Welcome to the weekend.
I spend Fourth of July with my family at the lake in Tennessee every year. I love returning to Tennessee where I grew up. Over the years, one tradition we’ve developed is that I bring a country music playlist. So, here’s this year’s country music playlist. Hope y’all like it.
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1,884,146—1,884,146 people have died from COVID-19 in 2021. More people have died from COVID-19 already this year than in all of 2020, highlighting how the global pandemic is far from over even as vaccines beat back the virus in wealthy nations.
199—Just five months into 2021, there were 199 new companies that reached unicorn status (a private company with a $1+ billion valuation), eclipsing the 163 companies that reached unicorn status in all of 2020.
4—A $4 thrift store painting is actually painted by David Bowie and will sell for thousands.
The Midyear Review
Here are three key themes that defined the first half of 2021: (1) America’s booming recovery due to “revenge spending.” The U.S. economy is roaring back to life and is expected to grow 6.5% this year, its highest rate since the ’80s. Thank the U.S. massive stockpile of COVID-19 vaccines for the glow-up—oh, and $5.3 trillion worth of government stimulus. (2) The rise of alt-coins. This year, crypto mainstreamification is going far beyond bitcoin, or BTC. In January, BTC made up 70% of total crypto value—now it makes up 45%. Alt-coins like ethereum and doge have picked up crypto market share, dimming BTC’s spotlight. (3) Big Tech’s antitrust problems. This year, regulators are bringing real heat. Just last week, a House committee advanced major legislation to curb Big Tech’s dominance. The headliner: A bill that would prohibit tech companies from playing favorites with their own products (think: Apple apps on App Store, Basics on Amazon). Robinhood Snacks (6 minutes)
A Silicon Valley stock exchange that encourages long-term thinking over short-term gains has landed two marquee tech companies—Twilio and Asana—to be among its first listings, reflecting the growing popularity of sustainable investing. To list on the Long Term Stock Exchange (LTSE) in August, Twilio and Asana are agreeing to a slate of commitments such as aligning executive and board compensation with long-term performance; taking customers and employees into account; and explaining how the company’s board oversees its long-term strategy. These commitments must be concrete policies that can be monitored by LTSE. Investors are demanding that companies pay more attention to their progress toward social and environmental goals, said Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson. “We’re starting to enter a realm where there is a higher expectation of companies,” he said. “LTSE takes what various pledges have been and codifies it. It’s companies putting their money where their mouth is.” LTSE started trading stocks in September, and only a fraction of shares are traded on its platform. Its primary focus is on ensuring stakeholder-focused corporate governance. Wall Street Journal (5 minutes)
Innovation and Offices
Do chance meetings at the office boost innovation? Apparently, there is no evidence that working in person is essential for creativity and collaboration. It may even hurt innovation, they say, because the demand for doing office work at a prescribed time and place is a big reason the American workplace has been inhospitable for many people. “There’s credibility behind the argument that if you put people in spaces where they are likely to collide with one another, they are likely to have a conversation,” said Ethan S. Bernstein, who teaches at Harvard Business School and studies the topic. “But is that conversation likely to be helpful for innovation, creativity, useful at all for what an organization hopes people would talk about? There is almost no data whatsoever. All of this suggests to me that the idea of random serendipity being productive is more fairy tale than reality.” The Upshot (8 minutes)
Fired by a Bot
Stephen Normandin spent almost four years racing around Phoenix delivering packages as a contract driver for Amazon.com Inc. Then one day, he received an automated email. The algorithms tracking him had decided he wasn’t doing his job properly. The 63-year-old army veteran was stunned. He’d been fired by a machine. Normandin’s experience is a twist on the decades-old prediction that robots will replace workers. At Amazon, machines are often the boss—hiring, rating and firing millions of people with little or no human oversight. Increasingly, the company is ceding its Human Resources operation to machines as well, using software not only to manage workers in its warehouses but to oversee contract drivers, independent delivery companies and even the performance of its office workers. People familiar with the strategy say Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos believes machines make decisions more quickly and accurately than people, reducing costs and giving Amazon a competitive advantage. Bloomberg (16 minutes)
The last 15 years have been tough times for many Americans, but there are now encouraging signs of a turnaround. Productivity growth, a key driver for higher living standards, averaged only 1.3% since 2006, less than half the rate of the previous decade. But on June 3, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that U.S. labor productivity increased by 5.4% in the first quarter of 2021. There’s reason to believe that this is not just a blip but rather a harbinger of better times ahead. This productivity surge may match or surpass the boom times of the 1990s. This “Productivity J-Curve” is a historical pattern of initially slow productivity growth after a breakthrough technology is introduced, followed years later by a sharp takeoff. The costs of COVID-19 have been tragic, but the pandemic has also compressed a decade’s worth of digital innovation in areas like remote work into less than a year. What’s more, evidence suggests that even after the pandemic, a significant fraction of work will be done remotely while a new class of high-skill service workers, the digital nomads, is emerging. As a result, the biggest productivity impact of the pandemic will be realized in the longer run. Even technology skeptics like Robert Gordon are more optimistic this time. The digitization and reorganization of work has brought us to a turning point in the productivity J-curve. MIT Technology Review (12 minutes)
Taylor Swift’s Writing Technique
Taylor Swift went from being a hopeful young musician to a history-making millionaire using a simple storytelling technique: the three-act structure. This video teaches us why the three-act structure, driven by five specific plot points, is the secret ingredient to the song that made Taylor famous, a song that to this day, is one of the most successful pop songs of all time with more than 1 billion views on YouTube: You Belong With Me. The story opens with our hero, the nerdy girl next door, in her bedroom. Through her window, she sees her neighbor arguing on the phone with his girlfriend. She is empathetic but overlooked. Plot Point 1: Inciting incident: The moment that introduces the problem the protagonist must contend with. Our hero writes “I love you.” But before she can show it to her neighbor, he closes the curtains. She’s lost her chance and fears she may never get it back. Then we see our hero acting on a false belief, thinking that she needs to be someone other than herself to get what she wants. Plot Point 2: The lock-in: The moment of no return, which establishes the overarching story goal. Will the neighbor like her back? Is the hero willing to be true to herself in pursuit of what she wants? Plot Point 3: The midpoint: The moment where the stakes are raised or there’s further opposition to achieving the story goal. The neighbor’s hot girlfriend pulls up in a convertible, and he gets in and kisses her. The hero is disheartened. Plot Point 4: The climax: The culmination of the hero’s efforts to achieve their goals. Our hero steps out of her comfort zone, takes off her glasses, puts on a dress and goes to the prom alone. Plot Point 5: The Act 3 Twist. The final reversal, which seals the fate of our hero. Our hero meets the neighbor at their prom. She reveals her “I love you” note, and he reveals his own “I love you” note that that he has written but kept hidden. YouTube (9 minutes)
Reddit’s beloved no-weights workout from r/bodyweightfitness is famous for a reason. This routine has an option for every level, from beginner to beast, and it actually works. The routine is intended to be done three days per week. It’s a full body workout. Instead of specific exercises, it includes categories of exercises. For each, you choose the exercise in that category that you can do for about five reps. For example, the routine calls for a pull-up and a squat in its first pair of exercises (which are to be done as a superset). If you’re a beginner, your pull-up exercise might be scapular pulls, which involve hanging from the bar and contracting the muscles around your shoulder blades to raise your chest without bending your arms. As you advance, you’ll move on to exercises like negative pull-ups (in which you jump to the top of the bar and slowly lower yourself down) and regular pull-ups. Squats progress in a similar way: You can start by doing air squats with both legs, then progress to split squats, and eventually one-legged pistol squats, which are a lot more challenging. Instead of adding weight as you get stronger, you’re changing the movement to make it more difficult. Reddit (12 minutes)
God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert. Book Four in the Magnificent Dune Chronicles—the best-selling science fiction adventure of all time. Millennia have passed on Arrakis, and the once-desert planet is green with life. Leto Atreides, the son of the world’s savior, the Emperor Paul Muad’Dib, is still alive but far from human. To preserve humanity’s future, he sacrificed his own by merging with a sandworm, granting him near immortality as God Emperor of Dune for the past 3,500 years. Leto’s rule is not a benevolent one. His transformation has made not only his appearance but his morality inhuman. A rebellion, led by Siona, a member of the Atreides family, has risen to oppose the despot’s rule. But Siona is unaware that Leto’s vision of a Golden Path for humanity requires her to fulfill a destiny she never wanted—or could possibly conceive. Amazon
Most Read Last Week
Gandhi & Ford—A couple years ago, I gave a lecture at Harvard’s iLab about blending profit and purpose. I think you may enjoy this four-minute video clip from that lecture.
Tech in Africa—This is the best briefing on the African tech scene I’ve ever read.
Prestige Inhibits Innovation—Rome at its peak was plausibly as rich as Europe on the eve of the industrial revolution. Why did it decline rather than generate sustained growth? Short answer: The wrong activities were prestigious.
About the Weekend Briefing
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Only in country music can you compare an old pickup truck and an old guitar to your wife and turn it into a love song … Thank God for country music. –Dierks Bentley
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