The W: A Weekly Reading List

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In this week’s edition…Uber’s London business model explained…seizing the moment – European reform…tax laws and e-commerce…the pragmatic case for understanding neurodiversity…online dating with a disability…and more.


Have a great weekend!


Business & Economics

Creating Better Innovation Measurement Practices

Some of the companies we studied were too detailed in the way they measured innovation; they assumed that once things were measured they could be managed. Other companies did practically no measurement at all, on the assumption that measuring innovation was inherently counterproductive and harmful to creativity and novelty. Companies in the first group overestimated what innovation measurement could do; those in the second group underestimated it. (MIT Sloan Management Review)


The Inside Story of the Great Silicon Heist

The global meltdown came right as the polysilicon market was breaking records. The price per pound had risen by more than 700 percent in just four years, from around $20 to $180, largely due to increased demand from the solar industry. Manufacturers scrambled to build or expand plants, but they couldn’t move fast enough to satisfy customers. The supply crunch was so bad that solar-panel manufacturers often paid steep premiums for the top-quality polysilicon made by Mitsubishi and its competitors. Welford and Short spent their days surrounded by a product that was becoming ever-more valuable even as the economy teetered toward depression. Roiled by a potent mix of anxiety and the allure of easy money, the two men began to make plans to carry out an idea they’d previously only talked about: taking a little polysilicon for themselves. (WIRED)


The History of Sears Predicts Nearly Everything Amazon Is Doing

Why is Amazon looking more and more like an old-fashioned retailer? The company’s do-it-all corporate strategy adheres to a familiar playbook—that of Sears, Roebuck & Company. Sears might seem like a zombie today, but it’s easy to forget how transformative the company was exactly 100 years ago, when it, too, was capitalizing on a mail-to-consumer business to establish a physical retail presence. To understand Amazon—its evolution, its strategy, and perhaps its future—look to Sears. (The Atlantic)


Understanding Uber: It’s Not About The App

The average Londoner can be forgiven for not knowing all of the above (commentators in the media, less so). In the context of the journey, it is the experience that matters, not the technology or corporate structure that delivers it. In the context of understanding the current licensing situation, however, knowing the difference between the companies that make up that that Uber experience is important. Because without that, it is very easy for both Uber’s supporters and opponents to misunderstand what this dispute is actually about. (Reconnections)


Geopolitics & World

European leaders aim to seize the moment for reform

After six years in crisis mode, governments acknowledge the eurozone’s incomplete foundations will need strengthening if the bloc is to survive another downturn. The sovereign debt crisis exposed the limits of the single currency’s armoury, forcing the European Central Bank to reassure markets that no country would ever be allowed to crash out of the euro and then unleash more than €1.6tn in asset purchases to rescue the economy from stagnation. “There is no silver bullet to complete economic and monetary union once and for all,” Mr Tusk wrote to EU leaders last week.” But I am convinced that we have the obligation to improve the functioning of the EMU and strengthen it step by step.” (Financial Times)


The Untold Story of Kim Jong-nam’s Assassination

But as the international crisis churned, the identities and motivations of the two women remained mysterious. One was said to be a prostitute from Indonesia and the other an escort from Vietnam. But how had two young women from rural Southeast Asian villages become ensnared in an international assassination plot? And why had they been manipulated into killing Jong-nam in such a gruesome way? The answers had likely been hidden in plain sight by the North Korean spymasters, and their revelation was designed to make the global order tremble. (GQ)


Technology & Computing

Shrinking Anonymity in Chinese Cyberspace

The growing power of the Social Credit System to determine citizens’ ability to conduct activities online is also reducing the capacity for online anonymity—which has all but disappeared in China. Many if not most users have welcomed the system, as China hadn’t previously had a widely used system for establishing credit-worthiness.  The Social Credit System requires real-name information attached to the data it captures so that an individual’s creditworthiness, from social/political and economic vectors, can be aggregated in the system’s vast databases. On one level, the system functions not much differently from the types of data aggregated by large Western digital platforms. But because Western users are not tied to a single, all-powerful mobile payments platform, they do not think about their personal data being aggregated by one platform (an option many in the West would protest). Users’ preference for maintaining some anonymity and personal data privacy in many countries will be an interesting test for companies such as Tencent and Alibaba as they expand globally. (Lawfare)


Is AI Riding a One-Trick Pony?

When you boil it down, AI today is deep learning, and deep learning is backprop—which is amazing, considering that backprop is more than 30 years old. It’s worth understanding how that happened—how a technique could lie in wait for so long and then cause such an explosion—because once you understand the story of backprop, you’ll start to understand the current moment in AI, and in particular the fact that maybe we’re not actually at the beginning of a revolution. Maybe we’re at the end of one. (MIT Tech Review)


The Supreme Court didn’t see E-commerce coming

The 1992 case, Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, involved a mail-order vendor that sold office supplies to thousands of North Dakota customers but had no warehouses or employees in the state. Quill argued that North Dakota’s attempt to collect sales taxes from the vendor violated the Supreme Court’s dormant commerce clause doctrine, which prohibits states from taking certain actions that interfere with interstate activity. North Dakota responded that, in light of the rapid growth of the mail-order and telemarketing industries, a rule barring states from collecting sales taxes on remote transactions was ill-suited to the modern age. (Slate)


Science & Nature

Should We Kill Animals to Save Them?

But trophy hunting today, especially of the so-called big five in Africa (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, and Cape buffalo), brings with it a larger set of moral and financial questions. The sport killing of animals beleaguered in the wild can arouse fierce opposition, even more so if the animal—Cecil the Lion, for example—is named. Biologists estimated total losses of large mammals in protected areas on the continent at up to 60 percent between 1970 and 2005. As big game populations dwindle further under pressure from human encroachment, shifting climate norms, and widespread criminal poaching, there are hunters—the American client in Nyae Nyae, for one—who argue that a thoughtfully regulated and expensive hunt for bull elephants in their waning days makes a sustainable way to protect both species and habitat. (National Geographic)


The Pragmatic Case for Understanding Neurodiversity

[Those with Asperger syndrome] have a blunt style of speech, because they mean well. If you’re nearly incapable of malice, it’s hard to imagine others may read malice into your remarks. It’s introspection which fails Aspies. Aspies excel at separating the idea and the person. Neurotypicals conflate ideological disagreement with personal conflict. So they find it exhausting when Aspies go too far in arguing their case. It is, again, lack of introspection that fails neurotypicals. The failure to understand each other is mutual. It’s more exhausting for Aspies to interpret indirect demands and defend ourselves against implicit accusations. Neurotypicals are unable to put themselves in our shoes and understand that disagreement isn’t personal. Does this mean neurotypicals have low cognitive empathy? They’re generally unable to be nice despite disagreements. Does this mean they have low affective empathy? Is it we who lack empathy? (Quillette)


Mindful of Equity

Research shows that mindfulness meditation can reduce anxiety, improve emotion regulation and increase compassion—benefits that account for its rising popularity among K–12 educators. But some culturally responsive educators worry that using mindfulness meditation in the classroom can send a dangerous message to students struggling within an inequitable education system. “What we’re doing when we teach mindfulness to [only] students is saying, ‘Here’s how to cope with school,’” says Barbara Dray, lead consultant with the LLC Transforming Practices in Education. “That’s not sufficient. I want to have their voices be valued at school.” (Teaching Tolerance)


Culture, Media & Entertainment

Hugh Hefner’s legacy shows the capitalist contradiction at the heart of the American dream

The opportunity for reinvention had to do with wealth and sex, but it was also about cultural sophistication. Hefner’s image was a combination of Horatio Alger and Lord Byron—a self-made workaholic decadent aesthete. Playboy wasn’t just for ogling women; it was a guidebook to social climbing as an act of sensuality. Hefner was in the business of teaching readers to better themselves. People joke about reading Playboy for the articles, but the articles—an iconic interview by Alex Haley with Miles Davis in 1962, the serialization of Fahrenheit 451in 1953—were central to its mission. The Playboy gentleman reader appreciated the finest things in life, and as a result the finest things in life (in theory) came to them. (Quartz)


Playing the Online Dating Game, in a Wheelchair

I felt like a hypocrite. In every other area of my life, my disability is front and center. I write and speak endlessly about being a proud, unapologetic disabled woman. It is part of my identity, shaping everything I do and everything I value. But in the online dating world, my disability was my secret shame. So I decided it was time for a change. I started gradually, making references to my disability throughout my profile, then adding photos in which my wheelchair is clearly visible. I tried to keep things light and humorous. For instance, OKCupid asks users to list six things they can’t live without; one of mine is “the invention of the wheel.” (New York Times)


Songs Of Discomposure: Quietus Writers Pick Their Most Disturbing Pieces Of Music

For this feature, we set our writers a brief: write about the most disturbing music you own, or have ever heard. The responses were varied. ‘Disturbing’ is a broad term, and the resulting 40 pieces of music, compiled below, plumb all manner of darkness. Some, like David Bennun’s childhood terror at the hands of The Beatles, or John Doran’s tales of driving round Bristol in a van, on the edge of a Residents-induced breakdown, are darkly comedic stories. To be clear, however, there is subject matter below that is genuinely upsetting. Some of the disturbances are specific to the writer, a break-up, a bad trip, the loss of a relative or worse. Others tackle some of the most profoundly awful truths of our society and history and the subject matter does not make for easy reading. (The Quietus)


Art & History 

What Do Artists’ Final Works Say About Their Lives?

Final works have, or take on, a special tone — a melancholy triumph, or, in some cases, a furious haste. Now is the time, they seem to suggest: This is what I have to say. Often what one has to say, while dying, is concerned with death. One thinks of a tubercular D. H. Lawrence writing ‘‘Apocalypse’’ in the winter of 1929-30, or John Huston directing ‘‘The Dead’’ in 1987 while ridden with emphysema. (Pauline Kael: ‘‘Huston directed the movie, at 80, from a wheelchair, jumping up to look through the camera, with oxygen tubes trailing from his nose to a portable generator.’’) Extraordinary energy must be required to complete a final work — perhaps it is the exertion that keeps the artist alive a little longer. Robert Altman was so sick with leukemia during the filming of ‘‘A Prairie Home Companion’’ that insurers required that he have a stand-by director (Paul Thomas Anderson) at all times on set. The cheerfully morbid ‘‘Prairie Home Companion’’ is about the last episode of a fictional radio show based on the long-running variety show, and features as a character a white-trench-coated angel of death. Altman died in 2006, five months after the film premiered. (New York Times)


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