Categories
Thought Starters

Thought starters: Coronavirus, where we’re heading and music from the fringe

The world feels like a rather different place from when I last posted here as coronavirus reshapes the world we are living in. I am now on furlough as my employer looks to look at ways to chart a new course in a world where social distancing has become the norm.

I have also watched with dismay as various governments have resorted to finger pointing and disinformation rather than collaborating on addressing this global problem.

Below are some of the coronavirus and non coronavirus related content that has shed some interesting light on the world we live in since I last posted.

Much was made by British PM Boris Johnson of the country’s science led approach to coronavirus . Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Leake’s report provides a rather different point of view suggesting that the government’s intransigence cost the nation precious time in addressing the crisis.

It has been interesting exploring the different approaches countries have taken to coronavirus pandemic given that decisions have been made under a situation of considerable uncertainty. One of the outliers has been Sweden and while it’s far from clear as to whether they’ve taken the right approach, it’s interesting to read an interview with the strategy’s author, Anders Tegnell:

It’s still too early to say whether Stockholm’s policy will turn out to be a success story or a blueprint for disaster. But, when the microbes settle, following the global crisis, Sweden may be able to constitute a kind of control group: Did other countries go too far in the restrictions they have been imposing on their populations? Was the economic catastrophe spawned globally by the crisis really unavoidable? Or will the Swedish case turn out to be an example of governmental complacency that cost human lives unnecessarily?

Scott Alexander takes a critical look at the failure of politicians and journalists to address threat posed by coronavirus in a situation of uncertainty:

People were presented with a new idea: a global pandemic might arise and change everything. They waited for proof. The proof didn’t arise, at least at first. I remember hearing people say things like “there’s no reason for panic, there are currently only ten cases in the US”. This should sound like “there’s no reason to panic, the asteroid heading for Earth is still several weeks away”. The only way I can make sense of it is through a mindset where you are not allowed to entertain an idea until you have proof of it. Nobody had incontrovertible evidence that coronavirus was going to be a disaster, so until someone does, you default to the null hypothesis that it won’t be.

I am acutely aware of the health impacts of coronavirus after hearing about the death of close friends’ father and colleague. But as the days wear on, we are likely to see a growing economic and social cost, particularly in sectors where face to face contact is a core part of delivering goods or services. Torquil Campbell points out the impact that changes necessitated by coronavirus are going to have on musicians who have become increasingly dependent on live music for their income.

But then came the virus. No amount of hype, no amount of press adoration or zeitgeist-defining hipness could protect us from the chilling effects of it on our business. The customers we count on to come out and spend some money at night were told they should not do so—even that they must not. And we have no idea when or if they will ever be told that going out the way they used to is okay again.

It has been heartwarming to see how communities have responded to in supporting vulnerable members of the community in the UK with the setting up of mutual support groups. The government has provided additional funding to support third sector organisations working directly in coronavirus related areas. That being said, many third sector organisations will increasingly struggle to make ends meet as they cope with growing demands for social services, sickness based absences and declining fundraising revenues. This is on top of cuts that many providers have faced by government funding cuts over the last 10 years.

The Economist looks at how coronavirus is forcing many companies to innovate taking on changes that would be unlikely to be adopted under normal business conditions:

But the defining feature of the latest innovation revolution is breakneck speed. Companies are being forced to raise their corporate metabolism and overcome “analysis paralysis”, an affliction caused by top managers having pored over the same irrelevant case studies at business school. In a recent briefing consultants at Bain urged companies to throw out old data, test quickly and often, and assume you will be in testing mode for some time to come.

Benedict Evans’ weekly newsletter provides one of the more insightful sources for news in the technology sector . A recent newsletter included his presentation Standing on the shoulders of giants looks at likely changes including the increasing importance of regulation as tech becomes more like other business sectors.

John Luttig suggests that startups faced with declining growth rates across different tech categories are unlikely to see the furious growth rates of old. In this world, organisations are likely to place more attention on marketing and sales rather than research and development that previously dominated:

Like any mature industry, Silicon Valley must battle to maintain growth in the face of immense economic gravity. For the first time in Internet history, startup growth will require a push from the company and not a pull from the market. Unlike the organic pull that drove many of the dotcom-era successes, today’s Internet startups need to fight for growth by investing more heavily into sales, marketing, and operations.

Many years ago I studied Public Policy at a time when a lot of questions were being asked about the role of the state in New Zealand where I was studying at the time. My interest in the role of public provision continues with America’s health system often striking me as painfully wasteful with its high per capita costs and its delivery of poor overall health outcomes. Scott Alexander’s look at how the Amish operate within this framework makes for an interesting read and a valuable lens to examine the wider US health system:

The National Center For Health Statistics says that the average American spends $11,000 on health care. This suggests that the average American spends between five and ten times more on health care than the average Amish person.

Ezra Klein takes a broader view in his look at both the public and private sector indicting the former for its vetocracy and the latter for its short termism. The article is definitely based on the experiences of the US but many of the conclusions could just as easily be transferred to the UK and other societies:

Here’s my answer: The institutions through which Americans build have become biased against action rather than toward it. They’ve become, in political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s term, “vetocracies,” in which too many actors have veto rights over what gets built. That’s true in the federal government. It’s true in state and local governments. It’s even true in the private sector.

I can remember catching Jace Clayton (aka DJ Rupture) play in London in 2006 after avidly following his writings on the intersection between music, technology and non Western music. I finally got round to picking up his book Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture which provides a welcome look at various traditionally out of sight corners. On a similar tip, I enjoyed Paula Erizanu and Livia Ștefan Martin’s look at manele music in Romania for the Calvert Journal, looking again at the intersection of music and culture:

For manele’s critics then, perhaps it’s time to focus their energies towards analysing and improving the cultural, economic, and political context that created the genre’s get-rich values they so disapprove of. In the meantime, it’s time to dance and let dance — while acknowledging and paying dues to the complicated history of both manele and lautareasca.

Header image: Bridget Riley from her 2019 show at the Hayward Gallery

Categories
Thought Starters

Thought Starters: the fallacy of maximising shareholder value, the impact of climate change on your wallet and our responses to ISIS

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.

The following figures presented by DoubleLine Capital’s Jeffrey Gundlach point to the fact that the global economy isn’t out of the woods yet:

Global nominal GDP growth

Steve Denning uses Roger L. Martin’s analysis in Fixing the Game to point out how management’s focus on maximising shareholder value comes at the expense of long term value creation and ultimately society:

“In today’s paradoxical world of maximizing shareholder value, which Jack Welch himself has called “the dumbest idea in the world”, the situation is the reverse. CEOs and their top managers have massive incentives to focus most of their attentions on the expectations market, rather than the real job of running the company producing real products and services.”

Om Malik covers the release of the latest Ericsson Mobility Report, highlighting growing penetration of different technologies (smartphones, mobile internet etc) and the regions where we’re forecasted to see  particularly strong growth:

Connected devices forecast

We’re seeing technology have an increasingly significant role in the employment landscape as machine learning, robotics and a growing array of sensors expand the range of tasks we can automate. The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andrew G Haldane recently gave a speech where he explored these changes and their implications which can be found in an abbreviated form on re/code:

Average probability of automation by occupation

Chris Field and Katharine Mach profile the work of Marshall Burke, Solomon Hsiang, and Edward Miguel who have researched the economic impacts of climate change. With the Paris Climate Change Conference fast approaching, now is an important time to make your concerns known about global warming to your local government – not one to stand on the sidelines for:

“Their conclusion delivers two blockbusters. First, in contrast to past studies, they argue that 21st century warming could lead to huge global-scale macroeconomic impacts. The best estimate from Burke and colleagues is that business as usual emissions throughout the 21st century will decrease per capita GDP by 23% below what it would otherwise be, with the possibility of a much larger impact.

Secondly, they conclude that both the size and the direction of the temperature effect depend on the starting temperature. Countries with an average yearly temperature greater than 13°C (55°F) will see decreased economic growth as temperatures rise.”

Before you suggest the issue of climate change is too difficult, it’s worth reviewing research at the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University which points to the feasibility of a move to a society that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels: 

“In a few decades, the world could be powered by nothing but wind, water, and sunlight. That’s the conclusion of a new study released just before world leaders head to Paris to strike a climate deal.

“These are basically plans showing it’s technically and economically feasible to change the energy infrastructure of all of these different countries,” says Mark Z. Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, who worked with University of California colleagues to analyze energy roadmaps for 139 countries.”

Chain founder Adam Ludwin is interviewed for Andreessen Horowitz’s podcast focusing on the growing world of blockchain innovation. Among the subjects covered are the merging cultures of finance and tech, the price of bitcoin, the importance of blockchain (rather than bitcoin) and a review of  private and permissioned blockchains and uses for colored coins and sidechains:

Michael Vakulenko looks at at how the movement to self driving cars is likely to unseat traditional manufacturers’ position in the car market. Among the particular technologies and innovations he points to as catalysing change are services and apps, transportation platforms, fleet routing and navigation:

“It’s still too early in the game to say which companies will dominate the future transportation market. One thing is a safe bet: The future transportation ecosystem will look very different from the existing automotive industry. It will resemble modern technology ecosystems with their platform business models, permissionless innovation by developers, and domination of software-centric companies.”

Technology based disruption hasn’t received the same level of media attention in education as it has in other sectors with the possible exceptions MOOCs reflecting a more constrained funding pool and the comparatively complex web of different stakeholders. The NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition provides a valuable review of emerging innovations in the primary and secondary education sector, with technologies typically augmenting rather than replacing current ways of working:

Edtech Trends

The New York Times‘ experiment with Google Cardboard has gained lots of plaudits for pushing the boundary for online journalism at scale. Whilst the experiment has catalysed interest in these new formats, Will Smith stresses the need for fully featured virtual reality platforms such as Oculus Rift to differentiate themselves from Google Cardboard:

“In the meantime, if you enjoyed your first taste of VR, courtesy of Cardboard and 360 video, that’s great! Welcome to the future! But if that first taste of VR turned your stomach, please know that it doesn’t have to be this way. The problems that affected you have been solved—you just need better hardware than comes free with the Sunday paper.”

Steve Albini wrote the essay The Problem with Music in 1994 critiquing the music industry and its ability to both give musicians money and then take it back with a litany of expenses. Albini gave an update of sorts last year at the Face the Music conference where he saw musicians as now being in a better position to take control of their own destiny:

The Socio-Economic Segregation in European Capital Cities project has been looking at levels of inequality and the proximity of the rich and poor in 12 different cities across Europe. Richard Florida’s summary of the research points to a general trend of increasing income inequality (measured by Gini coefficient) and residential segregation (measured by index of dissimilarity) across Europe, although Tallinn and Oslo make for interesting outliers:

European Cities Economic Segregation and Inequality

ISIS’ attack on Paris on the 13th of November was a tragedy which has led to some important discussions about how we deal with the threat of terrorism. The Economist’s look at global deaths from terrorism puts the deaths in perspective, pointing to how much the West has in many cases been spared the worst effects of terrorism:

Global deaths from terrorism

The attacks have led to renewed calls for backdoors in secure products and encryption software. Kim Zetter provides a valuable rebuttal starting with the lack of evidence to support the view that the terrorists used encryption technology.  She then goes on to point out that there will always be homebrewed encryption alternatives, encryption doesn’t hide metadata and weakening existing products ultimately makes everyone vulnerable:

“If Snowden has taught us anything, it’s that the intel agencies are drowning in data,” EFF Attorney Nate Cardozo says. “They have this ‘collect it all mentality’ and that has led to a ridiculous amount of data in their possession. It’s not about having enough data; it’s a matter of not knowing what to do with the data they already have. That’s been true since before 9/11, and it’s even more true now.”

Adam Shatz writing for the London Review of Books reports more broadly on ISIS’ aims with the terrorist attacks and the options the West has in reducing chances of future incidents:

“Now IS is unrivalled among jihadist groups, and no one knows quite what to do that won’t make the problem worse. Anything that can be done now risks being too little, too late. It’s true that IS is no match, militarily, for the West. The attacks of 13 November were in the anarchist tradition of the ‘propaganda of the deed’, and we shouldn’t fall for it: the social order of Europe isn’t in jeopardy. But it would also be a mistake to underestimate the problem. IS has managed to insert itself, with no small amount of cunning, and with acute sensitivity to feelings of humiliation, into two of the most intractable conflicts of our time: the relationship of European societies to their internal, Muslim ‘others’ and the sectarian power struggles that have engulfed the lands of Iraq and Syria since 2003.”

One of my real concerns is that the attacks could further marginalise Muslim populations already living in Western Europe and USA and lead to the closing of borders to refugees fleeing turmoil in places like Syria and Afghanistan. By doing this, the West would essentially be handing ISIS a victory of sorts as Adam Taylor reports:

“The very same refugees entering Europe are often the very same civilians who face the indiscriminate violence and cruel injustice in lands controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (though, it should be noted, many in Syria are also threatened by the brutal actions of the Syrian government). Globally, studies have shown that Muslims tend to make up the largest proportion of terror victims, with countries such as Syria and Iraq registering the highest toll.

If Muslim refugees come to Europe and are welcomed, it deeply undercuts the Islamic State’s legitimacy. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has helpfully catalogued some of the Islamic State’s messages on the refugees pouring into Europe from the Middle East. The messages give the impression of deep discomfort and even jealousy that the Muslim population the Islamic State so covets for its self-proclaimed “caliphate” would rather live in “infidel” Western lands.”

The Economist’s analysis of health spending and life expectancy point to the fact that there’s a far from direct correlation between the two with the United States’s poor performance in particular standing out:

Health spending and life expectancy at birth

Raffi Khatchadourian has written a thought provoking profile of Nick Bostrom for the New Yorker profiling the latter’s research into whether developments in artificial intelligence and other technologies will lead to human extinction. His approach is definitely more thoughtful than your average Hollywood blockbuster.

The featured image is Phoenix by DALeast in Penang, Malaysia and published in StreetArtNews.

Categories
Thought Starters

Thought Starters: Content that has got me thinking 21

A mixed collection of materials looking at societal trends, the role of technology and specifically smartphones, and its impact and a look at Pinterest and its impact among other things.

 Wall Street Journal’s analysis of employment starkly illustrates the process of deindustrialisation in the US and the growth of the service economy and in particular, healthcare.

Work Then and Now

Mathematical analysis of the prevalence of smoking point to the importance of individualism in the spread of social epidemics.  Sweden with its collectivist society was slower to start smoking and slower to stop compared to the US.

An interview with Intel Labs Director Genevieve Bell looks at  how technology is shaping the world we live in in an interview with the New York Times.

Benedict Evans’ analysis of tablet sales goes on to suggests that tablets’ key competitor is the smartphone rather than laptops and desktops.

Device Sales An interesting companion to this analysis is Evan’s report on the transformative power of the smartphone which isn’t necessarily reflected in a simple comparison of device sales.

When you pull these strands together, smartphones don’t just increase the size of the internet by 2x or 3x, but more like 5x or 10x. It’s not just how many devices, but how different those devices are, that has the multiplier effect

Whilst we are seeing the smartphone transform many areas of today’s economy, the mobile app development sector is becoming increasingly competitive. Max Child looks at how app developers can look  look to differentiate themselves:

Charge them for something that helps them make money.
Charge them for an emotional experience.
Don’t charge them, charge someone else for helping that someone else make money.

As the world takes a more critical view of the role of the tech sector, it’s interesting to see The Atlantic comparing  Wall Street with Silicon Valley.

A new tech bubble is inflating, as anyone living in the Bay Area can attest. But no tech company is too big to fail, at least not by Wall Street standards. Why? The tech giants are exactly the opposite of heavily leveraged. One of their core strengths is how much cash they generate and save. It’s immense.

Comscore’s analysis of US consumers’ consumption of digital media point to rapid growth of mobile app use, less growth in mobile web usage and a moderate decline in desktop usage.

Digital Media

Horace Dediu’s figures point to the smartphone sector continuing to experience strong growth particularly within the other category – something we’re likely to see more of with the growing emergence of new brands selling Android handsets in developing markets. Smartphone Sales

Adobe’s Social Intelligence Report points to Pinterest leading the social field for revenue per visitor in the UK.

Social RPV in U.K.

The Atlantic’s interview with Pinterest’s co-founder Evan Sharp, provide pointers to the social network’s past and future.

Bryan Mealler’s feature article on the fracking boom in South Texas provides an engaging tale of the winners and losers when regions are faced with a resource boom.

Texas

Finding Vivian Maier provides a fascinating look at one of the pioneers in street photography.

The featured image is a piece by Nosego in Los Angeles photographed by Birdman and found on StreetArtNews.