Writing

Less, More, and None

 

I was inspired by a page that has been making the rounds on the internet called Less, More, None, and decided to sit down and craft my own version of the exercise.

Revisiting this in digital form, I think the sum of the answers encapsulates my current state of mind.

Less

  • Podcasts
  • Completionism
  • Seductive reading
  • News / Journalism
  • Impulsive acting
  • Excuses / Rationalizations
  • Negativity / Cynicism
  • Compulsive phone checking
  • Clutter
  • Distraction
  • Internet
  • “Needing to know”
  • Last in, first out (email)
  • Email
  • Digital

More

  • Music
  • Learning
  • Patience
  • Quiet
  • Thinking
  • Writing
  • Consistency
  • Gratitude
  • Creating
  • Experimenting / Tinkering / Toying
  • Long walks
  • Catching up with loved ones
  • First in, first out (email)
  • Journaling
  • Analog
  • Organization
  • Passions

None

  • Comparing my journey to others
  • Worrying about other’s opinions
  • Conformity
  • Self-pity
  • Chasing the latest / sexy trends

 

Weekend Reading — June 10, 2018

1. Despite Maduros re-election in Venezuela and his promises of food for votes, an estimated 4,000 Venezuelans are leaving the country every day for Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil, creating further dysfunction in a country already considered a failed state by most.

Last week, the Washington Post checked in on the increasingly fragile state of the country following Maduro’s reelection, and the increasingly sparse civil institutions that undergird any working society.

“If we continue like this, Venezuela won’t even be a Third World country anymore,” said Flores, the school principal.

2. A recently published study has debunked the famous marshmallow test, which correlated the recipients ability to delay gratification (in this case, by not consuming a single marshmallow based on the promise of a second to come) with successful outcomes later in life. The long-held notion, popularized in a bestselling book entitled The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success was that children able to innately understand the benefit of self-control and delayed gratification in childhood would carry into their education and adulthood, and ultimately produce less impulsive, and more successful adults.

Using a larger sample size that spanned across race, class, and parents’ educational level, the revised study tied the child’s social and economic background as the primary determinant behind the childrens’ decision to forego the first marshmallow, with limited long-term correlation between the decision to consume the marshmellow and the childrens’ medium term outcome (using performance in standardized testing as a barometer).

As the Atlantic hypothesized, children who are brought up in relative abundance are able to more easily internalize the promise of a future reward than someone of limited means, where meals, rewards, and other day-to-day routines are less promised.

3. In the NY Times Opinion section, Paul Krugman provides a “primer” on the history of the politicization of trade and trade “wars” in the United States, and the “political realism” that often outweighs economic theory in trade-related decisions.

While Krugman concedes that it is historically the role of the Executive Branch to manage trade relationships and implement tariffs, he sees no logic or justification for Trump’s levied tariffs.

Related to Trade, NPR podcast Planet Money did a feature on the current state of the WTO several weeks ago that explained the Trump Administration’s efforts to paralyze WTO rulings by vetoing all nominated judges.

4. Marking the publication of a 930-page collection of the works of Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, NYTimes Book Critic Parul Sehgal writes on the literary legacy of the author, who has been compared from everyone from Dickens to Kafka, and in between.

The collection of stories appears to span decades and various styles, from straight romances to modernist stories to political satire. While a bit maximalist in its scope, the book lover in me has already mentally filed this onto my to-buy list.

5. With the recent announcement of the June 2018 release of John Coltrane’s  “undiscovered” album, Both Directions at Once, there’s always a lingering doubt in my mind whether is getting the Jimi Hendrix / Tupac treatment – a thirst for new and repackaged material that doesn’t necessarily justify a new release.

However, all signs point to the album being a worthy addition to Coltrane’s catalog, including the “who” (John Coltrane’s reknowned quartet – Tyner, Garrison, and Elvin Jones), “where” (recorded in famed engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio) and “when” (1963 – leading up to the 1965 Love Supreme sessions), not to mention the “what” (a new John Coltrane album!).

Attached to this article was a posthumous appreciation of Coltrane written by the Times’ longtime jazz critic, Ben Ratliff. The article provides incredibly useful contexts for the prodigious rigor and study behind Coltrane’s genius, and his desire to continually improve, expand, and innovate. Ratliff’s commentary led me to reexamine and listen to two of Coltrane’s later albums, Ascension and Meditations, both of which are hardly easy listens, but avant garde, free jazz masterpieces in their own right.

6. In an article reminiscent of the B”razil’s initial pre-sal discovery and Lula’s 2008 proclamation that “God is Brazilian, Brazil has once again returned to the auction markets to sell blocks of its offshore oil deposits, with global oil corporations like Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell lining up to own a piece of some of the world’s richest (and most inaccessible and expensively extracted) stores of oil.

Invoking Brazil’s mix of capitalism and state-subsidized industrialization that was so apparent over the past month’s trucker’s strike, Petrobras exercised its ‘legal’ right to own a stake in each of the blocks, as well as serve as their operator. The Economist provided a helpful explanation on the convoluted rules surrounding the purchase and operation of the blocks back in 2013.

7. The Financial Times checks in on the current state of Bitcoin, which seemed ubiquitious last year as it climbed up to $20k / bitcoin and has since settled around $7k over the past few months.

Using data from blockchain research company Chainalysis, there seems to have been a shift in the trading volume from longer term holders, or investors to traders/speculators, who are focused on the rewards from smaller fluctuations.

While Steven Johnson’s longform piece in the NYTimes Magazine remains essential in explaining the long-term use case and potential of bitcoin, for the moment bitcoin continues to remain primarily an investment vehicle. Quoted at the risk of ridicule years from now, one cryptocurrency observer commented: “Speculation remains the primary use case for these digital assets; merchant or institutional adoption does not appear to be a primary driver of price,”

As the number of coins and their use cases continue to grow exponentially, I am curious to what extent bitcoin will continue to be at the vanguard of innovation and an accurate measure of cryptocurrency sentiment more broadly, or whether the decentralized nature of the currencies will result in a fracturing of investment vehicles and use cases.

8. This week’s NYTimes Book Review has no shortage of compelling reviews of books that seem worthy of reading, just in time for the summer:

Weekend Reading – June 3, 2018

1. Beth Kowitt wrote a fascinating article on the genesis and hypothesized (as Amazon chose not to comment on the article) vision behind Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods.

Like most of their entries into new businesses, Amazon’s ambitions for the grocery segment were massive, and for good reason: as the article recounts, just 2% of grocery shopping is currently done online, and groceries are seen as an essential category to win on the company’s growth path. However, unlike Amazon’s other market entrances, the company failed to build its own grocery business due to the massive complexities associated with ensuring the perishable groceries arriving to the end consumer remain both intact and fresh, and then ramping up to a profitable scale in an industry where the average profit margin is 1%. Enter Whole Foods.

Interestingly, the article contends that one of the major things that Amazon was buying in its lock-up of Whole Foods was credibility – the comfort that the consumer has in both the branded (365- and other Whole Foods-labeled) and unbranded (i.e., produce) groceries from Whole Foods. However, the challenges of bolting-on Whole Foods’ retail stores to the broader Amazon machine are challenging, especially as Amazon has already acclimated its consumer to free- or low-cost, timely shipping.

As with most things Amazon, the answer seems to be in the long game. There are certainly synergies to be realized that will buoy Whole Foods’ margins, as well as significant customer overlap (per the article, 81% of Whole Foods customers were already Amazon shoppers — though then again, who isn’t at this point.) Amazon seems to be experimenting and iterating its end-concept for retail, through its expanding bookstore footprint, the Amazon Go concept-store, and the deployment of Amazon lockers at most Whole Foods locations. In addition, by linking its Prime membership with Whole Foods’ customer base, the company . Lastly, its Alexa platform seems to be aimed at creating ‘frictionless’ shopping – moving from creating a grocery list on the voice platform into the groceries themselves arriving at your doorstep hours later. Truly the future.

2. Umair Haque – known for his provocative and original thinking, has written a piece decrying the United States as the first “rich poor” country.

As he explains, earning $60k (the medium family income) in America is a very different from earning the same in France or Germany, two countries seen as similarly wealthy, due to the extremely high cost of healthcare and other “necessities,” and in turn creates a “middle class” with a much lower quality of life and potentially teetering at the edge of insolvency in the event of an emergency.

As wages have stagnated and inflation has continued to rise, consumer debt has served as a financial buffer for many American families, who pay hundreds of dollars a month in housing and car payments, healthcare, and other basic needs.

Haque argues that despite the US’ status as the richest country in the world, most Americans live a state of constant uncertainty, and are less happier, work more, and are more stressed, creating a new form of poverty that defies traditional definitions, “extreme capitalism meets Social Darwinism by way of rugged self-reliance crossed with puritanical cruelty.”

3. In typical British fashion, the FT provides a humorous introduction to Jordan Peterson in this week’s Lunch with the FT, claiming that prior to his recent acclaim he was “destined to remain a well-regarded psychologist with a slot on Ontario public TV. Think Frasier without the humour.”

Peterson’s megalomania is apparent throughout the article, as he comments on his “multimedia empire,” sudden celebrity, and, as his former University of Toronto department chair commented in a recent essay, “present[s] conjecture as statement of fact:” “Hospitals may do more harm than good”, “solar power kills more people than nuclear,” and other drivel delivered straight-faced and humorlessly.

When pressed by the FT correspondent to back up his declarative statements and most popular soundbites, Peterson’s responses are surprisingly hollow. He comes off as someone convinced of his own credentials and ultimate rightness, with no qualms about his anointed prophet status or the consequences of any of his statements. Even among the alcohol-less series of Lunches, this one was especially dry.

4. A worthy appreciation of Studs Turkel in the New York Review of Books, commemorating the release of his vast library of 5,600 tapes of interviews and other stories from throughout his career. The author compares Turkel’s published books, which overwhelming focused on the everyman and his radio shows, which oftentimes interviewed prominent celebrities, thinkers, and artists.

With such a vast library of content to dig into, I’m oftentimes intimidated and unsure where to start.

5. In part 2 of The NY Times / ProPublica story on the murder of high school teacher Mickey Bryan and the conviction of her husband for the crime, the reporters focus on a the forensic discipline of bloodstain-pattern analysis, which was used as the primary evidence by the prosecution in the case.

While “experts” are often called on to testify and provide their “professional” opinion on cases involving blood splatter, these analyses are explained to be extremely subjective, and the bar for expertise to be extremely low, as little as a course and the passing of a subsequent exam.

The authors demonstrate the specious basis of bloodstain analysis, and the problematic air of “science” surrounding its use for the prosecution and acquittal of murder cases, which oftentimes pits two competing analysts against one another on the basis of the same evidence. In the case of the Bryan case, the bloodstain pattern expert called upon by the prosecution had just one 40-hour course under his belt, which, per the appeal lawyers, was “the equivalent of allowing a first-year law student to represent a defendant in a capital-murder case.”

The article is a maddening example of the inadequacies of our justice system, and the tendency for human egos to win out over what’s right. Whether or not Joseph Bryan killed his wife, it is clear that justice was not served.

6. In this week’s NYTimes Magazine, Wesley Morris convincingly argues that the militancy of critics and fans, and their ‘canonization’ of both old works and newly crowned “masterpieces,” has reached a fever pitch of conflict and derision in our current moment of divisiveness and polarization.

7. Amidst the vast corruption associated with FIFA leading up to this summer World Cup, Chinese companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reach the estimated three-billion viewers who will tune in throughout the competition. Per the NY Times Magazine, the Chinese companies’ exertion of “soft power” serves to “solidify China’s growing bond with Russia and signal a global economic shift from West to East.”

The article also mentions Xi Jinping’s broader soccer ambitions for China, using “soccer diplomacy” (the construction of stadiums and broader support of soccer in the developing world) to build ties across the world, as well as his continued investment in building soccer’s popularity in China. Unfortunately, Xi’s investment and attention has yet to reflect success by the Chinese team on an international level, who remain ranked #73 in the world based on FIFA’s 2018 rankings.

Update from Brazil: The Strike is Over!, With Consequences To Come

One of the principal demands of Brazil’s striking truckers and oilworkers was a return to a subsidized oil price, protecting Brazilians from international price fluctuations and macroeconomic trends. The principal advocate and architect of this shift (outside of President Michel Temer), was Pedro Parente, who assumed the role of Petrobras’ CEO in the wake of the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and at a low point in investor and broader outsider confidence.

In his tenure as CEO, Parente’s role was to “re-privatize” Petrobras, which controls 90% of Brazil’s oil and gas production. The company is a curious hybrid of public and private, as the Brazilian state is far-and-away the company’s largest shareholder (64%), yet the company is listed on both the Brazilian (Bovespa) and NYSE stock exchanges, and therefore subject to investor criticism and a ever-fluctuating stock price. During Parete’s tenure, Petrobras has been a hugely successful investment, and saw a eight-year high in its market valuation (company value) just days prior to the strike.

petrobras_1

Petrobras ($PBR) stock price, May 2016 – May 2018 (Yahoo Finance)

In the wake of President Temer’s decision to re-subsidize oil prices, and cave to the multitude of other demands made by the truckers over the past two weeks, Parente has resigned from his position as CEO. In his resignation letter, addressed to the “President of the Republic”, Parente writes:

Today, Petrobras is a company with a recovered reputation, safety indicators in line with the best companies in the sector, very positive financial results, as demonstrated by the last disclosed results, debt on a clear reduction trajectory and a strategic plan that has shown itself capable of responsible and lasting investment, generating jobs and wealth for our country. And all this without any capital contribution from the National Treasury, according to our initial conversation. It seems to me, therefore, that the bases of a virtuous trajectory for Petrobras has been launched.

The truck drivers’ strike and its serious consequences for the life of the country triggered an intense and sometimes emotional debate about the origins of this crisis and placed Petrobras’ pricing policy under intense scrutiny. Few were able to see that the [policy] reflects shocks that have reached the global economy and its resulting effects on the country. Movements in oil and exchange rates have raised the prices of derivatives, magnified tax distortions in the sector and led the government to seek alternatives to the solution of the strike, defined by the subsidy concession to the diesel consumer.

I have reflected a lot on everything that happened. It is clear, Mr. President, that further discussions will be needed. And, in view of this situation, it is clear that my stay in the presidency of Petrobras is no longer positive and additive to the construction of the alternatives that the government is facing. I have always tried to demonstrate, in my career in public life, that, above all, my commitment is to the public good. I have no attachment to positions or positions and will not be a hindrance to these alternatives being discussed.

Therefore, by means of this letter, I present my request for resignation of the position of President of Petrobras, irrevocably and irreversibly. I make myself available to make the transition for the period necessary for the one who comes to replace me.

Parede resigned on Friday afternoon (May 1), with clear intentions of a “news dump” meant to blunt the immediate investor reaction to his departure. While investors have likely speculated that Parete was to resign, with the stock price already reflecting this overwhelming probability. However, I would expect the stock to continue to fall over the next week, as uncertainty around Petrobras’ independence and ability to weather future political shocks is in doubt, and the stock acts as a referendum on investors’ low opinion on Brazil’s immediate political future.

It has been interesting to see how generally nonplussed ordinary Brazilians are by the recent events’ impact on Petrobras’ value destruction and the company’s future prospects. In fact, it was even cited to me as a common strategy of layman Brazilian investors – pick up Petrobras stock during the latest scandal or lull in broader Brazilian sentiment, and then sell it once the econ / finance media / broader investor confidence returns! In ordinary Brazilian fashion, there always seems to be a bit of humor and levity amidst the fatalism and/or pessimism that can envelope the country, even with its national futebol / soccer.

Politically and socially, Parete’s resignation can be interpreted as a reflection of the populace’s broader feelings towards markets and foreign capital, as well as a further validation of the trucker’s demands and Temer’s continued unpopular tenure. The head of the Brazilian Senate lauded Parente’s departure on Twitter, citing his lack of “social sensitivity and political responsibility” as the principal reasons behind his departure. More broadly, the truckers continue to be perceived as the sympathetic party in their fight against Brazilian political cronyism and corruption, winning the narrative and the fight for public opinion with 87% of the population showing support for the truckers and their strike. It seems like any fight that pits the Brazilian political class against the populace in this current moment will prove ultimately destructive for the politicians, further underlining the fragility of Brazil’s current political state leading up to the October elections.

Brian Winter, who is the editor-in-chief for the Latin America-focused publication Americas Quarterly posted his reflections from his recent visit to Brazil during the truckers strike, concluding the that the current state of the country’s population is “frightened, leaderless, shockingly pessimistic.”

Winter provides an interesting perspective as someone who has witnessed Brazil’s rise and recent downturn with a broader Latin American and global, “outsiders” perspective. And his principal conclusion is one of disbelief: at the current fragility of of the Brazilian state and the increasing possibility that the “recovery” consensus cited by most macroeconomists and investors may be an illusion, or at least overly optimistic. That the sought-after “bottom” to the Brazilian economy following the exposure of billions of dollars of graft and corruption and expulsion of tens of political and business leaders, including its “native son,” former President Lula may not have been reached, with further volatility and unpredictable consequences yet to come.

At the top of these risks is an intervention by the Brazilian military, who have taken on an increasingly muscular and public stance amid public clamoring for an end to political corruption and a return to effective governing. Whereas discussion of a return to a military dictatorship was far from the public discourse just two years ago, Winter is shocked that it’s now become a common theme of conversation, even in its repudiation. As Winter cites in his article, recent scandals and exposed corruption has led to Brazilians having the lowest opinion of Democracy across Latin America, with just 13% of respondent “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with democracy in Brazil. Just 4 months ahead of the October elections, there is a clear disconnect between the scheduled elections and the pulse of the Brazilian population, who are increasingly clamoring for an upheaval beyond any ordinary election.

Interestingly, Winter sees this malaise as a further sign pointing to the election of the military commander Jair Bolsonaro. He writes that a traditional military coup or intervention as popularly conceived, with tanks rolling down Avenida Paulista, is unlikely in this current age of instant news / social media and international attention. However, Bolsonaro’s brash and irresponsible stance towards existing institutions, his violence-oriented approach for addressing Brazilian issues, and his broader campaign for election, could be a bellweather of broader support for the military and its commanders as responsible, effective, and trustworthy, despite its history of political silencing, persecution, and torture on its own population. Certainly, there is no other Presidential candidate to date who has managed to capture even a hint of this disconnect.

In the article, Winter recounted a conversation with a political analyst during his trip, who commented:  “I don’t think a majority of Brazilians want a coup. But if it did happen, the people would probably support it.”

On Strike!: Brazil’s Truckers and Oilworkers Strike, With Broader Implications

Here in Brazil, the entire country has been impacted by strikes organized by the country’s trucking and oil workers unions that have paralyzed Brazil’s economy and commerce over the past two weeks. Scenes of blockaded highways, long queues at gas stations, and empty grocery stores have dominated the television news, while social media is abuzz with misinformation about the strikes and cellphone videos of squabbles between truck drivers on different sides of the conflict.

Reuters and the Associated Press have provided helpful daily summaries of the ongoing action, including President Michel Temer’s ongoing attempts to quell the strikes and negotiate with the unions, as well as the strikes’ detrimental impact of the strikes on the Brazilian economy.

Associated Press:

Reuters:

Over the course of the two-week strike, Temer has repeatedly caved to the demands of the protesting truckers, who  in addition to not working, set up roadblocks blocking the entry and exit of non-union trucks across the country. First, for the Brazilian State to subsidize the price of diesel fuel, which has been steadily climbing over the past few months, and alleviate the truckers from daily oil price fluctuations by a monthly adjustment. However, the truckers, who are mostly independent contractors, have been slow to return to work and accept the concessions made by the Temer government, believing that prices would return to their current heights at the end of the subsidization period. In response, Temer has further kowtowed to further the trucker’s demands by alleviating the financial pressure felt by the truckers and make their trade more predictable and profitable, agreeing to lower highway tolls and establishing minimum freight rates. In each of these instances the government will foot the bill (in the case of the fuel subsidization, paying oil supplier Petrobras directly), at an additional cost of R$9.5 billion reais ($2.54 billion USD).

The strike has underlined Brazil’s reliance on its truckers and highways to feed / supply the country and as an engine of commerce, due the country’s lack of rail or canal infrastructure. Truckers make up the shortfall in much-needed infrastructure and logistics-related investment across the massive land-mass that is Brazil, estimated to be the source of as much as 60% of all goods transported within the country. Across the country, state(s) of emergency were declared by local governors, bus and metro routes were cut or cancelled altogether, food supplies in grocery stores, gasoline at gas stations, and medical supplies in hospitals have all dwindled, especially in the non-coastal interior of the country. In addition, Brazilian industry has ground to a halt: its principal export-oriented industries (automotive manufacturing, agribusiness, and meat processing) have lost billions as they have paused production due to a lack of fuel and other necessary inputs, and will likely take weeks to normalize. In a particularly extreme case, the Brazilian poultry sector is warning that a industry-wide “collapse” may be imminent if the situation is not resolved, as over 70 million chickens and crucial breeding animals have died due to lack of feed, posing a further risk to the environment and public health.

gas-station-lines.jpeg

Long lines outside of a Shell gas station, as Brazilians have rationed their fuel consumption

Further underlining the severity and widespread impact of the strike, Brazilian economists are now estimating a reduction in 2018 GDP. And on a global stage, financial markets have responded to the Brazilian strikes, resulting in a loss of nearly 30% by Brazilian oil company Petrobras, and a downturn in the Brazilian stock exchange Bovespa and Brazilian Real.

bovespa - brl - petrobras 2

The reaction of financial markets to the Brazilian strikes, with key dates annotated (by me)

While the supposed rationale and conditions for the strike are likely to be resolved fully in an attempt to restore investor and consumer confidence, there remains a broader question whether the strike will portend a larger, sustained undercurrent of protest. Throughout the negotiations, there remained a disconnect between the union leaders negotiating with the Temer administration and the truckers themselves, who have been slow to concede despite their demands being met (per Temer: “we gave them everything they asked for.”) More broadly, the general population has been broadly supportive of the strikes, citing palpable anger towards the Brazilian political class and the vast inefficiencies of the Brazilian state – the high taxes and cost of living relative to the level and quality of service provided by the State. Two weeks in, there has not been any popular backlash whatsoever against the truck drivers themselves, as the population has mostly reserved their criticism for President Temer, the most unpopular President in Brazilian history.

The strike reflects the attitudes of many Brazilians’ towards the role of the state – to step and in provide financial cushion to the Brazilian citizen against rising costs. In the mid-2000s, Brazil was buoyed by high oil prices, which resulted in an expansion of the state by President Lula da Silva and a rise in the economic prosperity of many Brazilians . However, once the price of oil fell, the Brazilian citizen was suddenly pitted with untenable costs. As a result, Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, implemented price controls that subsidized the cost of oil and insulated Brazilians from the world oil markets. While this was a politically popular gambit, it pulled the Brazilian economy further into recession, and resulted in an outflow of foreign capital. Ping-ponged in the middle of this saga is the Brazilian oil company Petrobras, which despite being publicly traded is highly politicized and controlled by the Brazilian statem, and was implicated in the Operation Car Wash political corruption scandal to funnel money to politicians via bribes and overcharging for services. Following Dilma’s impeachment and the payment of ~$3B USD to settle a shareholder lawsuit, President Temer and newly appointed CEO Pedro Parente sought to restore investor confidence in Petrobras and move it towards self-sufficiency, removing subsidies and ‘floating’ the oil price to reflect world market markets. As a result, Petrobras’ profits climbed, and its stock price improved dramatically. However, as the Brazilian real has devalued and global oil prices have continued to climb, the Brazilian government has chosen to intervene once again in Petrobras’ operations, lest they risk angering the truck drivers, or passing along the price increases to the Brazilian consumer.

oil price

World oil prices from 2009 – 2018 provide a useful backdrop to contextual recent Brazilian political actions

As the truckers strike has wound down, a second strike was begun by two major unions representing Brazilian oil workers with a similar rationale: the high cost of cooking oil. No doubt, this strike was spurred by the reaction of the Temer government to the truckers, and the desire to ensure that their respective needs are met as well.One of the principal demands of the oilworkers strike is the resignation of CEO Pedro Parente, and a reversal of many of the changes made by the Temer / Parente duo to re-open Petrobras to global markets and investors. While the oilworkers planned walkouts will impact operations at a majority of the country’s oil rigs and at refineries across six states, oil stockpiles and contingency planning will prevent the strike from reaching the impact of the trucker’s strike, but nonetheless, Brazilian industry is at a particularly fragile point, and further strikes or a broader protest may be likely.

One of the most concerning aspects of the strike has been President Temer’s threat of calling in the military at particularly tense moments to forcibly quell the protesters and end the strike. Thankfully, there were no significant standoffs between the military and the truckers, as the military mostly served to provide safe passage to medical and food supplies. However, Temer’s threats to “activate” the Brazilian military if necessary to disperse the protests reflect a dangerous strategy at a time when murmurs of the need for a military intervention have become increasingly louder and more pronounced. Temer remains embroiled in his own corruption and bribery scandals, with no immediate Vice President successor in the event of his indictment due to the peculiarity within the Brazilian constitution (as Temer was previous VP, and no replacement was voted in.) While Temer and his likely successors have all been downplaying any risk of a military intervention, Brazilian Military Commander Villas Bôas has become an increasingly vocal political voice following Lula’s arrest and the recent strikes, and “fake news” of a imminent intervention have taken over social media.

As previously mentioned, this only creates uncertainty leading into the elections in October. At the same time, I do think these protests have been telling from the standpoint of exposing the tensions and feelings at the heart of the Brazilian economy and its complicated position towards global markets.

Gravity’s Rainbow: Embarking

After finishing the super hyped Annihilation last week (not terrible, but overly introverted for a suspense / thriller ), I’m building myself up to embark on a long-delayed journey – reading Thomas Pynchon’s infamous 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

A collection of different book covers used for Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

I’ve long held Gravity’s Rainbow in a reading category with the works of old masters like Tolstoy and Proust, Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, and American postmodern works like Delillo’s Underworld and Gaddis’ Recognitions: books that I’ve earmarked to read at some point in my life, but have purposely held off from reading due to some combination of intimidation, a desire to further build up my reading “muscles,” and more time to induce the wisdom/intelligence that only life experience provides. However, I believe that these are all mere rationalizations that have kept me from pursuing these works, like anything else that is used to keep one from carrying out a long-dreaded and delayed tasks.

After reading a great book that I’ve put off reading for one of the above reasons (or because a recent purchase, release, or recommendation has been moved to the top of my list), I normally return to a common realization – that life is short, reading time is finite, and there is little reason to spend one’s precious time reading books that are less than “great,” especially when there are multiple lifetime’s worth of worthy books to be read. However, the appeal of ‘easy’ books, or books that I deem particularly relevant at a certain point in my life, oftentimes take precedence, leaving the list of ‘to read, at some point’ continually growing. At some point (within reason), there needs to be a conscious effort made on my part to do away with drivel and ‘interim’ reads, as well as the books that indulge some small curiosity, and be more intentional with the books that I choose to tackle. </rant>

I bought my first copy of Gravity’s Rainbow after already having purchased a “Companion” to the book at a garage/library/$1 book sale. I was immediately seduced by this companion (A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Context’s for Pynchon’s Novel), a sort of cipher that would enable the reader to capably break through the complexity and more directly access the author’s intentions and hidden meanings. A minimal amount of online research furthered my understanding of the notorious challenge associated with reading GR, as well as an base knowledge of the general mystique that surrounds Pynchon the person, and the mass acclaim given to Pynchon the author.

companion

A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources & Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel, by Steven Weisenburger (1988)

Since that initial fateful purchase, I’ve heeded the recommendation of many Pynchon fans of reading The Crying of Lot 49 as an “entry point,” into Pynchon’s work, given its relatively short length (160 pages) relative to his other books. The book introduces many of the concepts that seem to be characteristic of Pynchon’s broader work: metaphysics, vague, deep-seated conspiracies that are at the heart of our fragile order, and absurd backdrops and satirical characters (with quippy names) that veer from rational explanation.

Reading Lot 49, I felt fairly uninitiated to the the novel’s broader context, which was written in 1965 and includes references and nods to the 60s, most famously allusions to The Beatles / Beatlemania. This feeling was validated after reading two of Pynchon’s more recent novels: Inherent Vice (2009), which is set in hippie-era 1970s California, and Bleeding Edge (2013), which, most familiarly, is set in the aughts’ tech world. Both of these books felt more accessible, both in terms of their use of a more modern vernacular, as well as an ability to more capably process Pynchon’s humorous digressions and broader plot as a result of a more comfortable baseline of knowledge. From this standpoint, GR’s 1973 publication date already seems like a challenging entry point.

Aside: Instead of Lot 49, I would recommend individuals curious about Pynchon to start with Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, which I think does a fantastic job of capturing the absurdity, humor and thrust of the novel. Now that I think about it, it’s probably my pick for the most faithful / worthy film adaption.

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s faithful film adaptation of Pynchon’s novel, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin (2014)

I intend to use this blog as both a capsule and a tool for reading Gravity’s Rainbow, as I try and to tackle it chapter-by-chapter over the summer. Hopefully, using chapters or page intervals as a prompt to pause and reflect will allow me to maintain some grasp the novel. After reading and absorbing each chapter, I also plan to visit the Companion as a way to engage with some of the book’s hidden contexts or obscured clues. While I’m sure there are time-tested and/or recommended approaches for reading the book, for the time being I hope to embrace this method, and intend to capture my thoughts and reflections (and/or lack of comprehension) fairly regularly. That or I give up fairly quickly, and move on to an easier / more relevant read.

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.

Cyan’s Worlds: Myst and Riven

As I mentioned in last week’s weekly reading post, I really enjoyed the experience of re-playing Riven, which coincidentally coincides with Cyan’s (the creators of Riven, and its predecessor, Myst) 25th anniversary.

Myst was a fairly ubiquitous experience for the early 90s PC owners – it came on CD-ROM on my parent’s Gateway computer, along with the ambitious, pre-Wikipedia Encarta and pre-Youtube music and movie encyclopedia projects Microsoft Music Center and Cinemania, both of which sparked a nascent interest in the broader worlds of music and film. Gaming-wise, the “bundle” also included the early LucasArts collection of non-Star Wars of animated point-and-click adventure games: the scifi Day of the Tentacle, the Road Rash-influenced Full Throttle, the extraterrestrial adventure The Dig, the cartoonish buddy comedy Sam & Max Hit the Road, and the globetrotting Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.

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Lucasarts’ Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992)

All of these games required a certain level of attention, intelligence, and imagination – items to be found, logical connections to be made, and tiny pixelated switches, levers, and buttons needed to be noticed and pushed/pulled. In short, you needed to think like a game designer, not a click-hungry eight-year-old. Needless to say, I beat none of these games, but both remain captivated by them, and nostalgic for them to this day. Thanks to the magic of GOG.com (originally Good Old Games.com), these games are mostly available to be played on modern-day PCs for less than $4.99 (and even more incredibly, on iOS / Android devices!), and have faithfully honored my recollections (though the graphics are always worse than I recalled) and indulged my nostalgia.

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Lucasarts’ Full Throttle (1995) – now remastered & available on the iPhone!

Unlike any of these games, Myst defied (and continues to defy) convention. For a young person uninitiated to the world (and possibilities) of mid-90s video gaming, Myst was a revelation. Upon starting up the game, you are dropped into an seemingly alien world – with artifacts of planet Earth (wooden ship, clocktowers, library) and Alice in Wonderland-esque set pieces (oversized gears, spaceships, infinite oceans), all open to be explored at one’s leisure. There was no storyline (at least not without painstaking reading), objective, or clear-cut answers to be had. And I was hopelessly lost. The game couldn’t be more different from many of my other beloved early gaming memories – two-button Nintendo and Sega side scrollers with teams of enemies (and level-ending bosses) to dispense of, and yet I kept coming back. Something about the mystery of the island, and the potential secrets behind the puzzles and reading (imagine: reading in a video game), ignited my curiosity.

 

In retrospect, I conflate the hours spent and limited payoff playing this game as a 10-year old to the collegiate / adult experience of reading a brick-of-a-postmodern-novel – with the right amount of intelligence, concentration, and investment, pleasure exists, but it’s most definitely beneath the surface. And sometimes, it doesn’t exist at all.

The sequel to Myst, Riven, first arrived at the house of a friend’s in a carefully crafted box set of CD-ROMs. The ominous Riven logo graced the front and back covers, with inserts of each CD evoking the gorgeous, otherworldly scenery to be had in the game. With no ability to purchase the game myself, I immediately sought to prioritize my time spent at this friend’s house to maximize the amount of time spent exploring the contents of Riven.

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Screenshot from Riven  – “The Rotating Room”

Even back then, Riven always felt more inviting – less barren, with more immediate “action” and even interaction with other humans, right from the start. Its world felt just as imaginative, following the same arrow-led point-and click format, with an entirely new world to explore and even more collections of weird contraptions, eerie music, puzzles to solve, and answers to discover. I’m not sure if I got much further in Myst than I did in Riven (maybe slightly), but Riven always felt like a more complete game than its predecessor, and worthy of my time and concentration. I imagined myself as an older person, notebook in hand, dutifully working my way through the game and solving its puzzles.

 

Two more screenshots from Riven

As I spent the past weekend recreating my imagined self, albeit in a foreign country and consuming an alcoholic beverage, I’m struck by just how much Riven met its hype, more than 20 years after the game’s release. As I worked my way through the game, I was struck but just how mindful the game required you to be – no in-game map or hints to be had – requiring the player to survey the areas themselves, both for orientation and hints for what’s next. It was interesting to learn that Riven was intentionally made more intuitive and rewarding: as recollected by one of the principal game designers (now a longtime animator at Disney), in a recent essay coinciding with the studio’s 25th anniversary:

Many players of the original Myst, while loving the experience, had never actually escaped Myst Island. That seemed… unfortunate. This time around we would start players in a fantastic world that would promote more exploration with less roadblocks. Puzzles would be equally challenging to Myst’s but more logical, better integrated into the cultures and environments and therefore less arbitrary. (link)

Watching some of the behind-the-scenes videos associated with the 25th anniversary release, as well as the 13-minute documentary on the Making of Riven (all due to the magic of Youtube), you are struck by the incredible analog effort behind the game’s production, as well as the romanticism behind the low/shoestring budget game with giant aspirations – a story akin to Kevin Smith’s Clerks, and his subsequent success.

Riven reflects everything that I still love about games (and art in general): a sense of mystery, adventure, and discovery, immersive worlds, and engaging and medium-hard puzzles. Just like most of the masterpieces that I love, it reflects the fact that more is not always better – in our current day of life-like graphics and multi-million dollar game budgets, I’ve found very few games which can equal the imaginative environment, evocative imagery and music, and rewarding and thought-provoking (and rewarding) puzzles – though I’m certainly open to suggestions!

Bonus: Here’s Steve Jobs introducing Riven’s creator, Rand Miller. “I guess some of the prior management didn’t like games. I heard this from so many developers that they didn’t support games. The current management really likes games.”

 

Checking in on the Brazilian Elections (May 2018)

Yesterday, the Financial Times provided a helpful point-in-time overview of the Brazilian elections. As I’ve mentioned in the past, this year’s Presidential elections will be Brazil’s most consequential since the election of Lula in 2003, and will be the basis for Brazil’s turnaround in the next decade and beyond.

In my conversations with colleagues, friends, and taxi drivers (usually the best heuristic for a particular pulse of the population), the only consensus I’ve manage to glean is that no one knows what will happen. Recent polling shows that more than 45 per cent of voters are still undecided, with less than five months before the first round of the general elections. Of the presumptive candidates, the largest vote-getter has yet to reach 20%. The race appears to be wide open, with no incumbent, front-running candidate, or presumptive heir to the Presidency / throne.

By all accounts, polls in early 2018 showed Lula as the strong favorite, with approximately 40% of prospective voters opting for the former President. In large part, this was due to Lula’s name recognition and cult of personality, as well as the hope that Lula would be able to recreate the success of his tenure (macroeconomic and exogenous factors aside). After Lula’s arrest in March, which barred him from running in the coming election, many in Brazil’s middle and poorer classes were left without a candidate to put their support behind. Despite Lula’s arrest, a large portion of the Brazilian population still supports Lula, and broadly claim a ‘politicization’ or political motivation behind his arrest. While there is no obvious successor to carry Lula’s mantel, it is likely that whomever he anoints and endorses (whether from within his own party, the Worker’s Party [PT]), or outside of it, will immediately be given a huge lift.

More broadly, whereas recent Presidential elections have made use of via well-organized and -funded political parties, led by the Lula’s PT in recent history, the Lavo Jato corruption scandal has exposed the vast graft and corruption at the heart of the PT, as well as within the other major Brazilian parties, including the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) and Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB). Far-and-away the consenus amongst all Brazilians (rich, poor, and in between) is removing the incidence and broader culture of corruption in Brazilian politics. This increases the likelihood of th election of an ‘outsider’ or ‘third party’ candidate without the “taint” of corruption on the candidate themselves or the party they represent.

The FT does a good job of outlining the likely leading candidates, including the current frontrunner, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, the left-leaning Ciro Gomes, the centrist Geraldo Alckmin and the well-known Green Party candidate, Marina Silva. Behind these contenders are entrenched candidates from the current Temer administration, including Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles, and Temer himself, who decided to give up on his first election campaign today (he assumed power after Dilma’s impeachment). None of these candidates provide much in the way of innovative or inspired thinking, and even less so in the way of concrete policy objectives. As an example, Bolsonaro has focused his campaign on improving security in Brazil amidst a sky-high murder rate and concerns about day-to-day safety. His solution? Killing all of the criminals in Brazil.

The backdrop of this election is a country teetering on the brink of an economic turnaround, or a tumble further down the depths of the longest recession in its history. As the FT explains, Brazil’s two key economic issues, resolving its unsustainably bloated pension system and shrinking the role of government to improve Budget deficits (one of the most inefficient in the world relative to its tax collection) must be addressed by the next President. Unfortunately, neither of these are particularly sexy issues, nor are they politically popular, akin to asking the Brazilian voter to “take their medicine” with the hopes of a medium- or long-term payoff (GDP expansion, investor confidence, etc.).

On the other hand, the failure to act on either of these issues will impact public equity and debt markets well before it makes its way to the average Brazilian. As I understand it, the key voting issues of the Brazilian voter were neatly summed up in a recent conversation I had with a political scientist: (s)he want to have a job to go to (employment), wants to get to work in a timely fashion (transportation), and doesn’t want their wallet to be stolen in the process (security). These issues all fit neatly near the base of Maslow’s Pyramid, and reflect the need for Brazil to improve on base-level indicators before it can think about re-assuming the mantle of regional or global political leadership.

Looking from the outside in, it’s fairly easy to imagine the unimaginable here in Brazil: the victory of the brash, violent, homophobic and misogynistic Bolsonaro. While Bolsonaro continues to lead in the polls, the feeling that he will be unseated by a more sane, middle-of-the-round candidate continues, even though no name comes to mind when asked who that candidate might be. The common reaction of Brazilians that I’ve spoken with when I’ve raised this likelihood has been eerily similar to the one that I would’ve had leading up to Trump’s election: It couldn’t happen. He’s an incredibly loose cannon. He’s an interventionist, and someone who has actively called for a return of Brazil’s military dictatorship. And have you heard the things he’s said about women, gay people, criminals, etc. etc.? He’ll bring the country back to the dark ages! Americans are likely to find these appeals and rationales familiar, and remember the odd, surreal feeling to wake up the morning after the election to seemingly dystopic newspaper headlines: Trump Wins in Historic Upset.

One thing that I’ve been pondering quite a bit is how to think about Democratice Presidential elections in the wake of Trump’s victory. By all accounts, Trump’s victory was a failure of polling, and data more broadly. Just one election after 538 founder Nate Silver’s victory lap and his proclamation on the inevitability of data in understanding political elections, data was proven to be wholly inadequate in capturing the outcome of the election. I’ll never forget following the election online and on television, beginning the night with Kellyanne Conway’s near-concession  speech, only to witness a complete reversal of the odds as the evening wore on. This graphic from the NYTimes accurately captures the dramatic one-eighty.

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Source: NYTimes Live Presidential Forecast

 

While I do think it is important to translate the experience and lessons learned in the US (and the UK) elsewhere, there is always a certain danger in conflating different countries, political systems, and situations. As Nassim Taleb has explained over and over again, ‘black swans’ take place much more often than they’re probabilistically assumed to occur, and should therefore be considered, to the extent that they’re known ahead of time. In this case, there’s a strange cognitive dissonance taking place, whereby the actual data is showing a most-likely outcome that the general public has to-date refused to accept as possible, unlike the more commonly occuring reverse: an unlikely outcome that people irrationally believe to be more likely that it actually is.

There are several principle dynamics that differentiate Brazil’s Presidential election from the United States that are worthy of consideration:

1. Compulsory voting: Brazil is the largest country in the world to impose compulsory voting on its citizens. Despite penalities levied against non-voters, around 80% of the population votes in the Presidential election. This means that the complacent or uninformed voter plays a larger role than in non-compulsory situations such as the US.

My hypothesis would be that this could result in a larger-than-expected turnout for the candidates that get the most media attention (including social media) and / or offer the most ‘sound-bite-able’ clips.

ADVANTAGE: Bolsonaro

2. Two Round system: Somewhat differently than the primary system, Brazil has a two-round Presidential election whereby the electorate chooses between a broad field of candidates from across the political spectrum in the first round (October 7, 2018), with the top two victors vying for the Presidency just three weeks later in the same month (October 28, 2018) (interestingly, in the unlikely scenario that the top candidate in the first round receives >50% of the overall vote, he or she is declared elected, without a second round. In that short timespan, the unelected Presidential candidates will throw their weight behind one of the two victors, and begin the process of coalition building.

My hypothesis would be that the more centrist, and well-established of the remaining two candidates would be able to leverage their existing connections and party infrastructure to reign in votes from the first round field. In the event that Bolsonaro makes it to the second round, he will likely be more extreme and less organized than the opposing candidate, and thereby stands a lower chance of success.

ADVANTAGE: The Field

3. Mandatory TV time: Brazilian elections, like many across the developing world, make extensive use of television time and public funds as a part of the campaign. As The Economist explains, how much public money and free television time each Presidential candidate receives depends on the congressional strength of his or her coalition and / or party. This would dampen the bullhorn of an outsider candidate with little political infrastructure, who would have comparatively much less television time and funds to campaign with. One caveat is that this does not account for social media, however, of which Brazilians are significantly active relative to other countries.

My hypothesis would significantly weigh the importance of social media, and therefore would more or less nullify the importance of this impact.

ADVANTAGE: Unknown

 

It will be interesting to see how things proceed from here – how the populace’s disposition changes and how the market reacts as the elections come closer. The Brazilian Real exchange rate to the Euro and Dollar have moved more-or-less in lockstep up until recently, which indicates to me there is a “Trump” effect from his actions to strengthen the Dollar, as well as a broader consensus on the precieved weakness of the Brazilian economy and / or the ongoing political uncertainty. Personally, I expect there to only be further devaluation in the coming months (NB: I’m far from a knowledage FX trader / investor).

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Source: Yahoo Finance

 

One wild card to add to the mix is the upcoming World Cup this summer, which will likely serve as a distraction that will keep the media and average Brazilian away from the political newscycle for the majority of the summer. I’m curious to continue to track this election over the next few months, and am excited to continue to document things as they evolve.

Weekend Reading – May 20, 2018

1. I’ve been mulling over the article written by Dan Nosowitz for New York Magazine’s Select All page – I Don’t Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore. Nosowitz laments the fact that our time web browsing has increasingly concentrated on a select number of sites (in his case, Twitter, Netflix and Facebook, in my own case, Reddit, Youtube and GMail), as opposed to the more free-form, quirky collection of blogs, discussion boards, and random webpages that made up the Internet 1.0 (otherwise known as the pre Facebook age, say 1995-2005?).

As Tim Wu and others have chronicled, this reflects a concerted effort on the part of Big Tech to monopolize your time on the internet – both via web browers and mobile.  

Incidentally, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Cyan World’s first game, the immersive Myst, I’ve been playing Myst’s sequel, Riven, which builds on everything that was so great about Myst, and improves on it. In comparison to our current age of maximalist, big budget games, the game is an incredible example of the concept of doing more with less – in this case, gorgeous art and sound production to create an immersive gaming experience.

In particularly thorny spots, I’ve unintentionally traveled back in time to the bygone internet era described in the article – the video game walkthrough. These guides were written by passionate, unaffiliated authors on old Angelfire and Geocities pages with ASCII art and walls of Courier font – no clickbait slide shows or jump-cut-laden Youtube videos. Nostalgia, ultra.

2. From the ongoing “Infuriating Accounts From Inside the Trump Administration” Series, Evan Osnos reports for the New Yorker on the ongoing dysfunction and distrust inside the vast collection of Federal agencies and departments.

3. An always upsetting check-in from the Economist on the upcoming Venezuelan elections on May 20th. Maduro is currently polling second behind an opposition candidate, but it seems unlikely to expect any semblance of a Democratic election (Maduro’s term ends in January – ample time to falsify / nullify results). Bravo to John Oliver for shining a broader light on the situation to the American, HBO-watching public.

4. In this weekend’s NY Times magazine was an article that, on its face, seems almost too logical and straightforward to be the subject of a longform piece: the importance of a long-term relationship between a medical doctor and patient in primary care.

The article accurately captures a lot of what I am most repelled by when it comes to the US healthcare system – the conflation of one’s health and the human need for care in improving livelihood with the financial concepts of profit and loss. The fact that an Economist (in this case David Meltzer, who is both an economist and a primary-care physician) needs to prove that there’s a long-term beneficial relationship between a doctor and his long-term patients is both sad and a clear statement on the current state of the US healthcare system.

As the article recounts, the inability to maintain a single primary care doctor and consistent care disproportionately effects the poor, which creates a cycle of escalating costs and poor outcome. When people don’t have caregivers in their family, longtime doctors, or funds to ensure transportation and care in the United States, they suffer. 

5. Christopher Nolan is releasing an restored version of 2001: A Space Odyssey in US theaters this weekend after premiering the film at Cannes last week. 

However, in a mix of nostalgia and the continued insistance of the supremacy of analog film by many of our greatest filmmakers, Nolan has chosen to “unrestore,” rather than “restore” the film

His goal is to provide filmgoers with the experience of seeing 2001 the way audiences saw it in 1968, with all of the imperfections of film. Nolan compares the difference between film and the digitization of the film: “the best analogy for the way the eye sees, [the] most immersive, the most emotionally involving.”

Immersive is the key word to me. Like other artifacts of the analog age, viewing movies in a movie theater may be one of the last refuges of concentration, and devoting that concentration to the deep colors and overall richness of film is certainly a worth endeavor in my eyes.

6. Trump’s actions on trade (and related sanctions) seem haphazard, impulsive, and unplanned, just like his broader Presidency to date. The Economist surveys the delicate balance in global commerce under the Trump Presidency, who has increasing used financial sanctions to pressure countries to kowtow to its political will.

The Economist asked whether Europe would be willing to impose the sort of retaliatory sanctions on the US that the Americans plan to levy on the Europeans and European companies for their ongoing commercial relations with Iran. Former Obama officials see this as incredibly unlikely, citing the increasingly dollarised world, businesses and banks are so worried about being shut out of the financial system that there is in fact “over-compliance” with the legal requirements imposed by America.

Per an US Executive: “Trump is the sort of guy who punches you in the face and if you punch him back, he says ‘Let’s be friends’. China punched back and he retreated. The Europeans told him how beautiful he was, but they got nothing.”

7. Late last year, I picked up the book Other Minds, which is a remarkable pop science account of the incredible and unique properties of the octopus and its related species (squid, cuttlefish, etc.).

The book’s author, Peter Godfrey-Hall, is a Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney. Godfrey-Smith has devoted his career to the “philosophy of biology,” studying the origin of life on Earth and its evolution.

Through his study of octopi in labs and oceans across the world, Godfrey-Smith contended that the octopus’ brain and cognitive function, including its nesting habits, range of vision and ability to intuitively camouflage, are foreign to any other known species, and therefore fall outside all known evolutionary trees.

Now, a collection of scientists have published a paper speculating on the origin of the octopus, and its prehistoric antecedents, positing that they could be “extraterrestrial imports.”

The transformative genes leading from the consensus ancestral Nautilus to the common Cuttlefish to Squid to the common are not easily to be found in any pre-existing life form – it is plausible then to suggest they seem to be borrowed from a far distant “future” in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more realistically from the cosmos at large.

“One plausible explanation, in our view, is that the new genes are likely new extraterrestrial imports to Earth – most plausibly as an already coherent group of functioning genes within (say) cryopreserved and matrix protected fertilized Octopus eggs.

“Thus the possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth circa 270 million years ago.

Cool stuff.