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.
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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.

Links for 28th March, 2019

  1. “While nightlife and entertainment are certainly drivers of the night-time economy, they need not be the only ones. According to a report released by the London mayor’s office, 1.6 million people in London—constituting more than a third of the workforce—worked at night in 2017. Of these, 191,000 worked in health and 178,000 in professional services, with nightlife coming in third at 168,000. These were closely followed by transport, automotive, IT and education.In other words, the city’s nighttime economy is not merely bars and restaurants, but an extension of its day-time economic activities as well. It is estimated that the night component comprises 6-8% of the city’s economy and contributes £18-23 billion in gross value added to the British economy. The figures are approximations but significant enough for Mayor Sadiq Khan to champion the night-time economy and appoint a “Night Czar” to manage it.”
    In which Nitin Pai makes the argument for having more shops, establishments and services operate at night as well, in India. A useful read for students of urbanization, microeconomics and life in India.
  2. “I think that our economic system reflects our understanding of humankind, and that understanding has been developing, with especial rapidity lately. You have to understand people first before you can understand how to devise an economic system for them. And I think our understanding of people has been accelerating over the last century, or even half-century.”
    Robert Shiller chooses five books to help us understand capitalism better. I haven’t read all of them, and read one a very long time ago (Theory of Moral Sentiments) – but this has tempted me to go and read at least A.O. Hirschman’s book, if not all of them!
  3. “The problem with cricket in most cricket-playing countries, certainly in India, is that the cricket market is what economists call a monopsony. A monopsony is a market in which there is only one buyer for a particular class of goods and services. Until now, a young Indian cricketer who wanted to play at the highest level could only sell his services to the BCCI. If it treated him badly and did not give him his due rewards, he had no other options open to him.”
    I am happy to admit that I got the IPL gloriously wrong – I approached the IPL while wearing my cricketing purist hat, but I really should have approached it wearing my economist’s hat. Which is exactly what Amit Varma did, ten years ago. Monopsony, the power of markets, incentive mechanisms, it’s all here.
  4. “The 737 assembly line in Renton, Wash. is a marvel of lean manufacturing. The line inches forward little-by-little as assembly proceeds. Born from Toyota’s production methods, the process is one of continual improvement. It’s what made the 737 the lifeblood of Boeing in the first place and why this crisis, taken to its most extreme, could threaten the company’s very existence. But the assembly line also comes with a tool called an Andon cord. The cord empowers all employees to pull it and stop the line if something is amiss or requires investigation and needs fixing. The rest of the world has already pulled it.”
    A mostly understandable explanation of the possible reasons behind the crash – but when I say possible reasons, I do not mean the technical ones. Why compromises had to be made, and the impact of those compromises.
  5. “I’m happy for the descriptive part of economics to stay as it is. The prescriptive part, when we tell people what to do – that one should be much more broad. In fact, we should stop using just economics and take all kinds of ideas from psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and economics, and test which ones work, which ones don’t work and under what conditions. There is no question that behaviour is the ultimate goal – to try to understand behaviour, and how to change or modify it. I hope we can create a discipline that is much more empirically based and data driven. Maybe we can call it “applied social sciences”. It will draw from all the social sciences equivalently as we approach problems in the real world, and try to find solutions for them.”
    Dan Ariely on five books that he’d recommend when it comes to understanding behavioral economics better. If you are interested in this topic, as I am, the interview is great reading – and the books too! I have not read Mindless Eating, and will begin it soon.

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 26th March, 2019

  1. “The rising cost of textbooks, then, is a sign of one of the greatest paradoxes of higher education: As everything from tuition to housing to books gets more expensive, the people who are tasked with making sure students receive a good education are being forced to do more work for less money. The result is a world where students and professors alike struggle to get by.”
    Full of interesting snippets, this article helps you understand how expensive education can be abroad. Not just the cost of tuition though, which is large enough as it is – but the cost of textbooks. Just buying your textbooks for the academic year can set you back by around INR 40,000/-.
  2. “What is the traditional lecture? It is a model of learning in which a teacher possesses the knowledge on a given topic and disseminates it to students. This model dates to the beginning of education, when it was the only way of sharing information. In fact, you occasionally still see the person presenting the lecture called a reader, because way back before the internet and even the printing press, a teacher would literally read from a book so students could copy it all down.”
    Classroom lectures are unbelievably boring. There exist a million alternatives that can do a better job, and this article lays out some of them. But at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the idea that we can teach the same way we did throughout the twentieth is just wrong.
  3. “Whichever way one looks at it, the very public unravelling of the enterprise is reminiscent of the past, the saga of Air India and Kingfisher Airlines. There is no denying poor governance –particularly in a business with high cash flows. Equally, the sequels illustrate how vegetating policy and misplaced notions of what constitutes strategic interest left the sector episodically chasing its tail. Consider this: Passenger traffic rose from 68.4 million in 2009-09 to 103.7 million in 2013-14, and to 183.9 million in 2017-18. Clearly there is no dearth of demand and of growth in traffic. Yet three airlines have crashed into the red in the period.Can India afford three Mayday calls in less than a decade in a critical sector?”
    A breezy read about an extremely serious topic. The excerpt above is a sobering read: passenger traffic in India has about tripled over the last ten years. The last ten years have also seen three airlines go under. Something, somewhere, is really and truly wrong.
  4. “Incuriosity is not merely ignorance. Ignorance is a universal trait, people just differ in what they are ignorant about. But Americans are unique in not caring to learn from other countries even when those countries do things better. American liberals spent the second Bush administration talking about how health care worked better in most other developed countries, but displayed no interest in how they could implement universal health care so that the US could have what everyone else had, even when some of these countries, namely France and Israel, had only enacted reforms recently and had a population of mostly privately-insured workers. In contrast, they reinvented the wheel domestically, coming up with the basic details of Obamacare relying on the work on domestic thinktanks alone. The same indifference to global best practices occurs in education, housing policy, and other matters even among wonks who believe the US to be behind.”
    Word for the day: incuriosity. A state of the world in not only do you not know, but do not wish to know. But that apart, the entire post – although a little long – is worth reading to learn more about the specifics of what ails subway construction in the USA.
  5. “Structurally, it is impossible because Kim Jong-un has a very detailed network of surveilling the leaders around him. If you are of high rank, then all the high-ranking officials have to live in the same apartment. They can’t choose where to live. They have to live collectively. You are not allowed to have private time with your friends around you, so the control system of North Korean society is really unimaginable.”
    An interview with a North Korean defector who now lives in South Korea about Kim Jong Un. It is difficult for any of us to understand the extraordinary life of ordinary South Koreans

Links for 25th March, 2019

  1. “The researchers discovered that commonly visited places, like coffee shops, can be within a few feet of each other but they can each primarily have visitors from completely different income brackets. This indicates that economic inequality isn’t just present at the neighborhood level, but it can also show up among the places people visit as part of their daily routines. It suggests that income inequality might impact not just where people live, but also where they go. ”
    A great article to help you think through the following: inequality, how to measure it, how to measure it using modern methods, what is the difference between class inequality and income inequality, sampling, the limitations of sampling, the Data For Good initiative, 100 Resilient Cities and the SmartCitiesDive program.
  2. “An experiment that the researchers arranged hinted at a possible explanation of the correlation they found. They asked participants to picture and describe what it would be like to have a certain amount of daily free time, and then report how they’d feel about that allotment. “What we find is that having too little time makes people feel stressed, and maybe that’s obvious,” says Holmes. “But interestingly, that effect goes away—the role of stress goes away—once you approach the optimal point.” After that point, Holmes says, the subjects started to say they felt less productive overall, which could explain why having a lot of free time can feel like having too much free time.”
    One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips has the quote “there never is enough time to do all the nothing you want to”, or words to that effect. This article tells you that having more than 2.5 hours of “nothing” time may well be too much.
  3. “While India has 70-odd companies that are rated highest quality, only two companies in the US enjoy this distinction. No company in Germany and UK enjoys AAA rating. Among emerging countries, China has only 14 AAA-rated entities. This implies a gulf between credit standards in India and elsewhere. The exacting standards observed in other countries are missing among domestic agencies.”
    Via Gulzar Natarajan, this article points out a disturbing statistic – Indian firms might well be given ratings that don’t really indicate their reliability. Rating agencies the world over took a hit to their reputation post the 2008 crisis, but this story seems to be unique to India. The article does have some caveats, but I’d say the news is, even so, worrying.
  4. “We employ Comin et al.’s (2010) data on ancient and early modern levels of technology adoption in a spatial econometric analysis. Historical levels of technology adoption in a (present-day) country are related to its lagged level as well as those of its neighbors. We allow the spatial effects to differ depending on whether they diffuse East-West or North-South. Consistent with the continental orientation hypothesis, East-West spatial effects are generally positive and stronger than those running North-South.”
    Are you familiar with vertical vs horizontal business models? Apple is vertical (controls everything, end-to-end) and Netflix is horizontal (needs to be available across multiple verticals to succeed). I was strongly reminded of that when I read this.
  5. “He is maddening in ways they never anticipated, along vectors they’ve never seen; he is a tireless innovator in the craft of mass irritation. He can cause fans to go absolutely nuts whether he wins or loses. McEnroe himself has spent a good chunk of the past five years complaining about Kyrgios, and McEnroe is probably the greatest tennis player of all time at driving people wild. Being found intensely annoying by John McEnroe is a high honor for any exasperating person. It’s like Beethoven humming your melody.”
    In which Brian Philips makes the case for the upside to Kyrgios being, well, Kyrgios. The interesting question is where else might such a contrarian philosophy work, and why?