Reconn Reader: 30 August, 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. Inclusion does not mean endorsement. -CA


World & Politics

Tung Chee-hwa, then Hong Kong’s leader, eventually resigned in the middle of his second term. In contrast, Macau’s largely pro-Beijing legislature offered only limited opposition to its version of the legislation – just two people vetoed a third of its clauses, with the rest approved unanimously. Macau has also been quick to embrace national education: Chinese flags fly at all schools and campuses across the city, and many have adopted history textbooks published by the People’s Education Press, the mainland’s main publisher of textbooks. (Inkstone)

Goodbye Brussels: what I learnt in eight years covering the EU

But this prolific rule-making enterprise was always a subplot. Statecraft really comes alive in the European Council summit room, usually after dark, when the leaders of EU member states sit down to business. During the 53 gatherings I witnessed, the rule book often provided no answers. The aftershocks of the financial crisis rocked the euro area to its core; more than a million people walked over borders seeking asylum; people were shot in Ukraine at protests where the EU flag was waved. As the former EU official Luuk van Middelaar put it, these sorts of problems demanded the ultimate leadership test: “improvisation”. (Financial Times)

History of the Present: Mexico City

But even after the government backed off, mistrust smoldered between local communities and the authorities. In 2006, police evicted flower growers from their vending stalls in a move seen as retribution for their anti-airport activism. The growers teamed up with veterans of the 2002 protests to blockade the main highway through Atenco. As tensions rose, more than 3,000 federal and state police were called in to crack down on this act of civil disobedience. When the police shot a 14-year-old boy and clubbed a university student to death, protesters retaliated by taking officers hostage. The police went on a rampage. They arrested more than 200 demonstrators, including dozens of women who were sexually assaulted and tortured in custody. (Places Journal)

Debate rages in Austria over enshrining use of cash in the constitution

“When we have no more cash, we become totally exposed. A totalitarian state would then have unfettered power over us,” the menu reads. Admittedly the cafe accepts cards as its owner Philipp Klos says he has to think about business too. “In five years, there will be no more cash. I’m 100 percent sure,” he told AFP, saying the ÖVP proposal to amend the constitution is “empty talk”. Other parties and experts have also pointed out that Austria would not have the unilateral right to protect cash through constitutional changes because it uses the euro, which is under the purview of the European Central Bank. Even 17 years after the euro came into circulation, some Austrians are still finding notes and coins in their previous currency, the schilling, much of it left in forgotten hiding places in homes. (Euractiv)



Business & Economics

Big business is beginning to accept broader social responsibilities

In the face of this rising tide, the Business Roundtable has either seen the light or caved in, depending on whom you ask. On August 19th the great and good of ceo-land announced a change of heart about what public companies are for. They now believe that firms should indeed serve stakeholders as well as shareholders. They should offer good value to customers; support their workers with training; be inclusive in matters of gender and race; deal fairly and ethically with all their suppliers; support the communities in which they work; and protect the environment. (The Economist)

700K Data Points Reveal China’s Edge in the Trade War

There’s no winner in a trade war — what matters for the U.S. and China is who loses least. Bloomberg Economics’ analysis of 700,000 trade data points shows that, in one important respect, the U.S. is the biggest loser. China was the dominant supplier of many tariffed products, meaning U.S. importers are scrambling — and failing — to find replacements. With China sourcing from a wider variety of countries, its firms face smaller supply disruptions. (Bloomberg)

Running a company is a permanent juggling act

The last trade-off is between focus and diversification. The relegation of General Electric from the Dow Jones industrial average last year seemed like another nail in the coffin of the industrial conglomerate. Institutional investors can diversify their portfolios by investing in a range of sectors; they do not need a conglomerate to do it for them. Yet cash-rich tech giants are similarly buying promising startups, often with no obvious relation to their core business (think of Google’s purchase of Nest, which makes thermostats). (The Economist)

What People Hate About Being Managed by Algorithms, According to a Study of Uber Drivers

In that light, it’s perhaps no wonder that Salesforce’s Benioff publicly took on a “religious They are also angry enough — and feel disempowered enough — that they are finding creative ways to make their displeasure known; for instance, drivers are gaming the system by artificially causing surge pricing. They are also getting political; especially in the gig economy, drivers of ride-hailing services and couriers seek to compensate for the social isolation they experience in their every-day routine by actively engaging in online communities, but companies themselves aren’t involved in those platforms. Instead, more-adversarial union-type organizations have sprung up as drivers or couriers look to support each other, such as Seattle-based workers’ rights organization Working Washington, which drew together couriers delivering for Postmates, DoorDash, and other on-demand services. (Harvard Business Review)


Science & Technology

Computer programs have shown superiority over humans in two-player games such as chess, Go, and heads-up, no-limit Texas hold’em poker. However, poker games usually include six players—a much trickier challenge for artificial intelligence than the two-player variant. Brown and Sandholm developed a program, dubbed Pluribus, that learned how to play six-player no-limit Texas hold’em by playing against five copies of itself (see the Perspective by Blair and Saffidine). When pitted against five elite professional poker players, or with five copies of Pluribus playing against one professional, the computer performed significantly better than humans over the course of 10,000 hands of poker. (Science)

The Search for Truth in Physics

Many physicists take these troubles to mean that their field has gone astray and that their colleagues are too blinkered to notice. But another reading is that the elusiveness of truth is an important clue. Unlike other domains of human life, the difficulties with truth that physicists face come not from dissembling but from brutal honesty: from being completely frank about our limitations when we come face to face with reality. Only by confronting those limitations can we overcome them. (Scientific American)

Why the Periodic Table of Elements Is More Important Than Ever

Both economics and geopolitics will drive the world toward greater reuse of elements. Recycling will be built into the design of products. That will favor the elements that are most adaptable. “Carbon, which can be as soft as graphite or as hard as diamond, may be the material of choice,” Jamais Cascio, a research fellow at the Institute for the Future, a think tank in Palo Alto, Calif., wrote in 2012. “Instead of worrying about minimizing carbon outputs, we may find ourselves working to maximize carbon inputs,” he added. (Bloomberg)

What if aging weren’t inevitable, but a curable disease?

Whether or not they believe in either the disease hypothesis or maximum life spans, most experts agree that something has to change in the way we deal with aging. “If we don’t do something about the dramatic increase in older people, and find ways to keep them healthy and functional, then we have a major quality-­of-life issue and a major economic issue on our hands,” says Brian Kennedy, the director of Singapore’s Centre for Healthy Ageing and a professor of biochemistry and physiology at the National University of Singapore. “We have to go out and find ways to slow aging down.” (MIT Tech Review)

Culture & History

With a pencil and a legal pad, he wrote “everywhere,” his son said, including in taxis, sometimes handing his freshly jotted arrangements off to the music coordinator through the window. The first few seasons were definitely trippy; you could blame the era, or the pace. In those early years, “he was in the studio or on set probably 18 hours a day,” Nick Raposo said. “They would just sleep under the mixing board and wake up and start mixing the next day.” (New York Times)

The Little Book That Lost Its Author

Simon Colton, one of the creators of WHIM, confessed to a philosophical quandary: “There is no point to poetry generated by a machine,” he says, “because poetry is about the human experience.” This is an especially complicated admission since, in addition to his work on WHIM, Colton is also responsible for the creation of Full-FACE, a machine that reads articles in The Guardian newspaper and then writes poems inspired by current events. Colton’s answer to the quandary, at least for now, is to publish machine-generated commentary alongside the poem. The goal is for the machine to explain not the poem itself but the process of creation.  (Longreads)

Arriving by commuter rail from Turin, one would have no idea that one was in a former capital of industrial design. An eerie spellbound nothingness prevails. Except for a set of fading explanatory placards along the town’s main road, there are few signs pointing to the landmark buildings — a housing project designed by Marcello Nizzoli, the lead designer of the Lettera 22; the Olivetti Research Center, designed by the architect Eduardo Vittoria, where the Elea computer was conceptualized — once renowned as much for their design as for the part they played in a munificent private welfare state. Only one of the office buildings is still in use. A former factory has been converted into a gym. Many of the remaining dozen or so structures are empty, speechless monuments to an aborted utopia. (New York Times)

Sold Back Into Slavery, She Sued for Restitution — and Won

Sweet Taste of Liberty is a profound book that could not have been released at a better time. Though restitution is not the same as reparations, the former being individual and the latter being collective, there is a precedent for the formerly enslaved regaining a bit of capital for those who benefited off their free labor. No photo has been found of Henrietta Wood although there are pictures of her grandchildren and beyond. But she is real and her story serves as a pulse to all the unjust systems which sprang forth from slavery. And what could be possible, what could make those captors not forget the brutality that they have inflicted on others has been found within a Black woman’s story brought back to life. It is an account brimming with as much bittersweetness as it does hope. (Zora)


Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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