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Thought Starters

Thought starters: QAnon, avocado politics, the decline of Iran and pizza arbitrage

A look at interesting articles, features and opinion pieces that have caught my attention since I last posted here…

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that many governments and organisations have had to make decisions act under a cloud of uncertainty. Cathleen O’Grady takes a critical look at some of the research emerging from the social sciences compounding already present concerns about the replication crisis:

So are the social sciences ready to help us navigate the pandemic? Evidently, experts disagree, and their scuffle is part of a broader debate about how much evidence we need before we act. The coronavirus crisis forces a tough, society-wide lesson on scientific uncertainty. And with such escalated stakes, how do we balance the potential harm of acting prematurely with the harm of not acting at all?

There have been quite a few countries where more decisive action would have made a huge difference in the health outcomes from the coronavirus pandemic. Tim Harford explores the different factors that people and organisations too slow to take action when faced with a crisis:

While I realise some people are paranoid about catching Covid-19, it’s egotistical optimism that I see in myself. Although I know that millions of people in the UK will catch this disease, my gut instinct, against all logic, is that I won’t be one of them. Meyer points out that such egotistical optimism is particularly pernicious in the case of an infectious disease. A world full of people with the same instinct is a world full of disease vectors. I take precautions partly because of social pressure and partly because, intellectually, I know they are necessary. But my survival instinct just isn’t doing the job, because I simply do not feel my survival is at stake.

The rise of the QAnon community in the US points to something even more concerning where there is willful blindness to facts and information. Adrienne LaFrance’s account is concerning particularly given the movement’s proximity to Donald Trump:

Nine years later, as reports of a fearsome new virus suddenly emerged, and with Trump now president, a series of ideas began burbling in the QAnon community: that the coronavirus might not be real; that if it was, it had been created by the “deep state,” the star chamber of government officials and other elite figures who secretly run the world; that the hysteria surrounding the pandemic was part of a plot to hurt Trump’s reelection chances; and that media elites were cheering the death toll. Some of these ideas would make their way onto Fox News and into the president’s public utterances. As of late last year, according to The New York Times, Trump had retweeted accounts often focused on conspiracy theories, including those of QAnon, on at least 145 occasions.

I can remember being involved in campaigning in 1990s New Zealand and being made aware of the different shades of environmentalism. Climate change has raised the profile of environmental causes and Nils Gilman look at potential synergies between far right groups and environmental causes with interest and trepidation:

Right-wing environmentalism and climate alarmism are coming, and as they do, the political battle lines over the environment are going to look very different from the ones we have experienced during the past few decades. No longer will the primary battle be between conservative climate change deniers or skeptics, on the one hand, and liberal climate realists on the other. Instead, the primary fight will be between those who treat the reality of climate change as an imperative for creating a more inclusive and egalitarian world, and those who see it as a justification for exclusion and hoarding, retreating into ever-smaller circles of empathy. Indeed, right-wing environmentalism may be how the post-Trump anti-globalist Right repositions itself for broader appeal by reclaiming the impulses that motivated American conservationism to begin with. After all, if globalized neoliberal capitalism is what is both driving climate change and preventing any effective response, then an alliance of green and nationalist anti-globalizers (albeit motivated primarily by different things) seems all too possible.

Dexter Filkins paints a tragic story of Iranian society under the leadership of Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran has been one of the countries most heavily hit by coronavirus but this appears a symptom of wider problems:

Isolated and dysfunctional, the Islamic Republic had reached a dead end, she said: “The regime has lost all popular support, and yet it is incapable of change. The result is that the Iranian people have lost hope. We are hopeless now.”

As countries such as Iran look to block their citizens access to the unfiltered internet people and organisations look for ways to get around it. Reporters without Borders has created The Uncensored Library in Minecraft to help people access materials that are likely to be censored in their home countries.

Barton Gellman provides a first hand account of what it’s like to be a under the spotlight from different state apparatus. It’s enough to put my own complaints about IT problems and security in perspective:

Most hacking attempts are sent to thousands, or millions, of people at a time, as email attachments or links to infected websites. This one was customized for me. It was a class of malware known as a “remote access trojan,” or RAT, capable of monitoring keystrokes, capturing screenshots, recording audio and video, and exfiltrating any file from my computer. “Piss off any Russians lately?” Marquis-Boire asked. The RAT was designed to link my computer to a command-and-control server hosted by Corbina Telecom, in Moscow. If I had triggered the RAT, a hacker could have watched and interacted with my computer in real time from there. Other IP addresses the malware communicated with were in Kazakhstan. And internal evidence suggested that the coder was a native speaker of Azeri, the language of Azerbaijan and the Russian republic of Dagestan. But the moment Marquis-Boire tried to probe the RAT for more information, the command-and-control server disappeared from the internet.

I understand many startups are racing to grow their audience to a point where they can take advantage of network effects. This has led to some puzzling situations with investors and venture capitalists throwing cash at startups where there’s little in the way of barriers to entry. Ranjan Roy’s account of pizza arbitrage makes for an interesting illustration of how some of this funding is missing the mark:

My mind, as a combination trader and startup person, instantly had the though – just run this arbitrage over and over. You could massively even grow your top-line revenue while netting riskless profit, and maybe even get acquired at an inflated valuation 🙂 He told me to chill out. Maybe this is why he runs an “actual business” while I trade options while doing brand consulting and writing newsletters.

If you are looking to launch a startup, Lenny Rachitsky’s review of how various high profile startups reached their first 1000 users is reviewing:

How startups acquired their first 1000 users

Navneet Alang explores explores how whilst are diets are becoming more diverse, all too often those people introducing them aren’t raising concerns about cultural appropriation among other issues:

The question that such representations present for the food world is a difficult one: Who gets to use the global pantry or introduce “new” international ingredients to a Western audience? And behind that is an even more uncomfortable query: Can the aspiration that has become central to the culinary arts ever not be white?

I have been happily watching the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance with its celebration of his immense sporting prowess. I would also suggest what were getting is a sanitised version of the truth given that Jordan was given the opportunity to have the last word. Wesley Morris’ review in the New York Times provides a pretty even handed review but if you really want a clearer view on what shaped Jordan including racism of the Deep South, I’d suggest reading Wright Thompson’s profile.

Kendall Baker has pulled together a suggested list of the 50 greatest sports documentaries of all time. I certainly don’t object to the high placing of Hoop Dreams and OJ: Made in America where as much about society as they were about sports but do wish the list had included a Sunday in Hell which is a personal favourite.

One of my favourite directors is Werner Herzog with great work on Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, Wrath of God. You can get a further taste for his idiosyncratic personality in David Marchese’s interview in the New York Times:

I advise you to go outside on a clear night and look out into the universe. It seems utterly indifferent to what we are doing. Now we are taking a very close look at the sun with a space probe. Look at the utmost hostility of the hundreds of millions of atomic bombs going off at the same time in its interior. So my personal interpretation of nature comes from taking a quick look at the stars.

Header image: Ministry of Highway Construction taken on a cycle tour around Georgia. More photos of the building here.

Categories
Thought Starters

Thought Starters: a look at where startups are at, approaches to self driving cars, the decline of peak oil and the impact of an ageing population

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

First Round Capital have just released their State of Startups research profiling the opinion of startup founders. Among the findings are that 73% of founders believe we’re in a bubble and that they expect to see a shift in power from startups to funders:

73% of startup founders say we're in a bubble

On the subject of bubbles, Abbas Gupta looks to sort out the unicorns from the donkeys by looking at the ratio of a startup’s lifetime value of customer compared to the cost of customer acquisition.

Kickstarter has become an important source of funding for creators and makers, particularly when founders don’t have a proven track record that enables them to tap more traditional sources of financing. Ben Einstein compares the pros and cons of pre-sales (eg Kickstarter), factory financing, purchase order financing and venture debt for entrepreneurs. For consumers, it’s worth considering that 9% of Kickstarters fail to deliver rewards, so get behind interesting projects but be aware that things don’t always go to plan.

Adam Satariano’s research reveals Apple spends a considerably smaller proportion of its revenue on R&D than its technology competitors. Apple’s position is boosted by the company’s large revenues and its ability to leverage innovations from its array of suppliers and partners:

Tech R&D Spending Comparison

Airbnb has been criticised for driving up property prices and in the process, making homes increasingly unaffordable for local residents. The company has defended itself, claiming that the majority of visitors are staying in properties only occasionally available to let but Ben Popper’s analysis of Airbnb’s data from New York doesn’t quite match the company’s claims.

Adrienne LaFrance contrasts the different approaches of Google, Uber, Apple and the major auto manufacturers in moving towards self driving vehicles and points to the hazards of the halfway house:

The question of which path to take to full autonomy, a ground-up approach or a more gradual semi-autonomous one, is at the center of many debates about the technology. A more pressing question in the short-term is this: How much does a person’s perception of the computer’s job make a difference? “This intermediate area where it may not be clear—is the vehicle responsible, or am I responsible?—is a hazardous place,” Gerdes told me. “There’s room for confusion that could reduce safety instead of increasing it.”

Peak oil is a spectre that has haunted the petroleum industry in the past but new discoveries, talk of a decoupling of energy use and economic growth and concerns about climate change have seen these concerns recede. Liam Denning looks at how this changed environment is forcing the hand of OPEC and how this could potentially damage the renewable energy sector:

Peaking Out

Credit Suisse research provides further evidence of the rising labour costs for manufacturers in China which is likely to see it the made in China tag appear less. No surprise then that the country is looking to invest more in robotics and automation:

Comparing manufacturing costs in Mexico Brazil and China

The recent pictures of pollution in Beijing were alarming. Unfortunately citizens in some of India’s cities face even worse pollution levels according to figures from the World Health Organisation reported in the Guardian:

Worlds most polluted cities

The recent terrorist attack in Paris provided a boost to Front National during France’s recent regional elections. It’s important to understand the party’s success is not a one off blip, with Julia Amalia Heyer charting Marine Le Pen’s move to reform the party and broaden support among the wider French public. Worth reading for anyone interested in the rise of nationalism and xenophobia in European politics.

Greg Ip profiles the ageing population of many western societies and the challenges and opportunities this poses for their economies. The Wall Street Journal article is well supported with graphs and interactive infographics charting the changes and forecasts for the future:

Social Security Enrollment

For something rather different, Priceonomics‘ profile of Richard Prince makes for an interesting read charting how his photographs of photographs became some of the most coveted prizes of the contemporary art world.

If you find yourself at a loose end in London between now and the end of February, it’s worth checking out the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House. It kind of feel like a walk through of an issue of Wired, but it’s great to see data science get its place in the spotlight with the many benefits and challenges it poses for today’s society.

The feature mural is Eva & Ave by Hazulfrom Loures, Portugal and published in StreetArtNews.