Weekend Reads for the Summer

For the profit and pleasure of subscribers, here's a few longer reads on economic, political and social issues for the Summer.

Bloomberg's Gaspard Sebag , Dara Doyle , and Alex Webb have the inside story on how the EU ended up charging Apple US$14 billion for unpaid taxes. The whole saga stems back to an agreement between the Irish Government and Apple in 1990.

"To comply with European rules, Ireland finally ended its zero-tax policy in 1990. After that, Apple and Ireland agreed that the profit attributed to a key Ireland-based unit, the division discussed in Tom Connor’s letter, be capped using a complex formula that in 1990 would have resulted in a taxable profit of $30 million to $40 million. An Apple tax adviser “confessed there was no scientific basis” for those figures, but that the amounts would be “of such magnitude that he hoped it would be seen as a bona-fide proposal,” according to notes from a 1990 meeting with the Irish tax authority cited by the EU. The equation didn’t change even as Apple began assembling the bulk of its products in Asia," Bloomberg reports.

One of the greatest sadnesses in a tough year was the death of David Bowie on January 10. This Ian Penman obituary of Bowie in the London Review of Books is well worth a read to remind us of Bowie's greatness, and his otherworldliness.

"In our current post-everything age, Bowie’s death was another reminder of how times have changed: an oldtime star who once enacted his alter ego Ziggy Stardust’s demise as an old-fashioned diva-esque theatrical goodbye-ee, and who more or less staged his own death online, with admirable restraint, impeccable good manners, and a profoundly surprising, legacy-salvaging last work, Blackstar," Penman writes.

Bowe's Lazarus from Blackstar is even more haunting now than when I first watched it in January.

America is a strange place that can't be ignored. This Hollywood Reporter piece on the relationship between the movie industry and gun manufacturers is fascinating and awful in equal measure.

"Simply put, two industries that position themselves as mortal enemies have a lucrative, symbiotic relationship. Sometimes armorers find that their onscreen handiwork worms its way back into real life. John Patteson, a Florida-based armorer (Cape Fear and Bad Boys II), recalls an experience on a 1980s TV show that he will not name in which a director wanted two guys with semiautomatic handguns to fire while standing next to each other. Patteson pointed out that the ejected rounds from one gun would hit the second man, at best creating an annoyance and at worst a potential safety hazard. "The director says, 'How about we ask the left guy to tilt his gun sideways, so brass goes up and arcs away?' " Patteson adjusted the scene accordingly, but "next thing you know, I'm seeing guys in 7-Eleven videos holding the guns sideways."

In a year when 'post-truth' became a thing and we learned about Macedonian teenagers making a living writing fake news aimed at Trump supporters, the author of the best book about Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson, wrote this piece in Atlantic about how to fix the Internet.

"There is a bug in its original design that at first seemed like a feature but has gradually, and now rapidly, been exploited by hackers and trolls and malevolent actors: Its packets are encoded with the address of their destination but not of their authentic origin. With a circuit-switched network, you can track or trace back the origins of the information, but that’s not true with the packet-switched design of the internet," Isaacson writes.

This week the Wall St Journal unpicked the incredibly extensive role of Goldman Sachs in the 1MDB scandal that is threatening Malaysia's Prime Minister and has been labelled one of the biggest frauds in history.

The New York Times Magazine produced this feature on Artificial Intelligence that is an eye-opening look at the incredibly fast progress now changing the way computers are doing things. It looks at the issue through the lens of a massive improvement in the performance of Google Translate.

"The old system worked the way all machine translation has worked for about 30 years: It sequestered each successive sentence fragment, looked up those words in a large statistically derived vocabulary table, then applied a battery of post-processing rules to affix proper endings and rearrange it all to make sense. The approach is called “phrase-based statistical machine translation,” because by the time the system gets to the next phrase, it doesn’t know what the last one was. This is why Translate’s output sometimes looked like a shaken bag of fridge magnets. Brain’s replacement would, if it came together, read and render entire sentences at one draft. It would capture context — and something akin to meaning."

Further to the issue of machine learning and the rise of the robots, Richard Baldwin has written an acclaimed book about Globalisation that emphasises the role of information technology, and predicts an even bigger transformation to come. Quartz reports on it here.

"A better understanding of globalization is more urgent than ever, Baldwin says, because the third and most disruptive phrase is still to come. Technology will bring globalization to the people-centric service sector, upending far more jobs in rich countries than the decline in manufacturing has in recent decades. (In the UK, the service sector accounts for almost 80% of the economy; less than 10% of US jobs are in manufacturing.) The disruption won’t come because people will move more freely across borders, but because technologies will provide “a substitute for being there,” Baldwin says."

That's enough for the summer.

Happy New Year.