The W: A Weekly Reading List

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In this week’s edition… the dream of nationless cities at sea…why Americans should learn the Chinese way… the lonely future of buying stuff…how science is unlocking the secrets of addiction…cinematography is finally capturing all shades…and more.

Have a great weekend!


Business & Economics

Investors Prefer It When Corporations Are Specific about the Risk They Face

The researchers uncovered a link between risk-related specificity in the 10-Ks and increased market activity such as trading volume, along with more reliable analyst forecasting. “We believe specificity is important and valuable to the market,” Hu says. Yet what is good for the market, which likes to see transparency in corporate decision-making, is not necessarily good for the corporation. While these findings show that investors and analysts may benefit from more specific risk reporting, executives need to consider the potential downsides of over-specifying risk, Hu says. (Kellogg Insight)


Capitalism without Capitalists

Ultimately, when the identity of an owner is unknown, it is equally impossible to know what the owners want. When companies are principally owned and controlled by owners whose agendas are at best arcane, capitalism turns grey. It is not enough to know that investors simply desire good investment returns and, if the company cannot generate sufficient returns, investors will leave. While it is true that investors tend to be happy as long as companies make good money, it is not the desire to make money that determines whether an owner is successful or not. Money can be made in many different ways. For a company to thrive, owners with diverse interests have to be aligned with the success of the company. Often they clearly are not. Many investment funds, for instance, have significant ownership in competing firms. They are not investing in any one of these firms because they have an idea about how that company will beat all of its competitors; they are just spreading risk. Vanguard, of course, is not alone. The biggest shareholders of most listed companies in America and Europe are funds that invest on the basis of portfolio risk management. (American Affairs)


Fancy Yourself a Kleptocrat? Here’s a Chance to Try it (paywall)

The game gives players a step-by-step experience in the art of corruption. Upon first opening the app, it provides a tutorial in how the schemes operate and how the cards in the game work. Then, the game begins: A player “takes” money through, for example, a briefcase bribe or a racketeering scheme. After taking the money, the player can “hide” or “move” it, or they can rely on people in their “network,” such as their wife or a drinking buddy, for help covering their tracks. Eventually, the player moves the money to “enjoy” it, buying, for example, an armored luxury vehicle, a watch or a trip on safari. (WSJ)


Some Crypto-Capitalists Just Want to See the World Burn

As the name implies, seasteading is the pursuit of permanent cities on the ocean as way to flee regulation, alleviate overpopulation, reverse mankind’s damage to sea life, or all three. The history of these projects is rife with expensive, colossal failures. One of the first attempts, Operation Atlantis, was the brainchild of the wealthy Ayn Rand-loving Werner Stiefel, who made his fortune selling skincare products. Atlantis went through several attempts at breaking from extant governments by taking up residence among the waves between 1968 and 2006: One ship was destroyed in a storm. A terra-forming attempt was brought to an end by Haitian gunboats. Eventually all the members of the project quit. More recent projects have been less catastrophic. The World, essentially a massive cruise ship, was described as too expensive to attract a full-time community. Blueseed, an attempt to build a startup incubator in the waters outside Silicon Valley, failed to generate adequate funding, despite existing solely to enrich wealthy technology companies by allowing them to skirt HB-1 visa regulations. (Gizmodo)


Geopolitics & World

Why American Students Need Chinese Schools (paywall)

Another bracing Chinese belief is that hard work trumps innate talent when it comes to academics. Equipped with flashcards and ready to practice, my son’s Chinese language teacher knows that he is capable of learning the 3,500 characters required for literacy. His primary school math teacher gives no child a free pass on triple-digit arithmetic and, in fact, stays after school to help laggards. China’s school system breeds a Chinese-style grit, which delivers the daily message that perseverance—not intelligence or ability—is key to success. Studies show that this attitude gets kids farther in the classroom. Ethnic Asian youth are higher academic achievers in part because they believe in the connection between effort and achievement, while “white Americans tend to view cognitive abilities as…inborn,” according to a longitudinal study of more than 5,000 students published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014. Chinese kids are used to struggling through difficult content, and they believe that success is within reach of anyone willing to work for it. This attitude gives policy makers in China great latitude when it comes to setting out and enforcing higher standards. (WSJ)


Battling a Spanish Mafia

Four hours later at the Club Nautico Nayade, a residential and sports complex occupying a private estate on the wide Moros River, Millar was in the bathroom washing his shorts before hanging them from the window frame. His eyes were still red with emotion. “I haven’t said more than three words since we arrived here,” he told me. After bearing all the physical and mental pressure as leader of the world’s third most important stage race for more than a week, Millar was understandably disillusioned. “I’m disgusted with it all,” he continued, after several moments of silence. “The crowds throw things at you and spit at you because they want a Spaniard to win. But I don’t let them affect me…. I haven’t lost this race because I cracked up. You can’t compete against the whole peloton.” (Peloton)


Technology & Computing

Tesla’s Hurricane Irma Update Taps Into Our Deepest Fears Of 21st Century Driving

With Tesla, every vehicle they produce today is equipped with their semi-autonomous hardware to use with the company’s Autopilot functionality, but you have to pay to unlock and utilize it. You have one of the most advanced autonomous systems on the road with the potential to save lives, and it’s behind a multi-thousand-dollar paywall. Of course for everyday use, this is consumer choice and, within the framework of capitalism, completely rational. But the issue boils down to the company having complete control over when it gets to remotely intervene in extreme situations with virtually no accountability to its owners. In the Tesla scenario, Tesla only acted after a Florida resident reached out and inquired about unlocking the extra capability, which Tesla then generously applied to the rest of the appropriate vehicles. (Jalopnik)


It Distracted Us. It Gave Us Uber. It Made Selfies a Thing.

These sound like little things. But the collective weight of these tiny conveniences added up to something I almost couldn’t live without. Almost. I returned the first iPhone three weeks after buying it. Its camera wasn’t great. It didn’t have the App Store. It worked on just one carrier. It cost $599. It was slow — very, very slow. Still, in those long moments it took to load a web page, you could see the whole future laid out before you: If they could get this right, if they could turn this into a general-purpose everywhere computer, it could change everything. (NY Times)


The Lonely Future of Buying Stuff

It’s 1:35 a.m. on Aug. 5, 2036, and our shoes’ container box is ready to leave the coast after 43 hours in Long Beach. An intermodal trucking company’s autonomous tractor trailer is ready, having an appointment to collect its box at 1:50 a.m. Miss your place in the queue and it’s at least 45 minutes before an autonomous truck will be summoned back to the loading spots. The truck pulls up on schedule. Two minutes later, a crane deposits the container. In five minutes, after additional digital checks, the truck drives out of the port, north into light I-710 traffic. (At this hour, nearly all of it is self-driving; human passengers are asleep.) The truck heads toward a distribution depot in Fontana, California, off I-10, near the Ontario airport. It pulls in 90 minutes later, at 3:26 a.m., and a crane transfers our red metal box off the chassis. (Bloomberg)


Science & Nature

A Requiem for Florida, the Paradise That Should Never Have Been

Today, Florida’s southern thumb has been transformed into a subtropical paradise for millions of residents and tourists, a sprawling megalopolis dangling into the Gulf Stream that could sustain hundreds of billions of dollars in damage if Hurricane Irma makes a direct hit. So it’s easy to forget that South Florida was once America’s last frontier, generally dismissed as an uninhabitable and undesirable wasteland, almost completely unsettled well after the West was won. “How far, far out of the world it seems,” Iza Hardy wrote in an 1887 book called Oranges and Alligators: Sketches of South Florida. And Hardy ventured only as far south as Orlando, which is actually central Florida, nearly 250 miles north of Miami. Back then, only about 300 hardy pioneers lived in modern-day South Florida. Miami wasn’t even incorporated as a city until 1896. And even then an early visitor declared that if he owned Miami and hell, he would rent out Miami and live in hell. (Politico)


Mathematicians Measure Infinities and Find They’re Equal

Consider the real numbers, which are all the points on the number line. The real numbers are sometimes referred to as the “continuum,” reflecting their continuous nature: There’s no space between one real number and the next. Cantor was able to show that the real numbers can’t be put into a one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers: Even after you create an infinite list pairing natural numbers with real numbers, it’s always possible to come up with another real number that’s not on your list. Because of this, he concluded that the set of real numbers is larger than the set of natural numbers. Thus, a second kind of infinity was born: the uncountably infinite. (Quanta)


How Science is Unlocking the Secrets of Addiction

Gallimberti was fascinated when he read a newspaper article about experiments by Bonci and his colleagues at NIDA and the University of California, San Francisco. They had measured electrical activity in neurons in cocaine-seeking rats and discovered that a region of the brain involved in inhibiting behavior was abnormally quiet. Using optogenetics, which combines fiber optics and genetic engineering to manipulate animal brains with once unimaginable speed and precision, the researchers activated these listless cells in the rats. “Their interest in cocaine basically vanished,” Bonci says. The researchers suggested that stimulating the region of the human brain responsible for inhibiting behavior, in the prefrontal cortex, might quell an addict’s insatiable urge to get high. (National Geographic)


Literature & History 

Soccer’s Culture of Corruption

That election set the template for Blatter’s rule. World Cups kept generating more money: FIFA’s revenues rose from $308 million in the four-year cycle through 1998 to $5.7 billion in the four years through 2014. This was largely because in an interconnected world, people from China to the US were now watching soccer. Blatter nevertheless took credit for “developing” the game—FIFA’s supposed mission. He passed on chunks of the loot to national and continental soccer barons, in payments that were typically couched in the language of “development.” A FIFA grant, often handed over by Blatter’s staff on the eve of a FIFA presidential election, was supposedly meant to fund facilities in the official’s country. Indeed, some national federations, especially in Africa, couldn’t even afford a phone line. But these payments were not monitored, and if the official slipped the money into his jacket pocket, nobody would complain. (The New York Review of Books)


The Case Against Civilization

So why did our ancestors switch from this complex web of food supplies to the concentrated production of single crops? We don’t know, although Scott speculates that climatic stress may have been involved. Two things, however, are clear. The first is that, for thousands of years, the agricultural revolution was, for most of the people living through it, a disaster. The fossil record shows that life for agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers. Their bones show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases that crossed the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities. Scott calls them not towns but “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps.” Who would choose to live in one of those? Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.” The startling thing about this claim is that, among historians of the era, it isn’t very controversial. (New Yorker)


Culture, Media & Entertainment

Why Some Like It Hot is the greatest comedy ever made

It is structured so meticulously that it glides from moment to moment with the elegance of an Olympic figure skater, and the consummate screwball dialogue, by Wilder and IAL Diamond, is so polished that every line includes either a joke, a double meaning, or an allusion to a line elsewhere in the film. To quote one character, it’s a riot of “spills, thrills, laughs and games”. To quote another, it deserves to be “the biggest thing since the Graf Zeppelin”. So why was it chosen as the best comedy ever made? Simple. What else were we going to choose? There’s more to Some Like It Hot than its sparkling surface, though. As well as being a romantic comedy, a buddy movie, a crime caper, and a musical, the film is an anthem in praise of tolerance, acceptance, and the possibility of transformation. It’s an anthem that we need to hear now more than ever. (BBC)


Keeping ‘Insecure’ lit: HBO cinematographer Ava Berkofsky on properly lighting black faces

When it comes to calibrating film cameras to properly light a subject, we attribute much of what we know to Kodak’s work with “Shirley cards” from the 1940s through 1990s. Color film was adjusted against the cards, named after model and Kodak employee Shirley Page who appeared on the initial set. As Richard Photo Lab worker Jersson Garcia told NPR in 2014, “If Shirley looked good, everything else was OK. If Shirley didn’t look so hot that day, we had to tweak something — something was wrong.” Despite their worldwide use, for decades the cards featured only white women. According to Vox, things shifted when companies complained to Kodak that they couldn’t tell different-colored wood products apart. But when did this change happen for brown people as opposed to just brown objects? “I’d say it turned around in 2010,” Berkofsky said. “When the Arri Alexa came out, it really changed how people were shooting digital and what kind of results we could get.” (Mic)


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