Economics Society Technology

The Reconn Reader: Feb 8, 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

A popular myth has resurfaced on Twitter in these fractious daysabout how both haute cuisine and humble utensils were introduced to the French court by Catherine de Medici, after she was sent from Florence to Paris to marry Henry II in 1533. Search Twitter for “mangiavate ancora con le mani” (“You’d still be eating with your hands”) and see. Catherine made a rookie’s mistake: She fell in love with her husband even though he was besotted with another woman (Diane de Poitiers). When I was in high school (in Florence), my history teacher consistently referred to her as “la poverina” — the poor thing — for having been twice cheated by the French, out of her love and her culinary expertise. (The New York Times)

Spiralling costs, high debt and Brexit: can UK universities survive?

Indeed, America’s current political system would be unrecognizable to our founders. Many of its day-to-day components have no basis whatsoever in the Constitution—which offers no mention of political parties, party primaries, caucuses, ballot access rules, segregated congressional cloakrooms, party-determined committee assignments, filibuster rules, and countless other practices that drive today’s dysfunction. John Adams, our second President and one of the most astute thinkers among America’s founders, even warned the upstart nation against slipping into a duopoly, saying, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.” (Financial Times)

Once, during the oil crisis in 1973, a German transport minister took his chances and imposed a speed limit. Road deaths stood at over 20,000 a year at the time (six times today’s level) and with oil prices skyrocketing, Lauritz Lauritzen thought Germans might reasonably see the benefits of saving some lives and some money on gas, too.The speed limit lasted four months, and Mr. Lauritzen not much longer. (New York Times)

“I’m not nostalgic,” Jacques said. “I think there’s a lot that’s not working in modernity. But we have to say that when you come to a country you have to integrate and assimilate.” A lawyer friend of his had recently defended an immigrant against domestic-violence charges, and his friend advised the client not to say that he thought what he did was right. But during the trial, the wife testified that her husband was angry that she went to see her friends, and so he was right to beat her. “That’s what happens when you accept all cultures and you refuse to force people to accept certain norms,” Jacques said. “We’ve really gone somewhere irrational, out of fear of shocking or provoking. But we’re creating a horrible world.” (The New York Times)



Business & Economics

It is time to flush the C-suite down the U-bend

One possibility is that the increase in C-level roles may reflect companies’ search for new ways of recognising staff in flatter organisations. But hierarchies are unavoidable in any workplace. One conclusion of the 2013 study was that by recognising the potential negative effect of handing out formal leadership titles, teams could offset the risks that lurk in corporate structures. (Financial Times)

That experience — of succeeding in school while exerting minimal or moderate effort — is a potentially crucial one. It may help our sons develop confidence, as they see how much they can accomplish simply by counting on their wits. For them, school serves as a test track, where they build their belief in their abilities and grow increasingly at ease relying on them. Our daughters, on the other hand, may miss the chance to gain confidence in their abilities if they always count on intellectual elbow grease alone. (New York Times)

Inside Wisconsin’s Disastrous $4.5 Billion Deal With Foxconn

Wisconsin officials apparently didn’t consider Gou’s track record problematic. Instead, they describe the billionaire, who charmed them with stories of his early days selling TV parts in the Midwest, as almost philanthropic. “My impression of him was, what a nice person,” says Scott Neitzel, who led negotiations for the Walker administration. “An extremely genuine, down-to-earth tycoon.” When asked if the state looked at Foxconn’s history, WEDC Chief Executive Officer Mark Hogan says, “We didn’t spend a lot of time on that because, in the end, we got to know these people so well.” (Bloomberg)




Science & Technology

Vast chemical library could yield trove of new medicines

The problem is that the number of possible druglike molecules—1063—is impossibly vast, similar to the number of atoms in the universe. Rather than focus on the majority of those molecules that will likely never be made, researchers have begun to team up with chemical supply companies that can make vast libraries of compounds on demand. One such company, Enamine, in Kyiv, for example, starts with 70,000 small chemical building blocks that they can connect to one another using 130 well-known chemical reactions. That’s allowed the company to assemble a database of more than 700 million compounds that it can make to order in small amounts—a library that’s already about 100 times the size of most libraries scanned by pharmaceutical companies. (Science)

Technology firms and the office of the future

The big idea championed by the industry is the concept of working in various spaces around an office rather than at a fixed workstation. Other industries have experimented with “activity-based working”, but tech is ahead. Employees may still have an assigned desk but they are not expected to be there, and they routinely go to different places to do various tasks. There are “libraries” where they can work quietly, as well as coffee shops, cafés and outdoor spaces for meetings and phone calls. The top two floors of Salesforce Tower, for example, will be used not as corner offices for executives but as an airy lounge for employees, where they can work communally and gaze out at the views over a latté. (The Economist)


Game CAPTCHAs, video CAPTCHAs, whatever sort of CAPTCHA test you devise will eventually be broken, says Shuman Ghosemajumder, who previously worked at Google combatting click fraud before becoming the chief technology officer of the bot-detection company Shape Security. Rather than tests, he favors something called “continuous authentication,” essentially observing the behavior of a user and looking for signs of automation. “A real human being doesn’t have very good control over their own motor functions, and so they can’t move the mouse the same way more than once over multiple interactions, even if they try really hard,” Ghosemajumder says. While a bot will interact with a page without moving a mouse, or by moving a mouse very precisely, human actions have “entropy” that is hard to spoof, Ghosemajumder says. (Verge)

A crypto exchange can’t repay $190M because the founder died with the only password

While his widow has Cotten’s laptop, she reportedly doesn’t know the password and the expert the firm had hired couldn’t bypass the encryption. According to court filings reported by Coindesk, the company has some 115,000 clients who had invested assets worth $70 million, which she estimates had grown to $250 million by December 2018. Because of the amount of money that is no longer accessible, conspiracy theorists are in full effect, the CBC reports, even claiming Cotten didn’t really die but merely absconded with the crypto cash. Even a death certificate has barely slowed the conspiracy theorists’ roll. It’s hard to blame them with so much money just out of reach. (Fast Company)

Culture & History

Dickens in Eden

But Dickens didn’t unify the House of Critics and the House of Readers. For a very long time, critics—Poe being one of the few exceptions—dismissed him as a caricaturist: facetious, melodramatic, antic, clumsy, and, on political questions, dangerously out of his depth. There never lived a man as hideous as Quilp. Mr. Gradgrind was not to be credited; Nell was not to be borne. Mirth could not answer tyranny. “Bleak House” was belabored. The novels before “Copperfield” were meringue and treacle; those which followed were burned pot roast. Mr. Dickens did not satisfy. (New Yorker)

The invigorating strangeness of Friedrich Nietzsche

But Nietzsche persevered as if it made perfect sense: “God is dead,” he said, and what is more, “it was us that killed him.” In 1883 he started elaborating the theme in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a set of orations which some readers seem to find inspiring, though the rest of us see them as a regrettable lapse into pseudo-biblical melodrama. In any case he soon regained his poise, and in Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morality he went back to playing witty games with his readers, arguing that once we have killed off God, we will be able to raise ourselves above the rest of humanity by treating compassion as a vice rather than a virtue, and morality itself as immoral. (Prospect UK)

What Worries Today’s Billionaires? Protecting Priceless Art From Flying Champagne Corks on Their Superyachts

“His kids had thrown their cornflakes at it over breakfast because they thought it was scary,” she told the Guardian. “And the crew had made the damage worse by wiping them off the painting.” In response, Mather-Lees started offering a specialized course (which costs €295 per day) for yacht crew members. Crews are often well-equipped to deal with an array nautical situations, but not art conservation. In the case of her client, the crew “had no idea [the Basquiat] was worth many millions,” she told the paper. “Now the rich are increasingly bringing their art collections on board their yachts and it’s vital that captains and crew know how to care for these pieces.” (Artnet)


I discovered that the last time she’d appeared in public was in 2015, as a “special guest” at an image processing industry conference in Quebec City. Photographs of the event showed her stepping onstage through a glistening projection of her younger self. I reached out to the conference organizers, who said that they no longer had her contact information and that the man who had orchestrated her visit had died. Finally, the chair of the conference, an academic named Jean-Luc Dugelay, agreed to put us in touch. He cautioned, though, that Lena might well decline. “She is now apart from all of that,” he wrote. (WIRED)

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