Weekend Briefing No. 255


Welcome to the weekend. This last briefing of the 2018 will include my favorite 7 articles of the year. You also may be interested to see the 100 most popular articles of the year (see the Prime Numbers section below).

A huge thank you to everyone who sent me book recommendations last week. I’m compiling the list and will publish it once it’s done.

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Prime Numbers

520 – This year, I’ve briefed 520 articles for you.

100 – Here is a list of the 100 most popular Weekend Briefing articles from 2018. Popularity is measured by how many clicks the article gets.

A Very Important Letter

On Tuesday, the chief executives of the world’s largest public companies received a ground-breaking letter from one of the most influential investors in the world. Laurence D. Fink, founder and chief executive of the investment firm BlackRock, put business leaders on notice that their companies need to do more than make profits — they need to contribute to society as well if they want to receive the support of BlackRock ($6T AUM). “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” he wrote, “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.” When I started in the social enterprise sector, almost a decade ago, I did not in my wildest dreams imagine that the world’s largest investor would declare that he plans to hold companies accountable to profit & purpose (somebody should write a book about that). Despite Mr. Fink’s insistence that companies benefit society, it’s worth noting he’s not playing down the importance of profits and, while it’s a subtle point, he believes that having social purpose is inextricably linked to a company’s ability to maintain its profits. New York Times (6 minutes)

What Is AI?

What is Artificial Intelligence, exactly? The question may seem basic, but the answer is kind of complicated. As it currently stands, the vast majority of the AI advancements and applications you hear about refer to a category of algorithms known as machine learning. These algorithms use statistics to find patterns in massive amounts of data. They then use those patterns to make predictions on things like what shows you might like on Netflix, what you’re saying when you speak to Alexa, or whether you have cancer based on your MRI. Machine learning, and its subset deep learning (basically machine learning on steroids), is incredibly powerful. It is the basis of many major breakthroughs, including facial recognition, hyper-realistic photo and voice synthesis, and AlphaGo, the program that beat the best human player in the complex game of Go. But it is also just a tiny fraction of what AI could be. The grand idea is to develop something resembling human intelligence, which is often referred to as “artificial general intelligence,” or “AGI.” Some experts believe that machine learning and deep learning will eventually get us to AGI with enough data, but most would agree there are big missing pieces and it’s still a long way off. AI may have mastered Go, but in other ways it is still much dumber than a toddler. Check out this informative flow chart to understand what AI is. MIT Technology Review (7 minutes)

Glomar Explorer

In 1968, an aging Soviet sub armed with nuclear missiles and torpedoes sank in the Pacific. The Soviets couldn’t find it, but the US Navy did, three miles below the surface. Thus began a six-year covert salvage effort that led the US Central Intelligence Agency to team up with billionaire recluse Howard Hughes to build a deep-sea drillship called the Hughes Glomar Explorer. It all went swimmingly… until a mysterious group of burglars, the Los Angeles County Tax Assessor, and Rolling Stone magazine got involved. With conspiracy theories, erratic billionaires, and Russian espionage all top of mind, today let’s dive into one of history’s most ambitious heists. You can’t make this stuff up. Quartz (12 minutes)

Everything Is Amazing & We’re Sad

By every metric we are living in the golden age of humanity. Why then is there is so much profound discontent, depression, drug abuse, despair, addiction, and loneliness in our advanced liberal societies? As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. We’ve forgotten the human flourishing that comes from a common idea of virtue, and a concept of virtue that is based on our nature. For most of the Ancients, freedom was freedom from our natural desires and material needs. It rested on a mastery of these deep, natural urges in favor of self-control, restraint, and education into virtue. It placed the community — the polis — ahead of the individual, and indeed could not conceive of the individual apart from the community into which he or she was born. They’d look at our freedom and see licentiousness, chaos, and slavery to desire. They’d predict misery not happiness to be the result. We are species built on tribe; yet we live increasingly alone in societies so vast and populous our ancestors would not recognize them; we are a species designed for scarcity and now live with unimaginable plenty; we are a species built on religious ritual to appease our existential angst, and yet we now live in a world where every individual has to create her own meaning from scratch; we are a species built for small-scale monocultural community and now live increasingly in multiracial, multicultural megacities. For our civilization, God is dead. Meaning is meaningless outside the satisfaction of our material wants and can become, at its very best, merely a form of awe at meaninglessness. We have no common concept of human flourishing apart from materialism, and therefore we stand alone. New York Magazine (18 minutes)

Racing the Rain

For the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the Monsoon season is approaching and there is a race against the rain. Their shelters are comprised of tarpaulin lashed to bamboo and sit perched on steep dusty hillsides, even a slight rain turns them into mud, the monsoon season will turn them into mudslides. The sewage from the 40,000 latrines will likely flood and contaminate the shallow wells spreading disease. In order to avoid fatalities that will come with the rains, workers are flattening hilltops, digging drainage systems and paving roads. But the efforts will only have a minimal impact and time is running out. This photo / video essay is one of the most stunning pieces of journalism I’ve ever seen. New York Times (14 minutes)

Concern & Control

Circles of Concern are the things that you often waste time and energy worrying about, but that you have little to no control over. Meanwhile, Circles of Control are the things that you can influence in your daily life. By eliminating or reducing your Circle of Concern, you have more time and energy to put towards your Circle of Control. That means you have more mental space to use for creating art, starting a business, having meaningful conversations, or otherwise contributing to the world around you. On the flip side, the heavy barrage of information in our society can easily push most of your time and energy into Circles of Concern if you let it. When you’re overdosing on information that you can’t act on it’s easy to see why people say things like “it’s a messed up world out there” or “somebody needs to fix it.” Why make an effort when everything seems out of your control? James Clear (11 minutes)

30 Years / 30 Lessons

One woman discovered 30 simple truths about life at her 30th college reunion. My favorites are: 1) No one’s life turned out exactly as anticipated, not even for the most ardent planner. 6) They say money can’t buy happiness, but in an online survey of our class just prior to the reunion, those of us with more of it self-reported a higher level of happiness than those with less. 7) Our strongest desire, in that same pre-reunion class survey—over more sex and more money—was to get more sleep. 28) Those who’d lost a child had learned a kind of resilience and gratitude that was instructive to all of us. “Don’t grieve over the years she didn’t get to live,” said one of our classmates, at a memorial service for her daughter, Harvard class of 2019, who died last summer. “Rather, feel grateful for the 21 years she was able to shine her light.” 30) Love is not all you need, but as one classmate told me, “it definitely helps.” The Atlantic (10 minutes)

Weekend Wisdom

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and Third, by experience, which is bitterest. – Confucius

About the Weekend Briefing

A Saturday morning briefing on innovation & society by Kyle Westaway – Managing Partner of Westaway and author of Profit & Purpose.

Photo by Frank Septillion.