The Reconn Reader: Jan 11, 2019

Each week, I share some of the most interesting articles I’ve come across in the past seven days. Here is this week’s selection. -CA


World & Politics

Nicolás Maduro digs in for another six-year term

But the main threat to Mr Maduro comes from “inside chavismo”, says Mr León. Until now, loot from oil production, smuggling and drug trafficking, which the government tolerates, has held the regime together. A network of Cuban spies alerts Mr Maduro to plots against him. But cash is becoming scarce and plots may be proliferating. In August some people apparently tried to kill Mr Maduro with explosive-laden drones as he addressed a gathering of national guardsmen. The government has tortured dozens of soldiers accused of plotting against it, according to Human Rights Watch, an NGO. (The Economist)

Trump’s America, through the eyes of the French

Much of the French fascination with the US stems from pop culture, of course, as well as from the concept of the American dream, says Busnel. “The idea of reinvention is part of this contemporary myth.” And while much of the myth surrounding the American dream may be just that, there is perhaps no better testament to the possibility of reinvention than the current U.S. president. As Busnel wrote in America’s inaugural issue, “We are living one of the greatest challenges to democracy: A country of 325 million people has just brought to power a man who conquered the White House just as one wins a big game in reality television.” (Columbia Journalism Review)

Italy’s Writing on the Wall

Behind the headlines about corruption was the fact that older ideas about shared responsibility no longer applied. Thus, the dissolution of Italy’s two main parties led to even more – and more institutionalized – corruption, embodied by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. A real-estate developer cum entertainment and media tycoon, Berlusconi combined the spectacle of serial infidelity and glamorous young women with a populist politics based on tax cuts and sympathy toward autocratic petro-states like Russia. Berlusconi’s political style – a combination of buffoonish narcissism and unbridled venality – was Trumpism avant la lettre. (Project Syndicate)



Business & Economics

The Open Office and the Spirit of Capitalism

Perhaps not surprisingly, the proliferation of both Taylorism and novel office technologies didn’t do all that much to reduce the drudgery of white-collar work. Instead, the study of office-worker morale became a field in its own right. Industrial sociologists, usually with a good-faith belief that the contentment of the employee is symbiotically related to a total increase in firm productivity, conducted experiments on how the psychological states of workers contributed to the health of the firm. It wasn’t just the movements of office workers that were tracked, measured, and manipulated—their thoughts and feelings became the prime focus of corporate exploitation in what might be called “Taylorism 2.0.” And what was learned from this new level of invasive management? The most representative case has to be Elton Mayo’s “Hawthorne Experiment,” his study of how different kinds of lighting affected employees.10 The shocking takeaway, which in some ways echoed contemporary developments in particle physics, was that the only thing really affecting employee performance was the act of being observed itself. (American Affairs)

A balancing act: the case for macroprudential margin requirements

Certain policy actions require a high level of precision to be successful. In a recent paper, we find that using margins on derivative trades as a macroprudential tool would require such precision. Such a policy could force derivative users to hold more liquid assets. This would help them to meet larger margin calls and avoid fire-selling their derivatives, which could affect other market participants by moving prices. We find that perfect calibration of such a policy would completely eliminate this fire-sale externality and achieve the best possible outcome, while simple rules are almost as effective. However, calibration errors in any rule could amplify fire-sales and leave the financial system worse off than if there had been no policy at all. (Bank Underground)

Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong

It’s about entertaining the possibility that you may be wrong and being open to learning from the experience of others. Intellectual humility is about being actively curious about your blind spots. One illustration is in the ideal of the scientific method, where a scientist actively works against her own hypothesis, attempting to rule out any other alternative explanations for a phenomenon before settling on a conclusion. It’s about asking: What am I missing here? (Vox)



Science & Technology

Humans Evolved to Exercise

Among our primate cousins, we humans are clearly the odd ape out. Somehow humans evolved to require much higher levels of physical activity for our bodies to function normally. Sitting for hours on end, grooming and napping (or watching the tube) have gone from standard practice to a health risk. When did we trade the low-key existence of our fellow apes for a more strenuous way of life and why? Fossil discoveries are helping to piece the story together. (Scientific American)

Road Tripping Around Europe in a Tesla Is Less Fun Than You’d Think

My hotel that night is in Saarbrucken, just over the German border. There’s a less-powerful “Tesla Destination Charger,” but it’s fine because I can plug in overnight. That’s a relief because my car’s battery has over-promised and under-delivered, as I’ve driven at France’s highway speed limit of about 80 miles per hour. When I pull up to the hotel, the battery indicator shows 39 miles of juice left—28 miles less than the computer had predicted when I left the Burger King. The battery recycles the energy from the brakes to recharge, but the effect is marginal. (Bloomberg)

Blockchain’s Occam problem

One reason for the lack of progress is the emergence of competing technologies. In payments, for example, it makes sense that a shared ledger could replace the current highly intermediated system. However, blockchains are not the only game in town. Numerous fintechs are disrupting the value chain. Of nearly $12 billion invested in US fintechs last year, 60 percent was focused on payments and lending. SWIFT’s global payments innovation initiative (GPI), meanwhile, is addressing initial pain points through higher transaction speeds and increased transparency, building on bank collaboration. (McKinsey)


Culture & History

Sad by design

Delacroix once declared that every day which is not noted is like a day that does not exist. Diary writing used to fulfil that task. Elements of early blog culture tried to update the diary form for the online realm, but that moment has now passed. Unlike the blog entries of the Web 2.0 era, social media have surpassed the summary stage of the diary in a desperate attempt to keep up with real-time regime. Instagram Stories, for example, bring back the nostalgia of an unfolding chain of events – and then disappear at the end of the day, like a revenge act, a satire of ancient sentiments gone by. Storage will make the pain permanent. Better forget about it and move on. (Eurozine)

The Ladylike Language of Letters

Perhaps it was the very lack of momentous subjects to discuss that led to women looking more inward to their own thoughts in their letters to their confidantes, or even engaging in language play, creating codes, slang, emotional cues, and other linguistic innovations with their ongoing correspondents.  ““Ym raed Yssac,” wrote Jane Austen playfully to her 8 year old niece, in which every word was spelled backwards “I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey… Ruoy Etanoitceffa Tnua, Enaj Netsua.” This kind of natural language playfulness would hardly have been common before the advent of the modern personal letter. (JSTOR)

The Recovering

In her addiction memoir The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison makes it abundantly and poignantly clear that it’s the first drink that will get you drunk. This is a wisdom that makes little sense to the majority of people who have no difficulty in normally drinking. It is perhaps even a knowledge that doesn’t apply to those ever-bloated legions of “problem drinkers,” the weekend warriors who slink off home and enjoy half a micro-brew on the weekends. Rather, Jamison’s understanding is reserved for a tribe that’s gone by different names, from “dipsomaniacs” to “alcoholics,” but who are unified in that one unassailable commonality – at a certain point they can’t stop. For Jamison, that one drink is too many precisely because then all of the drinks will never be enough. (HKRB)

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