Links - July 21st, 2017
It seems like this is a post where articles are paired up in some way or another. That didn’t happen on purpose.
- How did usury stop being a sin and become respectable finance? Alex Mayyasi - Aeon
Religion’s role in the rise of finance is an interesting topic. I remember reading about it in Dimont’s God, Jews, and History 10 years ago (I should probably it read again), and being surprised by how much of a role Judaism had in the development of modern banking. This article discusses the changing views of money within Christianity, and how lending shifted from being sinful to respectable. The development of money and commerce is related to slowly expanding our circles of trust - from families, to tribes, to villages, to towns, and eventually to cities and countries. As transactions become trustless, finance becomes faceless, and lending at interest is no longer one person screwing the other one, but oil in the gears of a bigger machine.
- Apple Prime and the iPhone Pro M.G. Siegler - 500ish Words
It is interesting to think about Apple products as part of a subscription model. M.G. makes good points, none of which I can comment on.
- Wall Street Has Begun to Think About Apple In a New Way Neil Cybart - Above Avalon
And speaking of Apple and things I can’t comment on, here’s some more interesting financial analysis on the company. When I read articles like this one I wish I had paid more attention in my corporate finance classes.
- Why Not Taxation and Representation? Timothy Taylor - Conversable Economist
How would an alternative history where the American Colonies get seats in the British Parliament have played out? In Imagined Communities, Anderson repeatedly mentions that the colonial nation state emerges in the Americas partly because creole colonists are not given the same opportunities as the “actual British” or the “Actual Spanish.” A colonist could rise in the state bureaucracy up to a certain point, but never reach the highest courts. This led to an imagining of “us” against “them” where the “us” were the colonists, and the “them” was the empire. This dynamic led to rebellions, and a variety of fights for independence across the continent. Are there any examples of colonies that were granted full “part of the empire” status? I couldn’t think of any.
- Content isn't king Benedict Evans
Holding the keys to the content is not as important as it used to be. Partially, I think this has to do with the fact that the market for content has been totally flooded, an aspect that Evans does not touch at all in his article.
- In Urban China, Cash Is Rapidly Becoming Obsolete Paul Mozur - The New York Times
I would love to spend some time in China and understand how some technologies are being leapfrogged over there. The article reminded me of Charlie Warzel’s cashless Swedish adventure, which I shared when it came out last year, and is totally worth your time. Especially interesting here are the aspects of consumer lock-in to these two companies (Alibaba and Tencent) mobile payment systems, and the lock-out experienced by foreigners.
- Alienation 101 Brook Larmer - 1843 Magazine
As international student who landed in the Midwest for the first time for college, this was interesting. Granted that the cultural differences between the US and China are much larger than those with Costa Rica, but I can still relate to a lot of it. It was much easier to hang out with other Latin American students, and enclose myself in the international bubble, but spending time with people from all around the world, including the US, was one of the highlights of my college experience.
- The Cost of a Hot Economy in California: A Severe Housing Crisis Adam Nagourney and Conor Dougherty - The New York Times
Last night I attended an event about the interaction between technology and housing. As you’d imagine, this is a hot topic in San Francisco. One of the panelists pointed out that unlike other countries, in the US home ownership is seen as an investment, and not as a means of shelter. From her perspective, this philosophy has led regulators to crystallize a perverse set of incentives into law, in order to preserve the value of those investments, at a huge social cost. And I totally agree. When I see all the single-family two story homes in the western side of San Francisco, or the low rise buildings neighboring the downtown area, I just get more convinced that this is a policy issue, not an innovation issue. Having an economic boom should be a good thing!
- Should we build lots more housing in San Francisco? Three reasons people disagree Julia Galef
Disagreeing over the facts, and these levels skepticism over quantitative analysis is almost laughable, but NIMBYs, and other critics of the pro-housing movement do have some good arguments. Here’s a quick summary.
- Trump's Lucky Break on the Economy Justin Fox - Bloomberg View
I have always said that who is president does not matter as much as the historical context, and who that person surrounds themselves with. The fact that things were going well when he got to power means that people shouldn’t be too unhappy (yet!) but they are. What will happen once the economy goes south?
- The Death of a Pig (1948) E.B. White - The Atlantic
Hannah made fun of me for reading this without knowing who E.B. White is. Sometimes, even she forgets that I’m not American, and that I don’t know everything about this culture. I read this essay because it strangely showed up on Hacker News. I still have not decided what I think about it.
- The Ceremony (podcast) Radiolab
I have mixed feelings about the fact that ZCash is on Radiolab. On the one hand, it’s great to see good reporting on cryptocurrencies, and they do a pretty good job of making it accessible to laymen, but on the other hand they hide the math behind mysticism and science. It is ok to explain simplified versions of the concepts, but even the title of the episode gives it a magical connotation that I can’t come to terms with.
- The Golden Era of Productivity, Retail, and Supply Chains (podcast) Marc Levinson, Hanne Tidnam, and Sonal Chokshi - a16z
The episodes of a16z where people talk about the past are way better than those where they talk about the present or the future. “How did we get to now” says a lot more about where we are going than the latest and the shiniest.
- Jones Iver - Alex Jones Rants as an Indie Folk Song Nick Lutsko
This is funny, but it is also sad. Sad!
Onward, a short review July 16, 2017
Ever since I heard Howard Schultz speak at Northwestern four years ago, I wanted to read his books. As a coffee snob who regularly complains about Starbucks’s quality, I went to the event with low expectations, and interested mostly in the cult of personality. Even though I hate their product, he did a good job and got me interested in his company. Now, years later, having finally read one out of two, I have to say I feel conflicted about Onward. The book lays out the reasons for Starbucks outsized role in the industry, and its influence in American coffee culture, but it does so with a self-indulgent tone that’s hard to take seriously. Continue reading...
Links - July 2nd, 2017
- Should Startups Care About Profitability? Mark Suster - Both Sides of the Table
Dealing with the trade offs between profits and growth is one of the toughest problems in business. Suster frames his article as “profits vs. growth,” but when he compares companies under different scenarios he’s really talking about the decision of raising VC money to fuel growth, not about picking a plowback ratio. The argument put forward in the post is that the calculus of “cash in hand today” vs. “debt today plus a promise of more cash tomorrow” is not a big question in high margin businesses with “winner takes most” outcomes.
- Getting Past the Dominance of the Nation State Albert Wenger - Continuations
This is one of the topics I keep bringing back in conversations with friends, and which I keep getting made fun of for. People forget that the institution of the nation state as we know it is only a couple centuries old, and that it also replaced a seemingly irreplaceable structure. Reading Imagined Communities (see my notes as I go here) has convinced me that the status quo is fragile, and while it won’t change overnight, there is pressure at both ends to revise it. We’re moving towards globalization, while cities gain prominence and develop as smaller localized units that don’t necessarily respond to “the nation”. Countries will be around for a long time, but I am certain that within my lifetime the power balance will have shifted.
- Health Insurance and the R Word (Redistribution) Albert Wenger - Continuations
Lots of talk these days about insurance these days, for obvious reasons, so here’s another post by Wenger.
- Thoughts on Insurance Aaron Harris - Y Combinator
This one is less about the politics of it, but the actual mechanics. The business of insurance is one of pricing - the better you are at calculating the likelihood of whatever mishaps you are insuring against, the more money you’ll make. Harris explains the various players along the value chain, and discusses how the insurance market is structured.
- Why libertarians should read Marx Chris Dillow - Stumbling and Mumbling
Dillow lists three reasons. First, he starts with Marx’s view of economics as a historical process. Since the economy is “founded upon past injustices” and the “denial of the rights and freedom which libertarians celebrate,” the status quo can’t be regarded as legitimate by libertarians. Second, he discusses Marx’s perspective on property rights, and how they might discourage investment and innovation. Lastly, he posits that Marx’s gripe with capitalism was not that it was unfair, but that it robbed laborers from their freedom. As someone mentioned on HN a few days ago in the context of a minimum wage discussion, “When a person is desperate, ‘voluntary’ starts to lose all meaning.” I’m not a libertarian, but I should read Marx.
- iPhone Turns Ten Neil Cybart - Above Avalon
The insanity of transforming the way we interact with technology a second time. “Apple had sold approximately 180M devices since being founded in 1976 (70M Macs and 110M iPods) […] Apple is on track to sell its two billionth iPhone at some point in 2020.”
- There Goes the Gayborhood Scott James - The New York Times
Hannah has been reading a lot of books on gentrification lately, so we’ve been discussing the topic more than usual. What is the meaning of gentrification today in these neighborhoods, when the gay population were the original gentrifiers? I live a few blocks away from the Castro, so you could put me in the bad-guys bucket in this story. This is a hot-button issue, and I have no answers on what’s the right way to solve it, but I am convinced the real cause is policy, not the people moving in.
- What can developers learn from being on call? Julia Evans
On call rotations are about aligning incentives. Code that is suspected to have bugs is never merged and pushed to production on a Friday afternoon when the person writing it is on the hook to fix the error over the weekend. In my two years at Apple I have learned a lot about monitoring and logging, and one of the biggest lessons has been to write fool-proof error messages for anyone else in the team to quickly get context and all the information needed to debug without thinking too much. The post is full of other examples.
- The Danger Of Inadvertently Praising Zygomatic Arches Robert Sapolsky - Edge.org
I thought I had posted articles from Edge.org before, but apparently this is a first one! If you haven’t visited their website, you definitely should. Every year they post a broad question, and ask people from a wide range of scientific and technical fields to answer it. In 2013, the question was “What should we be worried about?” and Robert Sapolsky answered with “What really worries me is that it is so hard for virtually anyone to truly act as if there is no free will.” Go read his answer, and then more questions on Edge.
- Revising the Fault Line (Podcasts) Radiolab
And if that was not enough, here’s some more Sapolsky on free will.
- Mexico 68 (Podcast) 99% Invisible
Design meets history, meets civil unrest, meets politics.
- You Should Do a Story (Podcast) 99% Invisible
5 stories in 1. A Standard Oil gas station in San Francisco to comply with trademark law, “desire paths” and how user experience beats designers wishes, 50-Hz vs 60-Hz electrical systems, and a whole section on local design solutions, followed by a strange story about street naming.
- A Not-So-Simple Majority (Podcast) This American Life
Another fight over public governance, funding, and what happens when we can’t agree on what the government should and should not provide. This case on public education is insane. The religious side to this story makes me especially angry.
- Shrimp Fight Club (Podcast) Planet Money
Another fight over public governance, funding, and what happens when… Wait, that’s the same description as the post right above, but here we’re talking about the federal government and funding scientific research.
- A good walk spoiled (Podcast) Revisionist History Podcast
While the episode is framed as an argument against the game of golf, it really is about the strange taxation status of country clubs in California where the game is played. The reason it is specifically about California is Prop 13, and the extremely low property taxes that these clubs pay to the State. Under the proposition, land value is reassessed whenever the majority ownership changes hands, making for a really interesting argument on the nature of ownership under equity membership schemes of the clubs.
- 3D Packing Michael Fogleman
Another fun visualization experiment by Fogleman. How many widgets can one pack in a constrained volume? Math can give you the answer.
Why I gave up on giving up Twitter June 29, 2017
As some of you might have noticed, my Twitter account has been mostly dormant for the last month or two. This was an experiment; an attempt to regain some of my dead time and be as productive as I used to be. I had done something similar once before - in 2013, I deleted the Facebook app from my phone and regained hours of my life. It’s been four years and I have not looked back. I figured Twitter could not be too different. Continue reading...
Pride '17 June 28, 2017
This year, my Pride weekend was very similar to last year’s. Saturday at Dolores, Sunday at the Civic Center Plaza. However, it was colder, and people seemed to be in a different mood. It was much tamer, and there were fewer naked weirdos, but there were other weirdos, like me, asking strangers for their portraits.
Sometimes, I am sad that these people will never see the photos I took of them. More...