Weekend Reading – May 27, 2018

1. Several weeks ago, a NYTimes correspondent and photographer visited Easter Island, the likely scene of the first major landmass to become a victim of climate change, as the erosion of land from rising sea levels threatens to envelope the island.

The resulting report not only includes gorgeous video and photography, but also presents an initial case study for managing the effects of climate change and its consequences that will likely leave the people of Easter Island homeless and landless.

Aside from its impact on the Island’s residents, archeologists are now pitted with a race against time to conserve the Island’s rich cultural and anthropological history, as well as discover its principal mysteries: discover many of the island’s mysteries, namely the civilization of Polynesian explorers that inhabited the island approximately one thousand years ago and constructed more than 1,100 moai statues using methods that are still largely unknown to scientists.

2. Per a fascinating paper recently published by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, East Germans invest less than their counterparts who were raised in non-Communist environments. When they do buy investments, they are more likely to hold stocks of companies in communist countries (such as China and Russia) than US-based companies.

From the authors:

East Germans with negative experiences invest more in the stock market today, e. g., those experiencing environmental  pollution and suppression of religious beliefs and those without access to (Western) TV entertainment. Election years appear to have trigger effects inducing East Germans to reduce their stock-market investment further. We also provide evidence of negative welfare consequences, as indicated by investment in more expensive actively managed funds, less diversified portfolios, and lower risk-adjusted returns.

This has been a long-held suspicion of my that has been amplified while living in Brazil, so it’s interesting to see it validated by academic research. As I’ve witnessed firsthand, Brazil’s experience living through hyperinflation in the mid-90s has impacted their personal finance habits to date (more than 20 years later), resulting in an extremely low savings rate relative to their GDP per capita, in line with similarly inflation-ridden Argentina and war-torn Iraq. In obvious contrast, the US’ steadier economic growth and lack of major incident seems to have encouraged broader investment and stock market participation, which has carried across generations.

3. Alan Cumming reviews the latest collection of essays by David Sedaris, Calypso. Cumming is effusive in his praise of Sedaris, who is one of our generation’s most beloved American writers, claiming that reading the book had the effect of changing his worldview, to one that’s “weirder and funnier and darker and bleaker than, well, real life.”

4. This week’s NYTimes Magainze Letter of Recommendation resonated with me more than most: drinking at lunch. Just several months removed from my time as an American worker, I was shocked to read the results of a survey conducted on American lunch breaks: 16% reported taking a 1-to-15 minute lunch break. 45% reported taking a 16-to-30-minute lunch break, 25% take 31 to 60 minutes, and a just 2% take more than an hour.

The author of the piece calls to mind the bygone tradition of the beer or two- or three-martini lunch, and argues that drinking at lunch is an act of resistance against our age of 24/7 connectivity and productivity, where lunch is oftentimes food-accompanied-by-work, rather than a work-less opportunity to recharge and reflect.

Here in Brazil, where an hour-long lunch is the norm and few bat an eye at a two-hour lunch break, the idea of eating at one’s desk is complete anathema. The “lunch hour,” as it’s called, is not only to eat out with colleagues, but also to get a mid-day coffee or resolve any necessary mid-day errands. In fact, the COO of our company recently admonished several workers for doing so, imploring them to at least bring their lunch to a common area.

5. Anytime the NYTimes enlists Mark Leibovich to write a longform piece on the latest in Washington, it’s usually worth putting aside 20 minutes to read. The depth of his sources and his ability to get Washington’s key players to say things on the record that they wouldn’t nearly anywhere else (without the Wolff-ian embellishment) is near-unique in a town where everyone has something to say. Beyond that, Leibovich is a master of bridging the current events that are covered and analyzed to death with a straight face, and expose the sheer absurdity of them – the petulance, careerism, and wrongheadedness that is at the center of American politics.

In this weekend’s piece, Leibovich looks at the President’s communications infrastructure, who are pitted with the “absurdist proposition” of acting as a mouthpiece for a mouthpiece itself. In Trump’s White House, leaks have consumed the daily news cycle, whereby seemingly every day a new comment made by Trump or someone within his circle makes its way to the Press via “confidential” source(s) – as many as five in a recent leak on Trump’s animus towards Amazon. This whirlwind of daily “news” has slowly become the new normal, leaving the Press Secretary, who is accountable for near-daily meetings with the White House pool, to clean up, or more often, talk around the mess.

Leibovich shares his own experience as a correspondent pitted with covering Trump’s unpredictability and the futility of Trump’s minders. He expresses his personal frustration and admonition for the Trump Administration’s conflation of the “mainstream” press with the infiltration of the Russian intelligence arm into the US election, defends the Press and their pursuit of the truth, and is critical of the Press Secretary’s role in obfuscating the truth and demonizing the press for seeking it out in the first place. Ultimately, we are left with the feeling that Trump’s spokespeople are speaking as if they’re being closely watched by an intensely insecure and temperamental President, and are solely acting to win over his affection (and keep their jobs).

6. I’ve increasingly learned that I’m a sucker for true crime, having ‘binged’ my first show in recent memory, Netflix’s Evil Genius miniseries, last week.

This week, the NYTimes Magazine released its first installment of a two part-story on the murder of a central Texas high school math teacher.

The story, which was done via a partnership with the non-profit investigative journalism outlet ProPublica, tells the story of the murder, subsequent investigation, trial, and conviction of her husband, the school’s principal, for the murder.

Familiar elements of wrongful convictions seem to be present in the case, reminiscent of the heartbreaking Death Row cases recounted by Bryan Stevenson in his powerful memoirs, Just Mercy: pressure felt by an overmatched local police force to reach a conclusion, dubious rumors and hearsay that snowball into consensus, and a willingness to ignore logical explanations or minimal evidence in a rush towards a conviction.

The article emphasizes the limitations of pre-DNA evidence investigations: convictions seemed to be much more reliant on scant evidence and the testimonies of biased or motivated witnesses or experts. Despite a jury’s decision of guilt, these themes laid out in the broader context in the case run counter to the commonly held notion of a burden of proof and innocent until proven guilty.

7. A$AP Rocky’s latest album, Testing, is out this week, and the NYTimes covered his performance-piece-cum-album-release party at Sotheby’s. Hopefully the music speaks for itself.

8. Tim Harford writes in the FT about the “promise” of the ultra-long term as an universal solution, and its associated danger: despite the “wonder” of compound investing, an investment valued at zero will still be zero no matter how long your time horizon is.

9. David Frum succinctly summarizes on 15 criminal law questions that ensnare President Trump (for the moment) in The Atlantic, ranging from pedestrian tax evasion and money laundering, to million-dollar hush payments, to business- and bribery-based influence peddling and foreign efforts to impact the US election and democracy. While I’m no a Presidential historian, 15 seems a bit higher than usual.

On a related note, a recently released book (also reviewed by Frum in The Atlantic) argues that the threat of impeachment serves to energize and entrench the President’s base of support, rather than adopt or convert newcomers to the cause. While this seems counterintuitive at first blush, it also makes sense given the unwavering support of Trump’s base throughout the noise-laden primary and general elections, as well as Trump’s quietly-increasing approval rate.

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