Links - November 20, 2018
- The Land That Failed to Fail Philip P. Pan - The New York Times
This is the first epic in a series about China that the NYT is working on. It is a good overview of how the Chinese government has switched from being a closed-in communist anti-market regime to an expansionist communist but market driven regime. The tone is a bit too positive for my taste, as it brushes away the clearly autocratic/totalitarian tendencies of the Chinese system, but the content is well put together, and I’m sure they will touch on these in one of the upcoming pieces. Make sure to see the appendix articles, too.
- Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen - The Atlantic
As I read this wonderful piece I kept thinking of Robert Gordon. Unsurprisingly, the authors invoke Gordon’s pessimistic headwind thesis but, unlike him, Nielsen and Collison are optimistic, demanding “large-scale institutional response” to a problem they see as solvable. The thing is, progress is non-linear. Most science isn’t worth the time and effort invested in discovering it. I was a bit bummed out that the domain they are hosting their appendix at (http://scientificreturns.org) is empty. I was excited to click around and learn more about their position, and hoping to find proposals they were bringing to the table. I assume they have more than just this op-ed up their sleeves, so I’m looking forward to hearing more.
- On the constancy of the rate of GDP growth José Luis Ricón - Nintil
An in-depth look at why GDP grows the way it does. This post decomposes growth into many components, and ultimately ties it down to how many people can use a bounded pool of knowledge at any given time, and how we can extract more of that knowledge to put it to use.
- Amazon’s Antitrust Antagonist Has a Breakthrough Idea David Streitfeld - The New York Times
Somehow I’d missed this NYT profile of Lina Khan, and her work on antitrust, from this past September. It’s easy to draw parallels between her questioning the meaning of consumer welfare & Mariana Mazzucato’s questioning the meaning of value. We need to rethink the basics.
- No Straight Lines Alvaro Videla - Medium
In this short piece, Alvaro questions the modern eurocentric view that cartesian straight lines are good, while complex illegible curves are not. We have a learned set of ideas of what things should look like, and that knowledge is a lens through which we view other societies. When at first sight a system doesn’t fit nicely with our views, it is easy to dismiss it as wrong - our first reaction is to impose our accepted truth on top of it. Clearly our way of doing things is better. Whether we’re discussing urban planning or software engineering, people are often trigger-happy and ready to raze down effective solutions layered by history, enacting our own abstractions to provide legibility at the cost of actual efficiency. Without knowing it, he was channeling Seeing Like a State.
- The Hottest Trend in American Literature Isn’t From the U.S. Liesl Schillinger - The Atlantic
I’ve always hated reading translations. It is really surprising that mainstream USians have pushed back on this for so long.
- Superstar Firms and Cities Tim Taylor - Conversable Economist
Power laws are real, and they are everywhere. Of ~6k firms making $1B+ in revenue globally, the top 1% creates 36% of all profits, middle 80% record near-zero profits, Bottom 10% destroys as much value as the top 10% creates. Similarly, out the top 50 cities host 8% of the global population and represent 21% of world GDP, translating into a GDP/capita that’s 45% larger than their peers. The dynamics that lead to this are not studied enough.
- Can Democrats Save Capitalism? Noah Smith - Bloomberg View
In this essay, Noah points out two possible paths for the Democrats: social democracy and corporatism. Either we want the state to take up a larger role in people’s welfare, or we want companies to do so. There’s a clear tension between the two. Honestly, I’d like to think of a third path.
- There is a fine line between stupid and clever Tim Harford
Recently, with the turmoil in markets in the US and abroad, I’ve been thinking a lot about personal finance, and ways to improve my lot. The question of whether one should invest as soon as cash is available with each paycheck (ie, cost averaging over time) or invest in a lump sum when some event occurs (ie, a simple momentum play, or a market drop) is deeply controversial. I’ve been cost averaging for a while, but the longer I do it the more I think I’m doing it wrong.
- Want a mentor? Stop asking for one. Bethany Crystal - Hacker Noon
People want to help, you just need to make it easy for them to do so. I have been lucky over the years to have naturally found mentorship in family members and friends alike, but the kind of specific pointed requests for advice that Bethany recommends here seem like an art that I should spend time perfecting. If I weren’t at Apple, I’d probably make a bigger effort to tell people about what I’m working on, and what I’m struggling with on a day to day basis.
- What Happens When A Founder Is Fully Vested? Fred Wilson - AVC
While I’ve thought a lot about incentives in startups, I had never thought of the kinds of conflicts that arise when a founder fully vests an initial grant. The fact that something like this can trigger a bigger conversation seems especially mis-understood.
- Pivot or Fail? Fred Wilson - AVC
The fact that some “huge successes are the results of pivots” does not mean that all pivots are successful. I agree with Fred that in most cases, hard pivots are a bad idea. There’s probably enough data around to calculate whether
P(success | pivot) > P(success).
- Engineers Shouldn’t Write ETL: A Guide to Building a High Functioning Data Science Department Jeff Magnusson - Stitch Fix
This is a topic that I’ve been thinking a lot about at work, given the growth of my team and the trajectory that we’re following as a data platform to other teams within the company. I can’t say much, but I’m glad other people have thought about these problems before.
- Back When Sears Made Black Customers a Priority Lauretta Charlton - The New York Times
You can trace all sorts of parallels between Sears and Amazon. This is one I hadn’t heard about before, but it is interesting how sometimes unrestricted capitalism and its tunnel vision can lead to unexpected good outcomes. Having access to catalogue shopping meant that you had access to products you otherwise were not able to obtain. The capitalist machine was just catering to the market. Another example, technology meant to reduce friction for everyone can disproportionately ease the experience of shopping for those who are usually targeted as potential thieves.
- Streetscapes Mozart, Marx and a Dictator Kai Biermann, Paul Blickle, Astrid Geisler, Flavio Gortana, Lennart Hildebrandt, Andreas Loos, Fabian Mohr, Karsten Polke-Majewski, Alexa Steinbrück, Julian Stahnke and Sascha Venohr. Translation by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey - Zeit Online
Language, geography, history, and identity are deeply tied together. Here’s an awesome visualization from Germany
- The Snapchat Thief Reply All (Podcast)
The internet is scary. I have multiple factor auth in most sites, and somewhat understand the intricacies of phone spoofing. My mom does not, and most of my non-techie friends don’t either. This is a problem we have to solve via easy to use products that abstract away all this complexity, or we’ll have to pay for it later on.
- War of the Worlds Radiolab (Podcast)
Fake news! The problem is that people are gullible, and that we don’t question what we see and hear, not that we are presented with false information. This episode is a good case study with a couple of extreme historical examples, but for a wider overview on the topic you can also check out Sam Harris interviewing Matt Taibbi for his podcast
- The Seattle Experiment Planet Money (Podcast)
In the US, you need to have money to have a voice in an election. What if we helped people attain that voice? Well, it’s a hard design problem. Seattle tried it, and for the most part flopped. This is an interesting idea worth exploring, and I hope other local experiments expand on it.
- Sharing, Transaction Costs, and Tomorrow 3.0 Russ Roberts and Michael Munger - Econtalk (Podcast)
An interesting conversation on the sharing economy, and the value of platforms, from the ancient souks of the middle east to the present day gig economy. A lot of the dynamics behind these systems can be explained as ways of lowering transaction costs.
- Quant in Private Markets Patrick O'Shaughnessy and Ryan Caldbeck - Invest Like the Best (Podcast)
What kind of analyses can we apply to private brands to try and pick out winners? Caldbeck has been doing this for years, and has great insight into what signals are worth looking for.
- Esoteric Credit Patrick O'Shaughnessy, Ali Hamed, Brian Harwitt and Marc Porzecanski (CoVenture) - Invest Like the Best (Podcast)
The previous episode with CoVentue’s Ali Hamed was great, so I had very high expectations for this one, too. It did not disappoint, and reminded me of how little I actually know about the mechanics of credit, even though I interened in two different credit-related fintech startups.
- On November 26th, a mole will land on Mars. Matthew Inman - The Oatmeal
The usual blend of humor and science that you’d expect from the Oatmeal. Somehow I had missed that InSight was coming.
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