In this week’s edition…why Millennials have so many credit cards…China’s black holes…the ugliness of the Internet…college basketball goes middle class…the history and art of manhole covers…and more.

Have a great weekend!


Business & Economics

Economic growth in the US: A tale of two countries

It’s a tale of two countries. For the 117 million US adults in the bottom half of the income distribution, growth has been non-existent for a generation, while at the top of the ladder it has been extraordinarily strong. And this stagnation of national income accruing at the bottom is not due to population ageing. Quite the contrary: for the bottom half of the working-age population (adults below 65), income has actually fallen. In the bottom half of the distribution, only the income of the elderly is rising. From 1980 to 2014, for example, none of the growth in per-adult national income went to the bottom 50%, while 32% went to the middle class (defined as adults between the median and the 90th percentile), 68% to the top 10%, and 36% to the top 1%. An economy that fails to deliver growth for half of its people for an entire generation is bound to generate discontent with the status quo and a rejection of establishment politics. (VOX EU)


Why the King of Margarine Wants Out

It’s testimony, I guess, to the power of having the world’s leading maker of a product in your backyard. Maybe the Dutch felt like they had to eat the stuff out of patriotic duty. Even now (or at least as of 2009, when the above data series ends), they eat a lot more margarine and what they call “halvarine” (light margarine with about half the fat of regular) than butter. The country’s national breakfast consists of bread smeared with margarine (or butter, but usually margarine) and covered with chocolate, fruit or anise sprinkles.


Donald Trump, Palantir, and the crazy battle to clean up a multibillion-dollar Military procurement swamp

The big book is administered by 207,000 people—this is not a typo—who work in acquisitions and procurement. That’s 43,000 more people than in the entire Marine Corps. The bloat is undeniable. But it’s also true that these Pentagon legions are responsible for a portfolio of contracts and purchases that is multiple times larger than any corresponding activity in the private sector or in any other government. At Fort Belvoir, Va. (as well as at 18 regional campuses), there is even a Defense Acquisition University that offers hundreds of classes, on topics such as applied cost analysis, small-business contracting, fraud awareness, making oral presentations, and “basic flowcharting.” Last year, 150,000 acquisition specialists took the courses. (Fortune)


Politics & Policy

Brazil’s New Problem With Blackness

But in a country as uniquely diverse as Brazil — where 43 percent of citizens identify as mixed-race, and 30 percent of those who think of themselves as white have black ancestors — it’s not immediately clear where the line between races should be drawn, nor who should get to draw it, and using what criteria. These questions have now engulfed college campuses, the public sector, and the courts. (Foreign Policy)


What big data can do for Chinese governance

Modern China inherited these problems. The central government is acutely aware of how little it knows about the country. A vast array of fragmented local authorities gathers data for the government, but in the bottom-up reporting process through the bureaucratic hierarchies the data inevitably become distorted for political and personal ends. (Nikkei Asian Review)


Technology & Computing

These Hackathon Hustlers Make Their Living From Corporate Coding Contests

Peter Ma looked around his San Francisco condo and realized he’d won everything in it. His flat-screen TV, home theater system, 3D printers, phones, tablets, computers and furniture were either hackathon prizes or purchased with hackathon earnings. Stashed under his leather couch — which he’d bought with an Amazon gift card — was a thick stack of 2- and 3-foot-long cardboard checks commemorating his most cherished wins. “The only non-schwag I have are shoes,” he said. (Bloomberg)


The Web Looks Like Shit

It’s easy to become blind to these problems when you spend all day on the internet. You figure out workarounds, stop looking at large portions of the screen, and install an ad blocker. People who don’t grasp these tricks are dismissed as rubes. Meanwhile, the problems grow more intractable. To borrow a phrase, this situation has become dangerous and unacceptable. We’re 20+ years into the internet era, and instead of becoming simpler and more thoughtful, navigating our digital spaces has turned into an increasingly frustrating exercise. Maybe it’s delusional or naively optimistic to say this, but it feels like there must be a better way. (The Outline)


Science & Engineering

Cars and second order consequences

However, the impact of autonomy on traffic and congestion is more complex than just making driving itself more efficient. Though automatic driving should increase capacity, we have known for a long time that increased capacity induces more demand – more capacity means more traffic. If you reduce congestion, then more people will drive, either taking new trips or switching from public transport, and congestion might rise back to where you started. Conversely, removing capacity can actually result in less congestion (and there’s more complexity here too – for example, Braess’ paradox). So, autonomous driving gives us more capacity, and in a sense it does so for free, since we don’t have to build roads, just wait for everyone to buy new cars, but it also gives us more use. (Benedict Evans)


Psychology & Health

How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons

Uber’s innovations reflect the changing ways companies are managing workers amid the rise of the freelance-based “gig economy.” Its drivers are officially independent business owners rather than traditional employees with set schedules. This allows Uber to minimize labor costs, but means it cannot compel drivers to show up at a specific place and time. And this lack of control can wreak havoc on a service whose goal is to seamlessly transport passengers whenever and wherever they want. Uber helps solve this fundamental problem by using psychological inducements and other techniques unearthed by social science to influence when, where and how long drivers work. It’s a quest for a perfectly efficient system: a balance between rider demand and driver supply at the lowest cost to passengers and the company. (NY Times)


Transboundary health impacts of transported global air pollution and international trade

The effects of international trade on air pollutant emissions, air quality and health have been investigated regionally, but a combined, global assessment of the health impacts related to international trade and the transport of atmospheric air pollution is lacking. Here we combine four global models to estimate premature mortality caused by fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution as a result of atmospheric transport and the production and consumption of goods and services in different world regions. We find that, of the 3.45 million premature deaths related to PM2.5 pollution in 2007 worldwide, about 12 per cent (411,100 deaths) were related to air pollutants emitted in a region of the world other than that in which the death occurred, and about 22 per cent (762,400 deaths) were associated with goods and services produced in one region for consumption in another. (Nature)


Media & Entertainment

CNN Had a Problem. Donald Trump Solved It.

The era of searching is over. Zucker has found a story to ride, “the biggest story we could ever imagine,” he says. And as it turns out, the only thing better than having Donald Trump on your network is having him attack it. Far from hurting CNN, Trump’s war against it has amounted to a form of product placement — “earned media,” you could say — giving its anchors and correspondent (NY Times)


The Gentrification of College Hoops

But we’ll also tell you the rest of the story: That players like Iverson and Waters – the first members of their families to go to college – are increasingly rare in college sports, even in the big-money, high-stakes sports of basketball and football. Indeed, most athletic scholarships are going to middle-class kids with college-educated parents, not to kids from poor families who need a scholarship to get anywhere close to a university campus. Simply put, NCAA sports have been gentrified. (The Undefeated)


Inside the Singular Career of Woody Harrelson

The next stage of Harrelson’s career was marked by a further diffusing of his on-screen persona. Over five years, he would star in an erotic drama, a social satire about serial killers, a prestige biopic, and a not-insignificant number of goofy comedies—and he would end up with his first Oscar nomination. “It wasn’t that I was so determined to branch out from comedy,” he says. “Hell, I still feel like I don’t want to branch out from comedy. But, I don’t know, these things come along and you gotta do them.” (Fast Company)


Literature & Culture

Love in the Time of Cryptography

In 2016, after several years of a simple and warm love affair, we hit a snag. We had decided to live together, and that I would emigrate to Europe. But to do this, we had to prove our relationship to the government. The instructions on how to do this skewed toward the modern forms of relationships: social media connections; emails; chats; pictures of the happy couple. He read through this, and showed it to me. We both laughed. Our relationship had left few traces in the digital world. We had none of these things. (Backchannel)


Dirty Birds: What it’s like to live with a national symbol

We’re used to seeing our national bird as a valiant hero in nature documentaries plucking salmon from pristine streams, on the back of every dollar bill in our wallets, or on pretty much every federal seal — from the NSA and the CIA to the office of the president. But in Dutch, especially in winter when it’s harder for them to catch fish, you can see eagles for what they really are: hardy, scrappy scavengers. Turns out that when you live with a federal symbol up close and personal, day in and day out, it’s a little harder to think of them as majestic. Bald eagles show up in the local police blotter alongside reports of drunk fishermen passing out in the wrong bunk or taking off in someone else’s forklift. (California Sunday Magazine)


Art & History

Manhole covers as markers of history, society — and space travel?

These iron covers also act as markers, as labels or badges for streets, which tell us huge amounts about the history of industry and development, about urban terroir and locale. The names of their manufacturers are cast into their surfaces so that the lettering becomes an anti-slip surface; the text becomes functional. The history of the city is there to see, inscribed in these iron covers. In London, for instance, you might find covers embossed with the name of George Jennings, the unitary engineer who introduced the flush toilet to London at the Great Exhibition of 1851, an invention which quickly became so popular that the city’s decrepit sewer system was unable to cope and the contents were flushed into the Thames, leading to the Great Stink summer of 1858. You might find others featuring the name of the self-promoting sanitary engineer Thomas Crapper, often with perforations to allow the escape of gas from sewers and avoid a build-up of pressure and the ultimate explosion which might propel a chunk of iron through the city at ferocious speeds. (FT)



Posted by Carlos Alvarenga

Carlos Alvarenga is the Executive Director of World 50 ThinkLabs and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business.

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