Etc: Links for 18th October, 2019

  1. “If I win, I’ll be 18,000 chips to 2,000 chips ahead. If Levitt wins, game over.”
    ..
    ..
    Tim Harford plays poker with Steve Levitt. This was a very enjoyable read!
    ..
    ..
  2. “And yet there is something about TikTok’s presence in mainstream culture — as a testing ground for “real” stars, as an Emmys joke about what the kids are into — that underestimates the power of the thing itself. It feels as if there are endless TikTok universes unfolding all at once. And so last week, over 48 hours, five critics of The New York Times with different specialties and varying familiarity with the app took a look at what it has to offer.”
    ..
    ..
    The NYT profiles tiktok – we are clearly in peak tiktok territory now.
    ..
    ..
  3. “During one such inspection in 1731, a British merchant captain named Robert Jenkins protested the intrusion, and in the ensuing scuffle the Spanish captain’s blade somehow separated Captain Jenkins from his left ear. This civilian injury was far from newsworthy back in Britain—after all, smuggling was a rough business. Eight years later, however, when Great Britain sought a pretext for war, it became politically expedient for British politicians to suffer outrage over this unauthorized amputation. Legend has it that Captain Robert Jenkins himself held aloft the very ear in question at a Parliamentary hearing, as evidence for the grave insult to the crown—though there is no historical proof that this exhibition actually occurred. Ear regardless, the outrage was successfully fabricated, and the resulting years of hostilities would come to be known as “The War of Jenkins’ Ear.””
    ..
    ..
    11,000 words, but all of them fascinating. This is about a ill fated expedition through the Drake passage. Via The Browser.
    ..
    ..
  4. “But the purpose of chronic pain, which scientists define as pain that lasts for more than three months after its initial cause, is more mysterious. The pain’s origin might be muscular-skeletal – the result of a fall, perhaps – or neuropathic, caused by damage to the nervous system. Or it might be a result of a long-term condition, such as fibromyalgia. Whichever way, it is a pain that has gone on beyond its expected life span and does not respond to medication. Often it is a discomfort that has become invisible and shifted shape, growing harder to understand the greater the distance from its original cause. A physiotherapist suggested to me that chronic pain was like a musician being given a piece of sheet music to play. The musician learns the music and when the music is taken away, she continues to play it. The body has learned the pain by heart.”
    ..
    ..
    On the tragedy of, and a potential solution to, chronic pain.
    ..
    ..
  5. The Madras Courier on a short history of the telephone.
Advertisements

Etc: Links for 12th July, 2019

  1. “Often failure is simply failure, and a setback is exactly what it seems. But sometimes the obstacle that has been placed in our path might provoke us to look around, and perhaps to discover that a better route was there all along.”
    ..
    ..
    Tim Harford on the Doris Day effect
    ..
    ..
  2. “If I have to be curt, they’re famous for being famous. Another way of understanding how a family (+ dogs+friends+assistants) has risen to unprecedented levels of fame and fortune is by the Principle of Cumulative Advantage. This principle is also known as the Matthew Effect, and refers to the phenomenon of those who already have an advantage acquiring more of it. This concept is applicable to both financial and social capital.”
    ..
    ..
    …and since the previous article mentioned it, Reshu Natani in Think Pragati on the Matthew Effect.
    ..
    ..
  3. “The last time I saw Bourdain was a few months ago, at a party in New York, for one of the books released by his imprint at the publishing house Ecco—of his many projects, his late-career role as a media rainmaker was one he assumed with an almost boyish delight. At the bar, where I’d just picked up my drink, he came up and clapped me on the shoulder. “Remember when you asked me if I was a feminist, and I was afraid to say yes?” he said, in that growling, companionable voice. “Write this down: I’m a fuckin’ feminist.”
    ..
    ..
    A lovely essay on the late Anthony Bourdain. Just in case you haven’t, do read this – the article that started it all.
    ..
    ..
  4. “5-MeO-DMT is produced in large amounts by Bufo alvarius, a rare species of toad commonly known as the Colorado river toad or the Sonoran desert toad. When preyed upon, the toad secretes a venom that repels predators by causing them to, in scientific terms, trip balls. Psychonauts discovered that you can milk the toads’ venom, dry it out, and smoke it. The substance’s close relative, DMT, is an active ingredient in the traditional shamanic brew known as ayahuasca, but what they say about smoking the toad is that it’s like riding a rocket to the same place of total ego death that ayahuasca takes you to by riverboat.”
    ..
    ..
    That, the excerpt above, is not what this article is about. It is about Mike Tyson. He, as the title says, smokes the toad.
    ..
    ..
  5. “There are many ways to achieve success and fulfillment that do not involve attending an elite college. Instead of encouraging people to pursue options well-matched to their abilities, however, we tell young people that their self-worth hinges entirely on the brand name on their college diploma. This creates a perverse incentive to do whatever it takes to get into their dream school, to amass tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, and to select a major based not on the professional opportunities it will open to them but on the ease of the program’s academic requirements. Small wonder we now have a generation drowning in debt and struggling to meet the traditional benchmarks of adulthood.”
    ..
    ..
    A long, but very reasoned rant about education in America, and about how it isn’t quite as good as it is made out to be. Also, that rare article that distinguishes between education (teaching) and research.

Etc: Links for 5th July, 2019

  1. “…in the series, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a member of the Academy of Sciences, lives in nearly the same kind of squalor as a fireman in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat. In fact, Legasov would have lived in an entirely different kind of squalor than the fireman did.”
    ..
    ..
    This is one of many, of course, but that line above was particularly illuminating. A review of the excellent series, Chernobyl.
    ..
    ..
  2. “The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.”
    ..
    ..
    Neal Stephenson (whose books are excellent, and uniformly so) on productivity.
    ..
    ..
  3. “Thanos, observing that there were too many people, decided to kill half of them. But this is curiously short-sighted for a man regarded by many as a policy prophet. Any exponential population growth process will soon replace the lost people: that is why exponential growth is such a headache in the first place. For example, if an economy’s resource footprint grows exponentially at a rate of 7 per cent, it doubles in just ten years — meaning that in less time than has elapsed since the first Iron Man movie, we could be back where we started.The only lasting solution is an economy that uses resources at a sustainable rate. Malthus’s qualms notwithstanding, contraception has been a very good start. The world population growth rate is steadily approaching a very sustainable-sounding zero.”
    ..
    ..
    Tim Harford analyzes Thanos like only an economist can.
    ..
    ..
  4. “Imagine you’re cooking a roast dinner for your family of four. You opt for beef with all the trimmings, safe in the knowledge that it’s a firm family favourite. But just as you’re about to serve up, your daughter announces she’s vegetarian, your partner texts to say they’re running late, and your son tells you he’s invited “a few” friends over for dinner too. Then, your dog runs off with the joint of beef while you’re desperately trying to work out how you are going to meet the needs of all these (quite frankly) very demanding and unruly individuals.”
    ..
    ..
    The BBC on the problem of dynamic resource allocation. The excerpt, by the way, has nothing to do with the rest of the article.
    ..
    ..
  5. “Because at the end of their pilgrimage, the weary are rewarded with two things: a footbath and a bowl of steaming noodles. The footbath is just a footbath, but the noodles are extraordinary. Su filindeu is—quasi-official designation here—the rarest pasta on the planet. The dish is made specifically for this occasion; its very existence revolves around this trek. So specialized and obscure and mind-bendingly intricate is it that only a few souls can make it. And only those who reach Lula will ever try it.”
    ..
    ..
    The rarest pasta on earth. Why wouldn’t you want to read!

Links for 16th May, 2019

  1. “The other risk of a huge centrally planned response to climate change is that of a huge centrally planned response to anything: clumsy megaprojects chosen for their political or bureaucratic acceptability rather than because they deliver the biggest results for the lowest cost.”
    ..
    ..
    In which the ghost of Pigou is found to be giving a contented chuckle. Pigouvian taxes is a term you should learn about, and read this article to find out how and why the idea continues to resonate.
    ..
    ..
  2. “With casuals being the next wave of streaming adopters, their impact will increase. But despite being ‘more valuable’ they will also reduce royalties, because more streams per user means revenue gets shared between more tracks, which means lower per-stream rates. The music industry thus has an apparently oxymoronic challenge: it is not in its interest to significantly increase the amount of media consumption time it gets per user, but instead it will be better served by getting a larger number of people listening less!Current market trajectory points to more streams per user, which – for subscriptions, where royalties are paid as a share of revenue – means lower per-stream rates.”
    ..
    ..
    Have you read The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson? Read it (or about it), and then read this article to learn about the problems that will arise in a world full of long tails.
    ..
    ..
  3. “The answer is no and yes. The views of Piketty and Blanchard can indeed be reconciled, because they are talking about different interest rates. While Blanchard focuses on the rate on low-risk government bonds, Piketty is concerned with the return on risky capital investments. Because the two interest rates are separated by a risk premium of roughly five percentage points, it is entirely possible for the rate on government bonds to be below the economic growth rate, while the rate on capital is above it.”
    ..
    ..
    Barry Eichengreen on the return (as he puts it) of fiscal policy. A short article, but a useful one to understand macroeconomics better.
    ..
    ..
  4. “When historians in the distant future look back at our era, the name Alfred Sauvy may appear in a footnote somewhere. Sauvy was a French demographer who coined the term “third world” in a magazine article in 1952, just as the Cold War was heating up. His point was that there were countries not aligned with the United States or the Soviet Union that had pressing economic needs, but whose voices were not being heard.”
    ..
    ..
    The always excellent Tim Taylor on the nomenclature for “third world” countries – how it came about, what it means, how it might change going forward – and ends with a clarification about how it may not have been what we have thought all along!
    ..
    ..
  5. “I have to tell you, I’m a pretty lazy person, I don’t work more than 40 hours per week. What I’ve discovered helps me is to not compartmentalize – because if I thought of my life as, “there’s teaching, there’s research, there’s writing on my blog, there’s X, Y and Z…” then you very quickly run out of hours in the day. But almost everything I do spills over into almost everything else I do. So I’m constantly looking for ways to take whatever I do and get it to serve three or four or five purposes.”
    ..
    ..
    A fascinating interview with Aswath Damodaran – a person you must know more about if you want to study finance. The entire interview is worth reading – but this excerpt is for you even if you are not a student of finance – his view about what qualifies as work, and what doesn’t.

Links for 25th April, 2019

  1. “Singapore appreciates the relative strengths and limits of the public and private sectors in health. Often in the United States, we think that one or the other can do it all. That’s not necessarily the case.”
    ..
    ..
    It is always a good idea to learn about Singapore’s healthcare system, and this Upshot column from the NYT helps in that regard. Each of the links are also worth reading. If you spend time reading through the article and all the links therein, you might be a while, but it is, I would say, worth it.
    ..
    ..
  2. “With Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, he collected evidence on happiness that remains my benchmark for social scientists’ ability to shed light on wellbeing. Prof Kahneman once warned me that expert advice can go only so far. Much happiness and sadness is genetically determined: “We shouldn’t expect a depressive person to suddenly become extroverted and leaping with joy.” Those words are much on my mind this week.”
    ..
    ..
    Tim Harford remembers Alan Kreuger, and helps us understand a lot about the man, his work, happiness and much else in the process. Entirely worth reading.
    ..
    ..
  3. “The Captain Swing riots are thus one more example, an especially vivid one, that new technologies which cause a lot of people to lose a way of earning income can be highly disruptive. The authors write: “The results suggest that in one of the most dramatic cases of labor unrest in recent history, labor-saving technology played a key role. While the past may not be an accurate guide to future upheavals, evidence from the days of Captain Swing serve as a reminder of how disruptive new, labor-saving technologies can be in economic, social and political terms.”
    ..
    ..
    One, because reading something you hadn’t read before is always interesting. Two, because unemployment because of automation isn’t new. Three, makes for very relevant reading today (in multiple ways: automation itself, but also untangling causality.)
    ..
    ..
  4. “He says he was inspired by the depth of the nun’s commitment to India’s least fortunate—but he was unwilling to emulate her approach, and not simply because of its material sacrifices. Although Shetty often performed free surgeries for the poorest of the poor, he reasoned that the only way to sustainably serve large numbers of people in need was to make it a business. “What Mother Teresa did was not scalable,” he says—perhaps the first time venture capital jargon has been applied to the work of the Angel of Calcutta.”
    ..
    ..
    Interested in healthcare, or economics, or both? A lovely read, in that case. Also a good explainer of the challenges in front of Modicare.
    ..
    ..
  5. “The argument in favour of having Tribunals is that they offer a specialised and dedicated forum for settling specific categories of disputes which are otherwise likely to get stuck in the regular judicial channels. But this assumption holds only if the regular judiciary exercises restraint and does not insert itself into the proceedings pending before Tribunals. ”
    ..
    ..
    The problem with laws in India isn’t their framing – it is their implementation. Read this to find out more.

Links for 9th April, 2019

  1. “What is not useful is the sense that measuring GDP is the problem, and measuring gross national happiness is the solution. Few societies have ever really focused on either. We should all be happy about that.”
    Tim Harford reminds us that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In this case, the article is worth reading for understanding how GDP can’t really be measured, and how that may not be a bad thing. In addition, please read the article to understand that Bhutan probably isn’t all that “happy” a country in the first place!
    ..
    ..
  2. “Given the pressure on all unions to negotiate higher-than-average wage increases, using monetary policy to reduce inflation would inevitably aggregate spending to fall short of the level needed to secure full employment, but without substantially moderating the rate of increase in wages and prices. As long as the unions were driven to negotiate increasing rates of wage increase for their members, increasing rates of wage inflation could be accommodated only by ever-increasing growth rates in the economy or by progressive declines in the profit share of business. But without accelerating real economic growth or a declining profit share, union demands for accelerating wage increases could be accommodated only by accelerating inflation and corresponding increases in total spending.”
    Monetary nerds only, it should go without saying! David Glasner runs a blog called Uneasy Money, which is well worth reading, but only if you want to find yourself steeped in all things monetary. This post takes a slightly critical view of Arthur Burns tenure as Fed Chairman.
    ..
    ..
  3. “Amazon’s economists game out real estate decisions, set the lowest prices that will deliver a profit, precisely determine what customers care about and whether advertisements are working — all using machine-learning algorithms that automate decision making on a massive scale. It’s the kind of asset that smaller companies can’t always pay for, allowing Amazon to pull further and further away from the competition.”
    Amazon has, in case you didn’t know, probably the world’s largest collection of PhD’s in economics. This article helps you understand what it is that they do once they’re in Amazon. A helpful read if you are considering building a career in economics.
    ..
    ..
  4. “The White House explains why it’s predicting such big growth: the TCJA will cause a surge in business investment by “substantially raising the target capital stock and attracting increased net capital inflows.” And this rise in the capital stock will cause a surge in productivity. Except that there’s no sign of a surge in business investment: the report cherry-picks a few numbers, but overall orders for capital goods, probably the best real-time indicator, are showing nothing much (that 2015-6 slump, by the way, was about fracking, which fell off for a while when world oil prices plunged)”
    Paul Krugman is less than impressed with the 2019 Economic Report of the President, and provides data to show why he is less than impressed. The chart that follows the excerpt is worth looking at too.
    ..
    ..
  5. “There’s one biosignature that Seager, Guyon, and just about everyone else agree would be as near a slam dunk for life as scientific caution allows. We already have a planet to prove it. On Earth, plants and certain bacteria produce oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis. Oxygen is a flagrantly promiscuous molecule—it’ll react and bond with just about everything on a planet’s surface. So if we can find evidence of it accumulating in an atmosphere, it will raise some eyebrows. Even more telling would be a biosignature composed of oxygen and other compounds related to life on Earth. Most convincing of all would be to find oxygen along with methane, because those two gases from living organisms destroy each other. Finding them both would mean there must be constant replenishment.”
    That’s just one of many, many excerpt-able pieces from a very long, but also very rewarding article about the search for ET. Take your time with this one – about an hour or so, and pay particular attention to the infographics.

Book Review: The Undercover Economist

I fondly remember this book because of how spooky the introduction section was to me. Tim Harford begins the book by thanking the reader for buying the book, but then goes on to say that if the reader is anything like him, they’re probably sampling the book in a bookstore while sipping a coffee, judging whether to buy it or not. As it turns out, that is exactly what I was doing.

But the book (which I did buy later) was appealing to me for much more than that. I have written extensively elsewhere about how I hate textbooks. One reason I despise them so is because they introduce concepts in economics first: verbally, diagrammatically and worst of all, mathematically, and only then provide an application of the concept in a dry, mealy-mouthed little “box”. It’s like a chef teaching you how to cook by spending a week telling you how to hold a knife and then, almost as an after-thought saying “Oh, here’s a tomato.”

But right from the first chapter onward, Harford dives right into the real world, shows us a problem we can all identify with, and then asks: how might thinking like an economist help you understand this problem better? That’s the whole point of learning economics! It’s the tool that should be in the “box”, and the world outside of it.

In any case, the book is great because of a secondary reason as well: Harford understands, emphasizes and makes relatable the concept of domain independence. Domain independence essentially say that understanding an idea in one domain shouldn’t preclude you from applying that idea in other domains (I read about this particular phrasing of the idea in Anti-fragile, another book I’d heavily recommend). So while the book is about coffee bars, supermarkets, stock markets and so on, you really should keep in mind the fact that these concepts are applicable in many other areas.

My favorite chapter is the last one, which is on China. Harford explains (some might say far too succinctly) how modern China came to be, but keep in mind that this is meant to be an introductory book. Will people learning economics for the first time, especially Indians, wonder how China is the way it is and why India isn’t? Of course they will: and this chapter is a good first pass at tackling this problem.

Which is not to say that the other chapters are not worth your time, of course – each of them are worth a read, and the book’s purpose is served if it whets your appetite. This is not meant to satiate your curiosity about economics – the exact opposite, in fact. It is meant to make you want to read much, much more – while at the same time making all of what you read much more relatable.

Tim Harford has written many other books, and he used to write a magnificent agony aunt column devoted to economics, and also runs some interesting podcasts – about all of which much more in later posts. But for the moment, suffice it to say  that you’d hardly go wrong if you read this book for starters.