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🔮 Systemic Failure and Reformation – #125

And the magical passing of time.

Good morning,

I hope you had a good week.

I spent two days at a huge tech conference in Stockholm, meeting a lot of familiar faces. I spent a lot of time at tech conferences early in my career. And while the audience is much more diverse today than 15 years ago, some conversations are stuck on repeat—especially discussing the lack of diversity.

One of my highlights was running into Swedish tech journalist Miriam Jeffrey, who is based in Malmö after many years in Silicon Valley.

Reflecting on when we first met 15 years ago, Miriam said, “Everything felt so magical back then”. And I couldn’t agree more.

I used to believe that technology was an exclusively positive force in the world, connecting people and bringing new opportunities on all fronts. As journalists, we had front-row seats. This was before Edward Snowden, Cambridge Analytica, and GamerGate.

I can recognise a similar feeling now. Working hands-on with AI feels magical. But, part of the magic is forever lost because we are less naive, knowing the dangers of not regulating new technology as it arises.

But running into Miriam also reminded me of a different kind of magic.

When I started my journalism career in my early 20s, Miriam was writing for the Swedish Internetworld Magazine. She had knowledge, experience, and networks I could only dream of — and she generously shared everything she could.

I didn’t dare to approach editors for freelance assignments, but she coached me. She even recommended me to her editors, which resulted in some of my first “real” bylines. I did a huge job on audio trends, which I still remember being very nervous about. But she thought I could do it, and I could.

The only thing I had to give her in return was authentic curiosity. I just wanted to learn. And the fact that she took the time to engage and believe in me will always be fundamental to who I am.

I probably appreciate it even more today than 15 years ago. Because I know now how significant those opportunities turned out to be.

Because when your first experience venturing into the working world is that people truly want you to succeed, you get brave. When you feel that people have your back, you take more risks. And then one day, 15 years later, you might dare to start your own company.

The difference between being stupid and being brave is how accurately we assess and believe in our ability to rise to the challenge.

My friend Agnes often points this out about me. When I feel like I’m stupidly venturing out to solve problems or take on challenges I’m not fully equipped to handle, she reframes it as being brave.

I often fall on my face.

It’s always uncomfortable. Sometimes embarrassing.

But since I have a selection of wise, authentic, and good-hearted people to turn to when it happens, I can look for the learnings and get back on the horse.

Authentic curiosity has provided me with many informal mentors through the years, and a few of them have become very close friends. That was never the intention. But it turns out that people who genuinely believe we are better off when we learn and develop together make for excellent friends.

I would not be where I am today without the people who believed in me — often more than I believed in myself.

Miriam was one of the first. She didn’t just teach me how to approach an editor or believe in my writing; she taught me that the best teachers are sometimes those who never officially signed up for the job.

When I have the opportunity to work with younger colleagues, I often reflect on the importance of being “coachable”. When I see someone who wants to learn and develop, I know the effort to engage with them will be worth it. Seeing others grow is one of the best things about being a leader. On the other hand, people without the ability to reflect on their behaviours won’t benefit much if I engage in them.

It’s humbling how much our early experiences shape us. And how much a small act of kindness can impact someone’s trajectory in life.

I don’t think Miriam could guess how important she was to me. And I don’t think she reads my newsletter, so if no one tips her off about this introduction, she might never know … (I will tell her, I promise).

But I find it beautiful that we are so integrated into each other’s lives — whether we want to or not.

We should probably remind ourselves about that every once in a while.

I hope you enjoy today’s issue. Thank you for reading!


Read #2 — Nature Has Value. Could We Literally Invest in It? by Lydia DePillis for The New York Times.

Listen — My friend Emil released a single from his Bach Jazz project on Spotify this week.

Watch — Are you curious about how Large Language Models work from a technical perspective? I had to concentrate when I watched this YouTube lecture, but it was a straightforward explanation of the AI technology surrounding everything we do these days.

App — Do you have too many duplicate or similar photos on your phone? I do. Apps like Swipewipe (nice but pricey) and Slidebox (free with ads) make it easy to sort and organise them. I just learned I have 70,000 images to sort through, so I’ll see you in 2028.

Brazil Looks to Reform UN During G20 Presidency Due to Ongoing Global Conflicts

Geopolitics, UN

Brazil has placed reforming the United Nations at the forefront of its G20 presidency agenda, signalling a potential shift in international diplomacy dynamics following the war in Gaza and evolving economic powers. This initiative marks a critical moment for the future of multilateralism.

Zooming Out: Due to increasing geopolitical tensions and economic shifts, Brazil captains an ambitious initiative to overhaul the United Nations during its G20 presidency. This comes at a time when the need for reform in global governance structures has never been more apparent.

The Suggested Change: Brazil proposes a radical idea that would see the five permanent Security Council members lose their veto rights on issues directly affecting them to modernise and democratize the UN's workings. Trying to avoid a blame game, Brazil emphasises solution-oriented diplomacy in light of the paralysis affecting institutions like the UN when global conflicts escalate.

The Backdrop:

  • Russia’s veto regarding Ukraine: In 2022, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution describing Russian attempts to unlawfully annex four regions of Ukraine as “a threat to international peace and security”, demanding that the decision be immediately and unconditionally reversed.

  • Vetos from US, China and Russia regarding Israel and Palestine: Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas conflict in October, the United States, China, and Russia have used their UN Security Council vetos to block four different UN Security Council resolutions calling for pauses in fighting to allow humanitarian aid access, the protection of civilians, and a stop to arming Hamas and other militants in the Gaza Strip.

  • Brazil’s controversial Gaza Remarks: Tensions flared between Brazil and Israel following President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's controversial comparison of the Gaza situation to the Holocaust, complicating Brazil's diplomatic positioning.

The Strategy: Aiming for a concrete reform agenda, Brazil plans a secondary G20 foreign ministers' session in New York this September, inviting additional UN member states to hash out a detailed reform plan.

EU's Stance on Reform: EU’s Josep Borrell stressed that reforming the UN is about more than procedural tweaks; it requires a fundamental shift in mindset towards a more inclusive and effective global governance model.

Implications: Brazil's push for UN reform amidst the G20 presidency underscores a critical moment for international diplomacy, with the potential to reshape global conflict resolution and governance structures. However, the path forward remains fraught with geopolitical tensions and divergent views on the future of multilateralism.

Google Pauses Gemini AI’s Generating Humans After Accuracy and Bias Concerns

Artificial Intelligence, Google

Google has paused the function of its Gemini AI tool generating human images following backlash over its output, which included images of Black founding fathers, a female pope, and gay couples for prompts requesting images of straight couples.

Why It Matters: Google and other AI entities are looking for the delicate balance of avoiding bias while trying to eliminate stereotypes from their generative AI tools. The pause reflects the challenge of ensuring AI outputs do not reinforce existing prejudices.

Driving the News: A surge of criticism, notably from right-wing conservative quarters, has spotlighted Gemini's contentious outputs. High-profile figures, including Elon Musk, have criticised the tool for being "racist and anti-civilizational". New York Post and others accused Google of promoting a "woke" agenda by intensifying the scrutiny.

Google's Reaction: In response, Google acknowledged shortcomings in Gemini's performance, declaring the tool was "missing the mark." The company then paused human image generation, promising an updated version. Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan admitted the possibility of future inaccuracies, stating, "I can't promise that Gemini won't occasionally generate embarrassing, inaccurate or offensive results — but I can promise that we will continue to take action whenever we identify an issue."

Zooming Out: This incident illustrates the challenges of addressing another constant issue in AI development: AI tools default to generating stereotypical images reflective of the biases in their training data without explicit guidance. Historical AI blunders, such as biased AI image generators and Google Photos' misclassification of black people as gorillas, underscore the ongoing struggle.

Between the Lines: Today's AI tools face difficulty understanding when to diversify responses to general prompts versus when historical accuracy is critical. Despite this, there's optimism in the AI sector about improving model responses to complex queries.

Added Complexity: AI models will always embody values, and they need to navigate partisan, cultural, and international tensions from the beginning. The Gemini controversy exemplifies the complexity of developing AI that respects diversity without embedding biases.

McKinsey Think-Tank's Advice to China Sparks Tenison in the United States

Geopolitics, Business

A McKinsey-led think-tank has been found advising China on policies that have contributed to escalating US-China frictions. The Urban China Initiative (UCI) delivered strategic counsel to the Chinese government.

The details: The UCI, in a collaborative effort with McKinsey, Columbia University, and Tsinghua University, initiated in 2015, was part of China's strategic planning for its 13th Five-Year Plan spanning 2016 to 2020. UCI proposed several policies to increase China's tech expertise, directly influencing the "Made in China 2025" strategy that later became a focal point of US-China trade disputes.

The China Strategy: Recommendations included promoting the dual use of military technology in civilian sectors, strengthening domestic industries like cloud computing to protect against foreign dominance, and enhancing financial backing for homegrown Internet of Things companies.

Geopolitical Consequences: These strategies, crystallised in China's 13th Five-Year Plan, increased tensions with the United States, culminating in a trade war initiated by the Trump administration, underscoring the strategic rivalry between the two global powers.

What’s the problem? McKinsey’s activities in China have drawn the attention of lawmakers, sparking debates about potential restrictions for consulting firms to engage with foreign governments in strategic competition with the United States.

McKinsey's Position: Following increased political pressure in the US, McKinsey distanced itself from the UCI, which was dissolved in 2021. They maintain that UCI operated independently, focusing on urban development issues and was not a proxy for McKinsey's consultancy with the Chinese government. McKinsey's global managing partner, Bob Sternfels, declared that the firm has not and does not work for the Chinese Communist Party or the central government.

Why You Should Care: In a world with increasing geopolitical rivalry, this development illustrates the complicated ties between international consultancy firms and global superpowers, underscoring the delicate balance between business engagements and national security interests.

EU's Russian Oil Ban Loophole Channels €1 Billion from European Countries to Putin

Geopolitics, Russia

Despite the European Union's comprehensive sanctions and a near-total ban on Russian oil, a study unveiled by POLITICO highlights a significant oversight. In 2023, the EU procured approximately 35 million barrels of refined fuels, primarily diesel, indirectly sourced from Russia, and injected an estimated €1 billion into Putin's war machinery.

The Loophole at Play: The crux lies in the EU's current sanctions framework, which permits the purchase of Russian crude oil, provided it undergoes refinement into fuels outside the EU. This legal gap facilitated a continuous inflow of Russian fuel into the EU, predominantly through intermediaries in India and Turkey.

EU Sanctions and Their Effectiveness: The EU's sanction strategy, marked by its 13th package to commemorate two years since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has faced scrutiny over its efficacy. Loopholes have enabled Moscow to secure significant revenue streams, with another example involving Bulgaria and the bloc's faltered attempt to cap Russian oil income.

Growing Pressure for Tighter Sanctions: The new insights into Russia's oil profits, together with the tragic death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, are raising the pressure on EU leaders for stricter measures in the upcoming 14th sanctions package—suggestions include new regulation requiring foreign refineries to disclose any Russian oil imports to EU buyers.

The Hesitation: Concerns about potential diesel price increases and the looming threat of economic downturns have made the EU hesitant to resolve to close this loophole. While the EU is acutely aware of the loophole's implications, decisive steps to address this issue remain elusive, underscoring a complex dilemma where economic imperatives overshadow political will, even amidst heightened tensions with Russia.

What now? As the EU grapples with the challenge of tightening its sanctions framework without deepening economic strains, the path forward is lined with difficult choices, underscoring the complicated interplay between securing energy supplies and maintaining a firm stance against Russia’s aggression.

America's Social Crisis: Declining Face-to-Face Interaction Signals Alarm for National Well-Being

Society, United States

The United States, known for its extroverted culture, is grappling with a notable decline in socialising, according to a feature article in The Atlantic. This reduction in face-to-face interaction has sparked concerns over the country's "social fitness" and its impact on collective well-being. Data reveal a marked decrease in social activities, with Americans, especially the younger generation, spending significantly more time in solitude.

Statistical Declines: Between 2003 and 2022, American men saw a 30% reduction in face-to-face socialising, with unmarried Americans and teenagers experiencing even more significant drops. This unprecedented decline in socialising activities contributes to increasing solitude, anxiety, and dissatisfaction among Americans.

Teen Socialisation Trends: Teen and young adult socialization has significantly declined, especially since 2010. Teens are dating less, participating less in youth sports, and spending less time with friends.

Illustration from The Atlantic

Digital Age Isolation: Despite the rise in digital communication, Americans report higher levels of loneliness, with young Americans expressing increased anxiety about their lives and the country's future. Teenage depression and feelings of hopelessness are reaching alarming new heights each year.

Impact of COVID-19: The COVID-19 pandemic increased time spent alone, but the trends indicating a decline in real-world socialising predate the pandemic. The steepest declines in socialising have been observed among young people, poor people, and Black Americans.

Social vs. Pet Time: An intriguing shift has seen many Americans opting for the company of pets over human interaction, with the time spent with pets roughly doubling in the past two decades.

Root Causes and Societal Impact: The decline in socialising is attributed to increased screen time, busier lifestyles, and the erosion of traditional social infrastructures such as churches, community centres, and even the workplace. This has led to a reduction in community-based routines and an increase in individualized entertainment.

The Concept of Social Fitness: Drawing parallels with physical fitness, experts suggest that good relationships are key to happiness and well-being. The decline in America's social fitness is seen as a mismatch between human social needs and modern trends encouraging disconnection.

As America confronts this "hang-out depression," the implications for mental health and togetherness are profound. The data suggest a need for a renewed focus on fostering face-to-face interactions and rebuilding the social infrastructure to combat the rising tide of loneliness and its accompanying challenges.

Study Finds Cargo Bikes Could Drive Down Car Ownership

Transportation, Climate

Cargo bikes make a strong case against car ownership, hinting at a sustainable shift in urban mobility preferences. A recent study has illustrated the potential of cargo bikes to revolutionise urban transport. With 2,590 individuals participating in cargo bike share systems across Germany, the study demonstrates the impact of these bikes on car ownership patterns.

Impact on Car Ownership: An impressive 18.1% of participants reported a reduction in car ownership, attributing this shift to environmental (80%), financial (48.8%), and safety concerns (9.9%). 45.8% of respondents had at least one car in their household, while a slightly higher percentage (54.2%) lived without a car.

Cargo Bikes vs. Cars: Across nearly all aspects, cargo bikes outshine cars, appealing even to those previously dependent on cars for their daily commute. While car-dependent users acknowledge cargo bikes' cost-effectiveness, reduced stress, and pleasure, they still lean towards cars for flexibility and speed.

Why Cargo Bikes? According to the study, the benefit of cargo bikes lies in their low-stress appeal, ease of use, and significant cost savings, offering a greener alternative that doesn't compromise the joy of travel. Environmental friendliness emerged as a top reason for the switch, underscoring the growing consciousness around sustainable living.

The Future of Urban Transport: The study suggests cargo bike-share systems might better nudge people away from cars than car-sharing services. The findings advocate for a reimagined city landscape prioritising bike infrastructure, making a case for broader adoption of cargo bikes as a viable alternative to cars.

Conclusion: As cities fight pollution and seek sustainable transport solutions, cargo bikes emerge as a compelling choice for urban residents. With an 18.1% dip in car ownership among participants, the study underscores the potential of cargo bikes to ease urban congestion and pave the way for greener, more enjoyable modes of transportation.

Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new. ✨

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