Hi! I'm a junior at Amherst College majoring in CS/stats. I'm interested in the intersections between technology and business. When I'm not in school, I split time between Singapore, Palo Alto, and Jakarta.

I took 3 gap years after high school, during which time I completed my National Service in Singapore in the Civil Defence as an ambulance EMT and volunteered in Indonesia's 2014 presidential campaign.

When I'm not reading and writing notes / exploring you can find me on /r/ mildly interesting / in the gym / worrying about the rise of automation.

I'm currently using this site as a repository for my newsletter (compilation, visualization/app), book notes (compilation), and links.

Monthly updates/points of interest (February)

  • UN Population Predictions Are Wrong? Population Will Start To Decline In 30Y?

    • Authors of Empty Planet argue global population will start to decline in 30Y, versus UN estimate of 11B in 2100 (40% growth)

    • UN forecasting model inputs three things: fertility rates, migration rates, and death rates. It doesn’t take into account the expansion of education for females or the speed of urbanization (which are in some ways linked). The UN says they’re already baked into the numbers. But when I went and interviewed [the demographer] Wolfgang Lutz in Vienna, which was one of the first things we did, he walked me through his projections, and I walked out of the room gobsmacked. All he was doing was adding one new variable to the forecast: the level of improvement in female education. And he comes up with a much lower number for global population in 2100, somewhere between 8 billion and 9 billion.

    • Lutz has this saying that the most important reproductive organ for human beings is your mind. That if you change how someone thinks about reproduction, you change everything. Based on his analysis, the single biggest effect on fertility is the education of women. The UN has a grim view of Africa. It doesn’t predict much change in terms of fertility over the first quarter of the century. But large parts of African are urbanizing at two times the rate of the global average. If you go to Kenya today, women have the same elementary education levels as men. As many girls as boys are sitting for graduation exams. So we’re not prepared to predict that Africa will stagnate in rural poverty for the rest of the century.

    • We polled 26 countries asking women how many kids they want, and no matter where you go the answer tends to be around two. The external forces that used to dictate people having bigger families are disappearing everywhere. And that's happening fastest in developing countries. In the Philippines, for example, fertility rates dropped from 3.7 percent to 2.7 percent from 2003 to 2018. That's a whole kid in 15 years. In the US, that change happened much more slowly, from about 1800 to the end of the Baby Boom. So that’s the scenario we’re asking people to contemplate.

  • The Cash For Electronic Cash — Coin Center (PDF)

    • “This paper shows that a cashless economy is a surveillance economy.” Citizens in these countries [those becoming rapidly cashless, Sweden + other Nordics] rely on card and mobile payments systems owned and operated by banks and financial technology (fintech) firms. These companies have an interest in promoting an increasingly cashless society. Every cash transaction is a transaction that takes place outside of the infrastructure that they own and on which they take a fee. Additionally, cash management is a not an insignificant cost for financial institutions.” [see death of free checking]

      • “7.5% of low income people, who make less than $30,000 a year, get hit with 20 or more NSF fees for an average total cost of $1,568… For low-income people, 56.7% have less than $100 in their checking account when averaged throughout the year. Some will pay $1,568 in order to get a space in the connected economy in order to productive [sic] use a balance of $100.” 

    • Firms such as Visa have launched advertising and media campaigns to urge consumers to give up cash for card payments.13 Other campaigns are targeted at merchants. In one, Visa offered $10,000 to restaurants and food trucks that committed to stop accepting cash. As Visa UK put it, these campaigns are part of a “long term strategy to make cash ‘peculiar’ by 2020.”

    • Former International Monetary Fund chief economist Kenneth Rogoff, whose gripes with paper money are plainly stated in the title of his book, The Curse of Cash, nevertheless agrees that “we need cash for privacy.”

    • The move away from cash in China happened in just a few years. While cash accounted for 96 percent of payments in 2012, today that number is below 15 percent. As of 2018, more than one-half billion Chinese use mobile payments.

    • The same logic that applies to speech is applicable to association and other freedoms valued by an open society. Respect for autonomy is how such freedoms are given meaning; a legal right is useless if one can be prevented from exercising it. The more intermediated a society is, however, the easier and more tempting it becomes to effect prior restraints on the free exercise of rights.

    • Privacy is a notoriously difficult concept to define, but a useful definition was put forth by mathematician and computer scientist Eric Hughes: “Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.” In this formulation, it is interesting to note that Hughes does not frame privacy as a right to be respected by others, but as a power to be exercised by individuals.

  • Economist (and Sam Altman) on UBI (video)

    • When machines/AI arrive, we’ll have $$$, but it’ll naturally accrue to the owners, with nothing left for the newly unemployed (without UBI); YUP @ Kai-Fu Lee’s suspicions that tech/SV-promoted UBI initiatives are driven out of self-interest

  • Animation and in-depth story regarding the two US Navy destroyer collisions in the same year

    • In those eight months, nearly 40 percent of the Fitzgerald’s crew had turned over. The Navy replaced them with younger, less-seasoned sailors and officers, leaving the Fitzgerald with the highest percentage of new crew members of any destroyer in the fleet. But naval commanders had skimped even further, cutting into the number of sailors Benson needed to keep the ship running smoothly. The Fitzgerald had around 270 people total — short of the 303 sailors called for by the Navy.

      At 1:25 a.m., the Fitzgerald was 6,000 yards from the Crystal, 5,000 yards from the Wan Hai 266 and on a collision course with the Maersk Evora, approaching from 14,000 yards away. There was still time for the highly maneuverable Fitzgerald to get out of the way.

      But Coppock disobeyed Benson’s standing orders. Rather than call Benson for help, she decided to continue on her own. Coppock didn’t call down to the combat room to ask for help, either.

      Coppock could have ordered the Fitzgerald into reverse; there was still time to stop. Arleigh Burke destroyers can come to a complete halt from 20 knots within 500 feet or so.

      Instead, Coppock ordered a move that disregarded the very basics of her training.  She commanded the helmsman to gun the destroyer’s powerful engines to full speed and duck in front of the Crystal by heading left. “All ahead flank,” she ordered. “Hard left rudder.”

  • An entrepreneur’s reflections on taking VC money but failing to build a unicorn

    • But we were venture-funded, which was like playing a game of double-or-nothing. It’s euphoric when things are going your way–and suffocating when they’re not. And we weren’t doubling fast enough to raise the $15M+ Series B (the second major round of funding) we looked for to grow the team.

      For the type of business we were trying to build, every month of less than 20% growth should have been a red flag.

      It doesn’t matter how amazing your product is, or how fast you ship features. The market you’re in will determine most of your growth. For better or worse, Gumroad grew at roughly the same rate almost every month because that’s how quickly the market determined we would grow.

    • According to Andreessen, “product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” But too often the focus is on latter part of the sentence (a product that can satisfy the market) and not the former (in a good market).

  • What it’s like to a Facebook fact-checker

    • In case you’re curious, here’s what it was like to be an official Facebook fact-checker. We were given access to a tool that hooked into our personal Facebook accounts and was accessed that way (strike one, as far as I was concerned) and it spat out a long list of stories that had been flagged for checks. We were free to ignore the list, or mark stories as “true,” “false,” or “mixture.” (Facebook later added a “satire” category after what I like to call "the Babylon Bee incident", where a satirical piece was incorrectly labeled false.)

      It was clear from the start that that this list was generated via algorithm. It contained headlines and URLs, and a graph showing their popularity and how much time they had been on the site. There were puzzling aspects to it, though. We would often get the same story over and over again from different sites, which is to be expected to a certain degree because many of the most lingering stories have been recycled again and again. This is what Facebook likes to call “engagement.”

      But no matter how many times we marked them “false,” stories would keep resurfacing with nothing more than a word or two changed. This happened often enough to make it clear that our efforts weren’t really helping, and that we were being directed toward a certain type of story — and, we presumed, away from others.

  • A Guide to Tagging for Personal Knowledge Management — yes it’s as exciting/consequential to me/you as the title sounds; 4 actionable insights offered:

    • Tag notes according to the actions taken or deliverables created with them

    • Add structure slowly, in stages and only as needed, using accumulated material to guide you in what structures are needed

    • Tag notes according to their internal, external, and social context, and status

    • Develop customized, profession-specific taxonomies

  • Public defendants

    • Public defendants have a hard time, e.g. example in article needs to do work of 5 lawyers... most are ineffective, and although courts allow an individual to claim, after they lose, that they received an ineffective defense. But the bar is high. Some judges have ruled that taking illegal drugs, driving to court drunk or briefly falling asleep at the defense table — even during critical testimony — did not make a lawyer inadequate… Roughly four out of five criminal defendants are too poor to hire a lawyer and use public defenders or court-appointed lawyers.

  • Modern Monetary Theory

    • What’s modern about MMT is this: the modern sovereign’s balance sheet cannot be understood solely from a fiscal perspective. The sovereign’s balance sheet includes not only the assets and liabilities of the sovereign’s treasury from tax-and-spend-and-borrow fiscal policy, but also the assets and liabilities of the sovereign’s central bank from money-printing-and-pricing monetary policy. As a result, MMT holds that not only are austerity and budget-balancing policies a bad move, but so are balance sheet-reducing and liquidity-draining policies. MMT is the theoretical justification for QE without end.

    • At its core, Modern Monetary Theory is an argument that would be wonderfully familiar to every sovereign since the invention of debt. It is essentially the argument that significant sovereign debt is a good thing, not a bad thing, and that budget balancing efforts on a national scale do much more harm than good. Why? Because there’s so much to do and so little time for the right-minded sovereign. Because it is fundamentally unjust for the demands of private lenders to thwart the necessary ends of the sovereign, and it is politically difficult to finance those ends through tax levies on a fickle citizenry. MMT is the sovereign-friendly justification for deficit spending without end.

    • So don’t tell me that the crowding-out effect of sovereign debt on the real economy isn’t a bad thing. Because it is. This is how entire economies are turned into zombies. Don’t tell me that the monetization of sovereign debt, explicitly or implicitly, isn’t a bad thing. Because it is. This is how a middle class is destroyed.

  • Responses from readers of Epilson Theory to above article

    • When you accept the language and the structural vocabulary of an insurgent political narrative (and that’s what MMT is … an insurgent political narrative), then you’ve lost the debate before you’ve even begun. It’s like earnestly “debating” Arthur Laffer about supply-side economics in front of an audience of Young Republicans at the Hoover Institution in the mid-80s … the vocabulary and the structure of the conversation are INTENTIONALLY CONSTRUCTED to sound truth-y (to use Stephen Colbert’s wonderful word) and to create a hermetically sealed argumentation chamber where flaws in the theory do not exist because the words to express those flaws do not exist. Like I said in the note: I get the joke. This is what Socrates called sophistry. It was the bane of education and intellectual discourse 2,500 years ago, and it’s the bane of education and intellectual discourse today. The key to successful engagement with a political narrative like MMT (or like supply-side Reagonomics back in the day) is the same key that Socrates identified in freakin’ 430 BC: CALL THINGS BY THEIR PROPER NAMES. That’s all it takes. Seriously.”

    • “In the modern system, there are more tickets sold than seats in the house (more money/debt printed than products and services, at current prices.) The elites are good at playing for time, but eventually ticket holders will want to go in. So you’re down to a choice among: denying entry to some tickets (default/deflation,) putting 4 people in every 3 seats (inflation/devaluation,) announcing everyone must wait indefinitely (financial repression,) and building more seats (economic growth.) If you’re the global empire, you can also make the neighboring theater honor some of your tickets, or make war to make that happen. There are no other ways out, and even if miracles come out of the labs, people may not spend money on them, so growth is really outside Team Elite’s control. Historically, the Western elites have been pretty good at effecting a combination of the scenarios, to spread around the stress and keep their system alive.

  • Hypothesis driven development in journalism @ NPR

  • Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Acceptance Speech

    • Stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point. But for me the essential thing is that they communicate feelings. That they appeal to what we share as human beings across our borders and divides. There are large, glamorous industries around stories; the book industry, the movie industry, the television industry, the theatre industry. But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?