Sunday Snapshots (2nd June, 2019)

Fracking, Speech2Face, Young CEOs, and BMW

Hey everyone,

I’ve been wrapping up the last stretch of the school year and saying goodbyes to the graduating seniors. I will talk a bit more about this during graduating weekend at Northwestern (still a few weeks ahead). Meanwhile, this week I came across:

  • Why thinking about 2nd/3rd order effects is critical to decision-making

  • The exciting but scary future of voice recognition

  • Used airplane parts on a blockchain-based marketplace

  • And more!

Book of the week

This week I picked up Bethany McLean’s Saudi America, a look into the geopolitical and financial incentives of fracking. It’s a brisk read at 131 pages – short enough for a long afternoon read. The most important takeaway for me was the importance of 2nd and 3rd order effects when it comes to decision-making. In this context, the lifting of the export ban on American oil by Barack Obama in December 2015 was in response to the fracking revolution between 2000-2010. With the ban gone, American oil flooded global markets and led to historically low prices. This led to oil-supported economies like Venezuela and Russia facing severe budget deficits. This transformed into a characterization of American companies and government as the "bad guy" which in turn has led to extremist governments in several nations. It has also made Saudi Arabia – once the beneficiary of quid pro quo of an “oil for security bargain” in the Middle East with the US – understandably nervous. Oil and gas as an industry is a complex system with economic, foreign policy, and environmental goals and the tradeoffs involved in this system have far-reaching consequences well beyond the scope of what the decision makers might envision. This book tries to look at how those tradeoffs are being made.

I will explore this book in further detail – including the feedback loops involved in fracking and the game theory nature of oil production – in my Summer of Learning blog, where I will write an article every day for 60 days starting June 17th.

Best long read of the week

Speech2Face: Learning the Face Behind a Voice

This is a technical paper, but the overall question it asks is simple: to what extent can someone’s voice predict their face? A team of MIT researchers applied a neural network model to capture not just specific attributes, but overall visual appearance. This allowed them to avoid the problem of having to train multiple classifiers that are good at predicting a particular facial trait. They break down the images into something with a lower dimensionality (dimensionality = number of attributes) so that it can used as a mathematical input. Their voice encoder turns short voice clips into a "pseudo face feature" that is fed into their voice decoder to construct a full face. They are able to achieve high correlations with actual faces which is very impressive. I also appreciate the ethical considerations section – it demonstrates a holistic judgement of the issues involved with technology.

Personal failure/success of the week

When I started this newsletter, one of my goals was to encourage more of my friends to share what caught their eyes and what they are curious about. It's nice to see that kick off with a very good friend of mine. If you're interested in starting something like this and have any questions, please feel free to send me a note by replying to this email or sending me a direct message on Twitter at @sidharthajha.

Gesture of the week

From one CEO to another (link to Twitter post)

I love moments like this when a company goes out of their way to make a kid's day. Qantas (an Australian airline) CEO received a letter from 10-year old Alex about starting his airline – one that includes a plea to "please take me seriously" and a request for some advice. Alan Joyce, the current CEO of Qantas, starts his reply with "I had heard some rumors of another entrant in the market, so I appreciate you taking the time to write" and ends with an invitation to a meeting at Qantas HQ between "the CEO of Australia's oldest airline" and "the CEO of Australia's newest airline". Everything about this exchange is perfect. Kudos to Qantas!

Business move of the week

Honeywell Brings Blockchain to Used Aircraft Parts Market

Cutting through the rabid fanboys and the equally rabid skeptics, bitcoin has something potentially very useful technology at its core – blockchain. Blockchain can be thought of as a ledger that everyone in the network has access to. Because everyone has a copy, it's difficult to alter the ledger in a way that is not consensus driven. Given that the market for used airplane parts has notoriously high levels of regulation which necessitates a very detailed history of an object, you have the perfect use case for this technology.

Conglomerate Honeywell has brought this to its Aerospace Strategic Business Unit. Two thoughts on this. First, I think Honeywell has chosen one of the best beach head use cases for blockchain because of the reasons I mentioned above. It will be able to take lessons learned from this experiment and apply it to its other businesses. Second, in the long term I believe that everything that changes owners – art, freight, collectibles, produce – will be tracked on a blockchain. These will be built and maintained by private companies and external stakeholders will have viewing or editing access as appropriate.

More broadly, I am excited about companies that are bringing antiquated pen-and-paper processes and putting them on the internet. These can have a wide range of impact – digitizing everything from paper customs manifests to check-in clipboards in buildings. If you know any of these companies, please let me know by replying directly to this email.

Meal of the week

I visited avec last weekend, a Mediterranean restaurant in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. The deluxe focaccia (pictured) is to die for and their cheese plates are very affordable ($5). If you're in West Loop, this is definitely a place you want to try.

Random corner of the week

BMW pulls one over Mercedes-Benz

In one of the best commercials I've seen in a while, BMW teaches us how to be classy and cheeky at the same time.

Back story: Mercedes-Benz CEO Dieter Zetsche is retiring soon. So, BMW hired a look-alike actor to thank Zetsche for "so many years of inspiring competition". But not without a twist.


That wraps up this week’s Sunday Snapshots. If you want to discuss any of the ideas mentioned above or have any books/papers/links you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of Sunday Snapshots, please reach out to me by replying to this email or send me a direct message on Twitter at @sidharthajha.

Until next Sunday,

Sid