Links for 4th June, 2019

  1. ““Alexa, are you recording everything you hear?” It is a question more people are asking, though Amazon’s voice assistant denies the charges. “I only record and send audio back to the Amazon cloud when you say the wake word,” she insists, before referring questioners to Amazon’s privacy policy. Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, gives a similar answer. But as smart speakers from Amazon, Apple, Google and other technology giants proliferate (global sales more than doubled last year, to 86.2m) concerns that they might be digitally snooping have become more widespread. And now that these devices are acquiring other senses beyond hearing—the latest models have cameras, and future ones may use “lidar” sensors to see shapes and detect human gestures (see article)—the scope for infringing privacy is increasing. So how worried should you be that your speaker is spying on you?”
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    The article doesn’t answer the question it frames in as direct a fashion as readers might wish, but read this to understand that there is (as with everything else in life) a benefit to this technology, as also a cost.
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  2. “Many voters may have felt that others, more wealthier than them, were also being hurt by demonetization, and hence supported the adventurist move.The results of the second round of the YouGov-Mint Millennial Survey conducted in early 2019 suggest that even today and, despite all the evidence to the contrary, many urban youths who support the ruling party consider demonetization to be a great success of the government.”
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    Can you drive in reverse in a tunnel, Professor Hirschman? Livemint does a three year review of demonetization, and it is worth reading for a variety of reasons.
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  3. “Not all New York City views are created equal.Direct Central Park views may be the most valuable amenity in Manhattan real estate, but in a market filled with soaring new developments — some of which wind up blocking the views of other buildings — even a partial glimpse of a river, park or the city skyline can also command a hefty premium.”
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    This article is proof that microeconomics can be fun. But beyond that, it is also worth going through the article to take in the photographs. New York looks gorgeous!
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  4. “What Microsoft figured out is that it made far more sense for both Microsoft and their customers to pay on a subscription basis: companies would pay a set price on a monthly or annual basis, and receive access to the latest-and-greatest software. This wasn’t a complete panacea — updating software was still a significant undertaking — but at least the incentive to avoid upgrades was removed.There were also subtle advantages from a balance sheet perspective: now companies were paying for software in a rough approximation to their usage over time — an operational expense — as opposed to a fixed-cost basis. This improved their return-on-invested-capital (ROIC) measurements, if nothing else. And, for Microsoft, revenue became much more predictable.”
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    Ben Thompson helps one understand Microsoft, SaaS, Slack, Zoom and a simple way to understand what makes new businesses potentially attractive – be sure to read through the entire article to reach the four quadrant diagram at the end. Entirely worth your time.
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  5. “When it was finally time to deploy, with no hint from the U.S. or China or Brazil or India that anyone would send out a countering air force to simply knock the planes out of the sky, the three billionaires went back to the island and sent the aerosols tumbling through the stratosphere. There was no ceremony, no champagne, no photographs. This was nothing to be celebrated.”
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    My phrase-I-learned-today: Solar Radiation Management.
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Links for 30th May, 2019

  1. “While England are the clear favourites, the rest of the field is pretty even. Any team can beat any other on its day. India have their best-ever bowling attack in a World Cup, and Virat Kohli is the greatest batsman ever in this form of the game – but I am worried about their chances of winning it. The reason for that is strategic understanding. Kohli’s captaincy can be dubious at times in the shorter forms of the game, and he would consistently underestimate par scores while playing for his franchise in the IPL. The team has the talent to win – but does it have the approach?”
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    Amit Varma on how T20 changed the approach to ODI cricket, among other things. As always, worth reading.
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  2. “The result is the same – looking at all-time data, games where the team batting first scored between 200 and 250 are the most interesting. While games in this range remain interesting even after the 2015 World Cup, we find that games in the 250-300 range are on average more interesting, with interestingness sharply dropping off after 300.”
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    Karthik S. disagrees with Amit Varma’s article above – which is kind of the point of being a cricket fan. And that point, of course, spills over into other domains as well!
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  3. “The Louvre pyramid also highlights Pei’s tendency to recycle his own ideas. This practice is no disgrace if an abandoned original of merit is ultimately realized or improved with further development. Frank Lloyd Wright often dusted off plans for buildings that were sidelined for one reason or another and sometimes recycled them successfully. Pei’s first attempt to realize a monumental sloping glass structure was his initial 1966 proposal for the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, for a site next to the Harvard campus in Cambridge.”
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    I know next to nothing about architecture (if that!), but I enjoyed reading this article about IM Pei. Tangentially, this also reminded me of A. R. Rehman and his decision to reuse some tracks for Slumdog Millionaire. The parallels are hard to miss – and therein lies a useful lesson.
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  4. “Given that robots can move through space in uniquely nonhuman ways, they wouldn’t necessarily be subject to boundaries between private and public spaces that constrain delivery people, allowing them to move goods in and out of homes in a constant flow. Amazon already has its “smart” lock system allow human carriers to enter a home briefly to drop off packages, and Wal-Mart is testing a similar system that lets its workers deliver groceries to a home’s refrigerator. But fully automated robots could travel deeper into homes without compromising privacy. You wouldn’t need to get dressed to greet a robot, if you noticed its arrival at all. It might unobtrusively enter and leave through an opening the size of a pet door.”
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    What all can robots do? The paragraph above, in particular, was striking to me. Here’s why: I thought of the problem in this way – what can robots change in the way homes are run? The excerpt forced me to think the other way around: how do homes need to change to best utilize robots? Again, a useful lesson! Both links above (3 and 4) are thanks to The Browser. I subscribe to it, and so far, I am not regretting it at all.
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  5. “China took the first shots, and they took them a long time ago. For over a decade U.S. services companies have been unilaterally shut out of the China market, even as Chinese alternatives had full reign, running on servers built with U.S. components (and likely using U.S. intellectual property).
    To be sure, China’s motivation was not necessarily protectionism, at least in the economic sense: what mattered most to the country’s ruling Communist Party was control of the flow of information. At the same time, from a narrow economic perspective, the truth is that China has been limiting the economic upside of U.S. companies far longer than the U.S. has tried to limit China’s.”
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    The USA hasn’t started the trade war with China under President Trump, it has responded to China’s “shots across the bows”. Please read the entire article, it is an important one.

Links for 11th April, 2019

  1. “Who has the upper hand in bargaining for wages and employment benefits? Who dominates markets and who must submit to market forces? Who can move across borders and who is stuck at home? Who can evade taxation and who cannot? Who gets to set the agenda of trade negotiations and who is excluded? Who can vote and who is effectively disenfranchised? We argue that addressing such asymmetries makes sense not only from a distributional standpoint, but also for improving overall economic performance. Economists have a powerful theoretical apparatus that allows them to think about such matters.”
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    Dani Rodrik makes the case for rewriting economics, rather than tinkering with it at the margins, in order to really tackle the problems that the world faces today. An article worth reading – I’d linked to their manifesto earlier.
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  2. “In San Lucar, selfish behavior is unacceptable. But in New York, a city with 8 million people, selfish behavior is the norm. It’s a dog-eat-dog mentality. Policemen are everywhere and sirens are the sound of the city. During rush hour on 5th Avenue, pedestrians fight like soldiers on a battlefield. They step over homeless people, weave through strangers, and J-Walk through red lights.Why are people so cooperative in San Lucar, but so selfish in New York?”
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    If you are a student of game theory, you already know that the answer is game theory. But the article is worth reading because it should prompt you to wonder if there is a deeper answer than the one provided – and Adam Smith might be a good place to begin.
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  3. “First, declining growth is a key, albeit low-frequency, cause of today’s social and economic distress. Second, the unfortunate consequences of the ICT revolution are not inherent properties of technological change. Rather, as Rajan notes, they reflect a “failure of the state and markets to modulate markets.” Though Rajan does not emphasize it, this second point gives us cause for hope. It means that ICT need not doom us to a jobless future; enlightened policymaking still has a role to play.”
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    Angus Deaton reviews Raghuram Rajan’s latest book, and leaves us with a sense of appreciation for the book (and in my case, a desire to read it), but also with a deep sense of foreboding about where we may end up as a society.
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  4. “That leads to a broader point: “tech” is not simply another category, like railroads or telecom. Tech is a means, not an end, but Senator Warren’s approach presumes the latter. That is why she proposes the same set of rules for the sale of toasters and the sale of apps, and everything in between. The truth is that Amazon is a retailer; Apple a combination of hardware maker and platform makers. Google is a search and advertising company, and Facebook a publishing and advertising company. They all have different value chains and different ways of impacting competition, both fairly and unfairly, and to fail to appreciate just how different they are is a great way to make bad laws that not only fail to fix problems but also create entirely new ones.”
    Ben Thompson on how to think about tech (and in a very long article, this excerpt really matters): tech is the means to an end, and therein lies all the difference in the world.
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  5. “You may never have heard of Islamestan, in Chinese Turkestan, or its one-time “king”, Bertram Sheldrake. Islamestan is long gone, swallowed up in the historical shifts of a turbu­lent region, but for a brief and unlikely moment, an English pickle-factory heir ruled, with his wife, Sybil, over the newly independent Muslim country, to the far west of China.”
    Stories don’t get much better than this, and that’s putting it mildly.

Links for 6th March, 2019

  1. “A new transatlantic alliance will require both a U.S. president who recognizes its value and Europeans who are able to overcome their own internal divisions and commit to an equal partnership. The next alliance cannot be only about channeling U.S. contributions to European security; it must also be a global partnership to which each side contributes in order to protect their mutual security and economic interests. That sort of alliance remains possible. It is worth fighting for.”
    Not for the optimistic note that it strikes at the end of the article, but rather for the good summary of the history of the alliance between America and Europe, and how it hasn’t always been rocky – but never before as at risk as it is today.
  2. “I long held the belief that my grandfather felt regret at Pakistan’s creation because of the bloody years of the War on Terror, but now I know that he saw far worse. I wonder whether the regret came to him early, or if it was the last straw, his final impression of the history of a country he was able to witness from birth until his own death. ”
    Via The Browser, an article from a Pakistani about Pakistan – ranging from his grandfather and the start of that country, to the sad mess that is has become since.
  3. “In other words, what matters is not “technological innovation”; what matters is value chains and the point of integration on which a company’s sustainable differentiation is built; stray too far and even the most fearsome companies become also-rans.”
    I am teaching a part of the course on Industrial Organization at Gokhale Institute, and every so often, I feel like outsourcing it to Stratechery. This article is one reason why – it helps you not just understand what value chains are, but provides multiple examples of how to think about them, and through them. As almost always with Stratechery, a great read.
  4. “I think that a lot of people, on some level what they think they’re doing when they sponsor young co-workers is spotting talent—they called it “talent-mapping” in the accounting firm we studied. But a lot of people we talked to were also able to reflect and say, “Part of why I was excited about that person, probably, is because they reminded me of a younger version of myself.” The word we use in sociology is homophily—people like people who are like themselves.”
    File this under a variety of things: hiring practices, labor productivity, people compatibility – but more than anything, I’d file it under behavioral economics, and the word homophily.
  5. “It’s more important than ever to manage your passwords online, and also harder to keep up with them. That’s a bad combination. So the FIDO Alliance—a consortium that develops open source authentication standards—has pushed to expand its secure login protocols to make seamless logins a reality. Now Android’s on board, which means 1 billion devices can say goodbye to passwords in more digital services than seen before”
    It didn’t take long to go from unlocking your phone with your fingerprint to unlocking everything online with a fingerprint. How long before the next innovation in security and identity comes along, and will it mean that the phone will become irrelevant? A question worth pondering.

Links for 19th February, 2019

  1. “…granted, most supply has moved to Facebook and other social networks; it is no longer possible to build a viable web business with display ads. At the same time, the web is still as open as can be, which means there is room for new business models like subscriptions, a model that has only gotten started and is already producing far better content than the old mass market media model every (sic) did”
    The always excellent Stratechery blog on Spotify moving into the podcasting business. Read this to understand how pricing works in the world of the internet, and how an ad-based business is going to be difficult to sustain.
  2. “Goodhart’s law states that once a social or economic measure is turned into a target for policy, it will lose any information content that had qualified it to play such a role in the first place.”
    A current favorite of mine as an example: students must attend at least 75% of all classes in a semester assumes that a student will auto-magically learn once in class – for that is the reason behind the 75% attendance requirement. Do read, though. I’m sure you can think of a million different applications.
  3. “The constitution ensured that the Senate could protect the people against themselves, and simultaneously ensured that the Framers armored the Senate against the people. Should America be too Democratic, and grant too much power to the House, Madison worried that government would have a propensity “to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factitious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.””
    As an Indian, I enjoyed reading this as a reminder of the thinking behind the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha. And which is why I’d recommend you read it too!
  4. “What these results suggest is the headline inflation – expected to be in the 3% handle in the near future – will eventually start converging, over a 12-month period, towards core inflation which is currently running above 5%. If this were to come to pass, space for any monetary policy easing cycle – notwithstanding a one-off cute in February or April this year – would virtually evaporate.”
    Expect there to be an intense discussion about the differences between headline (overall) and core (overall minus fuel and food) inflation. This article is a decent analysis of the link between the two in the past, and today.
  5. “Consider Ms. Nishimasa’s daily routine. The preschool her two youngest children attend requires the family to keep daily journals recording their temperatures and what they eat twice a day, along with descriptions of their moods, sleeping hours and playtime. On top of that, her 8-year-old son’s elementary school and after-school tutoring class require that a parent personally signs off on every homework assignment.”
    A fascinating read from the NYT, to help us better understand the culture that is Japan.

Links for 4th February, 2019

  1. “The classic example in language is that a doctor is male and a nurse is female. If these biases exist in a language then a translation model will learn it and amplify it. If an occupation is [referred to as male] 60 to 70 percent of the time, for example, then a translation system might learn that and then present it as 100 percent male. We need to combat that.”The Verge interviews Macduff Hughes, the head of Google Translate. Worth reading for understanding applications of AI, the amount of bias that exists in our culture (along various dimensions), and the garbage in, garbage out problem.
  2. “This was a great year for iPhone customers, but perhaps not for Apple itself… Technology is outpacing customer need and phone lifespans are ever-longer, which we saw hurt Apple’s bottom line.”Keeping a tab on Apple makes sense, and this is a good place to start. Apple has had a difficult year for many reasons, but the most important reason has been a multi-year phenomenon – Apple has gotten too good for its own good.
  3. Ben Thompson tells it like it is:
    “While I know a lot of journalists disagree, I don’t think Facebook or Google did anything untoward: what happened to publishers was that the Internet made their business models — both print advertising and digital advertising — fundamentally unviable. That Facebook and Google picked up the resultant revenue was effect, not cause. To that end, to the extent there is concern about how dominant these companies are, even the most extreme remedies (like breakups) would not change the fact that publishers face infinite competition and have uncompetitive advertising offerings.”
    Worth reading for an excellent discussion of the law of conservation of profits, the Buzzfeed firings that took place recently, and the future of media.
  4. As Tyler Cowen never tires of saying, “solve for the equilibrium“:
    “The content industry spent years trying to battle piracy via all manner of heavy handed-tactics and lawsuits, only to realize that offering users inexpensive, quality, legitimate services was the best solution. Many users flocked to these services because they provided a less-expensive, more flexible alternative to traditional cable.Now, if the industry isn’t careful, it could lose a sizeable chunk of this newfound audience back to piracy by making it overly expensive and cumbersome to access the content subscribers are looking for.”
    Worth reading for why piracy may yet re-emerge, a good understanding of market entry and exit, and competition and its implications.
  5. “The market valuation of Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (BAT) is more than a quarter of India’s GDP.”
    What a stunning statistic. The rest of the blog post is a good way to acquaint yourself with how China has seen it’s internet ecosystem grow, and where India could improve.