Friday, 6 January 2017

The Weekend Edition

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We publish the Enterprise Morning Edition in English and Arabic from Sunday through Thursday before 7am, with a focus on the business, economic and political news that will move markets each day. What you’re reading now is our Weekend Edition, which is light on news and heavy on stories to read, videos to watch, and podcasts to which you may want to listen on Friday and Saturday (that being the weekend for the vast majority of our readers). The Weekend Edition comes out each Friday at around 10:30am CLT.

We’ll be back on Sunday at around 6:15am with our usual roundup. Until then: Enjoy the weekend.

Speed Round, The Weekend Edition

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Why you should really care about artificial intelligence: We’re likely just a few decades away from creating a superintelligence. Why should you care? Because we’re on a path right now with just two outcomes: Extinction or immortality. AI is already taking over white collar jobs in Japan (buy-buy, insurance claim adjusters). Up next: Compliance officers, a function that is “ripe for automation because it is both rule-based and data-intensive,” the Harvard Business Review tells us. It’s a surprisingly short leap from there to an intelligence the likes of which our minds can barely imagine: “If our meager brains were able to invent wifi, then something 100 or 1,000 or 1 bn times smarter than we are should have no problem controlling the positioning of each and every atom in the world in any way it likes, at any time—everything we consider magic, every power we imagine a supreme God to have will be as mundane an activity for the ASI as flipping on a light switch is for us. Creating the technology to reverse human aging, curing disease and hunger and even mortality, reprogramming the weather to protect the future of life on Earth—all suddenly possible. Also possible is the immediate end of all life on Earth. As far as we’re concerned, if an ASI comes to being, there is now an omnipotent God on Earth—and the all-important question for us is: Will it be a nice God?

If you’ve ever wondered why we’ve spent the last year going on and on about AI, but feel a bit behind, you need to read Wait But Why’s Tim Urban on “The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence.” It’s a two-parter, but worth every minute you’ll spend reading it (and made easy to digest with simple illustrations, photos, graphs).

Lessons in economics from Hermès’ Birkin handbag: the Birkin handbag from Hermès defies basic laws of economics, Brooke Unger writes in The Economist’s sister magazine 1843. The handbag, which comes with a price tag starting from USD 7,000, could not be viewed as a Veblen good, as some economists might suggest, Unger argues. With Veblen goods, “the higher the price, the higher the demand, for the more expensive they are, the more effectively they proclaim the status of their owners.” Yet, the Birkin differs from classic Veblen goods in that first they’re “not all that conspicuous… only initiates can spot a Birkin. So Veblen’s theory needs to be adapted to explain the power of inconspicuous but expensive goods.” This could somewhat be explained in literature theorising on signalling using luxury goods. The theory divides the rich into two groups: “‘parvenus’, who want to associate themselves with other rich people and distinguish themselves from have-nots, and ‘patricians’, who want to signal to each other but not to the masses. They theorise that more expensive luxury goods, aimed at patricians, will have less obvious branding than cheaper ones.” Separately, the theory also categorises people who cannot afford luxury but want to look as if they can as “poseurs,” who tend to usually go for “big logos” and are targeted by counterfeiters (we’re looking at you, Hermès belt-wearing, Egyptian-weddings roaming fellas out there).

Second, Unger says Hermès are not pricing Birkins as producers of Veblen goods normally would; “producers of Veblen goods ought to raise prices until they are just below the point at which normal economic laws start to reassert themselves… Hermès could charge far more than it does for a Birkin. Instead of rationing by price – standard market practice – Hermès rations by queue. You cannot walk into an Hermès boutique and expect to walk out with a violet ostrich 30cm bag with palladium hardware, or indeed a Birkin of any description. You have to place an order, and wait… That is why the Birkin has its own literary sub-genre while the expensive but accessible Chanel 2.55 does not.”

The way Hermès starves the market for Birkins, when it could sell many more and at higher prices, “suggests, Birkins are mined, not simply made.” Luca Solca, an equity analyst at Exane BNP Paribas says there are good commercial reason behind treating them that way. “First, it gives Hermès a buffer: even if demand drops, sales will not. Second, it creates surplus demand for the bags, which overflows into demand for other Hermès products… [second,] the wait induces ‘impatient buyers to switch to other products of the brand, to calm their hunger until the much-awaited object of desire is achieved.’ Third, although market-clearing prices might raise profitability in the short term, in the long run they would drive French women away, leaving nouveaux riches from the developing world as the bags’ main buyers.” However, at the end of the day, the perception of exclusivity depends on a ratio of people who want a Birkin, to the quantity of Birkins supplied — which could be a challenge for Hermès now. Lawyer Hélène Le Blanc fears the Birkin is becoming “too exposed” and Unger explains that “all big luxury brands fret about that risk, but even here the Birkin stands apart. The danger of over-exposure comes not from the zeal of its marketing but from the ardour of its fans.”

It is a long winter of discontent for Apple fans who think their computers are underpowered, the iPhones not sufficiently innovative, and who wish to God there was a 4G-enabled touchscreen MacBook / iPad convertible. The grumbling has passed over into the mainstream media (see Business Insider), but the story everyone in the Apple world is talking about is “Apple’s 2016 in review” by 17-year Apple veteran Chuq Von Rospach, who argues that “Apple, for the first time in over a decade, simply isn’t firing on all cylinders. Please don’t interpret that as “Apple is doomed” because it’s not, but there are things it’s doing a lot less well than it could — and has. Apple’s out of sync with itself.” Missing ship dates, languishing products, long delays between product refreshes — it’s all there. Whether you love Apple or are simply a tech geek, it’s worth a read this morning.

The most notable medical findings of 2016: Medical research has provided a respite from the media conversation in the annus horribilis 2016, Jerome Groopman writes in The New Yorker. Groopman says research was a “chance to challenge the assumptions and biases of medical science and public health not with bluster and noise but with rigorous experimentation,” and picked what he believes were the most notable medical findings of the year. One is the exculpation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic’s patient zero, who was presumed to be Canadian flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas and have been wrongly and unfairly vilified since. Researchers found that HIV actually entered the US through “New York City from the Caribbean in the nineteen-seventies, a decade before Dugas entered our country… This serves as a cautionary tale for medical professionals, journalists, and laypeople alike to resist clinical indictments based on hearsay, if not outright imagination.” Another breakthrough, Groopman writes, is dispelling the folk notion that cranberry juice is an effective treatment to urinary tract infection.

More important was a rethinking of how to treat prostate cancer. A study had shown that there was no difference in survival rates between patients who received surgery, those who had received radiation therapy, and those whose disease had been carefully monitored without intervention. The research also showed that the risk of metastases was three times more likely to occur in those being monitored than in those who received surgery or radiation, which drove oncologist Anthony D’Amico to recommend “that men who wish to avoid metastases should consider monitoring, rather than surgery or radiation, only if their life expectancy is less than a decade. Also on Groopman’s list is the discovery that “in spine surgery, it seems, less may not be more, but it can be equivalent,” with results from a Swedish study showing that patients who underwent a laminectomy alone functioned equally well after two years compared to those who had received the surgery plus a spinal fusion.

Groopman also wrote about the results of analysis of gun reform in Australia that followed the 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania. The results showed that restrictive gun laws and an effective buyback programme brought down mass shootings to zero and resulted in a two-thirds decline in the overall rate of firearm deaths. This made us automatically think about the best deconstruction of the (to the rest of the world fairly odd) obsession with gun culture in the US by Australian stand up comedian Jim Jefferies, who hilariously explains “there’s one argument, and one argument alone, for having a gun and this is the argument:‘F— off, I like guns,’ it’s not the best argument, but it’s all you’ve got” (warning: profanity, lots of it; runtime 07:47, part two 07:52).

What’s a postnational country, anyway? The Guardian argues that Canada — whose largest city, Toronto, is the “most diverse city on the planet, with half its residents born outside the country — may be the world’s first postnational country. And oddly enough, it doesn’t sound so bad.

Stories that we’ve saved to Pocket to read this weekend with a decent cup of coffee. Apropos of which: We recommend Starbucks’ 2016 Holiday Blend, ground for French press. It’s fantastic — as it should be at EGP 160 per bag. That’s right: The cost of all Starbucks beans has doubled. On to the recommendations:

Mr. Robot Killed the Hollywood Hacker — in the MIT Technology Review, of all places — is actually one of the best pieces of criticism we’ve read in forever, tying Mr. Robot to War Games and the horrible legislation that arose from US lawmakers’ reactions to the threat of hacking in the 1980s — and throwing in some TV recommendations in the process. It’s good enough we saved it to read it again — and to watch the excerpts from 1983s’ War Games starring Matthew Broderick. “Shall we play a game?” “Love to. How about Global Thermonuclear War?”

We’re going to follow that last one with “Cyberwar for Sale,” which the New York Times plugs thusly: “After a maker of surveillance software was hacked, its leaked documents shed light on a shadowy global industry that has turned email theft into a terrifying — and lucrative — political weapon.”

One Man’s Quest to Change the Way We Die is one of the most-shared, most-clicked and most talked-about stories on the New York Times this week. It’s not a topic we enjoy, but we saved it to read after the first six paragraphs didn’t make us want to … uhm …

We want to grow up to become futurists after reading the Wall Street Journal’s “Think like a futurist to be prepared for the unexpected” (paywall), which argues “the art and science of futuring is fast becoming a necessary skill, where we read signals, see trends and ruthlessly test our own assumptions.”

SHOW ME THE MONEY: It has been 20 years (yes, you’re that old) since Jerry Maguire was released in theaters, and a new remastered version with a “making of” documentary hit stores last week. If you don’t want to plonk down the cash for the documentary, go read Deadline’s excellent interview with the even more excellent Cameron Crowe: “Tom Hanks, Jamie Foxx, Billy Wilder & Gwyneth Paltrow? Cameron Crowe Reflects On His ‘Jerry Maguire’ Journey

We have no idea what this is even about, but four people have emailed or WhatsApped it to us in the last 24 hours. “In 1977, Johanna van Haarlem finally tracked down the son, Erwin, she had abandoned as a baby 33 years earlier. She immediately travelled to London to meet him. What followed, writes Jeff Maysh, is an unbelievable story of deception and heartbreak.” Read: “The spy with no name” in the BBC Magazine.

Planning your next career move — or just want to fantasize a bit? Start with Bloomberg’s look at “Where the World’s Highest-Paid Expats Live.”

Looking for a good book to read this weekend? We can’t recommend Child 44 strongly enough. It’s the first in a trilogy by Tom Rob Smith that kicks off in the Soviet Union just before the death of Stalin and is utterly compelling — just force yourselves through the first 30 or so pages. Meanwhile, ITW magazine has just reminded us to check for new releases from Gregg Hurwitz and Blake Crouch. If you haven’t read them before, head straight for Hurwitz’s The Crime Writer and The Survivor or Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy.

Watch This

How the micronation became a state: What started as a Maunsell Sea Fort named Roughs Tower in the south eastern coast of the UK to protect from a potential Nazi invasion was declared the sovereign state of Sealand by pirate radio broadcaster Roy Bates in 1967 when he ejected the former tenants, Wonderful Radio London, writes Philip Perry for Big Think. According to the Montevideo Convention on the rights and duties of states signed in 1933, the state should possess a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and a capacity to enter into relations with other states, all of which Sealand has, but according to the Constitutive Theory of Statehood, what constitutes a country is if other countries recognize it as a country (runtime 06:59).

A soul-shattering sushi experience: Takashi Saito is a three Michelin Star sushi chef running Sushi Saito, a restaurant regarded one the best in Japan. Food and travel bloggers Simon and Martina Stawski spent a day with Saito from early in the morning when he picks the fresh fish himself from the Tsukiji Market to him bringing it back to the restaurant and preparing and serving it. And it’s not about “freshness,” Saito buys tuna fish that has been aged for a few days and ages it further still in his fridge prior to serving it. “Sushi is very simple … I don’t do anything different … I want people to experience the real taste of the food … It’s not just about the taste, but about the heart and mind too,” Saito says about the sushi experience at his restaurant. “This is not a chef, this is a magician … everything you eat is so disorientingly good,” Simon says (runtime 17:04).

Read This

Apps can help your kids learn, but nothing beats a human touch: Don’t be fooled by how easily your toddler manages to unlock your phone and make a long-distance call when you’re not looking: Using screens (such as tablets) to teach kids certain skills and encourage brain development can be useful, but you would really maximize their benefit by engaging with your child alongside the screen, NPR tells us.

Studies have shown that having a parent or other figure demonstrate to the child how to do a certain activity on an app resulted in the child being far more successful in completing the task at hand. “This is an optimal way to promote learning and that should not be downplayed at all,” researcher Laura Zimmerman says. “Typically, having another person present during these interactions with touch screens or while viewing television is really beneficial. The parent or teacher can take into consideration what their child knows and build on that — something that’s too complex for an app to be able to do.”

This concept, known amongst psychologists as social scaffolding, boosts children’s ability to absorb and transfer knowledge, and is also key in helping children make connections between what they see on and learn from screens and real life: “Let’s say there’s a show or an app game about a cat and you have a cat living in your house. When that image of the cat is on the screen, the parent can simply say, ‘Oh that’s a cat just like ours.’ So it’s not sort of 24/7 and guiding every single piece of the experience, but it’s providing that information at the key point.” In other words: There’s no need to be a helicopter parent; simply be present enough to guide them and insert helpful cues at certain times.

Listen to This

We’re big fans of mobile payments system M-Pesa, and believe it holds great promise for the largely unbanked population in Egypt. Tim Harford presented M-Pesa as one of the 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy, his BBC-produced radio show. Harford tracks how M-Pesa started in Kenya, where Kenyans used it to “reinvent money itself,” and moves on to tell the story of how the Afghan government uncovered a widescale corruption scandal of some officials who were skimming about 30% of the cash allocated to police salaries, all after it switched to a mobile payment system to pay police officers — who realised they were getting paid less than what they were due all along. The idea behind M-Pesa, which took off in Kenya, “was to make it easier for small businesses to repay micro-finance loans. But, almost immediately, M-Pesa exploded into something far bigger – there are now 100 times more M-Pesa kiosks than ATMs in Kenya – and with far-reaching consequences, in many developing economies. Money transferred this way is easy to trace, which is bad news for the corrupt. And good news for tax authorities.” (runtime 12:16).

The most paradoxical and upside down badminton match of all time: At the 2012 London Olympics, women’s badminton doubles teams from China and Korea wanted to avoid playing the world champions in the knockout stages. So in the last match of their group stages, both guaranteed to progress, the teams played and competed to lose, putting on show quite possibly the worst badminton match ever. Radiolab’s producers discussed the ethics of what the teams did, raising a number of questions. They asked if the definition of ethics in sport “to win”? Yes, we can all agree to that, but does mean winning every point possible? No, not necessarily, one could argue, as teams even drop individual matches in attempt to win tournaments. This leaves us with a moral dilemma: if we want hyper-competitive players who want to win it at all cost, then that is what we got exactly with the 2012 badminton match, they were playing in a way that gave them the best chance to win the overall championship.

You can watch the games “highlights” here (runtime 05:03). And for the record: Both teams were disqualified from the 2012 Olympics (runtime 26:25).

Someone to Follow

The French can now legally ignore work emails during off hours: France has voted in favor of new legislation that “obliges organisations with more than 50 workers to start negotiations to define the rights of employees to ignore their smartphones,” according to the Agence France-Presse. Labor minister Myriam El Khomri had introduced the bill as a protective measure against “info obesity” and the “‘always-on work culture,” which studies have shown could have negative effects on people’s lives.

“Overuse of digital devices has been blamed for everything from burnout to sleeplessness as well as relationship problems,” the article says. The law, which came into effect on 1 January, is part of a larger initiative by France’s trade unions to amend France’s labor law and give workers more rights and flexibility. Some major corporations in Europe, such as Daimler and Volkswagen, have already taken initiative to reduce messaging during off-hours to avoid burning out their staff. Daimler, for example, lets its staffhave the option to automatically delete all of the emails they receive while they’re away [on vacation]. The people who try to reach them will be sent what the company calls a ‘Mail on Holiday’ response letting them know that their message will be deleted and giving them the contact information of a supervisor if it is urgent.

Something That Made Us Think

The Guggenheim’s first robotic artwork: The Guggenheim Museum’s first robotic artwork is an enormous arm “brandishing a giant squeegee, is poised over a pool of dark liquid which ceaselessly oozes outwards. With quick, smooth, aggressive movements, the machine performs a calculated dance, pivoting and dragging its squeegee across the surface in a perpetual labor of wiping the liquid back to the center.” The piece, by artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, is called “Can’t Help Myself.” The idea behind it is quite radical and provocative, but open to interpretation. “The image confronts us with issues surrounding what the artists call the ‘pleasure and panic’ of anticipating the future,” Azura Wannmann writes for The Creators Project. The artists say that “only in the accidents of a computer glitch, a power failure or losing a cellphone can we realize that we are kidnapped by today’s knowledge structure … The stronger such sense of dependence feels, the stronger the feelings of panic and pleasure it brings. The most frightening part is that no matter how we reflect on it, it cannot be stopped… At the same time fears are exciting, for the knowledge beyond our experience is coming.” Wannmann adds, “The dynamics of human/machine relationships sparks an important dialogue about the future of art: how can technology and robotics take the place of the artist and extend or replicate their will?”

When asked about how the idea of the robotic arm came about, Sun said, “An artist’s work is a reflection of her will, the artist doesn’t need to be present on-site, physically. Instead, you rely on an agent to carry out your will… This is my agent, it has limitless endurance… all you need to provide it with is your will… The difference between machines and humans is that even if machines develop a new calculating capacity that exceeds their original settings, those calculations will still be based on the logic programmed by humans. They are incapable of performing any task that is beyond human experience (runtime 05:57).” Wannmann complements Sun’s vision by noting that “Can’t Help Myself questions the place of the machine in humanity’s grand narrative and explores what robotic artist Bill Vorn calls the aesthetics of artificial behaviors. As machines learn and respond to more information and technology advances, human/machine relationships become increasingly complex.”

Can’t Help Myself is part of the Tales of Our Time exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where artists from China “challenge the conventional understanding of place. By portraying often-overlooked cultural and historical narratives … Their artworks address specific locations, such as their hometowns, remote borderlands, or a group of uninhabited islands, as well as abstract ideas, such as territory, boundaries, or even utopia. China, too, is presented here, not only as a country but also as a notion that is open for questioning and reinvention.”

Health

We all know the importance of a handful of deep, meaningful friendships, but in old age, they could make the difference between life and death, Laura Span writes for the New York Times. Recent research findings tell us that social isolation among the elderly often translates into a lack of attention that leads to forgetting medical appointments, for example, and can also have physical repercussions such as increased risk of cognitive atrophy and illnesses such as coronary artery disease. Equally dangerous is simply the feeling of loneliness — a study from UC San Francisco showed that lonely people had higher mortality than those who did not feel lonely (23% versus 14%). As such, it’s integral for people to maintain existing relationships, or cultivate new ones, that will act as an antidote to the loneliness that often plagues our later years: “With strong evidence that friendship does, indeed, help save lives and promote health, social workers and researchers wish we could pay more attention to its central role. Activity directors, senior center staff members and family caregivers: Are there better ways to help elders stay in touch with the friends they care about, or meet new ones? We’re all willing to drive relatives to doctors’ appointments; driving them to spend time with friends may matter as much.”

Tech

The stakes of disruption are too high: Companies that are generally unaffiliated with the tech industry made more than USD 125 bn worth of acquisitions in 2016, up from USD 20 bn five years ago, writes Leslie Picker for the New York Times. Most of them found that building tech in-house was “painstaking” and could easily get leapfrogged by startups, she says. “It’s better to acquire disruptive technology than to be disrupted by that technology,” co-head of tech M&A at Morgan Stanley Anthony Armstrong said. Examples include Walmart acquiring e-commerce startup Jet.com, General Electric buying off-site workers and equipment repairs software provider ServiceMax, and century-old industrial conglomerate Roper Technologies signed a deal with Deltek, an enterprise-software provider. Automakers such as General Motors and Daimler have taken large stakes in ride-sharing applications, including Lyft and Hailo.

…In 2016, the number of tech companies sold to non-tech companies surpassed those acquired by tech companies for the first time since the internet era began, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Excluding private equity buyers, 682 tech companies were purchased by a company in an industry other than technology, while 655 were acquired by tech companies. Of the 45,416 transactions announced last year, 15% were acquisitions of technology companies, more than any other sector, according to data compiled by Thomson Reuters.

Beyond the Rubicon

Aly El Shalakany’s Beyond the Rubicon column is on hiatus this week for the New Year’s break.

The Week’s Most-Clicked Stories

The most-clicked stories in Enterprise in the past week were:

  • Link to the issue with Enterprise’s 4Q2014 reader survey for those who missed it over the holiday break. (Enterprise)
  • The Ministry of Education’s official list of naughty schools. (Ministry of Education, pdf, Arabic)
  • NASA’s 16 top earth images of 2016 includes a great shot of Lake Nasser. (Washington Post)
  • Full text of the proposed Investment Act. (Enterprise, pdf)
  • Egypt makes Bloomberg’s list of where to visit in 2017. (Bloomberg)(tie)
  • Science reveals the age that you peak at everything. (Business Insider)(tie)
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