25 June 2022

The New York Times: “A Mini-Russia Gets Squeezed by War”

Transnistria has managed to avoid choosing sides while following its own system. It is still technically part of Moldova, but it lies outside Moldovan government control. It prints its own money (the Transnistrian ruble), flies its own flag, sings its own anthem and runs an industrial economy supporting around 300,000 people.

It does all of this thanks to billions of dollars in subsidies from its benefactors in Moscow, which in return gets a strategic enclave at the edge of the European Union where it bases at least 1,500 troops.

It would be stupid for Russia to try to use this against Ukraine, and the Ukrainians know it, said Anatoly Dirun, a Transnistrian political scientist and opposition politician.

He said that Ukraine and Russia were pumping up the threat to Transnistria for their own, different reasons.

Russia is trying to draw Ukrainian troops away from the battle in the east. And Ukraine is trying to paint a picture of a spreading war so the West sends more weapons.

This is all noise, Mr. Dirun said.

He and others said that Russia could not easily fly reinforcements into Transnistria even if it wanted to because the planes would have to cross Ukrainian or European airspace, putting them at risk of being shot down.

Jeffrey Gettleman

The hostilities in Ukraine have brought attention to a long-ignored territorial dispute between it and Moldova, the region of Transnistria, another relic of the dissolution of the Soviet Union thirty years ago. The article itself is not very substantial, but it made me think how different recent history could have been for Romania if we reunited with Moldova at the end of the Cold War, as Germany did: this Transnistria issue would have plagued our accession negotiations with NATO and the European Union, and Romania would most likely never have been admitted into NATO at least.

24 June 2022

CNBC: “Mark Zuckerberg envisions 1 billion people in the metaverse”

We hope to basically get to around a billion people in the metaverse doing hundreds of dollars of commerce, each buying digital goods, digital content, different things to express themselves, so whether that’s clothing for their avatar or different digital goods for their virtual home or things to decorate their virtual conference room, utilities to be able to be more productive in virtual and augmented reality and across the metaverse overall, he said.

But the company’s investment in augmented reality and virtual reality dates back to 2014, when it paid $2 billion for headset maker Oculus VR. Shipments of headsets have failed to outnumber shipments of PCs or smartphones. Zuckerberg expressed optimism about the performance of its current-generation Meta Quest 2, which starts at $299.

Quest 2 has been a hit, Zuckerberg told the “Mad Money” host.

I’ve been really happy with how that’s gone. It has exceeded my expectations. But I still think it’s going to take a while for it to get to the scale of several hundreds of millions or even billions of people in the metaverse, just because things take some time to get there. So that’s the north star. I think we will get there. But, you know, the other services that we run are at a somewhat larger scale already today.

Experiences in the metaverse can be more immersive than text, photos or videos, which are pervasive on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, and so it will be a big theme for Meta over the next decade, Zuckerberg said.

Jordan Novet

Mark Zuckerberg is nothing if not committed to this plan, I’ll give him that.

23 June 2022

Fortune: “Elon Musk’s regulatory woes mount as U.S. moves closer to recalling Tesla’s self-driving software”

On Thursday, NHTSA said it had discovered in 16 separate instances when this occurred that Autopilot aborted vehicle control less than one second prior to the first impact, suggesting the driver was not prepared to assume full control over the vehicle.

CEO Elon Musk has often claimed that accidents cannot be the fault of the company, as data it extracted invariably showed Autopilot was not active in the moment of the collision.

While anything that might indicate the system was designed to shut off when it sensed an imminent accident might damage Tesla’s image, legally the company would be a difficult target.

All of Tesla’s current autonomous features, including its vaunted Full Self-Driving tech, currently in beta testing, are deemed assistance systems in which the driver is liable at all times rather than the manufacturer.

Christiaan Hetzner

It sure looks as if Tesla designed Autopilot to shut off immediately before an impact so the company can deny its software was at fault and evade legal liability…

22 June 2022

Bloomberg: “The Fed hasn’t Fixed its Worst Blunder since the 1970s”

The thing the economists’ models omit are the unforeseeable events that have a way of occurring in this thing we call “history”. Despite the fulfillment of my prediction last year that the Fed would have a real problem with inflation expectations if there was a war, people still seem to be assuming that global economic life will return to “normal” (meaning 2019) starting very soon.

Team Transitory thinks that not only inflation is transitory. They think the pandemic and the war in Ukraine are transitory, too. But the striking thing about all three is precisely that they just keep going, in defiance of Americans’ attention-deficit disorder.

Has China’s “Zero Covid” policy miraculously prevailed over the omicron variants of the virus? Only in Beijing’s propaganda. In both the capital and Shanghai, they are back to mass testing and restrictions.

Is an end to the war in Ukraine imminent? Only in the imaginings of those who have insisted all along that Ukraine would win it. On the bloody battlefields of the Donbas, Russia is gaining ground in a brutal war of attrition.

The 1970s are here to remind us that one damned disaster leads to another — and sometimes more than one — and that’s what makes it much harder than it looks in an economics textbook for a central bank to recover from a big monetary-policy mistake.

Niall Ferguson

Interesting historical perspective on a previous phase of high inflation in the US economy, and how the Fed failed to keep it under control because of political pressure and delayed and insufficient measures. As Romania was behind the Iron Curtain back then, I have little knowledge of that period, but I remember my parents constantly complaining how standards of living worsened considerably in the ‘80s. I used to think this was entirely because of the mismanagement of the Communist regime, but perhaps our economy felt the adverse effects of the global economic shocks and geopolitical instability as well.

21 June 2022

Bloomberg: “Mark Zuckerberg is Blowing Up Instagram to Try and Catch TikTok”

Over 14 years, since the invention of its news feed, Facebook has become extremely good at one thing: showing people what they definitely want to see, based on their past behavior and online activity. Facebook ranks your friends based on how much you engage with them and orders their posts accordingly. If you search for cake decorating videos on Instagram, expect to see more in your suggested follows the next time you log on. If you shop online for ankle boots, they’ll turn up in your feed. The upside of that kind of algorithm is a $116 billion advertising business. The downside is, people get bored.

TikTok delivers a level of algorithmic magic that’s a step beyond, introducing people to stuff they had no idea they would be entertained by—which has the effect of boosting no-name stars into the spotlight as long as they’re creating great content. Achieving that same effect has become a top priority, Zuckerberg said during a recent earnings call: I think about the AI that we’re building not just as a recommendation system for short-form video, but as a discovery engine that can show you all of the most interesting content that people have shared across our systems.

A company as big as Meta, with 3.6 billion users across Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp, has lots of ways to push features on people. Reels now appear in every Instagram user’s feed. Once someone clicks on a Reel, they’re suddenly in a full-screen mode where swiping up or down only gets you to more Reels. This design tweak can be jarring, like turning a corner in a quiet art gallery and finding yourself in the middle of a dance party.

Sarah Frier & Brad Stone

As others have pointed out, one of Facebook’s biggest issues going forward is simply… that neither the company nor its founder Mark Zuckerberg have actually delivered any original concept since its inception. After its initial success, it has relied on either acquiring the current popular app (Instagram and WhatsApp) or copying their features when it failed to purchase them (Stories from Snapchat, now Reels from TikTok – ironically, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom suggested to his superiors at Facebook that they should consider buying it back when it was still called Musical.ly).

18 June 2022

Bloomberg Quicktake: “How Airships could overcome a Century of Failure”

A new breed of airships seeks to take flight and provide a greener solution for both luxury travel and heavy industry. But is the business case for bringing them back enough to overcome a troubled past?

I have always been fascinated with airships/dirigibles/zeppelins and lamented their absence from the world’s transportation infrastructure. Much like nuclear power, their public perception has been tainted by high-profile accidents such as the crash of the Hindenburg. But, as the video above shows, airships face real engineering challenges making them less convenient and economically viable than available alternatives. While they are more flexible in terms of takeoff and landing and consume considerably less fuel than airplanes, they are also slower, less maneuverable in flight because their large aerodynamic profiles make them more susceptible to air currents, and have lower capacity for carrying people and cargo.

17 June 2022

World Health Organization: “14.9 million excess deaths associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021”

Excess mortality is calculated as the difference between the number of deaths that have occurred and the number that would be expected in the absence of the pandemic based on data from earlier years.

Excess mortality includes deaths associated with COVID-19 directly (due to the disease) or indirectly (due to the pandemic’s impact on health systems and society). Deaths linked indirectly to COVID-19 are attributable to other health conditions for which people were unable to access prevention and treatment because health systems were overburdened by the pandemic. The estimated number of excess deaths can be influenced also by deaths averted during the pandemic due to lower risks of certain events, like motor-vehicle accidents or occupational injuries.

Most of the excess deaths (84%) are concentrated in South-East Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Some 68% of excess deaths are concentrated in just 10 countries globally. Middle-income countries account for 81% of the 14.9 million excess deaths (53% in lower-middle-income countries and 28% in upper-middle-income countries) over the 24-month period, with high-income and low-income countries each accounting for 15% and 4%, respectively.

The estimates for a 24-month period (2020 and 2021) include a breakdown of excess mortality by age and sex. They confirm that the global death toll was higher for men than for women (57% male, 43% female) and higher among older adults. The absolute count of the excess deaths is affected by the population size. The number of excess deaths per 100,000 gives a more objective picture of the pandemic than reported COVID-19 mortality data.

Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Mortality Assessment

Tracking excess mortality as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic is an important tool for assessing various health measures and their effectiveness. This study however arrives at some questionable conclusions and has been discussed critically on Twitter.