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A wise person I know recently told me he’s a reader, not a writer. Knowing about this fellow’s career, I doubt the latter is true. But it got me thinking that as much as I love writing I spend far more time reading. During this calm before the storm—Apple’s earnings report Tuesday afternoon—here are some of the impressive things I’ve been reading about tech and other matters.
* The conservative opinion columnist Bret Stephens wrote a curious column in The New York Times the other day on how Democrats could beat Donald Trump. His fourth idea, “Ignore Trump’s tweets,” stuck out for me. “We would all be better off if the media reported them more rarely, reacted to them less strongly, and treated them with less alarm and more bemusement,” Stephens wrote. That got me thinking. What if all respectable media outlets simply agreed not to report on any of Trump’s tweets? If only for a week? Imagine the benefits to society.
* The Wall Street Journal wrote a fine article about Ant Financial, the Alibaba affiliate that is challenging the banking establishment in China. It’s a nuanced piece of reporting that explains how complicated financial regulation can be in a country that outsiders assume is monolithic in its control of its citizens and organizations. Also, when I recently visited Hangzhou, where Ant is based, I took photos of many amazing outdoor sculptures. Yet I somehow missed the extraordinary “Ant Man” outside the company’s headquarters.
* Bloomberg has published a chock-full-of-details report about Tim Sweeney, the mysterious founder of Epic Games. His company’s wildly popular “battle royale” game Fortnite has made Sweeney a billionaire, says Bloomberg. According to the article, Sweeney isn’t much of a gamer, is a conservationist and one of North Carolina’s largest landowners, and hasn’t eaten in the dining room of his mansion, preferring fast-food takeout. Epic is 40%-owned by Chinese gaming titan Tencent.
See you on the other side of Apple’s earnings.
Profits zapped. The largest bitcoin miner in the world, China’s Bitmain Technologies, is planning to go public “very soon” and Fortune got some of the company’s financials. Bitmain produced a profit of $1.2 billion last year and is on track to make $2 billion to $3 billion this year, despite the fall in the price of most cryptocurrencies. Meanwhile, the company is raising additional private capital that values Bitmain at $14 billion.
A pot that needs stirring. Democrats in Congress have some ideas about regulating the tech industry, according to a memo from the office of Sen. Mark Warner obtained by Axios. Twenty ideas, in fact. Some of the ideas are stricter, some less so. “The hope is that the ideas enclosed here stir the pot and spark a wider discussion—among policymakers, stakeholders, and civil society groups—on the appropriate trajectory of technology policy in the coming years,” the paper says.
I’m lovin’ it. Speaking of digital currencies, McDonald’s on Monday announced it was creating the MacCoin. Oops, no, not a digital currency. It’s a physical coin that will be exchangeable for free burgers in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Big Mac.
Can’t be all things to all people. Needing to focus more on getting the kinks out of its self-driving cars, Uber says it has stopped development on Otto, its self-driving truck project. You may recall that Otto was acquired by Uber after it was started by former Google/Waymo exec Anthony Levandowski and that Google subsequently sued Levandowski for stealing trade secrets. That case was settled in February.
Jabbing at glass screens. A couple of non-U.S. tech giants reported results early on Tuesday. Samsung‘s profit declined for the first time in almost two years, as smartphone sales drooped. But Nintendo saw profits jump 88% as sales of the popular mobile Switch gaming device remained strong. The company said it has sold almost 20 million Switches since they went on sale in March 2017.
Non-diverse. An analysis of the venture capital industry found that 40% of all investors attended either Stanford or Harvard. The data crunching by VC Richard Kerby also found that his industry was 70% white (down from 74% two years ago) and 82% male (down from 89% two years ago).
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The first robots may be older than you think. Ancient Greeks created automated metal creatures including a flying eagle and the Byzantine Empire had a human-looking organ player powered by water, according to a story in the journal Nature by researchers Stephen Cave and Kanta Dihal. More recently, it was the writers of fiction who stoked fears of automated creatures and coined the term robots:
The imaginative resonance of intelligent machines began to reach its fullest in the twentieth century, when industrialization replaced the rhythms of nature with those of the production line. It was also a time of revolution and mechanized warfare. Against that backdrop, the word ‘robot’ was born in Czech writer Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). In the very work coining the term, the robots rebel against and destroy their creators. And that narrative of rebellion has proved to be the most potent of all our AI fears, retold repeatedly as technology evolves.
During the cold war space race, the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) gave us HAL 9000, the murderous spaceship supercomputer. With the rise of the Internet, we got Skynet—a defence network that becomes self-aware in the Terminator films (starting in 1984) — and The Matrix (1999), featuring intelligent machines that farm humans whose minds unknowingly inhabit a virtual reality. Now, with AI dominating headlines, we have sophisticated robots again overthrowing their wetware masters, from Ava in the 2015 film Ex Machina to the android amusement-park hosts in the Westworld television series.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Twitter Getting Help From Academics to Improve Its ‘Health’ By Jonathan Vanian
Netflix Says It’s Open to Making a Third Season of ‘Master of None’ By Jonathan Sperling
States Sue to Block Downloads of 3D-Printed Gun Instructions By Glenn Fleishman
BEFORE YOU GO
According to physicists who developed string theory to explain why the universe is the way the universe is, there may be an almost untold number of parallel universes, each with its own physical laws.
Now a new version of the theory rejects the need for that unending—and probably unconfirmable—multiverse. “This picture with a big multiverse could be mathematically wrong,” says Ulf Danielsson, a physicist at Uppsala University in Sweden. “Paradoxically this makes things much more interesting because that means string theory is much more predictive than we thought it was.”