Tech: Links for 3rd December, 2019

  1. “Both Starship and Starlink are transformative technology being built before our very eyes, here, in our lifetimes. If I live long enough my grandchildren will be more flabbergasted that I’m older than Starlink than that I’m older than cell phones (museum pieces) or the public internet itself.”
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    A fascinating write-up on Starlink: its economics, its pricing, its upsides, its downsides, and the underlying strategy. A very long read, and I’ll admit I didn’t get all of it – but rewarding nonetheless.
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  2. “To finish this post, I’m going to revisit its starting point. Starship is still seen by many in the space media community as a slightly overgrown version of any other rocket, with reusability tacked on. This is an error of analogy. Starship fundamentally changes our relationship with space.Starship is a devastatingly powerful space access and logistical transport mechanism that will instantly crush the relevance of every other rocket ever built.””
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    And so also for Starship.
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  3. “…the venture capital pouring into astrology apps will create a fortune telling system that works, because humans are predictable. As people follow the advice, the apps’ predictive powers will increase, creating an ever-tighter electronic leash. But they’ll be hugely popular – because if you sprinkle magic on top, you can sell people anything.”
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    Speaking of stars
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  4. “But using models is inherently tricky. We can never be certain that our model behaves enough like the thing we are actually trying to understand to draw conclusions about it. Nor can we be sure that our model is similar enough in the ways that really matter. So it can be hard to know that the evidence we collect from the model is truly evidence about the thing we want to know about.”
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    Evidence and proofs are very tricky to think about.
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  5. “This requires more ingenuity than you might think—wires have never been perfectly transparent carriers of data; they have always degraded the information put into them. In general, this gets worse as the wire gets longer, and so as the early telegraph networks spanned greater distances, the people building them had to edge away from the seat-of-the-pants engineering practices that, applied in another field, gave us so many boiler explosions, and toward the more scientific approach that is the standard of practice today.”
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    The very first link above includes a link to this gem of an essay by Neal Stephenson. Written in 1996, it still is a great read!

EC101: Links for 28th November, 2019

  1. “The zeroth step, of course, is being open to the process of unlearning. We come with our own biases, shaped by our varied experiences and perceptions. But our experience or knowledge is not always indicative of the macroreality. An unrelenting hold on what we have already learnt is the equivalent of the sunk cost fallacy in economics.”
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    Pranay Kotasthane has a new newsletter out, and it is worth subscribing to. Stay humble and curious is the gist of his zeroth lesson, and the other points are equally important. Go read, and in my opinion, subscribe.
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  2. “China is still a one-party state, but it owes much of its current prosperity to an increase in liberty. Since Mao died, his former subjects have won greater freedom to grow the crops they choose, to set up businesses and keep the profits, to own property, and to move around the country. The freedom to move, though far from absolute, has been transformational. Under Mao, peasants were banned from leaving their home area and, if they somehow made it to a city, they were barred from buying food, notes Bradley Gardner in “China’s Great Migration”. Now, there are more rural migrants in China than there are cross-border migrants in the world.”
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    The rest of this article from the Economist is about migration to the cities – and I find myself in complete agreement – many, many more people in India need to live in her cities. But also see this!
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  3. “Mazzucato traced the provenance of every technology that made the iPhone. The HTTP protocol, of course, had been developed by British scientist Tim Berners-Lee and implemented on the computers at CERN, in Geneva. The internet began as a network of computers called Arpanet, funded by the US Department of Defense (DoD) in the 60s to solve the problem of satellite communication. The DoD was also behind the development of GPS during the 70s, initially to determine the location of military equipment. The hard disk drive, microprocessors, memory chips and LCD display had also been funded by the DoD. Siri was the outcome of a Stanford Research Institute project to develop a virtual assistant for military staff, commissioned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The touchscreen was the result of graduate research at the University of Delaware, funded by the National Science Foundation and the CIA.”
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    Mariana Mazzucato, about whom more people should know, on the role of the government in today’s economy.
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  4. “Back in the early 1970s, Xerox had figured out a strategy to block competitors in the photocopying business. It took out lots of patents, more than 1,000 of them, on every aspect of the photocopy machine. As old patents expired, new ones kicked in at a rate of several hundred new patents each year. Some of the patents were actually used by Xerox in producing the photocopy machine; some were not. There was no serious complaint about the validity of any individual patent. But taken as a whole, Xerox seemed to be using the patent system to lock up its monopoly position in perpetuity. Under antitrust pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, Xerox in 1975 signed a consent decree which, along with a number of other steps, required licensing its 1,700 photocopier patents to other firms.”
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    Timothy Taylor adds grist to the anti-patent mill.
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    “Thinking about how to facilitate a faster and broader dispersion of knowledge and productivity gains seems like a potentially important part of explaining the current economic picture and suggesting a policy agenda.”
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    That’s the concluding part of the blog post. Just sayin’!
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  5. Every time I begin to think I kind of understand macroeconomics

RoW: Links for 18th September, 2019

  1. How was London’s tech scene built?
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  2. If you ever get the chance to pick a train journey…. for me, this one, for sure.
    “And so it was no small relief when, there the next morning, was the train at the platform. Its Chinese provenance was confirmed by the ethnicity of the “Captain” ushering people aboard, and by our salmon-colored tickets, the same as those issued by China’s National Railway.An hour later, we were enjoying a rare sensation: swift, ceaseless movement through a sub-Saharan landscape.”
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  3. Or wait, hang on
    “For most of human history, it was impossible to grasp the range of the habitable world in a single day. Beginning in the mid-20th century, one could fly from a cool region to a hot region in one day. But that was an artificial experience—you missed everything in between. That all changed in 2012, when China built a high speed rail line from the north to the south of the country. Now you could board a train at 9am in cold, snowy Beijing, and get off 8 hours later in tropical Guangzhou, at the same latitude as Havana.

    A few years later the line was extended further south to Hong Kong, where you arrive an hour later. For the first time ever, humans can see the gradual change in landscape from the temperate zone to the tropics, all in a single day.”
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  4. “In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow.”
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    Especially given the context, the rest of this first paragraph is some of the finest writing I have ever read. That is not an exaggeration.
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  5. “But improving American higher education would be the final plank of the Tyler Cowen industrial policy.”
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    Tyler Cowen on industrial policy in America.

Etc: Links for 14th June, 2019

  1. “But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”
    Ezekiel J. Emmanuel on how long he wants to live. Worth reading to ponder questions of mortality and what it means to each of us. Also worth reading up on: memento mori.
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  2. “Indeed, the German hyperinflation was not even the worst of the twentieth century; its Hungarian equivalent, dating to 1945-46, was so much more severe that prices in Budapest began to double every 15 hours. (At the peak of this crisis, the Hungarian government was forced to announce the latest inflation rate via radio each morning, so workers could negotiate a new pay scale with their bosses, and issue the largest denomination banknote ever to be legal tender: the 100 quintillion (1020) pengo note. When the debased currency was finally withdrawn, the total value of all the cash then in circulation in the country was reckoned at 1/10th of a cent. [Bomberger & Makinen pp.801-24; Judt p.87])”
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    I wasn’t aware of what the topic of this essay is about – which is not contained in the excerpt above. Somewhat shamefully, I wasn’t even aware of the Hungarian episode quoted above! Read more, sir, read more!
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  3. “Consider the first time a right-handed player tries to dribble with the left hand. It’s awkward, clumsy. Initially, the nerves that fire off signals to complete that task are controlled in the front cortex of the brain. Over time, with countless repetitions, those nerve firings become more insulated. The myelin sheath builds up. Eventually, less effort is required to use that left hand, and the brain processes it as second nature.The same is possible with pressure, according to neurologists. With repetition, stress can be transformed into fortitude.”
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    Put yourself in pressure situations, and repeatedly. That’s the only way, this article says, to handle pressure. Lovely read!
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  4. “The project in Colombia, a partnership with the nonprofit Conservation International, involves protecting mangrove forests, which can store 10 times as much carbon as terrestrial forests. In its first two years, the program is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 17,000 metric tons, roughly equal to the next decade of emissions from the lidar-equipped survey vehicles that update Apple Maps. “This is rare for Apple to say, but we are telling other companies to copy us on this,” Jackson says.”
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    I have only glanced through this article, and haven’t come close to reading all the entires (a true rabbit hole), but there’s lots of small interesting snippets here about creativity. Not so much, based on what I’ve seen of the “how to be creative”, but rather descriptions of folks who are creative.
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  5. “The (c)rapture I felt was likely a case of “poophoria,” explains Anish Sheth, the gastroenterologist and coauthor of toilet-side staple What’s Your Poo Telling You? “Some have compared it to a religious experience, others an orgasm,” he says. The exact science is unknown, but Sheth thinks the sensation may result from “a slightly prolonged buildup, an overdistension of the rectum, and immediate collapse by passing a sizable stool, which fires the vagus nerve and releases endorphins.” Lights-out pooping, Sheth adds, may “help with a proper rate of exit.””
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    Truly etc., this. The Wired magazine on, well, pooping in the dark.

Links for 21st May, 2019

  1. “The latest edition of the World Cup will soon be upon us. Just ten teams this time, playing out their matches (including the warm-up games) in mainstream venues. No chance for an unheralded ground to get on the cricketing map – as Amstelveen and Edinburgh did in 1999. No chance for history to unfold in a far-off venue like Tunbridge Wells – which to this day has Indian tourists visiting every year, to hear about Kapil’s unbeaten 175.This time too, there will be much Geography to savour. Grounds, ends, winds and soils. Maybe even clouds on some days. Balls soaring towards the River Tone in Taunton. There will be schoolkids watching it all. Perhaps some among them will jot down names and trivia in the margins of their notebooks. Like this one schoolboy did close to three decades ago.”
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    A useful example of how learning about one thing can have entirely unexpected (but very pleasant) consequences. In this case, cricket as a geography teacher.
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  2. “Tech leaders across the industry are rethinking the role of their platforms’ incentives, in response to mounting criticism that technology platforms do more harm than good. Instagram is running a test where like counts are hidden to followers, but are viewable by the post’s account holder. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri told BuzzFeed News that the test wasn’t about incentivizing specific behavior but “about creating a less pressurized environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves” and focus less on like counts.”
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    This article is mostly about Twitter, but the excerpt is about how tech companies are responding to the huge backlash they are currently facing. Is the response enough? You be the judge!
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  3. “The Muslim world can easily find martyrs but what it urgently and desperately needs are statesmen, negotiators, advisors, scholars, and intellectuals who understand their times and peoples.”
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    This is a part of the world (Afghanistan) I know very, very little about – and in particular, the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s – which is what most of this book seems to be about. I plan to read it, for this reason.
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  4. “And that’s when I realized that they believe they will lose very little by associating themselves with Nath. They don’t expect anyone to boycott the film just because an actor accused of serial sexual predation is in it. The issue is not that the cost of the reshoot was too high, but that the costs imposed by society for not removing Nath from the film were too low.”
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    This article is worth reading for many, many reasons – some of which are too complicated to go into here. But here are the main reasons: Shruti Rajagopalan is always worth reading, this is an economic analysis of an ostensibly non-economic issue (is there such a thing?), and well – more people in India (and elsewhere) need to read this!
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  5. “You get your Raspberry Pi and hook it up to a monitor and a keyboard and a mouse, then you log on to it and … it’s just a Linux system, like the tilde.club machine, and ready for work. A new computer is the blankest of canvases. You can fill it with files. You can make it into a web server. You can send and receive email, design a building, draw a picture, write 1,000 novels. You could have hundreds of users or one. It used to cost tens of thousands of dollars, and now it costs as much as a fancy bottle of wine.”
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    A very long, but (to me at any rate) extremely readable article that is essentially an ode to technology.

Links for 23rd April, 2019

  1. “Obviously, there are many more novels and memoirs that mention long lists of books than are included here, but I’m limited, as ever, by time, availability of data, and the demands of maintaining sanity. So below, please find twelve books that are filled to the gills with mentions of other books, and feel free to add further suggestions in the comments.”
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    If you, like me, are fond of bookmarking lists that will prove to be useful at some undefined point of time in the future, you might find this useful. Books that contain lists of other books worth reading is an interesting enough article by itself – as an academician, I’d argue it’s the very best way to include a bibliography.
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  2. “Alas, if only healthcare policy were so simple. The reality is messy and there is no magic bullet. Singapore’s success in healthcare is built on a panoply of measures developed and refined over decades. The measures employ a variety of policy tools that both individually and collectively target the market and government failures afflict the healthcare sector. For a comprehensive understanding of health policy in Singapore, we need to understand all the policy tools used and how they operate individually and in relation to each other.”
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    A very readable PDF about what makes Singapore’s healthcare system so very awesome. Truly worth a read to find out how it evolved, and as an Indian, to understand how far we have to go.
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  3. ““You will hardly find women with wombs in these villages. These are villages of womb-less women,” says Manda Ugale, gloom in her eyes. Sitting in her tiny house in Hajipur village, in the drought-affected Beed district of Maharashtra’s Marathwada region, she struggles to talk about the painful topic.”
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    Speaking of a long way to go
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  4. “Facebook’s powerful network effects have kept advertisers from fleeing, and overall user numbers remain healthy if you include people on Insta­gram, which Facebook owns. But the company’s original culture and mission kept creating a set of brutal debts that came due with regularity over the past 16 months. The company floundered, dissembled, and apologized. Even when it told the truth, people didn’t believe it. Critics appeared on all sides, demanding changes that ranged from the essential to the contradictory to the impossible. As crises multiplied and diverged, even the company’s own solutions began to cannibalize each other.”
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    A very long article about the troubles at Facebook, but you can never read too much about the how’s and what’s at Facebook.
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  5. “If that’s an equally unpleasant prospect, consider Andreessen, who’s 47, the perfect messenger. From showy check-writing to weaponizing his popular blog and (before Trump) Twitter account to hiring an army of operational experts in a field built on low-key partnerships, he’s one of Silicon Valley’s poster boys for upending the rules. And it’s worked: In one decade, Andreessen Horowitz joined the elite VC gatekeepers of Silicon Valley while generating $10 billion-plus in estimated profits, at least on paper, to its investors. Over the next year or so, expect no less than five of its unicorns—Airbnb, Lyft, PagerDuty, Pinterest and Slack—to go public.”
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    a16z is a firm everybody should know more about – this article helps. By the way, their podcast is good as well.

Links for 20th March, 2019

  1. “In 1950, cement production was equal to that of steel; in the years since, it has increased 25-fold, more than three times as fast as its metallic construction partner.”
    A mostly negative view of concrete, and how pervasive it has become over the years and across the world, in the Guardian. I wouldn’t necessarily argue the view that concrete is all bad, but the data is worth thinking about. Also keep an eye out for a mention of Vaclav Smil later on in the article – an author worth reading.
  2. “Achieving victory over another man, defeating them, forcing them to submit—it’s not about saying “I’m better than you.” It’s saying “I’m better than I was yesterday.” It’s why almost every competition ends with a hug and a thank you. Because each gave the other something—the opportunity to learn, to progress and to become better. At “Camp Settle This Like Men,” and at MMA gyms around the world, black belt instructors lend their time and expertise to lead classes on kickboxing, jiu jitsu, boxing and self-defense. When we teach others our skills, we make them better, hone our own knowledge, and create stronger opponents, that we can measure ourselves against.”
    An article from the Quillette about “Camp Settle This Like Men”. Interesting on multiple levels – masculine toxicity, respect (the earning and the giving of it), and about the plus side of mixed martial arts.
  3. “You have no idea how hard it is. Yes, there’s a lot of work that goes into getting the teams aligned and getting the right leaders in place who believe in these priorities, and being able to execute on that. And even the process of writing something like this is really helpful, because you can talk about a lot of things in the abstract. But it’s not until you actually put it down on paper and say, “Yeah, here are the trade-offs. We’re going to focus on reducing the permanence of how much data we have around, and that’s going to make these things harder.” Then you get all these teams inside the company that come out of the woodwork with all the issues that that’s going to cause for other things that we really care about.”
    Maybe it is because I was teaching industrial organization this semester – but rather than everything else that everybody focused upon, this is the part of the interview that leaped out for me. Organizing a firm is hard. Organizing teams within a firm is harder. There’s a very long reading list that suggests itself about this – it begins from Coase, and ends at Horowitz – for now.
  4. “Today, we’re celebrating the objects and ideas dreamt up and created by inventors, scientists and dreamers. Thanks to over 110 institutions, including National Council of Science Museums and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research from India, as well as dedicated curators and archivists from 23 countries around the world, you can explore a millennia of human progress in Once Upon a Try, now available on Google Arts & Culture. With over 400 interactive collections, it’s the largest online exhibition about inventions, discoveries, and innovations ever created.”
    What a time to be alive. I haven’t seen a lot on the site, principally because I would get nothing else done – but this is a truly bookmark-able resource. Again, what a time to be alive.
  5. “In India, in my opinion, we ape the West too much, particularly America too much. I lived in Silicon Valley so I know both the strengths and the weaknesses. The weaknesses, the short-termist thinking. Very few companies stay the long haul and we have taken more inspiration from the Japanese on these than from the Americans, in this particular area.”
    Lots and lots of interesting stuff here, and the whole interview is worth listening/reading. But of all of those things, this was the most interesting one to me – the influence of Japanese and American start-up culture on Zoho – a remarkable Indian firm.