Links round-up

Hi all,

Are there any grimmer, more inevitable words in the English language than ‘rain stops play?’ The rain has put a dent in Sri Lanka’s attempt to rescue the reputation of Galle Fort against New Zealand and England’s efforts to even up the Ashes (for what it’s worth, both tasks currently looking out of reach). At least the interminable rain delays have actually left me time for work; there was a real risk that two tests in different time zones would take up all my waking hours. As it is, I’m at home, doing some exceptionally mind-numbing data work watching the rain pummel my back garden into submission. The Great British Summer continues.

  1. I’m about to hit a rare pitch of geekery, so brace yourselves. Planet Money go to Liwonde National Park in Malawi, one of my favourite places in the world, where I finally got a full and unobstructed view of Pel’s Fishing Owl at around 5am on Boxing Day in 2006 after several days of dawn excursions, dodging crocs on the riverbank. It’s not owls that send Planet Money there, though, but elephants, and specifically the sound of elephants. In an amazing feat of automation, scientists have used neural networks to train computers to learn what an elephant sounds like (its motion, noises and calls), to facilitate censuses in remote places we cannot easily access (transcript). As interesting as the conservation aspects, though, are what this tells us about how automation and the labour market interact. We typically worry that robots and computers will take our jobs, but combing through 100,000 hours of tape is the kind of thing that is so labour-intensive and expensive that we don’t do it at all. Instead, automating this task creates jobs interpreting the data and coming up with policy responses that could never have occurred if we hadn’t been able to automate.
  2. I really liked this: CGD helps explode the idea that there is anything particularly special about Chinese firms in Africa, pointing out that nationality explains relatively little of their characteristics.
  3. There is a lot to chew on in this Diane Coyle piece about progress, and the need to study it (quite apart from the fact that I found myself disagreeing with her just two sentences in: it is of course possible that we know lots about what drives progress, but can do little to affect any of it). One thing that really stuck with me was her point that we lack any good definitions or measures of what progress actually is. There are things that seem obvious to me as progress, but which don’t show up in GDP or things like the Human Development Index, my favourite example being the dramatically reduced cost of obtaining information today compared to my teenaged years.  I used to have to make a trip to the library, spend hours searching for books and within them and writing down notes, while now I can google almost anything and simply save entire papers or books onto my hard drive.
  4. Two good pieces on thinking long term: first, in VoxEU Jon Danielsson and Robert Macrae discuss how bad the tools we have for thinking about long term risks are; they don’t have any solutions, but it’s a very good statement of the problem. And Eva Vivalt discusses why you might want to ‘give later’, with one compelling reason being that we are constantly learning more about how to make the world better, a good (and evidence-based) reason for being an optimist. Of course knowing how to make the world better doesn’t mean we actually do it, but it’s a necessary step…
  5. The IMF’s Article IV note on China is also optimistic, marking yet another point at which the Chinese bureaucracy and policy makers have managed to avoid widely-predicted disaster and keep the economy ticking. We were discussing this in the office recently: at some point they’ll have a recession (everyone does), but bets against the Chinese economy are almost always bad ones.
  6. Really nice VoxDev piece on how to structure promotion incentives to induce high performance. I will definitely be citing this one day.  
  7. So, normally the last link is where you go for frivolity and pop culture references, but there’s been an acute shortage of good marginalia this week. So in lieu of a Ringer list of the 50 greatest rap beefs of all time or something similar, here is a list of Shakespeare’s best insults. It misses out my favourite (Kent’s extended rant in Lear, describing Oswald as – among other things – a ‘one-trunk-inheriting slave’), but it still brought a smile to my face.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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