Quarterly Review - 1Q 2021

Science versus politics, trees, why parties always end up in the kitchen, and never marry your freight forwarder

Hi 👋 - I’m planning on experimenting with some new formats this year, including a quarterly review. Below are some my favorite essays, books and podcasts from this quarter. Like it? Hate it? Let me know by responding to this email. 

Is there any content you've been crushing on recently? Please send it over. 

Essay: Lessons from a year of Covid, Yuval Noah Harari

In 1918, humanity only inhibited the physical world. In 2020, we inhabit two worlds: the physical and the digital. As the Covid-19 tormented the physical world, more activities shifted online. Thanks, Netflix. While technology and science have progressed, human nature - as always - remains unchanged. We have the science to fight pandemics, but not the political will:

The Covid year has exposed an even more important limitation of our scientific and technological power. Science cannot replace politics. When we come to decide on policy, we have to take into account many interests and values, and since there is no scientific way to determine which interests and values are more important, there is no scientific way to decide what we should do.

Novel: The Overstory, Richard Powers

Ostensibly a book about trees, Powers brilliantly weaves together nine stories into one. Sustainability and the tradeoff between short-term and long-term thinking are recurring themes. The forest has a lot to give, but it gives slowly and can’t be rushed. Cooped up in a tiny New York apartment, I was pining to take a hike by the end of this book. It starts slow, but your patience will be rewarded:

Watching the man, hard-of-hearing, hard-of-speech, Patty learns that real joy consists of knowing that human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beeches in a breeze. As certain as weather coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change. There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking. 

Podcast: Makes A Scene, Alex Danco on Infinite Loops

A fun, nerdy and wide ranging conversation centered on scenes and power dynamics, with plenty of diversions. The conversation touches on why startups need ratty buildings, why parties always end up in the kitchen, the similarities between the music scene and start-ups, and complex adaptive systems: 

There's a kind of layout that leads to a good kind of mixing, that is, new bands being able to play and people being able to pay just enough attention to them. Because again, of the floor plan being critical, that you're able to get new music out there in a way that is just imposing enough, but not too imposing that people will not want you there. The scene regulars can still play pool, they can still hang out, but they’ll still come into contact with the musicians at some point. So the ideas can mix; new bands get heard.

Podcast: Where There Is Mystery, There Is Margin, Ryan Petersen on Founder’s Field Guide

Another example of software eating the world. Shipping is an opaque, offline industry. Ryan Petersen, the founder and CEO of Flexport, is trying to bring the industry into the 21st century. This podcast covers the basics of global trade and how Flexport is trying to change it. As the economy transitions from materials to bits, shades of this story will play out in many industries. The discussion of financing at the 27 minute mark is particularly fascinating (fun fact: under maritime law, freight companies have first lien in the event of a default): 

As a customs broker, what you're doing is helping companies to transact and clear their merchandise through customs. It is a very good business in my view, because this is where all the data sits. You want to clear something through customs, you've got to provide customs with all the commercial invoices, the packing lists, the bills of lading, that's that title for the merchandise. A traditional customs broker tends to be someone who just takes that data, keys it into US Customs system, prints the document, puts it in a file cabinet for record retention and moves on, and generate some cash. It's a nice little lifestyle business. What we do differently, what we did from the start differently, it was, let's take all that data, digitize it, give people analytics, let them see what they're importing, give them trends, make sure that data is stored in the cloud for compliance purposes forever, and start to automate these transactions. 

Most Popular on Below the Line 

As always, thanks for reading. The most viewed post this quarter was Peloton Unplugged which details how digitization is transforming the fitness industry. Sweetgreen OS, on the succulent-filled salad chain’s tech-forward business model, was the most shared post. Thanks for sharing! Lastly, Time and Patience - Part 1, which breaks down Nomad Investment Partnership’s process and philosophy, received the most new signups. 

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