30 November 2020

The Atlantic: “History’s Largest Mining Operation is about to Begin”

His case for seabed mining is straightforward. Barron believes that the world will not survive if we continue burning fossil fuels, and the transition to other forms of power will require a massive increase in battery production. He points to electric cars: the batteries for a single vehicle require 187 pounds of copper, 123 pounds of nickel, and 15 pounds each of manganese and cobalt. On a planet with 1 billion cars, the conversion to electric vehicles would require several times more metal than all existing land-based supplies—and harvesting that metal from existing sources already takes a human toll. Most of the world’s cobalt, for example, is mined in the southeastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where tens of thousands of young children work in labor camps, inhaling clouds of toxic dust during shifts up to 24 hours long. Terrestrial mines for nickel and copper have their own litany of environmental harms. Because the ISA is required to allocate some of the profits from seabed mining to developing countries, the industry will provide nations that rely on conventional mining with revenue that doesn’t inflict damage on their landscapes and people.

By the time I sat down with Michael Lodge, the secretary general of the ISA, I had spent a lot of time thinking about the argument that executives like Barron are making. It seemed to me that seabed mining presents an epistemological problem. The harms of burning fossil fuels and the impact of land-based mining are beyond dispute, but the cost of plundering the ocean is impossible to know. What creatures are yet to be found on the seafloor? How many indispensable cures? Is there any way to calculate the value of a landscape we know virtually nothing about? The world is full of uncertain choices, of course, but the contrast between options is rarely so stark: the crisis of climate change and immiserated labor on the one hand, immeasurable risk and potential on the other.

Wil S. Hylton

I first read about this potential future issue on Peter Watt’s blog – whom, being a trained marine biologist, I trust to be an expert on the subject. Strip-mining the seafloor for rare metals does now look like a valid solution to our current climate change problems; we would simply patch one thing and damage another, with no clear estimation of the future consequences on Earth’s environment. In fact, we would repeat the same mistake that led to global warming in the first place: burning fossil fuels without thinking of large-scale and long-term repercussions.

26 November 2020

Wired: “The AstraZeneca Covid Vaccine Data isn’t Up to Snuff”

The Oxford-AstraZeneca story is very different, though. Presumably, neither of the two trials from which they combined data could have provided a clear answer on the vaccine’s efficacy on its own. To make things worse, Oxford-AstraZeneca reported only the results for certain subgroups of people within each one. (For perspective on this: The two subgroups chosen leave out perhaps half the people in the Brazilian trial.) Meanwhile, one of their key claims is that giving half a dose of the vaccine on the first injection, followed by a standard dose on the second one, led to better outcomes—but neither of these trials had been designed to test this hypothesis. In fact, it’s since emerged that the half-dose/full-dose option started out as a mistake, and one that was only caught when some people in the study didn’t have the usual high rate of adverse effects.

Hilda Bastian

I had barely published my coronavirus update yesterday, when I saw a string of articles questioning the transparency and rigor of trials results for the vaccine jointly developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. Several of their decisions look problematic: they combined results from separate trials conducted in different countries with different methodologies, and it turns out the more successful trial, reportedly with 90% efficacy, did not include people over the age of 55, who are most at risk from this disease.

25 November 2020

Coronavirus in Romania: the third plateau

In stark contrast with the relatively quiet summer months here at home and in Europe, autumn has brought an avalanche of news, most of them bad, but some hopeful as well. The daily reported cases have skyrocketed in many parts of Europe, followed by increased hospitalizations and deaths, and by reports that in some cities, hospital staff are being asked to continue working despite testing positive. Governments have responded by gradually reintroducing restrictions, although not as harsh as the spring lockdowns.

In Romania the number of cases has also steadily increased throughout October, culminating in the first week of November, when almost each day another record was broken, and we surpassed 10.000 cases per day for the first time on November 6th. The following weeks this upward trend, which started in the second half of September, was finally interrupted: on the second week of the month the number of cases declined slightly, almost 1% compared to the first week, and in the third week it rose again, by a little over 3%. The number of people admitted to ICU is also rising steadily, surpassing 1000 patients on November 4th. The number of daily deaths peaked at 203 in the second week, on November 11th, when the weekly death count also climbed over 1.000 for the first time, but at least week-on-week growth slowed last week from 30% to only 7%.

23 November 2020

Financial Times: “Five takeaways from Airbnb’s IPO filing”

Airbnb’s IPO prospectus showed that revenue growth had been slowing well before the coronavirus pandemic threw its business into disarray.

In 2016, Airbnb increased revenues by 80 per cent from the year prior to nearly $1.7bn, while producing positive free cash flows. Months later, investors injected $1bn in new equity that valued the company at $31bn.

But by 2019, Airbnb was experiencing its third straight year of slowing growth, with revenues increasing 32 per cent from the previous year. By comparison, the ride-hailing company Uber boosted revenues at a rate of 42 per cent in the final full year before its IPO in 2019.

Airbnb warned it expected growth to continue slowing in the future, suggesting its most explosive years may have passed.

Dave Lee & Miles Kruppa

Among the many articles dedicated to Airbnb’s upcoming IPO this one is the most balanced and I think it captures the reality of the business well. While the pandemic has carved out a big chunk of revenues and forced the company to take drastic measures to reduce costs, financial problems were apparent even before 2020 started. Airbnb incurred a massive net loss at the end of 2019 compared to previous years. Looking at the numbers, it appears that the final quarter of 2019 was unusually rough: between September end and year-end 2019 the free cash flow declined from $319.8 million to $97.3 million and the net loss expanded from $322.8 million to $674.3 million. As of September 2020, Airbnb reported a free cash flow of negative $520.1 million – having burned through more than $1 billion since the end of 2018!

22 November 2020

Kazuo Ishiguro – Un artist al lumii trecătoare

in Bucharest, Romania
Un artist al lumii trecatoare - Kazuo Ishiguro

Ajuns la vârsta a treia, pictorul Masuji Ono își petrece zilele alături de fiica lui cea mică Noriko în casa care poartă încă urmele bombardamentelor de la finalul războiului. Pe lângă durerea pierderii unicului său fiu pe front, Ono e preocupat constant de viitorul lui Noriko, încă nemăritată la o vârstă care mai demult ar fi fost considerată rușinoasă. După o perioadă de curtare ratată, în mintea lui se strecoară bănuiala că pretendenții îi ocolesc fiica nu din cauza vârstei acesteia, ci a reputației lui de artist care a susținut regimul înfrânt al Japoniei imperialiste.

Odată cu începutul pandemiei și al lucratului de acasă, mă așteptam să găsesc mai mult timp pentru citit și scris, dar realitatea s‑a dovedit cu totul alta: lipsit de orele regulate de citit în drumul spre birou, nu am mai început nici o carte nouă de atunci. Dar cum sunt în continuare dator cu câteva recenzii, voi continua cu un roman pe care l‑am citit pentru a doua oară iarna trecută, împrumutat prin Bookster.

Precum numeroase alte romane scrise de atunci, Un artist al lumii trecătoare ne introduce în tranziția culturală și socială dintre Japonia Imperialistă, în care încă era prezent crezul de demult al samurailor, și cea democratică, modernă, unde ierarhiile și simțul datoriei s‑au reformulat în jurul corporațiilor și al carierelor. Aici subiectul e abordat cu multă subtilitate din perspectiva personală a personajului central, Masuji Ono.

Nu e cazul să vă așteptați la acțiune intensă, drame profunde sau răsturnări de situație; romanul curge în ritmul molcom al zilelor unui bătrân retras din viața activă. Plimbările lui ocazionale prin cartier, vizitele la foști prieteni și cunoscuți, timpul petrecut cu familia fiicei mai mari și nepotul lui, toate acestea declanșează amintiri care ne poartă fără vreo ordine anume de‑a lungul întregii lui vieți și a carierei de pictor stimat.

19 November 2020

The Verge: “Inside Foxconn’s empty buildings, empty factories, and empty promises in Wisconsin”

Foxconn’s Wisconsin saga began two days after Trump’s inauguration, when the company’s founder and CEO, Terry Gou, told reporters he was considering building a $7 billion factory in the US and employing as many as 50,000 people.

Such announcements are far from unusual for Gou, and often, nothing comes of them. In Vietnam in 2007, in Brazil in 2011, in Pennsylvania in 2013, and in Indonesia in 2014, Foxconn announced enormous factories that either fell far short of promises or never appeared. Just this year, the industries minister of Maharashtra, India, which aggressively pursued one of Gou’s multibillion-dollar projects in 2015, finally confirmed the factory isn’t coming, saying the state had learned a lesson about believing businesses promising big investments.

In China, where Foxconn employs the vast majority of its million workers, these sorts of announcements are called “state visit projects”, according to Willy Shih, a Harvard business school professor and former display industry consultant. Officials get a ribbon-cutting photo op, the company gets political goodwill, and everyone understands that the details of the contract are just an opening bid by a company that will ultimately do whatever makes economic sense.

Josh Dzieza

Every step of the way, this story reminded me of how our economy used to function during Communist times, right down to the visits from party leadership and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. A propaganda machine designed to hide the dysfunctional state economy that ultimately collapsed with a bang. Which makes me wonder: how much of the Chinese economy is built on a similar system of smoke and mirrors? How much of its success is based on state sponsorship and exporting to the West?

18 November 2020

n+1 Magazine: “Then WeCame to the End”

This lightness will stand out as WeWork’s true innovation, in two ways. The first was that by signing leases, as opposed to buying or even building, it could grow incredibly quickly, as long it was able to raise enough money to cough up rent. It also built light. Contra its loudest critics, WeWork is more than just marketing, spin, and pineapple water. It has used all of that atmospherical ephemera to convince workers—whether they’re freelancers or employees of fast-growing companies that can’t build out their own space quickly enough—that they don’t need as much space as they might have thought. One estimate puts WeWork’s square footage per “member” at around 50 square feet, well short of the office average of 250. WeWork is thus able to charge high rents for substantially less space than its competitors—including an option where renters don’t have a permanent, dedicated desk.

Eric Rosengren, the president of the Boston Fed, endorsed this analysis, and extended it out further, noting that if subtenants flee, the risk isn’t just to WeWork, but also to its landlords: because WeWork signs its leases through legally complex special purpose vehicles, WeWork might be able to abandon a specific building’s lease with the landlord unable to go to the parent company to collect what’s due. Furthermore, WeWork’s small and venture-funded company tenants might abandon their subleases faster than typical commercial real estate occupants. Not only would WeWork be missing out on sublease payments—its landlords could then get into trouble as WeWork’s special purpose vehicles can’t come up with the rent, putting both those companies at risk as well as their lenders. I am concerned that commercial real estate losses will be larger in the next downturn because of this growing feature of the real estate market, which could ultimately make runs and vacancies more likely due to this new leasing model, Rosengren said.

Matthew Zeitlin

Good summary about WeWork, one of the tech unicorns who quickly collapsed when few people would have anticipated it, including their financial ties to SoftBank and Saudi Arabia. I have never looked at it in detail beyond occasional headlines about banning meat from events, but the business model looks untenable in the long run: while WeWork’s clients gain the flexibility of renting office space by the month, the company needs to shoulder most of the risk. Imagine WeWork during the pandemic, with all its customers canceling their leases because of the lockdowns and the company left to pay the bills!

15 November 2020

‘Borgen’ (DR, season 1)

in Bucharest, Romania

In the early 2010’s, what should have been a boring uneventful final debate before the Parliamentary elections turns into a major scandal: the leader of the largest opposition party accuses his primary opponent and current prime minister of using government funds to pay for his wife’s luxury shopping – an accusation he cannot credibly deny because of receipts provided in secret by the campaign manager of the third party in the race, the Moderates. Meanwhile Birgitte Nyborg, the leader of the Moderates, delivers a rousing speech denouncing political hypocrisy. On election day the public, dismayed by the conflict between the other two leaders, vote for her party in high numbers, putting it on track to form the new government, with Birgitte as Denmark’s first women prime minister.

For House of Cards fans, the best way to describe Borgen is as anti-House of Cards. Virtually every aspect of this series is the opposite of Netflix’ breakout show: the central character is a woman instead of a man, with a happy family life, two children and a loving husband with no interest or involvement in politics. She herself was not ruthlessly chasing power and authority, but instead was propelled in the highest political office in Denmark by a series of unpredictable events. But once appointed, she is striving to abide by the ideals she passionately expressed in her speech before elections: to be fair in politics, honest with the public, to search for the best solutions for her country, and finally balance her never-ending official responsibilities with family time.

Ultimately, it is impossible to be all things to all people, and the show does a wonderful job of portraying the gradual but inexorable shift from idealistic beginnings to the harsh reality of public office. Her husband is increasingly strained by the extra family responsibilities left to him and frustrated by the absence of his wife. I cannot remember the last time I was so sad to see an on-screen couple fall apart before my eyes, because they looked very happy together in the first episodes – to use an old cliché, they completed each other.

14 November 2020

GQ: “The Ghosts of the Glacier”

Two people were at her front door. Journalists, they said, from a Lausanne daily called Le Matin. They’d learned that two mummified bodies had been found on the Tsanfleuron glacier, and while there had been no positive identification, they cross-referenced the known details with a list of people who’d gone missing.

We think they found your parents, one of them said.

Marceline was quiet for a moment. Then she whispered, maybe to herself or maybe out loud, Dieu merci. Thank you, God.

She was at once happy and filled with a great sense of peace. It is like a wish, she said, finally coming true.

For 75 years, she believed her parents were frozen on the mountain, buried beneath the ice and the skiers and the snow buses. But she never knew, not for certain, because their bodies were never found.

Sean Flynn

Moving story about victims of a glacier in the Swiss Alps, whose bodies are now slowly returned to the world by global warming. It is fascinating to think how much the world has changed in the three quarters of a century since the couple featured in the article suddenly disappeared up the mountain – and how much and how fast it will change again in coming years because of the warming climate.

13 November 2020

The Guardian: “The end of tourism?”

Behind the recent campaigns against over-tourism lies a growing appreciation that public goods that were assumed to be endlessly exploitable are, in fact, both finite and have a value that the price of visiting them should reflect. “Polluter pays” is an economic principle that is gradually being introduced to farming, manufacturing and energy. The idea is that if your business produces harmful side effects, then you should be the one who picks up the tab for the cleanup operation. Something similar, incorporating not only environmental harm but also wider cultural degradation or damage to way of life, might become the guiding principle of a properly sustainable tourism industry. At present the focus is centred narrowly on tourism taxes, which aim to reduce the number of tourists while also bringing in more revenue.

From the petrol and particulates that spew from jetskis to pesticides drenching the putting green, the holidaymaker’s every innocent pleasure seems like another blow to the poor old planet. Then there is the food left in the fridge and the chemicals used to launder the sheets after each single-night occupancy in one of Airbnb’s 7 million rental properties, and the carcinogenic fuel that is burned by cruise ships. And then there are the carbon emissions. Tourism is significantly more carbon-intensive than other potential areas of economic development, reported a recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change. Between 2009 and 2013, the industry’s global carbon footprint grew to about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the majority generated by air travel. The rapid increase in tourism demand, the study went on, is effectively outstripping the decarbonisation of tourism-related technology.

Christopher de Bellaigue

Thorough overview of the global effects of the tourism industry, one of the most affected by the ongoing pandemic. As much as most of us enjoy traveling to new destinations, these destinations do not always enjoy the overwhelming traffic and are left to deal with the cleanup after tourists return home – places like Santorini and Venice are good examples. In other regions the influx of rich foreign tourists has had positive effects, especially in Kenya, where wildlife conservation efforts depend to a considerable extent on the safari adventure industry.

11 November 2020

The Guardian: “How America’s ‘most reckless’ billionaire created the fracking boom”

Because so few fracking companies actually make money, the most vital ingredient in fracking isn’t chemicals, but capital, with companies relying on Wall Street’s willingness to fund them. If it weren’t for historically low interest rates, it’s not clear there would even have been a fracking boom at all.

You can make an argument that the Federal Reserve is entirely responsible for the fracking boom, one private-equity titan told me. That view is echoed by Amir Azar, a fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. The real catalyst of the shale revolution was the 2008 financial crisis and the era of unprecedentedly low interest rates it ushered in, he wrote in a recent report. Another investor put it this way: If companies were forced to live within the cash flow they produce, US oil would not be a factor in the rest of the world, and would have grown at a quarter to half the rate that it has.

The price of natural gas began to plunge in 2012, and in 2014, the price of oil followed suit. Falling prices quickly exposed the weak underbelly of US shale – its high costs and ravenous need for capital. Once-booming US production hit the skids. The so-called rig count – the number of rigs drilling for oil and gas at a given time – fell from 1,920 rigs in late 2014 to a low of 480 in early 2016. We think it likely that to find a lower level of activity would require going back to the 1860s, the early part of the Pennsylvania oil boom, Paul Hornsell, head of commodities research for Standard Chartered bank, wrote in a research note. By mid-2016, US oil production had declined by 1m barrels a day.

Bethany McLean

Hard to believe that the headline is not referring to Elon Musk, but apparently there is plenty of room in the United States for reckless billionaires, in this case fracking tycoon Aubrey McClendon. Another segment of the economy artificially inflated by cheap capital while the rest of the world has to bear the environmental consequences.

10 November 2020

Völkerrechtsblog: “Sorry, Elon: Mars is not a legal vacuum – and it’s not yours, either”

On October 28th, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX published its Terms of Service for the beta test of its Starlink broadband megaconstellation. If successful, the project purports to offer internet connection to the entire globe – an admirable, albeit aspirational, mission. I must confess: Starlink’s terrestrial impact is a pet issue of mine. But this time, something else caught my attention. Buried in said Terms of Service, under a section called “Governing Law”, I discovered this curious paragraph:

Services provided to, on, or in orbit around the planet Earth or the Moon… will be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the State of California in the United States. For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.

Three primary concerns emerge from this picture. First, non-appropriation is cardinal for a reason – if breached, international peace and security in space hangs in the balance. Second, even signalling the implementation of a provision so contrary to US obligations without censure risks the international rule of law. Finally, and most pragmatically, American vulnerability to future claims by other states should concern American citizens; it is their money, their national reputation on the line.

Commercial actors in space present great innovative and developmental potential for all mankind (Aganaba-Jeanty, 2015), but their so-called ‘self-regulatory’ or administrative role should be taken with a healthy scepticism. We already know how that story ends. As Bleddyn Bowen put it, [t]he continuation of the term ‘colonies’ in describing the potential human future in space should raise political and moral alarm bells immediately given the last 500 years of international relations. Will billionaires run their ‘colonies’ the way they run their factory floors, and treat their citizens like they treat their lowest paid employees?

Cristian van Eijk

Good overview of the legal aspects of Elon Musk’s latest stunt. Practical implications are fortunately far removed; despite Musk’s grandiose claims, Mars is not going to be colonized for decades at least. While legally a corporation cannot declare Mars outside the jurisdiction of Earth laws, Elon Musk has a history of discarding rules when he feels they do not apply to him, of marching on with projects despite opposition and without considering the consequences – Starlink itself makes a good example. The US government has put little effort into curbing the power of its home-grown corporations, and abides by international law only when it sees fit, so I wouldn’t expect proper enforcement of the Outer Space Treaty on their part.

Vice: “Proposition 22’s Victory shows how Uber and Lyft break Democracy”

Of the $203 million spent by the Yes on Prop 22 campaign, some $57 million was contributed by Uber and another $49 million by Lyft. By Wednesday morning, news of the results had rapidly increased the ride-hail companies shares prices and valuations by tens of billions of dollars in premarket trading. Uber saw a return on its spending of nearly 19,300 percent, while Lyft saw a more modest return of around 3,670 percent.

The methods through which this was achieved were, in a word, dirty. Yes on Prop 22 spent millions on misleading “progressive” voting guide mailers, sent out chief executives on media tours, and paid $85,000 to a firm run by the leader of California’s NAACP chapter in a bid to paint themselves as champions of racial justice. The campaign made misleading claims about wages and worker flexibility, and Uber and Lyft weaponized their popular apps to push Yes on Prop 22 propaganda to customers and drivers alike.

To recap: corporations with some of the most exploitative labor practices in existence wrote a law to crush labor, spent hundreds of millions of dollars to create propaganda to convince (or, failing that, mislead) voters, won, and saw massive returns on their spending as stock prices rose. This sort of flagrantly anti-democratic behavior is normal for corporations in America, where they are empowered to write their own laws and buy support for them among the public.

Edward Ongweso Jr

I am certainly no expert in American legislation, but this outcome sets a dangerous precedent for future regulation of tech companies. California’s Proposition 22 overturns both a 2018 State Supreme Court ruling and a 2019 state law that would require gig economy companies to employ drivers and pay for health care, unemployment insurance and other benefits. Instead of abiding by the law, a group of companies decided to fight it by aggressively campaigning for Proposition 22 through messages in their respective apps – and they were very much successful! A direct lobbying effort for direct democracy. While some Uber drivers filed a class action lawsuit against this unlawful pressure, I doubt it will make much difference now that the measure passed the vote.

09 November 2020

The New York Times: “Forget TikTok. China’s Powerhouse App is WeChat”

Ms. Li felt the whipcrack of China’s internet controls firsthand when she returned to China in 2018 to take a real estate job. After her experience overseas, she sought to balance her news diet with groups that shared articles on world events. As the coronavirus spread in early 2020 and China’s relations with countries around the world strained, she posted an article on WeChat from the U.S. government-run Radio Free Asia about the deterioration of Chinese-Canadian diplomacy, a piece that would have been censored.

The next day, four police officers showed up at her family’s apartment. They carried guns and riot shields.

My mother was terrified, she said. She turned white when she saw them.

She found people nearby similar to her. Many of her Chinese friends were on it. They found restaurants nearly as good as those at home and explored the city together. One public account set up by a Chinese immigrant organized activities. It kindled more than a few romances. It was incredibly fun to be on WeChat, she recalled.

Now the app reminds her of jail. During questioning, police told her that a surveillance system, which they called Skynet, flagged the link she shared. Sharing a name with the A.I. from the Terminator movies, Skynet is a real-life techno-policing system, one of several Beijing has spent billions to create.

Paul Mozur

Hmm, naming a surveillance system ‘Skynet’: not ominous at all… Growing up under a Communist regime, I shudder to think the same practices of banning criticism and jailing citizens for their opinions are alive and well in the largest country in the world, with an entire arsenal of modern technology at their disposal. And now the government is trying to extend its reach outside its borders through apps like WeChat and TikTok. I have little confidence that the US government will enact any measures against these apps or Chinese influence in general – Trump was too incompetent to achieve anything, and a new Biden administration will have its hands full with any number of other issues before this one.

The Observer Effect: “Daniel Ek”

Candidly, that’s my role as leader: to coach others on how best to make use of their limited time. Not only is time the most precious resource the company has, it’s also the most precious resource they have! It’s crucial that they approach the use of their time with a holistic perspective. By way of example, I had a recent call with one of my directors who had not taken a vacation in six months. Our conversation delved into why this person thought that they could not be away for two weeks, and me arguing for why the person had to take two weeks to recharge!

There is never enough time – for work, for family and friends – and it takes work to make the best use of it. It’s all about fostering a holistic perspective in life.

This comes back to how you view your role as a leader. My job is to try to be value-add. If you think about a pyramid, there’s a fellow Swede who ran SAS, Scandinavian Airlines, who said the right way to think about leadership is you're not at the top of the pyramid. You should invert the pyramid and envision yourself as the guy at the bottom. You are there to enable all the work being done. That’s my mental image of what I’m here to do at Spotify.

Daniel Ek

Many interesting ideas and valid points in this interview with Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, focused on leadership, workplace interactions and time management. I wish more managers around the world would think – and act – like this. I have encountered many how felt so indispensable that they would rarely delegate or share their responsibilities, for fear of losing their position, of losing control of the process and the outcome. By teaching new people instead, they could have more time to see the bigger picture, to learn new skills – and to have more leisure time as well.

Nature: “Human recombinant soluble ACE2 (hrsACE2) shows promise for treating severe COVID­19”

ACE2 is a crucial receptor target of SARS-CoV-2, which plays a vital role in the pathogenesis of COVID-19, as it enables viral entry into target cells (Fig. 1). The binding affinity between ACE2 and the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the SARS-CoV-2 spike glycoprotein is 10- to 20-fold higher compared to that with the RBD of SARS-CoV, which likely underpins the higher pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2 infections. […] ACE2 is expressed in several human organs at varying levels. It is highly expressed in the lungs (on the surface of type II alveolar epithelial cells), heart (on myocardial cells, coronary vascular endothelial cells, and vascular smooth muscle), kidney (on proximal tubule cells), and small intestine (on the enterocytes).

While promising, we must be mindful that this represents a single observation. Nonetheless, the results, in this instance, clearly demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 disappeared rapidly from the serum and gradually from the nasal cavity and lungs following hrsACE2 treatment. Whether this marked reduction in viral load reflects the effect of hrsACE2 or the natural course of the disease in this patient is unknown. Most importantly, the use of hrsACE2 did not reduce the generation of neutralizing antibodies. Similar data were observed in a second patient with severe COVID-19 symptoms that received two doses of hrsACE2 for 1 day. Rapid reduction of viral load in the serum along with the generation of antiviral antibodies were observed in this second patient.

Abd El-Aziz, T.M., Al-Sabi, A. & Stockand, J.D.

An interesting approach for combating viruses that I have not heard of previously: treating the patient with a synthetic emzyme mimicking the receptors used by the virus to enter human cells. Some of the viral particles will then bind to the synthetic molecule – in this case hrsACE2 – instead of living cells, thus preventing infection! The preliminary results certainly look promising, both in vitro and in phase-I studies. Hopefully this can be developed into an approved treatment available at large scale – certainly a topic to be followed closely.

08 November 2020

‘Away’ (Netflix, season 1)

in Bucharest, Romania
Away on Netflix poster

On the eve of the first crewed mission to Mars, its Commander Emma Green is struggling with confidence and personal issues. After a brief fire in the central module of the Atlas, NASA is investigating her handling of the emergency, with crew members offering conflicting accounts of the events: Kwesi, a novice astronaut and the mission’s botanist, and Ram Arya, the mission’s pilot and second-in-command, are supporting her decisions in the heat of the moment, while the Russian and Chinese astronauts, Misha Popou and Lu Wang, are questioning her reactions under stress and overall leadership capacity. Back on Earth, her husband Matt Logan has just had stroke and is recovering in the hospital instead of guiding the launch from mission control, leaving their teenage daughter in the temporary care of a family friend.

Away starts with a interesting premise: a show about space exploration that combines the hard science aspect with a softer, more personal touch, allowing the audience to get to know the human side of these explorers, their emotional attachments and family sacrifices that come with this risky career. Ironically, Away has managed to portray the second part reasonably well in my opinion but failed miserably on the science aspects.

The series manages to pull off some spectacular and tense scenes in space, especially in the second episode, as well as clever problem-solving in the latter episodes. It was impressive how special effects maintained the illusion of weightlessness for scenes set in the central section of the ship.

06 November 2020

WhatsApp Blog: “Introducing disappearing messages on WhatsApp”

Our goal is make conversations on WhatsApp feel as close to in-person as possible, which means they shouldn't have to stick around forever. That’s why we’re excited to introduce the option to use disappearing messages on WhatsApp.

When disappearing messages is turned on, new messages sent to a chat will disappear after 7 days, helping the conversation feel lighter and more private. In a one-to-one chat, either person can turn disappearing messages on or off. In groups, admins will have the control.

WhatsApp Blog

Interesting feature, but I personally don’t see its utility. I actually like having an archive of my past conversations – with the caveat that it’s available only on smartphones and nearly impossible to migrate between Android and iOS. It would make more sense for Facebook status updates to disappear after a while, or to become private, to prevent others from snooping around through old updates. On some level this is the role Stories are supposed to play on the Facebook platform, but I rarely feel it’s worth the effort to send an update that will simply vanish in 24 hours.

04 November 2020

The New Yorker: “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal”

But the Mammadov family, in addition to its reputation for corruption, has a troubling connection that any proper risk assessment should have unearthed: for years, it has been financially entangled with an Iranian family tied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the ideologically driven military force. In 2008, the year that the tower was announced, Ziya Mammadov, in his role as Transportation Minister, awarded a series of multimillion-dollar contracts to Azarpassillo, an Iranian construction company. Keyumars Darvishi, its chairman, fought in the Iran-Iraq War. After the war, he became the head of Raman, an Iranian construction firm that is controlled by the Revolutionary Guard. The U.S. government has regularly accused the Guard of criminal activity, including drug trafficking, sponsoring terrorism abroad, and money laundering.

Alan Garten told me that the Trump Organization checks to see if potential Trump partners are on “watch lists and sanctions lists”, and that the company knew nothing of Ziya Mammadov’s relationship to the Darvishis until 2015, when it learned that “certain principals associated with the developer may have had some association with some problematic entities”. And yet, by that point, the U.S. Embassy cables had been online for four years. Garten insisted that the Trump Organization still has no idea if the association between the Mammadovs and the Darvishis is real, or if it’s simply an allegation “spread by the media”. I recently spoke with Allison Melia, who until 2015 was one of the C.I.A.’s lead analysts of Iran’s economy; she now works for the Crumpton Group, a strategic advisory firm whose services include conducting due diligence for companies. She told me that her team could have compiled a dossier on the Mammadovs and their connection to the Revolutionary Guard in “a couple of days”. She said that any reputable investigative firm conducting a risk assessment would have advised a U.S. company to avoid a deal with a family connected to the Revolutionary Guard.

Adam Davidson

Another older article, going back to the beginning of Donald Trump’s mandate as US President. It was mentioned together with the detailed profiles of Gen. Suleimani to draw attention to the potential connections between Trump – the businessman – and Iran, and how these financial deals could influence his decisions as President. To me, most of this reporting sounded circumstantial at best – after all, Trump does many of his shady deals in this gray area of plausible deniability.

03 November 2020

Combating Terrorism Center: “Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s Unique Regional Strategy”

Iran began massing an invasion force of almost a quarter-million soldiers along the Afghan border. Reportedly, it was Soleimani who stepped in and defused the situation without resorting to further violence. Instead of confronting the Taliban directly, Soleimani opted to throw increased Iranian support behind the opposition Northern Alliance, personally helping to direct the group’s operations from a base across Afghanistan’s northern border in Tajikistan32. It was a model of proxy warfare to which he would return again and again.

In the months after 9/11, Soleimani saw an opportunity to defeat the Taliban once and for all by unconventional means—namely, cooperation with the United States. Early in the war, he directed Iranian diplomats to share intelligence on Taliban military positions with their U.S. counterparts. The Americans, in return, told the Iranians what they knew about an al-Qa`ida fixer hiding out in eastern Iran33.

This support is almost as important to Iran as it is to Hezbollah itself; Hezbollah is probably the most important non-state actor in the Middle East today. Without it, Soleimani’s Quds Force could not operate abroad in the way it does; and without a strong Quds Force, Iranian power in the region would not be nearly as formidable. To sustain Hezbollah, Iran must maintain supplies to its most significant proxy, but weapons shipments directly into Lebanon are risky at best because of Israel’s naval and air patrols in the region. Thanks to Iran’s alliance with Assad, however, Iranian supply planes have carte blanche to land at Damascus International, where their cargo is loaded onto trucks for transshipment over the mountains to Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley—a Hezbollah stronghold85. Were the Syrian government to fall into the hands of the country’s Sunni majority, those planes would be turned back, and Iran would be left with a significantly diminished card to play in the Middle East’s most symbolically significant fight. This is Iran’s—and Hezbollah’s—most important reason for being in Syria.

Ali Soufan

The year had barely begun as its first major international event was already underway: the killing of Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani at the order of the US President. I remember hearing the news in the morning with a similar sense of dread that I felt in 2016 at the news that Donald Trump had won the US Presidential Election. In the immediate aftermath Iran threatened severe retaliations, Americans were debating the rationale behind the attack, skeptical of the ‘imminent’ threat invoked by Trump, and everyone expected a military escalation in the Middle East.

02 November 2020

The Guardian: “Inside China’s audacious global propaganda campaign”

Figures are hard to come by, but according to one report, the Daily Telegraph is paid £750,000 annually to carry the China Watch insert once a month. Even the Daily Mail has an agreement with the government’s Chinese-language mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, which provides China-themed clickbait such as tales of bridesmaids on fatal drinking sprees and a young mother who sold her toddler to human traffickers to buy cosmetics. Such content-sharing deals are one factor behind China Daily’s astonishing expenditures in the US; it has spent $20.8m on US influence since 2017, making it the highest registered spender that is not a foreign government.

The purpose of this “borrowed boats” strategy may also be to lend credibility to the content, since it’s not clear how many readers actually bother to open these turgid, propaganda-heavy supplements. Part of it really is about legitimation, argues Peter Mattis. If it’s appearing in the Washington Post, if it’s appearing in a number of other papers worldwide, then in a sense it’s giving credibility to those views.

Louisa Lim & Julia Bergin

Another older article – almost two years old by now – but I think the underlying message continues to be relevant. The transition to digital, the emergence of social media, and the concentration of distribution power in the hands of a few major corporations, have all contributed to a decline in revenues for independent news organizations. Under these circumstances, many are turning to alternative sources of income, and foreign governments with an agenda are more than willing to provide, in exchange for spreading their narratives. From this perspective, TikTok is simply the newest channel in an expanding array of propaganda tools for the Chinese government.

01 November 2020

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ (CBS, season 2)

in Bucharest, Romania
Star Trek: Discovery CBS All Access season 2

After successfully negotiating a truce with the Kingon Empire and thus saving the Federation from the brink of extinction, the USS Discovery quickly finds itself under new leadership. Captain Christopher Pike from the USS Enterprise takes temporary command to investigate a series of mysterious signals originating from unexplored parts of the galaxy – and to search for his missing First Officer Spock in the process.

Apparently, I am getting into a habit of writing about Star Trek: Discovery only as the next season airs, so it is high time to put down a couple of thoughts on the second season. Overall, I enjoyed it more than the first, but some new story lines felt more forced, straining my suspension of disbelief to levels seldomly reached by other series. Having a galaxy-threatening conflict as the main thread each season changes the structure and atmosphere significantly compared to classic Star Trek – more fast-paced action, less reflection and moral dilemmas.

I was impressed by the dramatic camera angles used frequently throughout the show, leading with an upside-down view of the scene – maybe it was supposed to remind viewers that the action takes place in space, where this unusual viewpoint would be natural. The pacing is tighter and more focused than in the first season, with each episode contributing significantly to the central plot, skipping occasional filler. This still allows for an interesting excursion into Kelpian culture and for several connections to places and events from The Original Series, something other Star Trek fans may appreciate more than me.