Weekend Reading – May 13, 2018

1. Lauren Oyler writes a skeptical essay for the NYTimes Magazine exploring the concept of “necessary” art, as the proliferation of art that critiques and comments on our current social, economic, and cultural state of affairs, and the cacophonous commentary that often accompanies it on the internet.

The proliferation of the adjective “necessary” has created what she calls “an absurd and endless syllabus, constantly updating to remind you of ways you might flunk as a moral being.”

In my view, her criticism is completely valid and much needed – in the age of diminishing attention span and an explosion of works across all artistic mediums, I think there’s an increased weight to consume from the neverending hamster wheel of content in a drive to expand your personal politics, sense of morality, and view of the world, in the place of consideration, exploration, and reflection.

2. The NYTimes Magazine has devoted a significant amount of its recent features to the current opioid crisis in America — profiling the pharmaceutical companies that produce the most infamous drugs, the police, social workers, counselors and treatment centers that seek to manage the crisis, and in this week’s edition, pregnant mothers in various stages of opioid addiction.

The article touches on the ethically and scientifically gray areas around these mothers and their children – including child abuse prosecution for addicted mothers in 24 US States, the use of methadone, antidepressants, and other drugs to stem the effects of opioids on the pregnant mothers, tackling the early withdrawal symptoms of the newborns, and the to-date unknown long-term effects on the children of the addicted.

The facts are jarring: the occurrence of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) in newborns has grown to eight per 1,000 hospital births from 1.5.

3. Morgan Housel writes a fascinating and intuitive piece as part of his weekly Collaborative Fund writings, entitled – If Collaboration Fund Invested In Public Stocks.

The article is an incredibly straightforward approach to investing, and a worthwhile take on the “buy and hold” edict espoused by market experts and given to market novices.

Eight years ago, a VC partner at Collaborative Fund recommended buying 100 shares of Amazon and Netflix every month for 10 years, which would have provided a 21% annual return. Depending on how you view it, this advice could either be viewed as incredibly prescient or a byproduct of a sober view of the economy, and a long-term view of the markets.

Unlike venture capital, whose hold periods can extend beyond 10 years, equities are subject to the daily, quarterly, and annual “noise” associated with their most recent results or exogenous factors (legislation, competitors, etc.) creating “interim volatility” impacting the perceived value of their share price. By filtering out this noise, filtering on committed long-term value, and committing oneself to a VC-like holding timeline, the article points out that it doesn’t take a VC pedigree or millions of dollars to benefit from outsized returns.
The article recommends 7 public equities with distinct long-run competitive advantages as companies that it believes will endure, and continue to appreciate in value over this timespan: Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, Tesla, Square, Tencent, Adobe, and Netflix.

Regardless of whether you agree with his assessment of the companies in particular, I think the article is an incredibly worthwhile way of thinking about markets investing, and provokes ones own take on the types of companies that will result in long-run competitive advantages, innovation, and society-shifting change(s).

4. Always a sucker for productivity “hacks”, I also enjoyed Siddartha Mukerjee’s article on likely the most consequential “checklist” in a world full of them: the surgeon’s checklist.

The article explores the initial findings of fellow physician-cum-writer, Atul Gawade, who wrote a book on the surgeon’s checklist and its more “general” applications across mediums, the Checklist Manifesto, and its mixed success in different medical applications and across the world.

The article concludes that checklist or not, human behavior remains the largest factor in the successful adoption of the checklist and its ability to reduce incidence of failure.

5. I enjoyed FT columnist Simon Kuper’s take on the commencement address, which provides a humbling and level-setting appeal that’s relevant to both new grads and general readers.

If you are graduating in a vocational or technical subject, then whatever you learnt is going out of date as I speak. Nor will you learn much more if you enter the ‘real world’ of business, because business isn’t the real world.

Kuper introduces the concept of “lifelong learning,” which affirms that despite this step forward (graduation), that a continued life of education awaits, with no shortage of opportunities to learn from your fellow (wo)man, from resources both on- and offline, and from the world around you, as long as you’re open and willing to listen.

6. “Now everyone cares about Russia, and there’s no nuance.”

As Russia has again become the predominant geopolitical foe of the United States, the NYTimes Magazine profiles US foreign service officers and experts from the past 7 US Presidential administrations who’ve devoted their careers to US-Russian relations – known as “Russian hands” (protip: don’t Google “Russian hands.”)

The article somewhat hilariously shares the consensus amongst the Russian experts on the different approaches taken by US diplomats towards Russia, all fitting neatly into two buckets. However, where they don’t agree is how to bifurcate between those categories. There is the classic division between “realists” versus “internationalists,” as well as “missionaries,” who advocate for promoting democracy, freedom and liberalism through dialogue and ”crusaders” who similarly seek out freedom and democracy through influence in the region. Further, there are those who came to Russia through political science (“more cool and collected”) and those who came to it through literature (who “let their emotions get the best of them”), those who “put Russia in context, held up against the light of outside standards and consequence,” and those “who take Russia on its own terms, attractive and wonderful but subject to romanticization.” Good luck trying to draw parallels between all of these.

The article recounts the various events and approaches taken by the different administrations towards Russia, and provides some background into the current perceived Russian antipathy towards the United States, based on competing priorities and the the US domestic political situation, differing Presidential approaches towards Russia and the region, and the broader geopolitical environment of the time.

The consensus of the latest batch of Russia hands, who have steeped in the history of the Soviet Union and the broader Russian/Soviet mentality, is that US politics have seeped into our relationship with Russia, creating a “postelection political climate has made it impossible to work with Russia even on issues that would benefit both sides.”

7. A bit late, but the Boston Globe published a very worthy critique of management education and its approach towards the blue-collar workforces that MBA graduates oftentimes impact (most often through consulting and private equity, but also through straightforward corporate leadership.) The twist is that the article was written by three current MBA students – two from nearby MIT Sloan, and one from Stanford GSB.

The article is a credible look inside the institution on the lack of labor relations and related discussion on business school campuses, in favor of discussions on “values driven leadership” and the potential for future workforce automation. As MIT Sloan professor Thomas Kochan writes: “Labor relations is often either ignored or, if covered, curricula tend to focus on how to avoid rather than how to work with” workers’ rights groups, a damning view from a credible source.

As Duff MacDonald explained in his history of HBS and the broader MBA, The Golden Passport, labor relations was a major focus in the MBAs of the 1970s and prior, but as the importance of labor diminished with the rise of Wall Street and private equity buyouts, the curriculum (and more importantly, broader focus) has shifted along with the times.

The article offers some suggestions for more closely integrating and exposing future business leaders to ordinary workers, and I think is worthy of heeding. In a follow-up post in the Globe, MIT Sloan professors, including some affiliated with the notoriously worker-friendly Costco, defend Sloan by addressing the existing curriculum in place, but the broader critique, which is aimed at the MBA degree, rather than any one school, stands.

Weekend Reading – May 6, 2018

1. An early (2:30PM!) Lunch with the FT in Madrid with Pervuian novelist and international treasure Mario Vargas Llosa. The reporting and Vargas Llosa have an interesting conversation on the monumental shift in Latin American politics that has taken place over Vargas’ lifetime: military dictatorships and socialism have (mostly) given way to democracies throughout the region.

After briefly addressing the small-handed elephant in the room (“so Third World-esque”), Vargas Llosa does a quick survey on the current state of South American politics: Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and the tragic state of Venezuela.

The conversation touches on the upcoming Mexican elections, which I think are a greatly underreported story and the cause for looming conflict between the pigheaded US President and their third largest trading partner. The upcoming choice between the nationalist, “Mexico first” Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the hegemonic, long-ruling PRI, is certain to result in public rows as each candidate seeks to position Mexico as a strong, independent country.

2. The Paris Bureau Chief at the FT does a survey of the first year of Macron’s Presidency: characterized by a wave of business- and globalization-friendly legislation, as well as a centralized power structure that gives Macron and his immediate deputies massive purview over the French State.

Despite Macron’s roots within the administration of former President Francois Hollande, it is interesting how much Macron has intentionally sought to distance himself from traditional French governance in the creation of the En Marche political party, his Presidential campaign, and his first year in power.

Per Laurent Bigorgne, of Paris-based think-tank Institut Montaigne and a fundemantal part of the founding of En Marche: “Macron’s election is like Hiroshima year zero. A nuclear bomb has fallen on French politics and we’re still standing in the rubble.”

That “rubble” includes a lack of a formal En Marche political organization and a coherent ideology behind “Macron-ism,” two concerns that could prove difficult for Macron’s political future. But for now, Macron increasingly seems to be a signal of a growing bipolar leadership in Europe, and a face of globalism in the face of anti-immigration, nationalist rhetoric in the region and throughout the world.

3. In the age of Netflix and Amazon, British broadcaster Jeremy Paxman takes a look at the current state of the BBC, which he points out has been maligned for much of its history.

Despite a perpetual and comedic state of organizational bloat, the BBC’s fixed license fee (+free for those above 75-years-old) prevents it from securing sports rights and investing in mega-epics like its digital counterparts, and results in it often losing its rights internationally to the likes of Netflix and Amazon.

However, the BBC continues to be a fantastically successful organization in cultural importance and commercial success. Paxon’s critques seem to be overly simplistic and near-universal for all streaming platforms: a) make content that people want to watch, and b) why can’t I find what I want to watch, when I want to watch it?

4. In the New Yorker, I read three complementary pieces contending with the modern realities of combating terrorism and protecting our national security:

First, the New Yorker’s profile of former National Security H.R. McMaster reads as a useful companion piece to the NYTimes magazine’s earlier profile of Secretary of Defense Mattis (with interesting insights on their internecine conflicts) on how individuals with a military background see their participation in the Trump Presidency as one of “duty” to their country. The article is juicy and full of continued insights on the Trump administration’s disfunction, but where I think it is especially interesting is where it reflects the disconnect between McMaster’s academic studies on the failures of the US Presidency in managing the Vietnam War and his participation and governance of our current global war on terror.

Second, its profile of former clandestine CIA officer and Savannah police officer Patrick Skinner is an interesting look of someone who came away from his experience combating Islamic terrorism disillusioned and with a conviction to try and conduct the same type of “hearts-and-minds” war-waging that the US has committed itself to around the world to his hometown community of Savannah. The article is a sympathetic look at a single man fighting a losing battle — the continued militarization of police forces, the ongoing race-based conflict between local communities and their police, and the mental health epidemic that rages across the country.

Third, an interesting discussion on the legal gray area of striking back against malicious hackers seeking to steal intellectual property and personal information, or sabotage computer networks. The article surveys companies, cyberterrorism specialists, and legislators on the war being raged online, and the lack of adequate responses that exist for national or extranational attacks.

The NYTimes magazine covered a related case, the so-called “Billion-Dollar Bank Job,” that discussed an attempted $951m heist by to-date unknown hackers (suspected to be connected to North Korea), brazenly done by hacking the Bangladeshi Central Bank and using the seemingly safe SWIFT international transfer infrastructure. The article discusses the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the millions/billions of dollars held in Central Banks across the developing (and developed) world, and further cements the importance of building the types of ammunition and reciprocal methods outlined in the New Yorker piece.

5. CityLab shared an excellent analysis on the effects of gentrification in Philadelphia, and the impact of two complementary pieces of legislation by Mayor Michael Nutter to ensure that vulnerable homeowners are not adversely impacted and exploited.

The first, called the Actual Value Initiative (AVI), sought to better align property taxes with their property values, a much-needed boost to revenue in a tax-starved city in need of revenue (though not without waste and corruption). The second, called the Longtime Owner Occupants Program (LOOP), is focused on tax abatement for individuals below a certain income threshold who have lived in their homes for 10 years or more, and experienced at significant increase in their assessed home values. It decreased delinquency rates for homeowners who ended up claiming it in gentrifying neighborhoods.

The article was a heartening look at the sometimes-successful impact of studied, well-implemented legislation on increasing equality, and another example of the successful tenure of Michael Nutter (reflection: the less you hear about a mayor / governor in local papers, the more successful their tenure likely is.)

6. I was incredibly amused by the NYTimes’ coverage of Bob Dylan’s recent foray into the premium spirits universe with his “Heaven’s Door” whiskey.

The initial coverage recounts the unintentionally hilarious interactions between Dylan and his liquor-industry partners on the flavor profile of his whiskey (Dylan: “It should feel like being in a wood structure”), as well as Dylan’s ongoing efforts to resist categorization and spurn those who attempt to understand his varied and seemingly-inexplicable commercial ventures.

The follow-up story was a review of the Heaven’s Door whiskey itself by a whiskey reviewer, which reads like any generic whiskey or wine review – which is, I suppose, an implicit endorsement.

Weekend Reading – April 29, 2018

1. Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of the humanities at Baylor University and author of The Pleasure of Reading in the Digital Age and How to Think, is profiled by a former student of his in American Magazine.

The article is an inspiring look at someone who has sought to take on the question and role of religion in our modern age head-on, as well as the role that technology plays in our spiritual lives. Unlike many inside the institution, Jacobs seems to be continually evolving as a thinker and critic, and continues to produce work of relevance to the layperson.

With the growing prominence of self-proclaimed Christian intellectual Jordan Peterson and his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, there seems to be a bit of a revival of religion as part of the broader conversation on meaning and living a meaningful life in the 21st century.


2. New York Magazine shared its interview with Internet visionary / shaman Jaron Lanier as part of its series, The Internet Apologizing, a collection of conversations that seek to better understand the shortcomings and inherent issues with the contemporary internet.

As someone who was around during the heyday / founding of Silicon Valley, Lanier has a unique perspective on the hacker / geek / outsider culture that was at the core of the Valley’s influx of open-source innovation. Today, Lanier sees Silicon Valley as ideologically stuck between socialism and libertarianism, resulting in “the worst of both worlds,” and presents himself as the  conscience of the Valley, a dreadlocked Jinimy Cricket.

In addition, Lanier paints a scary picture of the looming VR era:

we might remember ourselves as having been fortunate that it happened when the technology was really just little slabs we carried around in our pockets that we could look at and that could talk to us, or little speakers we could talk to. It wasn’t yet a whole simulated reality that we could inhabit.


3. Frank Chimero, whose system for listening to and cataloging music in the digital age, returns with a bullet-listed guide to productivity. Right off the bat, Frank mirrors my thinking of late on the benefits that pen & paper provide in our age of distraction:

Stay on paper as long as possible. Sketch and write things out long-hand, possibly even emails. We all know screens are distracting. It’s much more pragmatic to step away from them for a significant block of time than trying to learn an attentional jiu jitsu that may be impossible. If you think you can’t step away, do it anyway for one day to see how much trouble it causes. That’s useful information.

I appreciate the humanity and considered approach taken – there’s no shortage of projects, to-do’s, and things to consider that crowd the mind and engender anxiety, so his system of dumping it all on paper, only to revisit on a daily basis (recognizing that in any given day not everything can be accomplished), seems like a worthy one. Curious to give this a go.


4. With the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the brainchild of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice initiative, Pacific Standard Magazine interviewed Stevenson on a range of issues surrounding race, justice, and America’s tenuous history and record vis-a-vis the two. The interview is an excellent primer on Stevenson and his ongoing, incredibly important work.

As I continue to familiarize myself with Stevenson and his career, I am continually struck by how much authority and knowledge this one man has, based on his decades of struggle and experience. In today’s world of hucksters and lifehacks, Stevenson’s devotion to his cause, and commitment in the face of long odds and continued disappointments is an inspiration, and I am incredibly heartened that his work with the EJI and to the betterment of the United States justice system will be forever be enshrined via the National Memorial.

I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Stevenson’s essential Just Mercy, a book so important that as I make my way through it I continually kick myself for not having read it earlier.


5. At first glance, the New Yorker’s article on Japan’s rent-a-family industry could be dismissed as quirky, “only in Japan” oddity. However, the article does an incredible job at going much deeper, and providing a glimpse not only the types of “situations” that reveal some unique aspects of Japanese culture (formal apologies, divorce ceremonies, communal crying), but also the broader humanity that having a family provides.

Reading the article reminded me of the film Still Walking (2008), which provides a glimpse into the (extended) Japanese nuclear family.


6. In a NYTimes Book Review covering two recently-published books on entry of the private sector into space travel, Walter Isaacson mulls whether the groundwork laid by NASA over 30 years ago will be the kickstarter used by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to privatize and commercialize space travel, following a common narrative of public sector research leading to private sector innovation (semiconductors, internet, etc.).

Akin to Tesla and Edison, these two titans seem to be competing in lockstep to be the eminent father of modern space travel, propelling their respective innovation and progress forward.


7. Last Thursday, the Arizona Cardinals drafted a quarterback named Josh Rosen with the 10th pick. The New Yorker wrote a short piece on him and the history of the Jewish football player.

This article exposes some of the biases that persist by NFL scouts and executives that seem to be solely based on Rosen’s Judaism (though he isn’t even a practicing Jew) – leading to whispers of being ‘too intellectual’, and ‘unliked’ by his locker room peers.

So much of this disrespect and bias is normally reserved for black football players (and white basketball players), so interesting to see it extend even further.


8. John Dickerson’s mega read in the Atlantic provides a sobering and impartial analysis of just how difficult it has become to carry out the role of president.

Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama told Michael Lewis, writing for Vanity Fair. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”

Dickerson proposes some worthy, out of the box solutions to try and combat the current stalemate associated with the presidency (empower the cabinet more, delegate the ceremonial aspect of the Presidency), but in some ways it feels foregone that in our partisan representative democracy a president would feel sufficiently empowered to enact any major changes without a 24-hour level of scrutiny and partisan criticism.

As Dickerson hints in a hypothetical inaugural address at the end of his piece, it may take our first female president to put forward such egoless changes.

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.

Weekend Reading – April 13, 2018

1. Robin Wigglesworth in the Financial Times provides a worthy history of ‘volatility’ as used by financial markets to assess market movement.

The article explains the Nobel Prize-winning financial innovations initially introduced to the world through concepts explained in academic papers: Harry Markowitz (volatility), William Sharpe (risk-reward in performance), and Black/Merton/Scholes (options), through the recent market innovations based on the Chicago Board of Exchange’s volatility indicator, known as the ‘VIX.’

“Despite its flaws, volatility-based risk management is the scaffolding upon which most of the modern investing industry is built.”

Up until recently, the VIX (a measure of the expected volatility of the US stock market over the next 30 days) has been a sure bet, as the markets seemed to have been surprisingly calm despite Trump’s election and the global political uncertainty it caused.


VIX movement since May 2017, per Yahoo Finance. Note the massive spike in early February.

However, on February 5th, XIV, a financial product sold by Credit Suisse that acted as an ‘inverse’ of the VIX, lost over 90% in one day (Howard Lindzon did a useful post-mordem on the XIV the day of the collapse, as well as a further assessment the day after.)

The FT tracks market movement since the XIV’s collapse to show how Wall Street and economist/academics have ‘financialized’ the concept of market ‘volatility’ as a proxy for risk, and how Wall Street has “morphed” volatility “from a proxy of risk into an input for risk.”

Now, some in the markets believe that volatility-based trading has made the markets incredibly fragile, and that future market volatility in difficult economic conditions are likely to be vastly exacerbated as a result.


2. Russian Oligarch Vladimir Potanin was this week’s profile in the always-entertaining Lunch with the FT.

Potanin is one of Russia’s seven original oligarchs (and one of two still considered ‘welcomed’ in the country) who conceived of the ‘loan for shares’ program that sold off control of Russia’s most valuable natural resource assets in exchange for bank loans to assist with the country’s debts.

Potanin’s justification for his actions: “When people come from a totally closed system to openness; from a planned economy to a market economy; from a powerful state to a state in difficulties, there is no place for fairness.

It’s been interesting to learn more about the evolution of Russian politics and society over the past months as the Mueller investigation (and related media inquiry) has ramped up. Incidentally, Potanin is one of the oligarchs included on the ‘Kremlin’ list of individuals subject to financial sanctions.

Potanin is presented as an interesting character: repentant for the way he received his extreme wealth, and committed to using this wealth to improve upon his image. In the run-up to the Winter Olympics, Potanin gave $2.5B to assist in the construction of a ski resort in Sochi, which could also be seen as a ‘tribute’ of sorts to Putin and his treasured get-away locale. He is spending another $2.5B to clean up the city the Arctic city of Norilsk that has become one of the world’s most polluted building the mines and factories that date back to Stalin and his labor camps.

Related to Russia, I also enjoyed the NY Mag’s profile of Glenn Greenwald, who has been the most vocal and consistent critic of the US media’s accusal of Russia for meddling in the 2016 elections and beyond.


3. The Financial Times takes a survey of recent literature written about Fascism, and its tricky to pin-down definition, in the wake of the re-election of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán as Prime Minister and ongoing prominence of Donald Trump in the headlines.

The article demonstrates that Fascism has been seen as a cure against inefficient, bloated, and non-responsive ‘democracies’ across the world, which has reoccured throughout history in various forms in response to evolving political and economic environments.

Similar to the Russia coverage, it’s been fascinating to reflect a bit on the reversal that we’ve seen over the past two years from the ‘consensus’ propagated by academics and thinkers on the inevitability of liberal democracy and peace across the world. In some ways, this reversal has been overstated: European anti-immigration candidates like Geert Wilders and Marie Le Pen were roundly defeated in their country’s elections.

On the other hand, Xi’s consolidation of power, and the upcoming political transition of Putin are two bellweathers of a preservation of authoriarianism across the world, and strains of Fascism that persist. Here in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, despite being recently convicted of inciting racial hatred, remains a strong candidate, and will have a platform for his hateful, Fascist views in the upcoming election.


4. The Wall Street Journal interviews George Mason University Professor Bryan Caplan, an economist who recently wrote the book ‘The Case against Education.’

In the article, Caplan explains the core idea of his book: that schooling, especially college, provides a ‘signal’ to the workforce, rather than providing concrete, applicable skills. This has led to the concept of “credential inflation,” in which the labor market now requires a college degree for jobs that previously would have only required a high school degree.

The case for education, therefore, is to ‘keep up.’ The analogy he provides is useful: “If everyone at a concert is sitting, and you want to see better, you can stand up. “But if everyone stands up, everyone does not see better.”


5. A bit late to this one, but the NY Times profiles the Philadelphia clothing store Boyd’s, which it dubs ‘The Last Great Clothing Store.’

“Such tradition and continuity across generations was once commonplace in retail apparel. But in this age of dressing down and click-and-buy, in an environment where the big chains have killed off the mom-and-pops and Amazon is killing off the chains, Boyds now feels like a shopping experience out of time.”

These stories are oftentimes focused on places stuck in time like Italy and Japan, which is why I’m so delighted to read about this article in my hometown Philadelphia.


Philadelphia native Wilt Chamberlain shopping at Boyd’s

To me, the article is a microcosm of Philadelphia, and sheds light on so much of what I love about the city: its humble origins, the multi-generation, immigrant story of the store’s founding, and loyalty of Boyd’s customers and their attentive salespeople.


6. On the other hand, the Pew Charitable Trust provides an overview of the current state of Philadelphia in the State of the City 2018 through a survey of economic and social indicators.

The quick takeaway is that while Philadelphia continues to improve on nearly all important key urban economic indicators, there is a very persistent and growing social inequity taking place, carried out via old foes: murder (317 Philadelphians were murdered last year, an increase of 40 from last year) and poverty (26% poverty rate), as well as newer ones (the opioid epidemic took an estimated 1,200 lives.)

Philadelphia’s population continues to grow as immigrants continue to come to the city to join already-vibrant immigrant communities across the city. Despite the best efforts of Philadelphia’s ICE to round up and arrest undocumented immigrants at a rate higher than anywhere else in the country, Philadelphia remains a sanctuary city both in status and as felt by the thousands of immigrants who call it home.

While the city is ahead of comparatively poorer and more dangerous places like Baltimore and Detroit, its overall economic success is higher than those places as well, accounting for the gross inequity and divide that persists in the city. As seen in this weekend’s arrest of 2 black men for loitering in a Starbucks, there are deep seated prejudices that exist in the city that serve to perpetuate these injustices, though Mayor Kenney’s strong avowal of the arrest provided a unifying presence in the normally-divided city.


7. The Atlantic provides an overview of the ongoing battle between Disney and Netflix, or rather, Disney’s challenge to catch up to Netflix in the internet streaming segment, without cannibalizing its extremely lucrative (but shrinking) cable tv business.

Disney’s rival product to Netflix will be released in 2019, and will boast a worthy collection of content to rival Netflix, including its recent purchase of 21st Century Fox. Per Disney’s head of direct-to-consumer business, they’re ‘all-in’ on the success of the platform.

The article proposes that Disney may undercut its current relationship with theatrical movie goers (who are seeing movies at the theater at record-low levels) in favor of direct-to-streaming, capitalizing on the chunky margin currently ceded to movie theaters.

Whereas Netflix has used television shows, most notably House of Cards, to attract subscribers to the platform, the article proposes that Disney would take the blockbuster, traditionally reserved for the silver screen, and bring it directly to the consumer.

The gamble of going ‘all in’ on streaming content, and taking Netflix head-on, assumes that consumers would be willing to pay for more than one streaming platform concurrently.

However, I would also argue that consumers may opt for Disney’s service over Netflix in the future on the strength of its content. While Netflix has tried to build a moat around its business given its several-year lead on its competitors, the result has been a huge amount of content, with very few hits to show for it (House of Cards, Stranger Things). And while one could argue that this hit rate is actually relatively good considering the typical failure rate of entertainment investments, I’d argue that Disney’s roster of content and characters (including 21st Century Fox, Lucasfilm, and Marvel) provides enough of a draw with its universe(s) of established characters and franchises.

Netflix’s first acquisition, its purchase of the comic publisher Millarworld (Kick-Ass, Kingsmen), showed that in the competition for content and established name recognition, Netflix is seeking to capitalize on the steady cash flow from established characters and universes, while pooling both its ‘untapped’ content and brainpower of its writers in search for the next ‘hit.’ However, this is more or less the same conventional thinking that led to Disney’s past purchases of Lucasfilm and Marvel.

Ultimately, this ‘battle’ will prove beneficial to both content creators and their audiences, who are already inundated with more worthy television (almost too much) than they can reasonably fit into their lives. However, if barroom and houseparty conversations are any bellweather, Netflix has managed to make its way into the households (and bedrooms) of their desired demographics, and Disney now has a long way to go to catch up.

UPDATE: On Netflix’s Q1 earnings call on April 16th, the company noted that they are always “on the lookout for new IP,” an indication that more IP-related M&A can be expected.

Weekend Reading – April 1 & 8, 2018

1. The case of Hong Kong’s missing booksellers tells the dystopian and alarming story behind the Chinese kidnapping of several Hong Kong booksellers that embroiled Hong Kong in protest back in 2015.

Lam Wing-kee, a bookseller who ran the now-shuttered Causeway Books for over 20 years, was arrested for selling (and smuggling into Chinese) both ordinary, run-of-the-mill titles and more salacious books on Chinese leadership.

The bookseller’s arrest, treatment and subsequent ‘reeducation’ provide another signal that the longstanding Chinese respect for the historic “one country, two systems” system with Hong Kong (and its vibrant free press) is no longer respected, if not unofficially over altogether.

This article brought to mind another great (and heartbreaking) piece on the authoritarian and Kafkaesque nature of China’s vast police and propaganda state in the NYTimes – ‘Flee at Once’: China’s Besieged Human Rights Lawyers.


2. As migration to big cities persist in the UK and chain-pubs continue to expand, a quarter of all local pubs have closed. To combat this, local residents have increasingly taken to buying and restoring their locals.

The FT chats with several of these communities, who argue that the pub not only serves an integral role in the local community, but also drives real estate premiums and significant interest relative to pub-less towns and communities.


3. The NYTimes Mag profiles Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and makes the case that with the departure of McMaster and Tillerson (and potentially Kelly, soon?), he remains the sober, reasoned voice in the room amongst an increasingly belligerent and inexperienced foreign affairs apparatus. The article paints Tillerson and Mattis as closely coordinated on the major key issues of the Trump presidency (North Korea, Iran, Qatar / Saudi Arabia), and discusses Mattis’ ongoing commitment to diplomatic tradecraft (coordinating with local consulates – a seemingly normal preparatory act deemed Herculean in our chaos-driven age).

The article paints an incredibly scary picture of the continued devolution of the White House – a Saudi delegation refusing to meet with Tillerson because it believes it already has a direct line to Trump, a ignorant and uninformed Jared Kushner being exploited on Middle East affairs, and War Room clashes with Trump on the benefit of our Post-war rules and diplomatic-based order (hardly controversial in any other Presidency.)

The article describes Mattis, who was known as the Warrior Monk earlier in his career for his spartan commitment to being a soldier and military man, as making the ultimate sacrifice for his country – remaining in place as the secretary of defense, as the literal “last line” of defense against the threat of conflict.


4. The FT visits the Rothera research station of the British Antarctic Survey to cover the changing climate conditions in the region, its impact on the immediate landscape and wildlife and implications for global sea levels. The article follows and photographs the scientists subjecting themselves to the harsh and thankless terrain to study these changes.

The thing about working in Antártica, you really are working on the edge of knowledge. It is probably the only place in the world where we are still making discoveries on an almost weekly basis.”


5. The always entertaining Lunch with the FT one-ups itself this week with its conversation with one-time (10 day) White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci.

”We haven’t even ordered, but I am already losing control over the conversation.”


6. I’ve been closely following the Brazilian Supreme Court’s decision to uphold and then subsequently order the the arrest of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known simply as “Lula” here in Brazil.

The NYTimes has done an admirable job of summarizing the daily twist-and-turns that led to Lula turning himself in to police on Saturday.

Wednesday, April 4th: Lula, Brazil’s Ex-President, Can Be Jailed, Court Rules

Thursday, April 5th: Judge Orders Brazil’s Ex-President ‘Lula’ to Begin Prison Term on Friday

Friday, April 6th: Defying Arrest Deadline, Brazil’s Ex-President Dares Police to Come Get Him

Saturday, April 7th: Ex-President ‘Lula’ of Brazil Surrenders to Serve 12-Year Jail Term

In an editorial by the FT, the editors argue that Lula’s arrest is a net positive for Brazil and Brazilian democracy, as it demonstrates to the world (and Brazilians) that no citizen is above the law, and that corruption, even at the highest levels, will not be treated with impunity.

This is a fairly common reaction outside of Brazil, but fails to reflect how incredibly endemic and wide-reaching the corruption scandal is, and how much more work is left to be done.

Weekend Reading – March 24, 2018

1. Jeff Bezos’ third annual Mars conference could be mistaken for a sci-fi convention if they only let people of Comic Book Guy-level genius in: an incredible confluence of robotics, AI experts, and futurists.

What’s truly amazing to me is how much extra-governmental activity is going on around the world by titans of industry and the ultra-rich: while much of the research / Mars’ participants come from the world of academia, it seems like a lot of the big-picture thinking, and the heavy investment, is being done by private citizens keen to use their net worth to for benefit of humanity (or to massively enrich themselves further).

2. Along these lines, the NY Mag’s incredible piece “13 Reasons to Believe Aliens are Real presents a comprehensive look at the current state of the search for extraterrestrial life, from the captivating and plausible (a survey of habitable planets, ongoing outreach attempts, etc.) to the more imaginative and unlikely (alien abduction meet-ups, broad speculation by seemingly crackpot former civil servants)

Somewhere in between these are the accounts of a cadre of logic-based speculation, credible observation, and unexplained (and videotaped) phenomena that provoke one’s imagination, and lend credence to the truth being “out there.”

3. In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Ella Saltmarshe makes the case for systemic storytelling, one of the oldest modes of mass communication and cooperation (as recounted by Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, an inspiration for this article), in fomenting change and changing widely held opinions.

“While […] highly personal stories are often compelling, they don’t encourage people to think systemically about public solutions”

The author surveys efforts taking place around the world to use systemic storytelling to tackle some of the world’s hairiest issues, oftentimes those most removed from immediate action, such as climate change, sustainability and representation in media. The article is a great reminder of the power of a story as a simple, elegant delivery vehicle to make the world a better place.

4. I enjoyed reading Caity Weaver’s incredibly entertaining and surprisingly convincing profile of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for GQ, which was shared by the NYTimes team in advance of her joining the Styles section.

5. Simon Kuper pours cold water on the allure of international espionage in his weekly Financial Times essay: “The world of espionage is not so much a treasure chest, more a junk shop whose proprietor has lost track of his stock.”

He argues that Russia’s current and former spies, rather than serving any sort of information-gathering, subterfuge, or sabotage purpose, Russian spies are a “brand of public relations,” “meant to be seen.”

6. The NYTimes profiles US soccer star Landon Donovan and his late-career decision to sign with the Mexican club León. Donovan recounts his experience transitioning to life in an industrial, football-crazed Mexican town, and his evolving feelings towards the country that has long seen him as the principal villain in the longstanding US – Mexican rivalry. A heartwarming story that demonstrates the acceptance, passion, and hardworking character of the Mexican people – something that we could stand to emulate north of the border.

7. The NYTimes covers Brazilian President Michel Temer’s decision to run for reelection in the upcoming October Presidential elections, a shrewd move that will likely stand to provide him a platform to preserve his legacy, given his extreme unpopularity and lame-duck status as the unelected successor to Dilma.

The Brazilians I’ve surveyed (including a woman I saw with seemingly handmade FORA TEMER gold earrings) seem to see Temer’s decision to run as a lighthearted joke, rather than something to take seriously. The polling numbers seem to agree: per the NYTimes, pollster Ibope found in December that only 6 percent of Brazilians think Temer is doing a good or great job, while 74 percent see him as bad or terrible.

Signifying the lack of established candidates in the run up to October, Temer’s well-regarded Finance Minster, Henrique Merelles, has also signaled that he may vie for the Presidency, and has until April 7th to formally resign his post in advance of the early campaign season.

Weekend Reading – March 17, 2018

1. Smuggling of U.S. Technology Is Outpacing Cold War Levels, Experts Say – NYTimes


Adversaries have long deployed spies and black market dealers to obtain American technology. But the scale of current efforts is unusual — “worse than anything that occurred during the Cold War. During the Cold War, there was essentially one threat: the former Soviet Union. Now there are numerous threats.” –  Robert S. Litwak, the vice president for scholars and director of international security studies at the Wilson Center in Washington

2. Ahead of Spotify and Dropbox’s expected IPOs, investor Bill Gurley argues in favor of Spotfiy putting growth ahead of profitabilitywhen valuing the company (a compelling argument that I hadn’t necessary fully considered), and the FT argues that the recent growth on vote-less and tiered stock offerings is a new low for corporate governance, as “investors have been trading in their governance rights in the hope of backing another Google and the belief that the founding entrepreneurs are miracle workers.”

3. The New York Times Magazine recounts the insane story of the kidnapping and subsequent $1 billion paid out for the release of the Qatari royal family, who were kidnapped by Shiite militia while on a falconry trip in Iraq.

The story capably explains the fragile state of the Middle East and the longstanding Sunni-Shiite conflict, being carried out across the region (most notably, in Syria) and financed by proxies (Iran and Saudi Arabia.) The article makes the case that the Qatari ransom payment was a useful pretext for the Saudi blockade of Qatar.

4. The Village Capital structure of mentors and partners seems insane and a clear attempt to try and consolidate venture deal flow for entrepreneurs interested in quickly and efficiently bringing their products into the fold. The question, in my mind, is how much does luck and serendipity play into future outsized VC returns, as recently seen in Amazon’s $1B acquisition of Ring  (2nd largest acquisition by AMZN, ever!) and recounted by Fred Wilson.

5. This week’s Lunch with the FT is with the Nigerian Emir of Kano. Over a home-cooked dinner in his palace, the Emir provides a window into a fascinating African culture that balances modernity (as the largest and most dynamic economy in Africa) with tradition (including an anecdote at the end of the piece on the permanent position of chanter / guide of the Emir, originally tasked with sheparding a blind Emir generations ago).

Weekend Reading – March 10, 2018

1. Simon Kuper’s essay on the ‘businessman (never woman) as politician fallacy‘ in the FT.

Unfortunately, the experiences of Trump / Kushner are unlikely to be the death knell on this argument they should be. The fallacy doesn’t seem to be going anywhere – maybe just moving West – Peter Thiel, Sam Altman, maybe even Mark Zuckerberg all count themselves as aspiring entrants to the political ring.

2. A re-writing of the Communist Manifesto to tackle our modern income inequality, replacing the ‘burgeois with “Have,” and the ‘proletariat’ with “Have-Not” summarized in the FT.

74% of the pamphlet’s words were kept intact, reflecting its longstanding relevance, even has communism has undergone many forms and failures since its inception. The entirety of the project, and a comparison between the two is at http://activistmanifesto.org/.

3. Chief business commentator John Gapper sits down with childrens’ author Michael Morpurgo for a delightfully British and characteristic Lunch with the FT

4. Steve Francis’ incredible piece for the Players Tribune ranks up there with the best – Dion Waiters, and (less objectively) Lane Johnson and Alshon Jeffery.

Hakeem and Steve Francis could’ve made a great buddy cop movie. A related NYTimes Mag article on the quandary that the Players Tribune presents to the future of sports journalism.

5. Continued discussion on The Case Against an MBA – a 2010 blog post written by start-up vet and former Tuck MBA Jason Freedman

Most people get an MBA because of the network.  They have learned that having a group of successful friends will open doors for you.  Pedigree from a top school=better opportunities for success. 

For start-ups, only one thing matters.  Can you build something that people want. Your pedigree is exactly worthless compared to this simple ability to execute.  And for an MBA that just spent 3 years (remember, the application process takes a year!) and over $120,000 building a network, it’s really difficult to hear that the network and the education are no longer as big of an asset as you had hoped.

In my discussion with individuals in the start-up and entrepreneurship through acquisition world (though mostly those without an MBA) – this is a common argument made – the fact that while an MBA can definitely yield an impressive network, there are likely cheaper and less time consuming ways to go about it. Not to mention the opportunity cost of spending time studying, versus “building.”

In the ensuing discussion on Hacker News (excellent arguments both pro and con) someone links to words from Silicon Valley sage Paul Graham:

The cause of the apparent paradox is that “business” spans a huge range. MBAs train you to be junior officers in the armies of managerial capitalism. But there is almost zero overlap between that sort of work and what startups do.

Actually I would say it’s a slight net minus to have an MBA when doing a startup. You learn nothing of use to you, but investors discriminate against you slightly.

6. Fascinating behind-the-scenes article on the recent opening of communications between The US and North Korea, which the NYTimes argues is a “a case study in international relations in the Trump era.”

The impulse-leading-action that the story conveys, and the unilateral decisions taken on by Trump at the expense of his advisors / international allies is truly scary, and leads one to the conclusion that far from any hope for progress, Trump is most likely being played on all sides.