Weekend Reading – April 22, 2018

1. I loved Kevin Arnovitz’s ESPN article on my Philadelphia 76ers’ attempts to develop a strong culture within a roster whose players range in age from 20 to 33, and hail from countries well beyond the the United States: Croatia, Turkey, France, Italy, Cameroon, and Australia, to earn the distinction of being the most international team in the NBA.

Sixers coach Brett Brown, was a longtime assistant for San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (the first true ‘international’ NBA team) and spent a decade+ of his formative years coaching in Australia, has clearly emphasized the importance of building a strong, teamwide bond, and the results, in terms of overcoming adversity and winning basketball games, is apparent. It’s even more incredible to consider that this is a team just two years removed from a historically bad 10 win, 72 loss season.

One aspect of the Sixers’ culture-making efforts are PowerPoint presentations compiled by the players on an area of interest: guard JJ Redick’s presentation on whether or not we are living in a computer simulation, forward Robert Covington on reptiles, point guard T.J. McConnell on his love of coffee, and forward Dario Saric on the sectarian violence in the Balkans and his home nation of Croatia.

After enduring 50+ games a year across four-odd seasons of ‘tanking’, injuries, and a constant churn of fringe NBA players, I’m elated with the current composition of the Sixers roster, and really enjoying the Sixers’ current playoff run (they are current up 3-1 against the Miami Heat, after grinding out a victory yesterday). While my expectations for the season have essentially been met, and it really feels like we’re now playing with house money, I’m very excited for what’s to come for my Sixers.

 

2. In the Financial Times, 25-year-old interviewer Chloe Cornish (interestingly, an ‘FT graduate trainee reporter’) comes off as an senior citizen in her Lunch with the FT conversation with 19-year-old Etherium founder Vitalik Buterin.

In their conversation, Buterin comes off as a jaded 19-year-old and bereft of the optimism and anti-establishment worldview that led to his invention of Etherium and participation in the broader cryptocurrency system. He mentions efforts to partner with BP and J.P. Morgan, as well as a ‘cryptorouble’ project in partnership with Putin and his government.

It seems like the crypto events of the past 2-3 years, which must be a lifetime to someone whose life has been taken over by ‘outsiders’ adopting and evangelizing his invention.

 

3. There’s been a lot of ink spilled writing about Palantir, the data mining analytics firm that has been deployed in the fight against international terrorism, urban crime, and, per Bloomberg’s latest article, draconian corporate monitoring.

The article recounts JP Morgan’s former head of ‘special ops’ (and former secret service agent) Peter Cavicchia attempts to appropriate Palantir’s software to track employees and draw connections related to their work-related activity over email and habits (such as when they would enter and leave the office). This led to his firing, and presumably, an end to the relationship between Palantir and JP Morgan.

The article closes discussing the company’s work with the LAPD and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), and the data-based ‘hunches’ that Palantir has produced that have been used to nefarious ends. In practice these types of simulations and models are likely to produce an above average success rate, but in practice, one has to remember that for every ‘non-success,’ which reads as nothing more than a blip over thousands of inputs, can have very real and detrimental impacts on the lives of the accused.

More broadly, in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, Palantir sits on a fairly delicate perch in the balance between protecting data and exploiting it, both for the sake of financial return, cost savings, or in the case of their public sector clients, apprehending criminals/terrorists and stopping crime from happening in the first place. Palantir’s official position is that they do not engage with ‘political’ clients, but given the current political climate, it’s hard to argue that actions by ICE and other related public sector organizations aren’t politically charged.

 

4. Somewhat related, Nassim Taleb, (whose newest book, Skin in the Game I am currently working through) has an editorial in Wired on the risks associated with the rise of ‘Big Data:’ Big Data Means Big Errors.

He warns against the implicit bias of academic researchers and data scientists , and the tendency to focus on the positive correlations and broader outcomes associated with large data sets, and ignore the questionable deviations.

His key point is that as you increase the amount of inputs in a data set (which, in the case of ‘big data’ and ever-increasing computing power can number in the billions/trillions), the easier it is to achieve significance or correlation, which then is run with to draw a broader conclusion.

As a response, Howard Lindzon advocates for ‘smaller data’, or limiting the amount of inputs that you take on in your life and decision making (an increasingly common theme here in my writing), while Farnam Street points out the ‘negative utility’ associated with an ever-increasing amount of data at our fingerprints, and advocates 1) focusing on your ‘circle of competence’, or narrow specialization, and 2) relying on time-tested realities of how the world works as basic filters to any major conclusions.

 

5. In a profile for the Financial Times, Reed Hastings lays our Netflix’s global strategy, and his plans to capture the 700 million+ cable-tv watching households (excluding China) around the world.

At a time when most American tech companies are scrambling to prevent protection from Chinese competition or scrambling to sure up their privacy and data protection to comply with European data privacy regulations, Netflix is one company whose strategy is pinned on continued global expansion, and a global media acquisition strategy behind it.

I was surprised that more than half of Netflix’s subscriber base now comes from outside of the US (69M out of a total 125M), as well as Hastings’ claim that to sate those international subscribers, he’s seeking out “the world’s best content, whether that’s Japanese anime, Turkish telenovelas, the film noir of the Nordics,” rather than taking a “Hollywood-centric” approach.

Whether or not Hastings’ global approach to content will cross borders remains to be seen in my mind, but as long as their global subscriber base continues to grow, it seems like he can do no wrong in the eyes of shareholders and the market.

Here in Brazil, Netflix’s largest non-English language market, the amount of investment behind advertising The Mechanism, a political series based on the Lava Jato scandal directed by Jose Padhilla, must be enormous. Advertisements seemingly grace every other São Paulo subway ad, Rio de Janeiro newsbank, and Bahian billboard. While the show has caused a bit of a stir in the political sphere, it’s hardly been the society-encapsulating success that Netflix likely hoped it’d be.

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