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.
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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.”
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    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.
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  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.”
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    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!
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  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.”
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    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.
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  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.”
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    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.
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  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.”
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    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.

Links for 27th March, 2019

  1. “As a program adapts and serves more people and more functions, it naturally requires tighter regulation. Software systems govern how we interact as groups, and that makes them unavoidably bureaucratic in nature. There will always be those who want to maintain the system and those who want to push the system’s boundaries. Conservatives and liberals emerge.”
    Here’s a useful thumb-rule. Read anything written by Atul Gawande. In this article, he speaks, nominally, about the difficulty of adapting to a new computer system that is being foisted upon the medical community. But there’s much more to unpack here! Adapting to systems, mutations within systems, the difficulty of scaling, substitutes and complements, opportunity costs – and much, much more.
  2. “Pig facial recognition works the same way as human facial recognition, the companies say. Scanners and software take in the bristles, the snout, the eyes and ears. The features are mapped. Pigs don’t all look alike when you know what to look for, they said.”
    The intersection of technology, pork and the culture that is China today. Some might call this dystopian, others might fret at how slow progress is – but the article is fascinating.
  3. “The level of u* is not fixed. It changes over time, driven by changes in labor laws, the minimum wage, government benefit programs, demographics and technology. For instance, u* might decline if workers, on average, are older; older workers are less likely to be unemployed. The level of u* might rise if unemployment benefits become more generous and this leads unemployed workers to be more picky about taking jobs.”
    NAIRU – or the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment, was one of the more nerdy acronyms I learnt when I was a student. This article does a good job of explaining exactly what this is, and why it matters. And most importantly, it does so in a way that isn’t confusing for the layperson.
  4. “These calculations make clear why economists so often argue against light rail and subway construction projects. They are so expensive that ridership can only begin to cover construction and maintenance costs if the systems operate at close to their physical capacity most of the time; that is, if there are enough riders to fill up the cars when they run on two- to three-minute headways for many hours per day. Since most proposed projects do not meet this standard, economists generally argue against them. Buses can usually move the projected numbers of riders at a fraction of the cost.”
    I am, and probably always will be, a huge fan of buses over other forms of public transport. And I will always be a big fan of public transport over private transport. This article explains why not just I, but other economists will also tend to favor buses over other forms of public transport.
  5. “The principle that you are presumed to be innocent unless and until you are convicted, after a fair trial, turns out, in practice, to be a different principle altogether: for the purposes of compensation, once you are convicted your conviction is deemed to be correct. You are presumed guilty for the rest of your life, irrespective of whether your trial was fair or unfair. It makes no difference that your conviction has been quashed. It makes no difference that new evidence – which ought to have been obtained by the police before your trial – shows that you are probably innocent. Those acting on behalf of the state may have bungled the investigation, and possibly even bent the rules to get you convicted. None of that is of any consequence. All that matters is whether you can prove that you suffered a “miscarriage of justice:” ”
    I teach statistics, and would happily spend an entire semester explaining how to frame the null, and more importantly, hot to not frame the null. This article does an excellent job of providing an all too important example of the latter.

Links for 12th March, 2019

  1. “We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”
    Umberto Eco on an exhibition that he is going to have at the Louvre… on lists. He explains why he likes the idea of lists so much – and says it’s not just him. Listicles are as old as humanity, and are around because we want to make the infinite understandable.
  2. “The drama started earlier this week, when Warner “revoked a previously agreed-upon publishing license” for India, according to Spotify, “for reasons wholly unrelated to Spotify’s launch in India.” Existing global deals don’t cover expansions into new territories, so when Spotify enters a country like India, it has to make a separate deal. With Warner pulling out, Spotify attempted to side-step a direct deal with the label using a controversial amendment in Indian law, which says “broadcasters” can obtain a license for copyrighted works even if the copyright owner denies use. In response, Warner fired back with a request for an injunction, forcing the case to the Indian court system.”
    I have subscribed to the service, and am quite happy with it so far. I also subscribe to Google Play music, but find Spotify’s playlists better organised, especially be genre. Google Play Music, as I see it, has two advantages: it allows you to upload up to 50 GB of your own songs to it’s servers, and you can then play them from anywhere. Second, it has the WB catalog – which Spotify doesn’t, and this article explains why.
  3. “Using the Excel app, you can take a picture of a printed data table on your Android device and automatically convert the picture into a fully editable table in Excel. This new image recognition functionality eliminates the need for you to manually enter hardcopy data. This capability is starting to roll out for the Excel Android app with iOS support coming soon.”
    I have tried it, and it works – albeit imperfectly. But if you have ever struggled with the beast that is MOSPI – or anything like it, this is likely bring a tear to your eye.
  4. “I think we’re at the point of no return. The omnichannel train has left the station. What would I do if I ran a retail business today? First, I would accept the fact that customers now love to shop both online and offline, and they expect two-day shipping for certain products and near flawless execution. The bar has been set high by Amazon. Then I would create a game plan that leverages my existing physical assets like warehouses, distribution centers and stores to offer new services like ship-from-store or pickup-at-store. I would also build new fulfillment centers specifically to fulfill online orders and ship to customers’ homes.”
    More useful for the infographic atop the excerpt above. The fourth section of the infographic is a mix of optimism and handwaving to me – unless you replace the word “will” by “should”. Also see the Stratechery article about value chains.
  5. “It is worth noting that individual citizens of some of the world’s most volatile regions have asked WMI for cloud seeding services. A growing body of research addresses the idea that many wars and conflicts are stoked by environmental problems, which are often underlain by weather problems. Increasing drought across north-central Africa has ruined crops, starved the populace and is thought to have enabled Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s invasion of northern Mali in 2012. A paper published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal stated that drought in Syria between 2007 and 2010 was the worst since instrumental record-keeping began, and caused widespread crop failure, mass migration and helped spark the Syrian conflict.”
    A Longread article on cloud seeding or “weather mod”. Worth it to understand what technology optimism means in practice, and to understand how long the attempted history of weather modification has been, and also for the photographs. For the photographs, I would recommend viewing this on the desktop.

Links for 8th March, 2019

  1. “The canonical source for enforcement is Facebook’s public community guidelines — which consist of two sets of documents: the publicly posted ones, and the longer internal guidelines, which offer more granular detail on complex issues. These documents are further augmented by a 15,000-word secondary document, called “Known Questions,” which offers additional commentary and guidance on thorny questions of moderation — a kind of Talmud to the community guidelines’ Torah. Known Questions used to occupy a single lengthy document that moderators had to cross-reference daily; last year it was incorporated into the internal community guidelines for easier searching.A third major source of truth is the discussions moderators have among themselves. During breaking news events, such as a mass shooting, moderators will try to reach a consensus on whether a graphic image meets the criteria to be deleted or marked as disturbing. But sometimes they reach the wrong consensus, moderators said, and managers have to walk the floor explaining the correct decision.”
    The Verge (Casey Newton, specifically), reporting on Facebook moderators – the human ones. This article is about the troubles they go through, and the costs they have to bear while doing so. A sobering read.
  2. “Our international panel of judges — Pete Souza, Austin Mann, Annet de Graaf, Luísa Dörr, Chen Man, Phil Schiller, Kaiann Drance, Brooks Kraft, Sebastien Marineau-Mes, Jon McCormack and Arem Duplessis — gave some insight on why they loved these shots. ”
    Worth it for at least two reasons – make that three. One, how skilled would you have to be, in the not too distant past, to take photographs as good as this? Two, the photographs themselves are quite breathtaking. Three, the commentary after each photograph helps you understand why those photographs are, in the opinion of the judges, so good.
  3. “India has the potential to be the single largest democratic free market economy in the world. But it needs to simultaneously cut down on its corruption, create jobs for millions of new entrants to the labor economy every year, stand up a new generation of digital-first behemoths, all the while balancing the needs of an incredibly diverse and cacophonous democracy buffeted by global markets and tastes. That’s ultimately a tall order, but if India wants to migrate from a “billionaire raj” to an “entrepreneur raj,” it will have to do all of that — at once.”
    The tech website TechCrunch, on India’s challenges in terms of becoming the next – not Silicon Valley – but China. If you want a more in-depth analysis of what is being spoken about here, I’d highly, highly recommend How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell.
  4. “Econocrats and academic scholars need to take a hard look at the rising implications of intellectual property law, cooperative agreements and proprietary agglomerations of data in stifling competitive behaviour and mobility of new firms. Aggregating more information on firm-level growth narratives and better information dissemination (for researchers) will help analyse firm-level productivity impacts on market growth and overall industrial productivity levels over time.”
    Somewhat related to what is linked to above, but also linked to a Twitter thread I linked to this past Saturday by Atif Mian. An interesting, if somewhat complicated read.
  5. “The National Company Law Appellate Tribunal ordered that no lender can declare its exposure to embattled IL&FS Group as nonperforming without its permission – even if there is a default. The ruling by the bankruptcy court, which is overseeing the government-sponsored $12.8 billion insolvency of the infrastructure financier-operator, undermines the Reserve Bank of India’s powers to make banks and nonbank finance firms present a truthful account of their financial position at all times.”
    This isn’t getting quite the coverage it should, but we’re putting a lot of stuff under what is very quickly becoming a very large blanket.