Happy Independence Day and welcome to week 324! The articles below caught my attention this week. What are intended to be relatively objective “briefs” are preceded by dashes (——–), whereas additional material or relatively subjective comments are preceded by asterisks (********). Article titles preceded by [SR] require a subscription to be read in their entirety, although complete articles may be found by an Internet title search.
Please let me know if you have questions or comments.
(26 June 2018): “A.I. Has a Race Problem” Bloomberg Businessweek
——–A few years back when Brian Brackeen “was preparing to pitch his facial recognition software . . . the software stopped working. Panicked, he tried adjusting the room’s lighting, then the Wi-Fi connection, before he realized the problem was his face. Brackeen is black, but like most facial recognition developers, he’d trained his algorithms with a set of mostly white faces. . . . For years the same problem has bedeviled companies including Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon and their growing range of customers for similar services. . . . Microsoft, IBM, and China’s Face++ misidentified darker-skinned women as often as 35 percent of the time and darker-skinned men 12 percent of the time, according to a report published by MIT researchers earlier this year. Such software can see only what it’s taught to see, which has been mostly white men.”
********The article goes on to say that in recent months, major vendors have “diversified their training data sets to included darker-colored faces and have made strides in reducing bias.” A fascinating and thought-provoking article. Perhaps training facial-recognition software provides a model for bias formation in human beings?
(26 June 2018): “How to Steal 50 Million Bees” Bloomberg Businessweek
********Narrowly speaking, this is an article about bee theft in California during the February almond-pollinating season. More broadly, it is about some of factors affecting commercial bee-keeping in the U.S. and the world. Along the way one learns that “every February, 2.5 million colonies—two-thirds of the commercial honeybee colonies in the U.S.—are clustered in a few California counties” and that apiarist Valeri Strachan is “one of a handful of Americans who can extract semen from drone bees and use it to inseminate virgin queens.” Her work enables the Strachans to “produce close to 50,000 queen bees a year.”
(27 June 2018): “Where 3 Million Electric Vehicle Batteries Will Go When They Retire” Bloomberg Businessweek
——–“The first batches of batteries from electric and hybrid vehicles are hitting retirement age, yet they aren’t bound for landfills. Instead, they’ll spend their golden years chilling beer at 7-Elevens in Japan, powering car-charging stations in California and storing energy for homes and grids in Europe. Lithium-ion car and bus batteries can collect and discharge electricity for another seven to 10 years after being taken off the roads and stripped from chassis—a shelf life with significant ramifications for global carmakers, electricity providers and raw-materials suppliers.” Finding after-vehicle uses for EV batteries is becoming much more important as the global stockpile of such batteries “is forecast to exceed the equivalent of about 3.4 million packs by 2025, compared with about 55,000 this year.”
********Among the firms looking to create an aftermarket for EV batteries are General Motors, BMW, Toyota, BYD Co., and “a clutch of renewable-energy storage suppliers.” All this indicates that EV batteries have a potential “second life” that can yield a revenue stream after vehicle use. This might reduce consumer concern about large battery “deaths” by increasing the value of a dead battery, thereby decreasing the cost of replacing such a battery.
********An article that also relates to EVs is “Big Oil, Utilities are Lining Up for an Electric Vehicle War” Bloomberg.com. It notes: “A red-hot electric vehicle market has triggered a face-off between Big Oil and utilities. Oil majors, who’ve sold fossil fuels to cars for a century, are now moving into an electricity sector that’s preparing for exponential growth. The problem is that utilities, the primary power suppliers for a century, have the same idea.” According to Erik Fairbairn, one of the U.K.’s largest EV charging companies, power providers are “for the first time, meaningfully interacting with car companies and the oil industry.” According to Fairbairn, it is estimated that “only 3 percent of car charging will occur while drivers are in transit, with the overwhelming majority plugging them in overnight at home or wherever they leave their vehicles sitting idle. This directly plays into the hands of existing utilities.”
(28 June 2018): “North Carolina’s newest cash crop is illegal for most farmers to grow” The News and Observer
——–“North Carolina farmers take chances whenever they try to grow something new, but no crop poses the kind of uncertainties that surround industrial hemp. Hemp is used in thousands of products, from parachutes to energy drinks and a growing number of supplements and remedies containing CBD oil. But the plant is also a cousin of marijuana, which makes almost everything about it harder for growers, from getting loans to buy seed to selling the crop at the end of the season. Among the added worries: The level of the compound that gives you a high when you smoke marijuana, THC, might inch up a fraction of a percent in your hemp plants, making them a drug under federal law no more legal to possess or sell than cocaine or heroin.”
********This was a front-page article of the N&O on July 2nd. It provides an unusually good overview of the legal, horticultural, and market challenges facing hemp growers. The U.S. Senate version of the farm bill, but not that of the House of Representatives, “would make it legal nationwide to grow and sell industrial hemp and hemp-derived products with THC levels of less than 0.3 percent.” You can learn more about industrial hemp from the NC State Extension.
(29 June 2018): “Are Antibacterials Scarier Than Bacteria? Great Question” Bloomberg.com
——–[An opinion pieced by Faye Flam.] Bacteria, fat, and GMOs are three of the things that have born the brunt of well-meaning journalists over the years. But evidence is growing that some bacteria are good, Triclosan used in cookware is unsafe, and GMO food is not adverse to human health. In order to think more rationally about such matters, it is necessary “to think about safety not as a black or white issue, but to consider risk-benefit ratios.” This becomes more involved when one considers that, as risk communication expert Peter Sandman holds, “risk perception is a combination of the actual hazard and a more subject factor he calls outrage.” As he notes, “People may choose whether to buy antibacterial soaps, stain-repellant pants or Teflon pans, but once drinking water becomes contaminated with anything, people are likely to become outraged because control has been taken away from them.”
********The idea that risk perception is a combination of (objective) actual hazard and (subjective) outrage struck me as interesting and useful. A brief statement by him is “Risk = Hazard + Outrage: Coping with Controversy about Utility Risks”; a sidebar provides five suggestions for managing outrage. Sandman, educated at Princeton and Stanford, has an extensive and current site. Especially interesting to me was the Topical Indexes page. There one can see the 2×2 classification he uses to distinguish among Precaution Advocacy (High Hazard, Low Outrage), Outrage Management (Low Hazard, High Outrage), and Crisis Communication (High Hazard, High Outrage); there is no label for (Low Hazard, Low Outrage). There is a lot of useful information on Sandman’s site, including a pdf of his “classic” book and videos. Outrage management and its relationship to risk-benefit ratios seems to have very broad application.
(1 July 2018): “A way of monetizing poor people’” How private equity firms make money offering loans to cash-strapped Americans” The Washington Post
——–Payday lending has been curtailed by federal regulations, giving rise so an expanded market for “consumer installment loans” such as those offered by Mariner Finance, which is “owned and managed by a $11.2 billion private equity fund controlled by Warburg Pincus, a storied New York firm. The president of Warburg Pincus is Timothy F. Geithner, who, as treasury secretary in the Obama administration, condemned predatory lenders.” Among the methods used to extend loans, Mariner Finance mails checks to potential borrowers. Once the checks are signed, the borrower is committed to repaying the loan at an annual interest rate of up to 36 percent.
********This lengthy article is focused more on Mariner Finance and its various products and practices, rather than the mass check mailings that drew my attention. There is a six-minute video, however, that captures the essence of the article and the reality of those who cash the checks to meet a financial emergency, which is “must see” for its look at how delinquent borrowers are processed by the legal system.
(2 July 2018): “The Internet Is Secretly Powered By Billions Of Tiny Auctions” Bloomberg.com
********This is a 31-minute podcast from the Odd Lots duo Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway. This session has a 28-minute Q&A with software engineer Afsheen Bigdeli, who works on online ad platforms. This articulate and not-too-technical podcast provides a look under the hood of all the data gathering and software-based decision making that take place when you click a link or simply sign in to a site. All this is intriguing and more-than-a-little concerning.
********The podcast connects well with “Netflix is moving television beyond time-slots and national markets” The Economist. Broadly speaking it indicates some of the advantages—large scale and being first—that have aided Netflix in its development, which reminds me of Amazon, especially in its early years. Of specific relevance to software-driven auctions, though, is what Netflix has done (can do) with its massive database. “The company has identified some 2,000 ‘taste clusters’ by watching its watchers. Analysis of how well a programme will reach, draw and retain customers in specific cluster lets Netflix calculate what sort of acquisition costs can be justified for it. It can thus target quite precise niches, rather than the broad demographic groups broadcast television depends on.” In the limit, every person is a niche and Markets on One are arrived at, although they are not likely relevant for the entertainment industry and its programming. But something like that must take place when one clicks on a link and gets an ad, or a suite of ads, tailored just for that person.
(3 July 2018): “Something in the Water: Life after Mercury Poisoning” JSTOR Daily
********This lengthy article relates the mercury poisoning visited upon the people and wildlife of Minamata, Japan and its environs from 1932 to 1968; Minamata is on the island of Kyushu and abuts the Shiranui (Yatsushiro) Sea. Although the poisoning “is famous in Japan and around the globe” it was unknown to me. Ultimately it led to a “UN treaty that governs the use of mercury, called the Minamata Convention on Mercury.” Evidently director and documentarian Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s masterpiece is the 150-minute film “The Shiranui Sea.” All this seems to illustrate clearly the interaction of the invisible forces. For the invisible handshake, see below.
********One story that stood out for me was that of Rimiko, whose mother Mitsuko Oya cared for her fisherman husband who suffered from the so-called Minamata Disease resulting from mercury ingestion. When Mitsuko brought him home from the hospital, she “tried to help him recover the best way she or anyone knew how; by feeding him more nutritious fish from the bay.” The irony of it all.
May you have a good week! Bruce