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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.

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Thought Starters

Thought Starters: post carbon futures, social class and Brazil

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at venture capital, Uber’s valuation, mobile commerce, innovations in the telecom and the energy sector, social class and Brazil among other things.

Benedict Evans has written a valuable overview of the venture capital sector, pointing to the importance of winning big rather than winning often, with failure a necessary part of the equation for investors if they really want to get ahead:

There are no 10x deals

Uber has been one of the darlings of the startup sector with its position further strengthened by the sale of its Chinese subsidiary which was proving a drain on its finances. Steve LeVine has looked to pour some cold water on Uber’s current valuation suggesting that the brand is not necessarily the sure thing that some investors would have you believe:

With Uber, you have a singular brand with a credible story. The question is whether that brand and that credibility, plus the other assets on Uber’s balance sheet, add up to $62.5 billion. Here is a business under siege by rivals big and Lilliputian, in the midst of a cannibalistic pricing race to the bottom, bleeding cash and losing money while battling well-heeled, technologically savvy incumbents displaying every intention of owning the space themselves.

Ofcom released its annual Communications Market report, providing a whole host of benchmark statistics for the UK across television, online video, radio, telecoms and the internet. Well worth bookmarking:

Household take-up of digital communications/ AV devices: 2006-2016

Mobile commerce is definitely on the rise as we spend more and more time glued to our smartphone screens. What’s interesting is that for all the talk of the opportunities of mobile apps, browser based purchasing dominates with a lead that’s growing according to Andy Favell:

Access Method for Mobile Shoppers

Federic Filloux looks at how the traditional media players have been sidelined by the news aggregators (primarily Facebook and Google) and newer media outlets more attuned to the rapid fire news cycles of the current age:

For the news industry, this huge economic gap carries two likely consequences: internet giants and digital native news outlets will have tremendous financial firepower to do whatever it takes in terms of marketing or their ability to go further into the general information segment (cf. Snapchat); and the network effect will apply even further when advertising dollars keep drying up for what will be increasingly seen as niche media.

More broadly, except for the old, educated and affluent segment of the population, the vast majority will be informed by a rapid-fire of superficial and shallow contents spat by the social firehose. Expect more Brexit hurricanes and Trump floods in the future.

Self driving cars are reshape our relationship with the automobile but it’s not just the driver who will be impacted by these changes as Robin Chase explores:

We’re at a fork on that roadmap. One direction leads to a productive new century where cities are more sustainable, livable, equitable, and just.

But if we take the wrong turn, we’re at a dead end. Cities are already complex and chaotic places in which to live and work. If we allow the introduction of automated vehicles to be guided by existing regulations we’ll end up with more congestion, millions of unemployed drivers, and a huge deficit in how we fund our transportation infrastructure. We will also miss an opportunity to fix transportation’s hereto intractable reliance on liquid fossil fuels (and their associated pollution).

There’s no disputing the fact that mobile is reshaping the world we live in with data via hardwired, mobile and wifi networks fueling the growth in an ever expanding range of devices (smartphones, sports trackers etc) and services (mobile messaging Shazam etc). Our current infrastructure isn’t really built for these growing demandsJeff Hecht looks at what providers are doing to future proof our telecoms infrastructure:

Bottleneck Engineering

The energy sector is facing growing calls to switch away from fossil fuel based energy given the growing threat from climate change. Renewable energy has traditionally been handicapped by intermittent supply and the costs of energy storage whilst nuclear is costly and has a rather mixed safety record. Tim Harford points to the potentially valuable role of price signals in getting the energy market to travel in the right direction:

Overall, there is little prospect of running out of fossil fuels, and it seems unlikely that alternative energy sources will outcompete them. And yet we must make the shift, or risk catastrophic climate change. Our reserves of fossil fuels may be no constraint but the atmosphere’s capacity to safely absorb carbon dioxide is.

There is some space for optimism. Renewable energy sources are no longer impossibly costly. Nor is nuclear power, even though the costs have moved in the wrong direction. We cannot wait for the market to make the switch unaided — but the gap is no longer so wide that sensible policy cannot bridge it. The centrepiece of such a policy would be to raise the price of carbon dioxide emissions, using internationally co-ordinated taxes or their equivalent. Such a tax would make renewable energy sources more attractive — as well as encouraging energy efficient technologies and behaviour. Market forces can do the rest. Low carbon energy is not free — but it is worth paying for.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard points to innovations in energy storage as giving more than a helping hand,  changing what is economically viable and potentially making Hinkley Point look like something of a white elephant:

This transforms the calculus of energy policy. The question for the British government as it designs a strategy fit for the 21st Century – and wrestles with an exorbitant commitment to Hinkley Point – is no longer whether this form of back-up power will ever be commercially viable, but whether the inflection point arrives in the early-2020s or in the late 2020s.

Simon Hattenstone  has taken a critical at meritocracy in the UK in light of Theresa May’s recent cabinet appointments which are less dominated by Etonians than her predecessor David Cameron. This raises the question will we see real change or more of the same?

Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust, talks of an academic arms race. “Every time opportunities widen for those from less privileged backgrounds, the middle classes find some way of defining merit to their advantage again. Never underestimate the skills and the tenacity of the middle classes to reinforce their privileged position in society. So there was a university expansion, but if you look at the more prestigious universities, there’s still a stark gap in terms of those from more advantaged backgrounds versus those from disadvantaged backgrounds. And increasingly you’re seeing post-graduate degrees.”

The rise of Donald Trump has prompted much soul searching among political commentators in the US pointing to it as a symptom of the growing social inequality. Research from Gallup provides a more nuanced analysis as Max Ehrenfreund and Jeff Guo report:

According to this new analysis, those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.

Yet while Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off themselves, they come from places where their neighbors endure other forms of hardship. In their communities, white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.

Alec MacGillis looks more broadly at the growth of a white underclass in the US which has  provided a fertile ground for Trump’s more xenophobic view of the world:

So why are white Americans in downwardly mobile areas feeling a despair that appears to be driving stark increases in substance abuse and suicide? In my own reporting in Vance’s home ground of southwestern Ohio and ancestral territory of eastern Kentucky, I have encountered racial anxiety and antagonism, for sure. But far more striking is the general aura of decline that hangs over towns in which medical-supply stores and pawn shops dominate decrepit main streets, and Victorians stand crumbling, unoccupied. Talk with those still sticking it out, the body-shop worker and the dollar-store clerk and the unemployed miner, and the fatalism is clear: Things were much better in an earlier time, and no future awaits in places that have been left behind by polished people in gleaming cities. The most painful comparison is not with supposedly ascendant minorities—it’s with the fortunes of one’s own parents or, by now, grandparents. The demoralizing effect of decay enveloping the place you live cannot be underestimated. And the bitterness—the “primal scorn”—that Donald Trump has tapped into among white Americans in struggling areas is aimed not just at those of foreign extraction. It is directed toward fellow countrymen who have become foreigners of a different sort, looking down on the natives, if they bother to look at all.

Reflecting the current race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, The Economist suggests that politics will increasingly be about open versus closed models rather than the traditional battles between left and right:

Left, right, left, right

The Rio Olympics has put Brazil in the spotlight during a tumultuous period in its political history. Franklin Foer has a valuable piece that provides a valuable background to recent events:

But the public’s understandable despair isn’t wholly shared by the experts I spoke with. Stepping back, they saw unlikely causes for hope. Impeachment revealed the worst about Brazilian democracy—and the worst wasn’t so terrible. There’s no talk of returning to dictatorship, no real fear of a Hugo Chávez–like figure clouding the sky. Impeachment was a poor showing of democracy, but it was still democracy. Even with all the budgetary turmoil, Bolsa Família remains firmly ensconced. Austerity will whack the poor, yet Lula’s evolution of Brazilian social democracy won’t reverse course. Most important, the Petrobras scandal is so spectacular that its grasp on the popular imagination doesn’t seem to be slipping. Indeed, Temer’s impeachment gambit has yet to slow the Moro investigation. Brazil has a once-in-a-generation chance to untether its politics from its debilitating state of codependence with the big firms. Hosting the Olympics was never going to bring Brazil the national greatness Lula advertised. Freeing its democracy and economy from the plague of corruption could.

Saudi Arabia feels for many of us like a different world given the way that religion shapes everyone’s lives. Studio D’s research into the lives of young Saudi’s provides a valuable window of how people adjust and if that whets your appetite, it’s also worth reading Jessi Hempel’s coverage of the research process:
For Saudi female youth the smartphone is the great liberator
The featured image is a Gue mural photographed by Angelo Jaroszuk Bogasz at the Altrove Street Art Festival in Catanzaro, Italy and published in StreetArtNews.