Letting Up On The Gas
September 9, 2020
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“When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters — one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”
Letting Up on the Gas
(Dean Mouhtaropoulos via Getty Images)
In 2008, ExxonMobil was the bluest of blue-chip companies — the world’s most valuable publicly-traded company, nearing $500 billion as it raked in record profits every quarter. It had joined the Dow Jones Industrial Average — a stock market index that measures the performance of 30 large, publicly traded companies listed on US stock exchanges — in 1928, as Standard Oil of New Jersey.
A dozen years later, the oil giant’s market value is about a third of what it was in 2008. Exxon had been the longest-serving component of the Dow, but its removal from the index last month after a 92-year run is just the latest sign of the decline of oil as a major driver of the US and global economies.
Exxon became the world’s most valuable company of the 20th century by using global scale, relentless expansion, and strict financial controls. As a hallmark of its strength, the company raised its dividend for 37 straight years.
In the last 10 years, Exxon has been able to weather a series of setbacks, and CEO Darren Woods made big bets on US shale oilfields, pipelines, global refining, and plastics to return the company to its past prominence. But the sharp drop in oil demand and pricing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has shredded Woods’ expansion plans. Instead, he must prepare the company to operate in a world of weaker demand for its oil, gas, and plastics.
Presently, Exxon is facing a shortfall of about $48 billion through 2021, a situation that will require the top US oil company to make deep cuts to its staff and projects. Thousands of employees could be pushed out, and the lavish retirement benefits that kept career employees around for 30 years on average could be taken away. Worst of all, Wall Street investors worry the once-sacrosanct dividend could be cut.
In 2008, oil and gas companies constituted 15 percent of the S&P 500 stock index. Today they’re just 2.3 percent. So-called Big Oil just isn’t that big anymore. Companies are borrowing money and selling assets to maintain dividends prized by investors, although those payouts create an untenable cash flow. “Oil has shrunk as part of every economy, not only the U.S.,” said an energy analyst at Raymond James. “This is a global trend.”
Warning Shots Between World Powers
- Tensions are escalating between India and China over their unmarked and disputed 2,000-plus mile border that winds through some of the highest mountain ranges on Earth. Both countries often patrol the same areas, and troops usually find themselves face-to-face. A protocol in place since the 1970s calls for both countries to order their border patrols not to fire their weapons during disputes.
- But on Tuesday, shots rang out for the first time in decades. And both Indian and Chinese officials accuse each other’s soldiers of being at fault. Military activities along the unofficial border are difficult to verify, but what is clear is that the countries’ relationship is deteriorating.
- Residents of the border towns that fall between the two nuclear powers no longer feel safe. Daporijo — with a population of 13,405 in the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh — is one of the most sensitive towns. About 62 miles away is the village of Nacho, the last administrative circle along the McMahon line — the colonial-era line of demarcation drawn in 1914 between India and Tibet. China does not accept the division, nor does it recognize Arunachal Pradesh as an Indian state.
- On September 3rd, a man from Daporijo posted on Facebook that his brother and four friends were abducted from Nacho by members of China’s army. The Nacho area is poorly connected by road or phone, and information about the missing youth is sparse. It is the second such kidnapping this year. (NYT, Vice)
The Donald and the Deutschland
- President Trump has become a cult figure — a savior and liberator — for the German far-right, conspiracy theorists, ultranationalists, and neo-Nazis. His message of disruption, his unvarnished nationalism, and tolerance for white supremacy, along with his skepticism of the dangers of COVID-19, has crossed the ocean.
- Matthias Quent, director of an institute that studies democracy and civil society, calls it the “Trumpification of the German far right.” Quent says Trump has attracted an array of different milieus: “We have everything from anti-vaxxers to neo-Nazis marching against corona measures. The common denominator is that its people who are quitting the mainstream, who are raging against the establishment.” Germany’s nationalist populists have long recognized one of their own in the White House; Trump’s language and ideology have helped legitimize their own.
- Now added to the mix of the long-established hard-right and neo-Nazi movements are followers of QAnon, the internet conspiracy theory popular among many Trump supporters in the US. The president’s appeal to the political fringe comes at a time when Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has identified far-right extremism far-right terrorism as the biggest risks to German democracy (NYT)
Additional World News
- At Least 37 Million People Have Been Displaced by America’s War on Terror (NYT, $). A new report out of Brown raises a sincere question of military proportionality.
- How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda (New Yorker, $)
- Xi’s response to the TikTok debacle: China launches global data security initiative as U.S. pressure on its tech firms grows (CNBC)
- Is Russian Meddling as Dangerous as We Think? (New Yorker, $)
- Belarus opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova ‘snatched from street’ in Minsk (Guardian)
- Paris Is About to Change (Atlantic). Feelings of an undeniable transformation are not unique to the United States.
- Why Covid school closures are making girls marry early (Guardian)
- The Strange Grief of Losing My Sense of Taste (NYT, $)
- Let’s get real. No vaccine will work as if by magic, returning us to ‘normal’ (Guardian)
- AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine study paused after one illness (AP)
- For Long-Haulers, Covid-19 Takes a Toll on Mind as Well as Body (NYT, $)
Reprimander in Chief
(Timothy A. Clary via Getty Images)
- President Trump is currently under fire for his most recent incendiary and disparaging remarks about deceased military veterans, who he has called “losers” and “suckers” according to multiple sources. In truth, Trump has a long history of rebuking military service. Many of his remarks in years when he was a private citizen are memorialized in television interviews and the tapes of radio conversations with shock jocks.
- According to Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, her uncle was raised in a family that criticized military service. His grandfather came to the US after avoiding the military in his native Germany. Trump’s father did not serve in WWII, and Trump himself got out of going to Vietnam by claiming to have bone spurs.
- Only one member of Trump’s family served in the military, his older brother Fred Trump, Jr., Mary’s father. Mary has written that her uncle Donald was always incredibly critical of her father for having served. In 1993, Trump compared his fear of sexually transmitted diseases to the experience of a soldier, saying “if you’re young and in this era, and if you have any guilt about not having gone to Vietnam, we have our own Vietnam. It’s called the dating game.”
- Trump began disparaging Senator John McCain in 1999 — long before his more famous attack on the revered war hero in 2015, when he described heroes as people who didn’t get captured. As president, Trump has denigrated his hand-picked generals while saying no one supports the military more than he does. As commander in chief, Trump has questioned the bravery of some soldiers, while reversing disciplinary action against a Navy SEAL over objections of Pentagon officials. (WaPo)
- Trump launches unprecedented attack on military leadership he appointed (CNN)
- Naturally, the armed forces are fighting back: The U.S. military builds a bulwark against Trump (WaPo, $)
- It’s Time for the Former General John Kelly to Speak Out About Trump’s Views on the Military (New Yorker, $)
- Trump calls for Fox News journalist to be fired for report on military insults (Guardian)
- More sucker-punches on the way: The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief says his story about Trump calling vets ‘losers’ is just the beginning (CNN)
Ethics Over Employment
- It’s something not seen often enough: a man who put principle before paycheck. During his off-hours, Kenosha News digital editor Daniel Thompson attended a late-August #JusticeForJacob rally in front of the Kenosha County Courthouse.
- The peaceful event featured the family of Jacob Blake and local supporters; family members, elected officials and others spoke of the need to push for social and criminal justice reforms for Black people; the importance of getting out the Black vote in November; and heartfelt messages and poetry for the Blake family and the Black community.
- Near the end of the rally, one of the speakers, not identified in the Kenosha News story, reportedly deviated from the rally’s overall theme, saying, “If you kill one of us, it’s time for us to kill one of yours.” After Thompson had filed his story about the rally he’d attended he saw what he believed to be a misleading headline introducing his story.
- It read: “WATCH NOW: Kenosha Speaker: ‘If you kill one of us, it’s time for us to kill one of yours.’” Upset, Thompson messaged Kenosha News Executive Editor Bob Heisse to strongly express that the headline needed to be changed as it did not reflect the otherwise peaceful message from the rally.
- Heisse told Thompson to “calm down,” citing the quote as a “threat and an exact quote” that was “totally on message with the rally.” Thompson later resigned, writing: “I have officially resigned from the Kenosha News effective immediately because of this headline and response from my boss. I can stand for being unemployed. I cannot stand for this.”
- In a video he posted on Facebook, Thompson said: “Today is not my day, I did what I did because today is about Jacob Blake and his family, it’s about moving forward together peacefully and I saw that today. And that headline did not reflect it. And when they refused to change it, I quit.”
- Later, the article’s headline was changed to “WATCH NOW: Kenosha speaker strays from message at rally.” (Patch)
- After Jacob Blake Shooting, Kenosha Wrestles With Its Future (NYT, $)
- A battleground haunted by the ghosts of 2016 (Politico)
Additional USA News
- Why the 2020 election is unpredictable (WaPo, $)
- Evangelical extremism: American Christianity’s White-Supremacy Problem (New Yorker, $)
- The pro-Trump, anti-left Patriot Prayer group, explained (Vox)
- How Trump’s Billion-Dollar Campaign Lost Its Cash Advantage (NYT, $)
- It’s not just Big Oil that going through industrial overhaul: Jobs in these industries won’t come back even after the pandemic is over (CNN)
- McConnell Proposes Pandemic Relief Bill, Democrats Quickly Dismiss It As ‘Emaciated’ (NPR).
- The West is burning, yet nobody is learning. They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen? (ProPublica)
This AI Has Become A Billion-Page Bookworm
- OpenAI is an artificial intelligence research and deployment company. In July, the company’s latest language model, GPT-3, dazzled observers with its ability to churn out paragraphs that appeared to be written by humans. It could also autocomplete code or fill in blanks in spreadsheets. Language models like GPT-3 are amazing mimics, but they don’t actually understand what they’re talking about.
- In other words, what they say may be correct or not, because the models aren’t trained to be ‘factual’. Mike Tung, CEO of a Stanford startup Diffbot, says this is a problem if we want AIs to be trustworthy. That’s why his company is taking a different approach.
- It’s building an AI that reads every page on the entire public web, in multiple languages, and extracts as many facts from those pages as it can. Like GPT-3, Diffbot’s system learns by vacuuming up vast amounts of human-written text found online. But instead of using that data to train a language model, Diffbot turns what it reads into a series of three-part factoids that relate one thing to another: subject, verb, object.
- To collect its facts it reads the web like a human would, only much faster. Every three-part factoid gets added to the knowledge graph. Diffbot crawls the web nonstop and rebuilds its knowledge graph every four to five days. Here’s the takeaway: Diffbot is building the biggest-ever knowledge graph by applying image recognition and natural-language processing to billions of web pages. (MIT Technology Review)
- Where are Bezos’ billions coming from? Amazon’s profits, AWS and advertising (Benedict Evans)
- The economics of the Tour de France (The Hustle)
- Marc Andreessen On Productivity, Scheduling, Reading Habits, Work, and More (Andreesen Horowitz)
- The Best Reason to Go to College (NYT, $). A pandemic can’t erase the eternal value of education.
- Kids Can Learn to Love Learning, Even Over Zoom (NYT, $)
- David Graeber, 1961–2020 | by Astra Taylor (NY Books)
- Rooting out a mystery: Could a Tree Help Find a Decaying Corpse Nearby? (Wired)
- A Nostalgic (if Isolating) Road Trip Along Route 66 (NYT, $)