On luxury

We value luxury goods not just because of the sensory experience or because of their use in value signalling, but also because we value their histories.

When The Supper at Emmaus was thought to have been painted by Vermeer, it was priceless; when it was discovered to be the work of forger Han van Meegeren, it became a relatively worthless curiosity. Its appearance didn’t change, just its history, but people no longer wanted to look at it. If you were to discover that your Rolex is an inexpensive duplicate, you would experience the same effect.

In other words

It is clear, though, that we can be influenced by the history of an object even when it has nothing to do with communicating status or with differences in quality… think about your wedding ring or your child’s baby shoes. Such objects serve no practical purpose, they need not be beautiful in any sensory way, and they are useless as signals.

Great read overall. It helps describe why the original iPhone, the original iPad are such highly valued items today. They’re no longer useful. They’re not the most beautifully-designed iPhone/iPad. They’re not even a limited edition. But they’re the first.

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Invidious Comparison

For pre-industrial predatory barbarians, it was pretty clear who stood where: you just counted slaves and acres. For industrial society, though, there is no obvious way to rate predatory barbarians except to see where they shop and what they buy. Since you can’t count the slaves or acres of the stranger on Madison Avenue, the only way to know where he stands is to see how much he pays for his cappuccino.

– “Display Cases”, Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, April 1999.


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Time span perspective

From Wait But Why:

As for you, if you’re 60 or older, you were born closer to the 1800s than today.

Today’s 35-year-olds were born closer to the 1940s than to today.

But also

… the world wars were pretty close together. If World War 2 were starting today, World War 1 would feel about as far back to us as 9/11.

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Paper and digital book libraries

An article on reading electronically from ten years ago, when the iPad was mere months old and the Kindle three years old.

I understand the e-book’s imperfections and limits, and monitor the arguments that it will end publishing or save it, and potentially kill bookstores, which would kill something in me, if it were to happen. But I also believe that the book as we know it was only a delivery system, and that much of what I love about books, and about the novel in particular, exists no matter the format.

– “I, Reader”, Alexander Chee

In these ten years I’ve read books in all forms: paper, scanned PDFs, eupubs on the iPad, on the Kindle device, and via audiobooks. I’ve read a couple of books while switching between the Kindle version and the audiobook (not recommended). To me, the format doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s personal.

What matters to me though is the sense of having a library. I feel the same way about my book cupboard and bookshelves around the house as I do about my Calibre library of e-books. I add book cover images where they are misusing, and add & sort the book genre just as I arrange my paper books.

What is missing with a digital library is the serendipity of physicality. I’ll scan my paper books and pick one from a genre or author I haven’t read for a while. Calibre syncs books with the Kindle but doesn’t yet sync Last Read. Also, sorting by genre of author in a list, while infinitely more flexible, doesn’t have the same feel as casting an eye over your books. The answer’s probably not simply changing the layout from a list to a panel view a la iBooks/Apple Books. We’re fundamentally limited digitally by the viewport, and that breaks something essential. I hold out hope that we’ll come up with something else that’ll outdo the physical world, but until then the joy of taking in one’s library’s books is limited to paper.

Endnote: there is joy in building your own library of highlights – passages, quotes – across books digitally that has no physical equivalent, or at least not unless transcribed, which requires great effort. Since nearly all my e-book reading is on my Kindle device, this is what I’ve used for years:

Look in the documents folder of your E-ink Kindle and you’ll see a file named myclippings.txt. This is a text file of all of the notes and highlights made on your Kindle (but not on the other Kindles or Kindle apps on your account). You can copy this folder to your PC and open it.

And add those highlights to the Quotes & Notes folders of my notes system.

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The Capital as Moat model

Fred Wilson the NY based VC, as part of a look back at the 2010s:

The massive experiment in using capital as a moat to build startups into sustainable businesses has now played out and we can call it a failure for the most part…Uber has not yet proven that it can build a profitable business… WeWork was a fast follower with this strategy and failed to get to the public markets… much of [VC capital] was wasted chasing the “capital as a moat” model.

What is notable to me about this is not whether or not it is true – I personally think it has yet to play out fully. To me it’s notable how new the model is of raising massive amounts of capital quickly up front in a bid to capture a market. Paytm is the pioneer and poster child for this in India though there are now many others too. The startup landscape seems to now think this is the norm, and so the average initial funding round gets larger and larger.

It probably started with Softbank, and the founder Son using his massive fund size as a weapon to get into deals:

“Anthony-san, you take my money. It’s good for you. It’s good for me. If you don’t take my money, not so good for you.” Like so many others before and since, Tan took Son’s money.


Regardless, if, as Fred Wilson implies, that model has played out, it’s going to lead to more sustainable business models because the alternative then is product and innovation as a moat, with profitability as a top metric.

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Gardening and flow

What a beautiful essay on gardening. Talks about flow, the connection to nature, and something called attention restoration therapy.

Gardening is a relaxing and rewarding hobby. It provides an opportunity to escape and reflect away from our daily routines, and to relish the intensity of fascination. But it is more than that. The psychological power of gardening derives from the garden’s reach beyond the here and now. My contention is that different and complex forms of time are continuously interacting through the garden and the gardener. Past, present and future collide in a flowerbed, enticing the gardener to lose themselves in the pleasure of ‘flow’. Let someone else worry about lunch.

Today I spent a whole morning and some part of the afternoon on maintenance in my apartment garden, and it hardly felt like any substantial time had passed.

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What if people were willing to accept higher prices and potentially lower returns for illiquid investments? This could in fact be true for highly illiquid assets. This is why (though the whole article is interesting reading):

If people get that PE is truly volatile but you just don’t see it, what’s all the excitement about? Well, big time multi-year illiquidity and its oft-accompanying pricing opacity may actually be a feature not a bug! Liquid, accurately priced investments let you know precisely how volatile they are and they smack you in the face with it. Yes, yes, volatility is only estimated, and certainly may be an incomplete risk model. You’re overthinking it. , An idea well-known to psychology and behavioral finance is that of “salience.” The basic idea is that if you are observing something you might overreact to it, but if you’re not reminded of it you might tend to ignore it. What if many investors actually realize that this accurate and timely information will make them worse investors as they’ll use that liquidity to panic and redeem at the worst times? What if illiquid, very infrequently and inaccurately priced investments made them better investors as essentially it allows them to ignore such investments given low measured volatility and very modest paper drawdowns? “Ignore” in this case equals “stick with through harrowing times when you might sell if you had to face up to the full losses.”

The Illiquidity Discount?
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Craig Mod writes about nvALT, an application all day every day, in an excellent essay about friction-free software:

One of my most used, most speedy pieces of software is nvALT.1 It’s an oddly named, very bland application. Just a database of plain text files with a plain text editor bolted on. But it’s fast. The fastest piece of text cataloging software I’ve used. It opens instantly and produces results instantly. My nvALT database is full of ten years of notes. Open it and your cursor is already in the search field. It is keyboard friendly software: If you’re ever not in the search field, just hit ESC, and you’ll land there. Type a few letters and all the notes with those letters appear. It is the best instantiation of an off-board brain I have. Any piece of text with value in my life gets dumped into nvALT.

There’s almost no thinking involved in using software like this. There’s muscle memory, and there is input. No waiting, no superfluous actions.

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Albert Wenger:

… we are fighting the battles of the past instead of inventing the future. We are doing that at a time when humanity is facing an extinction level threat in the climate crisis that also represents our single biggest opportunity for transformation… the resurgence of nationalism comes at at time when all the big problems are global. The climate crisis, corporate taxation and infectious disease do not stop at borders but instead require nations to work together.

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The open nature of UPI payments needs to be widely known

UPI is a great, easy-to-use platform for P2P and person-to-business digital payments in India. Its like Venmo, but open and interoperable.

Given this, it’s a travesty that Google Pay, Whatsapp and the rest are creating the impression of closed systems above UPI.

At a petrol pump in Hyderabad late at night, the person in the car ahead of me wanted to pay via Paytm/UPI but the pump only accepted cards. The guy asked me if he could have my card swiped after he transferred money via Google Pay.

He asked for my mobile number and couldn’t find it on Google Pay (I’ve never used that particular app). I asked him to send it to my UPI handle, but he had no idea what it was or how to enter it. I’m not sure if Google Pay also actively obscures payment to UPI handles.

I realized for him BHIM, BharatPe, Amazon P2P, Google Pay, PhonePe, Paytm, Whatsapp Payments are all unconnected systems, not unlike digital prepaid wallets.

Several local businesses now accept UPI payments (maybe even prefer them?), but have different QR code stickers per app. This should be unnecessary. This BharatPe sticker does it correctly:


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