The writer William Gibson:

 “In my childhood, the 21st century was constantly referenced,” he said. “You’d see it once every day, and it often had an exclamation point.” The sense, he said, was that postwar America was headed somewhere amazing. Now that we’re actually in the 21st century, however, the 22nd century is never evoked with excitement. “We don’t seem to have, culturally, a sense of futurism that way anymore,” he said. “It sort of evaporated.”

– “The Darkness Where the Future Should Be“, in The New York Times
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Public money, private money

A recent move by New York State to ban businesses from accepting only digital payment methods reminded me of this article from a few years ago, which made the argument that digital payment methods are essentially privatised money:

‘Cash’ is the name given to our system of physical tokens that are manually passed on to complete transactions. This first mode of money is public. We might call it ‘state money’. Indeed, we experience cash like a public utility that is ‘just there’. Like other public utilities, it might feel grungy and unsexy – with inefficiencies and avenues for corruption – but it is in principle open-access.

In contrast, digital payment methods run

… off an infrastructure collectively controlled by profit-seeking commercial banks and a host of private payment intermediaries – like Visa and Mastercard – that work with them. The data inscriptions in your bank account are not state money. Rather, your bank account records private promises issued to you by your bank, promising you access to state money should you wish. Having ‘£500’ in your Barclays account actually means ‘Barclays PLC promises you access to £500’. The ATM network is the main way by which you convert these private bank promises – ‘deposits’ – into the state cash that has been promised to you. The digital payments system, on the other hand, is a way to transfer – or reassign – those bank promises between ourselves.

In the US, where cashless means primarily credit cards, it’s been argued that “…it’s incredibly discriminatory not to accept cash because some people can’t get credit”. In India, anyone with a bank account can technically pay with UPI, but it does require an iPhone/Android phone. One can also pay via a debit card, but setting and managing a PIN can be hard for people to do. Of course the NPCI, which runs UPI, is a consortium of banks, but it’s sufficiently quasi-governmental to qualify as a national payments mechanism.

But as the Aeon article describes, privatising money, or having private entities mediate transactions, means a third party entity makes a cut of every transaction for providing this convenience: whether your bank or a payments network. It’s why the Indian government has mandated zero ‘merchant discount rates’ on RuPay cards to use them.

The problem of course with making RuPay and UPI free for customers and merchants is that last-mile payment providers still bear the costs of providing payments infrastructure. The Payments Council of India, a payments industry body, compared the move to scrap merchant payments to ‘nationalizing the payments industry’.

While I’d say access to payments, and now digital payments, should be a civic right, I think we’re going to have to find a way to make offering and accepting digital payments near-zero-cost for those who are new to digital payments while maintaining incentives for the payments industry to expand and innovate.

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Upcoming India space missions

Astrosat-2: space telescope 

Aditya-L1, 2020: observe the Sun’s corona, photosphere and chromosphere 

Gaganyaan, 2021: foundation of Indian Human Spaceflight Programme; 3 astronauts in 400km orbit, 7 days

Shukrayaan, 2023: explore Venus’ atmosphere, to get to within 500km of the surface

Mangalyaan-2, 2024: second Mars orbiter (may have lander)

Chandrayaan-3, 2024: ISRO+JAXA, orbiter+lander

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The brain and its ‘default mode’

This article that starts out about silence but is about much more:

For decades, scientists had known that the brain’s “background” activity consumed the lion’s share of its energy. Difficult tasks like pattern recognition or arithmetic, in fact, only increased the brain’s energy consumption by a few percent

In 2001, Raichle and his colleagues published a seminal paper that defined a “default mode” of brain function—situated in the prefrontal cortex, active in cognitive actions—implying a “resting” brain is perpetually active, gathering and evaluating information. Focused attention, in fact, curtails this scanning activity.

Follow-up research has shown the default mode is also enlisted in self-reflection… the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.” During this time when the brain rests quietly, wrote Moran and colleagues, our brains integrate external and internal information into “a conscious workspace.”

I find that practising everyday mindfulness – going about one’s daily activities while simply observing them – is difficult to do for more than a few moments at a time but surprisingly powerful. It immediately puts yourself at the periphery of what’s happening instead of at the center, and as a result details open up in routines, people, things you deal with everyday. It’s magical even if you lose it in seconds, and it leaves me feeling much calmer and less excitable for several minutes after. This article helped explain how.

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Notion and personal databases

I read this excellent dive into the system of a Notion power user. Although I haven’t used the service, it made me realise how Notion is basically specialised personal databases: everything is either a task or a document. But tasks can be viewed as lists, in the context of projects, as Kannan boards, as calendars. Documents can be notes, they can be notebooks, they can be collections. They can all be tagged, providing another dimension for viewing. (This is in addition to support for arbitrary databases).

That is a powerful conceptual model. Evernote is strongly notebook-influenced; other info & media is merely embedded. Sheets are two-dimensional tables. Task managers are list-oriented. They are all part of a personal system but are single-purpose and disconnected.

Airtable is a true personal database but like Microsoft Access of old, it’s general-purpose and supports limited data types as values. While powerful too and flexible, it leaves too much heavy-lifting to those that want to use it to organise varied personal information.

As of 2020, Notion seems to have found the right balance between databases and specialised use-cases for CRUD.

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“A modern religion that purports to be the only source of meaning and purpose”

As part of an article in The Guardian reviewing “World without Work”, a book examining the sort of society we will need to build as machines get more and more competent at all sorts of work:

“Sooner or later, we will run out of jobs.” Yet Skidelsky, like Keynes, saw this as an opportunity. If the doomsayers are to be finally proven right, then why not the utopians, too?

Committed to neither camp, Susskind leaves it late in the day to ask fundamental questions. The work ethic, he says, is a modern religion that purports to be the only source of meaning and purpose. “What do you do for a living?” is for many people the first question they ask when meeting a stranger, and there is no entity more beloved of politicians than the “hard-working family”. Yet faced with precarious, unfulfilling jobs and stagnant wages, many are losing faith in the gospel of work.

In a 2015 YouGov survey, 37% of UK workers said their jobs made no meaningful contribution. Susskind wonders in the final pages “whether the academics and commentators who write fearfully about a world with less work are just mistakenly projecting the personal enjoyment they take from their jobs on to the experience of everyone else”.

We just wrote about this – that the most opposition from a work-free leisure society will come from us ourselves – who derive our identity by our work.

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Content as moat (2/2)

Zerodha the Indian brokerage has done an excellent job over the years building up a massive content library that is now one of its biggest assets. Its blog Z-connect is organised by (investing and trading) topics, its Support portal is full of how-tos about using Zerodha, and its community site Trading QnA now hosts great discussion topics, often with participation from its founder and leadership team.

This means that every time I write to Zerodha for help, their replies are short, with references to a post or a support article that deals with the matter. It’s probably a huge productivity boost for their customer support team. These articles, because they are very topical, often rank high on searches, acting as an automatic acquisition channel.

Like Zappos’ much-vaunted customer service, this sort of moat takes time to build up. It’s not the sort you can throw only money at. It needs time – a commodity even rarer than capital at high-growth companies. But once built, it becomes a vastly more defensible, unique moat than any other.

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Content as moat (1/2)

Speaking of moats and of Twitter threads, this one:

The broad point is that the Internet made physical-world distribution moats irrelevant. And paid markets on search/social levelled the playing field online, which meant that prices have gone up, yields have gone down; leaving companies with the largest budgets to dominate the space (but, as we have seen earlier this month, capital as a moat is less and less a defensible strategy).

Which means that companies need to find other means to build engagement and loyalty – other moats. And, the writer says, this is where we will see diversity as companies approach the problem in their own unique ways and biases. And it seems that they’ll variations on content.

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Twitter threads as blog posts

Twitter threads are mini blog posts on specific topics. It’s interesting because they often start as responses or re-tweets of other tweets, a sort of branching-out in an organic way not possible on blogs.

Since the Twitter in-app view of threads intersperses tweets from the writer and replies to it, services like Threader combine the writer’s tweets into a single chronological thread which do resemble blog posts, even featuring popular threads on their home page – what a great way of surfacing high-quality discussions.

Steven Sinofsky takes this to another level, annotating his Twitter threads on his blog Learning by Shipping – take this post on the last decade of Windows as an example (the annotations are in italics).

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Colour TV comes to India

From this fascinating article from February 1982:

Television has spread slowly in India. Thirteen years lapsed between the opening of the first station in Delhi in 1959 and the second in Bombay, India’s commercial capital. Ten cities now have their own television stations, and others are linked by microwave relays. But less than 20 per cent of India’s 684 million people — and only six percent of its land mass — are within television range.

One factor limiting television’s spread is the high cost of locally made sets — about $300 for black and white. The inexpensive sets available overseas are not an option, as Indians who bring them into the country face customs duties of more than 300 percent. Indian television manufacturers, eager to leap into the color TV void, say they can offer 20-inch screen color sets for $990, a sum which includes heavy government duties on imported parts and excise taxes.

For the high purchase price, Indian TV viewers get only a few hours’ reception a day. Delhi viewers can watch television for 61/2 hours, including two hours of children’s programming in the morning. Bangalore, India’s fifth largest and fastest growing city, gets 141/2 hours of TV a week by relay from Bombay and Madras.

Nearly everything about this has changed in the last nearly forty years. Technology has moved from terrestrial broadcasting to satellite broadcasting, which was introduced in 1992 (with six channels from overseas). The population has doubled from 684 million to over 1.3 billion people (but the growth rate has fallen sharply and continues to). Import duties of 300% on TVs have reduced to 36%, but the point itself is moot given the widespread manufacture and assembly of TV sets in the country. Even more importantly, the Internet, mobile phones and streaming services – none of which existed in any meaningful way in 1982 – coupled with the lowest data rates in the world – has changed what television means.

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