Current Affairs

The orcas will wait all day for a fisher to accumulate a catch of halibut, and then deftly rob them blind. They will relentlessly stalk individual fishing boats, sometimes forcing them back into port.

Most chilling of all, this is new: After decades of relatively peaceful coexistence with cod and halibut fishers off the coast of Alaska, the region’s orcas appear to be turning on them in greater numbers.

“We’ve been chased out of the Bering Sea,” said Paul Clampitt, Washington State-based co-owner of the F/V Augustine.

Like many boats, the Augustine has tried electronic noisemakers to ward off the animals, but the orcas simply got used to them.

“It became a dinner bell,” said Clampitt.

John McHenry, owner of the F/V Seymour, described orca pods near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as being like a “motorcycle gang.”

“You’d see two of them show up, and that’s the end of the trip. Pretty soon all 40 of them would be around you,” he said.

A report this week in the Alaska Dispatch News outlined instances of aggressive orcas harassing boats relentlessly — even refusing to leave after a desperate skipper cut the engine and drifted silently for 18 hours.

These are not Coasean orcas, or are they?  And sperm whales are now in on the act:

Fishing lines are also being pillaged by sperm whales, the large square-headed whale best known as the white whale in Moby Dick.

“Since 1997, reports of depredation have increased dramatically,” noted a report by the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project.

A remarkable 2006 video by the Avoidance Project captured one of the 50,000 kg whales delicately shaking fish loose from a line. After a particularly heavy assault by sperm whales, fishers are known to pull up lines in which up to 90 per cent of the catch has disappeared or been mangled.

Here is the full story, with video, and further points of interest.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Mark Thorson.

As organized, multiplayer video game competitions — also known as esports, or electronic sports — continue to gain recognition in China, entertainment giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. has accelerated its esports expansion with the unveiling of a new five-year plan.

The plan, which involves setting up esports leagues, tournaments and associations, nurturing players and constructing esports-themed industrial parks, was published by Tencent E-Sports, a subsidiary established in early December.

Tencent is the world’s largest mobile gaming company by revenue, according to research firm Newzoo. With the new plan, it aims to create a 100-billion-yuan esports industry in China within five years, the company announced on Friday at a press conference.

The plan was based on Tencent’s expectations that China is set to become the world’s largest esports market. Tencent predicted there will be 220 million esports players in China and 335 million globally by the end of this year.

Here is the story.  And:

The number of Chinese “red tourists” who visit Russia to retrace a shared communist history has been soaring in recent years, contributing to the wave of Chinese visitors to Russia that has grown with the help of closer bilateral relations between the countries, according to industry insiders on Tuesday.

“There definitely is growing interest among Chinese tourists for Russia, especially the older generations, who are nostalgic about the history of Russia,” Zeng Qingan, general manager of Beijing Global Travel Ltd, told the Global Times.

Zeng said that since his company started tour groups to Russia nine years ago, the number of participants has increased fast, especially after the company redesigned its tour routes in 2014 to cover historical Soviet Union era sites, including the Red Square and Victory Square in Moscow, the Lenin Memorial Museum in Ulyanovsk and Moscow State University. The travel firm called it the “Red Tourism” package.

Link here.  The revolution not only will be televised, but they will make an e-sports version of it, marketed on WeChat.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is part of the argument:

More generally, the U.S. is an environment where new products — and here I mean of the non-political sort — get started relatively easily. People are willing to take more chances with their consumption, and so this is a fertile environment for startups, which then spread to the broader world.

As for Britain, the traditional aristocracy is remarkably weakened, voting along class lines has disappeared and, most observers agree, if it were really up to the House of Lords, Brexit wouldn’t be happening.

On top of these factors is English, by far the world’s leading language for scientific and philosophic and political discourse, for blogs, for Twitter, and for many other kinds of dialogue. We shouldn’t be surprised if new ideas are more likely to surface and take hold in the English-speaking world.

Here is another bit:

To be sure, some evidence suggests the influence of President Trump is actually causing Western Europe to become more liberal. But don’t confuse style and substance. Another five to 10 years of deindustrialization, terrorist attacks and migrant crises might lead to a “home brew” version of Trumpian ideas in continental Europe, albeit cloaked in a more intellectual and more aristocratic garb. There is a running joke going around along the lines of “If fascist ideas come to [Country X], they will come in the form of anti-fascism.” Once the properly European version of the product comes to the fore, it might do very well indeed.

There is much more at the link.

It was a forty-minute chat (podcast, no transcript), most of all about the decline of liberalism, based around Ed’s new and very well-received book The Retreat of Western Liberalism.  We also covered what a future liberalism will look like, to what extent current populism is an Anglo-American phenomenon, Modi’s India, whether Kubrick, Hitchcock, and John Lennon are overrated or underrated, and what it is like to be a speechwriter for Larry Summers, among other topics.  Here is the opening bit:

COWEN: Having a taste for the esoteric, I’d like to start with a question. If we go back to the 1680s and James II takes the throne, then, William of Orange comes over from what we now call the Netherlands and pushes him out — was that a liberal development or an illiberal development?

LUCE: At the time, it was very much a liberal development. Of course, we then get the bill of rights. We then get a further restriction of the power of the monarchy that comes with this new Dutch co-monarchy, William and Mary.

In retrospect, given the fact that this is very much the Protestant fundamentalist, the Battle of the Boyne, the victory of the Orange forces, William of Orange. In retrospect, I think it’s being celebrated in a pretty illiberal manner.

Of course, that’s very germane right now in Britain, given that Theresa May is trying to form a government in which the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party are going to make up the difference between being a minority government and majority government.

It depends which bit of history you’re looking at it from is my answer.

And then I toss him this question:

COWEN: Let’s say we take the British election that was just held. So many people are calling it a mess, chaos, no-good results but, say, I offered you a revisionist view, how would you respond?

I would say it’s the first real election where voting by class has essentially fallen away. You even have Kensington in London going Labour for the first time since 1974.

Voting is now much more by age. You’ve more female representatives than ever before. You’ve 15 Muslims elected, 7 of those being female. More LGBT individuals. Maybe the new liberalism is reflected by that kind of elevation.

Then on top of that, the election definitely thwarted Scottish independence. It probably helped a soft border for Ireland. We hope it’s helping a soft Brexit.

No Corbyn, no UKIP. Wasn’t it exactly the vote we needed and the most liberal outcome you could have imagined, at least relative to all the initial constraints? Or not?

Ed is extremely interesting and articulate throughout.

Again, you can subscribe to the whole series here, we will be doing more bonus offerings of this nature.

Mr Costa explained that long-duration bonds are the best way for real money investors to place bets on Argentina, given that they are unable to leverage themselves like a more nimble hedge fund. “If you are an investor with a constructive view on Argentina, what you want is duration,” he said.

Argentina sold $2.75bn of the debt with a coupon of 7.125 per cent, equating to an annual yield of 7.9 per cent, according to a statement from the Argentine finance ministry late on Monday. The bond attracted $9.75bn in orders from investors.

But don’t focus on the 100 years:

Given the bond was sold at a yield of almost 8 per cent an investor would recoup their initial investment in around 12 years.

Yields could fall by at least 150 basis points, moving more in line with other major economies in the region such as Brazil — implying capital gains on such bonds in the double digits. “Those are pretty good returns. At a rate of 8 per cent or higher, it’s a buy,” Mr Costa said.

The bad news is what you must endure to have a crack at the 8 percent:

Argentina has defaulted on its sovereign debt eight times since independence in 1816, spectacularly so in 2001 on $100bn of bonds — at the time the world’s largest default — and most recently in 2014 after clashing with Elliott Management, an aggressive hedge fund.

But Mr Macri’s government “cured” the latest default in 2016, and times have changed, said Joe Harper, a partner at Explorador Capital Management, an investment fund focused on Latin America. “The policy pendulum in Argentina has shifted to the centre, and the country’s next 100 years will be very different than the last century.”

Here is the full FT story, by Benedict Mander and Robin Wigglesworth.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is just one excerpt:

I see Trump as not a ruler but rather akin to the various fools, jesters or, in the case of Lear, the character of Edgar, who appears before the king in disguise and warns him of his enemies. Don’t interpret the word “fool” too literally here. The most common features of these characters is that they speak between the cracks in the action and utter sentiments that no one else dares  to voice. That’s Trump on Twitter. Would the word “covfefe” be so out of place in one of those poetic rants?

And:

And looking forward, what might a study of Shakespeare tell us to watch for in the evolution of the Trump administration? How’s this for a start?:

  • Blood may be thicker than water, but nonetheless power struggles can break family bonds rather easily.
  • Power cannot be given away and still retained.
  • Don’t overweight legitimacy and birth order in determining succession.
  • Love is a wild card.
  • There is no maximum limit to chaos.

Do read the whole thing.

CHJ Automotive have not released official images yet of the car, but showed CNBC some of the initial designs of the ultra-compact vehicle. The car is 2.5 meters long and 1 meter wide. It runs on two batteries which are swappable, meaning that the car won’t need to stop for too long at a charging station to re-juice. Google’s in-car operating system called Android Auto is equipped in the vehicle

It will be priced at between 7,000 euros ($7,824) and 8,000 euros.

While it may seem like a small vehicle, Shen explained the target market the company is after in China.

“In China, there are 340 million people (who) daily commute with e-scooters, but there is a strong demand for them to upgrade to something,” Shen told CNBC in a TV interview on Friday.

“But we cannot imagine all of them driving cars, so we want to give them something else, which is an ultra-compact car.”

The product might be used for ride-sharing in Europe as well.  Here is the article, forgive the noisy music at the link, via Ray Kwong.

Matt Yglesias: “A big city daily newspaper, physical bookstores, a supermarket chain. Bezos’ futuristic vision is all coming together.”

Alex T. tweeted: “I already do 80% of my shopping at Amazon and Whole Foods. I am beginning to get worried.”

Ross Douthat: “What if Bezos intends to turn Whole Foods into a Mormon-style charitable storehouse …”

Me: “Perhaps preserving my favorite brands of Whole Foods dark chocolate is Jeff Bezos’s plan for short-run public charity.”

@JesalTV: Jeff Bezos: “Alexa, buy me something from Whole Foods.” Alexa: “Sure, Jeff. Buying Whole Foods now.” Jeff Bezos: “WHA- ahh go ahead.”

Here is an earlier Conor Sen piece on Amazon acquisition strategy.

And Stratechery on Amazon.

And above all else: “Dow opens down 10 points. Amazon jumps 3% after deal to buy Whole Foods. Walmart slumps 7%, Kroger plunges 16%”

Here are more retail share price declines.

I was sent an email asking what I myself thought of the recent Jeff Bezos charity query, and that email contained a number of questions.  I’m not at liberty to reproduce it, but with some minor edits I think you will be able to make sense of my responses, as given here:

  1. Since the marginal value of extra consumption by him (or even far less wealthy people) is essentially zero, there are many “good enough” charitable ventures.
  2. The rate of abandonment is high for charitable support.
  3. Often the key is for a super-productive person, with lots of stimulating opportunities at his or her disposal (if only running the status quo businesses, or say meeting other famous people), is to find something charitable that will hold his or her interest.  But how can it possibly be as fun as the earlier successes and extending them?
  4. I disagree with your descriptions of the philanthropic strategies offered in your email.  I suspect that most or all are attempted examples of my #3, namely what is actually short-run thinking.
  5. They are all super short-term strategies, once the attention constraint is measured.
  6. In this regard, there is nothing strange about Bezos’s plea and expressed desire to do some good in the short term, except its transparency.
  7. Perhaps earlier philanthropists, such as Carnegie, had many fewer opportunities for fun, if only because their times were so primitive and backward. That made it easier for them to keep up enthusiasm for truly long-term projects.
  8. I still think the real opportunities are for *true* long-run thinking, admittedly subject to the constraint that it keeps one’s short-term interest up.
  9. Cultivating one’s own weirdness, or having a lot of it in the first place, is one way to ease the congruence I mention in #8.
  10. Even truly smart and wise people often “give to people” rather than to projects.  This is for one thing a strategy for keeping one’s own interest up.

So to tie this all back in to Jeff Bezos, I don’t know what he should do.  I don’t know him personally, nor do I even have an especially strong knowledge of the second-hand sources about him.

But I think he is exactly on the right track to be thinking about what motivates him personally, and what is likely to hold his attention.  And I don’t think his approach is any more “short term” than most of the other philanthropy of the super-rich.

Boston-based DNA sequencing company is offering to decode the complete genomes of newborns in China, leading some to ask how much parents should know about their children’s genes at birth.

Veritas Genetics says the test, ordered by a doctor, will report back on 950 serious early- and later-life disease risks, 200 genes connected to drug reactions, and more than 100 physical traits a child is likely to have.

Called myBabyGenome, the service costs $1,500 and could help identify serious hidden problems in newborns, the company says.

But some doctors say the plan is a huge overstep. “I think it’s vastly premature to peddle a completely unproven set of data, especially to a vulnerable population like neonates,” says Jim Evans, a professor of genetics at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

The problem is that the risk posed by many disease genes remains uncertain. Even if a child has a mutation in a gene, he or she may never be affected, prompting debate among doctors about whether it’s useful to inform parents.

The Veritas test also steps into uncharted territory by making predictions about how children will look and act: how wide their nose will be, whether they will overeat or have a “novelty seeking” personality, and even whether they are likely to go bald decades in the future.

Evans is sharply critical of any effort to predict traits. Especially with psychology, he says, genetic factors aren’t well understood. “You run the risk of predestination based on bad science,” he says. “Frankly, I think it’s a little bit crazy to do genetic tests on your newborn to find out if 40 years from now they are going to be bald.”

Here is the full story, it has further interesting points.

Here is the tweet link, here is the text:

This tweet is a request for ideas.  I’m thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time — working for the long term.  For philanthropy, I find I’m drawn to the other end of the spectrum: the right now.  As one example, I’m very inspired and moved by the work done at Mary’s Place here in Seattle.  I like long-term — it’s a huge lever: Blue Origin, Amazon, Washington Post — all of these are contributing to society and civilization in their own ways.  But I’m thinking I want much of my philanthropic activity to be helping people in the here and now — short-term — at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.  If you have ideas, just reply to this tweet with the idea (and if you think this approach is wrong, would love to hear that too).

Thanks!

Jeff

After I see what you all come up with, and after I edit out the most brilliant ideas, I’ll tweet back your responses to him.  I’ll come up with something of my own as well.

I’ve argued before that much of the collapse of Nato is in fact due to Germany, and not Trump.  There is now an update:

Germany and Austria have castigated new American sanctions on Russia that target Moscow’s controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe, describing them as an illegal threat to EU energy security.

Sending a strong message to Moscow, the US Senate on Wednesday voted 97-2 to approve measures that toughen existing sanctions on Moscow and create new restrictions that target companies which support Russian “energy export pipelines”.

In a joint statement on Thursday, Berlin and Vienna said the amendment heralded a “new and very negative quality in European-American relations”.

The Senate move threatens to break a delicate transatlantic consensus on Russia sanctions orchestrated by Chancellor Angela Merkel, which has until now excluded Russia’s export pipelines precisely because they involved key German interests.

Here is the FT article.  How would America have reacted to Russia’s election tampering back say in 1966?  How might Germany have gone along with that response?  How willing was Germany back then to accept such a high percentage of its energy supplies from Russia/USSR?

Here is the transcript and podcast (no video).  Jill and I discuss Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, why the early United States did not blossom culturally, Steve Bannon as a character from a 19th century painting, what the Tea Party got wrong and right, H.G. Wells, her working class background, Doctor Who and Gilligan’s Island, Elizabeth Bishop, what Americans don’t like about New England, Stuart Little, how she got her start as a secretary at HBS, and many other topics.  Highly intelligent throughout, though note it is not easy to excerpt.  Here is one good bit:

COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?

LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.

COWEN: Yes.

LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.

A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.

In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.

And:

LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.

Recommended…

That is the title of a new and interesting short essay by Arthur Waldron, here is one interesting bit of many:

Since the attack on Scarborough Shoal, now six years ago, my own opinion is that China expected to have occupied a lot more. Her slightly delusional view of her claims, first made explicit in ASEAN’s winter meeting of 2010 in Hanoi, was that “small” countries would all bow respectfully to China’s new pre-eminence. This has failed to occur. All of China’s neighbors are now building up strong military capabilities. Japanese and South Korean nuclear weapons are even a possibility. Over-relying on their traditional concept of awesomeness (威 wēi), the Chinese expected a cake walk. They have got instead an arms race with neighbors including Japan and other American allies and India too. With so much firepower now in place the danger of accident, pilot error, faulty command and control, etc. must be considered. But I’d wager that the Chinese would smother an unintended conflict. They are, after all, not idiots.

And:

China’s tremendous economic vulnerabilities have no mention in Allison’s book. But they are critical to any reading of China’s future. China imports huge amount of its energy and is madly planning a vast expansion in nuclear power, including dozens of reactors at sea. She has water endowments similar to Sudan, which means nowhere near enough. The capital intensity of production is very high: in China one standard energy unit used fully produces 33 cents of product. In India the figure is 77 cents. Gradually climb and you get to $3 in Europe and then — in Japan — $5.55. China is poor not only because she wastes energy but water too, while destroying her ecology in a way perhaps lacking any precedent. Figures such as these are very difficult to find: mine come from researchers in the energy sector. Solving all of this, while making the skies blue, is a task of both extraordinary technical complexity and expense that will put China’s competing special interests at one another’s throats. Not solving, however, will doom China’s future. Allison may know this on some level but you have to spend a lot of time in China and talk to a lot of specialists (often in Chinese) before the enormity becomes crushingly real.

Recommended.