The Rules of The Game

A fascinating, thought-provoking thread on the recent Chinese crackdown on tech. We covered this earlier this week, but the thread is worth reading and reflecting upon. Also note Lillian Li‘s background, if you are a student of economics. Studying development economics is not “cool”, got “nothing to do with finance”? Think again. Or, at the risk of being a little meta, ask yourselves about the rules of the game.

What’s Up with the World Outside of Covid-19?

Yash Agarwal, ex-student and good friend recently shared this link on Twitter.

The last line of the article shared by Yash goes like this:

What is starting today is a new age of technological wonder, the Great Acceleration.

https://spectator.us/topic/great-acceleration-looking-forward-post-covid-age/

The background to this is that Tyler Cowen had written a book some years ago called The Great Stagnation. The basic thesis in that book is that innovation was slowing down, since the low hanging fruit in terms of technical innovation had already been picked. But the book also spoke about how this was not to say that innovation was forever going to be slow – it’s just that it had slowed down around then.

He wasn’t the only one, by the way. There were quite a few folks who were less than impressed with technological progress aobut a decade ago. Everybody has heard of the comparison between Twitter and flying cars, but there’s much more where that came from:

In the 2010s, we largely decided that we were in the middle of a technological stagnation. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation came out in 2011, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth came out in 2016. Peter Thiel declared that “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”. David Graeber agreed. Paul Krugman lamented the lack of new kitchen appliances. Some economists asked whether ideas were simply getting harder to find. When the startup Juicero came out with a fancy new kitchen appliance, it was widely mocked as a symbol of what was wrong with the tech industry. “Tech” became largely synonymous with software companies, particularly social media, gig economy companies, and venture capital firms. Many questioned whether those sorts of innovations were making society better at all.
So it’s fair to say that the 2010s were a decade of deep techno-pessimism.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/techno-optimism-for-the-2020s

By the way, on a related note (although this deserves its own post, which will be out tomorrow) you may want to read this post by Morgan Housel in this regard.

In any case, Covid-19 has in some ways accelerated innovation, and that’s the point that Bruno Macaes1 is making in the article above.

Take transportation and energy: the demand for driverless cars and delivery vans boomed last year because people were fearful of getting infected. In response companies quickly scaled up their plans. Last October, for example, Waymo announced the launch of a taxi service that is fully driverless. Walmart announced in December its plans to use fully autonomous box trucks to make deliveries in Arkansas later this year. As retail goes online as a result of the pandemic, massive delivery volumes are now placing greater pressure on others to follow suit.

https://spectator.us/topic/great-acceleration-looking-forward-post-covid-age/

Note that without Covid-19, we would be having debate about automation, jobs and how technology is promoting inequality. That may well be true. But this is precisely why we study opportunity costs in college!


Perhaps the most interesting (to me) advance this past year has been in terms of we humans understanding how protein folding happens. Understanding is perhaps the wrong word to use (and note that I know as much biology as forecasters know about the future), but we have trained machines to understand it.

At CASP14 DeepMind produced an advance so thorough it compelled CASP organizers to declare the protein structure prediction problem for single protein chains to be solved. In my read of most CASP14 attendees (virtual as it was), I sense that this was the conclusion of the majority. It certainly is my conclusion as well.

https://moalquraishi.wordpress.com/2020/12/08/alphafold2-casp14-it-feels-like-ones-child-has-left-home/

As I understand it (and please note once again that I am no expert) this has the potential to change by orders of magnitude how we approach the treatment of a variety of diseases in this century.


But if you are anything like me, you are also curious to know about what else has been going on this past year. Again, before we proceed: this post is about the “what” in terms of scientific advancement. Tomorrow is a rumination about the “why”.

First, I’d referred to this interview in an earlier post, an interview of Patrick Collison by Noah Smith. It refers to some of what we have been speaking about, but much more as well:

I think the 2020s are when we’ll finally start to understand what’s going on with RNA and neurons. Basically, the prevailing idea has been that connections between neurons are how cognition works. (And that’s what neural networks and deep learning are modeled after.) But it looks increasingly likely that stuff that happens inside the neurons — and inside the connections — is an important part of the story. One suggestion is that RNA is actually part of how neurons think and not just an incidental intermediate thing between the genome and proteins. Elsewhere, we’re starting to spend more time investigating how the microbiome and the immune system interact with things like cancer and neurodegenerative conditions, and I’m optimistic about how that might yield significantly improved treatments. With Alzheimer’s, say, we were stuck for a long time on variants of plaque hypotheses (“this bad stuff accumulates and we have to stop it accumulating”)… it’s now getting hard to ignore the fact that the immune system clearly plays a major — and maybe dominant — role. Elsewhere, we’re plausibly on the cusp of effective dengue, AIDS, and malaria vaccines. That’s pretty huge.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-patrick-collison-co-founder

Second, Caleb Whitney has a lovely blogpost on this topic, and shares with us this chart – and if this chart isn’t beautiful, I do not know what is.

The tiny red vertical line tells you when the cause of the disease was identified, and the tiny green vertical line tells you when the cure was licensed in the United States of America. And now think of what happened with Covid-19!2

There’s much more in that post, and there’s more on Patrick Collison’s website, Matt Clancy’s reading list, Matt Clancy’s Substack, and this blogpost by Eli Dourado. I am sure there is more I have missed – much more! – but isn’t that only reinforcing my point?


It is easy to get caught up in the short term pessimistic narrative, and be overwhelmed by it. It happened to me last year, as I am sure it did to many, many other people on this planet. I gave up on what until then had been my proudest achievement in terms of my work: posting here every single day.

But on a personal level, the past year has also taught me this, and I have Morgan Housel to thank for the central insight: the seeds of calm are planted by crazy.3

So when things are really bad and grim (and again, this is not over yet), look to the bright side. And not just because it’s a good thing to do! But also because the bright side is likely to be brighter precisely because of everything else being so goddamn dark.

Tomorrow, I’ll attempt to answer a question I have, and I am sure you do as well: why?

  1. I don’t know how to type out a c with a cedilla in WordPress, my apologies[]
  2. Please note, covid-19 ain’t over yet, especially here in India. That’s not the point though. The point is to ask if the kind of progress we have made this past year would even have been possible in the past.[]
  3. The reverse is also probably true, more’s the pity[]

Links for 21st May, 2019

  1. “The latest edition of the World Cup will soon be upon us. Just ten teams this time, playing out their matches (including the warm-up games) in mainstream venues. No chance for an unheralded ground to get on the cricketing map – as Amstelveen and Edinburgh did in 1999. No chance for history to unfold in a far-off venue like Tunbridge Wells – which to this day has Indian tourists visiting every year, to hear about Kapil’s unbeaten 175.This time too, there will be much Geography to savour. Grounds, ends, winds and soils. Maybe even clouds on some days. Balls soaring towards the River Tone in Taunton. There will be schoolkids watching it all. Perhaps some among them will jot down names and trivia in the margins of their notebooks. Like this one schoolboy did close to three decades ago.”
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    A useful example of how learning about one thing can have entirely unexpected (but very pleasant) consequences. In this case, cricket as a geography teacher.
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  2. “Tech leaders across the industry are rethinking the role of their platforms’ incentives, in response to mounting criticism that technology platforms do more harm than good. Instagram is running a test where like counts are hidden to followers, but are viewable by the post’s account holder. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri told BuzzFeed News that the test wasn’t about incentivizing specific behavior but “about creating a less pressurized environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves” and focus less on like counts.”
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    This article is mostly about Twitter, but the excerpt is about how tech companies are responding to the huge backlash they are currently facing. Is the response enough? You be the judge!
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  3. “The Muslim world can easily find martyrs but what it urgently and desperately needs are statesmen, negotiators, advisors, scholars, and intellectuals who understand their times and peoples.”
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    This is a part of the world (Afghanistan) I know very, very little about – and in particular, the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s – which is what most of this book seems to be about. I plan to read it, for this reason.
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  4. “And that’s when I realized that they believe they will lose very little by associating themselves with Nath. They don’t expect anyone to boycott the film just because an actor accused of serial sexual predation is in it. The issue is not that the cost of the reshoot was too high, but that the costs imposed by society for not removing Nath from the film were too low.”
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    This article is worth reading for many, many reasons – some of which are too complicated to go into here. But here are the main reasons: Shruti Rajagopalan is always worth reading, this is an economic analysis of an ostensibly non-economic issue (is there such a thing?), and well – more people in India (and elsewhere) need to read this!
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  5. “You get your Raspberry Pi and hook it up to a monitor and a keyboard and a mouse, then you log on to it and … it’s just a Linux system, like the tilde.club machine, and ready for work. A new computer is the blankest of canvases. You can fill it with files. You can make it into a web server. You can send and receive email, design a building, draw a picture, write 1,000 novels. You could have hundreds of users or one. It used to cost tens of thousands of dollars, and now it costs as much as a fancy bottle of wine.”
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    A very long, but (to me at any rate) extremely readable article that is essentially an ode to technology.

Links for 14th May, 2019

  1. “The issue is much simpler: Do you trust Mark Zuckerberg and the other young lords of Silicon Valley to be good stewards of the world’s digital speech?”
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    Via Tyler Cowen, an interesting article about the unintended consequences of the evolution of Facebook. Worth reading to think about free speech, Facebook, Silicon Valley and the benefits of a well-rounded education.
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  2. “When and where should scientists report controversial research ideas that colleagues share with them in confidence? Have scientists acted inappropriately if they provide conventional research advice to someone conducting an unorthodox experiment?”
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    How should you think about policing the cutting edge of science – or anything, for that matter? What is the opportunity cost of policing – and what is the opportunity cost of not policing? I (and the article) don’t have any answers – but you should be thinking of these issues while reading it.
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  3. “It is a path humanity is already on, of course: When was the last time you ever read a map rather than got directions from Google? Or cracked a book to find an errant fact? It’ll be like that for so many things we do, as normal practices change to reflect and take advantage of the convenience and precision of AI.”
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    Kara Shwisher talks about emerging tech, and the (as she puts it) new internet. Worth reading to understand how technology is likely to evolve, and change.
  4. “Maybe Hanson could focus on this in his next book. Nevertheless, this book is a necessary corrective to the center-right, neo-liberal dogma of the last quarter century. To crudely paraphrase David Frum, if liberals and conservatives do not take control of mass immigration, the public will elect authoritarians to do the job because the job needs to be done.”
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    The Quillette reviews a book that defends Trump – a useful read to find out why Trump won, and what the thinking is of the processes that got him to where he is.
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  5. “It was in 1906 when the Indian National Congress, prompted by its leader Lokmanya Tilak and industrialist Ardeshir Godrej among others, promised to introduce the swadeshi element into the production of soaps.Ardeshir Godrej, a lawyer-turned-serial entrepreneur, along with his brother Pirojsha Burjorji co-founded the Godrej & Boyce manufacturing company, which is now a $4.54 billion Indian conglomerate called Godrej Group.”
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    A fascinating story about how the Godrej group got into the soap making business

Links for 1st March, 2019

  1. “What’s distinctive about modern cosmopolitanism is its celebration of the contribution of every nation to the chorus of humanity. It is about sharing. And you cannot share if you have nothing to bring to the table. Cosmopolitans worthy of the label have rhizomes, spreading horizontally, as well as taproots, delving deep; they are anything but rootless.”
    An excellent essay in defense of the idea of globalization and being cosmopolitan. Worth reading for many different reasons – understanding why Brexit may not make sense, understanding the etymology of ‘cosmopolitan’, and how affinity to those closest to you isn’t necessarily hatred for those a little bit farther away.
  2. “It might be difficult to believe that farms and physicians could use the same core compounds and never realize it—but pharmaceutical chemistry and agricultural chemistry are separate professional fields that attend different conferences, publish in different journals, and have no reason to talk to each other. Without medicine ever recognizing it, azoles came to account for one-fourth of all fungicides worldwide. They are used on cereals and seeds, tree fruits and soft fruits, vegetables and flowers, hops and beans. Because they kill fungi so effectively, their use has bled out of agriculture into a vast array of consumer goods, from paints to lumber to glue.”
    A rather alarming article about the rampant use of anibiotics – which is a theme common enough these days – across domains. You can’t help but be slightly alarmed when you read it, but all the same, it is heavily recommended reading – perhaps for that very reason. Sent to me by Aadisht Khanna, a never ending source of interesting information.
  3. “Asking a computer to ‘tell me about this picture’ poses other problems, though. We do not have HAL 9000, nor any path to it, and we cannot recognise any arbitrary object, but we can make a guess, of varying quality, in quite a lot of categories. So how should the user know what would work, and how does the system know what kind of guess to make? Should this all happen in one app with a general promise, or many apps with specific promises? Should you have a poster mode, a ‘solve this equation’ mode, a date mode, a books mode and a product search mode? Or should you just have mode for ‘wave the phone’s camera at things and something good will probably happen’? ”
    Benedict Evans, someone whose blog is worth following in any case, unpacks modern camera systems, and how they’re likely to change over the coming years – for the better is a matter of opinion.
  4. “A new circular from NSE changes the financing game for people who’ve been using the options market for financing deals. The NSE will require cash to be posted (instead of stocks or other instruments) as margin against call options shorted by participants in the longer term options markets.”
    This might not make sense to you if you don’t understand options, but if you do – please do read it. Fascinating – and also helps you understand why understanding anything by reading only a textbook never makes sense.
  5. “The American paddlefish is a beast. It weighs up to 160 pounds and can run seven feet long including its needle-nose snout. String one up and it looks like the Chrysler Building. The Roomba of the Ozarks, they patrol the waters with mouths open, filtering plankton through their gill rakers.But paddlefish have another quality — their eggs happen to taste quite a bit like Russian sevruga caviar. And that curious evolutionary fact explains why, in the mid-2000s, Russian émigrés began descending on tiny Warsaw, Missouri (pop. 2,177).”
    The story has more than its fair share of twists – and is worth reading for that reason alone. Plus, what better way to learn about markets?

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.