Economics Society Technology

The Reconn Reader: Feb 15, 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. -Carlos


World & Politics

Yet the regime acts as if the revolution were only yesterday. The judiciary recently banned walking dogs in public (Islam deems dogs impure). This month Mr Khamenei scolded women who remove their hijabs. “That captures the essence of Islamist rule in Iran: Dogmatic septuagenarian clerics forcing their own antiquated views on a young, diverse society,” writes Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank. “It can only be sustained through coercion.” (The Economist)

‘Un big mess’ – how the rest of Europe views Brexit

In the centenary year of Ireland’s war of independence, Brexit seems to have turned the clock back. But it hasn’t, not really. There is some relish at Westminster’s convulsions – the parliament of Oliver Cromwell reduced to Benny Hill. But theoverwhelming emotion is worry that Britain will crash out of the EU without a deal, wreaking havoc on Ireland’s economy and destabilising Northern Ireland. And there is also sadness. A once-valued diplomatic partner, a neighbour with whom Ireland shares myriad cultural commonalities, is turning away. Glee at Westminster dysfunction is, it seems, an attempt to extract solace from a sense that Britain doesn’t care about breaking Irish hearts. (The Guardian)

China’s ‘easy’ money days over as value of venture capital deals plunges 67.5 per cent in January

Ofo is perhaps a prime example of the sudden change in fortunes some companies are experiencing. Founded in 2014, the bike rental firm raised a total of US$2.2 billion in nine funding rounds in less than four years. Once a start-up star, Ofo has struggled with bankruptcy rumours since late 2018 amid a cooling of consumer interest in bike rentals, industry consolidation, a local authority crackdown on the number of bikes on congested city streets and a sudden rush by about 13 million users in China to get their deposits back. (South China Morning Post)

Her escape — planned over several years with the help of a Finnish capoeira trainer and a self-proclaimed French ex-spy — lasted less than a week. Within a few days of setting sail on the Indian Ocean in the Frenchman’s yacht, bound for India and then the United States, the sheikha went silent. She has not been seen since, except in a few photos released in December by her family, which says she is safely home after surviving what they said was a kidnapping. (The New York Times)



Business & Economics

The Rise of Millennial Socialism

The millennial socialists think that inequality has spiralled out of control and that the economy is rigged in favour of vested interests. They believe that the public yearns for income and power to be redistributed by the state to balance the scales. They think that myopia and lobbying have led governments to ignore the increasing likelihood of climate catastrophe. And they believe that the hierarchies which govern society and the economy—regulators, bureaucracies and companies—no longer serve the interests of ordinary folk and must be “democratised”. (The Economist)

Artificial intelligence, algorithmic pricing, and collusion

Amazon, one of the most innovative and data-rich companies in the world, leapt on that possibility as early as 2014. It built a recruiting engine that analysed applications submitted to the group over the preceding decade and identified patterns. The idea was it would then spot candidates in the job market who would be worth recruiting. “Everyone wanted this holy grail,” one person familiar with the initiative told Reuters, which broke the story in October. Unfortunately, the data were dominated by applications from men, and the AI taught itself to prefer male candidates, discriminating against CVs that referred to “women’s” clubs, and setting aside graduates from certain all-women’s colleges. The initiative was downgraded and the research team scrapped. Amazon has claimed it never used the programme to evaluate applicants. (Financial Times)

Amazon offers cautionary tale of AI-assisted hiring

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)

The influence of ‘woke’ consumers on fashion

Not all causes that fashion brands advocate are universally popular, and these can come with significant risks. The NFL “anthem protest” was a divisive issue in the United States, creating a mixture of applause and backlash for Nike. Still, it created earned media exposure worth more than $163 million, within just days of the campaign launch. Besides potential controversy from supporting divisive causes, brands may also risk being perceived as hypocritical if they do not carefully ensure consistency in their messages and actions. In 2018, Primark was severely criticized and called unethical for releasing a line of Pride-themed T-shirts that were produced in Turkey, a country that is ranked the third worst in Europe for LGBTQ+ equality. Nike recently faced pressure from civil-society groups to ensure fair wages are paid to workers of suppliers in emerging markets. (McKinsey)



Science & Technology


Eventually, everything will have a digital twin. This is happening faster than you may think. The home goods retailer Wayfair displays many millions of products in its online home-furnishing catalog, but not all of the pictures are taken in a photo studio. Instead, Wayfair found it was cheaper to create a three-­dimensional, photo-­realistic computer model for each item. You have to look very closely at an image of a kitchen mixer on Wayfair’s site to discern its actual virtualness. When you flick through the company’s website today, you are getting a peek into the mirror­world. (WIRED)

Scientists Are Totally Rethinking Animal Cognition

Mammals in general are widely thought to be conscious, because they share our relatively large brain size, and also have a cerebral cortex, the place where our most complex feats of cognition seem to take place. Birds don’t have a cortex. In the 300 million years that have passed since the avian gene pool separated from ours, their brains have evolved different structures. But one of those structures appears to be networked in cortexlike ways, a tantalizing clue that nature may have more than one method of making a conscious brain. (The Atlantic)

Precision medicine’s rosy predictions haven’t come true. We need fewer promises and more debate

What are the foundational elements of our dissent? Both of us are physicians: one (M.J.J.) a physiologist who studies how humans respond to complex stresses such as exercise, the other (N.P.) an epidemiologist who considers risk, exposure, and causation at the population level. How is it that we and several of our colleagues, each tackling biomedical research from a different perspective, are so unified in our conviction that the massive investment that has been poured into studying the human genome is failing to massively advance human health as predicted by the enthusiasts? (STAT)


But for deep learning, GPUs may only be the gateway drug. There are already AI and deep learning chips in the pipeline from Intel, Fujitsu, and more than a dozen startups.  Google’s own Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), which was purpose-built to train and use neural networks, is now in its third iteration. “Creating a customized processor was very costly for Google, with experts estimating the fixed cost as tens of millions of dollars,” write the authors. “And yet, the benefits were also great – they claim that their performance gain was equivalent to seven years of Moore’s Law – and that the avoided infrastructure costs made it worth it.” (The Next Platform)


Culture & History

Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction

Loneliness is what the internet and social media claim to alleviate, though they often have the opposite effect. Communion can be hard to find, not because we aren’t occupying the same physical space but because we aren’t occupying the same mental plane: we don’t read the same news; we don’t even revel in the same memes. Our phones and computers deliver unto each of us a personalized—or rather, algorithm-realized—distillation of headlines, anecdotes, jokes, and photographs. Even the ads we scroll past are not the same as our neighbor’s: a pair of boots has followed me from site to site for weeks. We call this endless, immaterial material a feed, though there’s little sustenance to be found. (The Paris Review)

German Football Struggles to Keep Up with Premier League Glitz

Schalke generates some of the most revenues of any club in the world. And thanks to its participation in the Champions League, the club has generated record revenues this year. “Even so, we don’t even come close to playing in the same league as Manchester City,” says Heidel. In summer 2016, the English team bought Leroy Sané, groomed as a professional player at Schalke, for around 50 million euros. In January, Heidel signed 18-year-old striker Rabbi Matondo from Manchester’s youth academy, who was never able to break through in Guardiola’s system. If the young player develops well at Schalke, Manchester has an option to buy him back. Such is the situation. From the perspective of Manchester City, FC Schalke 04 is little more than a talent supplier. (Der Spiegel)

The Clandestine Cultural Knowledge of Ancient Graffiti

It is important to remember that graffiti is a modern word. Ancient people, as far as we know, did not have a real equivalent. This means that the concept is a modern category, and we have some freedom in how to define it. But neither experts nor the broader public, in describing ancient or modern graffiti, use the term to describe only hastily scribbled, amateurish text or pictures. What graffiti usually have in common is that they are informal and written on surfaces that were not originally planned for text. Because of this, they may tend to be unprofessional or quickly done, but that is by no means necessary. (Hyperallergic)

Silicon Valley Index shows the misery and triumph of the world’s tech capital

The good news is that Silicon Valley is thriving economically, generating new technology and good jobs. The bad news is that, for all its world-changing innovation, it’s becoming an even worse place to live. “We’re a massively dysfunctional region,” said Russell Hancock, president and CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley. The struggles are revealed in the latest annual assessment of the area, the 2019 Silicon Valley Index, which his nonprofit published Wednesday. (CNET)

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