Russian hacking — what’s getting lost in the fuss about Trump

Good Editorial in the NYT.

So let’s take a moment to recall the sheer scope and audacity of the Russian efforts.

Under direct orders from President Vladimir Putin, hackers connected to Russian military intelligence broke into the email accounts of senior officials at the Democratic National Committee and of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. They passed tens of thousands of emails to the website WikiLeaks, which posted them throughout the last months of the campaign in an attempt to damage the Clinton campaign.

Even more disturbing, hackers sought access to voter databases in at least 39 states, and in some cases tried to alter or delete voter data. They also appear to have tried to take over the computers of more than 100 local election officials in the days before the Nov. 8 vote.

But the only part of this that appears to interest Trump is the threat it poses to the perceived legitimacy of his electoral win. He’s a narcissist, remember.

The Tory approach to Health and Safety

Well, well.

Q: Who said this five years ago?

“I want 2012 to go down in history not just as Olympics year or Diamond Jubilee year, but the year we get a lot of this pointless time-wasting out of the British economy and British life once and for all. I don’t think there’s any one single way you can cut back the health and safety monster. You’ve got to look at the quantity of rules – and we’re cutting them back; you’ve got to look at the way they’re enforced – and we are making sure that is more reasonable; we’re taking self-employed people out of whole classes of health and safety regulation. But the key about health and safety is not just the rules, the laws and regulations – it’s also the culture of fear many businesses have about health and safety.”

A: David Cameron, sometime Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Source

And here’s what Sadiq Khan, the current mayor of London, said about this cavalier view:

“Those who mock health and safety, regulations and red tape need to take a hard look at the consequences of cutting these and ask themselves whether Grenfell Tower is a price worth paying. Nowadays, we would not dream of building towers to the standards of the 1970s, but their inhabitants still have to live with that legacy. It may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down.”

Who’s missing from the tech industry? Er, women

This morning’s Observer column:

In front of me as I write this is a photograph. It’s an interior shot of one of the buildings on Facebook’s campus in California. It looks as big as an aircraft hangar, except that it has steel pillars at regular intervals. The pillars are labelled to enable people to find their desks. It’s all open-plan: nobody in this building – not even the founder of the company, Mark Zuckerberg – has a private office. And as far as the eye can see are desks with large-screen iMacs and Aeron desk chairs.

The people working at these desks are the folks who write, curate, design and maintain the algorithms that determine what appears in your Facebook newsfeed. I’ve been looking at the picture until my eyes begin to pixelate. What I’ve been trying to determine is how many women there are. I can see only three. So I ask a colleague who has better eyesight. She finds another two. And that’s it: as far as the eye can see, there are only five women in this picture.

Welcome to Silicon Valley, where most of the digital technology that currently dominates our lives is created…

Read on

And while we’re on the subject…

Recode has recently obtained a copy of an email that Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, sent to all his staff before a staff outing in Miami in 2013.

The subject line read: “URGENT, URGENT – READ THIS NOW OR ELSE!!!!!,” he also noted at the top: “You better read this or I’ll kick your ass.”

Here’s the gist (from Recode):

Among the dos that Kalanick advised: “Have a great fucking time. This is a celebration! We’ve all earned it.” He also noted that “Miami’s transportation sucks ass,” the first shot in what became a battle to have Uber serve that city.

That was the tame part of the email, which Kalanick actually sent again the next year when there were 1,800 employees at Uber.

The don’ts advice was much more specific, giving information about everything from vomiting (a $200 “puke charge”) to drug use to throwing beer kegs off buildings to, well, proper fornication between employees (and sometimes, apparently, more than one).

Wrote Kalanick: “Do not have sex with another employee UNLESS a) you have asked that person for that privilege and they have responded with an emphatic ‘YES! I will have sex with you’ AND b) the two (or more) of you do not work in the same chain of command. Yes, that means that Travis will be celibate on this trip. #CEOLife #FML.”

FML, in internet slang, means “Fuck my life.” Welcome to Silicon Valley startup culture.

Enough said? If you were a woman, would you want to work in this frat-house culture?

How things change (and how corporate valuations are crazy)

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of Amazon’s IPO. It’s market cap stands today at $459.5 billion. Walmart, meanwhile stands at $229.5 billion. So Amazon is apparently twice as valuable as Walmart.

And yet according to Recode

Walmart has well more than three times Amazon’s annual revenue, and five times its net income. But Jeff Bezos and Amazon have sold a vision of revenue growth over huge net income figures — and Wall Street has largely bought in.

Also: Amazon employs 341,500 people. Walmart provides jobs for 2.3 million.

Go figure.

Voodoo economics 2.0

Well, well. Here we go again. From the Boston Globe:

WASHINGTON — A white cloth napkin, now displayed in the National Museum of American History, helped change the course of modern economics. On it, the economist Arthur Laffer in 1974 sketched a curve meant to illustrate his theory that cutting taxes would spur enough economic growth to generate new tax revenue.

More than 40 years after those scribblings, President Donald Trump is reviving the so-called Laffer curve as he is set to announce the broad outlines of a tax overhaul on Wednesday. What the first President George Bush once called “voodoo economics” is back, as Trump’s advisers argue that deep cuts in corporate taxes will ultimately pay for themselves with an explosion of new business and job creation.

Wikipedia says:

The Laffer curve postulates that no tax revenue will be raised at the extreme tax rates of 0% and 100% and that there must be at least one rate which maximizes government taxation revenue. The Laffer curve is typically represented as a graph which starts at 0% tax with zero revenue, rises to a maximum rate of revenue at an intermediate rate of taxation, and then falls again to zero revenue at a 100% tax rate. The shape of the curve is uncertain and disputed.1

One implication of the Laffer curve is that increasing tax rates beyond a certain point will be counter-productive for raising further tax revenue…

As the Globe observes:

what the president has called a tax reform plan is looking more like a tax cut plan, showering taxpayers with rate reductions without offsetting the full cost by closing loopholes or raising taxes elsewhere. In the short run, such a plan would add many billions of dollars to the national deficit. Trump contends that it will be worth it in the long run.

“The tax plan will pay for itself with economic growth,” Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary and main architect of the plan, told reporters this week.)

Questions: does any serious economist believe this? And isn’t it interesting that the proposed tax cuts will — coincidentally — benefit the Trump family and its subsidiaries?

Sexism and gender bias in Silicon Valley

Even the Economist gets it:

For a set of people who finance disruptive firms, venture capitalists are surprisingly averse to disrupting their own tried-and-tested way of doing things. They sit in small groups, meet entrepreneurs and repeat a single formula for investing whenever possible. John Doerr, who backed companies like Google, summed up his philosophy thus: “Invest in white male nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford.”

Defenders of the valley have two retorts. One is that throwing stones at the most successful business cluster on Earth makes no sense. Market forces ensure that the best ideas win funding, irrespective of gender. The data suggest a different story. Only 7% of the founders of tech startups in America that raised $20m or more are women, according to recent research by Bloomberg. Yet nobody would argue that men make the best founders nine times out of ten. On average, firms founded by women obtain less funding ($77m) than those founded by men ($100m). The VC industry has been successful enough to ward off the pressure to change. That does not make it perfect.

A second defence is that VCs rely on tight-knit relationships, in which trust is essential. Call this the “dinner with Mike Pence” gambit, after the American vice-president’s reported refusal to eat alone with a woman other than his wife. On this argument, any outsider, particularly one lacking a Y chromosome, is liable to upset the club’s precious dynamic. Venture capital is indeed a strange mix of capital and contacts, and peculiarly hard to industrialise as a result. But as a justification for sexism, clubbiness is an argument that is as old as it is thin…

Yep. But when will society wake up to the fact that a technology that is changing everyone’s lives — male and female — is designed and financed by a tiny male only elite?

The search for the ultimate ‘man-cave’

My eye was caught by an extraordinary piece in the FT last weekend which, in a strange way, relates to my Observer column about the Silicon Valley crowd’s obsession with dodging mortality. The FT article is about the new market in apocalypse bunkers.

The location that has become something of an unlikely media sensation is the Survival Condo Project in the usually rather less than super-prime plains north of Wichita, Kansas. Situated on a 1960s Atlas F missile launch site, the 15 condos in the first site are all sold and orders are being taken for places in the second silo. The reason there has been so much interest, from media and buyers, is the spec.

We might think of bunkers as places of desperate last resort, bleak, damp concrete cellars with industrial shelving stacked with cans of beans and musty-smelling gas masks. These, however, are something altogether different. The “Penthouse” units, comprising 3,600 sq ft of living space spread over two storeys, start from $4.5m. LED screens offer a window onto a fantasy outside world of trees and waterfalls (not the actual, frazzled and burnt-out landscape). The communal facilities include a climbing wall, dog park, pool, cinema and shooting range (of course). They also provide hydroponic and aquaponic agriculture and aquaculture, and the machinery to filter air and water indefinitely. These are bunkers for the long haul: five years or more completely off-grid.

The FT piece claims that “the latest real estate trend among internet billionaires and hedge fund tycoons is, apparently, buying bunkers”. If this is indeed true then one wonders what it means. These, after all, are people who made their fortunes from correctly guessing the short- and medium-term future. Does their appetite for these hideous, inhuman residences suggest that they have real fears for the future? Or are they so rich that blowing $4.5m on a holiday house they might never need is a bit like the rest of us buying a ticket in the lottery? The cost is relatively trivial, and you never know… you might get lucky.

Snapchat: now you see it, now you don’t

Lovely Reuters piece by Rob Cox. Sample:

Investors have effectively just done what no self-respecting person ever should: wear sweatpants in public. With Snap’s $3.4 billion initial public offering they have simply given up giving a damn. They handed their money over to an immature company and in the process abrogated their rights to fair treatment, good governance and reasonable valuations.1 If the $24 billion self-styled “camera company” run by a 26-year-old fails to achieve its ambitions, shareholders have only their capitulated selves to blame.

Snap founder Evan Spiegel’s disappearing-message application has many things going for it. One of these attributes – its virtual inaccessibility by anyone over the age of 30 – may have helped its IPO. Few seasoned portfolio managers wagering on the maker of rainbow-vomit photo filters will have properly vetted the product, though they will have perhaps gauged its popularity by monitoring their children’s mobile-data usage.

Still, there is a bull case to be made for Snap, which is why the sale of its securities (calling them shares would be a crime against the Old English etymology of the word) was 10 times oversubscribed and Morgan Stanley priced them above the range at $17 apiece. Snap has 158 million users, who check into the app, like, 18 times a day. It grew revenue almost sevenfold in 2016 to $405 million. Snap’s backers hail it as the third pole to one day challenge Facebook and Alphabet in dominating the internet.

Later, reality dawned on the market and the price slumped.


  1. The shares on offer do not carry voting rights. 

Conservatism as performance art

From the NYT report of the abrupt fall of an alt-right provocateur:

Many on the right are pointing to the Yiannopoulos controversies as a symptom of a trend toward conservatism as performance art, placing less value on ideas like small government and self-reliance than it does on attitude, personality and provocation. While there are respected conservative thinkers on issues like tax reform, immigration and health care, they say, provocateurs like Mr. Yiannopoulos suck up most of the oxygen, becoming the public face of the movement and pushing more serious ideas to the sideline.

“You essentially have a world where there are no adults left, nobody exercising moral authority to say, ‘No, this does or does not meet our standards,’” said Matt Lewis, the conservative author of “Too Dumb to Fail,” which dissected how conservatives have abandoned ideas for outrage. “Everybody is just responding to perverse incentives to get more buzz.”

Mr. Lewis said he would bet that most conservatives had no idea where Mr. Yiannopoulos stood on taxes, abortion or any other issue that has traditionally been important to them. “The only thing we know about him is he’s vulgar, he’s a provocateur and he fights political correctness,” he said. “And I guess that’s what the definition is now for being a conservative.”