The W: A Weekly Reading List

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In this week’s edition…bitcoin-mania…why the Libyan slave trade…what’s next for iPod’s co-inventor…you’ve bought a $450M da Vinci painting, now what…what tech world did you grow up in…and more.

 

 

Business & Economics

It just got real.

In many ways, Bitcoin represents the perfect mania – as there are zero cashflows or dividends or earnings involved with this asset class, there is literally no traditional way in which to value it. Chris Burniske has a new book coming out that frames Bitcoin as both a currency and an asset class, and he’s attempting to use monetarist math and the velocity of use as the building blocks. I’ve seen attempts being made at valuation by everyone from NYU professor Aswath Damodoran to famed Wall Street strategist Tom Lee (formerly of JP Morgan). Some make the case that BTC should rightfully command a piece of gold’s market share, and use their estimate as to what percentage as their starting point to calculate its value. With all due respect, if there is no way to come up with a value for gold itself aside from where it’s currently trading, you’re on shaky ground using its valuation to fundamentally measure some other thing that is only vaguely analogous. (The Reformed Broker)

 

Bosses are under increasing pressure to take stances on social issues. How should they respond?

Employees, many of them in the big, Democrat-leaning metropolitan areas where large companies are often based, increasingly demand that their firms take positions on issues ranging from gay rights to climate change. Nearly half of young American employees say they would be more loyal if their boss took a public position on a social issue. A big test came in 2015, when Indiana was considering a “religious freedom” bill that would have let firms and non-profit organisations discriminate against gay and transgender people; Apple and Salesforce.com were among those to oppose it, saying it would harm their customers and staff. (The Economist)

 

What the Data Tells Us About Immigrant Executives in the U.S.

While most immigrant executives arrive to the U.S. directly from their home countries, our data shows that a small number of them are attracted to the U.S. from other advanced economies. Canada is the top channel of foreign-trained executives to American companies with the UK as a distant second. 4.1 % of Chinese, 5% of MENA, and 2.1% of Indian executives in the U.S. have received their education in Canada. MENA immigrant executives’ routes appear a bit different in this regard from Chinese and Indian executives with about 10% of MENA immigrant executives arriving to the U.S. from Europe. (Harvard Business Review)

 

Janet Yellen’s economic legacy in charts

In the four years she has occupied the chair of the Fed’s Board of Governors, Ms Yellen has presided over a return to full employment alongside improved real income growth, while putting the central bank’s stimulus programme into reverse without provoking a fracas in financial markets.  Mr Powell acknowledged the benign inheritance he will enjoy when he appeared before the Senate on Tuesday, describing output as strong and predicting growth of as much as 2.5 per cent this year and next. Yet the recovery remains a partial one, and as Mr Powell implied, many of the lingering problems the US faces may prove beyond the central bank’s powers to fix.  (Financial Times)

 

Is the economy suffering from the crisis of attention?

Another line of enquiry, and the focus for this post, stems from the claim that we are more distracted than ever as a result of the battle for our attention. One study, for example, finds that we are distracted nearly 50% of the time. This ‘crisis of attention’ is seen as one of the greatest problems of our time: after all, as the American philosopher William James noted, our life experience ultimately amounts to whatever we had paid attention to. Might the crisis of attention be affecting the economy? The most obvious place to look would be in productivity growth, which has been persistently weak across advanced economies over the past decade (during which time, as it happens, global shipments of smartphones have risen roughly ten-fold). (Bank Underground)

 

Geopolitics & World

China Gets Into the Business of Making Friends

Today, the Liaison Department holds a unique license to range across Communist Party organizations, civilian intelligence, commercial operations, foreign policy, outward-facing media and powerful horizontal networks of the red princeling aristocracy. It operates a bewildering range of fronts and platforms in the name of everything from oil security to religion. Its goals are only vaguely understood, its methods can seem contradictory, and some of the platforms seem to have played host to the most brazenly warmongering colonels and generals in the PLA. (The Sydney Morning Herald)

 

“The Devil’s Job”: ex-Vatican Bank chief Tedeschi on finance and morality

They did not understand that, in the context in which we were living, the absence of internal controls would have provoked more external controls. Fourthly, there were people who did not understand that the danger concerning this anti-money laundering legislation would lead to a loss of credibility for the Holy Father. The problem at the heart of this debate, is that they tried to deter me and pursued me, giving nine totally false reasons. I demanded an immediate inquiry on these nine points, and there never was one. And no-one ever asked me about it. And what hurts most, which remains even in the Church, is that they didn’t want to understand the truth, nor to know my truth.” (euronews)

 

Why the Slave Trade in Libya?

The Libyan Coast Guard — supported with funds and resources from the E.U. and more specifically, Italy — has cracked down on boats smuggling refugees and migrants to Europe. With estimates of 400,000 to almost one million people now bottled up Libya, detention centers are overrun and there are mounting reports of robbery, rape, and murder among migrants, according to a September report by the U.N. human rights agency. Conditions in the centers have been described as “horrific,” and among other abuses, migrants are vulnerable to being sold off as laborers in slave auctions. (Time)

 

Technology & Computing

Email Is Broken. Can Anyone Fix It?

A couple of years ago, after leaving LinkedIn, Vohra found he couldn’t stop thinking about how to fix email. He started a company called Superhuman to answer a specific question: What would Gmail look like if you built it from scratch in 2017? Vohra and his team imagined the fastest email client ever, which would work equally well online and off, on phones and on desktops. It would be easy to understand yet so wildly powerful you might never discover all its features. Most important of all, it would be beautiful. (WIRED)

 

China gains in race to develop AI-enabled weapons

Though it had the festive air of a holiday fireworks display, the Guangzhou drone show in February would be cited less than two weeks later in a U.S. congressional hearing on advanced Chinese weaponry. In testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Elsa Kania, a former Pentagon analyst and expert on China’s military technology, referred to the performance as a “demonstration of swarming techniques” with clear military applications. Chinese experts, she noted, said the same technology behind the stunning air show could be used in a deadly “distributed system with payload modules mounted on small drones.” (Nikkei Asian Review)

 

Tony Fadell’s Next Act? Taking on Silicon Valley – From Paris

At General Magic, Fadell joined a small team that was trying to build something the company had labeled a personal communicator. “It had email. It had downloadable apps. It had shopping. It had animations and graphics and games. It had telecommunications—a phone, a built-in modem,” Fadell says. “It was the iPhone 14 years too soon.” It never got off the ground, and Magic ran out of tricks and cash by the early 2000s, but the experience was formative. “Hardware, software, services. That was the first link that I ever saw like that,” Fadell says. “That has influenced everything I’ve done since.” (WIRED)

 

Art & History

So You Just Bought a $450 Million Leonardo da Vinci Painting. Now What?

It’s not hard to imagine a feature film based on the $450 million sale of Leonardo da Vinci‘s Salvator Mundi (c. 1500). In the movie version of the event, as soon as the hammer comes down, the auction house sends out decoy trucks and spreads disinformation on the dark web to thwart potential gangsters waiting to seize the work for their mobbed-up bosses. The reality is far more mundane—but no less complex. (Don’t worry, it still involves decoy trucks.) There are numerous practical matters to consider, like packing, shipping, insurance, and tax liability. So, as soon the winning bid comes in, a host of legal and logistical procedures are set in motion. With more and more works commanding eight- and nine-figure prices at auction—including a $110 million Basquiat this past spring and a $179 million Picasso in 2015—the stakes have never been higher when it comes to handling pricey works. (artnet)

 

The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence

Declaration of Independence, opening sentence: “[[[When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people [to dissolve the political bands [which have connected them with another]] and [to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station [to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them]]], a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires [that they should declare the causes [which impel them to the separation]]].” An iconic sentence, this. But how did it ever make its way into the world? At 71 words, it is composed of eight separate clauses, each anchored by its own verb, nested within one another in various arrangements. The main clause (a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires …) hangs suspended above a 50-word subordinate clause that must first be unfurled. Like an intricate equation, the sentence exudes a mathematical sophistication, turning its face toward infinitude. (Nautilus)

 

Culture, Media & Entertainment

What Tech World Did You Grow Up In?

In the past three decades, the United States has seen staggering technological changes. In 1984, just 8 percent of households had a personal computer, the World Wide Web was still five years away, and cell phones were enormous. Americans born that year are only 33 years old. Here’s how some key parts of our technological lives have shifted, split loosely into early, middle and current stages. (The Washington Post)

 

How the sandwich consumed Britain

But just because something seems simple, or intuitive, doesn’t mean that it is. The rise of the British chilled sandwich over the last 40 years has been a deliberate, astonishing and almost insanely labour-intensive achievement. The careers of men and women like Roger Whiteside have taken the form of a million incremental steps: of searching for less soggy tomatoes and ways to crispify bacon; of profound investigations into the molecular structure of bread and the compressional properties of salad. In the trade, the small gaps that can occur within the curves of iceberg lettuce leaves – creating air pockets – are sometimes known as “goblin caves”. The unfortunate phenomenon of a filling slumping toward the bottom of a sandwich box, known as a skillet, is “the drop”. Obsessed by perfection and market share, the sandwich world is, unsurprisingly, one beset by conditions of permanent and ruthless competition. Every week, rival sandwich developers from the big players buy each others’ products, take them apart, weigh the ingredients, and put them back together again. “It is an absolute passion,” one former M&S supplier told me. “For everybody. It has to be.” (The Guardian)

 

The Payola Blues: New Technology, Same Old Tune?

Technically speaking the proposed practice doesn’t violate the legal barriers preventing radio payola. Spotify is a streaming service and not a radio station. As such it is subject to different regulations. Yet this is increasingly problematic in the sense in that, at least from the vantage of a listener and music fan, streaming services are rapidly occupying the role of the traditional radio tastemakers who are required to rigorously disclose sponsorship. Spotify is at least sticking to some ethical pretences when it comes to maintaining the sanctity of its playlists. Services like itself explicitly prohibit list creators and third-parties from accepting payola-like bribes. But policing and enforcing this is a different matter altogether. (Happy)

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