Why Amazon Alexa Is Such a Hit This Holiday Season

Amazon customers purchased one billion items from small businesses this holiday season, according to a new report by Amazon released today. It was also the best-selling season for Alexa-enabled devices, amassing tens of millions of items sold. The company is on a roll, but the question you might be asking, especially if you know there are many competitors and options available, is what accounts for all of the success? 

For starters, you should know that I’m a big fan of the Alexa bot because, to be honest, it just works. Other bots, and this includes the Assistant bot on the Google Home speaker and on many smartphones, does work fine for most queries, but it’s still playing catch-up with Alexa, which now supports tens of thousands of “skills” (extension to the device such as trivia games and the ability to read a kid’s book) and smart home products. I use Alexa to control my garage doors, lights, and thermostat in my home.

Another big selling point is that Alexa tends to understand what I’m asking. On the new Echo speaker, the one that is a bit more plump and sounds better than the original Echo, you can talk from across the room and ask about musical artists, the weather, or even ask weird questions and you’ll probably get a pretty good answer. It works better than most speakers at hearing when there is background noise.

Over the holiday, a house-full of people at various parties and family events were taken by the bot, even though it actually came out in the summer of 2018. My son even figured out that you can make Alexa howl like a wolf.

Alexa quickly becomes a member of the household. The Google Assistant bot and Microsoft Cortana don’t seem to have as much personality. (It’s easy to forget the bots are just algorithms that process voice-activated requests.) Siri just doesn’t provide as much functionality. And, there’s no speaker that can sit on a kitchen counter. Everyone in my house keeps saying Alexa even though there’s a Google Home speaker in the same room.

Amazon also has a one-two punch. I use the bot to order products as well, and it’s easy to ask about USB cables, camera cards, and printer paper. Sometimes, the bot just offers to reorder a previous item, which is just brilliant because it’s so easy and smooth. I can order paper for a printer in about ten seconds, On my phone or a laptop, it takes much longer. Of course, this is not lost on Amazon, which wants you to use Alexa for just about anything and everything under the sun, including all of your household and work purchases.

Add to this the small business angle and you have a trifecta or ingenuity.

I recently purchased a few textbooks, and the provider was a small company that specializes in a certain category of books for my daughter needs next semester. What an amazing opportunity for that reseller, since they offered the best price on the books and were so easy to find using the Alexa bot. I know there are hundreds and hundreds of other sites, but what Amazon is doing is streamlining the entire shopping experience. You order by voice using a credit card on file. The bot knows your address and you know it will arrive in two days without any headaches. I’ve only had one Amazon order not arrive on time in the last few years and that was due to a major snowstorm.

What are the lessons here? Ironically, they are the same as always. Make things as easy as possible for customers. Make sure the product works, even if it is from across the room. Keep improving your products and services. Add some ingenuity and some fun. That recipe is working for Amazon and countless small companies who sell products on Amazon.

A good question to ask as we roll into 2018: Are you doing all of those things?

Edward Snowden’s New App Turns A Smartphone Into a Security System

Edward Snowden, who blew the whistle on NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens, knows a thing or two about spying. He’s now released an app, Haven, that makes it easier to defend yourself against the most aggressive kinds.

Haven, now in public beta, turns any Android smartphone into a sensitive security system. It’s primarily intended to be installed on a secondary phone — say, last year’s model — which then takes photos and records sound of any activity in a room where it’s placed. Haven will then send alerts of any intrusion to a user’s primary phone over encrypted channels.

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The announcement for the app says it’s designed “for investigative journalists, human rights defenders,” and others who might be targeted by powerful enemies. According to The Verge, Snowden was encouraged to develop the app by a lawyer who fought to bring down Chadian dictator Hissene Habre.

One commonly cited use case for Haven is protecting laptops holding sensitive information, which can be relatively easily compromised if someone gains physical access. Snowden, who lives in Russia because he faces espionage charges in the United States, has adopted extensive personal security measures himself, and reportedly doesn’t even carry a smartphone anymore.

Jennifer Warren Positions For 2018: Remaining A 'Realistic Optimist' In Energy

2017 was another interesting year for energy, as evidenced by the recent extension of OPEC production cuts, the challenges created by changes in political policy, technology, and the economy – the list goes on.

The question that’s on everyone’s mind is: What lies ahead for this sector in 2018?

Jennifer Warren has written about the energy industry on Seeking Alpha since 2013. Her areas of expertise include energy trends – their economic and geopolitical implications – and resource sustainability issues. Other interests include shale oil and natural gas, climate change, green and efficient infrastructure, China, India, and the energy-water nexus.

Jennifer recently shared her thoughts with Senior Editor Michelle Carini on what to expect in 2018:

MC: What are your thoughts about the outcome of the most recent OPEC meeting, where an agreement was reached to extend oil production cuts through the end of 2018?

JW: It isn’t that surprising that OPEC wishes to maintain price stability by continuing to hold approximately 1.8 million barrels per day off the market. If prices fall too low from another market share push, all producers suffer; for OPEC, this would lead to further austerity for national budgets and political unrest. It’s really the only course of action until there is greater certainty of demand’s ability to absorb any potential oversupply.

OPEC is playing its role of managing the oil market. With Nigeria and Libya now agreeing to production quotas as well, any supply or demand-side shocks or geopolitical events will increase volatility, owing to less slack. Historically, from 1982-2014, OPEC policy was one of “official production quotas with member allocations.” That ceded to the market share quest from 2015-16. And now, 2017 and 2018 are back to the traditional policy. Of course, for the Kingdom, the Saudi Aramco listing matters too.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that:

Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said its crude production fell by about 133,500 barrels a day in November to 32.45 million barrels a day.

According to OPEC, they produced 30.32 million b/din 2014; 31.5 in 2015; and 32.47 in 2016 (averaged, as Q4 was 33.14).

Russia needs prices to be higher, so they have agreed to curtail as well. They are correct in placing a caveat of reassessing in June. If prices continue to rise, U.S. producers might (will likely) increase production and further alter exports and imports.

MC: A number of analysts are predicting that the price of oil will retain its strength going forward, at least through the first half of 2018. Do you agree or disagree?

JW: Generally, I agree that price strength appears to be the trend given the outlook for decent global demand and attempts to tighten supply. Any unexpected shocks on the demand side would soften that position. However, “[U.S.] production is expected to grow by 610,000 barrels day this year and 1.05 million barrels a day in 2018-an increase of 180,000 barrels a day,” according to OPEC. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects total U.S. crude oil production averaging 9.2 million b/d for 2017 and 10.0 million b/d in 2018. In an October projection, EIA said production will average 9.4 million b/d in the second half of 2017, which was 340,000 b/d more than in the first half of 2017.

Still, geopolitical threats and their potential to add to volatility and supply outages should not be underestimated. The discord between Qatar and the OPEC core countries continues. The Saudi Arabia-Iran battle is as heated as ever. In Venezuela there were only 39 working oil rigs, according to Baker Hughes, the lowest level since 2003. Much of Venezuela’s crude is sent to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. Mexico and Canada might benefit from Venezuela’s production declines, and therefore export losses.

In the U.S., I have heard whispers from a source in the oil patch that oil production growth will be at a measured pace. Each U.S. firm is responding to market forces, a much different animal than being quota-bound.

MC: The Trump administration has largely been successful in terms of its energy goals, as evidenced by the approval of the Keystone pipeline, an increase in new areas for energy exploration, the removal of certain rules limiting fracking, etc. What are your thoughts on the effects of President Trump’s actions so far in the energy sector?

JW: I think these some of these acts are more symbolic than economically impactful in the longer term. While I’m not an expert on the environmental impacts of some of the regulatory rollbacks, I cannot imagine they are positive (a chart of the proposals can be found here). U.S. oil and gas production is tethered to the market forces of price and global supply and demand. The increase of horizontal drilling and advances in completions has been under way for a decade now. Just because a firm can drill on new lands does not mean it will. I think energy policy is better served using dollars on developing new advances in energy, next generation energy sources, and producing and consuming energy cleaner and more efficiently.

I’m not so sure what revoking the Clean Power Plan will really accomplish. Natural gas is taking share from coal, as are renewables. The economy and those affected need help in adjusting to this new reality and moving forward into new ventures. Many states are still planning for the day when increasing carbon emissions will be costly.

Our policy of late takes two steps forward, one step back. It appears short-sighted and non-strategic. The net result limits change, which is sure to happen. It seems as if other countries have more progressive energy policies than we do. But market forces, competition and public perception have had a greater influence on our energy outlook than policy, fortunately. I want to hear how we are planning for the next five years, the next 20 years.

Oil and gas firms realize that carbon and other emissions are a consideration going forward. For example, The American Petroleum Institute announced a voluntary program to cut methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Oil companies want to boost their images and the clean energy profile of gas for buyers seeking lower carbon sources of electricity. This action was taken despite the administration’s attempt to roll back methane regulations. The initiative includes Exxon Mobil’s (NYSE:XOM) XTO Energy, Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A)(NYSE:RDS.B), Occidental Petroleum (NYSE:OXY), Pioneer Natural Resources (NYSE:PXD), and 22 others.

I am optimistic that our private sector will find ways to address challenges in spite of policy. Large institutional investors are pushing firms to do better in terms of carbon emissions. By the U.S. leaving the Paris Agreement, a wellspring of momentum has been created for countries, businesses and other stakeholders to double down on the risks posed by climate change, emissions increases, or whatever name one wishes to call it. There is a commitment to carbon pricing across the Americas, including in Canada, Mexico, and numerous Central and South American countries. The U.S. government is being benched on this issue, but U.S. cities, states and businesses are carrying the torch.

French President Macron, in conjunction with the United Nations and World Bank, recently held a summit in Paris where influential investors waged their gambit. He called upon the private sector to do their part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as part of the “One Planet Summit”:

  • French insurer AXA is pulling $2.8 billion from the coal industry, shedding all investment in oil sands, and no longer insures new projects in either sector.
  • Dutch lender ING is cutting its exposure to coal power to zero by 2025.
  • The World Bank said it would no longer finance upstream oil and gas after 2019 and will institute a shadow price of carbon in their calculations going forward.

Businesses are concerned with capital markets and policy uncertainty. Landing on the side of sustainability is becoming more of the norm. As the British Royal Navy ship captain Lord Cutler Beckett in “Pirates Of The Caribbean” famously says: “It’s just good business.”

The governor of Colorado announced an electric vehicle partnership of eight states at the Summit. Also launched at the Summit was another movement impacting $26 trillion in investment. The Climate Action 100+ is a five-year initiative led by investors to engage with the world’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters to improve governance on climate change, curb emissions, and strengthen climate-related financial disclosures. We risk brain drain on this issue as the government has reduced funding. Our researchers are looking to France.

As an investor, one cannot ignore what happens to the value of a stock when demand for that stock wanes. It is something to monitor. There is a tension between global energy policies and economic fundamentals (and, by implication, activity in energy) that is weighing on energy now more than ever. This is a fact, and the actions taken by various stakeholders are real. Also a fact is that oil, related liquids and gas are going to be a large part of the globe’s energy budget for some number of decades. However, I don’t know how this all shakes out in practice — i.e., what kind of decreases occur in demand, its pacing and replacement sources.

MC: Earlier this year, you wrote that “the Permian Basin will keep growing production over the next several years.” Do you still believe this to be true for 2018 and beyond?

JW: Yes, many of the intervals and areas in the Basin offer lower cost production. In 2015, Permian shale leader Pioneer Natural Resources’ production was approximately 200,000 bpdoe. By year-end 2017, it’s closing in at 300,000. They are projecting 1 million bpdoe by 2026. That’s considerable growth from the largest Permian producer.

Source: Pioneer, Nov. 20, 2017

Add to that the other top Permian producers — Occidental Petroleum, Chevron (NYSE:CVX), Exxon Mobil, Apache (NYSE:APA), Encana (NYSE:ECA), and Energen (NYSE:EGN) — and the growth in the Permian is set to increase. This includes smaller firms, like RSP Permian (NYSE:RSPP) and Parsley (NYSE:PE), as well.

Source: EIA

According to the EIA, “the most significant production growth in the second half of 2017 will be in the Permian region. Production is forecast to grow to 2.6 million b/d in the second half of 2017, a 260,000 b/d increase from the first half of 2017.” If, as stated above, U.S. production grows 340,000 b/d more in the second half of 2017, the Permian accounts for 75% of it.

This is a matter of lower cost production at given price points, whether it’s $50, $55 or $60.

MC: What’s your long-term outlook on energy as a whole for 2018?

JW: I’m a realistic optimist. Global economic activity appears to have tailwinds. The U.S. oil and gas export story is gaining steam. Ironically, our ability to participate in global markets in energy might be something that helps us diplomatically, while we “reassess” the Paris Agreement. As an energy nation, we have everything to gain with our resource abundance. Importantly, countries that are the wealthiest leverage their human capital alongside resource abundance. I think we are doing this in oil and gas, renewables, and new energy forms. The cleaner the oil and gas industry and its consuming counterparts becomes, the better.

Oil and gas feed into the global economy in wide-ranging and diverse ways. In the conventional engine vs. electric vehicle (EV) debate, the EV is said to be better in terms of net emissions right now when a cradle-to-grave analysis is considered. There are many factors about EV adoption, however, which will impact some portion of oil demand’s trajectory. There could even be a better liquid fuel alternative further in the future.

Energy investing should be representative of the trends that energy supply and consumption are taking. There are many paths to travel. The hard part is deciding when the long term has arrived and which players to bank on. In my observations of late, financial markets are not great at revealing this. Research supports this. This is why the rise of passive investing is upon us, but active management of a portfolio has a place as well. I ascribe to both, being diversified by investment approach and investments.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

At Google, Eric Schmidt Wrote the Book on Adult Supervision

Eric Schmidt wound up at Google by compromise. In 1998, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had made a promise to the two venture-capital firms that funded them—they would hire an experienced CEO to manage the company once it began to take off. But two years later they were hedging, insisting they could scale Google to a global power by themselves. VC John Doerr convinced them to keep interviewing potential leaders. None clicked until they met Schmidt, who not only had been a skilled executive at Sun Microsystems and CEO of Novell, but was a respected computer scientist. Best of all, he’d been to Burning Man!

The rest is history. In 2001, Schmidt became Google’s CEO, keeping the job for a decade of incredible growth and mindboggling impact. He then remained a key part of leadership as its executive chair, even as the corporation restructured itself in 2015 to a holding company named Alphabet, with Google its largest and most profitable division. As of Thursday night, that’s history, too—Alphabet announced that Schmidt, 62, will step down from the chair post next month, 17 years older and almost $14 billion richer than when he joined the firm. He will retain a board seat and employee status as a “technical consultant.” Google says his compensation ($1.25 million, plus bonuses as of 2016) will remain unchanged.

Schmidt’s departure from the executive chair role ends Silicon Valley’s most successful execution—ever—of the dilemma that Google’s funders were coping with in the firm’s early days. How do you bring in an authoritative leader without dimming the brilliance of the callow founders who made the company valuable in the first place? Though Schmidt won deserved plaudits for his tenure as CEO, his most impressive feat was a delicate balancing act of being both the boss of Google’s freewheeling founders—supplying so-called “adult supervision”—and enthusiastically assuming the role of their student as well. All too aware of how similar situations wound up in continual boardroom spats between a hoodied founder and a khakied executive, Schmidt determined early on that exercising authority over Page and Brin would lead to disaster. He never missed an opportunity to ostentatiously proclaim the genius of his younger colleagues. (When I questioned him once about using that word, he ​replied, “I wasn’t using it deliberately, but now that you’ve pointed it out, it is what I believe.”) And he didn’t let his own ego lead him to put his mark on the firm just because he could. “My opinion is that the culture of companies is set very early,” he told me in 2004, “It would have been foolish for me to try to change them much, because it wouldn’t have worked, and it would’ve been bad. It’s sort of a given that this is how the company works now. If you changed it you’d lose all of its great things.”

So he didn’t change it. Instead, he governed Google as part of a troika along with Page and Brin. In part it was a brilliant act of realpolitik—he knew that neither geeky co-founder was much interested in areas like customer relations, lobbying, external communications, and other pedestrian but critical tasks of building a corporate powerhouse. But he also sincerely believed that Page’s and Brin’s technical instincts should be heeded, often above his own. “One of the things that is remarkable to Boomers is that we’re no longer completely in charge, because we’ve been in charge for our whole lives,” he told me once, “and I’ve learned to respect it.”

A good example of this give and take came over the issue of whether Google should create its own internet browser, which Page and Brin began urging in 2001. Schmidt considered the browser wars of the 1990s (where Microsoft used market power to vanquish rival Netscape) to be one of the defining experiences of his career. He urged them to hold off, fearing Microsoft’s wrath. Eventually, the founders convinced him that Google was in a position to create a superior product no matter what Microsoft did. So in 2008, Google introduced Chrome with the CEO’s blessing. “One of the rules about the new generation is they don’t fight the old guys’ wars,” Schmidt told me at the time. Indeed, the Chrome browser—the project led by a young executive named Sundar Pichai, now Google’s CEO—is now the world’s most popular, and a pillar of the company’s power.

After a decade as CEO, not long after Google’s 2010 retreat from China, Schmidt turned over the CEO role to Page, who has run Google and then Alphabet more as the undisputed decider than as one of a ruling troika. But because Page assiduously avoids press interviews—and pretty much any other encounters that require him to suffer fools—it fell to Schmidt to globetrot and argue Google’s case as its de facto “ambassador.” More recently, he’s been doing less of that. He was active in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign (not exactly an asset in Trumpland), and has been a strident voice for technology reform in the Defense Department. He is is former head and still a backer of the New America Foundation, a liberal DC think tank (where his influence is not as deftly employed as it was at Google—the foundation recently booted out a team whose research was critical of Alphabet’s power, eroding its credibility). And as NPR listeners know from sponsor soundbites before their favorite shows, Schmidt oversees a philanthropic foundation.

According to a source, Schmidt and Page have been discussing his resignation as chair for months, leading to his formal resignation on Monday, as reported to the SEC. “In recent years, I’ve been spending a lot of my time on science and technology issues, and philanthropy, and I plan to expand that work,” Schmidt said in a statement Thursday. (Because Schmidt has been connected with women outside his marriage, some have wondered whether his departure is a #metoo kind of thing, but the fact that Alphabet is keeping him both as an employee and board member suggests not.)

It’s somewhat ironic that Schmidt is taking a reduced role at Alphabet as the company fights antitrust charges in the US and Europe that are reminiscent of those brought against his old nemesis, Microsoft. But that’s weird proof of his legacy. Sixteen years ago he took the reigns of a company with a few hundred employees and a minimal bottom line, and helped grow it to a behemoth with a market cap of nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars—and an impact so outsized that regulators feel it must be curbed.

Whatever his next act is, it won’t top that. “For me personally, this is it—this is the Super Bowl,” he once told me of his Google role. And he’s got a $14 billion ring to prove it.

Steven Levy’s book on Google, In the Plex, was published in 2011.

raceAhead: Surviving Difficult Conversations at the Holidays

Let’s talk briefly about talking.

We’re well into the season of reunions and get-togethers, sometimes merry, sometimes forced. It can be dicey. Unspoken worries can surface beneath the small talk; turmoil at work, the health of older relatives, the prospects for children, grown yet stalled. For some, it’s a cruel benchmark. This time of year, it can feel like a constant b-roll of your so-called life is running in the background, reminding you of what you don’t have, who you are not. Without loving care, ancient slights can begin to itch.

And that’s in a good year. Things feel particularly fraught these days. Political tensions are high, rhetoric is rough, and families are now coming together with two separate, and often opposing sets of facts.

Two things crossed my path recently that I hope will provide some inspiration as you face your own difficult conversations across the holiday punch bowl.

The first is this touching short video of an extraordinary conversation between NBA legends Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas that aired on NBA TV on Tuesday night. It was an opportunity for the two men to end a long-standing rift, which included Johnson’s successful attempt to bar Thomas from the 1992 U.S. Olympic team.

It was a quiet, elegant, and public exchange that ended with a moment of grace. “You are my brother. Let me apologize if I hurt you, that we haven’t been together and God is good to bring us back together,” said a quavery-voiced Johnson to Thomas, who dissolved into tears.

Once you’ve stopped ugly crying at your desk, then head over to the always excellent BrainPickings for inspiration number two.

In this essay, Maria Popover prepares us for a season of talking past one another with this gentle primer in the elements of effective dialogue – “not the ping-pong of opinions and co-reactivity that passes for dialogue today, but a commitment to mutual contemplation of viewpoints and considered response,” she says. “[T]he dearth of this commitment in our present culture is the reason why we continue to find ourselves sundered by confrontation and paralyzed by the divisiveness of ‘us vs. them’ narratives.”

She elevates several exemplars, Ursula K. Le Guin, along with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, but settles on physicist David Bohm, whose collected essays, On Dialogue, offer unique insights into what keeps humans from hearing each other. They were written mostly in the 1970s, but feel eerily relevant now:

In spite of this worldwide system of linkages, there is, at this very moment, a general feeling that communication is breaking down everywhere, on an unparalleled scale… What appears [in the media] is generally at best a collection of trivial and almost unrelated fragments, while at worst, it can often be a really harmful source of confusion and misinformation.

What is required, he says, is communication in the service of creating something new, rather than a passionate defense of one’s own, even unexamined, ideas.

For example, consider a dialogue. In such a dialogue, when one person says something, the other person does not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather, the meanings are only similar and not identical. Thus, when the second person replies, the first person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood. On considering this difference, he may then be able to see something new, which is relevant both to his own views and to those of the other person. And so it can go back and forth, with the continual emergence of a new content that is common to both participants.

Of course, this only works if people feel free to listen to each other, “without prejudice, and without trying to influence each other,” he says, a hard habit to break for many. Dialogue is not always going to be possible – a freeing idea all its own – but if the point of a conversation is not to win, but to create, then better outcomes become more likely. (As always, if you are in a vulnerable place, then you are not under any obligation to have any conversations you’re not ready for.)

But if you can’t be Bohm this season, try to be Magic. Sometimes a humble declaration of truth and love is all you need to restore a relationship gone fallow and move past the b-roll and back into the present. “And just to sit across from you and relive those moments of fun, excellence, working hard, dreaming big,” he said to Thomas. “Who sits up at 19 or 21 dreaming of stuff we wanted to do and now we are here doing it.”

Happy winter solstice. It all gets brighter from here.

On Point

Lawmakers to Microsoft: Ban arbitration on race discrimination cases, too
Microsoft announced this week that it would no longer force employees to address sexual harassment or gender discrimination cases through private arbitration. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to Microsoft yesterday extend their policy to other forms of discrimination and harassment, including race, gender expression and identification and religion. “While we commend Microsoft for steps it has taken to prevent workplace discrimination, more can be done,” said the letter to CEO Satya Nadella. Critics of arbitration say the lack of transparency in the process shields predators and the company from public scrutiny, providing cover for problematic behaviors. Some 60 million Americans are estimated to address claims in private arbitration.
USA Today
Oakland cops are more racist when tired, stressed, or hungry
A new study by researcher and Masters degree candidate Meghan Hunt found that at times when police officers are likely stressed, they’re more likely to stop, search, and handcuff black people at higher rates than they do other races. “Working to Close the Gap: How Stress and Fatigue Impact Racial Disparities in Traffic Stops by Oakland Police,” reviews 10,624 traffic stops in Oakland, from January-October 2016, and was (laudably) published by Oakland Police Department (OPD) Office of the Inspector General. To be fair, the OPD begin their ten-hour shifts disproportionately targeting black people. By the end of the first hour of their shifts, 52% of traffic stops are black people, who comprise just 28% of the Oakland population. But if they skip their 30-minute mid-shift break, by hour six, the number of stops jump to 66%.
The Bold Italic
Companies are using Facebook to filter out older workers from seeing employment ads
And it may very well be illegal. A new investigation from ProPublica and The New York Times has found that companies including Amazon, Verizon, Target, Goldman Sachs, and others have been placing job recruitment ads limited to particular age groups, a practice which may be in violation of federal discrimination law. They’re not the only ones. ProPublica bought age-specific ads on Google and LinkedIn, though LinkedIn changed its system after being contacted by the reporters. Others have made changes as well. “We recently audited our recruiting ads on Facebook and discovered some had targeting that was inconsistent with our approach of searching for any candidate over the age of 18,” said an Amazon spokesperson. “We have corrected those ads.” But it remains a gray area for some.
ProPublica
China opens an epic library that is a monument to reading
The interior atrium is extraordinary, complete with a central mirrored glowing orb that functions as focal point and auditorium, and terraced bookshelves that have the undulating beauty of a topographic map. The Tianjin Binhai Library is a 33,700 square meter book-lover’s dream, and based on this film, everyone in it is brilliant, attractive, and engaged. The three-year project was a collaboration between Dutch architectural firm MVRDV and the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute. Though many of the books are housed in other buildings – in fact, some of the upper shelves have printed aluminum panes that only appear to be books, the building attracts some 15,000 visitors per weekend.
Fortune

The Woke Leader

The two Romare Beardens
The artist Romare Bearden is famous and beloved for his sweeping works depicting black life, particularly his oils and collage. But what many don’t know that his emergence as a force in black art was by design. Bearden was a founding member of Spiral, a self-proclaimed “group of Negro artists,” who had formed a New York-based alliance to create a platform for artmaking within the context of the Civil Rights Movement. It was 1963. This alliance marks two distinct periods in Bearden’s work, which are captured in two separate exhibits. “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” recently at the Tate Modern, and currently on tour. But his earlier work, created in painterly isolation, reflected broader themes of the 1950s, including abstraction and color theory. The Neuberger Museum in Purchase, NY curated an exhibit of this work, called “Romare Bearden: Abstraction.” While it closes tomorrow (sorry) the work is beautifully explained in this terrific review.
The Nation
More On West and Coates
Ismail Muhammed has the best take to date on the dust-up between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and one that is worth considering seriously. It begins with a fundamental truth. “It’s not an overstatement to say that, if you are a young writer who interrogates American race relations and white supremacy, Cornel West is the foundation upon which you stand.” This is true for anyone who is new to the conversation, by the way. But age will not spare you the sting of being attacked by the elder statesman whose work “is part of the canon that teaches younger writers how to think and write about race.” It’s part of what makes West’s critique, which was either a misunderstanding of Coates’ latest work or a “willful misreading” of it, so upsetting. Muhammed’s analysis also offers an excellent foundation in the thinking of both writers, if you’re late to the game.
Slate
For women of color who want to be the boss
Forbes contributor and ColorComm founder Lauren Wesley Wilson has five pieces of advice for women of color determined to move up the corporate ladder. She’s had some practice. ColorComm was formed to advance women of color in marketing, advertising, and communications, a sector where white men are overwhelmingly found in executive positions. All are terrific, but two got my attention. First, don’t wait for someone else to nominate you for industry awards, and second, mentor down, not up. “Finding younger mentors enables fresh thinking, new ideas and gives insight into the type of people you’ll likely manage in the future,” she says. Brilliant. It also changes the mentor-mentee dynamic from one of status to one of expertise. Everyone has a contribution to make.
Forbes

Amazon Is Shuttering Its Music Storage Service

If you’re using Amazon Music Storage to keep your digital music stored in the cloud for playing on a variety of devices, you’ll need to move on to something else.

Amazon has quietly announced that it has removed the ability for free subscription planholders to upload digital music files to its Amazon Music Storage service through its PC and Mac apps. Music that’s already stored in the digital locker can be played until January 2019. At that point, the service will be inaccessible to users on the free tier.

Those have the paid subscription can continue to upload files, but will be limited to 250 songs after their subscription period is over. Those tracks will only be available for one year after the subscription expires and then Amazon will remove them from its service.

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Amazon Music Storage has been available for years as a way for users to upload and access digital music files through the tech giant’s cloud servers. The free plan limited users to 250 uploaded songs. The paid plan allowed users to upload up to 250,000 songs. Once those tracks were uploaded, users could download them to other devices. They could also stream them over the Web to a variety of products.

In a support page listing, Amazon didn’t say why it’s decided to shutter the service. The company still operates its music streaming service, called Amazon Music Unlimited, that lets users stream millions of songs to computers, mobile devices, and other hardware. Amazon Music Unlimited ranges from $3.99 to $14.99 a month, depending on the number of places users want to stream content.

The 17 Most-read WIRED Stories of 2017

What were WIRED readers interested in during the past year? Well, they seem to be no more interested in Donald Trump than in bananas, which they care about less than Apple. They cared a great deal, too, about hackers and about the great reckoning that the tech industry faced in 2017—reckoning with the responsibilities that come with power and reckoning with gender dynamics that have remained little discussed for too long. They also were interested in ways to live forever, but also in how we think through the inevitability of death. And no one wanted to burn their eyes during the solar eclipse.

Here are the seventeen most read stories of the year, arranged chronologically. Look back to get a sense of this intense, crazy, and inventive year. And, of course, for daily dispatches of the best of WIRED, sign up for our newsletter.

A Russian Slot Machine Hack Is Costing Casinos Big Time

Digging through slot machine source code helped a St. Petersburg-based syndicate make off with millions.

—Brendan Koerner, February 6

Humans Made the Banana Perfect—But Soon, It’ll Be Gone

The history of coffee gives us surprising insight into the future of the banana.

—Rob Dunn, March 14

What Does ‘Covfefe’ Mean? The Internet Will Define That For You.

When President Trump tweeted a fake word, the rest of the world defined it for him.

—Angela Watercutter, May 31

What’s Wrong with Apple’s New Headquarters

The architecture and design of the years-in-the-making Apple Park are brilliant. How it fits into the world around it? Not so much.

—Adam Rogers, June 8

Forget the Blood of Teens. Metformin Promises to Extend Life for a Nickel a Pill

The more researchers learn about metformin, the more it seems like a medieval wonder drug that could boost longevity in the 21st century.

—Sam Apple, July 1

Hotlittlepotato

James Damore’s Google Memo Gets Science All Wrong

Damore’s analysis of the science cited his memo is at best politically naive, and at worst dangerous.

—Megan Molteni, Adam Rogers August 15

How to Watch the Total Solar Eclipse Without Glasses

Sure, you could buy solar glasses. Or you could save your money and make a DIY pinhole.

—Rhett Allain, August 21

The Day I Found Out My Life Was Hanging by a Thread

Startup CEO Matt Bencke, 45, thought he’d thrown out his back. Then he went to the ER and received the most sobering news of his life.

—Matt Bencke August 24

Why Men Don’t Believe the Data on Gender Bias in Science

In this opinion column, a physics professor explains why male scientists devalue research that identifies gender bias in the field.

—Alison Coil, August 25

The Equifax Breach: Here’s How to Protect Yourself

Don’t panic, but start watching your credit report and financial accounts very closely.

—Lily Hay Newman, September 7

Meet the iPhone X, Apple’s New High-End Handset

All the details on Apple’s newest iPhones, including the much-anticipated iPhone X.

—David Pierce, September 12

‘I Forgot My PIN’: An Epic Tale of Losing $30,000 in Bitcoin

Veteran tech journalist Mark Frauenfelder tries everything, including hypnosis, to recover a small fortune from a locked bitcoin device.

—Mark Frauenfelder, October 29

Apple’s iPhone X: The First Field Report

Yeah, it’s gorgeous. But the most impressive thing about it is what happens next.

—Steven Levy, November 1

Google’s Artificial-Intelligence Wizard Unveils a New Twist on Neural Networks

Google’s Geoff Hinton helped catalyze the current AI boom—and says he knows how to make machines smarter at understanding the world.

—Tom Simonite, November 1

Elon Musk Reveals Tesla’s Electric Semitruck

Everything we learned about the big battery, specs, and range of Elon Musk’s most electrifying gamble yet.

—Alex Davies, November 16

What Does Tesla’s Automated Truck Mean for Truckers?

Well, that kind of depends on what you mean by “trucker.”

—Aarian Marshall, November 17

The Mirai Botnet Was Part of a College Student Minecraft Scheme

The DDoS attack that crippled the internet last fall wasn’t the work of a nation-state. It was three college kids working a Minecraft hustle.

—Garrett Graff, December 13

Researchers Made Google's Image Recognition AI Mistake a Rifle For a Helicopter

Tech giants love to tout how good their computers are at identifying what’s depicted in a photograph. In 2015, deep learning algorithms designed by Google, Microsoft, and China’s Baidu superseded humans at the task, at least initially. This week, Facebook announced that its facial-recognition technology is now smart enough to identify a photo of you, even if you’re not tagged in it.

But algorithms, unlike humans, are susceptible to a specific type of problem called an “adversarial example.” These are specially designed optical illusions that fool computers into doing things like mistake a picture of a panda for one of a gibbon. They can be images, sounds, or paragraphs of text. Think of them as hallucinations for algorithms.

While a panda-gibbon mix-up may seem low stakes, an adversarial example could thwart the AI system that controls a self-driving car, for instance, causing it to mistake a stop sign for a speed limit one. They’ve already been used to beat other kinds of algorithms, like spam filters.

Those adversarial examples are also much easier to create than was previously understood, according to research released Wednesday from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. And not just under controlled conditions; the team reliably fooled Google’s Cloud Vision API, a machine learning algorithm used in the real word today.

Previous adversarial examples have largely been designed in “white box” settings, where computer scientists have access to the underlying mechanics that power an algorithm. In these scenarios, researchers learn how the computer system was trained, information that helps them figure out how to trick it. These kinds of adversarial examples are considered less threatening, because they don’t closely resemble the real world, where an attacker wouldn’t have access to a proprietary algorithm.

For example, in November another team at MIT (with many of the same researchers) published a study demonstrating how Google’s InceptionV3 image classifier could be duped into thinking that a 3-D-printed turtle was a rifle. In fact, researchers could manipulate the AI into thinking the turtle was any object they wanted. While the study demonstrated that adversarial examples can be 3-D objects, it was conducted under white-box conditions. The researchers had access to how the image classifier worked.

But in this latest study, the MIT researchers did their work under “black box” conditions, without that level of insight into the target algorithm. They designed a way to quickly generate black-box adversarial examples that are capable of fooling different algorithms, including Google’s Cloud Vision API. In Google’s case, the MIT researchers targeted the part of the system of that assigns names to objects, like labeling a photo of a kitten “cat.”

What it looks like when MIT’s system attacks Google’s algorithm.

MIT

Despite the strict black box conditions, the researchers successfully tricked Google’s algorithm. For example, they fooled it into believing a photo of a row of machine guns was instead a picture of a helicopter, merely by slightly tweaking the pixels in the photo. To the human eye, the two images look identical. The indiscernible difference only fools the machine.

The researchers didn’t just tweak the photos randomly. They targeted the AI system using a standard method. Each time they tried to fool the AI, they analyzed their results, and then intelligently inched toward an image that could trick a computer into thinking a gun (or any other object) is something it isn’t.

The researchers randomly generated their labels; in the rifle example, the classifier “helicopter” could just as easily have been “antelope.” They wanted to prove that their system worked, no matter what labels were chosen. “We can do this given anything. There’s no bias, we didn’t choose what was easy,” says Anil Athalye, a PhD student at MIT and one of the lead authors of the paper. Google declined to comment in time for publication.

What Google’s algorithm originally “saw.”

MIT

What the algorithm “saw” after MIT’s researchers turned the image into an adversarial example.

MIT

MIT’s latest work demonstrates that attackers could potentially create adversarial examples that can trip up commercial AI systems. Google is generally considered to have one of the best security teams in the world, but one of its most futuristic products is subject to hallucinations. These kinds of attacks could one day be used to, say, dupe a luggage-scanning algorithm into thinking an explosive is a teddy bear, or a facial-recognition system into thinking the wrong person committed a crime.

It’s at least, though, a concern Google is working on; the company has published research on the issue, and even held an adversarial example competition. Last year, researchers from Google, Pennsylvania State University, and the US Army documented the first functional black box attack on a deep learning system, but this fresh research from MIT uses a faster, new method for creating adversarial examples.

These algorithms are being entrusted to tasks like filtering out hateful content on social platforms, steering driverless cars, and maybe one day scanning luggage for weapons and explosives. That’s a tremendous responsibility, given that don’t yet fully understand why adversarial examples cause deep learning algorithms to go haywire.

There are some hypotheses, but nothing conclusive, Athalye told me. Researchers have essentially created artificially intelligent systems that “think” in different ways than humans do, and no one is quite sure how they work. “I can show you two images that look exactly the same to you,” Athalye says. “And yet the classifier thinks one is a cat and one is a guacamole with 99.99 percent probability.”

SEC halts trading in crypto firm after eye-popping rise

(Reuters) – U.S. securities regulators on Tuesday temporarily suspended trading in the shares of Crypto Company, a small firm that saw its stock rise more than 2,700 percent this month after signing a deal to buy a cryptocurrency data platform.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission cited concerns about the “accuracy and adequacy of information” about the Malibu, California-based company available to investors. The suspension will remain in place until Jan. 3.

“Questions have also arisen concerning potentially manipulative transactions in the company’s stock in November 2017,” the SEC said in a Monday press release.

Crypto Co, which says it provides a “portfolio of digital assets, technologies, and consulting services to the blockchain and cryptocurrency markets,” changed its name from Croe Inc to Crypto Company in October.

In late November, the over-the-counter-traded company announced a deal to buy a majority stake in Coin Tracking e.K., a German cryptocurrency data platform.

Investors have been pouring millions of dollars into companies with “crypto” or “blockchain” in their names, reminiscent of the late 1990s, when firms with “.com” in their names saw their shares surge.

Bitcoin, the world’s best known cryptocurrency, has risen more than 1,800 percent this year as mainstream exchange companies introduced futures trading in the virtual currency.

Crypto Co’s stock hit $575 on Monday, rising from $3.50 in late September.

The company’s market value surpassed $11 billion, almost equalling that of home appliances maker Whirlpool Corp or railroad Kansas City Southern.

Reporting By Aparajita Saxena in Bengaluru; editing by Sai Sachin Ravikumar

Humpty Dumpty Sat On A Wall, This Net Lease REIT Had A Great Fall

I’m sure that all of you have listened to the famous nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty. It became popular as the character of Humpty Dumpty was popularized in the United States by actor George L. Fox (1825–77). The rhyme is one of the best known and most popular in the English language:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

Today I am going to use the lyrics to set the tone for a Net Lease REIT formerly known as American Realty Capital Properties (once ARCP) and now referred to as VEREIT (VER).

Back in October 2014 (over three years ago) I described American Realty Capital Properties as follows:

There are many questions unanswered and while ARCP has stated that there was no intent to overstate AFFO, I have ZERO faith in the company’s financials. I have frequently voiced my concern with companies that grow massively and subject themselves to integration risk and perhaps ARCP was moving way to fast to slow down and smell the roses.”

Of course, I am referring to the infamous fall of the Net Lease REIT version of Humpty Dumpty. In that same article I explained,

Dividends are the tangible proof of safety and they are the surest confirmation of corporate profitability. My research and eventual investment in ARCP was rooted in chasing dividend yield, but I should have acted more swiftly on my intuition related to ARCP’s dividend safety. After all, that’s the only way to “sleep well at night. The author liquidated all ARCP shares at $9.57.”

That was over three years ago… and since then…

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Looking back over the years, one of the biggest lessons that I have learned as an analyst and real estate investor is to always look for signals. Just prior to American Realty Capital’s plunge I wrote,

My biggest concern with ARCP has to do with the unusually high yield that also signals that the dividend could be in danger of being reduced. Some have argued that a dividend cut would not hurt ARCP; however, I disagree because if the dividend is lowered, the price will also be lowered, and a price that previously was undervalued no longer represents a good value.”

I added, “I’m not investing another nickel in ARCP until I see more clarity (i.e. when the smoke and mirrors disappear).”

In hindsight, I wish I would have downgraded American Realty Capital from a Buy to a Sell; instead, I downgraded shares to a Hold. We all know what happened when Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall…

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All The King’s Horses And All The King’s Men

In early 2014, VER (formerly ARCP) completed the acquisition of Cole Real Estate Investments for $11.2 billion, in a move that created the “largest net-lease REIT in the U.S.” VER’s management team had been pursuing Cole for quite some time, and the marriage was summed up by Forbes writer Maggie McGarth as something like the “Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees joined forces.”

VEREIT’s, formerly ARCP, chairman Nicholas Schorsch called the deal an “epic transaction” and a “win-win” for all parties. In the game of “size matters,” ARCP’s CEO boasted that its dividend growth was “stable and secure.”

It was apparent during the negotiations (to buy Cole) that Schorsch wanted to create a dominating REIT that could squash any competitor. Accordingly, Schorsch was attempting to build the widest of net lease moats by engineering ARCP in a manner in which David becomes Goliath in record time.

When ARCP acquired Cole (back in February 2014), it purchased a portfolio of assets and also an advisory business that generates substantial fee-based income.

ARCP’s private capital business, Cole Capital™, is an alternative broker-dealer with fully integrated teams across external and internal sales, marketing, sales analytics, events, national accounts, due diligence, compliance and shareholder services.

According to Robert Stanger & Co. industry reports, Cole Capital™ is the only non-traded REIT sponsor to rank in the top 3 for the past five years, and has raised just under $1 billion through May (2014).

At the time Cole generated around $140 million after tax (annualized) that translated into a market value of over $2 billion. ARCP booked the Cole Capital deal at $800 million.

A few weeks ago VER announced it was selling Cole Capital to an affiliate of CIM Group. Currently, Cole has more than $7.6 billion in assets under management and manages five public non-listed real estate investment trusts: Cole Credit Property Trust IV, Inc., Cole Credit Property Trust V, Inc., Cole Real Estate Income Strategy (Daily NAV), Inc., Cole Office & Industrial REIT (CCIT II), Inc., and Cole Office & Industrial REIT (CCIT III), Inc.

In connection with the transaction, VER may receive up to $200 million, comprised of $120 million cash paid at closing under the purchase agreement and up to $80 million in fees to be paid under a six-year services agreement based on Cole’s future revenues.

The services agreement will, among other things, require VER to provide operational real estate support to Cole for approximately one year. Subject to regulatory approvals and customary closing conditions, the transaction is expected to close at the end of the fourth quarter of 2017 or during the first quarter of 2018.

Wow. Now we know what Cole Capital is really worth, and certainly not $800 million.

But something is better than nothing and this is excellent news for VER investors since it simplifies the REIT’s business mode so it can now focus on the real estate operating business. VER’s CEO Glenn Rufrano remarked,

The transaction allows us to simplify our core business model and focus on our large, diversified single-tenant real estate portfolio. Cole Capital will have a sponsor in CIM with an institutional foundation and established distribution relationships with wirehouses.”

Perhaps VER can use the $120 million in cash and $80 million in earnout to settle the ongoing litigation associated with the accounting irregularities (notice I did not say fraud). Beyond Saving wrote an excellent update on VER’s lawsuit,

For purposes of estimating the impact, I will assume that $500 million is the best case scenario. I will assume $1 billion in the worst case, representing almost a quarter of the estimated damages. I do not believe it will be that bad, but I cannot rule it out. And I will take the midpoint of $750 million.

The positive news for VER shareholders is that VER could afford to pay the lump sum immediately using their revolver, which currently has $2.3 billion available.”

He adds,

If the settlement is materially under $500 million, I think it is safe to say that VER will shake off the impact quickly. Alternatively, if it is materially over $1 billion, I think it will have a very significant impact on the share price.”

I’m not an attorney and I am in no position to speculate on the settlement costs related to VER’s ongoing lawsuit. However, the sale of Cole Capital provides VER with a chunk of the down payment and most importantly moves VER closer to its ultimate goal of being a direct peer to Realty Income (O), National Retail Properties (NNN), and STORE Capital (STOR).

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The Business Model

VEREIT is a Net Lease REIT, which means the company owns free-standing buildings (4,100 properties and 92 million square feet) leased to a variety of retail, restaurant, office, and industrial tenants. VER is an internally-managed full service net-lease REIT with a long-term net-lease structure that provides stable and predictable rent stream payments. The diverse portfolio is across sectors, geographies and tenants.

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Since April 2015, VER has successfully implemented its business plan, enhanced its portfolio, de-levered its balance sheet and achieved investment-grade ratings:

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As illustrated below VER has a diversified portfolio that includes retail (40.6%), restaurants (22.9%), industrial (16.2%), and office (20.3%).

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As you can see below, VER is diversified geographically:

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Focusing on VER’s retail mix, the exposure is dominated by off price and necessity shopping of which 50% is investment grade. In many of these core categories, VER sees “reasonable expansion plans in 2017 and beyond.”

Discount is comprised of 7.9%, pharmacy 7.2%, grocer 5.1%, home and garden 4.5% and convenience 2.5%. Approximately 67% of the retail revenue is derived from tenants that are public companies providing increased transparency into their operations and finances.

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50 tenants individually represent 0.5% or greater of ARI, comprising 60.6% of the total portfolio; the remaining 613 tenants comprise 39.4% of the portfolio. 27 of the 50 tenants are investment-grade rated and 32 of the 50 tenants are public companies.

VER’s restaurant portfolio consists of single-tenant quick service, casual and family dining properties. Creditworthy tenants, including franchisors, operating strong national and regional brands.

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VER’s industrial property types include single-tenant distribution and warehouse facilities with creditworthy tenants. Most are mission-critical and strategic locations with close proximity to ports, railways, major freeways and/or interstate highways.

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VER’s office property types include primarily single-tenant corporate headquarters and business operations with creditworthy tenants with strategic location for corporate operations.

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The Improving Balance Sheet

In Q3-17, VER continues to strengthen its balance sheet and maturity schedule. In August, VER issued $600 million of 3.95% 10-year bonds at an issue price of 99.33% of par value. Proceeds were used to redeem the $500 million term loan with the remaining proceeds used to repay additional secured debt. This further laddered VER’s maturity schedule and extended the duration.

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At Q3-17, VER had full capacity under its credit facility of $2.3 billion. In addition, the company had $54.4 million of cash and essentially no floating rate debt.

During the quarter, VER reduced secured debt by $262 million with only $17.8 million coming due for the remainder of the year. Secured debt coming due is expected to eventually be termed out as unsecured debt.

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VER’s net debt to normalized EBITDA was 5.5x, up slightly from 5.4x. The company’s fixed charge coverage ratio remains healthy at 3.1x and net debt to gross real estate investment ratio was 38%. VER’s encumbered asset ratio was 72% and the weighted average duration of debt increased to 4.7 years.

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Humpty Dumpty Is Back On The Wall

VER’s acquisitions and dispositions are on track to meet the guidance range targets of $450 million to $600 million. The portfolio is performing well with occupancy increasing to 99% and the investment grade balance sheet remains liquid with the well laddered maturity schedule.

Given this performance, VER has increased its AFFO guidance from $0.71 to $0.73 to $0.73 to $0.74 per share with Cole’s contribution approximating $0.035.

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On the recent earnings call VER said it “will continue to sell Red Lobster next year, and part of the guidance next year will be an indication of that because ultimately we want to get that down to 5%.”

Rufrano said that “Office was another major disposition item. We were over 22% in the beginning of the year and as you can see we’re down to 20.3%. We want to get that between 15% and 20%.”

One analyst asked about VER’s “strategic priorities” in future years and Rufrano explained,

“…we provide capital to corporate America and the trades for that capital is their housing long-term that they can secure because they’re running their business out of it.

It makes a lot of sense for corporate America to sell their housing, they have — should have a better cost of capital internally, freeze of capital to run their business. That’s what we do.

That’s what we will do for the long-term. And that business model we believe can be executed most efficiently, if it’s large and diversified. It gets the large diversification of the portfolio there’s couple of things should continue to help us with our cost of capital. You can see how our debt rates have come down to 100 basis points in one year in large price because of our portfolio.

The other important product of the large diversified portfolio is to provide optionality on sourcing. We don’t want to be in the position where we are only providing capital to corporate partners in anyone property type. We like to provide capital to the variety of property types so that we can search for opportunities.”

Now let’s see how VER stacks up against the peers:

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As you can see, VER’s dividend yield is 7%. Let’s examine the dividend history:

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As you can see (above), VER suspended the dividend and now the company pays a regular common dividend of $.55 per share (annualized). Now let’s examine the AFFO per share history:

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As you can see, the company has maintained a stable run rate, while recycling capital, de-leveraging, and selling non-core properties. VER has also reduced its Payout Ratio considerably.

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Now let’s examine VER’s AFFO AFFO/share growth compared with the peers:

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As you can see, VER still has some “wood to chop” before the company’s earnings growth moves in line with O and NNN. However, the removal of Cole Capital should create more clarity, with the only lingering overhang being the litigation settlement.

I’ll give VER’s management team credit for getting Humpty Dumpty back on the wall… I have met with Rufrano on a number of occasions and I have found him to be a highly productive CEO.

In my opinion, now is the time to own VEREIT. The company sports a 7% dividend yield and as soon as the legal issues are over, the multiple should begin to trade closer to 13-14x P/AFFO.

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In closing, I am maintaining a Buy on VER shares with a forecasted two-year hold of ~21.5% per year (I am more confident with the 7% yield than I am with the 13% price appreciation).

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We will be putting together a stocking stuffer portfolio for marketplace members… for more information…

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Rubicon Associates is now part of The Intelligent REIT Investor and he contributed to this article. He is one of the best REIT analysts with a focus on debt and preferred issues.

The Intelligent REIT Investor is the #1 REIT Research site. We publish exclusive content on over 100 REITs, and our Durable Income Portfolio has returned over 12% YTD. We recently announced that the Small Cap REIT Portfolio has returned over 20% YTD. There is absolutely no reason to chase yield… let us do all of the heavy-lifting so you can “sleep well at night.”

Note: Brad Thomas is a Wall Street writer, and that means he is not always right with his predictions or recommendations. That also applies to his grammar. Please excuse any typos, and be assured that he will do his best to correct any errors, if they are overlooked.

Finally, this article is free, and the sole purpose for writing it is to assist with research, while also providing a forum for second-level thinking. If you have not followed him, please take five seconds and click his name above (top of the page).

REITs mentioned: ADC, SRC, EPR, LXP, STOR, GPT, FCPT, NNN, O, and WPC.

Sources: F.A.S.T. Graphs and VER Investor Presentation.

Disclosure: I am/we are long APTS, ARI, BRX, BXMT, CCI, CHCT, CIO, CLDT, CONE, CORR, CUBE, CXP, DLR, DOC, EPR, EXR, FPI, FRT, GMRE, GPT, HASI, HTA, IRET, IRM, JCAP, KIM, LADR, LAND, LMRK, LTC, MNR, NXRT, O, OHI, OUT, PEB, PEI, PK, QTS, REG, RHP, ROIC, SKT, SPG, STAG, STOR, STWD, TCO, UBA, UNIT, VER, VTR, WPC.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

One REIT's Trash, Not Another REIT's Treasure

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on DDR Corp. (DDR) explaining,

“Given the enhanced risks associated with the damage in Puerto Rico I am not inclined to modify my recommendation (speculative BUY); however, I consider DDR a highly attractive BUY right now for a higher risk investor.

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As you can see, DDR shares are up over $1.00 per share and the news last week triggered the spike:

DDR is creating a new vehicle named Retail Value Trust (RVT), and it will contain 38 U.S. assets and all 12 of DDR’s Puerto Rico assets. The plan would be for RVT to liquidate its portfolio over a two-three year time period.

RVT will be capitalized with $1.35B in mortgage financing, with DDR using the proceeds to pay down debt – bringing the company to its goal of 6x net debt/adjusted EBITDA in 2018. Left for DDR is a portfolio with maximized exposure to growth and redevelopment potential.

To be clear, my last recommendation was a “Speculative BUY” and this simply means that DDR is a far cry from being a STRONG BUY. I’m not capitalizing on investor sentiment for the sake of a quick buck.

However, I am now faced with a crucial decision, that is, whether or not to continue holding shares in DDR and the newly crafted spin-co called Retail Value Trust.

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Photo Credit

The Basics

In my previous article, I explored the basics for DDR and there’s no reason to do it again. Let’s examine the two distinct companies with two distinct strategies:

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New DDR’s portfolio is specifically curated asset-by-asset to provide exposure to high-quality, high-growth assets most appropriate for the public markets. The smaller pool of remaining durable assets have top-tier convenience and demographics:

The New DDR portfolio will offer improved relative and absolute positioning:
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You can see the portfolio for metrics for both portfolios. The transaction separates highest growth Continental U.S. assets from a pool of highly saleable properties currently being discounted by the public markets:

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Now consider the dividend characteristics of the New DDR and Retail Value Trust:

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Now consider the estimated timeline for completion (complete July 2018):

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New DDR: Significant Portfolio Repositioning

New DDR’s portfolio is specifically curated asset-by-asset to provide exposure to high-quality, high-growth assets most appropriate for the public markets. The smaller pool of remaining durable assets have top-tier convenience and demographics:

High-quality discounters and grocers anchor the majority of New DDR Centers. Assets with traditional/specialty grocers account for 40% of New DDR’s portfolio with average reported sales of $641/ft. Including mass merchants with a grocery component, 70% of New DDR’s portfolio is anchored by a food component.

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New DDR will be comprised of the Top 12 markets that account for 70% of consolidated adjusted 2018E NOI:

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New DDR will have substantially improved operating metrics:

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Example of New DDR development property:

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Example of New DDR development property:

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New DDR’s further balance sheet improvements:

  • Debt/Adjusted EBITDA (excluding preferred stock) of ~6.0x in 2H2018.
  • Weighted average maturity of 10.2 years including preferred stock (5.5 years excluding).
  • No unsecured maturities until 2021.
  • Full availability under the company’s $1.0BN Line of Credit.
  • Capacity to fund 5 years of maturities.

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DDR is committed to its Investment-Grade Credit Rating. The company has a larger and higher quality unencumbered pool with minimal secured debt. Improvement to all public bond covenants. Closing of mortgage not expected to impact DDR covenant compliance.

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The Ugly Duckling REIT?

Operating metrics for Retail Value Trust:

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DDR has sold over $3BN of assets since 2015, including $992MM through October 2017 at a 7.8% cap rate, highlighting liquidity in the shopping center sector and demand for well-leased assets. The RVT Continental U.S. asset pool is measurably superior to DDR assets sold to date with better demographics, leased rates and rent PSF.

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The Retail Value Portfolio is of higher quality and more liquid than assets sold to date:

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Snapshot of Retail Value Portfolio:

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Snapshot of Financing Details for Retail Value Trust:

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Here’s My Take

DDR had telegraphed its intent for spinning the non-core assets. In reference to the Puerto Rico assets, DDR’s CEO said (on the Q3-17 earnings call):

“I think what we’ve said even in the last few quarters is that this management team is willing to consider anything that would create or protect shareholder value. And there are a lot of types of ideas that could be considered but should always be considered at any quarter. So nothing is off the table and you can rest assure that we’re certainly focused like a laser on making decisive actions when something seems credible.”

Spinning lower-quality properties is nothing new in the REIT sector: Simon Property (SPG) spun Washington Prime (WPG). Ventas, Inc. (VTR) spun Care Capital Properties, now owned by Sabra (SBRA). HCP, Inc. (HCP) spun Quality Care (QCP). More recently, Spirit Realty (SRC) plans to spin $2.7 Billion of gross investments, highly concentrated with Shopko stores.

To date, there is nothing impressive about Washington Prime, Care Capital (now owned by SBRA), and Quality Care.

Likewise, I am not overwhelmed with the liquidating REIT plan proposed by Spirit and DDR.

While DDR’s spin proposal provides simplicity, it also provides complexity as RVT will be externally managed by DDR. In addition, the DDR investor will obtain shares in the new RVT entity that are essentially placeholders.

RVT will be capitalized with committed mortgage financing of $1.35 billion expected to fund in early 2018. Proceeds are expected to be used to repay debt at DDR, positioning New DDR to achieve the previously stated goal of 6.0x Net Debt/Adjusted EBITDA in 2018.

Here’s DDR’s dividend history since 2012:

A screenshot of a cell phoneDescription generated with very high confidence

Here’s DDR’s FFO/share history since 2012:

A screenshot of a cell phoneDescription generated with very high confidence

Given the latest spin-co news, we believe that DDR will right size the dividend (around 10% cut), maintaining a Payout Ratio of approximately 75% (as per the investor deck).

A screenshot of a cell phoneDescription generated with very high confidence

In summary, we believe there are better options today, and we recommend selling out of DDR until Retail Value Trust is liquidated. Therefore, we are downgrading from Speculative BUY to HOLD. Our top Shopping Center picks include Kimco Realty (KIM) and Brixmor (BRX). See latest Kimco article HERE.

A screenshot of a cell phoneDescription generated with very high confidence

We will be putting together a stocking stuffer portfolio for marketplace members… for more information…

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Rubicon Associates is now part of The Intelligent REIT Investor and he contributed to this article. He is one of the best REIT analysts with a focus on debt and preferred issues.

The Intelligent REIT Investor is the #1 REIT Research site. We publish exclusive content on over 100 REITs, and our Durable Income Portfolio has returned over 12% YTD. We recently announced that the Small Cap REIT Portfolio has returned over 20% YTD. There is absolutely no reason to chase yield… let us do all of the heavy-lifting so you can “sleep well at night.”

Note: Brad Thomas is a Wall Street writer, and that means he is not always right with his predictions or recommendations. That also applies to his grammar. Please excuse any typos, and be assured that he will do his best to correct any errors, if they are overlooked.

Finally, this article is free, and the sole purpose for writing it is to assist with research, while also providing a forum for second-level thinking. If you have not followed him, please take five seconds and click his name above (top of the page).

REITs mentioned: (WHLR), (WSR), (UBA), (ROIC), (FRT), (KIM), (RPAI), (REG), (WRI), (RPT), (WPG), (BRX), (UE), (AKR), and (KRG).

Sources: FAST Graphs and DDR Investor Deck.

Disclosure: I am/we are long APTS, ARI, BRX, BXMT, CCI, CHCT, CIO, CLDT, CONE, CORR, CUBE, CXP, DLR, DOC, EPR, EXR, FPI, FRT, GMRE, GPT, HASI, HTA, IRET, IRM, JCAP, KIM, LADR, LAND, LMRK, LTC, MNR, NXRT, O, OHI, OUT, PEB, PEI, PK, QTS, REG, RHP, ROIC, SKT, SPG, STAG, STOR, STWD, TCO, UBA, UNIT, VER, VTR, WPC.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Thales agrees 4.8 billion euro Gemalto takeover to trump rival French bid

PARIS (Reuters) – Aerospace and defense group Thales has agreed to buy chipmaker Gemalto for 4.8 billion euros ($5.6 billion), trumping an earlier bid by fellow French firm Atos to take aim at a fast-growing digital security market.

The bidding contest for Gemalto has come after a difficult year for the Franco-Dutch group in which profit warnings have hurt its share price and overshadowed its attempt to shift from a slowing market for phone SIM cards toward security services such as data encryption and biometric passports.

“This is a terrific project,” Thales CEO Patrice Caine told reporters on Sunday. “In digital, Gemalto and Thales are like twins.”

Caine said his firm’s bid represented a total of 5.6 billion euros ($6.6 billion), including 800 million of debt in addition to its offer for shares.

This showed its basic 51 euro per share offer for Gemalto was worth 4.8 billion euros in comparison with Atos’ 4.3 billion bid based on a 46 euro per share price.

Atos saw its offer rejected by Gemalto this week but said it would pursue its bid.

Atos declined to comment on the deal between Thales and Gemalto.

Thales’ all-cash bid has the unanimous backing of the both companies’ boards, Thales and Gemalto said in an earlier statement.

The agreement calls for Thales’ digital activities to be merged with Gemalto to create a business with 3.5 billion euros in sales and which would be a top-three global player in digital security, they said.

“RIGHT DIRECTION”

Christophe Castaner, a junior minister in the French government and head of the party of President Emmanuel Macron, told France 3 television the deal was “in the right direction”.

The French state is the largest shareholder in Thales, while state-owned bank Bpifrance is Gemalto’s second-biggest shareholder.

Bpifrance said this week it was favorable to consolidation between two French companies in the tech sector.

Thales will be able to finance the offer through its available cash resources and a 4.0 billion euro fully committed credit arrangement secured for the Gemalto offer, it said.

Thales and Gemalto said their digital security entity would generate pre-tax cost synergies of between 100 million and 150 million euros by 2021, as well as meaningful revenue synergies.

The deal, expected to close in the second half of 2018, would have a positive effect on earnings per share of 15-20 percent, before synergies, from the first year, they said.

Thales did not expect job losses from the takeover and pledged to maintain current job levels at Gemalto’s French operations until at least the end of 2019.

However, union officials at Gemalto cautioned that the announcement did not refer to the traditional chip card activity. Gemalto last month announced 288 job cuts in France in response to a declining chip market.

Additional reporting and writing by Gus Trompiz; Editing by Gareth Jones

Secret Link Uncovered Between Pure Math and Physics

Mathematics is full of weird number systems that most people have never heard of and would have trouble even conceptualizing. But rational numbers are familiar. They’re the counting numbers and the fractions—all the numbers you’ve known since elementary school. But in mathematics, the simplest things are often the hardest to understand. They’re simple like a sheer wall, without crannies or ledges or obvious properties you can grab ahold of.

Quanta Magazine


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About

Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

Minhyong Kim, a mathematician at the University of Oxford, is especially interested in figuring out which rational numbers solve particular kinds of equations. It’s a problem that has provoked number theorists for millennia. They’ve made minimal progress toward solving it. When a question has been studied for that long without resolution, it’s fair to conclude that the only way forward is for someone to come up with a dramatically new idea. Which is what Kim has done.

“There are not many techniques, even though we’ve been working on this for 3,000 years. So whenever anyone comes up with an authentically new way to do things it’s a big deal, and Minhyong did that,” said Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Over the past decade Kim has described a very new way of looking for patterns in the seemingly patternless world of rational numbers. He’s described this method in papers and conference talks and passed it along to students who now carry on the work themselves. Yet he has always held something back. He has a vision that animates his ideas, one based not in the pure world of numbers, but in concepts borrowed from physics. To Kim, rational solutions are somehow like the trajectory of light.

A mathematical object called the three-holed torus adorns Kim’s whiteboard at the University of Oxford.

If the connection sounds fantastical it’s because it is, even to mathematicians. And for that reason, Kim long kept it to himself. “I was hiding it because for many years I was somewhat embarrassed by the physics connection,” he said. “Number theorists are a pretty tough-minded group of people, and influences from physics sometimes make them more skeptical of the mathematics.”

But now Kim says he’s ready to make his vision known. “The change is, I suppose, simply a symptom of growing old!” wrote Kim, 53, in one of the first emails we exchanged for this story.

He has recently hosted a conference that brought together number theorists and string theorists. He has also drafted articles that begin to describe his inspiration to a mathematical community that is not accustomed to thinking about numbers through such direct analogy with the physical world.

Yet one stumbling block remains—a last piece of the physics-math analogy that Kim still has to work out. He hopes that by inviting others into his vision, especially physicists, he’ll have the help he needs to complete it.

The Ancient Challenge

Rational solutions to equations exert a strong pull on the human mind. They are satisfying in the way of puzzle pieces falling perfectly into place. For that reason, they are the subject of many of the most famous conjectures in mathematics.

The rational numbers include the integers and any number that can be expressed as a ratio of two integers, such as 1, –4 and 99/100. Mathematicians are particularly interested in rational numbers that solve what are called “Diophantine equations” — polynomial equations with integer coefficients, like x2 + y2 = 1. These equations are named after Diophantus, who studied them in Alexandria in the third century A.D.

Rational solutions are hard to find in any kind of comprehensive way because they don’t follow any geometric pattern. Think about that equation x2 + y2 = 1. The real-number solutions to that equation form a circle. Take away all the points on that circle that can’t be expressed as a fraction and you’re left with all the rational solutions, which don’t form such a tidy object. The rational solutions appear to be scattered randomly around the circumference of the circle.

Lucy Reading-Ikkanda/Quanta Magazine/Dr Minhyong Kim

“The condition for a point to have rational coordinates is not a geometric condition at all. You can’t write an equation that the rational points have to satisfy,” Kim said.

It’s often easy to find a single rational solution, or even many of them. But mathematicians, who don’t like loose ends, are more interested in identifying all the rational solutions. That’s much harder. It’s so hard, in fact, that proving even the barest statement about the number of rational solutions is enough to make you a mathematical luminary. In 1986 Gerd Faltings won the Fields Medal, math’s highest honor, primarily for solving a problem called the Mordell conjecture and proving that certain classes of Diophantine equations have only finitely many rational solutions (rather than infinitely many).

Faltings’ proof was a landmark result in number theory. It was also what mathematicians refer to as an “ineffective proof,” meaning that it didn’t actually count the number of rational solutions, let alone identify them. Ever since, mathematicians have been looking for a way to take those next steps. Rational points look like random points on the ordinary graph of an equation. Mathematicians hope that if they change the setting in which they think about the problem, those points will start to look more like a constellation that they can describe in some precise way. The trouble is, the known land of mathematics doesn’t provide such a setting.

Kim in his office at Oxford.

“To get effective results on rational points, it definitely has the feeling that there’d have to be a new idea,” said Ellenberg.

At present, there are two main proposals for what that new idea could be. One comes from the Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki, who in 2012 posted hundreds of pages of elaborate, novel mathematics to his faculty webpage at Kyoto University. Five years later, that work remains largely inscrutable. The other new idea comes from Kim, who has tried to think about rational numbers in an expanded numerical setting where hidden patterns between them start to come into view.

A Symmetry Solution

Mathematicians often say that the more symmetric an object is, the easier it is to study. Given that, they’d like to situate the study of Diophantine equations in a setting with more symmetry than the one where the problem naturally occurs. If they could do that, they could harness the newly relevant symmetries to track down the rational points they’re looking for.

To see how symmetry helps a mathematician navigate a problem, picture a circle. Maybe your objective is to identify all the points on that circle. Symmetry is a great aid because it creates a map that lets you navigate from points you do know to points you have yet to discover.

Imagine you’ve found all the rational points on the southern half of the circle. Because the circle has reflectional symmetry, you can flip those points over the equator (changing the signs of all the y coordinates), and suddenly you’ve got all the points in the northern half too. In fact, a circle has such rich symmetry that knowing the location of even one single point, combined with knowledge of the circle’s symmetries, is all you need to find all the points on the circle: Just apply the circle’s infinite rotational symmetries to the original point.

Yet if the geometric object you’re working with is highly irregular, like a random wandering path, you’re going to have to work hard to identify each point individually—there are no symmetry relationships that allow you to map known points to unknown points.

Sets of numbers can have symmetry, too, and the more symmetry a set has, the easier it is to understand—you can apply symmetry relationships to discover unknown values. Numbers that have particular kinds of symmetry relationships form a “group,” and mathematicians can use the properties of a group to understand all the numbers it contains.

The set of rational solutions to an equation doesn’t have any symmetry and doesn’t form a group, which leaves mathematicians with the impossible task of trying to discover the solutions one at a time.

Beginning in the 1940s, mathematicians began to explore ways of situating Diophantine equations in settings with more symmetry. The mathematician Claude Chabauty discovered that inside a larger geometric space he constructed (using an expanded universe of numbers called the p-adic numbers), the rational numbers form their own symmetric subspace. He then took this subspace and combined it with the graph of a Diophantine equation. The points where the two intersect reveal rational solutions to the equation.

In the 1980s the mathematician Robert Coleman refined Chabauty’s work. For a couple of decades after that, the Coleman-Chabauty approach was the best tool mathematicians had for finding rational solutions to Diophantine equations. It only works, though, when the graph of the equation is in a particular proportion to the size of the larger space. When the proportion is off, it becomes hard to spot the exact points where the curve of the equation intersects the rational numbers.

“If you have a curve inside an ambient space and there are too many rational points, then the rational points kind of cluster and you have trouble distinguishing which ones are on the curve,” said Kiran Kedlaya, a mathematician at the University of California, San Diego.

And that’s where Kim came in. To extend Chabauty’s work, he wanted to find an even larger space in which to think about Diophantine equations—a space where the rational points are more spread out, allowing him to study intersection points for many more kinds of Diophantine equations.

Spaces of Spaces

If you’re looking for a larger kind of space, along with clues about how to use symmetry to navigate it, physics is a good place to turn.

Generally speaking, a “space,” in the mathematical sense, is any set of points that has geometric or topological structure. One thousand points scattered willy-nilly won’t form a space—there’s no structure that ties them together. But a sphere, which is just a particularly coherent arrangement of points, is a space. So is a torus, or the two-dimensional plane, or the four-dimensional space-time in which we live.

In addition to these spaces, there exist even more exotic spaces, which you can think of as “spaces of spaces.” To take a very simple example, imagine that you have a triangle—that’s a space. Now imagine the space of all possible triangles. Each point in this larger space represents a particular triangle, with the coordinates of the point given by the angles of the triangles it represents.

That sort of idea is often useful in physics. In the framework of general relativity, space and time are constantly evolving, and physicists think of each space-time configuration as a point in a space of all space-time configurations. Spaces of spaces also come up in an area of physics called gauge theory, which has to do with fields that physicists layer on top of physical space. These fields describe how forces like electromagnetism and gravity change as you move through space. You can imagine that there’s a slightly different configuration of these fields at every point in space—and that all those different configurations together form points in a higher-dimensional “space of all fields.”

This space of fields from physics is a close analogue to what Kim is proposing in number theory. To understand why, consider a beam of light. Physicists imagine the light moving through the higher-dimensional space of fields. In this space, light will follow the path that adheres to the “principle of least action”—that is, the path that minimizes the amount of time required to go from A to B. The principle explains why light bends when it moves from one material to another—the bent path is the one that minimizes the time taken.

These larger spaces of spaces that come up in physics feature additional symmetries that are not present in any of the spaces they represent. These symmetries draw attention to specific points, emphasizing, for example, the time-minimizing path. Constructed in another way in another context, these same kinds of symmetries might emphasize other kinds of points—like the points corresponding to rational solutions to equations.

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Connecting Symmetry to Physics

Number theory has no particles to track, but it does have something like space-time, and it also offers a way of drawing paths and constructing a space of all possible paths. From this basic correspondence, Kim is working out a scheme in which “the problem of finding the trajectory of light and that of finding rational solutions to Diophantine equations are two facets of the same problem,” as he explained last week at a conference on mathematical physics in Heidelberg, Germany.

The solutions to Diophantine equations form spaces—these are the curves defined by the equations. These curves can be one-dimensional, like the circle, or they can be higher-dimensional. For example, if you plot (complex) solutions to the Diophantine equation x4 + y4 = 1, you get the three-holed torus. The rational points on this torus lack geometric structure—that’s what makes them hard to find—but they can be made to correspond to points in a higher-dimensional space of spaces that do have structure.

LUCY READING-IKKANDA/QUANTA MAGAZINE

Kim creates this higher-dimensional space of spaces by thinking about ways you can draw loops on the torus (or whatever space the equation defines). The loop-drawing procedure goes as follows. First, choose a base point, then draw a loop from that point to any other point and back again. Now repeat that process, drawing paths that connect your base point with every other point on the torus. You’ll end up with a thicket of all possible loops that begin and end at the base point. This collection of loops is a centrally important object in mathematics—it’s called the fundamental group of a space.

You can use any point on the torus as your base point. Each point will have a unique thicket of paths emanating from it. Each of these collections of paths can then be represented as a point in a higher-dimensional “space of all collections of paths” (like the space of all possible triangles). This space of spaces is geometrically very similar to the “space of spaces” physicists construct in gauge theory: The way collections of paths change as you move from one point to another on the torus strongly resembles the way fields change as you move from one point to another in real space. This space of spaces features additional symmetries not present on the torus itself. And while there is no symmetry between the rational points on the torus, if you go into the space of all collections of paths, you can find symmetries between the points associated to the rational points. You gain symmetries that were not visible before.

“A phrase I use sometimes is that there is a kind of ‘hidden arithmetic symmetry’ encoded in these paths that is highly analogous to the internal symmetries of gauge theory,” Kim said.

Just as Chabauty did, Kim finds rational solutions by thinking about intersection points in this larger space he’s constructed. He uses symmetries of this space to narrow in on the intersection points. His hope is to develop an equation that detects these points exactly.

In the physics setting, you can imagine all possible paths that a ray of light could take. This is your “space of all paths.” The points in that space that interest physicists are the points corresponding to time-minimizing paths. Kim believes the points corresponding to thickets of paths emanating from rational points have something of this same quality — that is, the points minimize some property that comes up when you start to think about the geometric form of Diophantine equations. Only he hasn’t yet figured out what that property might be.

“What I started out trying to find” was a least-action principle for the mathematical setting, he wrote in an email. “I still don’t quite have it. But I am pretty confident it’s there.”

An Uncertain Future

Over the past few months I’ve described Kim’s physics-inspired vision to several mathematicians, all admirers of Kim’s contributions to number theory. When presented with this take on his work, however, they didn’t know what to make of it.

“As a representative number theorist, if you showed me all the awesome stuff Minhyong has been doing and asked me if this was physically inspired, I’d say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” Ellenberg said.

So far, Kim has made no mention of physics in his papers. Instead, he’s written about objects called Selmer varieties, and he’s considered relationships between Selmer varieties in the space of all Selmer varieties. These are recognizable terms to number theorists. But to Kim, they’ve always been another name for certain kinds of objects in physics.

“It should be possible to use ideas from physicists to solve problems in number theory, but we haven’t thought carefully enough about how to set up such a framework,” Kim said. “We’re at a point where our understanding of physics is mature enough, and there are enough number theorists interested in it, to make a push.”

The primary obstacle to the development of Kim’s method lies in the search for some kind of action to minimize in the space of all thickets of loops. This kind of perspective comes naturally in the physical world, but it doesn’t make any obvious sense in arithmetic. Even mathematicians who follow Kim’s work closely wonder whether he’ll find it.

“I think [Kim’s program] is going to do a lot of great things for us. I don’t think we’re going to get as sharp an understanding as Minhyong wants where rational points are honestly classical solutions to some kind of arithmetic gauge theory,” said Arnav Tripathy, a professor of mathematical physics at Harvard University.

Today the language of physics remains almost entirely outside the practice of number theory. Kim thinks that’s almost certainly going to change. Forty years ago, physics and the study of geometry and topology had little to do with one another. Then, in the 1980s, a handful of mathematicians and physicists, all towering figures now, found exact ways to use physics to study the properties of shapes. The field has never looked back.

“It’s almost impossible to be interested in geometry and topology nowadays without knowing something about [physics]. I’m reasonably sure this will happen with number theory” in the next 15 years, Kim said. “The connections are so natural.”

_Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

Who Wants a Pet Direwolf? Perhaps a Passenger Pigeon?

For the past few years science writer Britt Wray has been delving into the strange field of “de-extinction,” traveling the world to meet with scientists who are working to bring back species ranging from the aurochs to the thylacine to the woolly mammoth. One of the most promising efforts is Revive & Restore, which hopes to create a living passenger pigeon by the year 2022.

“That is what they have said as a target year where they can expect their gene editing experiments to produce the kind of birds that they would feel comfortable calling a de-extincted passenger pigeon,” Wray says in Episode 286 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Of course it’s hard to put a real finger on when these experiments will succeed, but that’s how long they think they need.”

There were once billions of passenger pigeons in North America, and a passing flock of them could darken the sky for hours. Now that seems like something out of Lord of the Rings, at least according to Ben Novak, lead scientist on the project.

“He was learning, at the age of 13—while being a huge fantasy fan, usually reading about mythical creatures—that this species was not mythical, but it had the same sort of effect for widening his imagination for what it would be like to live in a world with them,” Wray says.

And Novak isn’t the only fantasy fan with an interest in passenger pigeons. A Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin is also involved with the project. “They need money in order to do this,” Wray says, “so they collected donations, and yes, George R. R. Martin’s name is there as one of the donors.”

But given that Westeros is home to several extinct species, including aurochs and direwolves, it’s maybe not surprising that an author like Martin would have a special interest in seeing extinct animals live again. “De-extinction is so fantastical in its ambition that it makes sense that it attracts minds like George R. R. Martin who have a really vibrant way of visualizing the world and the type of creatures that could inhabit it,” Wray says.

Listen to our complete interview with Britt Wray in Episode 286 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Britt Wray on Jurassic Park:

“Michael Crichton read this [paper], and was aware of this thinking that came from the group, and called George Poinar Jr. asking if they could discuss it, because he was working on a project that this experimental thinking could benefit, and George Poinar therefore became one of the foundational scientists to actually influence the science that went into Jurassic Park, because as you’ve probably already guessed from listening to that explanation I just gave, it sounds a lot like what Jurassic Park puts forward as a way that you could have actually created dinosaurs from petrified, encased mosquitoes that were prehistoric. … It’s been tried, but no one has ever recovered decipherable DNA sequences from old, old, old specimens of amber-encased DNA from those times, from millions and millions and millions of years ago.”

Britt Wray on climate change:

“The hypothesis here is that having many, many re-created woolly mammoths—or woolly mammoth/elephant hybrids—that could move north and run around in these areas where there is thawing permafrost, they could punch holes in the snow with their big mammoth feet, basically perforating this insulating blanket of snow and then allowing cold air from the atmosphere to come down, hit the topsoil of the permafrost, and promote some kind of refrigeration or cycling of frigid air. And then additionally perhaps they’d be able to knock over dark plants that absorb the sun’s heat, and fertilize the soil with their dung, giving rise to light, reflective grasses, eventually geo-engineering that area back into what it was like more similarly during the Pleistocene.”

Britt Wray on capitalism:

“One researcher who I met with a few times over the course of researching the book, Hendrik Poinar—the son of George Poinar Jr., the scientist who influenced Michael Crichton’s science for Jurassic Park—is a woolly mammoth genetics expert. He has sequenced its genetics, with his collaborators. And he was once taken out for a lunch by a rich businessperson—over a $7,000 bottle of wine—who offered to provide him a job if he would leave his academic post and join him on a mission to bring back the mammoth and open up some kind of theme park, so that people could pay to come and visit these marvelous, re-created beasts. He turned him down, and nothing went forward with the plan, but it demonstrates that some people already have their minds turning on ways to capitalize off of this kind of research.”

Britt Wray on DNA data storage:

“There have been many experiments to show that things such as movie clips or photographic stills or entire digital books can be converted and stored in a DNA molecule, and then sequenced back out from that molecular form back into binary, and it can be experienced again in a computer, and can be shown to work, to not have broken down or completely changed. Also, when you’re just storing it in a molecule you’re not putting it in a cell, so it’s not going to mutate and do all sorts of things, it can just sit there as an inert molecule, which opens up all kinds of possibilities for how we might store data in the future—particularly as we are generating so much more digital data all the time and we need places to put it, and it’s very energy-expensive to store it the way that we currently do.”