Tech: Links for 9th July, 2019

  1. “In it, astronaut Sally Jansen has been working to come to grips with a Mars mission that went disastrously wrong, and NASA ended its crewed missions into space. But while she’s trying to move on, scientists detect an object designated 2I/2044 D1 entering our solar system, and when it begins to slow down, they realize that it’s an alien artifact. Jansen is called in to try and intercept the object and figure out what is behind it before it reaches Earth.”
    ..
    ..
    Science Fiction is a great way to learn a lot and have a lot of fun while doing so, and for that reason, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the premise of this book. In similar vein, I recently (and finally) finished The Three Body Problem, and can heartily recommend it.
    ..
    ..
  2. “The camera was loaded with machine vision algorithms trained by Hamm himself. They identified whether Metric was coming or going and whether he had prey in his mouth. If the answer was “yes,” the cat flap would lock for 15 minutes and Hamm would get a text. (In a nice flourish, the system also sends a donation, or “blood money” as Hamm calls it, to the National Audubon Society, which protects the birds cats love to kill.)”
    ..
    ..
    There are many people who bandy about the word AI these days, but this very short read (and within it, a very entertaining video) helps you understand how it could by applied in myriad ways.
    ..
    ..
  3. “LightSail 2 is more ambitious and will actually try to maneuver through space, and even boost itself into different orbits using sunlight. The new mission’s mission control website will let people around the world follow along, including the 23,331 people who contributed to the project’s Kickstarter campaign, which raised $1,241,615 for the spacecraft.”
    ..
    ..
    A third link from the same website (either The Verge is on fire, or I am being lazy today), but the best of the lot, in my opinion. It is now possible to crowdfund a satellite launch that contains a sail – and you can now watch your investment in space as it flies above your head. What a time to be alive.
    ..
    ..
  4. “But while Tufte’s concerns are not limited to charts, he has spent a lifetime thinking through what he called the “perennial” problem of how to represent a multidimensional world in the two dimensions of the page or screen. At the end of the day, he pulled out a first edition of Galileo Galilei to show how the great minds of the past had grappled with the same issues. He rhapsodized over Galileo’s tiny, in-line sketches of Saturn, which clearly inspired his own advocacy of “sparklines” (tiny charts embedded in text at the same size as the text), as well as some beautifully precise illustrations of sunspots.”
    ..
    ..
    Data visualization, medical visits, Galileo and sparklines. As they say, self-recommending.
    ..
    ..
  5. “And with 92 percent of future jobs globally requiring digital skills, there’s a focus on helping students develop skills for careers that don’t yet exist. Last year, Sweden declared coding a core subject to be taught from the first year of primary school. And there is an appetite for these skills among students, too, with 85 percent of Brazilians from 16-23 indicating that they want to work in the technology sector. ”
    ..
    ..
    Well, there’s a thought – I refer to Sweden’s decision. One, complements, not substitutes. Two, the links are worth following in this link – this is a subject very close to my heart.
Advertisements

Tech: Links for 25th June, 2019

I have linked to some of these piece in the past, but this set of posts is still useful in terms of creating a common set of links in one place for you to understand how to think about Aggregation Theory. If you can afford it, I heavily recommend Stratechery!

  1. “What is the critical differentiator for incumbents, and can some aspect of that differentiator be digitized?
    ..
    ..
    If that differentiator is digitized, competition shifts to the user experience, which gives a significant advantage to new entrants built around the proper incentives
    ..
    ..
    Companies that win the user experience can generate a virtuous cycle where their ownership of consumers/users attracts suppliers which improves the user experience”
    ..
    ..
    Begin here: this piece explains what aggregation theory is all about, and why it matters.
    ..
    ..
  2. “Super-Aggregators operate multi-sided markets with at least three sides — users, suppliers, and advertisers — and have zero marginal costs on all of them. The only two examples are Facebook and Google, which in addition to attracting users and suppliers for free, also have self-serve advertising models that generate revenue without corresponding variable costs (other social networks like Twitter and Snapchat rely to a much greater degree on sales-force driven ad sales).”
    ..
    ..
    Aggregators on steroids: what exactly makes Google and Facebook what they are? This article helps you understand this clearly. Also read the article on super aggregators itself.
    ..
    ..
  3. “There is a clear pattern for all four companies: each controls, to varying degrees, the entry point for customers to the category in which they compete. This control of the customer entry point, by extension, gives each company power over the companies actually supplying what each company “sells”, whether that be content, goods, video, or life insurance.”
    ..
    ..
    This article explains the FANG playbook, and how they became what they are today: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google.
    ..
    ..
  4. “To explain why, it is worth examining all four companies with regards to:Whether or not they have a durable monopoly
    What anticompetitive behavior they are engaging in
    What remedies are available
    What will happen in the future with and without regulator intervention”
    ..
    ..
    Ben Thompson states just above this paragraph that he is neither a lawyer nor an economist. But the last two questions in the list above show that he’d make a pretty good economist. He is, in essence, asking what is the opportunity cost of breaking up these firms. As the song goes: with the bad comes the good, and the good comes the bad.
    ..
    ..
  5. “All those apps are doing is providing an algorithm that lowers search costs and makes booking easy. Expedia didn’t design, build and maintain the airplane that flew him to Sydney; build or operate the airport; train pilots; or find, produce, refine and transport the necessary jet fuel to power the plane over its continental voyage. Uber didn’t design and manufacture the car used to transport him to his hotel; find, produce, and process the raw materials that go into it (such as steel and aluminium); or actually drive him from the airport to his hotel. AirBnB didn’t design, build, maintain, or clean the house he stayed in, nor supply it with electricity. UberEats and OpenTable didn’t grow and process any raw foodstuffs, or use them to cook a meal, and TripAdvisor didn’t design, manufacture or operate any of the tourist attractions he visited.In fact, all these companies did was write some pretty simple code that made matching buyers with sellers easier and more efficient, and the real question that should be being asked is whether these platform companies are extracting too much value from the supply chain relative to their value-add, and whether that is likely to be a sustainable situation in the long term, or will invite potential disruption and/or an eventual supply-side/regulatory response.”
    ..
    ..
    BUT, on the other hand, perhaps this is just old wine in a new bottle?

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?”
    ..
    ..
    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.
    ..
    ..
  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.”
    ..
    ..
    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.
    ..
    ..
  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.”
    ..
    ..
    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!
    ..
    ..
  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.”
    ..
    ..
    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.
    ..
    ..
  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.”
    ..
    ..
    My phrase-I-learned-today: Solar Radiation Management.

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.”
    ..
    ..
    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.
    ..
    ..
  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.”
    ..
    ..
    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.
    ..
    ..
  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.”
    ..
    ..
    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.
    ..
    ..
  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.”
    ..
    ..
    Airbnb, technology, privacy and customer relations. A great way to learn that There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
    ..
    ..
  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%.”
    ..
    ..
    Just two out of many, many interesting tidbits about America today, and America back then.

Links for 22nd April, 2019

  1. “It all comes down to money, and in this case, MCAS was the way for both Boeing and its customers to keep the money flowing in the right direction. The necessity to insist that the 737 Max was no different in flying characteristics, no different in systems, from any other 737 was the key to the 737 Max’s fleet fungibility. That’s probably also the reason why the documentation about the MCAS system was kept on the down-low.Put in a change with too much visibility, particularly a change to the aircraft’s operating handbook or to pilot training, and someone—probably a pilot—would have piped up and said, “Hey. This doesn’t look like a 737 anymore.” And then the money would flow the wrong way.”
    ..
    ..
    The most readable account I have read about what went wrong with the 737 Max. I do not know if it is correct or not, in the sense that I do not have the ability to judge the technical “correctness” of the piece – but I did understand whatever was written. A sobering read about checks and balances gone wrong in many, many ways.
    ..
    ..
  2. “Hardly sounds plausible. But there it is: Donald Fagen and Walter Becker—two super-fans of the genres they creatively appropriated—made some incredible, snarling, cynical, viciously groovy easy listening music, and it has more than held up over the decades since they released their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill in 1972. Despite decades of critical praise and hit after hit, they also remain a profoundly misunderstood band.”
    ..
    ..
    The article doesn’t actually deconstruct Steely Dan as much as they might have, but if you haven’t heard of the band, this is a good place to start to learn more about them, and then maybe listen to their music. But also a good way to learn about the benefits of non-conformity, and doing what you really like without worrying too much about the consequences – a powerful lesson!
    ..
    ..
  3. “The iPad was not in the basket. Ollie, it turns out, had got hold of it and gone to town on the passcode, trying one idea after another, with the fury and focus of Alan Turing trying to beat the Nazis. It’s not clear how many codes Ollie tried, but, by the time he gave up, the screen said “iPad is disabled, try again in 25,536,442 minutes.” That works out to about forty-eight years. I took a picture of it with my phone, wrote a tweet asking if anyone knew how to fix it, and went downstairs to dinner.”
    ..
    ..
    A short read from the New Yorker about, ostensibly, a toddler and an iPad, but also about empathy, technology, stuff going viral. Interesting because it is short, and we can all feel the pain.
    ..
    ..
  4. “News floods the investment landscape about something strange in the land of debt funds. It turns out that:a) Kotak Mutual Fund has an FMP maturing April 8, and they won’t be able to pay the full maturity amount. They will pay some now, and the remaining “later”.

    b) HDFC Mutual Fund also has an FMP maturing soon. They will postpone the maturity of the fund if you so choose, by one year. But if you don’t vote to postpone, you will get the maturity value but a lesser amount than the NAV tells you.

    Whoa, you think. How can I be paid lesser than NAV? Isn’t that the very concept of an NAV? Isn’t it supposed to reflect what I’m supposed to be paid when I exit?

    Of course it is. And that’s why the mutual funds have had to take it on the chin for pretending it is not. Or rather, for ensuring it is not. But before that, let’s understand what the drama is all about.”
    ..
    ..
    Deepak Shenoy warns us at the very outset that this is a long post, and he isn’t kidding. But that being said, it is a wonderful way of helping us understand what exactly went wrong with the FMP saga.
    ..
    ..

  5. “Anticipating this discomfiting development long ago, Parliament passed an amendment during the Emergency years in 1976, freezing all delimitation as per the 1971 census, up to the census of 2001. Also, even after the redrawing of constituency boundaries, the total number of MPs per state was kept frozen. In 2000, another amendment postponed the day of reckoning to 2026. Thus, only after 2026 will we consider changing the number of seats in Parliament. Till then, everything is frozen as per the 1971 census. Remember, in 1971, India’s population was 548 million, and by 2031, the first census after 2026, it may well be close to 1.4 billion. The great apprehension is that redrawing boundaries and distributing the existing 550 MPs might mean that the south will lose a lot of seats to the north. Even if more members are added to the Lok Sabha, that incremental gain will mostly go to the northern states.”
    ..
    ..
    This was written a year ago, but this is a problem that we should think more and more about in the years to come. Changing the shape of our Lok Sabha needs to happen by 2026. How is an extremely interesting question.

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 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.