Hello, hello! 👋🏻👋🏻
Welcome back to another edition of Tidbits covering all the recent things worth talking about in business, media, and technology.
This week was another tense week of geopolitics and economic news. However, there seem to be some small glimmers of hope that things could move in a better direction.
🗺 World Affairs + Geopolitics
#1 Readout of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s Meeting with Politburo Member Yang Jiechi
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met today with Chinese Communist Party Politburo Member and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi in Rome, Italy. Their meeting followed up on the November 15, 2021 virtual meeting between President Biden and President Xi. Mr. Sullivan raised a range of issues in U.S.-China relations, with substantial discussion of Russia’s war against Ukraine. They also underscored the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and China.Source: White House
While this was initially intended to be a follow-up to the high level Biden-Xi virtual meeting in November, the recent Ukraine crisis was obviously front and center. Given the recent tensions, the meeting offered much needed dialogue to help each side understand where they stand on Ukraine. The meeting also helped lay the groundwork for the Biden-Xi call later in the week.
#2 China Has Expressed Some Openness To Providing Military And Financial Aid To Russia, US Cable Suggests
The US has information suggesting China has expressed some openness to providing Russia with requested military and financial assistance as part of its war on Ukraine, a Western official and a US diplomat told CNN, and is conveying what it knows to its NATO allies.
It is not yet clear whether China intends to provide Russia with that assistance, US officials familiar with the intelligence tell CNN. But during an intense, seven-hour meeting in Rome, a top aide to President Joe Biden warned his Chinese counterpart of “potential implications and consequences” for China should support for Russia be forthcoming, a senior administration official said.
In a diplomatic cable, the US relayed to its allies in Europe and Asia that China had conveyed a willingness to assist Russia, which has asked for military support. The cable did not state definitively that assistance had been provided. One official also said the US warned in the cable that China would likely deny it was willing to provide assistance.Source: CNN
Ahead of the Biden-Xi call, tensions rose as the US disclosed to allies that China was considering providing military aid to Russia, including lethal drones. Markets reacted negatively in sympathy.
Although China does not appear to have provided support yet (only considering it, according to US sources), this likely further creates mistrust between US / Europe and China given China’s already ambivalent stance towards Russia. So far China has consistently stated it wishes to be neutral, but if it were to provide military support to Russia, the West would likely view it as a violation of neutrality.
#3 Opinion: Chinese Ambassador: Where We Stand On Ukraine
Many Americans are understandably trying to understand where China stands as the crisis in Ukraine unfolds, so I want to take this opportunity to explain fully and dispel any misunderstandings and rumors.
There have been claims that China had prior knowledge of Russia’s military action and demanded Russia delay it until the Winter Olympics concluded. Recent rumors further claimed that Russia was seeking military assistance from China. Let me say this responsibly: Assertions that China knew about, acquiesced to or tacitly supported this war are purely disinformation. All these claims serve only the purpose of shifting blame to and slinging mud at China. There were more than 6,000 Chinese citizens in Ukraine. China is the biggest trading partner of both Russia and Ukraine, and the largest importer of crude oil and natural gas in the world. Conflict between Russia and Ukraine does no good for China. Had China known about the imminent crisis, we would have tried our best to prevent it.Source: Washington Post
This was published mid-week while tensions were running high. It did help to clarify some things, but trust is in short supply everywhere at the moment. Not sure how far these words will go in DC without solid actions to back it.
#4 Biden Warns Xi Of Global Backlash If China Helps Russia’s Attack On Ukraine
President Joe Biden held a nearly two-hour phone call on Friday morning with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The call was seen as a critical test of whether Biden could convince China to stay on the sidelines of the conflict in Ukraine, and to turn down Russian requests for military or economic aid.
Both Biden and Xi agreed on the need to promote peace and assist with the humanitarian disaster created by the invasion. But they disagreed deeply on who is responsible for the suffering in Ukraine, with the Chinese leader refusing to hold Russia singularly accountable for the unprovoked invasion.
According to a readout of the call from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Xi told Biden that the United States and China each had an obligation to promote peace in Ukraine.
China said Xi told Biden its pressing priorities are “to keep the dialogue and negotiation going, avoid civilian casualties, prevent a humanitarian crisis, and cease hostilities as soon as possible.”Source: CNBC
The week culminated with direct talks between Biden and Xi. It appears Biden has made clear what the consequences were for China if it chooses to support Russia, while Xi continues to lay blame on the US for causing the problem. Not clear whether the call accomplished anything, but at least there is dialogue.
#5 Russia Peace Talks May Last Several Weeks, Kyiv Negotiator Says
Peace talks with Russia may last at least “several weeks,” even though there are signs that Moscow’s position has become more “adequate,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian presidency.
Key questions during the negotiations include security guarantees, a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Russian troops, and the “political resolution of disputed territories,” Podolyak — a member of the Ukrainian negotiating group — said Friday in an interview with Bloomberg TV from his office in Kyiv.
“This process may drag longer,” given the number of mutually exclusive positions, Podolyak said. “There are some concessions that we definitely aren’t going to make,” he said. “We cannot give away any territories.”
“The Russian army is not fighting the Ukrainian army,” Podolyak said. “They are fighting only with civilians.” He said the Russian tactic is “surrounding big cities and bombarding with cruise missiles and air bombs in order to create humanitarian enclaves. They’re trying to turn Ukraine into Syrian or Afghanistan scenario of war.”Source: Bloomberg
Early in the week, markets reacted positively to headlines around progress on peace talks. However, so far it seems there is still an impasse on key details. Russia wants more than it can credibly demand (since it is, surprisingly, doing very badly despite having a much larger army), and Ukraine has no interest in conceding anything since it appears to be successfully fighting off Russia.
#6 Biden Admin Will Provide Ukraine With Killer Drones Called Switchblades
As part of a massive military aid package announced Wednesday, the Biden administration is providing Ukraine with U.S.-made killer drones — cutting-edge guided missiles that could accurately target Russian troops from miles away — two congressional officials briefed on the matter told NBC News.
There are two variants of the weapon, the Switchblade 300 and the 600, that have been sold to U.S. Special Operations Command by manufacturer AeroVironment, based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The 300 is designed for pinpoint strikes on personnel, and the larger 600 is meant to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles. The Congressional officials did not have clarity on which variant would be provided to Ukraine, or whether both would be.
The Switchblades are essentially robotic smart bombs, equipped with cameras, guidance systems and explosives. They can be programmed to automatically strike targets miles away, and they can be steered around objectives until the time is right to strike. The company says the 600 can fly for 40 minutes and up to 50 miles.
They are single-use weapons, which is why they have been dubbed “kamikaze drones.” But they are orders of magnitude cheaper than the Hellfire missiles fired by U.S. Reaper drones. The 300 can cost as little as $6,000, by some estimates.Source: NBC News
Warfare is changing. 100 years ago, World War 1 introduced the world to machine guns, poison gas, tanks, and other mechanized weapons of war. Now we are seeing a new wave of war machines, especially highly mobile, non-manned machinery.
In the past, warfare was constrained by how many lives you could risk and how many lives you want to risk. But in an age of mechanized warfare, you don’t necessarily need to put lives at risk anymore. The bottleneck becomes the manufacturing and economic capacity to wage mechanized war.
#7 German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock Presents Germany’s National Security Strategy
“In the light of Russia’s massive breach of our peace order, we need to implement the principles that guide us even more clearly into practical politics,” she said.
“Decisive for me are a clear stance, a stronger ability to act and sharper tools for foreign and security policy,” the foreign minister said.
Baerbock brought up Germany’s “special responsibility” that comes from its history and guilt for atrocities in the Second World War.
“It is [our] obligation to stand by those whose lives, whose freedom and whose rights are at stake,” she said.
“Our strength is international unity,” Baerbock said. “The EU is currently formulating for the first time an extensive security policy strategy” which she says was initiated by Germany.
“This war shows once more, that the security of Europe depends on NATO’s collective defense,” she said, arguing that Germany’s security should be complementary with EU and NATO security policies.
The foreign minister says the “tripwire” logic — where NATO forces are stationed in Eastern Europe when they feel under threat — is no longer sufficient.
“Our military exercises need to reflect new realities and we need to factor in that the eastern flank of the alliance is under a new threat, so we need more NATO presence in southeastern European countries,” she said. “Germany will make a substantial contribution to that in Slovakia.”
Baerbock called for a new security strategy that looks to the future, including a focus on cybersecurity. “We are seeing that cyber attacks are an integral part of modern warfare,” she said.
She also announced that Berlin will develop a new China strategy alongside the new security strategy, citing the instability in countries where Beijing has invested in infrastructure, such as in Africa.Source: DW
It’s really incredible. NATO was near collapse a few years ago when Trump threatened to let it whither unless NATO countries paid their tributes.
But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has strengthened NATO in an unbelievable way. NATO is now more united than any time since the Cold War. And Putin is going to get everything he doesn’t want including a more militarized Germany and even a more militarized southeastern Europe.
Also interesting to see what Germany’s new China strategy will entail. China drawing close to Russia now means China is a national security concern for Europe as well.
🤑 Economics + Markets
#8 Fed Ramps Up Inflation Fight in Economy Tough Enough to Cope
The Federal Reserve kicked off a campaign of interest rate hikes that’s set to be the most aggressive since the mid-2000s, as Chair Jerome Powell assured Americans that the fight against inflation won’t tip the U.S. economy into recession.
After raising rates by a quarter point for the first time since 2018 and signaling six more increases this year, Powell told reporters that inflation is too high, the labor market is over-heated and price stability is a “pre-condition” for the central bank as it tackles the hottest price pressures in 40 years.
Policy makers voted 8-1 to lift their key rate to a target range of 0.25% to 0.5% after two years of holding borrowing costs near zero to insulate the economy from the pandemic.
They forecast a sequence of rate hikes, finishing this year at 1.9% and then to about 2.8% by the end of 2023, which would be considered restrictive to growth. From June 2004 to June 2006, the Fed moved its benchmark up from 1% to 5.25%, tightening at 17 straight meetings.
Seven policy makers want an even faster pace of increases this year, which raises the prospect of a half-point move in future. Indeed, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard dissented at this meeting in favor of such an step.Source: Bloomberg
The Fed finally hiked with potential for 6 more hikes this year. This is a very aggressive stance compared to what the Fed signaled 3 months ago (and compared to what the market expected at the beginning of the year), but inflation has been very high with potential to go higher near-term.
Interestingly, it appears the market may have already priced in a lot of the risk here ahead of the announcement, and hence reacted positively to the news. Seems like it was a clearing event. Nonetheless, this is an aggressive tightening of monetary policy. The full effects on the markets and economy will not be visible until a few months from now.
And ultimately will this fix inflation? It probably will help, but it certainly won’t do much to fix challenged supply chains or disrupted commodity markets.
#9 China Makes Strong Vow to Ease Crackdowns After Market Turmoil
China made a strong push to stabilize battered financial markets, promising to ease a regulatory crackdown, support property and technology companies and stimulate the economy.
The government should “actively introduce policies that benefit markets,” according to a meeting of China’s top financial policy committee led by Vice Premier Liu He, the country’s top economic official. That vow to take investors interests into account comes after a sell-off in domestic shares due to fears over growth risks and tough regulation of real estate and internet companies.
The meeting offered investors re-assurance that a sweeping crackdown on internet companies was nearing its end and that the government would prevent a disorderly collapse in the property market. China’s banking regulator said after the meeting that it would support insurance companies to increase investment in stock markets.Source: Bloomberg via Yahoo News
China also came out strongly in support of markets. This helped calm fears in Chinese stocks as it helped clarify that China still cares about private enterprises and capital markets.
👻 Cryptocurrencies + NFTs
#10 The Man Behind Ethereum Is Worried About Crypto’s Future
Vitalik Buterin, the most influential person in crypto, didn’t come to Denver to party. He doesn’t drink or particularly enjoy crowds. Not that there isn’t plenty for the 28-year-old creator of Ethereum to celebrate. Nine years ago, Buterin dreamed up Ethereum as a way to leverage the blockchain technology underlying Bitcoin for all sorts of uses beyond currency. Since then, it has emerged as the bedrock layer of what advocates say will be a new, open-source, decentralized internet. Ether, the platform’s native currency, has become the second biggest cryptocurrency behind Bitcoin, powering a trillion-dollar ecosystem that rivals Visa in terms of the money it moves. Ethereum has brought thousands of unbanked people around the world into financial systems, allowed capital to flow unencumbered across borders, and provided the infrastructure for entrepreneurs to build all sorts of new products, from payment systems to prediction markets, digital swap meets to medical-research hubs.
But even as crypto has soared in value and volume, Buterin has watched the world he created evolve with a mixture of pride and dread. Ethereum has made a handful of white men unfathomably rich, pumped pollutants into the air, and emerged as a vehicle for tax evasion, money laundering, and mind-boggling scams. “Crypto itself has a lot of dystopian potential if implemented wrong,” the Russian-born Canadian explains the morning after the party in an 80-minute interview in his hotel room.Source: Time
This is an excellent profile of Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum. Well worth reading.
It discusses the history of Ethereum along with Vitalik’s life and Vitalik’s fear for crypto’s unfulfilled promises.
#11 Bored Apes NFT Project Gets Official ‘ApeCoin’ Token
The startup is behind the NFT project Bored Apes Yacht Club (BAYC), which only launched in April of last year but has quickly grown to become the most valuable NFT project by market cap. The price of admission to purchase the cheapest of the 10,000 images currently sits at around $240,000 worth of the Ethereum cryptocurrency. As the startup reportedly looks to bank funding at a $5 billion valuation (a spokesperson for the company declined to comment on that figure), Yuga Labs is looking toward the future, detailing a new partnership for a play-to-earn gaming title built around a much-hyped token called ApeCoin.
Yuga Labs is being very careful to isolate itself publicly from the token’s launch, which will instead be released by an entity called ApeCoin DAO made up of council members that are connected to the NFT project, but none of which are employees or executives at Yuga Labs. An organization called the APE Foundation will also be formed to administer the decisions of the ApeCoin DAO. Furthermore, the DAO will carry official branding of the BAYC project, which Yuga Labs is “gifting” to it by way of a 1/1 NFT of a blue Bored Apes logo.
In terms of what the token will actually do, the full scope is currently unclear, but it is apparent that ApeCoin will be used as in-game currency for some titles that Yuga Labs has in the works, including a previously unannounced title being developed with San Francisco-based game studio nWay. The developer has previously published a number of battle games licensing IP from entities including Power Rangers and the WWE.Source: TechCrunch
Bored Apes are unique NFTs, but now they are launching a fungible coin that can eventually be spent in a still-to-come game.
#12 “It’s A Mess”: How Crypto Mining Went From Boom To Bust In Kazakhstan
In September 2021, when China banned all cryptocurrency-related activity, it reshaped an industry for which it had provided a haven. Miners scrambled into crypto-friendly Kazakhstan, propelling the country into world’s second-biggest Bitcoin production base, by one estimate.
But six months later, the industry is already being pushed out. Facing civil unrest and blackouts on the electricity grid, the government has throttled the power supply of the miners it once welcomed. As it buckles under infighting and government pressure, Kazakhstan’s significant mining base is preparing to move on, industry players and experts say.
Kazakhstan’s crypto industry opened up after a crash in the value of Bitcoin over late 2019. Though cryptocurrency isn’t recognized as legal tender, miners’ business was encouraged; in his 2020 state-of-the-nation address, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev urged the country to attract $1.2 billion worth of crypto infrastructure investment within five years, before other countries beat them to it. Attracted by cheap electricity and a lack of regulation, the industry in Kazakhstan began to flourish.
Things changed in late 2021. Power blackouts grew more frequent, and peak electricity demand was shown to have jumped in the first three quarters — roughly 1,500 megawatts, a year-on-year leap of 7% — something the country’s Ministry of Energy blamed on the ballooning crypto industry. In October, the Kazakhstan government announced it would cut off their power supply.Source: Rest of World
Doesn’t seem very environmentally friendly.
#13 A Guide to How Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies Work
Although cryptocurrencies have been around for a very long time, it’s still a very new and arcane subject (that continues to evolve). This article is full of easy-to-understand videos that explain the very technical basics…understanding how crypto works is important regardless of whether you are a bull or a bear. No matter which side you gravitate towards, understanding it is necessary in order to think critically about its potential and its challenges.
💬 Media + Games
#14 Snapchat’s New Feature Lets Creators Build AR Experiences For Landmarks In Their Communities
Snapchat is launching a new feature called “Custom Landmarkers” that lets creators build unique AR experiences for local places they care about, the company announced on Wednesday. The company says the feature, which is accessible in its Lens Studio, can be used to create landmarkers for things like statues and storefronts in creators’ local communities.
The new feature is rolling out today after first being teased at Snap’s Lens Fest event back in December. The new custom landmarkers are discoverable through physical Snapcodes displayed at the landmark or on a Lens creator’s profile.
“In 2019, we started with templates of 30 beloved sites around the world which creators could build upon called Landmarkers,” the company said in a statement. “But there’s an infinite number of places for our AR creator community to build anchored, location-based Lenses. Today, we’re launching Custom Landmarkers in Lens Studio, letting creators anchor Lenses to local places they care about to tell richer stories about their communities through AR.”Source: TechCrunch
Augmenting local reality.
And it also gives a whole new meaning to shared public space.
#15 Santander launches PIX Parcelado
Santander (NYSE: BSBR, BVMF: SANB11) announced a new product, the “PIX Parcelado,” [installments] a new solution for the Brazilian Instant Scheme (“PIX”).
Within the Brazilian instant payment (IP) ecosystem, Banco Central do Brasil (BCB) created Pix, the Brazilian IP scheme that enables its users — people, companies, and governmental entities — to send or receive payment transfers in a few seconds at any time, including non-business days.
By transferring funds between transactional accounts — demand, savings, and prepaid payment accounts — Pix is a payment method that tends to have a lower acceptance cost because its framework works with few intermediaries.Source: Giro’s Newsletter
A lot of really interesting fintech-y things are happening outside of developed markets. This makes sense since most emerging markets have underdeveloped financial infrastructure. This makes fintech even more valuable since you are competing against a very low bar, and you don’t have to displace incumbent banks or financial rails.
A couple of years ago, paying attention to Alipay in China was a good way to see where fintech was going, for example.
At the moment, India and Brazil are pretty interesting markets trying new things. This piece above about PIX installments is fairly interesting because it could be a roadmap for other markets as well. PIX is a real-time payment rail developed by the Brazilian Central Bank. The US Fed may have something similar in a few years. It basically enables real time payments between any bank, ewallet, or financial service that has PIX enabled. What Santander is doing now is allowing people to turn transactions on the real-time payment rail into installments (like BNPL). The current implementations of BNPL (by Afterpay or Affirm, for example) run on proprietary rails, which means you can only use it at merchants that have enabled it. But PIX is enabled basically everywhere, which means these installments can be used anywhere as well.
#16 A Zelensky Deepfake Was Quickly Defeated. The Next One Might Not Be
ON MARCH 2, the Ukraine government’s Center for Strategic Communication warnedthat its enemies might be preparing a “deepfake” video that appeared to show president Volodymyr Zelensky announcing his surrender to Russia’s invasion. On Wednesday, that warning appeared prescient.
A fake video emerged on Facebook and YouTube in which a strangely motionless version of Zelensky asked Ukrainian troops to lay down their weapons in a voice different from his usual tone. The clip was also posted to Telegram and Russian social network VKontakte, according to the US think tank the Atlantic Council. TV Channel Ukraine 24 said hackers defaced its website with a still from the video and inserted a summary of the fake news into a broadcast’s scrolling chyron.
Minutes after the TV station posted about the hack, Zelensky himself posted a Facebook video denying that he had asked Ukrainians to lay down their arms and calling the fake a childish provocation.
That short-lived saga could be the first weaponized use of deepfakes during an armed conflict, although it is unclear who created and distributed the video and with what motive. The way the fakery unraveled so quickly shows how malicious deepfakes can be defeated—at least when conditions are right.Source: Wired
#17 Cloudflare Announces API Gateway; Increases Security for Billions of Devices and Systems with Robust Machine Learning Engine
Cloudflare, Inc. (NYSE: NET), the security, performance, and reliability company helping to build a better Internet, today announced the Cloudflare API Gateway, providing businesses a simple, fast, and effective way to protect and control all of their APIs (application programming interfaces). Organizations are using APIs more than ever before, yet many of them struggle to secure this traffic as legacy solutions are often expensive, overly complex, and slow. Cloudflare API Gateway will simplify the process of identifying, securing, and managing APIs of any protocol on one of the world’s largest and most interconnected networks.
“APIs were never built with security in mind. Yet, today APIs are involved in nearly every app a consumer or employee touches, often carrying our sensitive personal data,” said Matthew Prince, CEO and co-founder of Cloudflare. “Every day Cloudflare’s network blocks about 86 billion cyber threats for our customers. We’re confident that no other API tool sees the breadth or volume of threats that we do. We’ve built next generation AI and Machine Learning engines that take API management to a new level, automatically detecting new APIs and preventing threats. As with other Cloudflare products, API Gateway will do all of this at a fraction of the cost and without the latency introduced by legacy solutions.”Source: Cloudflare
The world is becoming more and more API-centric. And Cloudflare is going to protect that, too.
🍪 Semiconductors + Chips
#18 Arm To Cut Hundreds Of Jobs After Nvidia Deal Falls Through
Arm is preparing to cut hundreds of employees from its global workforce after being forced to abandon its $40 billion sale to Nvidia last month. The Telegraph reports that the company’s chief executive Rene Haas told staff on Monday that between 12 and 15 percent of the company’s employees could be affected.
The news comes a little over a month after parent-company Softbank said it was abandoning Arm’s sale to Nvidia in the face of “significant regulatory challenges.” The $40 billion deal was originally announced in late 2020, but Nvidia’s subsequent rise in stock price saw its value rise to as much as $80 billion last year, according to The Guardian. After abandoning the deal, which would have been one of the largest the semiconductor industry had ever seen, Softbank said it planned to take Arm public to cash in on the company.
Arm’s former CEO, Simon Segars, who led the company between 2013 and February 2022, warned that its current investment levels couldn’t continue if it went public rather than being acquired by Nvidia. Arm had sought to double its workforce after being bought by Softbank, according to The Telegraph.Source: The Verge
This is unfortunate. Although ARM is one of the most important assets in semiconductors and powers nearly every mobile device (and a growing share of PCs and datacenter servers), ARM’s business model (small licensing fees and royalties) does not allow it to generate enough cash flows to continue to invest at a pace that would be best for the industry. The value of talent and IP is rising, which makes it very hard for ARM to keep up, especially as it needs to compete against well-heeled players like Apple, Amazon, Google, Nvidia, etc.
An acquisition by Nvidia would have allowed ARM to invest at far higher levels, but it risked damaging ARM’s neutrality in the industry. And from the UK’s perspective (reminder: the UK regulator significantly pushed back on the deal), it risked losing another crown jewel to an American company (even though ARM already belonged to another foreign company, Japanese Softbank).
#19 Apple’s Charts Set The M1 Ultra Up For An RTX 3090 Fight It Could Never Win
To hear Apple tell it, the M1 Ultra is a miracle of silicon, one that combines the hardware of two M1 Max processors for a single chipset that is nothing less than the “world’s most powerful chip for a personal computer.” And if you just looked at Apple’s charts, you might be tempted to buy into those claims.
But what the chart doesn’t show is that while the M1 Ultra’s line more or less stops there, the RTX 3090 has a lot more power that it can draw on…Source: The Verge
In the last edition of Tidbits, we discussed how impressive Apple’s new M1 Ultra chip is. However, here’s good pushback on why to be somewhat skeptical for now.
Although M1 Ultra compares very well against the fastest GPU available from Nvidia, Nvidia’s GPU can draw in more power in a way that is hard to do with the M1 Ultra. With higher power consumption, Nvidia’s GPUs can still outperform what Apple has to offer.
With that said, high power consumption also means there are few places where you can use it (mostly confined to desktop PCs with large fans attached), while Apple’s M1 Ultra can be used in many more places including mobile (glasses?).