Curated Insights 2017.07.30

Capital accumulation, private property, and inequality in China, 1978-2015

Between 1978 and 2015, China moved being from a poor, underdeveloped country to the world’s leading emerging economy. But relatively little is known about how the distribution of income and wealth within the country changed over this period. This column presents the first systematic estimates of the level and structure of China’s national wealth since the beginning of the market reform process. The national wealth-income ratio increased from 350% in 1978 to 700% in 2015, driven mainly by the increase of private wealth.

The top 10 stocks in the S&P 500 at year-end every five years going back to 1980

The biggest stocks

…it’s not that out of the ordinary for a handful of stocks to account for a large portion of the stock market’s gains. This is just the nature of the beast with the stock market. There are very few big winners and lots of big losers over the long haul.

The top 5 companies today are all technology companies (we can quibble on how to define some of these firms but they are mostly tech firms). This has some people worried. Maybe it should cause us some concern but look at the top 10 companies in 1980 — the list was dominated by energy companies, a much more cyclical industry.

Both Citigroup and AIG were on the top 10 list in 2000 and 2005. These were two of the companies that were responsible for nearly taking down the entire financial industry and have suffered enormous losses because of it. Since the end of 2005, Citigroup is down 86% while AIG has fallen more than 95% in market cap.

If it cracked down on password sharing, Netflix could probably make $400 million more a year

If 6% of that audience, or 4 million US households, stopped borrowing passwords and signed up for their own Netflix memberships, Netflix could stand to make as much as $391 million more a year. That’s if each of those new members signed up for Netflix’s cheapest plan, which is $7.99 a month in the US.

Tesla and Elon Musk’s moment of truth with first mass-market car

“No one can produce a car that size, and with that amount of battery, at a lower cost than General Motors.”

Maintaining premium pricing while fending off some of the big carmakers will not be easy. It has been tempting for investors to view Tesla as the latest in a line of disruptive Californian companies that will go on to dominate a new industry, says Bruce Greenwald, a professor at Columbia Business School. But he adds that, unlike Apple and Google, there are no “moats” to protect its business from competition and it does not dominate any single market.

Artificial intelligence is not as smart as you (or Elon Musk) think

…as strong as AlphaGo was at its given task, it actually couldn’t do anything else but play Go on a standard 19 x 19 board. He relayed a story that while speaking to the DeepMind team in London recently, he asked them what would have happened if they had changed the size of the board to 29 x 29, and the AlphaGo team admitted to him that had there been even a slight change to the size of the board, “we would have been dead.”

“In chess, machines dominate the game because of the brute force of calculation and they [could] crunch chess once the databases got big enough and hardware got fast enough and algorithms got smart enough, but there are still many things that humans understand. Machines don’t have understanding. They don’t recognize strategical patterns. Machines don’t have purpose,” Kasparov explained.

 

 

The myth of drug expiration dates

The dates on drug labels are simply the point up to which the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical companies guarantee their effectiveness, typically at two or three years. But the dates don’t necessarily mean they’re ineffective immediately after they “expire” — just that there’s no incentive for drugmakers to study whether they could still be usable.

Tossing such drugs when they expire is doubly hard. One pharmacist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital outside Boston says the 240-bed facility is able to return some expired drugs for credit, but had to destroy about $200,000 worth last year. A commentary in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings cited similar losses at the nearby Tufts Medical Center. Play that out at hospitals across the country and the tab is significant: about $800 million per year. And that doesn’t include the costs of expired drugs at long-term care pharmacies, retail pharmacies and in consumer medicine cabinets.


Do probiotics really work?

The idea that consuming probiotics can boost the ability of already well-functioning native bacteria to promote general health is dubious for a couple of reasons. Manufacturers of probiotics often select specific bacterial strains for their products because they know how to grow them in large numbers, not because they are adapted to the human gut or known to improve health. The particular strains of Bifidobacterium or Lactobacillus that are typically found in many yogurts and pills may not be the same kind that can survive the highly acidic environment of the human stomach and from there colonize the gut.

Many researchers think personalized probiotics are the most promising path forward for patients with compromised gut microbiomes.


Should you feed your kid probiotics?

A pill with “40 billion live organisms” is not going to help your child lose weight or “boost” their immune system. It won’t stop your baby from crying on an airplane, protect your toddler’s teeth from decay, lessen the duration of a cold or flu, or cure acid reflux. It’s a billion-dollar industry with virtually no medical oversight.

There’s no credible evidence that the regular consumption of a probiotic yogurt will make your child or you any healthier. But this doesn’t stop marketers from suggesting that it’s a delicious panacea…Food manufacturers may not like to admit it, but it is difficult to control the types of organisms that grow in these live cultures, despite industry standards set to determine what types of bacteria should be in yogurt.


Buy time, they’re not making any more of it

According to a study published Monday in the journal PNAS, people who buy time by paying someone to complete household tasks are more satisfied with life. And it’s not just wealthy people. Across a range of incomes, careers and countries, timesaving purchases were correlated with less time-related stress and more positive feelings. Yet the researchers’ surveys showed that very few individuals think to spend money in this way.

“People are notoriously bad at making decisions that will make them happier,” Whillans [Ashley] said. She suspects the abstract nature of time may be to blame. “We always think we’re going to have more time tomorrow than we do right now,” she said, so we’re hesitant to trade money, which is concrete and measurable, for time, which is much more uncertain.

Why does the other line always move faster?

At the supermarket checkout, should you pick the shorter line or the line where people have fewer items? I have gotten into heated arguments with people who insist on a particular way. And yet, the discussion is actually moot since there is a bigger issue: the entire question is flawed. Mathematically you are bound to wait in long lines because the game is rigged against you.


Why you should never eat food on planes, and other jet-set tips

…at superhigh altitude, your digestive system shuts down completely. Someone said to me it’s like being under anesthesia. So when you get off the plane, everything restarts and [your digestive system] has so much more work to do and so it makes you more tired.

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