Links for 4th June, 2019

  1. ““Alexa, are you recording everything you hear?” It is a question more people are asking, though Amazon’s voice assistant denies the charges. “I only record and send audio back to the Amazon cloud when you say the wake word,” she insists, before referring questioners to Amazon’s privacy policy. Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, gives a similar answer. But as smart speakers from Amazon, Apple, Google and other technology giants proliferate (global sales more than doubled last year, to 86.2m) concerns that they might be digitally snooping have become more widespread. And now that these devices are acquiring other senses beyond hearing—the latest models have cameras, and future ones may use “lidar” sensors to see shapes and detect human gestures (see article)—the scope for infringing privacy is increasing. So how worried should you be that your speaker is spying on you?”
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    The article doesn’t answer the question it frames in as direct a fashion as readers might wish, but read this to understand that there is (as with everything else in life) a benefit to this technology, as also a cost.
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  2. “Many voters may have felt that others, more wealthier than them, were also being hurt by demonetization, and hence supported the adventurist move.The results of the second round of the YouGov-Mint Millennial Survey conducted in early 2019 suggest that even today and, despite all the evidence to the contrary, many urban youths who support the ruling party consider demonetization to be a great success of the government.”
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    Can you drive in reverse in a tunnel, Professor Hirschman? Livemint does a three year review of demonetization, and it is worth reading for a variety of reasons.
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  3. “Not all New York City views are created equal.Direct Central Park views may be the most valuable amenity in Manhattan real estate, but in a market filled with soaring new developments — some of which wind up blocking the views of other buildings — even a partial glimpse of a river, park or the city skyline can also command a hefty premium.”
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    This article is proof that microeconomics can be fun. But beyond that, it is also worth going through the article to take in the photographs. New York looks gorgeous!
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  4. “What Microsoft figured out is that it made far more sense for both Microsoft and their customers to pay on a subscription basis: companies would pay a set price on a monthly or annual basis, and receive access to the latest-and-greatest software. This wasn’t a complete panacea — updating software was still a significant undertaking — but at least the incentive to avoid upgrades was removed.There were also subtle advantages from a balance sheet perspective: now companies were paying for software in a rough approximation to their usage over time — an operational expense — as opposed to a fixed-cost basis. This improved their return-on-invested-capital (ROIC) measurements, if nothing else. And, for Microsoft, revenue became much more predictable.”
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    Ben Thompson helps one understand Microsoft, SaaS, Slack, Zoom and a simple way to understand what makes new businesses potentially attractive – be sure to read through the entire article to reach the four quadrant diagram at the end. Entirely worth your time.
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  5. “When it was finally time to deploy, with no hint from the U.S. or China or Brazil or India that anyone would send out a countering air force to simply knock the planes out of the sky, the three billionaires went back to the island and sent the aerosols tumbling through the stratosphere. There was no ceremony, no champagne, no photographs. This was nothing to be celebrated.”
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    My phrase-I-learned-today: Solar Radiation Management.
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Links for 17th May, 2019

  1. “Despite the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, except in a few states, there has been little progress at decentralization—to both rural and urban local bodies. Most state governments have been reluctant to devolve the functions, funds and functionaries for delivering public services at the local level. The functions assigned are unclear, funds uncertain and inadequate, and decision-making functionaries are mostly drawn from the state bureaucracy. Local bodies do not even have powers to determine the base and rate structure of the taxes assigned to them. The states have not cared to create institutions and systems mandated in the Constitution, including the appointment of the State Finance Commissions, and even when they are appointed, states have not found it obligatory to place their reports in the legislature. In fact, the local bodies are not clear about delivering local public goods, with the prominent agenda of implementing central schemes obscuring their functions.”
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    M. Govinda Rao pulls no punches in pointing out how and why decentralization hasn’t (and likely will not) taken place in India. This is a conversation more people need to be having in India – and in particular, to aid meaningful urbanization.
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  2. “I love this paper because it is ruthless. The authors know exactly what they are doing, and they are clearly enjoying every second of it. They explain that given what we now know about polygenicity, the highest-effect-size depression genes require samples of about 34,000 people to detect, and so any study with fewer than 34,000 people that says anything about specific genes is almost definitely a false positive; they go on to show that the median sample size for previous studies in this area was 345.”
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    Slate Star Codex helps us understand the importance of learning (and applying!) statistics. The website is more than worth following, by the way.
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  3. “Sucking the life out of a mango is one of those primal pleasures that makes life feel worthwhile. The process is both elaborate and rewarding. The foreplay that loosens up the pulp inside, the careful incision at the top that allows access without a juice overrun, and then the sustained act of sucking every bit juice from the helpless peel. Senses detach themselves from the body and attach themselves to the mango, and even mobile phones stop ringing. The world momentarily rests in our mouths as we slurp, suck and slaver at the rapidly disappearing pulp. The mango is manhandled vigorously till only the gutli remains which is scraped off till it has nothing left to confess. As is evident, there is no elegant way to eat this kind of mango, no delicate and dignified method that approximates any form of refinement, which is just as well, for the only way to enjoy a mango is messily.”
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    An excellent column about an excellent fruit – there isn’t that much more to say! I completely agree with the bit about serving aamras front and center, rather than as an afterthought, by the way.
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  4. “Welcome to the 4th Annual Top Economics Blogs list. For the 2019 edition, we’ve added many newcomers, as well as favorites which continue to provide quality insight year after year. Like lists in previous years (2018, 2017, 2016), the new 2019 list features a broad range of quality blogs in practically every economic discipline. Whether you are interested in general economics or prefer more specific topics such as finance, healthcare economics, or environmental economics; there is something here for you. You will also find blogs which focus on microeconomics, macroeconomics, and the economics of specific geographical regions.Whether you are a student, economics professional, or just someone with a general interest in how economic issues affect the world around you, you’re certain to find the perfect blog for your specific needs.”
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    The most comprehensive answer to that most perennial of questions: what should I read?
    Bonus! If you’re wondering how to keep up with all of this, this might help.
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  5. “India should do the same with our state capitals. The Union government can create fiscal and other incentives to encourage state governments to shift their capitals to brown- or green-field locations. Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Jaipur or Lucknow, for instance, will continue to thrive even if the state government offices move out. Their respective states will benefit from a new urban engine powered by government.”
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    I have been sceptical about the feasibility of doing something like this – my reading of urbanization has always been that it more of an organic process – cities grow (or not) of their own accord, and rarely as a planned endeavor. But maybe I’m wrong?

Links for 6th May, 2019

  1. “Not long ago, the Liverpool away coach uniform was technical mountain climbing apparel, which had its roots in drug dealers in cold northwest England figuring they didn’t need to freeze to death slinging weed in a park. That meant a lot of North Face gear, which became fashionable. One leader at an LFC firm bought so much high-end gear that when he got a stadium ban several years ago, he actually started climbing mountains around the country, unsure of what else to do with all the stuff he’d bought.”
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    A nice long read on Liverpool: the city and the club. Also a fascinating peek into a place in England that isn’t necessarily English.
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  2. “In my view, reform of government economic administration must take priority. As things stand, it is a prerequisite for the success of any other reform. A weak state cannot deliver anything other than grandiloquent statements of intention. This must change. Without a capable State, there can be no transformation.”
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    Rathin Roy explains in the Business Standard why India hasn’t fulfilled its potential so far, and what needs to be done to change the status quo.
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  3. “How much, in all, does Popovich spend annually on food and wine? That’s hard to say. But he reportedly earns $11 million a year, the highest salary in the league for a head coach. Considering the offerings from his private wine label and that he holds thousands of bottles in his cellar, plots out dozens of high-end dinners per year at some of the country’s most high-end restaurants, drops $20,000 on wine alone at some dinners, and routinely leaves exorbitant tips — well, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Popovich might ultimately drop a seven-figure annual investment on food and wine. “He’s spent more on wine and dinners than my whole [NBA] salary,” former NBA coach Don Nelson says. But in San Antonio — where Popovich has won more with his team than any NBA coach has with a single team in history — the investment, apparently, has been worth it.”
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    Is good dining the means to an end? Read this fascinating article to find out one man’s answer.
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  4. “Gorbachev pushes back at the notion that the Soviet Union’s end was somehow a triumph for the other side. “Americans thought they’d won the Cold War, and this went to their heads,” he says. “What victory? It was our joint victory. We all won.” Well, maybe not entirely — Vladimir V. Putin, pointedly absent from most of the film, is glimpsed in footage of Raisa Gorbachev’s funeral — but you come away from the movie agreeing with Herzog’s assessment, and yearning for Gorbachev’s brand of diplomacy.”
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    A short article about Gorbachev – a documentary about the man. He’s 88 this year, but the article is interesting throughout. And the excerpt is a great way to think about whether you have really understood the concept of a zero-sum-game.
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  5. “The Northern states are densely populated. But this density has clearly not provided the economies of scale to promote rapid economic growth. One problem is that the dense population in the Gangetic plains is not clustered in large cities. Prateek Raj of the Indian Institute of Management in Bengaluru has written about the metropolis vacuum in the Hindi speaking states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which together have 500 million residents (bit.ly/2UOS2Kv). “The glaring absence of a major metropolitan center in the region has forced young people to migrate away from the small towns and move to other cities in the West and the South,” he argues.”
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    A lovely read from Niranjan Rajadhakshya about what ails Northern India and how one might tackle the issue. The lack of urbanization is a very real problem in Northern India, among others.

Links for 17th April, 2019

  1. “Nearly half a million people are incarcerated on any given day without having been convicted of a crime. Add it all up, and over 10 million people during a given year year are locked up without being convicted of anything. Roughly one-quarter of all inmates in state and local jails have not been convicted. ”
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    Timothy Taylor explains the pros and cons of eliminating monetary bail. The issue is a complex one, as one might expect, and is a useful way to learn about cost benefit analysis.
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  2. “It’s a reminder that “growth” in cities isn’t always what it seems and that architecture can be an awfully poor proxy for the social structures to which it seems so closely tied. Neighborhoods that appear to be magnets for new people and more apartments may, behind every historic façade, be losing both.”
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    Opportunity costs, population density, gentrification, urbanization and reducing family size – all there in this information dense article.
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  3. “A lot of what you learn when you work at a firm is its organizational culture. Moving within a firm means you learn new subject matter, but you are largely staying within the same culture. The psychologically more challenging move to a different organization gives you an opportunity to experience a different culture, sort of like spending time abroad.”
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    Arnold Kling on culture and the organization. On a related note, the recent somewhat viral article about AirBnB and its culture is also worth reading.
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  4. “There’s a lot going on when you speak. The whole assembly process of how you string words together and form sentences is complicated. If you could use a computer to analyze how an Alzheimer’s patient speaks over the years, you might be able to pick up on subtle changes—and then look for those same patterns in younger patients who show no other signs of the disease. If you’re able to identify those changes early enough, you might even be able to stop someone from getting Alzheimer’s in the first place (although we’d also need advances in Alzheimer’s prevention to do that).”
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    Might how you talk be able to predict if you will get Alzheimer’s in the future? A complicated topic, and one that is sketchy on the details – but very interesting nonetheless.
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  5. “Chinese government statements indicate that 50 state-owned firms have invested or participated in almost 1,700 projects in countries along Belt and Road’s path over the past three years, according to Baker McKenzie. The wider the road, the more drivers are bound to crowd in.”
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    International finance meets the Belt and Road Initiative. Who will win, and in what shape, is what the article speaks about.

Links for 16th April, 2019

  1. ““Wow, they really train you over there,” our father said. In the weeks since her release, he had become a champion government booster, missing no opportunity to point out to Lulu how nicely the roads had been paved since she’d left, how grand the malls were that had been built. “There are so many opportunities for young people now,” he said. It was a new tic of his, and it grated. Earlier that day, as we strolled the neighborhood, he’d taken the chance to point out a set of recently upgraded public toilets across the way. “They even installed a little room where the sanitation workers can rest,” he said. “It has heating and everything. You see what good care they take of all the workers now?””
    A tale of what happens if you happen to against the authorities in our big neighbor to the east. Sobering reading.
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  2. “Friends and relatives in other parts of the developed world tell me that many of these services and speed are unique to India. While we were busy cribbing in India, a huge shift happened in the last 10-15 years in services—both public and private—that we’ve failed to notice. A mix of technology, cheap labour and super competitive firms have unleashed this service boom in the private sector. Technology, political will (across parties and governments) and the failure of the human government interface in public services has driven the public service boom. Just on the services metric, India will soon plunge ahead of most of the developed world. Take a moment and reflect on how far we’ve come in just a decade.”
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    Meanwhile, Monika Halan points out how much things have improved here, in India.
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  3. “And it reinforced a change in mind-set that already was bubbling up from Chinese urban planners—one that then got ratified in a startling way. In 2016 the Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council, the highest organs of the state, issued a decree: From now on Chinese cities were to preserve farmland and their own heritage; have smaller, unfenced blocks and narrower, pedestrian-friendly streets; develop around public transit; and so on. In 2017 the guidelines were translated into a manual for Chinese planners called Emerald Cities. Calthorpe Associates wrote most of it.”
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    There is much to excerpt from this article about how urbanization is changing, taking root and improving (mostly) the world over. A great bird’s eye view to urbanization in various parts of the world today.
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  4. “A brief description of Lambda School for the uninitiated: A live, fully online school that trains people to become software engineers, data scientists and designers which is free until you get a job. Instead, students pay a percentage of their income each year after they’re employed, the maximum of which is capped at $30k.”
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    Rahul Ramchandani explains what Lambda School is, in case you haven’t heard of it before. Also a good article to learn about Bloom’s 2 sigma problem.
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  5. “But remember: gravity was considered creepy occult pseudoscience by its early enemies. It subjected the earth and the heavens to the same law, which shocked 17th century sensibilities the same way trying to link consciousness and matter would today. It postulated that objects could act on each other through invisible forces at a distance, which was equally outside the contemporaneous Overton Window. Newton’s exceptional genius, his exceptional ability to think outside all relevant boxes, and his exceptionally egregious mistakes are all the same phenomenon (plus or minus a little mercury).”
    In praise of having bad ideas, and how one bad idea (or even a few of ’em), shouldn’t really define a person for you.

Links for 12th April, 2019

  1. “Due to these challenges, the Belt and Road has provoked growing international resistance, most acutely in the Indo-Pacific. This rising backlash has not gone unnoticed in Beijing.3 Yet it is unlikely that China’s approach will fundamentally change in the years ahead. The sheer size of ongoing Belt and Road projects limits China’s ability to refocus on smaller and less controversial efforts. Moreover, the Belt and Road is ultimately a vehicle for China’s geopolitical ambitions. Liabilities for host countries – loss of control, opacity, debt, dual-use potential, and corruption – are often strategic assets for Beijing. ”
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    Worth reading in its entirety, both for how well they have framed it (10 issues, 7 challenges) and for understanding the scope, the scale of OBOR – as well as why China wants something like this to happen.
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  2. “Krugman’s assertion that capacity keeps on rising might be correct – but that probably depends on one of the following conditions:The recession is short enough not to significantly affect innovation and investment
    Growth depends on factors that are not (negatively) affected by recessions
    Underlying capacity growth will accelerate beyond trend as the recession endsThe first we can yet hope for, but it’s looking less likely every month.”
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    This was written ten years ago. It is a great way to understand the following: business cycles, trend stationarity, unit root hypothesis, innovation, capacity building, endogenous growth theory. It is simply written, engaging, understandable – and because it was written ten years ago, can be validated. Worth it!
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  3. “Whereas Liverpool’s pursuit of the league title has been characterised by anxiety, drama and late winners, since the turn of the year City have been gracefully efficient at tearing into opponents, getting an early goal and so being able to control a game. Gabriel Jesus’s header against Brighton in the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday was the sixth goal City have scored this season inside five minutes, the 12th before the 10th minute and the 26th before the 20th. That is clearly part of a policy: rip into opponents, prevent them settling and have the game won before any doubts can begin to creep in. It may be that in a two-leg tie there’s less impetus to do that – but then an away goal can make a huge difference.”
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    You might find this choice weird, especially if you don’t like football, but this resonated with me as a way to do more than just play football. Think about it!
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  4. “Mumbai is the engine of the prosperous western state of Maharashtra, India’s largest regional economy with a GDP somewhere between $350-400 billion; the city contributes well over half the total. For Maharashtra to become a $1 trillion economy, Mumbai would need to double or triple the size of its economy, on the back of its preeminent role in service industries, especially finance. That means competing with the likes of Singapore and Shanghai to attract global banks and other world-class financial institutions to the humid, traffic-choked city.”
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    Rueben Abraham and Shashi Verma in Bloomberg on how the port near Mumbai has the potential to change Mumbai into a truly global financial hub. The cynic in me wonders if it will be possible, but the nascent urbanization enthusiast hopes that this, at least, gets off the ground!
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  5. “Amsterdam transit commissioner Sharon Dijksma announced Thursday that starting this summer, the city plans to reduce the number of people permitted to park in the city core by around 1,500 per year. These people already require a permit to access a specific space (and the cost for that permit will also rise), and so by reducing these permits steadily in number, the city will also remove up to 11,200 parking spaces from its streets by the end of 2025.”
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    Speaking of urbanization done just right, here’s Amsterdam with a plan to reduce parking spaces in the city centre – and beyond.

Links for 4th April, 2019

  1. “Why does this matter? For one, a large share of the population (at over 50% urban this could be ~250 million people) is forced to live without urban basic services and is grappling with inadequate public service delivery. The slums and informal settlements in most of our cities are direct outcomes of failing to cater to migration at an earlier point in time. Even while we close our eyes to the reality of urban growth, cities and peri-urban areas are continuing to grow, leading to urban sprawl that goes well beyond administrative boundaries. This growth is haphazard and unregulated. Consequently, the quality of the urban fabric – measured by the share of land in streets, access to open space, formally subdivided plots and so on – declines.”
    Excellent, excellent article, and agree wholeheartedly with all of the ten points. The only (minor) quibble – I’d put number ten at number one. But if you want an easy to read and understand manifesto for rewiring India’s urbanization – this is an excellent place to start.
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  2. “Asia is already home to more than half the world’s population. Of the world’s 30 largest cities, 21 are in Asia, according to UN data. By next year, Asia will also become home to half of the world’s middle class, defined as those living in households with daily per capita incomes of between $10 and $100 at 2005 purchasing power parity (PPP).Since 2007, Asians have been buying more cars and trucks than people in any other region — by about 2030 they will be buying as many vehicles as the rest of the world combined, according to LMC Automotive.”
    A fascinating set of data points, and also a pretty nice infographic about economies and their ranking. An article that talks about when, exactly, the Asian century will start.
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  3. “The saddest truth about democratic politics is not that politicians don’t keep their promises, but that they make the wrong ones. This is a bittersweet truth we rediscover every election season. There is no connection between good governance and good politics. What voters want is not necessarily what is good for them or the country. And the manifestos of political parties are designed not to take the country towards progress, but to get that party to power.”
    Speaking of 1. above, this short read links together all of the other pieces related to 1. above – and all of them are, I’d say, worth reading. A manifesto for India, as it were.
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  4. ““We can trace our origins back to that event,” DePalma said. “To actually be there at this site, to see it, to be connected to that day, is a special thing. This is the last day of the Cretaceous. When you go one layer up—the very next day—that’s the Paleocene, that’s the age of mammals, that’s our age.” ”
    A truly beautiful, utterly mesmerizing read about the day the earth died. It’s hard to imagine anybody not wanting to read this. Via
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  5. “Mattis, who had studied philosophy in college, recognized similarities between The Matrix and the ideas of René Descartes, the 17th-century French thinker who wrote about man’s inability to know what is truly reality. “When I first read the script, I called them and said, ‘This is amazing! You wrote a script about Descartes! But how do I sell this thing?'””
    A very long article about a movie that had cult status about twenty years ago, and probably still does – The Matrix.