clear: The prospects of digitisation are so overwhelmingly advantageous, if not also inevitable, that those who become laggards in adapting to the new reality are the ones that will be left behind.”
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    T N Ninan (author of the excellent The Turn of the Tortoise) writes about the potential of “digital” India while reviewing a McKinsey report about the same topic. The scope, details and aspects of such a topic simply cannot be dealt with in a single post – but with that in mind, this is worth reading.
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  2. “The Right to Education Act in 2009 guaranteed access to free primary education for all children in India ages 6-14. This paper investigates whether national trends in educational data changed around the time of this law using household surveys and administrative data. We document four trends: (1) School-going increases after the passage of RTE, (2) Test scores decline dramatically after 2010, (3) School infrastructure appears to be improving both before and after RTE, and (4) The number of students who have to repeat a grade falls precipitously after RTE is enacted, in line with the official provisions of the law.”
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    That is the abstract of this paper. Also, have you read this book? Also, have you listened to this podcast? Also, keep an eye out for this Sunday’s video.
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  3. “China’s TFP surged in the 1980s following the agricultural and ownership reforms, in the 1990s following the state enterprise reforms and the creation of a modern housing market, and in the 2000s as China prepared for and was then able to exploit WTO membership.The key takeaway is that China’s one-party system deservedly has won plaudits when it has been most ambitious with regard to economic reforms and experimentation with market mechanisms. But this is not the case, for example, before the 1980s and again since 2012, when reforms were suppressed or stifled and inputs were boosted, but without any improvements.”
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    An interview that remains interesting throughout if you are a student of economics, or China and especially the intersection set. Troubling times ahead for the Chinese economy, it would seem – and on account of a variety of short term reasons, and one very important long term one – TFP.
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  4. “That was when he saw the light. Two small, black, rectangular boxes were stacked next to an outlet on the far side of the guest room, both facing the bed. From afar, they looked like phone chargers. But when Vest got closer, he realized they were cameras, and they were recording.”
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    Airbnb, technology, privacy and customer relations. A great way to learn that There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
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  5. “In 1960, 13.4% of the population age 20-74 was obese (as measured by having a Body Mass Index above 30). In 2016, 40% of the population was obese.
    In 1970, 37.1% of those age 18 and older were cigarette smokers. By 2017, this has fallen to 14.1%.”
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    Just two out of many, many interesting tidbits about America today, and America back then.

Links for 30th April, 2019

  1. “On average that means each MP represented 1.85 million people. Now it is 2.4 million. There can’t be anything more absurd in the world.”
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    A very short takeaway from a very interesting article, about an issue that not too many people have thought about – remapping India’s parliament. This is going to be rather complicated.
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  2. “Bayes classifiers seem natural, and in many applications they are. But an interesting insight is that some classification problems may have hugely different costs of type I and II errors, in which case an NP classification approach may be entirely natural, not clumsy. (Consider, for example, deciding whether to convict someone of a crime that carries the death penalty. Many people would view the cost of a false declaration of “guilty” as much greater than the cost of a false “innocent”.) ”
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    Stats nerds only – but if you are one, a fairly interesting set of papers awaits you at the bottom of this link.
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  3. “At the end of the book, Fukuyama, when discussing the contemporary China, writes that “good enough” rule of law is often sufficient for fast economic growth. Moreover, technology is much more important than property rights. Fukuyama points out that in a Malthusian world, no property rights will provide you with an economic surplus; but technological development will (p. 249).”
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    Reading this article should hopefully encourage you to read a little bit more about Hayek, Mancur Olson (which I myself have just started to do, courtesy prodding from a friend), and Fukuyama himself.
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  4. “There is one key idea of the book. If you wish to have a functional political order that enables economic growth and gives people freedom from arbitrariness of the sovereign or from oppression by their peers, you need three components: (i) a strong state, (ii) rule of law, and (iii) accountability.”
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    Do not diss either the excerpt, or the post, or the book it reviews. The link is in fact the first one from the article linked to in 3 above – but the post is important enough to merit a separate link.
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  5. “Thus, I agree with McCloskey that truly “thinking like an economist” is a very rare outcome in a principles course, and unless you are comfortable as a teacher with setting a goal that involves near-universal failure, it’s not a useful goal for instructors. But it also seems true to me that the series of topics in a conventional principles of economics course, and how they build on each other, does for many students combine to form a comprehensible narrative by the end of the class. The students are not thinking like economists. But they have some respect and understanding for how economist think.”
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    Gokhale Institute this August embarks upon an attempt to disprove this lovely article. Wish us luck.