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.

The realities of Brexit, the rise of vaccine nationalism and who is counter cultural

Now that Donald Trump has had the keys for social media and the White House taken off him, it feels like we can now get back to the more serious issues of Brext and Covid-19 (with a side serving of GameStop). Find below some of the stories that have caught my eye over recent weeks.

Brexit arrived and warnings which were being described as “Project Fear” are now proving all too true as George Parker, Peter Foster, Sam Fleming and Jim Brunsden lay out in this report from the Financial Times:

The bill for Johnson’s relentless focus on sovereignty is now due. The government’s deal does allow for the continuation of tariff-free trade for goods that qualify as British- or EU-made. However, Britain’s exit from the customs union and single market on January 1 created a thicket of customs declarations, health checks and other barriers to trade. Services, which make up 80 per cent of the British economy including its crown jewel — the City of London — barely get a look-in.

Providing a more first hand account of Brexit is Philip Hammond’s interview with UK in a Changing Europe. The interview provides a fascinating account of UK’s relationship with Europe and what we’ve lost by going our own way:

As Foreign Secretary, I discovered that the European Union was a very useful platform and a multiplier of British influence because there were only 2½ countries that were credible foreign policy players in Europe: the UK, France, and the Germans in respect of certain areas of activity and certain geographies. Then smaller players, like the Dutch, Swedes and Danes who were absolutely present but small scale. The UK was able to exert significant influence through that medium, but it was the creation of the Single Market – frankly, a British, or we like to think, a British invention – that leveraged the value of Europe for the UK.

I have generally seen the European Union as acting in good faith in its negotiations with the UK on Brexit. Recent friction over the supply of Covid-19 vaccines signals something of what I’m hoping is a temporary departure from this as Daniel Boffey and Dan Sabbagh report for The Guardian.

“We were worried about vaccine nationalism – but the person we feared was Trump, that he would be able to pressurise a US company, and perhaps buy up the drug stocks,” said a former adviser at the Department of Health. “We never expected there would be a row with the EU.”

The roll out of Covid-19 vaccinations has given many Britons something to cheer about and the country’s tracking of different variants is admirable. That being said, there’s been much to criticise in Britain’s handling of the pandemic with politicians often making decisions far too late. The Lowy Institute provides visitors with chance to compare the performance of different regions, populations political systems and countries. Britain doesn’t come out particularly well:

Anthony Fauci has proven one of the stars of the Covid-19 pandemic providing words or reason when leadership from Donald Trump and the Republican Party was sorely lacking. Sam Adler-Bell provides a more critical take suggesting that if Fauci had taken a tougher stance, America could well have seen a less tragic outcome:

Anthony Fauci is no doubt a dedicated public servant, respected by his colleagues, beloved by many Americans. But the puzzle remains: why has the man most closely associated with the public health response to the pandemic entirely avoided accountability for its failure?

Providing a more personal perspective is the account of a NHS consultant anaesthetist working in intensive care who makes clear the pain felt by both the patients and the carers:

Three hours later, we are asked to intubate this patient. She bursts into tears, saying: “I’ve got children at home. I can’t go on a ventilator. I’m not ready. I can’t die.” She is 35 years old. I kneel down and hold her hand. I explain again that we are here to help her with her breathing. As she FaceTimes her children, we urgently get our equipment and drugs ready. Her young children are crying. I must look really scary to them. I can see them but can’t communicate with them at all, even as their mum is becoming increasingly hypoxic and agitated. “I love you, I love you, I love you… ” she says, until she finally presses “end” on the screen with her shaking fingers.

Britain will be hosting COP Climate Change Conference in Glasgow later in the year so it’s interesting to look where UK stands in terms of moves to a low carbon future. MIT’s Green Future Index points to Britain doing alright in global comparison but not so well against its Western European neighbours:

In a world of encroaching social media and influencers, what does it mean to be counter cultural? Caroline Busta takes a closer look for Document:

To be truly countercultural today, in a time of tech hegemony, one has to, above all, betray the platform, which may come in the form of betraying or divesting from your public online self.

Whilst Harvey Weinstein may represent the most predatory form of sexual harassment, there’s plenty of other cases of sexism in the workplace. Jennifer Barnett provides a demoralising account of life at The Atlantic under the leadership of James Bennet:

Adapt. Be one of the guys. It was a boy’s club after all, and it was celebrated as such. Despite the fact that my boss openly acknowledged and resented the reputation of being a boy’s club — he frequently pointed out the number of women working there (yet at the time, I was one of the few at the top of the masthead and he still shut me out of meetings) this was the culture that was actively fostered. The publisher at the time was quoted in an outrageous article extolling the manliness of magazines.

The maze like world of QAnon, where we’re at on climate change and views on British class identity

It has been an interesting couple of weeks with the fallout that accompanied the departure of Donald Trump and on a more personal note, my return to work coming back from furlough. Find below some of the stories that caught my eye, with lively coverage of QAnon, some guarded optimism on climate change and insights on how British see their own social class among other stories.

The debacle that was the storming of the U.S. Senate has left many of us thinking how could this happen. Kevin Roose interviews “QAnon meme queen” Valerie Gilbert, giving a more personal take on how people can fall down this particular rabbit hole:

What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution.

David Gilbert on the other hand looks at how we can help family and friends step outside the maze of QAnon:

It’s not a one-time interaction process; it has to be incremental over time,” Hasan said. “That’s why family members and friends are the best agents to effect change over time, because they can also say, ‘Hey, I grew up with you, we used to play basketball together. Do you remember?’ That brings up warm feelings and your real self, not your cult self.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have begun to engage more actively with content moderation on their platforms – something which has came to the fore with the storming of the United States Senate recently. Alex Kantrowitz looks at how newer platforms to content moderation such as Substack, Spotify and Clubhouse are engaging with the subject:  

Though the big social networks have been the main focus in the debate over how — and whether — online platforms should moderate user content, the fight is migrating toward smaller platforms devoid of rollicking social feeds. They include email providers like Substack, podcast platforms like Spotify (hello Joe Rogan), and nascent startups like Clubhouse.

The departure of Donald Trump and America’s rejoining of the Paris climate agreement has provides us with some more hope on the subject of climate change. David Wallace-Wells argues we have turned a corner, although we’re still in for bumpy ride:

All year, a planet transformed by the burning of carbon discharged what would have once been called portents of apocalypse. The people of that planet, as a whole, didn’t take much notice — distracted by the pandemic and trained, both by the accumulating toll of recent disasters and the ever-rising volume of climate alarm, to see what might once have looked like brutal ruptures in lived reality instead as logical developments in a known pattern. Our time has been so stuffed with disasters that it was hard to see the arrival of perhaps the unlikeliest prophecy of all: that the plague year may have marked, for climate change, a turning point, and for the better.

The growth of single person households and the relative decline of the traditional nuclear family norm is encouraging suburbs to rethink how they can attract and retain residents. June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones talk about the phenomenon of “suburban retrofitting” in the US:

The suburbs largely sold themselves on the value of the terrific private realm that they present. The suburbs emphasize privacy. As these demographics are changing, there’s more and more people recognizing, “I’m lonely. I would like a little bit more of a public realm.”

Have you got an interesting product idea that you would like to turn into a viable business? Digits to Dollars provide a look at what’s involved in turning an idea into a viable business and it makes you realise why many people choose to stick to purely startups that are all code:

That being said, the realities of hardware can be daunting. Take the $3 million the company needs to get a product out the door, a similarly sized team could build a software application that can potentially grow much faster and they would still have a million dollars to do customer acquisition. Compounding this, the software would come with a recurring revenue stream. The trouble with hardware is that for the company to grow, they have to come out with the Smart Horn 2 and the Smart Horn 3, and go through all of the above again, and again.

Hardware has immense financial leverage, but the upfront costs and more crucially the time required are daunting.

Having spent much of my formative years growing up in New Zealand, I find it fascinating when academics provide a more critical look at that strange species known as the English. Sam Friedman, Dave O’Brien and Ian McDonald’s recent work on class identity definitely fits the bill:

Why do people from privileged class backgrounds often misidentify their origins as working class? We address this question by drawing on 175 interviews with those working in professional and managerial occupations, 36 of whom are from middle-class backgrounds but identify as working class or long-range upwardly mobile. Our findings indicate that this misidentification is rooted in a self-understanding built on particular ‘origin stories’ which act to downplay interviewees’ own, fairly privileged, upbringings and instead forge affinities to working-class extended family histories. Yet while this ‘intergenerational self’ partially reflects the lived experience of multigenerational upward mobility, it also acts – we argue – as a means of deflecting and obscuring class privilege. By positioning themselves as ascending from humble origins, we show how these interviewees are able to tell an upward story of career success ‘against the odds’ that simultaneously casts their progression as unusually meritocratically legitimate while erasing the structural privileges that have shaped key moments in their trajectory.

A friend who is really into film introduced me to Letterboxd as a way of tracking wanted and watched films. I was more than happy to move part of my digital life out of the clutches of Amazon (via IMDB) and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s a New Zealand startup that’s nourishing a new breed of film critic as Calum Marsh reports:

Although May said she is “first and foremost a fan of film,” and The unedited, anything-goes spirit of Letterboxd can be off-putting: D’Angelo confessed he finds it “maddening” when writers “use all lowercase” or refuse “to use normal grammar or punctuation,” which on the site is often. But the lack of rules or structure can also lead to some interesting, unconventional criticism, and offers a platform to voices that might otherwise not be heard. On Letterboxd, you can discover not only new movies to watch, but new critics to follow.

Thought Starters: growth of mobile stickers, evolution of media and changes in energy use

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 growth of mobile stickers, evolution of media and its implications for business and consumers and a look at the energy sector’s attempts to address climate change among other things:

Stickers have become a staple of the Asian mobile sector and are beginning to make their presence felt elsewhere. Connie Chan looks at how it’s shaping new forms of communication and how WeChat and Line are looking to capitalise on their use:

And sometimes stickers can convey what words cannot! This form of visual communication has become so popular in Asia — especially in China’s WeChat and Japan’s LINE [Line] — that it is not uncommon to see a deep thread of multiple messages without a single word. They’re not just for those crazy young kids. More notably, stickers are commonly used in professional, not just personal, chats as well. Not so frivolous after all. In fact, stickers are so core to the success of Line, that its CEO actually credited them as the “turning point” for that app. He shared that it took Line Messenger almost four months to find its first two million users … but after stickers were launched, it took only two days to find the next million. The company now makes over $270M a year just from selling stickers.

The inexorable rise of social media can be seen in its growing importance as consumers’ main source of news (and the inevitable demise of television news and newspapers):

Growth of social media as a main source of news

GlobalWebIndex’s research points to markets where ecommerce is most popular among consumers with a mixture of developed and emerging markets holding sway:

Top 10 online commerce markets

Tal Shachar plots how the evolution of digital marketing has eroded FMCG companies’ hold on consumers purchasing and is beginning to open the way for new market entrants and expanding choice for consumers:

Since the dot com boom, the promise of the internet in fundamentally changing distribution, marketing, advertising and consumption has never fully lived up to the hype.  While the major web services sucked the air out of classifieds and newspaper advertising, digital seemed unable to truly slay the beast that is TV advertising. And although consumer choice became more plentiful, the process of shopping for, purchasing and receiving products did not change as much as many had hoped. We still lived in an age determined and defined by the limitations and inefficiencies of the marketing funnel. But the rise of new distribution and marketing channels, on-demand infrastructure and consumer tracking stands to dramatically reshape this funnel, collapsing it in on itself, opening up new battlegrounds for brand competition and ushering in significantly more consumer choice. Time to get shopping.

Media spend on television advertising has shown robust health despite the growth in alternative digital advertising formats. Matthew Ball warns that this is not the time for complacency among the television networks as advertisers are offered a growing array of alternatives to the 30 second television spot:

This is certainly impressive, but it can’t go on forever. Not only is digital’s share of total consumer media time spent already at 50%, you have to believe TV will cede share if digital and mobile continue to grow. And they will.

The television business may say that’s fine – the loss/cannibalization of share doesn’t mean the nominal loss of spend as long as total ad spend increases. Yet this defense, too, is somewhat off the mark. Contrary to common belief, advertising has never been a growth business. For the past hundred years, national ad spend has been confined to a stable 1.1-1.5% of GDP (excluding WW2).

One advertiser that’s vying for a share of the television advertising pie is Snapchat. Christopher Heine profiles the company’s ambitious moves into online advertising as it looks to justify its $20bn valuation:

That growth is essential if it is to hit its goals. According to recently leaked documents from inside the company, Snapchat, a $59 million business as of last year, aims to haul in $250 million to $350 million this year and $500 million to $1 billion by the end of 2017. To accomplish that, the company will have to convince a greater slice of the population that they need another social network on their mobile devices; it must persuade consumers that an app that opens as a camera—often confusing to first-time users—is a vital addition to their digital lives. And it is no small feat to go from more than 150 million daily users to, say, 300 million. Just ask Twitter.

Ethereum is arguably the brightest light in the rapidly emerging blockchain sector and the Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) is one of the most interesting innovations to emerge from the platform. DAO offered an investment vehicle without the intermediaries traditionally associated with financial services taking advantage of the application of smart contracts. Unfortunately flaws in the DAOs code enabled hackers to siphon off funds. Whilst this doesn’t exactly make for a ringing endorsement of smart contracts and blockchain technology, it has made for an important learning exercise for the community and has raised some important questions as Matt Levine comments:

The most fascinating thing about the DAO hack may be the way it exposes these tensions. To true believers in smart contracts, there is no problem here. The system is fine; the failures — writing bad code and not anticipating this attack — were trivial, mere human error.Next time, write better smart contracts and you’ll be fine. To those true believers, changing the code after the fact — even to conform it to almost-everyone’s reasonable expectations about how the DAO would work — would be a betrayal of the smart-contract ideal.

On the other hand, to the humans who read the English descriptions of the DAO and invested their money based on their reasonable expectations, their losses probably do seem like a problem. You can’t really base the financial system of the future on computers rather than humans, on trusting to immutable code no matter what happens. Financial systems are supposed to work for humans. If the code rips off the humans, something has gone wrong.

An interesting counterpoint to the earlier Tal Shachar article is research which points to a decline in the number of startups launching in the US and James Surowiecki points to the damage this may do to the long term health of its economy:

But there is a catch. While Stern and Guzman show that high-growth firms are being formed as actively as ever, they also find that these companies are not succeeding as often as such companies once did. As the researchers put it, “Even as the number of new ideas and potential for innovation is increasing, there seems to be a reduction in the ability of companies to scale in a meaningful and systematic way.” As many seeds as ever are being planted. But fewer trees are growing to the sky.

Climate change is one issue the world cannot simply wish away. We are beginning to see growth in renewable energy aided by the falling price of solar energy. Unfortunately the transport sector has been less successful in switching to low carbon technologies. Tom Randall profiles a valuable look at key trends in the energy sector, highlighting some of the successes and the hurdles faced in the move toward a greener future:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-13/we-ve-almost-reached-peak-fossil-fuels-for-electricity

The tragic death of Jo Cox has brought the issue of Britain’s  European Union referendum into sharp relief. John Oliver has some relevant and rather amusing words to say on the topic it and it should give you some idea of where I stand on the issue:

The featured image is an Ellen Rutt mural in Cleveland, Ohio and found on The Inspiration.

If you’ve got any thoughts or opinions on any of the above please let me know.

Thought Starters: social media, Apple, banking and changes to employment and income

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 the competing social media platforms and their roles, whether Apple can innovate, banking and its relationship with fintech and changes in employment and income among other things. 

Robinson Meyer revisits Reid Hoffman’s look at social networks and the parallels he draws between them and the seven deadly sins:

“Social networks do best when they tap into one of the seven deadly sins,” the LinkedIn co-founder and venture capitalist said. “Zynga is sloth. LinkedIn is greed. With Facebook, it’s vanity, and how people choose to present themselves to their friends.”

Research from Social Fresh, Firebrand Group and Simply Measured points to Facebook being comfortably ahead of other social media platforms in terms of ROI:

Social Media Platforms that Produce the Best ROI According to Social Media Marketers Worldwide March 2016

Whilst Snapchat is making growing inroads among younger audiences in the US, Instagram for the moment is proving a more popular medium for advertisers according to L2 Think Tank’s research:

Snapchat vs Instagram Adoption Among Brands Worldwide by Industry

Twitter recently reclassified its mobile app as a news service rather than social media in Apple’s App Store. Pew Research’s recent findings point to how the services have a different relationship with news content with Facebook driving more traffic whilst users referred by Twitter typically spending more time with the visited content:

On cellphones more visits come from Facebook

Given the increasingly important role that Facebook plays in distributing content, it’s no surprise that commentators cried foul when Gizmodo reported that Facebook was suppressing conservative news. A more careful reading of the news by Tyler Cowen and Ben Thompson suggests this isn’t quite as significant as the headlines suggest:

This, then, is the deep irony of this controversy: Facebook is receiving a huge amount of criticism for allegedly biasing the news via the empowerment of a team of human curators to make editorial decisions, as opposed to relying on what was previously thought to be an algorithm; it is an algorithm, though — the algorithm that powers the News Feed, with the goal of driving engagement — that is arguably doing more damage to our politics than the most biased human editor ever could. The fact of the matter is that, on the part of Facebook people actually see — the News Feed, not Trending News — conservatives see conservative stories, and liberals see liberal ones; the middle of the road is as hard to find as a viable business model for journalism (these things are not disconnected).

James Allworth profiles Apple’s business strategy and suggests that the company’s success is one of the key things holding the company back:

And it appears that Apple has fallen into exactly the same trap. Rather than start anew — with a beginner’s mind—what the above reveals to me is that they’ve tried to take the last paradigm and just jam it into the new one. The old has bled into the new. The result, at least as it stands now: just like Microsoft did, Apple knows what needs to be built — a phone-disrupting device. It’s just that they can’t bring themselves to let go of the past in order to do the job properly.

Whilst the Apple Watch hasn’t proved the breakthrough success for Apple that the iPhone provided, Neil Cybart’s analysis of Apple’s R&D expenditure points to something big coming soon:

Apple R&D Expense (Annual)

At the more nascent end of the technology ecosystem, Jared Friedman’s analysis of applicants to the Y Combinator programme provides a valuable window into the type of startups we’re likely to see more of in the very near future. Think more apps, SAAS businesses and platforms based on messaging, Slack and virtual reality among other things:

Messaging & Communications

For those of you working in startups looking to improve your product and people management, you’d be well advised to read Mike Davidson’s account of life as Vice President of Design at Twitter. He covers a lot of ground so I’m not going to try and summarise it, but it’s well worth checking out.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a more nuts and bolts approach to improving your digital presence, Nick Kolenda’s 125 easy tweaks provides a good starting point, even if you don’t agree with everything he has to say.

The banking sector won no popularity contests over the last  9 years with its practices fueling the global financial crisis. James Surowiecki reviews moves to reform the sector suggesting improvements have been made but there’s still some way to go:

Of course, there’s much about Wall Street that Dodd-Frank has not changed. Bankers still make absurd amounts of money. Hedge-fund and private-equity managers still benefit from the carried-interest tax loophole. The big banks, though smaller, are still too big. “If you wanted financial reform to radically downsize the financial sector, or thought it was going to make a major dent in income inequality, you’re bound to be disappointed,” Konczal says. And Dodd-Frank’s work is still unfinished: many of the rules it authorized have yet to be written, and the banks are lobbying to have them written in their favor. As Ziegler told me, “The progress that’s been made is precarious. It can be unravelled.” But precarious progress is progress. Regulation involves a constant struggle to keep rules in place and to enforce the ones that are there. Dodd-Frank shows that that struggle is not necessarily a futile one: sometimes government really does regulate business, and not the other way around.

In Fintech circles there’s a lot of talk about the power of startups to disrupt the banking sector but Josh Constine suggests that these startups may actually strengthen rather than undermine your relationship with your bank:

But what many of these startups have in common is that they all rely on connecting to your existing bank to fund your accounts with them or receive money. Rather than shun the startups, the incumbents have built bridges to let you hook fintech products into your bank accounts.

The result is that while banking is changing rapidly, you might be more reluctant to change which bank you use, according to several fintech founders and VCs I spoke to.

There’s been increasingly vociferous discussions  about the impact that automation will have on employment over the long term. Josh Zumbrun’s analysis of US figures provides an indication of where things are heading.  Employment among knowledge workers and non-routine manual workers is proving much less susceptible to automation and is showing much stronger rates of growth compared to employment with routinised workflows:

The Rise of the Knowledge Worker

Pew Research figures point to the polarisation of wealth in American society as not simply coming from growing income and assets among the wealthiest but also due to the relative decline of the country’s middle-income households:

The middle class is shrinking nearly everywhere

Ed Hawkins’ data visualisation of climate over the last 150 years provides a valuable reminder that now is not the time for us all to put our heads in the sand:

Global temperature change (1850-2016)

Elisabeth Zerofsky’s profile of Marine Le Pen provides a reminder of the growing tide of nationalism in European politics and attempts to try provide a more “palatable” face on a movement that was previously at the fringe of European politics.

I am keen to hear your thoughts any of the above, whether you vehemently agree or disagree, so please don’t hesitate to use the comments field.

The featured image is a MOMO piece commissioned by the City of Sydney.

Thought Starters: the rise of artificial intelligence, a look at YouNow, what’s going on in content marketing and a climate change update

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through articles, research and opinion pieces, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. This edition includes signs of growing interest in artificial intelligence, a profile of the YouNow live streaming service,  a review of the UK’s content marketing sector, a look  at climate change post COP21 and lots more.

Artificial intelligence has been one of those innovations that’s often talked about but rarely seen but there are signs this is beginning to change.  Jack Clark profiles recent developments which provide indicators of the technologies readiness to move out of the laboratory:

AI Learns to Pin the Tail on the Donkey

Another technology that is apparently gaining traction are virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana. MindMeld’s research points to a substantial uptake in usage in the last six months (tipping point?) although as a provider of such services, MindMeld is not exactly a neutral voice:

When did you first start using voice search:commands?

Digital audio landscape  has continued to evolve as we move from an ownership to an increasingly streaming based model. Parviz Parvizi has looked to map out the current landscape (see below) and also suggests where we’re likely to see a blurring of boundaries in the near future as the market continues to evolve:

Digital Audio Landscape

I’ve been an avid follower of the Tumblr platform for some years, with the service fitting very much into a space which users broadcast their identity and interests. It will be interesting to see whether the platform’s launch of messaging provides a catalyst for communities of interest among strangers:

Unlike Facebook Messenger or services like WhatsApp, Karp says this is a tool for connecting people who actually don’t know each other in the real world. They may have the same interests and often reblog each other’s work, but have never met in real life.

Ofcom recently released its annual International Communications Market Report,  providing a valuable collection of media and communication statistics. Statistics typically cover UK, France, Germany, Italy, USA, Japan, Australia and Spain , but also include Sweden, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Russia, India, China and Nigeria for some data sets:

Checking smartphone at the start of the day

Amanda Hess profiles rapidly emerging livestreaming platform YouNow which is apparently making an impression on teenage audiences:

“…on YouNow, you don’t see what the broadcaster sees—you see the broadcaster himself. You click into a stream and stare into his eyes. YouNow’s camera is always set, by default, to selfie mode. The whole site is designed to create personalities and foster fandoms around them.

Consumers are spending more time in app on their mobile phone. Unfortunately for retailers this doesn’t mean that developing an app is necessarily the road to success, with comScore research from the US pointing to 51% of users having three or less retail apps. That doesn’t leave much space for an app from your local craft beer emporium:

How many mobile retail apps do you currently have on your smartphone

Content marketing is definitely having its moment in the sun with organisations seeing it as a valuable means of getting their story across to consumers and organisations. Unfortunately this also means that it’s harder to get yourself noticed in an increasingly crowded field. The Content Marketing Institute has released its report looking at what British brands are doing to get themselves noticed:

China was seen by many international brands as the land of opportunity driven by strong economic growth and a population seemingly infatuated with international brands. Angela Doland’s profile of China now suggests the honeymoon might now be over as as competition increases and the economy slows, but the sheer size of the market means that it’s still very hard to ignore:

By 2030, 66% of the world’s middle class will be in Asia, according to Brookings Institution calculations. Only 21% will be in North America and Europe combined. “From a marketing perspective, that statistic tells the whole story of what the challenge is,” Mr. Dumont said. “Asia is the future, and with the world’s largest middle class, China is at the center of it.”

China’s slowing down economy is also having a substantial flow-on effect on global commodity prices, the majority of which now down on where they were a year ago:

Commodity Carnage

Another field apparently in decline is the American middle class. Pew Research Center’s research points to a growing polarisation in household income levels:

Share of adults living in middle-income households is falling

Brad Plumer’s analysis of the recent climate change conference in Paris suggests that it will be some years before we really get an indication on whether it was a success on addressing the issue of global warming.  What is reassuring is seeing research pointing to a reduction in CO2 emissions driven by a fall in the emissions intensity of GDP and a drop in China’s CO2 emissions attributed to a drop in coal consumption. This is a trend we’ll need to see continue if we’re to see the rise in global temperature come down to manageable levels:

Global CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel use and industry since 1990 and emissions intensity CO2/GDP

London’s skyline has seen a lot of changes over the last 10 years as the City of London Corporation has liberalised height restrictions in the City. Oliver Wainwright and Monica Ulmanu’s review of the recent and proposed changes and the article’s accompanying visualisations are well worth reading if you have more than a passing interest in London’s architecture and urban landscape:

All lines lead to St Paul’s

As the process of gentrification continues in the heart of many of the world’s great cities, Jordan Fraade considers whether we’re likely to see the suburbs get the same cultural treatment as areas like Brooklyn and Hackney:

Despite all that ink spilled about repurposed lofts and bike lanes, it’s quite likely that if you’re scraping by as a graphic designer, writer or even nonprofit employee in a big city, you’re going to end up in the ‘burbs after all. What does that mean for our suburbs? Will millennials remake them in their image? Is America destined to become a country of “Hipsturbia?”

The featured image is a Farid Rueda mural in Uruapan, Mexico published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: innovation, unicorns and a critical look at the sharing economy

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.

Matt Ridley focuses on the forces that drive innovation forward, describing it as a more organic and chaotic environment that isn’t something that governments can readily turn on or off:

“The implications of this new way of seeing technology—as an autonomous, evolving entity that continues to progress whoever is in charge—are startling. People are pawns in a process. We ride rather than drive the innovation wave. Technology will find its inventors, rather than vice versa. Short of bumping off half the population, there is little that we can do to stop it from happening, and even that might not work.”

Activate provide a valuable look at the intersection of media and technology, focusing on the evolution of media usage, mobile messaging, audio, television and mobile apps. Good overview of how the landscape is likely to evolve over the next year:

Benedict Evans and Steven Sinofsky explore how smartphones represent the latest format in computers evolution, expanding technologies reach and ask what might be next in this cycle:

Wall Street Journal’s data visualisation (click through for the interactive version) makes apparent the massive growth in valuation of various venture funded startups over the last two years…exciting but also scarey:

Companies valued at $1 billion or more by venture-capital firms

The rapid growth of various unicorns has not come without its critics. Airbnb has accelerated the process of gentrification as property developers shift their focus from local residents to visiting tourists in markets already dealing with shortages of affordable housing. Steven Hill states:

“In a tight housing market, rent-controlled apartments are prey for what we might call “slamlords,” who promote condo conversions or renovations that would justify massive rent increases. Airbnb provides another layer—a powerful financial incentive as well as a technique for landlords to convert their apartment buildings into tourist hotels.”

Zeynep Tufekci looks more broadly at startups associated with the ‘sharing economy’, characterising them as fueling a growing gap  between the winners and losers in our current labour market:

“It sounds great, except for the ugly reality which lurks under the proliferation of “uber for…”s: the calcification of the two-tiered system between the overworked who need and can afford the “uber for…”s and the underpaid who are stuck in its 1099 economy of unstable, low wages.”

For the moment, the impact of the “gig economy” might be overstated. Figures from America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics points to self employment as actually decreasing in recent years (although that’s not to say this trend will continue):

The Self Employment Rate in the US

The majority of developed market economies are facing the challenge of an aging population as fertility rates decline so it’s interesting to look at those countries with large young populations with China and India standing out. A closer look at the statistics by John Poole reveals some more unsettling truths with China “missing” about 24 million girls between the ages of 0 and 19:

Half the world's teens live in these 7 countries
Countries with the largest teen populations

Climate change is reshaping our planet and forcing many indigenous ecosystems to adapt with a negative impact on our planet’s biodiversity. The effect on countries’ economies is more of a mixed bag according to Marshall Burke, Sol Hsiang, Ted Miguel’s forecast with winners and losers (click on the map for more detailed information). Whether such modelling can accurately accommodate all the different consequences of climate change remains to be seen:

Economic Impact of Climate Change on the World

The featured image is a mural by Italian artist Tellas in Shoreditch, London and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: Content that has got me thinking 2

Yusuke Moritani a.k.a KARE (2012)

There has been some interesting analysis surfacing looking at the different mobile and tablet platforms and their respective audiences. Benedict Evans raises the important point that Android tablets encompass a broad array of devices making comparisons between Android and iOS tablets very difficult. Daniel Eran Dilger expands on this, pointing to IDC, Gartner and Strategy Analytics’ failure to properly unpick the tablet and smartphone market leading to a situation where apples (iPads and iPhones) are compared with oranges (low spec Android phones and tablets). The ecosystem of mobile apps and their respective community of developers has a vital role to play in the success of any mobile operating systems (no apps > no sales). In North America and Western Europe, iOS dominates the developer community, but Mark Wilcox points out that this isn’t the case for Asia and Latin America. Something to bear in mind as Asia becomes a growing source of innovation in the mobile sector.

Global Platform Preferences

Ben Thompson has taken a valuable look at the different channels consumers are using to interact with online. It’s well worth reading his commentary on the roles of the different channels.

Social Communication Map

Whilst Silicon Valley may no longer have a near monopoly on startups, it still provides one of the driving forces for the tech sector. In this presentation, Loic Le Meur looks at some of the organisations and innovations that have gained a profile in the region. Wearable computing has been getting some renewed attention with a preview of the Glass Development Kit for developers. Thomas Claburn explores some of the myths currently associated with the wearable computing sector. The Guardian continue their great work on data visualisations with a look at which corporations have made a major contribution towards global warming.

The Guardian Contributors to Global Warming

I moved from an iPhone to an Android device a couple of years ago. Whilst the Android app ecosystem is moving towards parity, every so often you come across an app that you wish there was an Android equivalent. The latest one is I PIXEL U which enables users to pixelate particular aspects of their photographs.IPIXELU_COVER2

Google has created a charming pair of binoculars to celebrate the Sydney Opera House’s fortieth anniversary, giving consumers a window to other inspirational places.

24 hour music video has been created to support Pharrell Williams’ song Happy. Beautifully executed promotion of music outside your standard Youtube container. Google profile Doctor Who with their latest doodle and when activated, leads users through to an online game. Find out more about the Whodle over at the Guardian.

Doctor Who Google