Weekly readings – 27th June 2020

What I wrote

I wrote about this European hard discounter that has been in the US since 1976 and a great success so far

Hasan Minhaj talked about the winner-takes-all system in the US that causes all sorts of problems

Vietnam’s success in handling Covid-19

I finished and reviewed a book called The Art of Thinking Clearly

Business

Why Figma wins

A collection of business memos by Sriram. He also collected some good posts on business strategy

Horace Dediu on ecosystems and the App Store specifically

A primer on marketplaces

A couple of posts summarizing WWDC event and what’s new from Apple by MacStories and WSJ

Craig Federighi on new privacy updates

But in the fullness of time, in the scope of hundreds of years from now, I think the place where I hope people can look back and talk about the places where Apple made a huge contribution to humanity is in helping people see the way of taking advantage of this great technology without the false tradeoff of giving up their privacy to do it.

Source: Fast Company

Other things I think are interesting

Low carb diet leads to “clinical remission” in three case studies of adults with type 1 diabetes

56% of wild animals in Vietnam’s restaurants have a coronavirus, study says

A great essay on the value of appreciating your being alone and facing yourself

Countering illegal hate speech online by EU Commission

How People Read Online: New and Old Findings

THERE’S NOW AN EVEN WORSE ANTI-ENCRYPTION BILL THAN EARN IT. THAT DOESN’T MAKE THE EARN IT BILL OK. I left it capitalized for a reason. It’s alarming

Vietnam’s success and continued effort in handling Covid-19

Vietnam has gone for more than 2 months without any community transmission. The only new cases we have seen are from repatriation flights which carried Vietnamese nationals back home overseas. As of this writing, we haven’t had a single death from Covid-19. The record looks to be intact after the most serious case of all, patient #91, has recovered miraculously after being close to death a few times. Exemplars Health had an article that covers it pretty well why Vietnam has been successful so far in dealing with the pandemic.

Certain aspects of Vietnam’s response to COVID-19 may not be replicable in other countries. Its experience with past epidemics encouraged citizens to take significant steps to slow the spread of the virus. Because Vietnam features a one- party government with a chain of command reaching from the national level down to the village level, it is particularly suited to mobilizing resources, implementing public health strategies, and ensuring consistent messages while enforcing regulations stringently.

– Investment in a public health infrastructure (e.g., emergency operations centers and surveillance systems) enables countries to have a head start in managing public health crises effectively. Vietnam learned lessons from SARS and avian influenza, and other countries can learn those same lessons from COVID-19.

– Early action, ranging from border closures to testing to lockdowns, can curb community spread before it gets out of control.

– Thorough contact tracing can help facilitate a targeted containment strategy.

– Quarantines based on possible exposure, rather than symptoms only, can reduce asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission.

– Clear communication is crucial. A clear, consistent, and serious narrative is important throughout the crisis.

– A strong whole-of-society approach engages multi-sectoral stakeholders in decision-making process and activate cohesive participation of appropriate measures

One of the things that I think we did very well is contact tracing. The authority in Vietnam demands that every patient provide detailed information on where and when they had been in the few days prior and whom they had been in contact with. From there, the authority will reach out to those F1 and F2 cases and take appropriate actions. Below is the general idea how it works

Life is almost back to normal in Vietnam, to some extent. Domestic flights have resumed, people have gone back to office and establishments have been reopened. However, the borders still remain closed to international flights, despite no new community transmission over two months. According to a new report, it is almost impossible to expect any commercial international flights before August. The earliest estimate is September, yet the situation remains fluid. There will be flights between Japan and Vietnam in the next coming days, but those flights are restricted to only businesspeople and come with enhanced security measures. Some may regard this policy as “draconian” or “extreme”, but if you look at countries and cities that have reopened, the results are mixed. Some saw only a few new cases while others like Arizona or Florida have seen new daily record number of cases also every week for the past two weeks. Folks have different preferences and agendas. Some prioritize the economy’s health while others put safety on top of the list. Personally, I am just glad I don’t have to make such decisions. But I will say this: seeing foreigners stuck in Vietnam express their gratitude to Vietnam for saving their lives during the pandemic is heart-warming and makes me proud. To me, that’s more important than some economic salvation.

I’m immensely grateful to the government of Vietnam for the privilege of being here, and for their smart and fast action — in such contrast to my own government. People here say to me, “Oh you’re American? I’m so sorry.” 

Source: Business Insider

Before closing this entry, I want to speak a bit about how some media outlets cover countries that have been successful in handling this pandemic. Time.com ran a piece labeled “The Best Global Responses to COVID-19 Pandemic“. To my and others’ surprise, the article doesn’t mention a whiff about Vietnam, Uruguay or Mongolia.

  • Mongolia: 215 confirmed cases, 158 recovered and 0 deaths
  • Vietnam: 349 confirmed cases, 328 recovered and 0 deaths
  • Uruguay: 885 confirmed cases, 815 recovered and 25 deaths (though there seems to be a spike recently)

I get that these countries’ brand names may not be as well-known as those such as European Union or New Zealand. I believe there is a sentiment among folks in developed countries that if the situation is bad where they live, it must be a catastrophe in developing countries. It’s annoying to see this kind of reporting. Articles like the one by Time.com only add to the aforementioned sentiment that don’t give developing countries enough credit. Individuals have our own strengths and weaknesses, and so do countries. Vietnam may not have a shiny record on a lot of things, but we can be very capable in other areas. Our success in handling Covid-19 and SARS before that is an example.

Weekly readings – 6th June 2020

A study published by Harvard University 20 years ago on why the US doesn’t like state welfare

What if our cities were just lit by stars

Source: Wired

How Many People Did it Take to Build the Great Pyramid?

Amazon is the fourth‑largest US delivery service and growing fast

Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Community and the Crime Decline: The Causal Effect of Local Nonprofits on Violent Crime

Our analysis finds that each additional use of force policy was associated with a 15% reduction in killings for the average police department. Since the average police department had already implemented three of these policies, implementing all eight use of force restrictions would be associated with a 54% reduction in killings for the average police department. Even after taking into account the number of arrests made, assaults on officers, and community demographics, police departments with all eight of these use of force policies implemented would kill 72% fewer people than departments that have none of these policies in place

Source: Campaign Zero

As for policy, our results suggest that implementing the EO to recall military equipment should result in less violent behavior and subsequently, fewer killings by LEAs. Taken together with work that shows militarization actually leads to more violence against police (Carriere, 2016Wickes, 2015), the present study suggests demilitarization may secure overall community safety. 

Source: Sage Journals

An interesting profile on the richest man in India and Asia

Don’t Bring a Knife to a Gunfight with China

Fitful nightly sleep linked to chronic inflammation, hardened arteries

Four million parts, 30 countries: How an Airbus A380 comes together

Huawei Founder Ren Zhengfei Takes Off the Gloves in Fight Against U.S.

Cues on changes in consumer behavior during Covid-19 crisis from Walmart’s latest earnings report

One way to keep a pulse on consumer behavior during the crisis is to listen to companies that play a big part in consumer lives in the US. Take Walmart as an example. The firm is a household name in this country and can be found in most of its counties. This is what it commented on how consumer behaved during the crisis. It shed some light on the changes in preferred categories as the crisis went on

After supporting our associates, our next priority is serving customers. In the U.S. the first quarter started out as expected. And as the pandemic spread, we saw the mix of sales ship heavily towards food and consumables, as we’d previously experienced in China. This was the first stock update that we all saw so vividly. We experienced unprecedented demand in categories like paper goods, surface cleaners and grocery staples. For many of these items we were selling in two or three hours what we normally sell in two or three days. As the quarter progressed, we saw a second phase related to entertaining and educating at home, puzzles and video games took off. Parents became teachers. Adult bicycles started selling out as parents started to join the kids. An overlapping trend then started emerging related to DIY and home related activities. Think games, home office, exercise equipment and alike. It was also clear a lot of people were taking a do-it-yourself approach as they bought items like bandanas and sewing machines to make masks. We can see customers looking to improve their indoor and outdoor living spaces, our home categories in stores and online took off.

Towards the end of the quarter another phase emerged, COVID relief spending as it was heavily influenced by stimulus dollars leading to sales increases in categories such as apparel, televisions, video games, sporting goods and toys. Discretionary categories really popped towards the end of the quarter.

Source: Walmart’s Earnings Call Transcript
Source: Walmart
Source: Walmart

The intensified fear of the virus and the stay-at-home orders also changed shoppers’ behavior

ECommerce sales remained strong throughout the quarter while store traffic was quite variable due to the various stay in place orders and social distancing around the country. February sales were stronger than expected with comp sales of 3.8%. As the health crisis intensified in mid-March, we saw a surge in stock-up trips with March comps increasing about 15%. Store pickup and delivery spiked in March and remained elevated in April with sales growth of nearly 300% at peak.

Store sales slowed during the first half of April due to soft Easter seasonal sale and additional social distancing measures. In mid-April, sales reaccelerated across the business as government stimulus money reached consumers with general merchandise sales particularly strong. April comp sales increased 9.5%.

During the quarter, we saw customers consolidate shopping trips and purchase larger baskets in stores, which drove a ticket increase of about 16% while transactions decreased about 6%. With the shift in purchasing behavior, eCommerce sales contributed approximately 390 basis points to segment comp. Pickup and delivery services continue to run historically high volumes. 

Source: Walmart’s Earnings Call Transcript

Consumer preferences in a particular category such as food also changed due to societal impact of the virus

We have seen some inflation in categories like milk, eggs and dairy later in the quarter, and that seems to have subsided somewhat. And then protein inflation has picked up over the last few weeks, as plants have been inoperable in certain parts of the country. And as those have gotten back to limited operating capacities, we will continue to moderate that.

Source: Walmart’s Earnings Call Transcript

It’s quite interesting that more folks 50 years and older shopped online during the crisis than before

we have seen an increase in not only new buyers, but also repeat rates across the board, both for pickup delivery from the store and delivery out of the FC (Fulfillment Centers).

we have seen higher growth rates, most customers who are 50 years of age or older than what we had seen in previous quarters. Other than that it’s been across the Board, the repeat rates have been higher

Source: Walmart’s Earnings Call Transcript

The value of increased switching costs via a membership

Another interesting point is how memberships play a role in consumer behavior. As we know, everyone can shop at Walmart, but only paid members can at Sam’s Club.

Image

Comparable sales refers to the comparison of sales at the same stores during the same period compared to sales last year. It’s important to exclude fuel due to fluctuating fuel prices.

As you can see, comp in-store transactions at Walmart, which is almost limitlessly accessible, went down because of the stay-in-home order, social distancing and other options including but not limited to Whole Foods, Target. However, comp average ticket at Walmart went up due to consumers stocking up and panic purchase.

On the other hand, at Sam’s Club, where access is more limited due to mandatory paid memberships, both in-store trans and average ticket increased. Average ticket rose by only 0.1%; which I guess is due to the fact that shoppers did more trips to the stores and didn’t buy in bulk as much as Walmart’s clientele. Shoppers shopped more because they already bought the paid memberships which increased what we call in business terms as “switching costs”. What happened this last quarter with Sam’s Club is what executives hope to achieve when launching a rewards program: increased stickiness.

Weekly readings – 16th May 2020

A scathing critique of AWS from this engineer

Related to the link above, this is quite a blog post from someone who used to work at Amazon and was working at Google at the time of the writing

Content, Cars, and Comparisons in the “Streaming Wars”. Matthew Ball’s essays are always great to read

The secrets behind the runaway success of Apple’s AirPods

How Morning Brew grew to $13m in revenue with 33 employees

Vauban Architecture: The Foundation of Central and Northern Vietnam’s Citadels

The latest memo from Howard Marks

How the most prized degree in India became the most worthless

WeChat Surveillance Explained

If Landlords Get Wiped Out, Wall Street Wins, Not Renters

All applications used at GitLab

Chicago Will Now Require Food Delivery Apps to Disclose Itemized Cost Breakdown. You can protect restaurants or you can protect delivery apps. In this case, I don’t think you can do both. I am glad Chicago went with restaurants

Source: Crunchbase

How Khan Academy Successfully Handled 2.5x Traffic in a Week

The faded beauty of abandoned cars across Europe and the US

“Visa saw an 18% rise in U.S. digital commerce spending during the month of April, excluding the travel category, as face-to-face transactions fell 45%”

From Boston to Saigon: A Coronavirus Quarantine Diary

Lessons From Slovakia—Where Leaders Wear Masks

Senate Votes to Allow FBI to Look at Your Web Browsing History Without a Warrant. I’d argue that this is a bridge too far into user privacy

Next time if you want to support local restaurants by ordering on delivery services like Grubhub or DoorDash, you may want to do a bit of research on how those services treat restaurant partners. Here is an example

Barriers to entry become liabilities during Covid-19 & remote working

Barriers to entry become liabilities

For the past few weeks, I have seen people claim that Disney is doomed because it reported millions of loss due to the closure of its parks and resorts which, in normal times, bring a lot of revenue and margin to the table. In the same vein, airlines are called a horrible business since there are a lot of costs involved and it’s capital intensive, making it extraordinarily vulnerable in the face of a pandemic like the one we are going through.

They have a point.

However, it’s also important to remember that the current liabilities are what make barriers to entry in their industries so high. Restaurants have low barriers to entry, so it’s not unusual to see a new restaurant in town every day. How often do you see a new airline come up? Because the barriers to entry are so high, airlines at least don’t have to worry too much about a new competitor enter the fray often. Similarly, operating a park like Disneyland is no joke. It requires employing hundreds of employees and a tremendous fixed cost as well as maintenance expenses. How many parks at the same scale as Disneyland enter the market every week/month?

This crisis will blow over. It has to. It’s unfathomable to think that we will be in this self-quarantine forever. Once we get back to normal, whatever it may be, people will fly and go to Disneyland again. Although I don’t deny that what reduces new competition for those businesses now becomes sort of liabilities, it’s worth remembering that nothing good comes easy. The same logic applies to business

Remote working

Plenty of discussion online has been about how people will adjust their working style post-Covid19. Even in my company, talk has been going around on how folks will continue to work remotely for a while and how preparation should be looked into to accommodate that need. Personally, I think there will be a mixed working style moving forward. Indeed, working remotely saves everyone time from having to dress up and driving to work. Nonetheless, there is also value in face-to-face and human interaction. There is a reason why companies design common areas, hoping that folks will randomly bump into each other and creativity will spark. Plus, speaking from personal experience, I am sick of sitting at my desk, staring at the screen for hours and putting more time into work. I miss my workplace, my coworkers and casual conversations at work. So, even though folks will prefer working remotely 100% in the short term, in the long run, I expect it to be a mix.

Weekly readings – 9th May 2020

The decline in trust in governments shows no signs of abating. Everywhere you look, there is suspicion that measures taken by governments to combat Covid-19 will soon be used for mass surveillance afterwards. India is no exception. For A Billion Indians, The Government’s Voluntary Contact Tracing App Might Actually Be Mandatory

The pandemic doesn’t seem to affect spending on cloud infrastructure badly

The man feeding a remote Alaska town with a Costco card and a ship

Apple Watch detecting coronary ischaemia during chest pain episodes or an apple a day may keep myocardial infarction away

VP of Amazon resigned to protest the firing of workers who spoke out on the working conditions at Amazon warehouses

Looking Back on Four Years at The Times, in the words of their former CTO

Amazon pulled no punches in its public blog post on Microsoft regarding the JEDI dispute

Spotify should pay musicians more? Let’s talk more about how

Absolute personal freedom – the power that must be exercised responsibly

Over the recent weeks, there have been disturbing reports on the protests across the country against stay-at-home order. In some cases, the terrifying scenes of a group of protesters carrying guns to local governments’ buildings or signs that stand for the worst of human hatred as below.

Those that are involved in the protests argue that the government has no business in restricting their personal freedom to go out and work. The underlying premise of the protests is that individuals have absolute freedom to do whatever they are pleased to. Extreme and absolute personal freedom is in the fabric of American life. It’s not that citizens in other countries don’t have freedom, yet here in America, it’s something that is almost sacred, non-negotiable and in some cases, regardless of what is the cost. I don’t dispute the merit of individual freedom. Coming from a country like Vietnam, I value a lot the ability to say and do things in America that wouldn’t be possible in my own hometown. Individual freedom is a great power given to us. However, like Spiderman’s Uncle Ben says, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Is this great power being exercised responsibly? I really don’t think that is the case.

I don’t believe that any politician wants to extend a lockdown more than he or she has to. After all, if you listen to every politician, they all want to sell you on “jobs, jobs, good paying jobs”. As a result, an existing or extended lockdown is put in place because they fear that an early reopen of the economy could bring the virus back into play and force us all to go back to square one. Singapore had been very confident in their ability to handle the pandemic. Fast forward to several weeks later, they now have the most confirmed cases in the area. Germany recently allowed football clubs to go back to training. Shortly after, Koln, a German club, reported three new cases. It’s entirely possible that scenario could happen to any US state. In fact, we have a case study. Several citizens in Wisconsin got infected after they went to vote in person because the Supreme Court kinda forced them to. If reopen isn’t managed carefully, we may go back to where we were at the end of March again. And that would prolong our march towards the normal life and economy as we knew several months ago.

The protesters have the right to voice their opinion. But instead of a peaceful civilized protest, they carry around guns and signs of hatred messages. Don’t we have the right to feel safe in community? As somebody who has never touched a gun before, I’d feel terrified by someone carrying guns around on the streets. I mean, if they use guns on a hunting ground legally, by all means. I am not bothered by that and I don’t honestly see anything wrong. But living in a community, why would some’s right to feel safe be inferior to others’ right to carry out guns needlessly just to make their point? Don’t some who lost family to Nazi in WWII have the right not to feel the pain from those messages? If protesters get infected by the virus by participating in these protests, would it be responsible to do so, come home and spread it among their family members and community? What do you think about the photo below? (Source: Twitter. I forgot to save the source link)

Admittedly, it’s hard to completely fault somebody for putting food on the table for their family. There have been 30 million unemployment insurance claims in the country and the figure isn’t likely going to stop there. Folks want to work and make ends meet. Even then, it’s our responsibility to consider what consequences our actions may lead to and whom those actions would affect. I’d argue that instead of what they are doing, protesters can feel free to sign online petitions. Call and write civilly to lawmakers to make their point. If a physical protest is necessary, Israel offers a valuable example

Source: the Daily Beast

Several polls showed that the majority of Americans wanted to continue social distancing and not rush back to work. Hence, I am not sure an extreme irresponsible protest would change the minds of politicians whose interest is in listening to the majority of voters. Instead of disturbing and putting others in danger in the process, protesters may consider exercising their great power a little bit more responsibly.

Weekly readings – 2nd May 2020

While the world is struggling with the pandemic, some politicians took advantage of the situation to consolidate their power

America is wasting a lot of space on parking slots

68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice

Techcrunch’s profile of Flexport’s CEO

Seattle’s Leaders Let Scientists Take the Lead. New York’s Did Not

Taking a virtual tour inside a Pharaoh’s tomb

Vietnam’s success in fighting against Covid, so far

From Agence Francaisse de Developpement, translation by Google

Vietnam, with its 96 million inhabitants and despite its proximity to China, is today an example of good management of the Covid-19 crisis: the country has only 268 cases, 214 cures and no deaths in the April 21, 2020

Despite sharing a 1,000 kilometer border with China, Vietnam is one of the countries least affected by Covid-19 in Southeast Asia. A performance that is talked about and which has been set as an example in several countries.

However, the ratio of the number of hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants is lower than in European countries : 3.2 in 2018, compared to 6 in France for example. The key to success is therefore not found here in the health infrastructures themselves, but in the anticipation shown by the government, based on the lessons learned from the SARS crisis in 2003, and in the preventive measures implemented. artwork

When a person is tested positive (called F0), a list is made of all the people he has met. The latter (called F1), are sent immediately in fortnight to closed centers – barracks, hotels and collective buildings requisitioned for this purpose – or to their own accommodation if possible. They are systematically tested and must in turn notify the people with whom they have been in contact. The latter (F2) must respect social distancing and if possible confine themselves to their home 14 days. If one of the F1s is tested positive, it becomes F0, and the process is repeated : the F2s become F1 and the search for new F2s is launched, etc. 

The advantage of this system : even people who are potentially asymptomatic or have negative tests (the test failure rate is around 30 %) are confined when they have been in contact with a proven case. This system has need to date that the use of about 120 000 tests, targeted to those at risk of returning pandemic zones or neighborhoods was identified early community transmission. It made it possible to contain the epidemic without congesting hospitals and without having to carry out major screening campaigns. 

Source: AfD

Not only did the country take early measures to prevent a widespread, but it also implemented policies to support businesses and citizens such as deferred tax payment, free treatments and tests, etc…

Even though I don’t think we can dispute the role of luck in having zero deaths so far, the low number of cases, especially when we are China’s neighbor, is excellent. But the war against the virus is not over yet. The lockdown that kept citizens at home was lifted yesterday. Businesses are itching to resume operations. I do hope that we will continue to be vigilant and careful and that no spread will take place.

In addition to the uncharacteristically successful campaign to keep Covid-19 contained, my home country has also increased our international standing with support to Western allies.

From Asia Times

Vietnam has recently ramped up medical equipment production and made related donations to countries in Covid-19 need, including to the United States, Russia, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Vietnam has also donated face masks, hand sanitizers and other Covid-19 containing supplies to medical services in neighboring Cambodian and Laos, countries with which Vietnam shares special relations and where China has recently made inroads and gains

Source: Asia Times

Vietnam needs international coalition more than ever. We have had recently a couple of concerning incidents involving China. Our powerful neighbor stopped the water in upper Mekong, causing a tremendous drought in the Mekong Delta. Also, China sunk our fishing boats and built infrastructure in contested seas between the two countries. We are small and poor compared to China. To fight against the injustice and bullying behavior, we need the support from allies and the actions lately are a great first step towards such support.

That being said, we cannot rely entirely on others for our fate. We need to take matters into our own hands. We have been independent for almost 50 years. It took South Korea and Singapore roughly the same time to grow from poor countries to two of the most developed in the world. There is no excuse for us. In addition to having international support, we need to build our own core strengths and competitiveness.