The Reconn Reader: 26 January, 2020

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

The Twilight of America’s Financial Empire

Yet Washington’s arrogant belief in the inevitability of its power may end up creating the conditions for that power to crumble. Much of the United States’ economic and political influence rests on the trust of foreign states and firms in the global financial architecture that it dominates. If the country is clearly not administering that system in the interests of all nations, and instead uses it as a straightforward tool of coercion, its influence will wilt away. (Foreign Affairs)

How Western advisers helped an autocrat’s daughter amass and shield a fortune

PwC’s advice included suggesting creative ways to reduce taxes. In 2017, for example, PwC consultants created a report for a dos Santos retail group called Grupo Condis that proposed ways to take advantage of “very competitive” tax rates “potentially between 0% and 5%” by using a holding company in tax havens like Malta or Singapore. The firm also advised Ciminvest, a dos Santos company with a stake in an Angolan cement producer, on loan repayment and dividend distribution. (Quartz)

Dictators Without Borders

Why is authoritarianism globalizing? For one thing, countries are more economically interdependent than ever before. During the Cold War, East bloc countries sought to prevent their citizens from having access to American consumer goods. Today, China and the United States are strategic and ideological foes but deeply enmeshed in each other’s economies. China is both making and consuming those consumer goods. This interdependence creates leverage: Countries like China can use the size of their markets to induce foreign firms and governments to play by its rules, even when those rules run contrary to those other countries professed political values. (Slate)

Trolling Verified: Troll Patrol India’s Findings On Online Abuse

India is one of the largest and fastest growing audience markets globally for Twitter, a social media platform. Touted as a ‘safe place for free expression’, Twitter was envisioned to be a space where marginalised populations, including women, Dalits and religious minorities, would have an equal opportunity to make their voices heard. Over the years, the social media platform has evolved into an indispensable tool for political engagement, campaigning and activism, but has the vision translated into reality? Many women do not believe so. Every day, women on Twitter face a barrage of abuse: from racist and sexist attacks to rape and death threats. Online abuse has the power to belittle, demean, intimidate and eventually silence women. (Amnesty International)


Business & Economics

“As a Chinese Company, We Never Get the Benefit of the Doubt”

In an interview, Alex Zhu, the head of the Chinese video app TikTok, defends the company against accusations of spying and censorship and explains why he isn’t interested in making the platform a place for political debate. (Der Spiegel)

From inboxing to thought showers: how business bullshit took over

Vacuous management-speak is easily laughed off – but is there a real cost to talking rubbish? (The Guardian)

The truth about weekend working

Both issues have been increased by the growth of a gig economy that is trampling over historical distinctions between work and leisure time. Tim Strangleman, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, notes unions used to argue that “once you make [weekend working] normal, it would erode the enhanced pay — and this seems to be the case. There seems to be a collective generational amnesia that this was even a thing let alone an important principle.” (FT)

Can Universal Basic Income Work?

“We talk about UBI as an idea whose time has come,” Martin-West said during the radio segment. “I absolutely agree with Amy, that we saw this very slow recovery after the Recession, and we also know that some of the social safety net programs that we have in place are not being accessed by the people that need them most. We also know that [these programs] tend to control spending and not allow folks to make decisions about what works best for their family.” (Wharton)


Science & Technology

Metropolitan Police to deploy live facial recognition in London

A violation of privacy will result in autonomy being undermined, In other words, conditions are perfect for tinkering with revolutionary ideas for reactors. It doesn’t hurt that Gates himself is convinced of what he’s doing. “Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change,” he noted in an open letter a year ago. And he’s not alone with that assessment. Thirty-three years after the Chernobyl reactor disaster and eight years after the Fukushima meltdown, nuclear power is once again gaining broader acceptance. (Der Spiegel)

Near-perfect point-goal navigation from 2.5 billion frames of experience

Navigation is essential for creating AI agents and assistants that help people in the physical world, from robots that can retrieve an object from a desk upstairs, to systems that help people with visual impairments, to AI-powered assistants that present relevant information to people wearing augmented reality glasses. We hope to build on DD-PPO’s success by creating systems that accomplish point-goal navigation with only camera input — and no compass or GPS data. This will help researchers build agents that work in common settings, such as inside office buildings or laboratories, where these additional data points aren’t available. In addition to open-sourcing the DD-PPO code and trained models, we are creating a new challenge to perform point-goal navigation using only RGB-D input. (Facebook)

Survival of the Fittest Cells

Cell competition wasn’t simply about getting rid of defects; it was about survival of the fittest, with the less-fit ‘loser’ cells dying and the ‘winners’ proliferating. Importantly, competition was seen only when there was a mixture of genetically different cells, a phenomenon known as mosaicism. In this way, cell competition acts like a quality-control system, booting out undesirable cells during development. (Scientific American)

article physicists are used to popping champagne corks when they make discoveries at lilliputian scales, but now it’s neuroscientists’ turn. After 12 years and more than $40 million, an eclectic team of 100 biologists, computer scientists, and neuronal proofreaders announced on Wednesday that they have mapped the “connectome” in the central region of the poppy-seed-sized brain of a fruit fly, working out the precise meanderings of 25,000 neurons and their 20 million connections. (STAT)

Culture & History

How Keeth Smart Became the Best Fencer in the World

What drew the co-directors to Keeth’s story, Fan told me, was not just his formidable athletic success. “Keeth’s story is one of parental love,” he said. “Fencing and Keeth’s success in the sport is beside the point. He is a loving and committed parent in the model of his own parents, and that cycle of parental love was the core [of the story] that we uncovered.” (The Atlantic)

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company – Book Review

The real focus of the book, the Company’s ‘relentless rise’, traces the Company from its piratical origins in the Elizabethan period as the birthchild of early monopoly companies that had operated in Turkey and Russia. Despite its less-than-stable origins, the nascent East India Company ran the gauntlet of competitors from Portuguese merchants to the initially more successful Dutch East India Company, before confronting the growing menace of the French ‘Compagnie des Indes’. Only with the anarchy, the collapse of the Mughals and India’s descent into atomisation and civil strife could the East India Company begin its rapid ascent to South Asian hegemony. (LSE)

Hong Kong martial arts cinema: Bruce Lee’s quotes on karate – ‘These guys never fight’

“It’s not like karate, where they grunt and yip and, and where they miss, and chop the table in two with their hand. Kung fu is simplicity.” Newspaper interview, 1966. To prove his point, Lee defeats an entire karate school in his second martial arts film, 1972’s Fist of Fury.

“I’d probably break my hand and foot.” Lee in a television interview in 1971, replying to the question, Could you break five or six pieces of wood with your hand or your foot? (SCMP)

Searching for the answer to this central question—What happened to us?—I traveled from Cairo to Baghdad, from Tehran to Islamabad. I was met everywhere with a flood of emotions when I asked people about the impact the year 1979 had on their lives. I felt as though I were conducting national or regional therapy, sitting in people’s living rooms and studies: Everyone had a story about how 1979 had wrecked their life, their marriage, their education. Even those who were born after that year were affected. No one had asked them that specific question before, but there was a flash of recognition when I did, as though the disparate pieces of life events had suddenly come together and the puzzle finally made sense. (The Atlantic)

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