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January 22 2018

Inequality is a threat to our democracies

“Between 1980 and 2016, the top 1 per cent captured 28 per cent of the aggregate increase in real incomes in the US, Canada and western Europe, while the bottom 50 per cent captured just 9 per cent of it. But these aggregates conceal huge differences: in western Europe, the top 1 per cent captured “only” as much as the bottom 51 per cent. In North America, however, the top 1 per cent captured as much as the bottom 88 per cent. These extraordinary facts prove that aggregate growth itself tells us very little — indeed, in the case of the US, virtually nothing — about the scale of improvements in economic welfare for the population as a whole.

These striking data come from the World Inequality Lab’s recently released World Inequality Report 2018. The broad picture is one of convergence among countries and divergence within them. But the latter has not happened to the same extent everywhere. Thus, “since 1980, income inequality has increased rapidly in North America and Asia, grown moderately in Europe, and stabilised at an extremely high level in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and Brazil.” The report also shows that, after the second world war, shares of the top 1 per cent were relatively low, at least by prewar standards, across the west. But, since then, these shares have jumped in the anglophone countries, especially in the US, but little in France, Germany or Italy.

Walter Scheidel, a historian of the ancient world and author of the The Great Leveler, would say that rising inequality is just what one should expect. In this remarkable study, he argues that after agriculture (and the agrarian state) was invented, elites were amazingly successful in extracting all the surplus the economy created.

The limit on predation was set by the need to let the producers survive. Remarkably, many desperately poor agrarian societies approached this limit, the Roman and Byzantine empires among them. In times of peace and tranquility, argues Mr Scheidel, powerful interests so manipulated society as to enlarge their share (and that of descendants) of the pie. Power creates wealth and wealth creates power. Can anything halt this process? Yes indeed, argues the book: the four horsemen of catastrophe — war, revolution, plague, and famine.

Some will argue that the past was not quite as grim as the book suggests. When states relied on military mobilisation, for instance, they had to take some account of the prosperity of the people. But, in all, the inequality in premodern societies was often staggering.

What has this to do with today’s far wealthier, post-industrial societies? More, it appears, than we might like. Again, in the 20th century, revolutions (in the Soviet Union and China, for example) and the two world wars reduced inequality dramatically. But, when revolutionary regimes softened (or collapsed) or the exigencies of war faded from memory, quite similar processes to those of the old agrarian states took hold. Vastly wealthy new elites emerged, gained political power, and again used it for their own ends. Those who doubt this should look closely at the politics and economics of the tax bill now going through the US Congress.

The implication of this parallel would be that, barring some catastrophic event, we are now on the way back to ever-rising inequality. Global thermonuclear war would be equalising. But catastrophe is not a policy.

Yet we have three more appealing reasons for being relatively optimistic. The first is that our societies are far less unequal than they might be: our poor are relatively poor, but not on the margins of subsistence. The second is that high-income countries do not all share the same tendency towards high and growing inequality. The last is that states now possess a range of policy tools with which to ameliorate income and wealth inequality, should they wish to do so. A comparison between the distribution of market and disposable incomes in significant high-income countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK and US) demonstrates the last point well. In all these cases, taxes and public spending reduce inequality substantially. But the extent to which they do so varies significantly, from the US, the least active, to Germany the most.

The big question, however, is whether the pressures for inequality will go on rising and the willingness to offset them generally decline. On the former, it is quite hard to be optimistic. The market value of the work of relatively unskilled people in high-income countries seems very unlikely to rise. On the latter, one can point, optimistically, to a desire to enjoy some degree of social harmony and the material abundance of modern economies, as reasons to believe the wealthy might be prepared to share their abundance. Nevertheless, as the military mobilisation of the early to mid-20th century and the egalitarian ideologies that accompanied industrialisation and mass warfare fade away and individualism becomes ever stronger, elites may become more determined to seize whatever they can for themselves.

If so, that would augur badly, not just for social peace, but even for the survival of the stable universal-suffrage democracies that emerged in today’s high-income countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. One possible development is the sort of “plutocratic populism” that has become such a signal feature of the contemporary US — the country that did, we should recall, ensure the survival of liberal democracy during the turmoil of the previous century. The future could then consist of a stable plutocracy, which manages to keep the mass of the people divided and docile. The alternative might be emergence of a dictator, who rides to power on the back of a faux opposition to just such elites.

Mr Scheidel suggests that inequality is sure to rise. We must prove him wrong. If we fail to do so, soaring inequality might slay democracy, too, in the end.“

January 03 2018

December 07 2017

November 28 2017

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November 16 2017

How Slack built its DND feature in 2015

“Slack launched its Do Not Disturb (DND) feature in late 2015. “We decided to turn Do Not Disturb on for all users by default — so notifications would be off between the hours of 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. in each member’s declared time zone,” says Rosania. “At the time, we had about almost 2 million DAUs [daily active users] and over $50MM ARR [Annual Recurring Revenue]. All to say, there was significant business risk. It’s one thing to do that as part of your first version of a product. It’s much harder to do when you’re affecting existing customers.”

Before the launch, colleagues worried that the decision was paternalistic. “Engineers would tell me, ‘I’m on on-call rotations. If I was at a company and didn’t know about this change, I could miss a page and my site would be offline. People rely on Slack. Are we sure about this?’” recalls Rosania. Conversations like this sparked a lot of debate within the team. “We considered whether or not to grandfather existing teams, so Do Not Disturb was completely off by default. We had a discussion on how to handle people who might have their time zone set to the default, Pacific Time, but live elsewhere. We agonized over many other scenarios and use cases.”

But when it came down to it, Rosania and his team had to tether their stance on the feature to something — otherwise it would erode under all the possible risks and doubts. “We went back to our mission: to make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant, and more productive. Or the related, more informal motto often heard around the office: “work hard and go home.” With that in mind, the decision was pretty obvious,” says Rosania.

“We made everyone start with it enabled, knowing that most people were just going to be thankful. For those who needed something different, we gave them tools to opt out. To ease the transition, we notified administrators in advance and let them turn off the default for their entire team if they wanted,” says Rosania. “Ultimately, everyone got the control they needed, but you could clearly see our mission and beliefs coded into the design of the product and its defaults. To have a more pleasant and more productive workday, you need to come in well-rested and not be stressed out in the middle of the night. In many ways, that applies to existing customers even more than new customers, because existing customers bought that vision when they chose Slack.”

First Round Review

November 02 2017

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Series 3. I’m tempted. 

October 27 2017

10 things about Angela Ahrendts & Apple

Fascinating BuzzFeed profile

  1. In 2017, each square foot of Apple Store real estate translated to $5,546 in annual sales.
  2. Over 500 million people visit its stores every year.
  3. The only other e-commerce website that generates more in sales revenue than is Amazon
  4. Apple spent more than $73 million, mostly in stock, to convince Ahrendts to leave London, where she was CEO of the luxury fashion company Burberry
  5. [Angela] is now Apple’s highest-ranking woman, in charge of about 50% of the company’s workforce: 65,000 retail employees, in addition to real estate, operations, contact center, and online store teams.
  6. She publishes weekly YouTube-style videos featuring “three thoughts in three minutes or less” (to “get everybody united and focused,” she says).
  7. [Apple and Ahrendts] are hard at work updating 400 existing classic stores, many of which are so small that Apple originally called them “one-table” stores, because that’s all they were: a single table in the center of a room selling iPods and a few Macs.
  8. Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Vermont, and West Virginia - states that don’t even have one Apple Store;
  9. Geniuses only have 10 minutes to diagnose every phone issue and 15 minutes for every Mac issue. Most said they were happy with their pay, which ranges from $17 to $20 an hour for non-Genius roles and up to $30 an hour for Geniuses.
  10. Ahrendts […] extended school tuition reimbursement to part-time workers. 

October 18 2017

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October 12 2017

The way strangers meet via dating websites is changing society in unexpected ways, say researchers

“For more than 50 years, researchers have studied the nature of the networks that link people to each other. These social networks turn out to have a peculiar property. 

One obvious type of network links each node with its nearest neighbors, in a pattern like a chess board or chicken wire. Another obvious kind of network links nodes at random. But real social networks are not like either of these. Instead, people are strongly connected to a relatively small group of neighbors and loosely connected to much more distant people.T

hese loose connections turn out to be extremely important. “Those weak ties serve as bridges between our group of close friends and other clustered groups, allowing us to connect to the global community,” say Josue Ortega at the University of Essex in the U.K. and Philipp Hergovich at the University of Vienna in Austria.“ 

October 10 2017

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“Users don’t care about how technologically advanced your product is, they care about how much benefit they’ll receive from it. Rather than just highlighting the features of your product, like “we’ve got a patent on this and that,” you should point out the benefits, like the fact that “your dog will be safe and you can have peace of mind.” This is the kind of language that a user can appreciate.”

5 Product Design Tips: Making Your App Sticky From the Start

October 09 2017

How Facebook ads helped elect Trump

I’m not in advertising anymore, so I shouldn’t care about ads, but it’ll always be striking to me that most brands can’t muster this level of sophistication in their media buying. Emphasis mine. 

“So now Facebook lets you get to…15 people in the Florida Panhandle that I would never buy a TV commercial for,“ says Parscale.  And people anywhere could be targeted with the messages they cared about. "Infrastructure…so I started making ads that showed the bridge crumbling…that’s micro targeting…I can find the 1,500 people in one town that care about infrastructure. Now, that might be a voter that normally votes Democrat,” he says. Parscale says the campaign would average 50-60,000 different ad versions every day, some days peaking at 100,000 separate iterations – changing design, colors, backgrounds and words – all in an effort to refine ads and engage users.” 

How Facebook ads helped elect Trump

October 05 2017

Unblocked: A Guide To Making Things People Love (Part 1)

This entire paragraph is very relatable, and kind of how I thought of my entire life before I went to college: 

You are a scientist running experiments. Stop thinking about yourself as a businessman or product guy/gal or designer or whatever you think of yourself as. You are a scientist. Your essential methodology is the scientific method: Hypothesize. Build. Learn. Iterate. Repeat. This is curiosity, manifest.Every single person in your company should feel that they are traversing an upward spiral of effectiveness in which everything they build–whether the immediate outcome is positive or negative–is a success because it will yield the smartest possible next move.You are all scientists and your creed is: If we don’t learn, we die. If we learn, we thrive and others benefit.”

October 02 2017

September 28 2017

AI told Coca-Cola to make Cherry Sprite. So it did

“For years, Coca-Cola has invested in AI technology in hopes it would give the company a better idea of what its customers want. It’s currently exploring an AI-powered virtual assistant—think Apple’s Siri and Google’s Alexa—to interact with people at certain vending machines, according to Forbes. In the case of Cherry Sprite, a high-tech vending machine wound up convincing executives to make an entirely new product.

During an April 2017 call with investors, CEO James Quincey said the company was using self-serve vending machines to track which combinations were most popular. If any stood out, the people at Coke would consider its market potential. The “Freestyle” machines allow people to mix-and-match flavors to create more than 150 sparkling and still beverages. 

The company says there are more than 40,000 Freestyle units in the US, together serving 14 million drinks each day. “As a consequence, during the quarter we began bottling Sprite Cherry and Sprite Cherry Zero as the first national launch of new beverages in response to their popularity,” Quincey said.”

September 27 2017

“You will be able to walk down the aisle of a shopping mall or scan a window in a store, and the device will record and note whichever products grabbed your attention. You could program it to prompt you at the time or to store the information, with appropriate tags, for future reference, perhaps combined with a web search for appropriate coupons.
If you’re not interested, the store probably will be. Your shopping cart will use GPS to track your moves through the store, including which aisles you visit most often. Or they can track you by video and smart cameras, using face recognition technology to aggregate data across your different store visits. Stores have even started to use cameras on test subjects to track shoppers’ retinas, to see how and when they notice products, or to lock on to cell phone signals and track and analyze shoppers’ movements. When you enter the store, they will promise you a discount, but only if you run your card through the cart and identify yourself. Many will grab the discount, just as they participate in frequent-shopper programs, even though it means the food company knows what they are buying. “They’d rather have the lower prices than the privacy—as indeed would I.”

Average Is Over by Tyler Cowen

September 26 2017

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Pocket guide to Y Combinator advice

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