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Learning by Proxy

Learning by Proxy | Energy

This is one planet and so many things on this planet are shared by all of us. Our environment, the internet and so much more. Should nations take charge of these things individually or should some of them get regulated through a single authority?

Splinternet

After the Second World War, the American government was worried that an attack on the communications infrastructure might render their soldiers on the battlefield unable to communicate. DARPA wanted a decentralised communication network and the mandate was given to a bunch of researchers. They created the internet by connecting three universities by cable. 

Since its origins, the internet has been free and open. Everything was accessible to everyone so long as there was a cable that went there. Then China joined the internet bandwagon. They created a Chinese version of the internet which is highly censored. And companies that were willing to bow to the government for having unhindered access to the Chinese market – almost all Chinese – made it big there.

Now as these companies develop global ambitions and begin to venture beyond China in the current environment (refer to the China edition of Learning by Proxy) the entire world wants to push back. Also, it is perhaps the safest thing to push back on. China cannot retaliate in any way since they never let the other platforms in.

It began when Indian banned 59 Chinese apps to retaliate against border disputes. Now the US is joining the bandwagon.

The US state department announced today that it will expand its “Clean Network” initiative, first rolled out in April, to root out major Chinese tech products from the US system. The department said the move is aimed at guarding US citizens’ privacy and US companies’ sensitive information from “aggressive intrusions by malign actors.”

Source: Quartz

In the name of data security, almost all countries are moving in the direction of restricting or ruling what would be allowed and not allowed. The greater problem is that even when not acting out of nationalistic fervour, the priorities of different nations can be quite different when it comes to privacy and so on. Ben Evans had argued about the same issue in his blog.

These regulatory spheres are probably going to start bumping into each other. GDPR made it clear that rules would increasingly apply no matter where your servers are: if your users are in the EU, you have to obey EU rules, and for practical reasons that probably means you have to obey them for all of your users. CCPA effectively does the same in the USA, where California has increasingly become the national privacy regulator by default. An intriguing further step came from this case, in which an EU court held that Facebook must take down libellous content not just in Austria, where the case began, but globally. Meanwhile, the new Hong Kong security law appears to apply to behaviour by non-HK residents outside HK, which is truly extra-territorial. The obvious next question is what happens when an extraterritorial rule collides with a trade-off. What happens when the UK says you must do something and Germany says you must not?  

Source: Ben Evans

All this is creating a situation where the internet can no longer be the same for everyone in every country. Are there businesses where we need to arrive at a global standard and agree on the same thing? Four years back as the sharing economy was on the rise I had written a blog which is more relevant now than ever before.

The trouble with the law is that it is defined with a set of assumptions in mind. Every once in a while there is a change, a disruption, a paradigm shift, that uproots those set of assumptions completely.

[…]

The time has come when governments across the world begin to think about lawmaking as a service. Imbuing the process with greater speed and efficiency, taking the process online and making the process more participative. The steps should be taken now rather than waiting for a day when the government is disrupted.

Source

I was told at the time by a lawyer that the stability of policy is critical for businesses to thrive and the goalpost cannot keep shifting. Well by the looks of it, whether it is TikTok or numerous other services, the goalposts continue to shift either way. There are certain things that we share as a platform across the globe and we need to address them as a civilisation rather than individual nations. We have done that for space exploration, why not for things within the planet as well?

Energy Momentum

In 1880, it was prize money of 50,000 Francs from the French Government that formed the foundation of the Volta Laboratory. The Volta Bureau setup in 1893 still stands in Washington D.C. It was later renamed after the founder, Alexander Graham Bell, as the Bell Labs. In 1947, two scientists at the Bell Labs created the transistor. Their supervisor, William Shockley not only took credit for it but also was as awarded the Nobel Prize as one of the inventors. He left Bell and took some land and money from Stanford to set up Shockley Semiconductors. Some deceit and a couple of plot twists later in the summer of 1968, the world got Integrated Electronics. We call this company Intel.

In the last issue, I had mentioned Intel is fighting hard to die. The initial rise of Intel was supported by government contracts before they became the preferred supplier to computer manufacturers. It took 30 years for the invention to turn into a well-defined business.

In 2009, the Obama Government created a new body called the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E had the explicit agenda of supporting new energy technologies, renewable energies, new battery technologies, advanced vehicles, power electronics, etc. One of the not so well-known beneficiaries of the ARPA-E support is Tesla, which got a loan of over half a billion dollars and successfully returned it as well. But often, thanks to the republicans, the company that is brought up is Solyndra, which lost half a billion.

Unlike Intel, where the science had been proved before the investors showed up with the cheques. With initiatives that ARPA-E supported, investors went and poured in the money as soon as these companies had received support. This disallowed them the slow incubation which would have allowed the science to become more robust before scale was forced.

Either way, you cannot hide good work.

The initiative forced a lot of thought about renewable energy and many countries, not just America started investing and competing in the area. Manufacturing scales rose, bringing costs down as a result of economies of scale. As competition rose, the costs moved down just as fast.

As a result…

During the first half of 2020, the world’s coal-generated power capacity shrank for the first time since at least the 1950s, according to the non-profit Global Energy Monitor. New plants haven’t entirely stopped coming online: The world added 18.3 GW of new coal-fired generation. But it retired plants capable of generating 21.2 GW, mostly in the US and Europe, cutting about 1% of total global capacity.

Source: Quartz

Currently, the US solar industry employs about 242,000 people and generates tens of billions of dollars of economic value. By the end of September 2019, the US had deployed over 2 million solar PV systems, totalling about 71,300 MW of solar capacity, and generating over 100 TWh of electricity (2019 total, est.). In 2018, solar generated about 1.5% of US electricity. Of all renewable energy generation, solar PV is expected to grow the fastest from now to 2050. Some solar-heavy grids, such as the California Independent System Operator have experienced times where over half of the demand was met by solar PV.

Source: Forbes

But not every country is headed in the same direction.

But we are seeing two energy worlds emerge. In China and India, coal plants still generate lots of jobs and electricity (as well as attract government subsidies). In industrialized countries, coal plants are closing down as the price of electricity from natural gas and renewables undercuts them, and climate regulations take hold. Net coal capacity would have been declining since 2018 without China, estimates Global Energy Monitor.

Source: Quartz

With the larger western countries moving in the direction of renewables, it is highly likely that the economics will soon tip over in favour of renewable energy. This will force India and China move in that direction if not for any other reason, just to save money and attract investments.

With commercial real estate completely out of action due to the shutdowns forced by the pandemic. The electricity consumption patterns are also changing.

The country’s coal imports registered a drop of 29.7 per cent to 48.84 million tonnes (MT) in the April-June period of the ongoing financial year, according to industry data.

[…]

“The weak trend in imports is in line with market expectation, given the continued high stockpile of coal in the system. The plunge in thermal power sector’s PLF (plant load factor) in the past couple of months and the sharp decline in cement output do not augur well for import demand in the coming month,” mjunction MD and CEO Vinaya Varma said.

Source: Business Standard

Solar is also finding new spaces in countries like India.

But one of the main challenges in building solar farms is finding the right place to do it. The land is relatively expensive in India and often has multiple owners, so the purchase of land involves many formalities. India’s high population density also puts pressure on the land, with an average of 464 people per square kilometre. Rooftop solar panels are one solution, but sunny space atop buildings is limited too.

In Gujarat, the answer has been to cover its canals with solar panels, as a solution that saves land, water and carbon emissions in one.

Source: BBC

While this is the state of electricity production, oil has taken a beating in the past few months. Some of the largest oil companies are looking toward renewables.

BP reported a $16.8 billion quarterly loss on Tuesday and cut its dividend in half — the first reduction since the Deepwater Horizon disaster a decade ago.

[…]

Mr Looney, though, was more specific in his investment goals, saying that he intended for BP in a decade to be investing around $5 billion a year in renewable energy like wind, solar and hydrogen, a clean-burning gas, about 10 times the current amount. BP’s capital spending is likely to be about $12 billion this year.

Source: New York Times

Even Shell is applying for tenders across Europe for renewable energy plants. Oil companies are some of the wealthiest and largest organisations on the planet. If they start moving towards renewable energy what hope does the coal syndicate have? Further, imagine the degree to which the cost of setting up renewables will fall if the scale increases.

2020 has been a year of enlightenment for oil companies. They have seen how swiftly things can change for them. With the rising demand for EV and the coalition against climate change, the writing is on the wall. They are reacting before they have no time left to.

World oil demand will tumble by 9.06 million barrels per day (bpd) this year, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said in a monthly report, more than the 8.95 million bpd decline expected a month ago.

Source: Reuters

Having said that

Despite the steep fall in earnings, to $6.6 billion from $24.7 billion, the company said it would continue paying a quarterly dividend of $18.75 billion, almost three times its cash flow. Aramco is locked into paying such a large amount — $75 billion a year — because of commitments made in the run-up to its initial public offering on the Saudi Tadawul stock exchange.

Source: New York Times

With the decline of traditional energy businesses, all the new age carbon sequestration businesses are taking a hit. Almost all of these businesses had a model that involved making pollution generators pay for their sins. With the sin on decline…

The $1 billion systems, known as Petra Nova, was built in 2017 to catch CO2 from one unit of a coal plant near Houston. That plant is one of the dirtiest in Texas, both in terms of climate and air quality impacts, according to a Rice University study. Petra Nova was meant to cut the unit’s carbon footprint by about a third—roughly the equivalent of taking 300,000 cars off the road each year.

But on July 28, E&E News broke the story that the facility has been shuttered since May. And while the plant’s owners have said they plan to get it running again once the economy improves, Petra Nova’s shutdown exposes the weird market dynamics that could threaten the sustainability of carbon capture facilities in progress around the world.

Source: Quartz

Panic Buying

When the pandemic started in March, there were stories about how retailers were running out of stuff in their stores. There was a toilet paper emergency! The lockdowns came into place so suddenly, people did not know how to react. Amazon recorded greater sales last quarter than they did during last Christmas!

That means Amazon outdid the $87.4 billion in sales it recorded during the holidays last year when demand typically peaks before levelling out again. On the company’s earnings call yesterday, CFO Brian Olsavsky said it was “unheard of” to surpass those sales at this time of year—and then added that next quarter is also on track to surpass that level.

Source: Quartz

I think two things are happening. Jeff Bezos’ defence of Amazon being a small player because they don’t own 100% of retail is coming apart. With the pandemic, people are preferring to buy online rather than go to stores. Amazon has used every trick in the book to kill every other e-commerce competitor. There is no other legitimate competitor left!

The not so well to do in America have been receiving a $600 cheque. In many cases, I think this amount supersedes their normal income. More money in hand has meant more spending power, which in turn has implied greater sales for Amazon. Those cheques stopped on 1st August.

Now that retail is dying…

The e-commerce juggernaut has been in talks with Simon Property Group, the largest mall owner in the US, about turning some of the spaces occupied by its anchor department stores into distribution centres, according to the Wall Street Journal. The talks have focused on spaces held by JC Penney, which filed for bankruptcy in May, and Sears, which has struggled since its 2018 bankruptcy filing.

Source: Quartz

In this case, Amazon seems to be panic buying warehousing!

Shoot yourself in the foot and saw your hand off

The year that the USA decided to shove itself down the path of reducing their influence globally by electing Trump and turning itself into a joke, the UK decided to leave the European Union. 3 Prime Ministers and a lot of dilly-dallying later the Brexit will be complete on the 31st December 2020. The fact that the pandemic struck the same year is a little more than inconvenient. Britain was supposed to be in economic shambles without a deal with the EU as it is. Now they are in a recession.

The economy shrank 20.4% compared with the first three months of the year.

Household spending plunged as shops were ordered to close, while factory and construction output also fell.

Source: BBC

I am sure they are not looking forward to the new year!

Moving Away

A couple of weeks ago when I had written about China, I had mentioned about the China Vs Rest of the World dynamic that is developing. The one lessons most countries have learnt is that they never want to create an economic situation where they have all their eggs in one basket. In no other arena can be it be more obviously seen as in the case of manufacturing. Under pressure is Foxconn, a Taiwanese company which is responsible for a massive amount of electronics manufacturing. The chairman of the companies said China’s days are over.

“No matter if it’s India, Southeast Asia or the Americas, there will be a manufacturing ecosystem in each,” Liu said, adding that while China will still play a key role in Foxconn’s manufacturing empire, the country’s “days as the world’s factory are done.”

Source: Bloomberg

Launchers

I have harboured a deep fascination for space since I was a child. With the rise of private space startups, I was fascinated at the opportunities that it opens up. At the same time, I was quite dismayed to find the Indian space ecosystem to be filled with pocket satellite makers. I heard about Skyroot a couple of years ago and upon reading about them made it a point to meet Pavan, the Founder & CEO, when I visited Hyderabad. A group of scientists who had quit their jobs at ISRO and decided to create India’s first private space launch startup.

Pavan was very agreeable and I spent a good hour speaking to him. They had found initial support from Mukesh Bansal of Myntra and Cult fame. I was thrilled to read that they completed their first test firing.

Indian aerospace startup Skyroot Aerospace successfully test-fired an upper-stage rocket engine, which is the third and fourth stage of a traditional multi-stage rocket, fired at high altitude and designed to operate with little or no atmospheric pressure. Skyroot has thus become the first Indian private company to demonstrate the capability of building an indigenous rocket engine. 

Source: Inc42

I suppose their cause was helped in a major way with the support that was announced for Private Space Companies as a part of the “Stimulus” package. They moved out of a legal grey area and this would have helped them a great deal.

I am thrilled, this will be the first space launch startup from India and I can’t wait to hear Elon Musk begin to weep and whine about it. Why? They will be way cheaper than SpaceX.

Nine Lives

They say a cat has nine lives. Looks like Kodak is a cat. Kodak is a company that is immediately associated with photography. The one thing that traditional photography involves a lot of is chemicals. Do you know another thing that has a lot of chemicals in it – Drugs. So Kodak is pivoting to become a pharmaceutical company. Also, because they got money for nothin’.

Last week, the US federal government announced a first-of-its-kind loan to Eastman Kodak, a US-based company once known for its leadership in the film photography industry. Kodak will be using the $765 million to begin producing components for generic drugs—specifically, active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), the chemicals that make a drug work.

Source: Quartz

Their share price jumped 15X before cooling off! And somehow the company got into trouble even before the loan came in – for?

Kodak’s manufacturing may be on hold, however, until the US Securities and Exchange Commission completes an investigation regarding the disclosure of the federal loan. Kodak offered its chief executive 2 million stock options on July 27—the same day it leaked details of the loan to reporters. The subsequent news reports and the official announcement, which Kodak made public on July 28, caused share prices to skyrocket.

Source: Quartz

Human greed!

Signing off…

Categories
Learning by Proxy

Learning by Proxy | Energy – Space – Xenophobia

Every Saturday, I publish this series called Learning by Proxy. It is a capsule of some of the stuff that I found interesting over the week along with some context to it. I hope you enjoy it.

I have changed the format this time to try and follow a thread across many stories. I hope people like it. Let me know.

Follow Up

Both parties – India and China are reported to be stepping back at the border. The satellite pictures don’t seem like that at all! Link

The USA, in the meantime, does not wish to lose access to the South China Sea. They sent a couple of destroyers into the South China Sea knowing fully well that the Chinese fleets were present in the area conducting exercises.

The carriers — the Ronald Reagan and the Nimitz — deployed “in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to a statement by the Navy’s Seventh Fleet. It said that the ships, which were accompanied by warships and aircraft, were conducting exercises to improve air defence and long-range missile strikes in “a rapidly evolving area of operations.”

Source: NYTimes

Playing with matches.

On COVID

COVID causes upper respiratory problems. But why? SARS-CoV-2 attaches itself to cells in the human body called ACE2 receptors. It happens to be present in abundance in the lungs. Hence the respiratory condition. ACE2 is also present in all other organs including the stomach, kidney, heart, and brain. Many patients suffer from diarrhoea and stomach upsets only to later discover that they are infected. The loss of the sense of smell is also because of the presence of ACE2 in the nose. Now, it turns out that many people infected by COVID-19 suffer from brain damage as well. ACE2?

Doctors may be missing signs of serious and potentially fatal brain disorders triggered by the coronavirus, as they emerge in mildly affected or recovering patients, scientists have warned.

Neurologists are on Wednesday publishing details of more than 40 UK Covid-19 patients whose complications ranged from brain inflammation and delirium to nerve damage and stroke. In some cases, the neurological problem was the patient’s first and main symptom.

Source: The Guardian

If these were the people who voted for Brexit, I suppose the damage might have been from before COVID.

The virus also seems to like men more than women and nobody knows why.

Energy

An achievement in power

The Indian Railways is an organisation that was created by the British to loot India more efficiently. Since then, India has made the railways an asset like none other. 59 years ago, the Indian railways embarked on an ambitious program to electrify the railways in the country. Today close to 99% of the railway lines are electrified and it has helped us shift away from Diesel to Coal.

Every once in a while a government organisation will do something in India that will make your chest swell with pride. A couple of years back Kochi became the first airport in the world to be 100% powered by solar energy. And now it is the turn of the railways!

According to details shared by Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, the pilot project of a 1.7-megawatt solar power plant has been set up by Indian Railways in collaboration with Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited (BHEL) on railway land. The solar power plant project has been set up at Bina Traction Sub Station. The 1.7-megawatt solar power plant can produce around 25 lakh units of energy annually and save about an amount of Rs 1.37 crore for Indian Railways every year.

According to the Railway Board Chairman, Indian Railways is planning to install solar power plants with a total capacity of 3 gigawatts, in the coming years. The power generated by these solar plants will directly feed the traction power for locomotives, he said. The tenders have already been invited for this project, however, it will take around two to three years to complete this project, he further stated.

Source: Financial Express

And immediately after achieving this milestone, another ministry decided to sabotage this plan. How will they get to 3GW, with Indian solar panels?

Shot in the foot

Also, India has moved in big ways towards solar power over the past decade. This was made possible in no small way by cheap Chinese Imports. Things got so bad for Indian manufacturers went begging to the government to do something about it, a few years ago. Now, thanks to the spat at the border, the Power Ministry has decided to ban all imports of power equipment from China.

It is not immediately clear if the Indian power producers who have already tied up with Chinese equipment suppliers will get a waiver or a carve-out from the latest decision. As much as 9,570 MW of the currently under-construction power plants — all from the private sector — have contracted with Chinese companies for supplying boilers, turbines and generators. Total under- construction capacity is 15,861 MW, of which 12,245 MW is in the private sector.

Source: Financial Express

This kind of thoughtless policy announcement has been the landmark of the Modi government.

Space

Satellite Market

One of the big expectations that drove the space entrepreneurs to take massive risks with other people’s money was the fact that several smaller countries will need satellites in space. Without the resources to develop their space program, they will hire private companies to launch. African countries have been launching satellites for weather prediction as well as resource mapping. Now, it is the turn of the Middle East – not to study earth, but Mars!

Sarah bint Yousif Al-Amiri knows what it’s like to build a spacecraft, but she’s never launched one to Mars—or during a global pandemic. As the deputy project manager for the United Arab Emirates’ first interplanetary mission—and the country’s minister of state for advanced sciences—the 33-year-old engineer has spent the past few years bouncing between Dubai and Boulder, Colorado, where a team of Emirati scientists have been busy building a robotic satellite meteorologist called Hope. These days, Al-Amiri is quarantining near the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, where Hope is expected to depart on a seven-month journey to the Red Planet next week.

Source: Wired

Connecting the World

The Internet can change the fortunes of any place. Imagine not having access to the internet. There are several places in the world where it is not economically viable to provide internet. Alphabet, the parent company of Google has been experimenting with Project Loon for close to a decade now. The idea is to have stratospheric air balloons beam internet down onto the planet. The first deployment took place in Kenya.

A fleet of high-altitude balloons started delivering internet service to Kenya on Tuesday, extending online access to tens of thousands of people in the first-ever commercial deployment of the technology.

The balloons, which hover about 12 miles up in the stratosphere — well above commercial aeroplanes — will initially provide a 4G LTE network connection to a nearly 31,000-square-mile area across central and western Kenya, including the capital, Nairobi.

Source: NYTimes

Airtel in Space

Since we are on the topic of internet, space seems to be the frontier for delivering low latency high-speed internet. With Jio busy photocopying every app known to mankind, Airtel is beginning to look towards space. The company will be splurging a Billion dollars to buy a satellite constellation. Must seem like spending some pocket change given the liability the Supreme Court piled onto the company as spectrum charges last year. But visionary indeed.

Twenty years after launching mobile telephone services in India, Sunil Mittal took a giant leap to connect the next billion users through a constellation of satellites, possibly gaining a head-start in Indian telecom’s race towards 5G mobile networks. A consortium led by Bharti Enterprises has won 45% stake the bid for OneWeb, a bankrupt firm that makes satellites in the UK and the US. Bharti had bid jointly with the UK government for the auction. They would invest around $500 million each to acquire OneWeb, which had declared bankruptcy earlier this year.

Source: Inc42

Xenophobia

Who is a Kuwaiti?

There is a movie about the rescue missions that had to be attempted to bring Indians back when the Gulf War broke out. Many from India have made gulf home especially those from the southern state of Kerala. What happens when a country realises that 33% of its population are ex-pats from ONE single country?

The Indian community constitutes the largest ex-pat community in Kuwait, totalling 1.45 million, the report added. Over 8 lakh Indians could be forced out of Kuwait if a new bill on ex-pats is enacted into law, the Gulf News reported. The legal and legislative committee of Kuwait’s National Assembly has approved the draft ex-pat quota bill, according to which Indians should not exceed 15% of the population.

Source: Indian Express

To keep the population essentially Kuwaiti, they need to chase out people from other countries. How will they execute this plan?

Stupidity thy name is Trump Administration

With the surge in COVID cases, any remaining hope that the Universities could open in fall were dashed. That did not keep their audacity at bay. All Universities will deliver classes online – at the same tuition fee of ~ USD 50,000. I suppose they do realise the very same courses are available on Coursera for USD 39 – 79 a month. The Trump administration joined the party. After banning H1B for till the end of this year – because waiters gonna code; they announced that all students must go back if their courses are online!

The over 250,000 Indian students enrolled in US universities now run the risk of being sent packing. Some of these students have parents living in the US on H1B! Where do they go back?

The Donald Trump administration on July 6 tweaked an exemption that allowed foreign students to stay in the US even when most of their classes are being held online amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Source: Quartz

Students are free money. Their parents are rich and expatriating foreign exchange to ensure their kids can get a great education. Not only that students are a huge source of consumption. They eat a lot, buy a lot and experience a lot. At a time when the economy is undergoing a slump, to chase them away, especially when your economy hardly adds any value to them – is just stupid. Not to mention – this will destroy the ability of the universities to attract overseas students in the coming years.

Promptly – Harvard and MIT sued.

“By threatening to force many F-1 students to withdraw from Harvard and MIT, Defendants have put both schools to an impossible choice: lose numerous students who bring immense benefits to the school or take steps to retain those students through in-person classes, even when those steps contradict each school’s judgment about how best to protect the health of the students, faculty, staff, and the entire university community.”

Source: Indian Express

When you can’t offer perks

Companies are well known for making it as easy as possible for parents to come in and slog 16 hour days. Provide foosball tables and the likes that you would not be able to use at all, unless you were going to stay at work till 11 P.M. While there was a sinister side to the childcare and other support of that nature offered, they were still perks. This helped bring some of the best talents to the organisation. When your employee is sitting at home, what perk can you offer? Fewer working days!

Data from jobs marketplace ZipRecruiter shows that in 2020, so far, the share of company job postings offering four-day workweeks is 69 for every 10,000 job postings. It’s a tiny number to be sure, but it’s up from 40 in 2019. Between 2015 and 2018, the share was fewer than 18 in 10,000 postings each year.

Pre-pandemic, companies offered condensed schedules largely to attract and retain talent that prized flexibility. In the current climate, a shorter workweek is one way for companies to cut costs without resorting to layoffs.

Source: Quartz

Finally…

Sue spammers as a service

Startups are in the business of turning tough human work into simple products. We all get spammed every day. Spam is unwanted; in some cases meant to cause harm. These companies should be sued. But I am sure, not a single person has the time to sue them. Now, a UK based startup – DoNotPay – has launched a service that will automatically unsubscribe you from Spam while at the same time going after the spammers. The company bills itself to be the world’s first robot lawyer.

If you use a mainstream email provider, it likely catches most of the obviously useless and potentially malicious spam you receive, like scammy prescription drug offers and unsolicited sex tips. But when it comes to the endless promo emails from retailers and newsletters you don’t remember signing up for, you’re mostly on your own. Now a new tool from DoNotPay, a suite of consumer advocacy services, offers a lifeline that will make it easier to unsubscribe from email lists in a privacy-conscious way. It’ll also try to earn you some cash along the way.

Source: Wired

Signing off…

Categories
Learning by Proxy

Tax – Real Estate – Water | Learning by Proxy

Every Saturday, I publish this series called ‘Learning by Proxy’. It is a capsule of some of the stuff that I found interesting over the week along with some context to it. I hope you enjoy it.

Follow Up

Indian and China have been having a lot of heated exchanges in Ladakh. This week it escalated and resulted in India losing 20 soldiers including a Commanding Officer.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh Tuesday reviewed the current operational situation in Eastern Ladakh, following Monday’s violent faceoff on the LAC, along with the Chief of Defence Staff and the three Service Chiefs. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was also present during the meeting.

Source: Indian Express

One name is conspicuously missing, don’t you think? Modi has been AWOL.

Also

The Indian army said that both sides suffered casualties, but there has been no word on numbers from China yet.

Tuesday’s battle was reportedly fought with rocks and clubs. However, no shots were fired.

The Indian army said a number of its troops “were critically injured in the line of duty”.

Source: BBC

Rocks and Wooden Clubs? No Shots fired? What the hell is going on?

China has taken the Galwan Valley and now their Foreign minister is like – Go on. Nothing to see here. Everything is resolved.


Politics

LGBTQ

Law is always very political and the appointment of supreme court justices is the greatest power wielded by politics over law. Trump got to appoint two Supreme Court justices and that was expected to swing the Supreme Court towards the far right. Imagine the surprise then, when the court declared that employment could not be taken away if a person was LGBTQ. The final vote came down the interpretation of the term ‘sex’ in a 1964 act. Whether it meant only man and woman or all sexual orientations. Neil Gorsuch who was the first appointments by Trump wrote out the order.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Monday outlawing anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination is a triumph for both the country and the court. It is a victory for the country because, in one fell swoop, the court granted vital protections to LGBTQ people in every state, making the United States a fairer, freer place.

Source: Quartz

Shooting yourself in the foot

The so-called stimulus package is an attempt by the Modi government to roll out the red carpet to investors to choose India. At the same time, the abysmal state of the government is forcing the tax officials to look at any vestige from which revenue can materialise. The Central GST collection during the lockdown fell from Rs. 47,000 Crores same period last year to a shade below Rs. 6000 Crores this year. An 87% per cent drop. The IT Department slapped Tiger Global with a tax bill of Rs. 14,500 Crores. Flipkart would not be Flipkart without Tiger Global. Antagonising them despite a Double Tax treaty with Mauritius is not a great move.

Earlier this week, news reports said Tiger Global may take India’s quasi-judicial body, Authority of Advance Ruling (AAR), to court over its claim that the investor has outstanding tax dues on its sale of shares in e-commerce major Flipkart in 2018.

Prima facie, experts, believe Tiger Global is protected against the payment under the India-Mauritius Double Tax Avoidance Agreement (DTAA), which prevents investors from being taxed twice on the same income in both countries.

Source: Quartz

Economics

Tipping Energy

Coal has been on its way down for a few years. In the US, gas-powered power plants have proved to be a much more viable source of energy than coal. This combined with the falling costs of renewable energy has made it harder for coal mines to continue to operate. Trump had said he will bring these coal jobs back. No one can stop the steady march of better economics, especially in a capitalistic system. This is not about the environment, it’s about profits.

The Texas-based utility that owns the Maryland plant just announced it will shut down Dickerson’s three power units after 60 years of operation, citing the high cost of operation. Like dozens of other coal plants across the country, Dickerson is a casualty of coal’s fast-moving demise. The industry has been squeezed between cheaper natural gas and expanding use of renewable energy for several years, but now the Covid-19-driven recession has jammed a stake through its economic heart.

Source: Wired

Stimulus – Togo Style

All of the big nations have been busy announcing large stimulus programs to get their economies back on their feet. To date, Germany has been one of the few that has put its money right in the hands of the workers who have lost their jobs or stand to lose their jobs. Togo is going a step further and putting money in the Novissi (digital wallet) accounts of informal workers!

For its part, Togo has looked to solve that problem with Novissi, a digital cash transfer program that sends funds to citizens through mobile money. Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé has said the scheme targets informal workers whose incomes were “disrupted” by lockdowns. As of mid-April, over 1.1 million Togolese citizens—13% of the population—had registered for Novissi with around 450,000 people (65% of which were women) proving eligible beneficiaries and receiving up to 35% of the minimum wage.

Source: Quartz

Business

Flying Low

The airline industry has always been out with a begging bowl. In good times and in bad. As Richard Branson famously put it – If you want to be a Millionaire make a Billion dollars and start an airline. Almost every major western airline has been bailed out by the government and in some of them, the governments hold massive stakes. Interestingly, low-cost budget airlines in Europe seem to be in better stead despite not having needed a bail-out.

Ryanair and Wizz stocks are better bets right now than Air France-KLM and Lufthansa, according to Morgan Stanley. That’s because the flag carriers rely more heavily on business travel and long-haul routes that will likely to be slower to bounce back. They will also have a lot of work to do to repay the money they’ve borrowed from taxpayers. (Norwegian Air, a discount carrier for long-haul flights that got a $271 million loan from the Norwegian government, has fallen more than 90% in the stock market this year.)

Source: Quartz

Real Estate

I had written about the reckoning that real estate will soon be faced with. The increasing move towards ‘work from home’ and the closure of malls causing an upsurge in OTT was bound to hit commercial real estate. Malls thrive because of the footfalls multiplexes drive to the malls. Multiplexes have been closed and have no clear opening date. Retailers refused to open their stores unless malls waived rent. An open mall with stores closed does not make for good business. DLF blinked.

Under the new proposal, DLF Shopping Malls is offering rental partners a 100% waiver on MG rent for the entire lockdown period till June 15. Post this, a 75% off on MG rent is offered till June 30, sources said. DLF has also proposed a 50%, 24% and 10% waiver on MG rent for July-September 2020, October-December 2020 and January-March 2021, respectively, they added.

Source: Financial Express

To add insult to injury, CavinKare one of the large FMCG companies based in the south known for brands such as Chic and Nyle decided to pull the shutters on its HQ. Everyone except factory employees can work from home!

“We have shut down our corporate office and closed all four branches. We see no need for it. We have called for bids from tenants for the 40,000sqft office,” Ranganathan said. Additionally, the four branches have also been shut. “Only factories and R&D centres will have employees come in and work,” he said. Nearly 300 people worked out of the corporate office, while the company has a staff strength of 1,900. 

While most companies have announced aggressive WFH models in a bid to save on costs and stop the spread of the Covid pandemic, Cavinkare’s Ranganathan said he has chosen it for productivity reasons. “It is more from a productivity standpoint. We have seen a 30% increase in productivity in the nearly 100 days of lockdown,” he said.

Source: Times Of India

Technology / Science

The Price of Water

In space water is an especially valuable resource, but not for the reasons that you think. Yes, water is important for humans to survive. Also, in space, the only way to create thrust is by losing mass. Water = Mass. When you use fuel in space to propel, you are essentially ejecting mass to create force (thrust) towards the opposite direction. It costs about USD 18,500 to put one Kg in space. Not the most economical way to put fuel in space. Alternatively, you can mine the water on the Moon and use it as fuel. Now, NASA is going to determine the price for it.

That’s why Bridenstine’s statement is so important: If NASA follows through by saying we’ll pay $X for propellant delivered to location Y, that could give hypothetical lunar mining entrepreneurs the market they need to get off the ground and encourage private propellant buyers to make their own plans to use these resources. (One technological wrinkle will be designing spacecraft for regular refuelling.)

Source: Quartz

Retweet no more

Recently Twitter has grown a spine. This has meant that the company is beginning to cut back on all kinds of misinformation. How many times have you retweeted an article just after looking at its headline without even bothering to read it? They have started tracking that!

Twitter seemingly expanded the amount of data it collects from users to include the links in tweets that were opened, the tweet that included the links, and when it was opened. Zucker-Scharff noted that the link-tracking appears to have begun last month; he said the file containing the history of links on which he had clicked did not appear the last time he examined Twitter’s code in 2018.

Put together, this does much more than flag if a user is sharing something they haven’t read. It could also identify them. For example, if law enforcement has anonymized browser data on several users, officials could use timestamps to identify the person, matching the anonymous data with the Twitter timestamps.

Source: Wired

Spying with Lightbulbs

Researchers have found a way to listen to conversations taking place by watching the vibrations on a lightbulb! So stop using bulbs. LED all the way.

Researchers from Israeli’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Weizmann Institute of Science today revealed a new technique for long-distance eavesdropping they call “lamphone.” They say it allows anyone with a laptop and less than a thousand dollars of equipment—just a telescope and a $400 electro-optical sensor—to listen in on any sounds in a room that’s hundreds of feet away in real-time, simply by observing the minuscule vibrations those sounds create on the glass surface of a light bulb inside. By measuring the tiny changes in light output from the bulb that those vibrations cause, the researchers show that a spy can pick up sound clearly enough to discern the contents of conversations or even recognize a piece of music.

Source: Wired

Misc

Have you ever watched a Chess match? I am guessing not.

Hence it would come as a great surprise that Twitch, a service that streams video games is getting hooked to Chess. All thanks to Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura. I was watching a short video included in the news piece and its amazing.

Signing off…

Categories
Learning by Proxy

Flat Curve – Recession – VC | Learning by Proxy

Every Saturday, I publish this series called ‘Learning by Proxy’. It is a capsule of some of the stuff that I found interesting over the week along with some context to it. I hope you enjoy it.

Politics

It is flattening stupid!

Flat Curve

This or many versions of this graph were used to explain what flattening the curve means. Everyone including Barack Obama and Bill Gates shared a graph such as this one on Twitter to explain the world why flattening the curve is important. While everyone including our PM saw the Y-Axis, they all just ignored the X-Axis. Time. It will take much longer to come out of this situation when you flatten the curve.

So questions are now being asked if it was the right thing to shut down the economy. Cases have continued their march upwards and reached more than 30,000. Also, it does not look like the number of cases will fall soon. To add insult to injury, several daily wage workers have ended up dead out of starvation or trying to make a long arduous journey back home – on foot.

India’s lockdown has been the harshest in the world, made worse by the fact that it was accompanied by little planning and foresight. Not only does this cause immense human suffering, it weakens the hand of the Indian state going forward on containment measures. The fact that the Modi government is simultaneously projecting an end to new cases by May 16 and communicating that containment measures will continue for a long time makes it difficult for the states to convince residents to follow those restrictions.

https://qz.com/india/1847764/indian-government-is-unsure-if-coronavirus-lockdown-is-working/

The absence of a finish line is making this worse. 

E-Commerce

The government of India seems to think delivery boys running around the city with fresh produce is okay but other goods – not fine. Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) has been lobbying the government for years to investigate the FDI in e-commerce and several other claims. They have now managed to lobby the government to let only stores sell non-essential goods while keeping e-commerce away. Why? Since the lockdown was sudden and everyone had to re-engineer their work-life and there is a huge demand of electronic goods at the moment and they want to be able to take the first bite into this demand backlog. On the other hand…

Amazon India head Amit Agarwal took to Twitter urging the government to allow them to deliver non-essentials as well as the essential products that they are currently selling. Agarwal said that ecommerce offers the safest way to ensure social distancing, saving lives and livelihoods.

https://inc42.com/buzz/allow-us-to-deliver-non-essentials-amazon-india-chief-urges-on-twitter

As if to prove the point – CAIT launches an e-commerce portal on 1st May.


Economics

America is in Recession

The lockdown in America was not total. People were still allowed to go outside. E-Commerce was still functioning. You could have even gone shopping and dining in some of the states. If you want to get a feel for what two weeks of partial lockdown can do to an economy vis-a-vis 10 weeks of normalcy – which included one week of toilet paper frenzy, well…

Gross domestic product, or the value of all goods and services produced by the economy, shrank at a 4.8 per cent annualised rate in the first three months of the year, according to the preliminary estimate from the Bureau of Economic Analysis published on Wednesday. That marked the steepest drop since the 8.4 per cent contraction at the end of 2008 and compared with economists forecasts for a narrower 4 per cent decline in output.

https://www.ft.com/content/06493320-083a-4a7d-94cc-8db581f9ed03

The economy contracted by 4.8% and estimates range from 20% to 40% contraction for the next quarter. This will be worse than the depression if it gets there.

Energy

One of the election promises that Trump had made was to bring “good” Coal jobs back. But, Coal has been dying a slow economic death. Donald Trump has stood by – which is a good thing. Seeing how things have been, utilities themselves are now switching to Wind and Solar. If the first three months of 2020 are anything to go by, there is a bright future ahead.

It has now switched that stance. Renewables are now expected to be America’s top electricity source by 2050. Utilities are opting to jump straight into solar and wind as the falling price of renewables (often paired with batteries) turns them into a viable alternative. Most recently, data collected by the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (pdf) shows 86% of new installed capacity at the start of this year came from solar and wind. Natural gas accounted for the rest. (Coal and oil, unsurprisingly, were absent.)

https://qz.com/1844750/the-first-two-months-of-2020-belonged-to-solar-and-wind/

Coal is having it bad across the globe. In India, due to the lockdown power consumption has gone down by almost 20%. I had written about the stress that this is causing to distribution companies in my last blog. But something else is afoot; this has resulted in coal power plants around Delhi getting shuttered. Coal plants once shut down are very hard to revive.

For instance, the CREA report said, “all coal-based power plants in 300 kilometres radius of Delhi (Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh) except two units at Dadri Power Plant have been shut down due to low demand.” It emphasised that there has been a “reduction in overall power demand and associated coal consumption by the power generation facilities across the country.” The report compared power generation in India during the two weeks before March 24 (the day of the lockdown) and two weeks after and found a 19% overall reduction in power generation in India. Coal-based power generation in particular reduced by 26% during the same period, said the CREA report.

https://qz.com/india/1844956/indias-coronavirus-lockdown-drastically-cuts-power-consumption/

The article above has some dramatic satellite picture of how pollution has gone down around Delhi as a result. But here in India, we have our own Trump – PM Modi pushes coal, mining reforms with eye on jobs, investment.

Conditional Bailout

The positive effects of the lockdown on the environment is hard to miss. Governments in the European Union are now mulling conditional bailouts. They want to extract a promise from the companies receiving the bailout. Austria has been the country that has made the first proposal of this nature. 

Globally, aviation contributes more than 2% of CO2 emissions, despite the fact that more than 80% of the world’s population doesn’t fly. But its difficulty in decarbonizing, coupled with growth in the developing world, together mean it may reach nearly a quarter of global GHG emissions by the middle of the century.

https://qz.com/1845229/austria-wants-climate-related-conditions-for-its-airline-bailout/

Business

Inertia is a good thing if it is going your way. Rollback to last December, the American Economy had not known better times. There were three trillion dollar companies on the stock exchange (which there still are – markets are efficient – bah humbug!). Anyway, sometime around last summer some of the largest VC funds in the US went fundraising and they closed their funds during the tumult of the first quarter. They came away with USD 21 Billion. Now, where do they invest?

In the first quarter of this year, 62 venture capital funds raised a total of $21 billion in the U.S., according to data gathered by PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association. That cash puts them in a strong position as the economy weakens: In 2019, firms raised $51 billion for the full year. As an added buffer, VCs reported a total of $121 billion in committed but unspent capital as of the middle of 2019, the latest numbers available, according to the NVCA.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-14/vc-firms-raised-21-billion-last-quarter-despite-pandemic-chaos

Their portfolio companies should feel good about themselves.

Retail no more

Since 2014, I have been pitched a business plan repeatedly. Each time it involved some variation of bringing all the main street stores online. The trouble with doing this is not technology or logistics – Its cataloguing availability real-time. Some of the smaller stores don’t have any kind of software. Given what has transpired over the past 2 months, for several of these retailers, especially the single store outlets, the choice is between moving online and perishing. I think this is a once in a generation opportunity. 

The key to remaining viable, Brinkman said, is to be searchable and active online. People everywhere want to be supporting small businesses, but they need to be able to find them. “Many businesses that previously thought of themselves as just local businesses are now able to be global businesses—if they have the right online presence,” she said. “We’re talking to a lot of these organizations that say, ‘Why didn’t we do this before?'”

https://www.wired.com/story/now-is-time-main-street-shops-go-digital/

In the meantime, fresh on the heels of the investment announcement made by Facebook in Jio, they are already piloting ordering over WhatsApp in Mumbai. Will they run away with the market?

Rentals

No not the ones that retailers are looking to avoid paying. In lucrative markets like New York, San Francisco and Paris, people have been renting tens of houses that they put up on rent on Airbnb. This has resulted in rentals shooting up and making it impossible for many to live in the cities they work in. Many have taken to living out of their cars. In places like Paris, I know friends who travel over 100 Kms to go to work each day.

People who were renting homes for as much as $4000 were making $8000 through Airbnb. Now imagine renting 10 houses and making 10 times as much money. It was called ‘Magic Money’. The money pulled a Houdini on them. The bookings have evaporated and they are staring at huge losses. Well deserved, I say. Unlike big companies in the US, they are not going to be bailed out. 

But the real question is what is this going to mean for Airbnb. A company that was valued at more than some of the largest hotel companies. The listing available on the site will plummet as many of these renters are forced to give up their houses, not being able to cover the cost during the lockdown.


Technology

People with spinal injuries often suffer from paralysis. The brain is still in a position to command the limb to move but the neural networks of the damaged spines are often unable to carry the instructions across. What if you find another way to get the instructions across to the limb.

To make it happen, Ganzer and his colleagues used an elaborate setup that connects Burkhart’s brain to a computer. The chip in his motor cortex sends electrical signals through a port in the back of his skull, which is delivered through a cable to a nearby PC. There, a software program decodes the brain signals and separates them into signals corresponding to intended motions and signals corresponding to a sense of touch. The signals representing intended motions are routed to a sleeve of electrodes wrapped around Burkhart’s forearm. The touch signals are routed to a vibration band around his upper arm.

https://www.wired.com/story/a-brain-implant-restored-this-mans-motion-and-sense-of-touch/

Misc

In Newtonian Physics, Momentum is described as the product of mass and velocity. In other words, it is the quantity of motion that a body has. Inertia, on the other hand, is the resistance of a body to change its velocity. Which brings us to Newton’s first law of motion – An object in motion stays in motion till an external force acts upon it. This is often referred to as the law of the inertial state.

Climate also seems to be in an inertial state. If you thought the reduced emission was going to result in lower temperatures this summer, you are in for a surprise. Hottest temperatures recorded in 20 years! Two months will not absolve us of the sins committed over a century. 

How much hotter is it going to get? Global climate models have proved remarkably accurate, and the world is now running closer to those projected by Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change in 2015. Cities will feel the heat sooner: Temperatures in cities such as Moscow, London, Seattle are expected to shift from temperate to sub-tropical, rising 3.5° C to 6° C above normal, according to 2019 research in PLOS One.

https://qz.com/1843247/2020-is-almost-the-hottest-on-record-already/

Ganga

I want to end this with some good news. When I first visited Austria in 2002, I got the opportunity to visit Salzburg. It is a beautiful alpine town known best for the shooting of the movie – The sound of music. Mozart also happens to have been from the city and the city has a musical touch to it. Salzburg developed on the banks of the River Salzach. It was the first river that I had seen where I could see the riverbed. It was pristine. 30 days is all it took to turn Ganga into Salzach.

Not only that, but it is possible to see the Yamuna riverbed also – in Delhi! Some incredible before and after pictures by the Guardian.

Signing off…