Curated Insights 2018.05.20

The spectacular power of Big Lens

There is a good chance, meanwhile, that your frames are made by Luxottica, an Italian company with an unparalleled combination of factories, designer labels and retail outlets. Luxottica pioneered the use of luxury brands in the optical business, and one of the many powerful functions of names such as Ray-Ban (which is owned by Luxottica) or Vogue (which is owned by Luxottica) or Prada (whose glasses are made by Luxottica) or Oliver Peoples (which is owned by Luxottica) or high-street outlets such as LensCrafters, the largest optical retailer in the US (which is owned by Luxottica), or John Lewis Opticians in the UK (which is run by Luxottica), or Sunglass Hut (which is owned by Luxottica) is to make the marketplace feel more varied than it actually is.

Now they are becoming one. On 1 March, regulators in the EU and the US gave permission for the world’s largest optical companies to form a single corporation, which will be known as EssilorLuxottica. The new firm will not technically be a monopoly: Essilor currently has around 45% of the prescription lenses market, and Luxottica 25% of the frames. But in seven centuries of spectacles, there has never been anything like it. The new entity will be worth around $50bn (£37bn), sell close to a billion pairs of lenses and frames every year, and have a workforce of more than 140,000 people. EssilorLuxottica intends to dominate what its executives call “the visual experience” for decades to come.

For a long time, scientists thought myopia was primarily determined by our genes. But about 10 years ago, it became clear that the way children were growing up was harming their eyesight, too. The effect is starkest in east Asia, where myopia has always been more common, but the rate of increase has been uniform, more or less, across the world. In the 1950s, between 10% and 20% of Chinese people were shortsighted. Now, among teenagers and young adults, the proportion is more like 90%. In Seoul, 95% of 19-year-old men are myopic, many of them severely, and at risk of blindness later in life.

Del Vecchio paid $645m (£476m) for Ray-Ban. During the negotiations, he promised to protect thousands of jobs at four factories in the US and Ireland. Three months later, he closed the plants and shifted production to China and Italy. Over the next year and a half, Luxottica withdrew Ray-Ban from 13,000 retail outlets, hiked their prices and radically improved the quality: increasing the layers of lacquer on a pair of Wayfarers from two to 31. In 2004, to the disbelief of many of his subordinates, del Vecchio decided that Ray-Ban, which had been invented for American pilots in the 1930s, should branch out from sunglasses into optical lenses, too. “A lot of us were sceptical. Really? Ray. Ban. Banning rays from the sun?” the former manager said. “But he was right.” Ray-Ban is now the most valuable optical brand in the world. It generates more than $2bn (£1.5bn) in sales for Luxottica each year, and is thought to account for as much as 40% of its profits.

The Moat Map

Facebook has completely internalized its network and commoditized its content supplier base, and has no motivation to, for example, share its advertising proceeds. Google similarly has internalized its network effects and commoditized its supplier base; however, given that its supply is from 3rd parties, the company does have more of a motivation to sustain those third parties (this helps explain, for example, why Google’s off-sites advertising products have always been far superior to Facebook’s).

Netflix and Amazon’s network effects are partially internalized and partially externalized, and similarly, both have differentiated suppliers that remain very much subordinate to the Amazon and Netflix customer relationship.

Apple and Microsoft, meanwhile, have the most differentiated suppliers on their platform, which makes sense given that both depend on largely externalized network effects. “Must-have” apps ultimately accrue to the platform’s benefit.

Apple’s developer ecosystem is plenty strong enough to allow the company’s product chops to come to the fore. I continue to believe, though, that Apple’s moat could be even deeper had the company considered the above Moat Map: the network effects of a platform like iOS are mostly externalized, which means that highly differentiated suppliers are the best means to deepen the moat; unfortunately Apple for too long didn’t allow for suitable business models.

Uber’s suppliers are completely commoditized. This might seem like a good thing! The problem, though, is that Uber’s network effects are completely externalized: drivers come on to the platform to serve riders, which in turn makes the network more attractive to riders. This leaves Uber outside the Moat Map. The result is that Uber’s position is very difficult to defend; it is easier to imagine a successful company that has internalized large parts of its network (by owning its own fleet, for example), or done more to differentiate its suppliers. The company may very well succeed thanks to the power from owning the customer relationship, but it will be a slog.

How much would you pay to keep using Google?

Part of the problem is that GDP as a measure only takes into account goods and services that people pay money for. Internet firms like Google and Facebook do not charge consumers for access, which means that national-income statistics will underestimate how much consumers have benefitted from their rise.

Survey respondents said that they would have to be paid $3,600 to give up internet maps for a year, and $8,400 to give up e-mail. Search engines appear to be especially valuable: consumers surveyed said that they would have to be paid $17,500 to forgo their use for a year.


There is another

Spotify has better technology, merchandising (like discovery playlists), and brand. Unlike Apple Music, being a pure-play (as opposed to being owned by a tech giant) gives Spotify more cred among purists, young people, and influencers. The instinct / T Algorithm cocktail has resulted in a firm with 170M users, 75M of whom are premium subscribers. The firm registered €1B this quarter, representing 37% growth. Spotify accounted for 36% of premium music subscribers globally.

What takes Spotify to $300B, and true horseman status? They launch video, and become the most successful streaming entertainment firm, full stop. Netflix’s legacy is on the second most important screen, TV. Spotify was raised on the most important – mobile. Netflix needs to become Spotify before Spotify becomes Netflix. Nobody has cracked social and TV, and as half of young people no longer watch cable TV, if Spotify were to launch video and captured any reasonable share and engagement via unique playlists, then cable and Netflix would begin ceding market cap to Spotify.


Subscriptions for the 1%

The problem with these minuscule conversion rates is that it dramatically raises the cost of acquiring a customer (CAC). When only 1% of people convert, it concentrates all of that sales and marketing spend on a very small sliver of customers. That forces subscription prices to rise so that the CAC:LTV ratios make rational sense. Before you know it, what once might have been $1 a month by 20% of a site’s audience is now $20 a month for the 1%.

There is a class of exceptions around Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Prime. Spotify, for instance, had 170 million monthly actives in the first quarter this year, and 75 million of those are paid, for an implied conversion of 44%. What’s unique about these products — and why they shouldn’t be used as an example — is that they own the entirety of a content domain. Netflix owns video and Spotify owns music in a way that the New York Times can never hope to own news or your podcast app developer can never hope to own the audio content market.

The Apple Services machine

It is this hardware dependency that makes it impossible to look at Apple Services as a stand-alone business. The Services narrative isn’t compelling if it excludes Apple hardware from the equation. Apple’s future isn’t about selling services. Rather, it’s about developing tools for people. These tools will consist of a combination of hardware, software, and services.

Apple currently has more than 270 million paid subscriptions across its services, up over 100 million year-over-year. Apple is in a good position to benefit from growing momentum for video streaming services including Netflix, HBO, and Hulu. It is not a stretch to claim that Apple will one day have 500 million paid subscriptions across its services. Apple isn’t becoming a services company. Instead, Apple is building a leading paid content distribution platform.

Tencent Holdings Ltd. delivered two major milestones when it reported its earnings Wednesday: record quarterly profits and more than one billion monthly active users on its WeChat platform. The social media and gaming giant, which has been leery of barraging its users with ads, also declared it had raised the maximum number of ads that customers see on WeChat Moments from one a day to two. The app has become China’s most popular messaging service and is integral to driving everything from gaming and payments to advertising for Tencent.

MoviePass: the unicorn that jumped into Wall Street too soon

“The growth-at-all-costs strategy is being funded these days by the venture community, not the public market. The last time we saw the public markets fund a growth-at-all-costs strategy was the 1999 internet bubble, and we all know how that ended.”

The prospect of steep declines in a company’s valuations once it hits the public markets is one reason why U.S. companies are waiting longer to go public. Overall, U.S. companies that have gone public this year have done so at an average market capitalization of $1.1 billion, according to Thomson Reuters data, a 44 percent increase from the average market cap during the height of the dot com craze in 1999. At the same time, companies are now going public 6.5 years after receiving their first venture capital backing on average, more than double the three years between initial funding and going public in 1999.

Cerebras: The AI of cheetahs and hyenas

The specialist starts out with a technology optimized for one specific task. Take the graphics-processing unit. As its name denotes, this was a specialist technology focused on a single task–processing graphics for display. And for the task of graphics, graphics-processing units are phenomenal. Nvidia built a great company on graphics-processing. But over time, the makers of graphics-processing units, AMD and Nvidia, have tried to bring their graphics devices to markets with different requirements, to continue the analogy to hunt things that aren’t gazelle. In these markets, what was once a benefit, finely tuned technology for graphics (or gazelle-hunting), is now a burden. If you hunt up close like a leopard and never have to run fast, having your nose smooshed into your face is not an advantage and may well be a disadvantage. When you hunt things you were no longer designed to hunt, the very things that made you optimized and specialized are no longer assets.

Intel is the classic example of a generalist. For more than 30 years the x86 CPU they pioneered was the answer to every compute problem. And they gobbled up everything and built an amazing company. But then there emerged compute problems that specialists were better at, and were big enough to support specialist companies—such as cell phones, graphics and we believe AI. In each of these domains specialist architectures dominate.

We are specialists, designing technology for a much more focused purpose than the big companies burdened with multiple markets to serve and legacy architectures to carry forward. Specialists are always better at their target task. They do not carry the burden of trying to do many different things well, nor the architectural deadweight of optimizations for other markets. We focus and are dedicated to a single purpose. The question of whether we—and every other specialist– will be successful rests on whether the market is large enough to support that specialist approach. Whether, in other words, there are enough gazelle to pursue. In every market large enough, specialists win. It is in collections of many modest markets, that the generalist wins. We believe that the AI compute market will be one of the largest markets in all of infrastructure. It will be the domain of specialists.


This $2 billion AI startup aims to teach factory robots to think

What sets Preferred Networks apart from the hundreds of other AI startups is its ties to Japan’s manufacturing might. Deep learning algorithms depend on data and the startup is plugging into some of the rarest anywhere. Its deals with Toyota and Fanuc Corp., the world’s biggest maker of industrial robots, give it access to the world’s top factories. While Google used its search engine to become an AI superpower, and Facebook Inc. mined its social network, Preferred Networks has an opportunity to analyze and potentially improve how just about everything is made.

At an expo in Japan a few months later, another demo showed how the tech might one day be used to turn factory robots into something closer to skilled craftsmen. Programming a Fanuc bin-picking robot to grab items out of a tangled mass might take a human engineer several days. Nishikawa and Okanohara showed that machines could teach themselves overnight. Working together, a team of eight could master the task in an hour. If thousands — or millions — were linked together, the learning would be exponentially faster. “It takes 10 years to train a skilled machinist, and that knowledge can’t just be downloaded to another person” Fanuc’s Inaba explained. “But once you have a robot expert, you can multiply it infinitely.”

China buys up flying schools as pilot demand rises

In September Ryanair axed 20,000 flights due to a rostering mess-up made worse by pilot shortages. This forced the low-cost carrier to reverse a longstanding policy and recognise trade unions and agree new pay deals — a move that it said would cost it €100m ($120m) a year from 2019.

China is on course to overtake the US as the world’s largest air travel market by 2022, according to the International Air Transport Association.

US aircraft maker Boeing predicts China will need 110,000 new pilots in the years through to 2035, and its airlines are expected to purchase 7,000 commercial aircraft over the next two decades.

China’s aviation market grew by 13 per cent last year, with 549m passengers taking to the skies, double the number who flew in 2010. Growth is being driven by the rising middle class, an expansion of routes by Chinese airlines and the easing of visa restrictions by foreign governments keen to attract Chinese tourists.

California will require solar power for new homes

Long a leader and trendsetter in its clean-energy goals, California took a giant step on Wednesday, becoming the first state to require all new homes to have solar power.

The new requirement, to take effect in two years, brings solar power into the mainstream in a way it has never been until now. It will add thousands of dollars to the cost of home when a shortage of affordable housing is one of California’s most pressing issues.

Just half a percent

If you save $5,000 a year for 40 years and make only 8% (the “small” mistake), you’ll retire with about $1.46 million. But if you earn 8.5% instead, you’ll retire with nearly $1.7 million. The additional $230,000 or so may not seem like enough to change your life, but that additional portfolio value is worth more than all of the money you invested over the years. Result: You retire with 16% more.

Your gains don’t stop there. Assume you continue earning either 8% or 8.5% while you withdraw 4% of your portfolio each year and that you live for 25 years after retirement. If your lifetime return is 8%, your total retirement withdrawals are just shy of $2.5 million. If your lifetime return is 8.5% instead, you withdraw about $3.1 million. That’s an extra $600,000 for your “golden years,” a bonus of three times the total dollars you originally saved.

Your heirs will also have plenty of reasons to be grateful for your 0.5% boost in return. If your lifetime return was 8%, your estate will be worth about $3.9 million. If you earned 8.5% instead, your estate is worth more than $5.1 million.

Keep your investment costs low.
Slowly increasing your savings rate over time.
Consistently saving while treating investment contributions like a periodic bill payment.
Bettering your career prospects to increase your income over time.
Avoiding behavioral investment mistakes which can act as a counterweight to the benefits of compounding.

Curated Insights 2018.04.15

Mark Zuckerberg: “We do not sell data to advertisers”

There is a very common misconception that we sell data to advertisers, and we do not sell data to advertisers. What we allow is for advertisers to tell us who they want to reach and then we do the placement. So, if an advertiser comes to us and says, ‘Alright, I’m a ski shop and I want to sell skis to women,’ then we might have some sense because people shared skiing related content or said they were interested in that. They shared whether they’re a woman. And then we can show the ads to the right people without that data ever changing hands and going to the advertiser. That’s a very fundamental part of how our model works and something that is often misunderstood.


Sen. Harris puts Zuckerberg between a rock and a hard place for not disclosing data misuse

So to sum up: in 2015, it became clear to Facebook and certainly to senior leadership that the data of 87 million people had been sold against the company’s terms. Whether or not to inform those users seems like a fundamental question, yet Zuckerberg claimed to have no recollection of any discussion thereof. That hardly seems possible — especially since he later said that they had in fact had that discussion, and that the decision was made on bad information. But he doesn’t remember when this discussion, which he does or doesn’t remember, did or didn’t take place!


Google and Facebook can’t help publishers because they’re built to defeat publishers

Here’s the problem: No matter how hard Google and Facebook try to help publishers, they will do more to hurt them, because that’s the way they’re supposed to work. They’re built to eviscerate publishers.

Publishers create and aggregate information and present it to users in return for their attention, which they sell to advertisers. And that’s exactly what Google and Facebook do, too: Except they do a much better job of that. That’s why the two companies own the majority of digital ad dollars, and an even bigger chunk of digital advertising growth. (Yes, those numbers can change — but if anyone displaces Google or Facebook, it will be another tech company.)

Amazon’s next mission: Using Alexa to help you pay friends

Mr. Bezos gave employees a mandate last year to push financial services as a key initiative, according to a person briefed on the matter. The company also restructured internally to add its digital wallet, Amazon Pay, to its team that focuses on Alexa as part of plans to make voice commands the next wave of commerce, according to other people familiar with the company’s plans.

If Amazon can move more transactions to its own rails or get better deals from card companies, it could save more than an estimated $250 million in interchange fees each year, Bain & Co. consultants say.


Is Amazon bad for the Postal Service? Or its savior?

An independent body, the Postal Regulatory Commission, oversees the rates that the Postal Service charges for its products. By law, the agreements it cuts with corporate customers like Amazon must cover their “attributable costs” that directly result from their use of the postal network.

While the Postal Service is subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, there is an exemption in the federal law that allows it to avoid releasing particulars of its deals with private businesses like Amazon.


Amazon is not a bubble

Thanks to its significant time-lag between selling an item and paying a supplier (estimated at 80 days by Morningstar) Amazon has been able to self-fund its growth almost entirely from cash from operations over its 25-year corporate history. In fact they last tapped the equity markets for funding in 2003, and in the last quarter of 2017 reported $6.5bn of free cash flow.

Ensemble Capital Q1 2018: Netflix

In the US, it has more subscribers than all of the cable TV companies combined, and it has a penetration rate of about 40% of all US households. And it’s still growing. Based on its massive global subscriber base, Netflix is now the 2nd largest pay TV service in the world behind just China Radio & TV. Yet Netflix is still growing subscribers at a 20% clip.

None other than the “Cable Cowboy”, John Malone, the business genius who pioneered the development of cable TV, shares our view on this topic. Talking to CNBC last year, Malone said that the most important question in the TV industry is “Can Netflix get enough scale that nobody really can challenge them?” and then went on to say that in his opinion the traditional pay TV companies no longer have any chance of overtaking Netflix. When the interviewer asked if the pay TV industry could band together to create their own Netflix-like service as Malone had been urging for years, he simply replied “It’s way too late.”


Apple now runs on 100% green energy, and here’s how it got there

At the moment, this conversation involves a healthy dose of education. “What we say is that we’ll be there with you,” Jackson recounts. “We’ll help you scout deals, we’ll help you evaluate whether they’re real, we’ll help you know what to negotiate for, because most of these folks, they’re trying to make a part, and so what we can do for them is be sort of their in-house consulting firm.” But she adds that there will likely come a time where Apple will require suppliers to run their businesses on clean energy as a condition of a business relationship.


[Invest Like the Best] Pat Dorsey Return – The Moat Portfolio

Chegg is a company we own right now where the historical data looks awful and it’s because they just sold a business, and the performance of this asset intensive textbook rental, that’s what’s in the historical data. The performance of the asset light, super high incremental margin study business is buried in the segment results…

The legacy business for Chegg is textbook rental…of course, this is a business that’s fairly easily replicable, there are very low barriers to entry and so Amazon and Barnes and Noble essentially crushed them in the textbook rental business. The founders were fired by the venture capitalists who poured $220mn into the business, a new CEO was brought in, and he realized that the only asset Chegg had at that point was a brand. They had 60%, maybe 70% unaided name recognition on college campuses…so, they invested in a bunch of other businesses and the one that’s worked out really well for them is essentially building a digital library of step-by-step answers to end of chapter study questions. So, if you took engineering or math or organic chemistry, there’s going to be a series of questions at the end of the chapter, so did you understand what you just read, and if you didn’t you probably won’t do so well on the test. What they’ve done is gotten exclusive licenses for 27,000 ISBNs and answered every single question and indexed it on Google, that being pretty important because the college student today copies and pastes. They copy the question and they put it in Google and search on it. Chegg comes up as the first organic result, which is how their user base has gone up 2.5x in 3 years with marketing costs being the same as they were 3 years ago…

Now Chegg has to pay money, big money, for those licenses to get that content, and so to some extent the publishers – Pearson and McGraw Hill – do have a lever over Chegg in that respect. We think those relationships are good, they recently renewed one of their licenses at similar cost to what it was a few years ago, largely because the publishers themselves are struggling and this is a very high margin source of income for them. And most college students, they’ve never heard of Pearson, that name means nothing to them. So if Pearson were to take all their textbooks and try to do this themselves, we think the marketing costs would be enormous…you do have some crowd sourced competitors to Chegg, where students basically post their own answers but here’s the thing. When you think about the value to a student of getting a 3.5 instead of a 3.0 GPA or passing a certain class that’s required of their major, the marginal benefit of paying $14.95/month for Chegg and knowing it’s the right answer…vs. just crowd-sourcing it on reddit, it’s a good cost-benefit.

So Workiva, they have 96% client retention, 106% revenue retention because they keep upselling clients. And what they did is create a product that lets companies do SEC filings much more efficiently than the old way, which was mark up a pdf and send it to RR Donnelley and the Donnelley sends it back to you and then you mark it up and send it back to them…so needless to say, [Workiva] went from 0% to 50% share in 6 years. In fact, the people who do external reporting – they’ve got 80% share of the Fortune 500 right now – people actually won’t go to work for another firm that doesn’t use Workiva…

It’s not an easy product to create because essentially what they had to do was replicate Excel in the cloud and enable it for scores of simultaneous users. There’s no check-in/check-out the worksheet. And then also the data points get linked inside your enterprise and so you might way we need to report this EBIT line, well that’s the function of Bob here and Jane over there, and their numbers roll up into mine and I link that inside my enterprise, so if you had a new product you’d have to break all those links and re-integrate it. So, not impossible but external reporting teams, even Wal-Mart, a huge company, their external reporting team’s like 20 people, so it’s feasible to do a rip-and-replace. But where things get interesting for this business and where the TAM gets much larger is internal reporting, where you’re rolling up data across the entire enterprise and then putting it together for the CFO/CEO or whatever, because then the linkages get much greater and the number of users becomes much bigger and the more users you have within an entity whose workflow would be disrupted if you got a new product, the stickier the product becomes…

In Workiva’s example, their customer acquisition costs really spiked about a year and half, two years ago because instead of going after the broader internal reporting market, they tried to pivot going from the SEC market to the Sarbanes Oxley market, SOX reporting, which didn’t work very well because with external reporting you were just saying ‘hey, you should just use Wdesk instead of Donnelley or Merrill…our product is superior’. Customer goes ‘why, yes it is.’ There is no SOX product, there is no product for SOX reporting, it’s a whole bunch of cludged together internal processes, so that’s a much harder sale, going in and saying ‘pay money for a product that is replacing an internal process that you’re not actually paying money for, it’s just sort of wasting people’s time’. That’s harder to put a number on if you’re a CFO or CEO, so that really spiked up their customer acquisition costs. Once they pivoted back to enterprise sales and frankly just reorganized their sales force geographically instead of functionally – which means less travel – customer acquisition costs came back down.

The U.S. states most vulnerable to a trade war

How to understand the financial levers in your business

Whatever your business, build a business model that includes all of your assumptions — and build the model so you can pressure-test variables and find your levers. Once you’ve identified them, build MVPs to test those assumptions in more detail. It’s really important to experiment early and get some good data on what works (and what doesn’t), before you start ramping up and pouring lots of money into marketing and execution. Some changes can have exponential effects — for better or for worse.

Want to keep your wine collection safe? Store it in a bomb shelter

Shipping wine in the country is tightly controlled by a web of state laws, and it is illegal for individuals to ship wine themselves across state lines. Having wine storage in different states can ensure that collectors get the wine they want regardless of where they live.

Storage fees can be as low as $1.25 a month per case of wine, which holds 12 regular bottles or six magnums. Of course, wine collectors rarely store just one box, and they are not putting it there for just a month.


What it takes to out-sleuth wine fraud

Ms. Downey offered advice and provided counterfeit-detection tools for seminar participants, including a jeweler’s loupe, a measuring tape, a UV light and UV-visible pens. She outlined her authentication process, which begins with careful scrutiny of the wine bottle—the loupe proved handy here—notably the label, the paper it’s printed on and the printing method and ink, as well as other components such as the capsule and the cork. Ultra-white paper, detectable under UV light, wasn’t in commercial use until the 1960s. With the aid of a microscope, one could detect if the paper was recycled, which would mean the wine couldn’t have been produced before the 1980s, when recycled paper was introduced for labels.

Above all, she emphasized that wine fraud isn’t a victimless crime. “It affects people who work very hard to make good wine, who are proud of their wines and their appellation,” she said. “It ruins their reputation and it destroys all their hard work.” With the right tools and a gimlet eye, she believes, we can all play a part in protecting that work.

Curated Insights 2018.01.28

Amazon Go and the future

In every case a huge amount of fixed costs up front is overwhelmed by the ongoing ability to make money at scale; to put it another way, tech company combine fixed costs with marginal revenue opportunities, such that they make more money on additional customers without any corresponding rise in costs.

To be both horizontal and vertical is incredibly difficult: horizontal companies often betray their economic model by trying to differentiate their vertical offerings; vertical companies lose their differentiation by trying to reach everyone. That, though, gives a hint as to how Amazon is building out its juggernaut: economic models — that is, the constraint on horizontal companies going vertical — can be overcome if the priority is not short-term profit maximization.

Amazon, though, having started with a software-based horizontal model and network-based differentiation, has not only started to build out its vertical stack but has spent massive amounts of money to do so. That spending is painful in the short-term — which is why most software companies avoid it — but it provides a massive moat. That is why, contra most of the analysis I have seen, I don’t think Amazon will license out the Amazon Go technology. Make no mistake, that is exactly what a company like Google would do (and as I expect them to do with Waymo), and for good reason: the best way to get the greatest possible return on software R&D is to spread it as far and wide as possible, which means licensing. The best way to build a moat, though, is to actually put in the effort to dig it, i.e. spend the money.

As for Amazon, the company’s goal to effectively tax all economic activity continues apace. Surely the company is grateful about the attention Facebook is receiving from the public, even as it builds a monopoly with a triple moat. The lines outside Amazon Go, though, are a reminder of exactly why aggregator monopolies are something entirely new: these companies are dominant because people love them. Regulation may be as elusive as Marx’s revolution.

People are using Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime in very different ways

Diet Coke’s moment of panic

A growing consumer focus on health has clearly dented soda’s dominion. Beyond widespread concerns of the dangers of artificial sweeteners, government research has found that daily drinkers of diet soda are at higher risk for strokes and other “vascular events.” While Diet Coke’s new can designs are tall and slender—a possible reference to the body type a diet-beverage drinker seeks—more of them simply don’t trust any kind of soda to be a part of a healthy diet. Between 2000 and 2015, switching from sodas to other beverages saved the country an estimated 64 trillion calories in total—that works out to 71 fewer calories per day, per drinker.

The role of hydration has been outsourced to bottled water and sports drinks, like Gatorade. Getting a jolt of energy has been outsourced to coffee and energy drinks, like 5-Hour Energy. And the satisfaction of a cold liquid fizzing on one’s tongue? That’s been outsourced to the trendy crop of flavored seltzers, like LaCroix.


Nvidia, Western Digital at chips’ frontier

At the same time, Mobley, interestingly, asked if the ISA itself could be an “alternative” to a GPU or a digital signal processor (DSP). O’Connor seemed to indicate that was the case, saying “As they exist today, if you start implementing that kind of functionality — such as vector instructions, for example — you can implement all that functionality using the set of RISC-V extensions, instead of a proprietary instruction set architectures that might have existed up until now.”

That raises an interesting question for Nvidia as it rolls RISC-V out in chips in its next iteration of Falcon. Will an open, shared, standard ISA erode any of the lock-in that Nvidia gets for its GPUs? Or is the “CUDA” programming environment really the important software layer that helps Nvidia maintain and extend its dominance in programming?

Big bets on A.I. open a new frontier for chip start-ups, too

The explosion is akin to the sudden proliferation of PC and hard-drive makers in the 1980s. While these are small companies, and not all will survive, they have the power to fuel a period of rapid technological change.

Nvidia was best known for making graphics processing units, or G.P.U.s, which were designed to help render complex images for games and other software — and it turned out they worked really well for neural networks, too. Nvidia sold $143 million in chips for the massive computer data centers run by companies like Google in the year leading up to that summer — double the year before.

By early 2018, according to a report by Forbes, Cerebras had raised more than $100 million in funding. So had four other firms: Graphcore; another Silicon Valley outfit, Wave Computing; and two Beijing companies, Horizon Robotics and Cambricon, which is backed by the Chinese government.

It is still unclear how well any of these new chips will work. Designing and building a chip takes about 24 months, which means even the first viable hardware relying on them won’t arrive until this year. And the chip start-ups will face competition from Nvidia, Intel, Google and other industry giants.

Sony falls as JPMorgan questions bull case for image sensors

Sony is the global leader in the production of image sensors, camera chips which convert light into digital pictures and videos. Despite a cooling in the smartphone industry, it has benefited from a trend to include multiple image sensors in each phone — a technique used to create better-looking pictures and to power simple augmented-reality functions.

Weak demand for the new iPhone X will hurt Sony, which gets half of its image sensor revenue from Apple, Park wrote. He also said the trend for adopting dual cameras is not as strong as first believed, including among Chinese phone makers, which will further hit Sony’s sales.

In Sony’s latest quarter, image sensors accounted for 9.4 percent of revenue and 22 percent of operating profit.

The biggest electric vehicle company you’ve never heard of

Though it operates in similar sectors as Tesla, the companies are very different strategically. For instance, as Elon Musk’s Boring Company tunnels under cities to address congestion, BYD eyes elevated transportation.

Chinese tariffs and taxes on imported electric vehicles also benefit domestic manufacturers, which capture 93% of the market. BYD has an estimated 30% share. Tesla has 6% share, delivering an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 vehicles to China in 2016. Overall, electric vehicles represent less than 2% of total auto sales in China. Officials, however, aim to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles. BYD chairman Wang Chuanfu was quoted as saying that all vehicles will be electrified by 2030.

Although President Donald Trump has threatened a trade war with China, automobile manufacturing is less susceptible than other industries. Owing to freight rates, manufacturing cars locally within distribution markets makes economic sense. Still, BYD doesn’t currently have plans to sell consumer cars in the U.S. Owing to governmental policies and low fuel prices, Li said the U.S. market isn’t as welcoming to new energy vehicles as China, India, and Europe are.


Electricity from all forms of renewables will be consistently cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020

Today, fossil-fuel power typically costs between $0.05 to $0.17 per kWh. By comparison, consider the global-weighted average cost of electricity generated by various forms of renewables in 2017, as calculated by Irena: hydropower ($0.05 per kWh), onshore wind ($0.06 per kWh), bioenergy and geothermal ($0.07 per kWh), and solar photovoltaics ($0.10 per kWh).

Offshore wind and solar thermal power aren’t yet competitive with fossil fuels, but that should change by 2020, Irena predicts, with the cost of solar thermal falling to $0.06 per kWh and offshore wind to $0.10 per kWh. The drivers will be technology development, competitive bidding systems, and large base of experienced project developers across the world.


Bigger, higher and floating — advances that make wind a better power source

It accounted for close to 40 per cent of Denmark’s electricity mix in 2016 and about 10 per cent across the EU. Wind farms were the leading source of new electricity generating capacity in Europe, the US and Canada in 2015, and the second largest in China.

Despite this, less than 4 per cent of the world’s electricity came from the wind in 2015. That is nowhere near enough to help shift the global economy away from the climate-warming fossil fuels that still supply most of the world’s energy.


The three stumbling blocks to a solar-powered nation

Every hour, our sun bombards the Earth with enough light to satisfy humanity’s energy needs for an entire year.

Cell cost: For solar power to meet 30% of the world’s electricity needs, it will need to fall from its current cost of a dollar per watt of electricity to 25 cents per watt…Perovskite cells can be made from materials that could be radically cheaper than conventional silicon. They can also take on novel forms, such as a tint on windows or thin printable sheets. But they still face significant barriers to commercialization: They tend to rapidly degrade when wet, and scientists can’t create large cells with the same efficiency as the small ones they can make in a lab.

Energy management: It isn’t hard to get to the point where solar is producing too much power at some times of day, and none at all when it’s needed most. The first solar panel added to the grid helps offset midday consumption, but the last one to be added might be completely unnecessary, because the grid might already be saturated when it’s capable of producing the most power.

Soft utility costs: The Energy Department estimates that soft costs contribute as much as 64% of the cost of a solar installation. The rest of the cost is split between mounting hardware for solar panels and the cells themselves.

Why 2017 was the best year in human history

Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000, according to calculations by Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs a website called Our World in Data. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water.

Curated Insights 2017.12.10

The impossibility of intelligence explosion

The first issue I see with the intelligence explosion theory is a failure to recognize that intelligence is necessarily part of a broader system — a vision of intelligence as a “brain in jar” that can be made arbitrarily intelligent independently of its situation. A brain is just a piece of biological tissue, there is nothing intrinsically intelligent about it.

In particular, there is no such thing as “general” intelligence. On an abstract level, we know this for a fact via the “no free lunch” theorem — stating that no problem-solving algorithm can outperform random chance across all possible problems. If intelligence is a problem-solving algorithm, then it can only be understood with respect to a specific problem. In a more concrete way, we can observe this empirically in that all intelligent systems we know are highly specialized.

If intelligence is fundamentally linked to specific sensorimotor modalities, a specific environment, a specific upbringing, and a specific problem to solve, then you cannot hope to arbitrarily increase the intelligence of an agent merely by tuning its brain — no more than you can increase the throughput of a factory line by speeding up the conveyor belt. Intelligence expansion can only come from a co-evolution of the mind, its sensorimotor modalities, and its environment.

In Terman’s landmark “Genetic Studies of Genius”, he notes that most of his exceptionally gifted subjects would pursue occupations “as humble as those of policeman, seaman, typist and filing clerk”. There are currently about seven million people with IQs higher than 150 — better cognitive ability than 99.9% of humanity — and mostly, these are not the people you read about in the news. Of the people who have actually attempted to take over the world, hardly any seem to have had an exceptional intelligence; anecdotally, Hitler was a high-school dropout, who failed to get into the Vienna Academy of Art — twice.

People who do end up making breakthroughs on hard problems do so through a combination of circumstances, character, education, intelligence, and they make their breakthroughs through incremental improvement over the work of their predecessors. Success — expressed intelligence — is sufficient ability meeting a great problem at the right time. Most of these remarkable problem-solvers are not even that clever — their skills seem to be specialized in a given field and they typically do not display greater-than-average abilities outside of their own domain.

So, a person with an IQ of 130 is statistically far more likely to succeed in navigating the problem of life than a person with an IQ of 70 — although this is never guaranteed at the individual level — but here’s the thing: this correlation breaks down after a certain point. There is no evidence that a person with an IQ of 170 is in any way more likely to achieve a greater impact in their field than a person with an IQ of 130.

Why would the real-world utility of raw cognitive ability stall past a certain threshold? This points to a very intuitive fact: that high attainment requires sufficient cognitive ability, but that the current bottleneck to problem-solving, to expressed intelligence, is not latent cognitive ability itself. The bottleneck is our circumstances. Our environment, which determines how our intelligence manifests itself, puts a hard limit on what we can do with our brains — on how intelligent we can grow up to be, on how effectively we can leverage the intelligence that we develop, on what problems we can solve. All evidence points to the fact that our current environment, much like past environments over the previous 200,000 years of human history and prehistory, does not allow high-intelligence individuals to fully develop and utilize their cognitive potential.

And they are only able to succeed because they are standing on the shoulder of giants — their own work is but one last subroutine in a problem-solving process that spans decades and thousands of individuals. Their own individual cognitive work may not be much more significant to the whole process than the work of a single transistor on a chip.

It is civilization as a whole that will create superhuman AI, not you, nor me, nor any individual. A process involving countless humans, over timescales we can barely comprehend. A process involving far more externalized intelligence — books, computers, mathematics, science, the internet — than biological intelligence.

We don’t have to speculate about whether an “explosion” would happen the moment an intelligent system starts optimizing its own intelligence. As it happens, most systems are recursively self-improving. We’re surrounded with them. So we know exactly how such systems behave — in a variety of contexts and over a variety of timescales. You are, yourself, a recursively self-improving system: educating yourself makes you smarter, in turn allowing you to educate yourself more efficiently. Likewise, human civilization is recursively self-improving, over a much longer timescale.

Google’s AlphaZero destroys Stockfish in 100-game match

This would be akin to a robot being given access to thousands of metal bits and parts, but no knowledge of a combustion engine, then it experiments numerous times with every combination possible until it builds a Ferrari. That’s all in less time that it takes to watch the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The program had four hours to play itself many, many times, thereby becoming its own teacher.

“We have always assumed that chess required too much empirical knowledge for a machine to play so well from scratch, with no human knowledge added at all,” Kasparov said. “Of course I’ll be fascinated to see what we can learn about chess from AlphaZero, since that is the great promise of machine learning in general—machines figuring out rules that humans cannot detect. But obviously the implications are wonderful far beyond chess and other games. The ability of a machine to replicate and surpass centuries of human knowledge in complex closed systems is a world-changing tool.”


CVS’s $68 billion bid to bring one-stop shopping to health care

The buyout would combine the largest U.S. drugstore chain with the third-biggest health insurer. CVS also manages drug benefits plans for thousands of employers and insurers, a business that could help steer some of Aetna’s 22 million customers to CVS pharmacy counters when they fill a prescription. Already, CVS has 1,100 MinuteClinics in its pharmacies, where nurse practitioners and physician assistants provide routine care such as flu shots or wrapping sprained ankles. It’s also trying out hearing and vision centers in a handful of locations. If the merger goes through, CVS plans to build mini-health centers in many more of its 9,700 stores, turning them into places where Aetna members—and customers of rival insurers—get convenient low-level care for ailments and chronic diseases. And having a closer tie to where customers are treated could help Aetna better manage their ailments earlier, more efficiently—and less expensively.

The integration is part of a wide-ranging effort by health insurance companies and the federal government to shift care away from paying for each service and toward paying doctors and hospitals for taking better care of patients and keeping them healthier. The approach, known as value-based care, challenges the industry’s traditional reimbursement models.

CVS and Aetna say they’ll be able to reduce costs by directing some patients to lower-cost sites of care in CVS stores, keeping them out of emergency rooms and hospitals. About 70 percent of the U.S. population lives within 3 miles of a CVS location, according to David Larsen, an analyst at Leerink Partners. “This is going to be appealing to a huge number of people,” says Ingrid Lindberg, president of Kobie Marketing Inc. and a former chief customer experience officer at health insurer Cigna Corp. “There’s a large majority of people who are truly driven by ease and convenience when it comes to their care.”


This company is about to flood the U.S. with cheap HIV drugs

Laurus is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of ingredients used in anti-retrovirals, thanks to novel chemistry that delivers cheaper production costs than anyone else. Now, its chief executive officer, Satyanarayana Chava, wants to use the same strategy selling his own finished drugs in the U.S. and Europe. He predicts some generics that Laurus produces will eventually sell for 90 percent less than branded HIV drugs in the U.S., slashing expenditures for a disease that’s among the costliest for many insurers.

The patent expiries are starting this month when Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s Sustiva loses protection. Gilead Sciences Inc.’s Viread follows next month. Both companies didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Though Laurus doesn’t yet make the actual pills those patients take, it’s become a dominant supplier of the key ingredients that make them work. The best way to fight HIV is with a combination of different drugs, and because Viread and Sustiva form key parts of some of the most effective combinations, the inclusion of generic versions of these chemicals could bring down the cost of the whole treatment. One analysis cited by the Department of Health and Human Services found that replacing a three-medicine, branded combination with multiple pills, including a generic version of Sustiva, could save the U.S. $900 million its first year.

Laurus controls about 66 percent of the global market for efavirenz, the chemical name for Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Sustiva, and 33 percent for tenofovir, the chemical name for Gilead’s Viread, according to a report earlier this year by investment bank Jefferies Group LLC.

The hidden player spurring a wave of cheap consumer devices: Amazon

That future? We’re going to get better products for ludicrously low prices, and big brands across a range of categories — the Nests and Netgears of the world — are going to find it harder than ever to get us to shell out big money for their wares.

To hit the $20 price, Wyze licensed the camera’s hardware from a Chinese company, then created its own software. It also cut out just about every middleman, including most retailers. And it’s banking on long-run success. While Wyze is just breaking even on its first camera, its founders believe internet-connected home devices will be a growth category. They plan to establish a trusted brand with the first camera, then release a succession of products that they hope to sell in large numbers, at low prices.

…what was unique about Amazon was that its store encouraged low prices while heavily penalizing companies that made shoddy products. “It’s not a race to the bottom,” Mr. Fung said. “Sellers are forced to create better products at lower pricing, and sellers who aren’t able to do that just get weeded out.”

The classic worry about Amazon is that it puts local retailers out of business. Now another worry is that by exposing global brands to the harsh reality of low-priced competitors, it may put them out of business, too. Mr. Wingo said global brands across a variety of categories — electronics, apparel, home improvement — regularly approached his company looking for a way to compete with low-priced rivals on Amazon.

“There is this erosion of what it means to be a traditional consumer product brand,” Mr. Wingo said. “In a way, Amazon is providing all this information that replaces what you’d normally get from a brand, like reputation and trust. Amazon is becoming something like the umbrella brand, the only brand that matters.”


Proof Work aims to decentralize medical data by using the blockchain

The system, if successful, would be a big disruption to how health care data is handled today – where it’s often accessible only by the doctors and hospitals themselves, and where patients have to make special requests to have a copy of their own medical records. In the future, the goal is to allow patients to walk into a doctor’s office with all their medical records already on their phone.

This isn’t the first attempt to use technology to fix the problem with medical records; others have tried to centralize records for easier access, including Microsoft HealthVault, for example. One of the challenges getting prior systems to work was that healthcare companies aren’t necessarily interested in making it easier for patients to have access to their own medical records, says Suter. After all, the patients could go to another provider.

Pitney Bowes Parcel Shipping Index reveals 48 percent growth in parcel volume since 2014

China, a new addition to this year’s Index and by far the largest market examined, grew parcel volume by 52 percent in one year, increasing from 21 billion parcels in 2015 to 31 billion in 2016. But, even when excluding China’s prolific volumes, the Index forecasts a strong and accelerating pace of growth in parcels throughout the world. On average, the other 12 major markets studied have grown 4.3% annually since 2012 and are projected to grow 4.5% – 5.4% annually through 2021. The United States (at 13 billion) and Japan (at 9 billion) were also among the largest markets by parcel volume. In terms of investment, the United States ranked highest, spending $96 billion on parcel shipments, followed by China at $60 billion and Japan at $22 billion.

“The continued rise of ecommerce globally is keeping the parcel shipping market strong through 2021 as consumers are increasingly looking to online shopping for convenience, price and availability of products from around the world,” said Lila Snyder, executive vice president and president, Global Ecommerce, Pitney Bowes. “As consumer expectations continue to rise, shipping technology and service providers will need to help retailers and marketplaces meet those demands.”


China’s blow to recycling boosts U.S.’s $185 billion plastic bet

China is undoing decades of effort that built a massive scrap recycling industry — the cheapest way to produce plastic products for its growing economy. The country accounted for 51 percent of the world’s plastic scrap imports last year, with the biggest contribution coming from the U.S., according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, an international trade group. The China ban could shift about 2 percent of global polyethylene plastics supply from recycled to new material.

That’s because the U.S. has become the cheapest place in the world to make plastic, thanks to a fracking boom that’s created a glut of natural gas, the main feedstock for manufacturing. Taking advantage of low gas prices, chemical producers have invested an unprecedented $185 billion to build new capacity in the U.S., according to the American Chemistry Council, an industry group.

Exporting high-value resins to China instead of cheap scrap could help chip away at the U.S.’s $250 billion trade deficit with the nation. For producers, however, China’s ban on importing scrap will boost demand for new plastics by enough to nearly absorb all the new polyethylene output coming online next year in the U.S., Andrews said in the Morgan Stanley report. The effects can already be seen in China’s increased appetite for virgin polyethylene, with imports up 19 percent this year as scrap polyethylene imports dropped 11 percent, he said.

India ‘dream’ plan to cut freight times to 14 hours from 14 days

Japan, seeking to boost ties with India as a counterweight to China, is partly financing the DMIC project and holds a 26 percent stake. Indeed, Japan’s Tokyo-Osaka industrial corridor is an inspiration. NEC Corp. has invested in a joint-venture project with the Indian government that is already providing logistics support along the route.

The goal is to set up a “plug and play” environment for investors, says Jai Prakash Shivahare, managing director of the Dholera Industrial City Development. “We are looking to tie up with anchor investors so that they can also start their construction and in one-and-half-years, when our site is ready, their factories can also be ready.”

Work has now begun in four of the eight manufacturing destinations proposed in the first phase of the industrial corridor. But it has been far from smooth sailing to get to this point as red tape and budget constraints across six states and numerous sprawling ministries slowed progress, causing some to walk away altogether.


BlackRock and Vanguard are less than a decade away from managing $20 trillion

None other than Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, widely regarded as the father of the index fund, is raising the prospect that too much money is in too few hands, with BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street Corp. together owning significant stakes in the biggest U.S. companies. “That’s about 20 percent owned by this oligopoly of three,” Bogle said at a Nov. 28 appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “It is too bad that there aren’t more people in the index-fund business.”

The argument goes like this: The number of indexes now outstrips U.S. stocks, with the eruption of passive funds driving demand for securities within these benchmarks, rather than for the broader universe of stocks and bonds. That could inflate or depress the price of these securities versus similar un-indexed assets, which may create bubbles and volatile price movements.

We’re not near a tipping point yet. Roughly 37 percent of assets in U.S.-domiciled equity funds are managed passively, up from 19 percent in 2009, according to Savita Subramanian at Bank of America Corp. By contrast, in Japan, nearly 70 percent of domestically focused equity funds are passively managed, suggesting the U.S. can stomach more indexing before market efficiency suffers. There’s even further to go if you look globally: Only 15 percent of world equity markets — including funds, separately managed accounts and holdings of individual securities — are passively managed, said Joe Brennan, global head of Vanguard’s equity index group, in an interview.


A growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to farm

She joined a growing movement of highly educated, ex-urban, first-time farmers who are capitalizing on booming consumer demand for local and sustainable foods and who, experts say, could have a broad impact on the food system.

For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.

Young farmers are also creating their own “food hubs,” allowing them to store, process and market food collectively, and supply grocery and restaurant chains at a price competitive with national suppliers.

Midsize farms are critical to rural economies, generating jobs, spending and tax revenue. And while they’re large enough to supply mainstream markets, they’re also small enough to respond to environmental changes and consumer demand.

Singapore’s aging ‘time bomb’ will tick louder in 2018

At this rate, seniors in Singapore’s population will make up more than double the share of the youngest residents in 2030. Tan uses a compounded annual growth rate rather than adjusting for potential policy changes or alteration of trends such as fertility rates, meaning officials could still help redraw those lines, or at least make them appear less menacing, over the next decade. With already the oldest population in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Singapore of 2030 will probably look a lot like the demographics-embattled Japan of 2016.


The Louvre Abu Dhabi is getting the $450 million Da Vinci painting

The New York Times reported later Wednesday that Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud was the buyer, citing documents it reviewed. Christie’s declined to comment on the report.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi — a franchise of the Paris original — is a symbol of the oil-rich sheikhdom’s drive to boost its “soft power” credentials. To differentiate itself from neighboring Dubai, Abu Dhabi is targeting affluent tourists looking for culture and art and it has also built hotels, theme parks and malls. The organization behind the museum became one of the most aggressive buyers on the global art market over the last decade. It opened last month with more than 600 artworks for its permanent collection, including such Old Master paintings as Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna and Child.” Da Vinci’s “La Belle Ferronnière” is on loan there from the Louvre in Paris.

Curated Insights 2017.10.22

Tesla’s new car smell

As I watched Tesla’s messy, hiccuping line, with workers dashing in to fix faulty parts in place, my mind travelled back to the Honda plant I had visited years ago in Marysville, Ohio. Clean, calm, everything moved smoothly. I was so shocked by the contrast that I imprudently voiced my concern. That didn’t go over well with my fellow Tesla owners. I was a killjoy, I was calling their choice into question.

“Unknown to analysts, investors and the hundreds of thousands of customers who signed up to buy it, as recently as early September major portions of the Model 3 were still being banged out by hand, away from the automated production line, according to people familiar with the matter.”

Moving from fewer than 100K cars a year to 500K and up isn’t “more of the same”, it can’t be achieved through clever, conventional-wisdom-defying improvisation. That sort of growth is a bold jump in scale that requires a smooth, well-oiled and well-understood manufacturing process.


Millennials are helping Jack Ma’s financing firm become a debt giant

Securitized products that bundle such obligations are meant to spread the risks among different investors. The tech companies can’t take deposits like banks, so the ABS, which are generally sold in private placements to institutional investors, give them a way to raise funds. The latest ABS from Ant Financial that’s backed by loans through its Jiebei service pays a 5.5 percent coupon for the senior tranche, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“In the short term, default risks for consumer loan ABS are very low because the underlying assets are composed of a number of loans in small sizes,” said Zuo Fei, an executive director and head of the ABS group in the investment banking division of China Merchants Securities Co. in Shenzhen. “These ABS products will be safe, unless systemic risks emerge in the economy and cause widespread defaults in consumer loans.”

Shell buys NewMotion charging network in first electric vehicle deal

Demand for electric vehicles is expected to rise significantly in coming decades and Morgan Stanley estimates that 1-3 million public charging points could be needed in Western Europe by 2030. Currently, there are fewer than 100,000. Shell expects around a quarter of the world’s car fleet to be electric by 2040.

Oil companies are growing increasingly aware of the potential threat to parts of their downstream business from the electrification of transport.


Solar wants to help fix a power-grid problem it helped create

Solar panels have proliferated in the Golden State, flooding the grid with power supplies in the middle of the day when the sun’s out — and then quickly vanishing after sunset. This has created a sharp curve in California’s net-power demand that’s shaped like a duck. And the so-called duck curve is getting steeper every year, sending wholesale electricity prices plunging into negative territory, forcing generators offline and making it increasingly difficult to maintain the reliability of California’s transmission lines.

…change the way solar farms are paid. If the state’s utilities compensate them for shutting generation when the grid doesn’t need it and providing power later when it does, he said, farms could use increasingly sophisticated inverters and software controls to adjust.


How Amazon’s $13.7B purchase of Whole Foods is a ‘blessing in disguise’ for Instacart

“When Amazon bought Whole Foods, what they did was they sent the signal to the entire grocery/retail landscape that Amazon was coming,” Mehta said. “Now, for every single grocery retailer at this point in time, whether they believed it or not before, now they needed an e-commerce strategy. They needed to have same day delivery. The reality was, for the last five years, that’s what we have done. We have brought hundreds of grocery retailers online, and so we had the track record of being able to do this successfully.”

Instacart has been growing faster than expected this year, and it has expanded to 149, up from only 30 at the beginning of the year. Mehta said the company can now reach 63 million households as potential customers, up from about 11 million a year ago.


This little-known startup just hit a valuation of $30 billion

Travel is becoming the latest competitive ground. With the recent fundraising, Meituan plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next three to five years to become a leading travel booking site. It’s also exploring opportunities to collaborate with Priceline as part of the investment. That may present a challenge to China’s biggest online travel site, Ctrip.com International Ltd., which is backed by Baidu. Ctrip shares fell 8.2 percent in U.S. trading.

China’s internet crackdown isn’t going anywhere

“Xi Jinping has definitely been a turning point in terms of the degree of censorship that is happening in China,” said Charlie Smith, who founded Greatfire.org, an organization that finds ways around government restrictions. “He is the first Chinese leader to truly understand the power of the internet and hence, we are seeing an unprecedented crackdown on dissenting information,” said Smith, who uses a pseudonym for fear of government reprisals

In June, Weibo Corp., the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, was one of three firms fined and banned by regulators from broadcasting certain types of content without a license. In an August earnings call, its chief financial officer said current rules made it legally impossible to acquire a license without becoming “wholly state-owned or state-controlled”.

The tightening presents unique challenges to foreign firms navigating the legal landscape. Services that rely on free-flowing information, such as Google and Facebook, would struggle to exist in such a regime, though they remain intent on finding a way in given the size of the potential market.


Who has the world’s No. 1 economy? Not the U.S.

Gross domestic product is supposed to measure the amount of real stuff — cars, phones, financial services, back massages, etc. — that a country produces. If the same phone costs $400 in the U.S. but only $200 in China, China’s GDP is getting undercounted by 50 percent when we measure at market exchange rates. In general, less developed countries have lower prices, which means their GDP gets systematically undercounted.

Economists try to correct for this with an adjustment called purchasing power parity (PPP), which controls for relative prices. It’s not perfect, since it has to account for things like product quality, which can be hard to measure. But it probably gives a more accurate picture of how much a country really produces. And here, China has already surpassed the U.S.

China’s modest per-person income simply means that the country has plenty of room to grow. Whereas developed countries can only get richer by inventing new things or making their economies more efficient, poor countries can cheaply copy foreign technology or imitate foreign organizational practices. That doesn’t always happen, of course — many poor countries find themselves trapped by dysfunctional institutions, lack of human capital or other barriers to development.

In other words, not only is China already the world’s largest economy, the gap between it and the U.S. can be expected to grow even wider. This continues to be borne out in the growth statistics — though China has slowed in recent years, its economy continues to expand at a rate of more than 6 percent, while the U.S. is at just over 2 percent. If that disparity persists, China’s economy will be double that of the U.S. in less than two decades.


China to build giant facial recognition database to identify any citizen within seconds

The system can be connected to surveillance camera networks and will use cloud facilities to connect with data storage and processing centres distributed across the country, according to people familiar with the project.

Commercial application using information sourced from the database will not be allowed under current regulations. [But] a policy can change due to the development of the economy and increasing demand from society.”

“To download the whole data set is as difficult as launching a missile with a nuclear warhead. It requires several high-ranking officials to insert and turn their keys at the same time,” the vendor said.

The 1.3 billion-person facial recognition system is being developed by Isvision, a security company based in Shanghai.

They found that the accuracy of the photo that most closely matched the face being searched for was below 60 per cent. With the top 20 matches the accuracy rate remained below 70 per cent, Fan and collaborators reported in a paper published in the domestic journal Electronic Science and Technology in May. “It cannot solve problems with real-life applications,” they added.

The researcher warned that the cost of the convenience facial recognition could bring to everyday life was “sacrificing security”.


Warning signs are mounting for Sweden’s once-hot housing market

SEB AB’s monthly housing-price indicator shows households are becoming less optimistic about the market. The gauge, which measures the difference between those who see rising housing prices and those who believe in a decline, has dropped to its lowest level since August 2016. While 66 percent of Swedes still expect prices to rise, and only 16 percent believe in a decline, the indicator has dropped for four consecutive months.

Regulators have been tightening regulations to cool debt growth. Swedes are now subject to a mortgage cap, limiting loans to 85 percent of a property’s value, and an amortization requirement, which forces borrowers pay off the part of their new loans that exceeds 50 percent of the property’s value. The regulator now wants to introduce an additional amortization requirement for the most indebted households, and has also floated the idea of a cap on loans in relation to incomes.

Developers are taking action to prepare for a slowdown. Wallenstam AB said this month it would convert 90 apartments in a development in the Stockholm neighborhood of Solberga to rentals rather than trying to sell them. The situation is “a bit uncertain,” with the market for ownership apartments having “cooled down,” Wallenstam said on Oct. 9.


Indonesia set for trillion-dollar economy in bittersweet triumph

Size isn’t everything. Even after eight rate cuts since the beginning of last year, the economy is struggling to fire up: loan growth remains muted, while the central bank expects low inflation to linger for some time. The picture is made more complex by a wide divergence in growth across the archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, with rates ranging from negative to more than 7 percent.

Jokowi is ramping up spending on roads, rail and seaports as he targets economic growth of 5.4 percent in 2018, the fastest rate in five years. But a massive infrastructure deficit — estimated by the World Bank at $1.5 trillion — is frustrating his efforts. The global lender says another $500 billion in infrastructure spending is needed over the next five years.

Indonesia’s tax revenue as a portion of GDP remains one of the lowest in the region with the OECD estimating it at around 12 percent two years ago. It has since fallen to 10.3 percent, which Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati in July described as “low and unacceptable.” She’s aiming to boost that ratio to 16 percent by 2019.


Like Bali? Indonesia wants to create 10 of them to draw Chinese tourists

Jokowi’s plan, according to Yahya, will see the contribution of tourism to the economy climb to 7.5 percent by 2019 from 4.5 percent last year. Tourism receipts are forecast to grow more than 60 percent to $20.7 billion over the same period, with the number of jobs seen rising to 13 million from 11.8 million.

Even with that kind of growth, Indonesia is far behind neighboring countries in developing tourism and targeting Chinese visitors. Thailand’s industry makes up about 18 percent of gross domestic product, with the country’s famed beaches and nightlife attracting 26 million foreign visitors so far this year, 28 percent of them coming from China. Indonesia also trails Singapore and Malaysia in number of tourists.

Funding Jokowi’s 10 New Balis plan will be a big challenge. Yahya estimates the industry needs $20 billion of investment over five years, of which about $10 billion will come from the government. Given its vast infrastructure needs in everything from ports to roads, and a budget deficit cap of 3 percent of GDP, authorities are seeking more private-sector funds.


Silicon Valley Vs. Wall Street: Can the new Long-Term Stock Exchange disrupt capitalism?

If the LTSE succeeds, it could offer a new incentive for privately held tech giants such as Airbnb Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. to go public, at a time when many market veterans and regulators fear the process of going public has lost its luster. But skeptics wonder whether the LTSE is just another way for tech founders and elite Silicon Valley investors to maintain control at the expense of other shareholders.

For instance, executives’ bonuses couldn’t be tied to financial-performance targets over periods of less than one year. If the executives are paid in company stock, the shares couldn’t fully vest for at least five years. LTSE-listed firms would still publish quarterly results—an SEC requirement—but they would be barred from releasing quarterly earnings guidance, a practice that some critics say fosters short-term thinking. Meanwhile, tenure voting would be available to any shareholder of an LTSE-listed company. If an investor opted into the system, the voting power of his or her shares would grow over time, capped at 10 times the power of ordinary common stock after a decade. If the shares were sold, the voting power would be reset for the new owner.

Mr. Ries disputes the idea that the LTSE is good for founders and bad for everyone else. In his view, tenure voting is better than the solution favored by some Silicon Valley firms: severely limiting the voting power of ordinary shareholders through two or more share classes.

Curated Insights 2017.10.08

Alibaba’s Cainiao fee potential huge, loss ‘negligible’?

Most investors know Cainiao for its data and software business. This has been a critical element behind the success of BABA and eCommerce adoption in China, addressing several friction points in the logistics supply chain. Key issues include China not having a reliable postal code system and the systems dependence on paper weigh bills. Data is scattered, non-standardized and assets are highly fragmented (over 90% of logistics vehicles in China are owned by individuals). Cainiao’s Data Intelligent Network was built to utilize data and technology to coordinate resources across a vast supply chain. In just a three year time frame, adoption of eShipping labels has grown from single digits to +70% and is approaching ubiquity. This is enabling real-time data and tracking across the entire delivery chain…”

“… While Cainiao is seeing tremendous growth providing fulfillment services to merchants, we see potential for an Fulfillment By Amazon (FBA)/Prime-like flywheel with closer alignment of Cainiao and Tmall. We estimate that Amazon.com charges merchants 16% of GMV [gross merchandise value] on average for FBA services, compared to Tmall commissions at 2.2% of reported GMV last year…”


Amazon’s war to the door

Even without mass purchases of jets, trucks and couriers, the package preparation and delivery process is growing more expensive for the company. Amazon’s fulfillment costs — the company’s spending on packaging-and-distribution centers and related expenses – were $8.87 billion in the nine months ended Sept. 30, or 12.4 percent of the company’s net sales in the period. In 2012, they were 10.5 percent of net sales. Amazon’s costs for shipping are also creeping up, from 8.4 percent of revenue in 2012 to 11.7 percent in the three months ended Sept. 30.


Why restaurants hate GrubHub Seamless

Seamless takes a percentage, not a flat fee, of the total food and beverage amount, even though its involvement is the same whether an order is for $10 or $250. When you search for restaurants on Seamless, you may have noticed that, in the default view, the results appear to be random, but they’re actually arranged by who paid what. The more results there are, the harder it is for a restaurant to stand out—which makes restaurants likelier to pay more to increase their exposure.

“Their sales rep makes it perfectly clear that you need to pay a minimum of 20% to exist, and the more you pay, the more you appear in the first pages. Even by paying over 30%, we’re only on the second or third page. So some restaurants pay even more than that! But we could feel the difference when we jumped from 15% to over 30%: We multiplied by 10 our orders from day 1. We don’t make money on Seamless, however. Thirty percent is our break-even point. But it’s helpful for marketing—maybe a customer will try us and then come back in person. I don’t know why anyone would pay anything other than the minimum, because what’s the point of paying 17% to get on the seventh page of results?”

Tech giants play the Game of Thrones

Facebook has pulled off this incredible hat trick with what is arguably the best acquisition in technology in the past 20 years, and that’s Instagram. At the time, people were saying that the child-CEO has really screwed up here and paid $1 billion for a company with only 19 people. By most standards, if you try to value Instagram now, it’s probably worth somewhere between $60 billion and $150 billion. So it has put an afterburner effect on the company, as has likely WhatsApp. They keep finding growth.

If we were to look at everything you have ever put in that search query box, we would probably come to the conclusion that you trust Google more than any priest, rabbi, boss, mentor, coach, professor. If something goes wrong with your kid, your whole world stops. You start praying and you look for some sort of divine intervention that sees everything and then sends you back an answer. Will my kid be all right? So you type “symptoms and treatment of croup” into Google. We trust Google more than any other entity. It is our god.

The way you identify an industry ripe for disruption is you look at whether the price increases are greater than inflation and justified with underlying innovation. The one industry that is most ripe for disruption is education. I think Apple’s roots in education give it unbelievable license to go into that business. I mean, my class generates $160,000 in tuition for each night I teach. They don’t pay me that much. My agent, NYU, takes a 97% commission on that. But when you think about that, it’s ridiculous, and it has some very negative outcomes for our society in the form of debt on young people. So what could Apple do to really change their role and to think different? Start the largest creatively driven low-cost university in the world.

Margrethe Vestager, the commissioner on competition in the European Union, seems to be the only regulator in the world who is levying real fines against these people. You are going to see the first $10 billion-plus fine against one of these four companies in the next 12 months, and it is going to come out of Europe. The real estate isn’t going up in Hamburg. It’s going up in Palo Alto. America gets a lot of the benefits of these four companies, with some of the downside. Europe gets all of the downside and not much upside. The war is going to start, as it has throughout history, on the continent of Europe.

 

Bulldozers can show you where the economy’s going before the official data do

It’s released around the tenth of each month, faster than almost any other economic data. For Japan, the figures have a good correlation with industrial production data, which shows the output and sales of the nation’s industrial giants like Toyota Motor Corp., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., and Komatsu itself.

The company collects data from about 140,000 machines in operation in Japan, 110,000 in China, 50,000 in Europe and 70,000 in North America. Rival Caterpillar Inc collects the same kind of data but doesn’t disclose it due to its customer contracts, according to a company spokesperson in Japan.

“It does work as a reference point,” said Yoshikazu Shimada, an analyst at Tachibana Securities Co. in Tokyo who covers Komatsu. “It shows data on public sector works, and data on China especially affects the global economic overview. Komtrax is part of the data that shows you what state the world economy is in.”


Warren Buffett and truck stops are a perfect match

It was No. 15 on the Forbes list of America’s largest private companies, and the chain’s 750 locations across North America generate more than $20 billion of annual revenue.

In fact, gas-station chains are known to have the kind of stable, predictable earnings and business longevity (perhaps even in a self-driving-truck world) that Buffett seeks in takeover targets. Their margins on gas sales go up when oil prices drop. And as fuel margins became more volatile over the past year, the major chains have turned to acquisitions to gain scale and reduce that volatility, as well as spending to upgrade locations.

This is why it makes sense for Pilot Flying J to have the financial backing of Berkshire amid the competitive pressure. Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., the owner of Circle K, has been scooping up convenience-store businesses in Europe and North America, such as CST Brands for $4.4 billion in a deal that closed in June. Earlier this year, Seven & i Holdings Co., owner of 7-Eleven, bought about 1,100 Sunoco shops and gas retailers to expand its U.S. footprint.

Will new tariffs dim the solar-power boom?

Solar power generates only a pittance of U.S. electricity—about 1%. But it’s growing at a furious rate, accounting for 39% of new electricity generation in the U.S. last year, more than any other source. From 2010 to mid-2017, the total installed solar capacity in the U.S. leaped from 2.3 gigawatts to 47.1 gigawatts, enough to power 9.1 million homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, or SEIA, a trade group. That boom was fueled by government subsidies and a decline in the price of solar cells, which have dropped 40% since the start of 2015.

Petri says tariffs would do more harm than good because they will drive up cell prices. “Will that add jobs? Not likely,” he wrote. “High tariffs will just raise the prices of imported panels and kill installation jobs.” While the industry employs about 260,000 people, 65% of those are in installation or sales, according to a 2016 report issued by the nonprofit Solar Foundation. Only 38,000 work in manufacturing. Because of that imbalance, tariff opponents say it’s much more likely that tariffs will hurt overall U.S. employment than help it.

But couldn’t tariffs persuade Chinese manufacturers to shift production to the U.S., thus boosting employment? Petri is skeptical, particularly because the tariffs are temporary. Foreign manufacturers won’t spend money on building U.S. factories that will become obsolete so fast, he argues.

First Solar’s thin-film technology has always been cheaper than silicon, and the company is launching a new series of panels that will be even more cost-effective. If tariffs raise the price umbrella of competing silicon modules, First Solar can raise its own prices and still go to utility-scale developers and offer to rescue their stranded projects with its thin-film panels. Every penny of these price boosts would fall to its bottom line, and it could demand equity in those projects.


Europe hits Ireland over $15B in unpaid Apple taxes; Luxembourg liable for $294M in Amazon taxes

“Ireland has to recover up to 13 billion euros in illegal State aid from Apple,” she said, referring to this 2016 ruling on the tax issue for the most valuable tech company in the world, which Ireland had appealed. “However, more than one year after the Commission adopted this decision, Ireland has still not recovered the money, also not in part. We of course understand that recovery in certain cases may be more complex than in others, and we are always ready to assist. But Member States need to make sufficient progress to restore competition. That is why we have today decided to refer Ireland to the EU Court for failing to implement our decision.”

“Luxembourg gave illegal tax benefits to Amazon. As a result, almost three-quarters of Amazon’s profits were not taxed. In other words, Amazon was allowed to pay four times less tax than other local companies subject to the same national tax rules,” she said in a statement. “This is illegal under EU State aid rules. Member States cannot give selective tax benefits to multinational groups that are not available to others.”

Yes, You get wiser with age

Empirical studies have shown that older people are better than younger ones in terms of control over emotion, knowing themselves better, making better decisions that require experience, and having more compassion and empathy towards others.

There are quite a few strategies, and again, these are for successful physical aging, cognitive aging, psychosocial aging. There is strong evidence in favor of them. One is calorie restriction. Second is physical activity, exercise. Very important. Even people in wheelchairs can have some physical activity. Then there is keeping your brain active, do something that is somewhat challenging. Not too stressful, but somewhat challenging. There is socialization, an appropriate degree of socializing. Then comes attitude and behavior, resilience, optimism, compassion, doing things for others, volunteering activities. What they do is they give a purpose to life, and that makes you happier. And there are other strategies like meditation for reducing stress.

Curated Insights 2017.09.03

Google, IBM primed for a quantum computing leap, says Morgan Stanley

The immediate advantage is speed: “To sort a billion numbers, a quantum computer would require 3.5 million fewer computing steps than a traditional computer and would find the solution in only 31,623 steps.” Other problems, many having to do with computing physics, become possible on quantum machines, the authors write, whereas they might never be possible on traditional binary computing devices.

We think the high-end compute platforms could see a transition post 2025, similar to how steam engines coexisted with combustion engines and electric motors for decades before being decommissioned. In the medium term, we see incremental demand for FPGAs and GPUs (possibly benefiting Xilinx, nVidia, and maybe Intel) as more supercomputers from Atos and Fujitsu are developed to simulate the behaviour of quantum computers. If quantum computers eventually do become ubiquitous, then the growth of high-end computing systems that emulate them could be affected, hence limiting the valuations of those stocks, but this is more a post 2020 event, in our view.

The size of the market will also depend on the business model used (one-off hardware sales vs. cloud-based, the latter being the most likely, in our view, as the hardware needs to run at a very low temperature (below 1 degree Kelvin) in a very stable radio frequency environment, and as such is more likely used as a shared asset).


Vuitton knows fashion is a money pit—and keeps throwing money in it

High-end clothes are famously unprofitable. The expense of producing collections, staging shows, and displaying apparel in boutiques wipes out the clothing’s potential profit, says luxury analyst Luca Solca of Exane BNP Paribas. He estimates Vuitton loses more than €100 million ($118.1 million) a year on ready-to-wear, which generates less than €450 million of the brand’s $8 billion to $9 billion in annual sales.

Runway shows can create an aura around the brand that helps sell more-profitable items, Som says. With Vuitton, that’s handbags; with Chanel International DB, it’s perfume, which Som estimates accounts for 70 percent of revenue at the privately held luxury house.

Vuitton is the world’s most valuable luxury label, according to consultancy Interbrand, which pegs its brand value at $24 billion, almost twice that of runner-up Hermès International.

Harvey has made the world’s most important chemical a rare commodity

Texas alone produces nearly three-quarters of the country’s supply of one of the most basic chemical building blocks. Ethylene is the foundation for making plastics essential to U.S. consumer and industrial goods, feeding into car parts used by Detroit and diapers sold by Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

With Harvey’s floods shutting down almost all the state’s plants, 61 percent of U.S. ethylene capacity has been closed, according to PetroChemWire. Production may not return to pre-storm levels until November, according to Jefferies.

Ethylene and its derivatives account for about 40 percent of global chemical sales, said Hassan Ahmed, an analyst at Alembic Global Advisors. The U.S. accounts for one of every five tons on the market, and ethylene plants globally were running nearly full out to meet rising demand before Harvey, he said.

Prices for ethylene-derived products, meanwhile, have begun to show signs of the looming shortage. Polyethylene prices globally have begun to climb on the expectation that U.S. exports will be slashed, IHS said.


How the three-tiered beer distribution system works

As of April 2008, 35 states now permit some form of direct wine sales to the consumer. It only accounts for about 2% of the wine sales in the United States, but there is huge opportunity in this market. The distributors see this as a direct challenge to their place in alcohol commerce. Craft brewers would love this access to the consumer, and some states are starting to permit it in small quantities. If everyone can sell directly to the consumer, there is no need for distributors.

Budweiser dominates in world sales, and was the number one selling beer in the world until recently. Part of the reason for their success is it is much easier for Budweiser to penetrate foreign markets than it is for foreign beers to penetrate the American market. The most likely reason InBev pursued the purchase of Budweiser was to gain better access to the distributors, not for the “great taste” of Budweiser.

Corruption now exists at the distributor level. Powerful distributors determine which beers make it to the shelves. For example, Bell’s Brewery in Michigan gave up trying to penetrate the Chicago market and pulled out of Illinois completely.

Markets are becoming more open for wine, so it is a matter of time before the beer producers demand the same treatment. The distributors will fight for their existence, but the US government may have already signed their death warrant with world trade treaties. No matter what happens, eventually the path beer takes to your glass may change.


Switch to renewables won’t end the geopolitics of energy

In the world of fossil fuels, this curse has generally applied to big producers of oil and gas. In a world heavier on renewables, the curse will probably not be so relevant for producers of power. Rather, we may see this curse surface in countries rich in the materials required to produce the components that make renewable energy possible.

China provides approximately half of the indium consumed globally today, whereas the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the source of more than half the world’s cobalt. The big producers of lithium, another material essential for the production of batteries, are Argentina, Australia, Chile and China. Yet Bolivia’s large untapped reserves of lithium could catapult it into this league in the future. Tellurium is not a rare-earth mineral, but it is another key component of solar panels. The U.S. has imported most of this material from Canada, but relies to some extent on Belgium, China and the Philippines.

The U.S., too, is rich in many of these resources; the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the United States possesses 13 percent of global rare-earth reserves, 14 percent of global tellurium deposits, and 3 percent of the world’s indium reserves.

The majority of the world’s cobalt reserves are believed to be in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Thus it would benefit U.S. policymakers to look at the African country as not only a humanitarian crisis and failed state, but as a more pressing a strategic priority.

More than a third of those ages 18 to 34 say they can’t go without Amazon, according to comScore’s 2017 US Mobile App Report. Gmail and Facebook ranked second and third. That bodes well for Amazon, especially as millennials age and grow their earnings power.


The case for a breakfast feast

A recent review of the dietary patterns of 50,000 adults who are Seventh Day Adventists over seven years provides the latest evidence suggesting that we should front-load our calories early in the day to jump-start our metabolisms and prevent obesity, starting with a robust breakfast and tapering off to a smaller lunch and light supper, or no supper at all.

The group issued a scientific statement emphasizing that skipping breakfast — which 20 to 30 percent of American adults do regularly — is linked to a higher risk of obesity and impaired glucose metabolism or diabetes, even though there is no proof of a causal relationship.


The complete guide to not going to college

Adopt a different attitude right now: Understand that the most important kinds of education have nothing to do with degrees. If you think you’ll benefit from hours of scholarly debate about niche topics, by all means go to college; but if you already know that you won’t, there are hundreds of high-paying jobs that don’t require you to waste your time.

Companies, particularly those in Silicon Valley, are progressively looking away from transcripts and extracurriculars. Google, in particular, truly couldn’t care less about what school you attended; it only wants to know if you can a) solve problems, b) lead, and c) offer the company something different. IBM says that about 10-15% of its new hires don’t have a college degree. And in Google’s view, the experience of going to college can sometimes even detract from a candidate’s qualifications—serving as only an “extended adolescence.”

If you have an idea, and believe in it, take a risk, and work hard at it.

Curated Insights 2017.08.27

Inside Waymo’s secret world for training self-driving cars

Collectively, they now drive 8 million miles per day in the virtual world. In 2016, they logged 2.5 billion virtual miles versus a little over 3 million miles by Google’s IRL self-driving cars that run on public roads. And crucially, the virtual miles focus on what Waymo people invariably call “interesting” miles in which they might learn something new. These are not boring highway commuter miles.

And in both kinds of real-world testing, their cars capture enough data to create full digital recreations at any point in the future. In that virtual space, they can unhitch from the limits of real life and create thousands of variations of any single scenario, and then run a digital car through all of them. As the driving software improves, it’s downloaded back into the physical cars, which can drive more and harder miles, and the loop begins again.

Not surprisingly, the hardest thing to simulate is the behavior of the other people. It’s like the old parental saw: “I’m not worried about you driving. I’m worried about the other people on the road.”

“Right now, you can almost measure the sophistication of an autonomy team—a drone team, a car team—by how seriously they take simulation. And Waymo is at the very top, the most sophisticated.”

And in reality, those 20,000 scenarios only represent a fraction of the total scenarios that Waymo has tested. They’re just what’s been created from structured tests. They have even more scenarios than that derived from public driving and imagination. “They are doing really well,” Peng said. “They are far ahead of everyone else in terms of Level Four,” using the jargon shorthand for full autonomy in a car.


Halliburton and Microsoft do not compute for OPEC

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the oil business is a high-tech one. You don’t map out complex rock formations thousands of feet beneath the ground in three or four dimensions and then drill into them without advanced tools. For example, Total SA, the French oil major, boasts the 19th-most powerful supercomputer in the world, Pangea, which has clocked a speed of more than 5 quadrillion calculations a second (technical note: pretty fast) according to The Top 500 List.

…the average well has less than 10 gigabytes of data associated with it, equivalent to a couple of high-definition movies.

…the company’s teams now have access to more than 80 real-time data streams and sensors embedded in wells, giving them a constantly updated picture of what’s happening beneath the ground. The killer app here, in every sense of the word, is providing crews and their managers with an integrated platform; a suite of sensors and software communicating seamlessly, updating constantly and available to all involved.


Costco is playing a dangerous game with the web

Costco’s reluctance to embrace the web is understandable. Its warehouse club business model is based on selling a limited assortment of bulk-size food and household items at low prices, alongside an ever-changing selection of general merchandise—everything from margarita machines to kayaks. This creates an in-store treasure hunt experience. Both elements are costly and difficult to replicate online.

Potentially more worrisome: Half of Costco’s shoppers are Amazon Prime members, Kantar Retail says, up from 14 percent five years ago. Sharing too many of the same subscribers could be risky, since Planet Retail RNG analyst Graham Hotchkiss says Amazon now offers many bulk-size goods at prices that rival Costco’s. And Amazon’s pending $13.7 billion deal to buy Whole Foods Market Inc. will give it a firm foothold in groceries—the primary reason people shop at Costco, according to Barclays’s Short.


What is Amazon, really?

At last count, Amazon’s delivery infrastructure included more than 180 warehouses, 28 sorting centers, 59 local package delivery stations, and 65 hubs for its two-hour Prime Now deliveries. Investment bank Piper Jaffray estimates that 44% of the US population lives within 20 miles of an Amazon warehouse or delivery station. Amazon’s proposed $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods could add another 431 distribution nodes in bougie neighborhoods to that network.

“Our goal with Amazon Prime, make no mistake, is to make sure that if you are not a Prime member, you are being irresponsible,” Bezos told shareholders in May. The plan is working: 63% of US Amazon users subscribe to Prime, and estimated to reach more than half of American households by the end of the year. Prime doesn’t just lift $99 off of regular Amazon users each year—it’s proven to be a powerful customer loyalty program. The average Prime user spends $1,300 each year on the site, with 78% of Prime users still citing free 2-day shipping as the main reason for coughing up the fee.

The service first reached customers by 2005, and was officially launched in the summer of 2006. Tom Szkutak, Amazon’s CFO at the time, said the business was “exposing the guts of Amazon,” using the knowledge gained from 11 years of building Amazon.com. Today AWS is on a tear. It’s the world’s dominant cloud computing provider, and the nearest competitors aren’t even within shouting distance: Amazon’s servers deliver 34% of the world’s public cloud services, reports Synergy Research Group, while Microsoft, IBM and Google provide 24% combined.


Amazon vs Maersk: The clash of titans shaking the container industry

Manufacturing is new step for Amazon and they won a patent earlier this year to develop a system to rapidly create clothing and other products after a customer order is placed. This forms a cheap and simple method for Chinese exporters as Amazon have effectively wiped out the middle man, acting as a shipbroker for itself and on behalf of smaller companies.

Freight forwarders may find it hard to compete with companies as powerful as Amazon and Maersk, who can afford to develop disruptive technology and prioritize increasing market share over higher profits.

Small independent ship owners will be left behind unless they adapt their business model to seek different shipping routes, for example choosing container lanes that do not feed into deep sea ports where the ultra large container vessels operated by Maersk can only dock.


Great Wall Motor’s better path leads to emerging markets

The Proton purchase not only gives Geely inroads to the Malaysian consumer market but also access to production plants in the region that could be used to manufacture other car brands. Being closer to the end customer would lower production costs. While Proton’s Tanjung Malim plant has the capacity to churn out one million cars annually, it made only 72,000 last year, according to the Malaysian government.

A lean company, analysts estimate Great Wall makes 60 percent of its parts in-house. It spends little on marketing and is the fourth-most-profitable automaker globally by net margin and return on equity. Its return on invested capital ranks number one among 40 manufacturers tracked by Bloomberg Intelligence.


A handful of companies control almost everything we buy — and beer is the latest victim

A whopping 182 beauty brands fall under the massive umbrellas of seven huge manufacturers: Estée Lauder Companies, L’Oréal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Shiseido, Johnson and Johnson, and Coty.

A 2015 Morgan Stanley report found that 10 companies controlled 41% of the clothing market. No other retailer had more than 2% of market share. The retailers dominating the market were Walmart, T.J. Maxx, Macy’s, Gap, Kohl’s, Target, Ross Stores, Amazon, Nordstrom, and J.C. Penney.

According to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch chart, in 2014 AB InBev and SABMiller alone controlled about 58% of the beer industry’s $33 billion in global profits.

Winner-takes all effects in autonomous cars

… it seems pretty clear that the hardware and sensors for autonomy will be commodities. There is plenty of science and engineering in these (and a lot more work to do), just as there is in, say, LCD screens, but there is no reason why you have to use one rather than another just because everyone else is. There are strong manufacturing scale effects, but no network effect. So, LIDAR, for example, will go from a ‘spinning KFC bucket’ that costs $50k to a small solid-state widget at a few hundred dollars or less, and there will be winners within that segment, but there’s no network effect, while winning LIDAR doesn’t give leverage at other layers of the stack (unless you get a monopoly), anymore than than making the best image sensors (and selling them to Apple) helps Sony’s smartphone business. In the same way, it’s likely that batteries (and motors and battery/motor control) will be as much of a commodity as RAM is today – again, scale, lots of science and perhaps some winners within each category, but no broader leverage.

Maps have network effects. When any autonomous car drives down a pre-mapped road, it is both comparing the road to the map and updating the map: every AV can also be a survey car. If you have sold 500,000 AVs and someone else has only sold 10,000, your maps will be updated more often and be more accurate, and so your cars will have less chance of encountering something totally new and unexpected and getting confused. The more cars you sell the better all of your cars are – the definition of a network effect.

The more real world driving data that you have, the more accurate you can make your simulation and therefore the better you can make your software. There are also clear scale advantages to simulation, in how much computing resource you can afford to devote to this, how many people you have working on it, and how much institutional expertise you have in large computing projects. Being part of Google clearly gives Waymo an advantage: it reports driving 25,000 ‘real’ autonomous miles each week, but also one billion simulated miles in 2016 (an average of 19 million miles a week).

So, the network effects – the winner-takes-all effects – are in data: in driving data and in maps. This prompts two questions: who gets that data, and how much do you need?

This leads me to the final question: how much data do you really need? Does the system get better more or less indefinitely as you add more data, or is there an S-Curve – is there a point at which adding more data has diminishing returns? That is – how strong is the network effect?


The stereo speaker company giving sight to self-driving cars

Although it will soon face plenty of competition, Velodyne has become the industry’s go-to lidar supplier and is cranking up production to match. Last year, Ford Motor Co. and Chinese Internet giant Baidu pumped $150 million into Velodyne, money the company used to open its “mega-factory” on San Jose’s southern edge.

Lidar works by firing laser beams — thousands per second — at nearby objects and measuring how quickly they bounce back. With the notable exception of Tesla, most companies pursuing autonomous vehicles rely on lidar, along with radar and cameras.

“The prevailing view is that in the near term — at least a decade — you’re not going to be able to execute this safely without lidar,” said Mike Ramsey, research director at Gartner.

“One major automaker told me they had vetted 50 lidar companies,” Ramsey said. “So more than 50 companies exist, but only Velodyne is producing a lidar they can use.”

Now, the race is to cut lidar’s cost. Velodyne’s most popular lidar, about the size of two stacked hockey pucks, sells for $8,000. As it ramps up production, the company hopes to bring prices down to “a few hundred dollars,” Hall said. “We’re in the inventing business, so we’re going to keep working on this thing until we crack that nut.”


The internal combustion engine is not dead yet

Mazda, which now markets no hybrid vehicles, calls the engine Skyactiv-X and says it is scheduled for a 2019 introduction. In simplest terms, the big difference with the new engine is that under certain running conditions, the gasoline is ignited without the use of spark plugs. Instead, combustion is set off by the extreme heat in the cylinder that results from the piston inside the engine traveling upward and compressing air trapped inside, the same method diesel engines use. The efficiency gains come with the ability to operate using a very lean mixture — very little gas for the amount of air — that a typical spark-ignition engine cannot burn cleanly.

…addresses the challenge of gasoline’s future from a somewhat different direction: the practical limitations of battery electric cars. “Holding a gas nozzle, you can transfer 10 megawatts of energy in five minutes,” he said, explaining today’s refueling reality. To recharge a Tesla electric at that rate today, he said, would require “a cable you couldn’t hold.”

By 2050, Dr. Heywood’s studies project, today’s fuel economy could be doubled. “A quarter to a third of that improvement would come from improvements to the vehicle,” he said, in areas like aerodynamics and weight reduction. Other promising areas include variable compression ratios — a technology Nissan plans to introduce next year — and making better use of available fuels.


Wind power is all grown up now

People tend to think of renewable energy companies as the new kids on the block but Vestas Wind Systems A/S, the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturer, is no pimply teenager. The Danish group entered the turbine business almost 40 years ago and went public in 1998…

The wind industry is consolidating — Siemens merged its wind business with Gamesa in April — and competition is intensifying. This puts pressure on margins and makes it more difficult to lift revenue.

A bigger concern is that more countries are adopting auction-based contract awards. These promote projects that deliver the cheapest electricity as opposed to feed-in tariffs, which guaranteed a fixed electricity price. So life’s getting a little tougher for Vestas.

There are other ways to make money. High-margin maintenance contracts are an increasing share of business. There are opportunities too to upgrade the installed base with those newer, better turbines.


The very symbolic collision of Sotheby’s-Christie’s and Poly-Guardian in China art

If Sotheby’s and Christie’s are purely commercial Giants, then Poly Culture and Guardian are something else. They are certainly Giants, dominating the domestic art auction industry. But Poly in particular is also a direct extensions of the State. Because it turns out, what happens to historic Chinese art is a significant concern to the Chinese government. Part of this sensitivity is about repatriating works that were stolen and misappropriated over the centuries. Many of the works that have been returned can be seen on display at Poly’s headquarters in Beijing.

Poly Auction is now not just one of the top two auction houses in China. It is also the number three art auction house in the world (after Christie’s and Sotheby’s). Their 2013 turnover was over a billion dollars (about one-fourth of Sotheby’s). They sell approximately 10,000 objects each week, with as many as 40 different catalogs per show.

Because at the same time, Poly and Guardian have been expanding internationally. And they are now on Sotheby’s and Christie’s home turf for the first time. Both have moved into Hong Kong. And Poly is now moving aggressively into New York City, where Sotheby’s is headquartered. Thus far, they have focused mostly on finding consignments in the US for sale in China, particularly Chinese collectibles. But Poly’s openly stated ambition is to become the world’s top art auction house. According to CEO Jiang Yingchun, “We are very big in the art auction market in Mainland China but still have a long way to go to become the biggest auction house worldwide”.


It’s hard to keep up with all that lithium demand

Australia is the biggest lithium producer, though Chile and Argentina account for 67 percent of global reserves, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Extracting lithium from the salt flats that dot the arid northern regions of the South American countries is a lot easier and cheaper than digging underground for metals like copper. Producers just pump the brine solution into evaporation ponds, harvesting the mineral once the moisture is gone.

With demand expected to keep rising as electric cars gain a bigger share of the global auto fleet, Argentina and Chile are attracting interest from mining companies because it costs about $2,000 to $3,800 a ton to extract lithium from brine, compared with $4,000 to $6,000 a ton in Australia, where lithium is mined from rock.

Of the 39 lithium ventures tracked by CRU, only four have firm commitments, and all of those are in China, adding about 24,000 tons of annual supply. Another 10 projects representing 400,000 tons are rated “probable” — in Canada, Chile, China, Mexico, Argentina and Australia — but probably only about 30 percent will make it into production, CRU said.

“But we have a window of only 25 years to develop these projects because prices can fall again as soon as a replacement to lithium appears.”


Hunt for next electric-car commodity quickens as prices soar

As one of the key components in the new breed of rechargeable batteries and with supply dominated by the Democratic Republic of Congo, prices have surged at four times the pace of major metals in the past year.

The cobalt market is in a 5,500-ton deficit, according to CRU, with global supply contracting 3.9 percent in 2016.

“The mix of iron and cobalt is tricky. Cobalt is already mined as a byproduct of copper and nickel, but iron has the most negative impact on cobalt, which means processing would be more difficult and more expensive.”

Aging Japan wants automation, not immigration

In the absence of large-scale immigration, the only viable solution for many domestic industries is to plow money into robots and information technology more generally.

With unemployment down to 2.8 percent, companies are increasingly realizing they need to pay up to attract and keep qualified personnel. The other option — increased immigration — is politically difficult.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch forecast IT investment in Japan to rise as much as 9 percent annually in coming years, with the difference in software investment per worker versus the U.S. falling to 5 to 1 by 2020 from about 10 to 1 now.


Who really owns American farmland?

Farmland, the Economist announced in 2014, had outperformed most asset classes for the previous 20 years, delivering average U.S. returns of 12 percent a year with low volatility.

Today, the USDA estimates that at least 30 percent of American farmland is owned by non-operators who lease it out to farmers. And with a median age for the American farmer of about 55, it is anticipated that in the next five years, some 92,000,000 acres will change hands, with much of it passing to investors rather than traditional farmers.

It’s a tenuous predicament, growing low-cost food, feed, and fuel (corn-based ethanol) on ever-more-expensive land, and it raises a host of questions. Is this a sustainable situation? What happens to small farmers? And are we looking at a bubble that will burst?

In practice, our best hope of true stewardship of the land will come from enlightened, committed owner-farmers. But the trend toward treating farmland as a financial investment, and the high prices that have come with it, make it harder and harder for new young farmers to enter the field.

By buying land in other countries and farming it, foreign buyers are able to support their domestic food supply and other markets that depend on agriculture without having to compete for essential products on the global market.

The government of China now controls more than 400 American farms consisting of a hundred thousand acres of farmland, with at least 50,000 in Missouri alone, plus CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), 33 processing plants, the distribution system—and one out of every four American hogs.


Yesterday’s “plastics” are today’s crypto tokens

Our ability to profit from our investments relies on two things: having the resources needed to purchase the asset and then having a way to sell it — a concept known as liquidity. Tokenizing real-world assets will allow buyers to access assets never before within their reach, and sellers to move assets that were previously difficult to unload. The secret lies in the possibility of fractionalization.

Imagine unlocking cash from the equity in your home without having to borrow or pay interest. Tokenize your home and sell fractions to the public. Buy the tokens back, or pay the investors their value at the time the property is sold.

In the future, you’ll be able to tokenize the value of unused bedrooms and backyards in your home. You’ll be able to tokenize use of your vehicle for Uber driving while you’re away on travel. You’ll even be able to tokenize access to your phone so marketers have to pay you tokens in order to gain access to your attention. Yes, this will happen.

At 5,4000 pounds, the Tesla is no lightweight, and the Aventador is a good 1,200 pounds lighter. But the Ludicrous + enabled vehicle not only beats the Lambo, it sets a world record for the quickest SUV with a quarter mile time clocking in at 11.418 seconds at nearly 118 miles-per-hour.

Twitter Snacks 2017.07.19