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Thought Starters

Thought starters: impact of coronavirus, Trump’s failures and the grow of VR and blockchain

We are beginning to see countries emerge from lockdown typically as the spread of coronavirus begins to peter out. Sweden has been something of an outlier in Western Europe with a relatively approach to social distancing and its embracing of the process of herd immunity as Nils Karlson, Charlotta Stern, and Daniel B. Klein recount:

As the pain of national lockdowns grows intolerable and countries realize that managing—rather than defeating—the pandemic is the only realistic option, more and more of them will begin to open up. Smart social distancing to keep health-care systems from being overwhelmed, improved therapies for the afflicted, and better protections for at-risk groups can help reduce the human toll. But at the end of the day, increased—and ultimately, herd—immunity may be the only viable defense against the disease, so long as vulnerable groups are protected along the way. Whatever marks Sweden deserves for managing the pandemic, other nations are beginning to see that it is ahead of the curve.

As we attempt to move back to something close to normal life, many of us are beginning to look at ways of mitigating the risks we face particularly in our workplace. It looks increasingly like it’s indoor spaces where we’re most vulnerable to infection. Dr Erin Bromage reviews case studies of where we have a clearer view on where coronavirus was spread, providing some helpful advice:

Basically, as the work closures are loosened, and we start to venture out more, possibly even resuming in-office activities, you need to look at your environment and make judgments. How many people are here, how much airflow is there around me, and how long will I be in this environment. If you are in an open floorplan office, you really need to critically assess the risk (volume, people, and airflow). If you are in a job that requires face-to-face talking or even worse, yelling, you need to assess the risk.

It’s proving hard to get a clear picture on the impact of coronavirus on countries health, complicated by difficulties in gathering statistics and attributing deaths to the virus. The Economist has pulled together figures on excess mortality for different countries which provide an indication of how big a mark the virus has left on different populations.

Excess mortality since region/country’s first 50 covid deaths

It’s not hard to find reasons to criticise Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic but Edward Luce’s account provides one of the better ones:

In hindsight, Trump’s claim to global leadership leaps out. History will mark Covid-19 as the first time that ceased to be true. US airlifts have been missing in action. America cannot even supply itself.

The coronavirus pandemic has made disparities between different parts of society more apparent with knowledge workers often able to work from home. Service and manufacturing workers on the other hand are more likely to face unemployment or working in environments where working with social distancing might not be possible. Sara Selevitch’s account of life as a restaurant worker in Los Angeles makes clear some of the challenges many people are facing:

What I am getting used to instead is the arrival of a future that tech companies have been priming us for: public spaces populated mostly by delivery drivers purchasing doomsday groceries and meals for those wealthy enough to stay home.

The reality ignored by every #StayAtHome PSA is that people’s ability to social distance relies on the labor of others. It’s not so much that the work we’re doing is itself essential. It’s our working, rather, that is essential to maintaining the status quo.

Amazon is one of the organisations that has strengthened its hold on society during the pandemic acting as online department store for the masses (or at least those who can afford Amazon Prime). Unfortunately some of Amazon’s workers are doing better than others, so it’s encouraging to see some of their more privileged workers such as Tim Bray making their voices known:

Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power. If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things. We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward.

The election of Barack Obama gave many of us hope that America would become a post racial society but the election of Donald Trump has brought on a retrogressive trajectory. Here Adam Serwer reflects on what he describes as America’s racial contract:

The implied terms of the racial contract are visible everywhere for those willing to see them. A 12-year-old with a toy gun is a dangerous threat who must be met with lethal force; armed militias drawing beads on federal agents are heroes of liberty. Struggling white farmers in Iowa taking billions in federal assistance are hardworking Americans down on their luck; struggling single parents in cities using food stamps are welfare queens. Black Americans struggling in the cocaine epidemic are a “bio-underclass” created by a pathological culture; white Americans struggling with opioid addiction are a national tragedy. Poor European immigrants who flocked to an America with virtually no immigration restrictions came “the right way”; poor Central American immigrants evading a baroque and unforgiving system are gang members and terrorists.

I am a big fan of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, so it’s great to see him writing about the food industry again even if the words are not especially flattering:

The pandemic is, willy-nilly, making the case for deindustrializing and decentralizing the American food system, breaking up the meat oligopoly, ensuring that food workers have sick pay and access to health care, and pursuing policies that would sacrifice some degree of efficiency in favor of much greater resilience. Somewhat less obviously, the pandemic is making the case not only for a different food system but for a radically different diet as well.

Franklin Foer points to the fragility of the American democratic system given the threat from the Russian state and Donald Trump’s unwillingness to address it:

Vladimir Putin dreams of discrediting the American democratic system, and he will never have a more reliable ally than Donald Trump. A democracy can’t defend itself if it can’t honestly describe the attacks against it. But the president hasn’t just undermined his own country’s defenses—he has actively abetted the adversary’s efforts. If Russia wants to tarnish the political process as hopelessly rigged, it has a bombastic amplifier standing behind the seal of the presidency, a man who reflexively depicts his opponents as frauds and any system that produces an outcome he doesn’t like as fixed. If Russia wants to spread disinformation, the president continually softens an audience for it, by instructing the public to disregard authoritative journalism as the prevarications of a traitorous elite and by spouting falsehoods on Twitter.

Virtual reality has been one of those technologies that has seemed just around the corner for the last 10 years. While the consumer version of Oculus’s VR headsets have now been available for over 10 years now and there’s little sign of them making major in roads, even within the gaming community. Benedict Evans reflects on where to next:

To put this another way, it’s quite common to say that the iPhone, or PCs, or aircraft also looked primitive and useless once, but they got better, and the same will happen here. The problem with this is that the iPhone or the Wright Flier were indeed primitive and impractical, but they were breakthroughs of concept with clear paths for radical improvement. The iPhone had a bad camera, no apps and no 3G, but there was no reason why those couldn’t quickly be added. Blériot flew across the Channel just six years after the Wrights’ first powered flight. What’s the equivalent forward path here? There was an obvious roadmap for getting from a duct-taped mock-up to the Oculus Quest, and today for making the Quest even smaller and lighter, but what is the roadmap for breaking into a completely different model of consumer behaviour or consumer application? What specifically do you have to believe will change to take VR beyond games?

In a similar manner, Chris Dixon and Eddy Lazzarin explores the development of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies, positing that we’ve seen three waves of innovation (with presumably more to come):

Crypto Price-Innovation Cycle

Andy Greenberg’s profile of Marcus Hutchins provides an engaging tale of redemption in the latters transition from black to white hat hacker:

Stadtmueller began, almost as if reminiscing to himself, by reminding Hutchins that he had been a judge for more than three decades. In that time, he said, he had sentenced 2,200 people. But none were quite like Hutchins. “We see all sides of the human existence, both young, old, career criminals, those like yourself,” Stadtmueller began. “And I appreciate the fact that one might view the ignoble conduct that underlies this case as against the backdrop of what some have described as the work of a hero, a true hero. And that is, at the end of the day, what gives this case in particular its incredible uniqueness.”

Header image: Clearing VII by Antony Gormley from his 2019 Royal Academy exhibition.

Categories
Thought Starters

Thought Starters

The following is a collection of articles and thought pieces highlighting interesting trends and changes in the world you and I live in.

Authors of The Age of Cryptocurrency, Michael  Casey and Paul Vigna talk about how Bitcoin is no longer being seen as a novelty in the world’s financial system.

Leslie Berlin provides a valuable account of the history of Silicon Valley, pointing to the technical, cultural, and financial forces that have shaped its growth.

Silicon Valley
Santa Clara Valley before it became Silicon Valley, OSU Special Collections.

Amazon recently released its financial results which broke out figures for its AWS cloud computing offering for the first time. Ben Thompson profiled the growth of Amazon and the increasingly important role that AWS now plays for the tech juggernaut, fueling the company’s forays into new markets. Jan Dawson on the other hand takes a critical look at some of Amazon’s forays into foreign markets which have met with mixed success and suggests that the company should double down on those markets where it has critical mass.

Amazon Services
Amazon’s array of services with Jan Dawson arguing that the company should concentrate on depth rather than reach.

Elon Musk’s launch of Tesla Energy has raised a lot of comments about the disruption of the electricity sector. Davide Castelvecchi takes a more critical view

Senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, Michael Clemens argues the case for opening Europe’s doors to immigration, providing a marked contrast to politicians response in the European Union.

The UK election has come to a close and I can’t claim to be happy with the result. The Financial Times has some valuable data visualisations which allow readers to quickly grasp trends in voting.

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 10.55.28

Want to know where you’re likely to find racism? PLOS ONE used Google’s search data, providing a source of information that’s free of some of the biases traditionally associated with survey data on racism:

Google Racism

Ryoji Ikeda’s Supersymmetry exhibition at the Vinyl Factory’s Brewer Street Car Park space is well worth a visit for fans of digital art at a more visceral level.

The featured image is 1010 piece in Fondi, Italy for Memoire Urbane and published in StreetArtNews.

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Uncategorized

Trends to Watch: Bitcoin reducing hurdles

I was asked to have a look at some of the trends that I feel are likely to have a considerable impact on the consumer landscape. This is the third in the series, after pieces on mobile enhanced retail and quantified health.

There has been a lot of debate in the business press about the opportunity Bitcoin presents to investors. Whilst the future value of Bitcoin is a point of considerable debate, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are likely to have considerable impact on how consumers buy and transfer funds in the future.

Traditional online and foreign exchange payment systems take significant fees for the purchase of goods and conversion of currencies, with typically higher fees in the developing world.

Using Bitcoin provides the opportunity to avoid these gatekeepers (and some of their protections), lowering the fees encountered by consumers and businesses. For consumers, this has the potential to ease payments abroad, reduce prices and enable the purchase of new goods and services via micropayments.  It’s in the growth of micropayments that we are likely to see the most significant change for consumers, as businesses are able to fund services that were previously uneconomic (eg payment for access by article rather than for the whole publication for online media).

Kipochi: Getting money back to loved ones

Kenyan based Kipochi provides a mobile app enabling consumers to send funds internationally. This provides an important innovation for remittance payments given the 10% charge that Western Union and other money transfer agencies typically charge.

Kipochi

BitWall: Making it easier to support publishers

BitWall gives web publishers the opportunity to charge visitors to their online content via a small one off Bitcoin payment, subscription, via tweeting or watching an advert. Bitwall system integrates with the Coinbase digital wallet system enabling conversion between Bitcoin and US$.

BitWall

Fancy: Fancy that?

Ecommerce website and social network Fancy now provides consumers with the opportunity to pay by Bitcoin. Similarly, ecommerce operators using Shopify are now Bitcoin enabled via integration with BitPay.

Fancy Bitcoin

BitTag: How much is that?

One of the problems retailers face in introducing Bitcoin payments is the fluctuating value of the cryptocurrency. This can be more readily managed for ecommerce but provides a bit more of a challenge for bits and mortar retail. BitTag have looked to overcome this by introducing digital price tags which give real-time pricing of goods in Bitcoin.

BitTag
BitTag