Dissent in Russia, non-fungible tokens, the Gulf Stream and Slate Star Codex

Find some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last fews weeks below reflecting current events and wider trends and changes:

I’ve found reports of Vladimir Putin’s arrest of Alexei Navalny fascinating. On the one hand, he provides a selfless and invaluable check on a longstanding totalitarian regime. On the other hand he’s certainly not the liberal that many Westerners would like to see leading the Russia opposition (although criticisms are no doubt fuelled by Putin’s allies). Vox has created a valuable primer on why Navalny is such a thorn in Putin’s side:

What the actions of Putin’s critics has made clear is that Russia is a an environment that has few of the privacy protections that we have come to expect in Western society. This can prove something of a gold mine for journalists and opposition researchers as Ben Smith reports:

Probiv is only one of the factors that have made Russia, of all places, the most exciting place in the world for investigative journalism. There is a new wave of outlets, many using more conventional sourcing to pierce the veil of President Vladimir V. Putin’s power. And there is a growing online audience for their work in a country where the state controls, directly or indirectly, all of the major television networks.

I have been fascinated by the growth of blockchain technologies. At times it feels like it’s a solution searching for a problem. The growth of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) seems like an interesting use case, providing a new channel for creators to be rewarded for digital creations. That being said, it does raise some interesting questions as Marc Hogan reporting for Pitchfork:

The idea that a digital certificate of authenticity is valuable, but the infinitely replicable artwork itself is not, may raise interesting questions about what “art” and “authenticity” truly mean, but it’s a conversation for philistines, privileging financial worth above all else. There’s a reason that great art is often called “priceless.”

Growing computational power and a growing array of data has provided us with increasingly accurate weather and climate forecasts. Whilst there is definitely consensus on rising global temperatures, there’s far less consensus on exactly how this plays out. Moises Velasquez-Manoff and Jeremy White take the opportunity to look specifically at the impact of global warming on the Gulf Stream. Changes to this ocean current could see temperatues falling for those of us living around the North Atlantic. As an added bonus, the data visualisations accompanying the article are a feast for the eyes:

It’s one of the mightiest rivers you will never see, carrying some 30 times more water than all the world’s freshwater rivers combined. In the North Atlantic, one arm of the Gulf Stream breaks toward Iceland, transporting vast amounts of warmth far northward, by one estimate supplying Scandinavia with heat equivalent to 78,000 times its current energy use. Without this current — a heat pump on a planetary scale — scientists believe that great swathes of the world might look quite different.

Slate Star Codex provided a hub of sorts for the self described rationalist community that has a particularly strong following in Silicon Valley. The site’s creator recently got into a dispute with the New York Times over the latter’s plan to publish his full name in part of now published profile piece. Elizabeth Spier’s analysis of the dispute provides some valuable reflections on the community around Slate Star Codex and Silicon Valley:

I hope that someone does a longer more comprehensive story on the Rationalist community and the site—selfishly, because I love this sort of thing. But I’d also like to see people who self-identify as Rationalists be a little more self-aware about when they are letting their emotions trample their logic—when they’re tempted to argue that questions of justice are ancillary to question of progress, and when they, for example, get angry and project all manner of emotion onto reporters whose reporting they don’t like. 

But mostly, I want them to be more rigorous: to acknowledge that ideas are meaningless in a vacuum that does not include real world material conditions, and that people pursuing innovation are not the only people who matter, or even the people who matter most. And another structural reality is that organizations—companies, say, startups—are terrible at policing themselves. What journalism seeks to do is illuminate the areas where destructive means are being utilized to achieve ends that might actually be virtuous or worthy in some other way. This is useful, in the public interest, and good for the tech industry in the long term. It mitigates things that are destructive to the industry, and destructive to society. 

The departure of Donald Trump from the Oval Office means that TikTok will no longer be forced to sell off its US operation (at least for the foreseeable future). Eugene Wei provides a fascinating analysis of some of the key features and dynamics that make the platform such a powerful player in social media:

TikTok is a form of assisted evolution in which humans and machine learning algorithms accelerate memetic evolution. The FYP algorithm is TikTok’s version of selection pressure, but it’s aided by the feedback of test audiences for new TikToks.

Samanth Subramanian’s account of the takeover of the Wentworth Golf Club by wealthy Chinese billionaire Yan Bin is titled The rich vs the very, very rich. It makes for a fascinating tale of how even the Surrey’s well to do are not spared the excesses of global capital – although it is worth adding that this is impacting their ability to play a round of golf rather than feed their families:

In escalating the fees, he was looking for a new kind of member, which left the old kind of member out in the cold. Moss described it to me as a “culture clash. He made no attempt to understand the club. He thought he could do what he wanted, basically.” He had the right to think this, Moss said: it was his club.

A podcast that’s been getting a lot of love from me lately is Willa Paskin’s Decoder Ring. The show explores different cultural phenomenon with a recent favourite being a look at the rise of metrosexual and the Karen.

Cover photo is Palm Temple by Luke Jerram which was installed in Lewis Cubitt Square last year. You can find more photos here.

Thought Starters: venture capital’s global hubs, blockchains and Facebook’s ups and downs and Amazon as more than just a retailer (and we’re not talking about AWS)

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through the articles, research and opinion pieces I’ve read, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. This edition looks at the global hubs for venture capital, blockchains ups and downs, Facebook’s success and challenges and Amazon’s move from retailer to service provider among other trends and insights.

A profile of Martin Prosperity Institute points to the dominance the US has in venture capital with London ranking 7th among metropolitan centres:

Venture capital investment by metropolitan area

There’s been a lot of talk of the potential for blockchain technologies to upend the incumbents in the financial services sector, but the major banks are beginning to make themselves known. Tanaya Macheel profiles different blockchain based initiatives by some of the major American banks which includes attempts to patent innovations in a sector previously associated closely with open source technology:

Blocking off the Blockchain

Keeping on the blockchain theme, Timothy B. Lee profiles the growing pains that Bitcoin is experiencing as growing demand challenges the infrastructure of the technology as it currently stands:

The Bitcoin community is currently locked in a debate about whether to follow that same trajectory: whether to grow quickly at the cost of possibly becoming more centralized. The difference is that the way the Bitcoin network works means that early adopters have an effective veto over further growth. If a critical mass of Bitcoin stakeholders refuse to accept larger blocks, the Bitcoin network could be stuck with its current, limited capacity for years to come.

WhatsApp has done a great job of expanding its reach which has seen it recently pass the 1 billion user maker despite having only 57 engineers. What the mobile messaging platform has been less successful in doing is monetising its user base compared to Line and WeChat as Terence Lee reports although there are indications this is likely to change:

WhatsApp Statistics

Amazon is one organisation that has done a great job of monetising its platform, moving from a bare bones online retailer to a dominant player in retail providing a range of ecommerce related services to third parties (see illustration below). This ties in nicely with a recent Jan Dawson blog post where he stresses the need for providers to absorb as many activities as possible (eg Facebook) or alternatively be on as many domains as possible (eg Uber):

Amazon ecommerce value chain

An interesting recent development in Amazon’s strategy is its experiment with the opening of a physical store in Seattle with reports that they plan on rolling out 300 to 400 stores across the US in the future.

Tal Shachar with Liam Boluk point to the growing glut of content that consumers face across a range of media and with this comes the growing issue of discovery and opportunities for content curation. Sentiments further echoed in a recent post by Benedict Evans:

https://twitter.com/BenedictEvans/status/677977465373896704

WeAreSocial have recently published the Digital in 2016 report, providing a range of digital benchmark statistics including internet, mobile internet, social media and mobile app usage along with a range of other indicators. Well worth bookmarking for future use:

It’s financial results season in the US with recent announcements from Apple, Alphabet and Facebook. One of the interesting points to emerge from Facebook’s results is how well the company has transitioned to a mobile first company since 2010 as Alice Truong reports:

Facebook's mobile users as percentage of all active users

Where Facebook has been less successful is in the launch of its Free Basics offering in India. The service looks to offer free access to limited selection of mobile optimised content to mobile users but has come into fierce opposition from net neutrality campaigners in India according to Lauren Smiley’s report:

Free Basics only serves a tiny Facebook-endorsed portion of the Internet to users for free — a “walled garden” as opponents call it — while users must pay to access anything else on the web. As Backchannel has been chronicling for some time, they see it as a violation of the principle of net neutrality, that all things on the internet should be treated the same to preserve competition: no faster data connection for deep-pocketed companies, no charging consumers for some sites but not others, no cordoning off slices of the internet by private companies.

Sometimes the internet doesn’t prove quite as virtual as you’d imagine. Dan Wang profiles the physical delivery of data to servers around the world by content delivery networks (CDNs) as a means of speeding up the delivery of content to internet users in a curious mix of the physical and the virtual:

So instead of using the Internet to transfer big pieces of data, companies have turned to the global freight network. High-traffic websites copy data onto hard drives (which are no bigger than what you’d use to back up your laptop), pack them into cardboard boxes, and then fly them around the world. They can be in a box in the belly of a passenger plane, right beside cartons full of iPhones.

Business Insider profiles the digital habits of American teens. Whilst the sample size of 60 is a far from representative sample, it does provide some interesting insights into the habits of younger consumers:

Most Important Social Networks Among Teens

Alexander J. Motyl warns of a Russian collapse, fueled by an economy hamstrung by its dependence on a declining petroleum market and a political system resistant to change and reform:

The problem for Putin—and for Russia—is that the political–economic system is resistant to change. Such a dysfunctional economy is sustainable only if it is controlled by a self-serving bureaucratic caste that places its own interests above those of the country. In turn, a deeply corrupt authoritarian system needs to have a dictator at its core, one who coordinates and balances elite interests and appetites. Putin’s innovation is to have transformed himself into a cult-like figure whose legitimacy depends on his seemingly boundless youth and vigor. Such leaders, though, eventually become victims of their own personality cult and, like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Mussolini, do not leave office voluntarily. Russia is thus trapped between the Scylla of systemic decay and the Charybdis of systemic stasis. Under such conditions, Putin will draw increasingly on Russian chauvinism, imperialism, and ethnocentrism for legitimacy.

Ben Judah recently published This is London: Life and Death in the World Citytaking the approach of a foreign correspondent to reporting on the experience of immigrants in his home city.  His interview in London School of Economics’ lecture series is well worth a listen for anyone interested in the experience and impact of London’s many immigrant communities:

The featured image is a CT mural from Torino published in ekosystem.

Thought Starters: children’s media use, app streaming, Dribbbilisation and privacy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Ofcom released Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report this month which provides a detailed look at the media consumption and device usage of children and teenagers in the UK. Among the interesting statistics are changes in the social media usage and inevitably high penetration of smartphones:

Main social media site used by children

Consumers movement from a browser to an increasingly app based interactive experience poses a significant threat to Google’s business model where the majority of income continues to come from search.  Among the ways that Google is looking to address this threat is the deeper indexing of content from apps and the launching of app streaming smoothing the transition from search to app usage.  You can see an example of it in action below with a search for a hotel in Chicago leading to the Hotel Tonight Android app below:

Google App Streaming

A further indication of the growing importance of mobile can be seen in the growing share mobile is taking of ecommerce revenues in the US according to figures from comScore:

Mobile commerce as share of total ecommerce revenues

An interesting companion piece to comScore’s forecast are figures from the Wall Street Journal which point to a decline in retail space per capita in the US which is no doubt fueled by growing ecommerce sales:

Retail space decline

WeChat provides an interesting case study in how we might see the mobile ecosystem developing in the West with mobile messaging becoming a hub for an increasingly diverse range of services. Edith Yeung profiles some of the different services currently offered in China – we’re beginning to see this with Facebook Messenger’s expansion of functionality and there’ll no doubt be plenty more to come in the near future.

Paul Adams criticises many designers for paying too much attention to aesthetics and not enough attention to purpose in what he describes as the Dribbbilisation of Design (referencing design showcase site Dribbble).  Adams argues that designers need to give greater consideration to outcomes, structure and interaction, particularly as we move to an environment where interactive design permeates everything:
The Dribbblisation of Design

Tony Aube points to the move to an increasingly messaging based world driven by artificial intelligence as making the traditional model of visual user interfaces irrelevant:

“What I do believe, however, is that these new technologies are going to fundamentally change how we approach design. This is necessary to understand for those planning to have a career in tech. In a future where computers can see, talk, listen and reply to you, what good are your awesome pixel-perfect Sketch skills going to be?

Let this be fair warning against complacency. As UI designers, we have a tendency to presume a UI is the solution to every new design problem. If anything, the AI revolution will force us to reset our presumption on what it means to design for interaction. It will push us to leave our comfort zone and look at the bigger picture, bringing our focus on the design of the experience rather than the actual screen. And that is an exciting future for designers.”

Benedict Evans reviews the competition for control of the television which he characterises as a ultimately a sideshow to the broader battles for the PC and more recently the smartphone and tablet:

“Games consoles’ closed ecosystem delivered huge innovation in games, but not in much else. The web’s open, permissionless innovation beat the closed, top-down visions of interactive TV and the information superhighway. The more abstracted, simplified and closed UX model of smartphones and especially iOS helps to take them to a much broader audience than the PC could reach, and the relative safety of installing an app due to that ‘closed’ aspect enables billions of installs and a new route to market for video. It’s not that open or closed win, but that you need the right kind of open in the right place.”

GroupM has released its forecast for the UK media sector, with a continuation in the trend of decline in print advertising and robust growth from television and interactive advertising:

Media Spend Forecast

The Flexport blog looks at the overinvestment in freight shipping capacity where the impact has been compounded by a decline in Chinese exports leading to some unintended consequences:

“It costs $300 to move a 40-foot container from Rotterdam to Shanghai, which is barely enough to cover the cost of fuel, handling, and Suez Canal fees. Here’s some more context. Let’s say that you want to travel for a year; it’s cheaper to put your personal belongings in a shipping container as it sails around the world than to keep it at a local mini-storage facility.”

Germany has long been a manufacturing powerhouse (see below). What The Economist asks is whether the country can adapt to an environment where a greater share of the value added comes from outside the traditional domains of designing and assembling goods:

Manufacturing as percentage of GDP

Turkey’s recent shooting down of a Russian air force plane has raised serious concerns about a further escalation of the conflict in Syria. Liam Denning argues the conflict reflects the increasingly embattled position Russia faces as oil prices decline (I wouldn’t paint Turkey’s role as necessarily benevolent given its support for anti Kurdish forces in Syria):

“Two things flow from this. First, Syria may represent just one front in a many sided struggle by resource-dependent countries such as Russia to maintain their position in oil and gas markets that suddenly look more like actual competitive markets than they did just a few years ago as new supply has entered the scene. That, rather than a Turkish border dispute, is the central geopolitical drama affecting energy.”

We’re seeing privacy at the centre of debates around online advertising and state surveillance but Greg Ferenstein explains that the concept of privacy is a relatively new one. He explores the emergence of privacy and looks at how we’re likely to see it further evolve in years to come:

The History of Privacy

The Economist has produced a valuable interactive infographic (it’s worth visiting The Economist for the interactive version) allowing viewers to examine which countries are doing a better job of empowering women in the workplace. Britain seemingly doesn’t do well in any of the measures:

The glass-ceiling index

The US is often characterised as deeply religious which has an inevitable impact on national and ultimately international politics. Given this, it’s interesting to see Pew Research Center’s latest recent research into religion and faith pointing to the country becoming more secular:

How the U.S. public became less religious

The featured image is Pistache, Bleu Gris et Noir by eko.