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It’s the First Not Last Place To Start

The term “geopolitics” has a specific meaning, though in the context of assessing markets and their equally ubiquitous though purposefully non-specific “jitters”, it’s basically a catch-all, too. Should the stock market, in particular, take…

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The term “geopolitics” has a specific meaning, though in the context of assessing markets and their equally ubiquitous though purposefully non-specific “jitters”, it’s basically a catch-all, too. Should the stock market, in particular, take a bad step, reflexive commentary is quick to call up geopolitics.

Such was absolutely the case late in January 2018 into the following month of February. Stocks were down. Kim Jung Un was firing missiles. Crazy-man Trump in all the Western media. These things were purportedly raising the global temperature to the point that it was in danger of becoming a flashpoint. Therefore, it sounded plausible (I guess) even stocks would pause their (latest) epic rise if to reassess these dangers.

There was even some absurd fuss about the imminent launch of World War III.



And if not geopolitics, of course, there’s always the Fed. If you didn’t think there was much to Korean weapons tests, and there wasn’t, then it must have been Janet Yellen’s hawkish successor Jay Powell to worry about once February 2018 began. After all, across all the news was this idea that good news was bad news; the better the US economy was doing, the more hawkish Powell would evolve in his first months and year in office.

One of my favorites:

“Economic news from the US has been stronger than anticipated,” said David Kuo, chief executive of financial services advisory Motley Fool. “So, perversely, the market correction has been caused by positive economic news”.

Markets worldwide suffer most when the most fundamental parts of them are doing their utmost best? Only if you think the Federal Reserve is the source of all life and energy.

The problem with these views is that they begin from an unchallenged assumption (taken from the other one that the Federal Reserve is the source of all life and energy).

We are taught from the start to believe that the economy is either in recession or booming. And if not the former, it can only be the latter. So, should markets tinge with uncertainty outside of any declared trough to the business cycle, our list of approved causation is inappropriately too limited (this assumption had actually been the mainstream view throughout the first half of 2008).

Must be “geopolitics”, then. Which one? Doesn’t matter. Pick one. There’s always something bad and the possibility for worse going on in the world.

Start with the unearned certainty on growth and inflation pressures, account for only temporary factors as necessary, leaving hunky dory sunshine never more than a news cycle away. The underlying suggestion is that the baseline is robust if not too much; thus, resolve today’s issue-of-the-day and we go right back to sunshine as if nothing happened.

See? Nothing to really worry about.

As it would turn out, neither the Fed’s rate hikes nor North Korea’s tempestuousness had anything to do with 2018 going the wrong way even though what did go wrong did end up with 2019 as a total economic, not geopolitical, mess. The underlying guess of a booming economy, globally synchronized growth, that is what was actually being questioned (flat curves especially) right from January 2018.

With very good reason, though more Japan than Korea.



This is not to downplay the high stakes and seriousness of various problems across the globe, including right now January 2022 in Ukraine and Communist arms surrounding Taiwan.

How about a growth scare that more and more seems, perhaps, not a scare? It’s the one possibility we’re never meant to ponder even for a moment.

Tracking PMI data on that account, the last half of last year had left a very clear downside trend that with the initial sentiment data for 2022 indicates at best its continuation or maybe an acceleration further downward to it.

Last week, I highlighted the Federal Reserve’s New York branch and its Empire Manufacturing survey which, frankly, collapsed in January. Dropping by more than thirty points in its headline index along with the same level for new orders, though just one month for one survey I thought it worth mentioning anyway.


The conventional explanation has been – while markets supposedly get more jittery from geopolitics – the pandemic, specifically omicron. It’s a plausible explanation, after all, New York being at the epicenter of the new variant’s seasonal uptick.

Very close to New York, however, the Fed’s Philadelphia branch rebounded in January from its own plunge during December. In this other one, the overall manufacturing estimate tumbled almost 25 pts last month, with the index for new orders giving up nearly 35. This month, the topline number recovered but only eight pts while new orders increased by barely more than four.


We’ve had our eyes on new orders specifically for matters unrelated to massed armies or even government pandemic overreactions. The vast and vastly obscured inventory cycle, however, and the potential for, again, a material slowdown keeps showing up in the data – and not just that for sentiment, nor for just the US.

Earlier today, IHS Markit marked down its own manufacturing numbers for the whole US economy. At a flash January reading of 55.0, that’s down from 57.8 in December, noticeably distant from July’s 63.8, and very clearly having gone decidedly in the wrong direction ever since.



On the services side of its ledger, Markit released some shocking data in the form of a major decline for the non-manufacturing PMI. This one crashed from 57.0 in December down to just barely 50 (50.8) the flash for January. That’s nearly four points less than the previous cycle low, September 2021, which, of course, had been immediately blamed entirely on delta.

Governments in the US were clearly provoked substantially more, and in substantially more places, by delta than have been due to omicron. So, while we might consider the latter as having had some negative impact maybe concentrated in a short timeframe like December or January figures, it sure doesn’t explain the overall trend and where things seem to be headed regardless of these transitory interruptions.

Lower highs, lower lows.

Furthermore, new orders. What IHS Markit had to say about them (both services and manufacturing) in its January data was one part spin, a bigger part uh oh:

New orders for goods and services continued to rise strongly, albeit registering the weakest rise since December 2020. The upturn in new orders was supported by the service sector, as manufacturers stated that new sales growth was often held back by weaker demand from clients amid price rises and efforts to work through inventories. [emphasis added]

A strong rise in orders that’s also the worst in thirteen months, technically true, sure, meaningless nonetheless though standard stuff which begins with the binary assumption I stated from the outset (if it isn’t recession, must be great). More important was that last bit: “efforts to work through inventories.”

That this is something new in the commentary is itself a substantial shift.


In other words, we know in bonds almost for certain what’s been keeping a lid on growth and inflation expectations for long-term yields going back almost a year now, even as the Fed’s rate hikes are incorporated into them, and it hasn’t been geopolitics nor particular strains of pandemic interruptions.

There’s been two of those over the preceding year and the growth scare just won’t go away; it sticks around in a way that neither “geopolitics” or coronavirus strains has nor is really meant to.

We’re never supposed to question the boom when that’s usually the first place to start.

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Government

Sheila Ochugboju named Executive Director of Alliance for Science

Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is pleased to welcome Sheila Ochugboju as the new Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AfS), a global communications…

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Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is pleased to welcome Sheila Ochugboju as the new Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AfS), a global communications initiative dedicated to promoting access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally. Her start date is June 1.

Credit: Image provided/Sheila Ochugboju

Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is pleased to welcome Sheila Ochugboju as the new Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AfS), a global communications initiative dedicated to promoting access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally. Her start date is June 1.

“We are delighted that Dr. Ochugboju will soon be joining us,” said BTI President David Stern. “The Alliance plays a vital role in connecting a range of stakeholders with up-to-date and vital information about how scientific advances can contribute to the future of the planet’s health, an effort that aligns perfectly with BTI’s mission to advance and communicate scientific discovery in plant biology to improve agriculture, protect the environment, and enhance human health.”

“We are fortunate to have someone with Sheila’s experience, connections and vision in this role,” Stern added.

Ochugboju is a leader in science communication and has been a global advocate for science technology and innovation for more than 20 years. She was most recently the Head of Strategic Communications at the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), supporting vaccine delivery communication across Africa and advocating for vaccine equity.

She is also a founding member of the Network of African Women Environmentalists (NAWE), leading in the development of flagship initiatives and products such as the Earth Science Cafes, The Youth Earth Guardians and Landscape Mentors network and the Earth Reflections Podcast, which was rated amongst the leading environment podcasts in Africa in 2020.

“I am excited to join the Boyce Thompson Institute, because together with the Alliance for Science we can offer new lenses, tools, and partnerships to transform how the world understands the role of science in addressing global challenges,” said Ochugboju. “The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and now food security challenges are teaching everyone that good science communication can literally save lives and livelihoods.”

Founded in 2014, AfS is a global communications initiative that seeks to counter misinformation about agricultural biotechnology, climate change, nuclear power, vaccines, COVID-19 and other contemporary science issues.

To support its work, the Alliance relies on a global network of about 14,000 science allies who engage in their local communities to advance science-based policies. AfS has trained more than 900 science champions, including scientists, farmers, journalists, healthcare professionals and students, in 48 countries to communicate effectively about biotechnology.

“After a comprehensive executive search, we are thrilled to have found someone like Dr. Ochugboju, who has the knowledge and ability to broaden the horizon of the Alliance for Science and bring resources to counter misinformation across a more substantial expanse of scientific endeavor, especially including climate change,” said Ronnie Coffman, Professor of Global Development at Cornell University and Interim Director of AfS.  

Ochugboju graduated with a degree in Medical Biochemistry and then received her Ph.D. in Plant Biochemistry from Royal Holloway, University of London in 1996. She was awarded the Daphne Jackson Trust Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship, based at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, St. Hilda’s College, University of Oxford in 1998.

She has lived and worked in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. In 2016, she received a WINGS WorldQuest Women of Discovery Award for developing and leading pioneering African science, technology and innovation projects. Ochugboju was also appointed as a Global Roving Ambassador for the county government of Kisumu, Kenya, in charge of the portfolio for Transformative Science and Urban Resilience.

About Boyce Thompson Institute:

Opened in 1924, Boyce Thompson Institute is a premier life sciences research institution located in Ithaca, New York. BTI scientists conduct investigations into fundamental plant and life sciences research with the goals of increasing food security, improving environmental sustainability in agriculture, and making basic discoveries that will enhance human health. Throughout this work, BTI is committed to inspiring and educating students and to providing advanced training for the next generation of scientists. BTI is an independent nonprofit research institute that is also affiliated with Cornell University. For more information, please visit BTIscience.org.

 

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International

How Crowded Are Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Ships Right Now?

Both cruise lines have raised capacities slowly. When will Royal Caribbean and Carnival hit normal?

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Both cruise lines have raised capacities slowly. When will Royal Caribbean and Carnival hit normal?

When Freedom of the Seas sailed from Miami on July 2, 2021, it marked Royal Caribbean International's (RCL) - Get Royal Caribbean Group Report return to North American sailing after being shut down since March 2020. 

That sailing has less than 1,000 people on it, mostly loyal cruisers eager to get back to sea no matter what the rules were (as well as a fair amount of company executives.

That ship can hold 4,375 passengers at full capacity, according to Ship Technology and on that July sailing, it felt empty and crew seemed to outnumber passengers. 

At night, in the British Pub, the crowd was essentially me, two other journalists, and the occasional person who wandered by. 

That made it, perhaps, too easy to get a drink, and while it was a wonderful experience, that sailing only felt normal when everyone onboard took to the upper decks to cheer sail away and celebrate the Fourth of July,

I sailed on Freedom on that July sailing, then again in September, October, November, December, and then again in May.

I sailed Odyssey of the Seas and Wonder of the Seas in between January and May. 

The crowds got progressively bigger through the fall, but even the December sailing (a three-day weekend, which in pre-pandemic times would be at or near capacity) still had a limited capacity.

Royal Caribbean steadily increased the number of people on its ships, with some slight pauses in that as new covid variants popped up and Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) - Get Carnival Corporation Report has followed roughly the same model.   

Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Cruise Lines Capacity Is Coming Back

How crowded will my cruise be? 

This has been a question seemingly every experienced cruiser has asked. In the summer and fall, that answer was "not at all," and later "not as much as usual," but the numbers of passengers onboard has slowly moved back to normal, even reaching it on some sailings.

Cruise lines generally don't offer a lot of comment on why they might be limiting capacity when technically they no longer have. 

Crew concerns, including not being able to onboard new crew members to allow for full sailings due to slow visa processing times and keeping rooms open fr potential covid quarantines have kept some ships below their full complement of passengers.

Demand, of course, factors in as well. Royal Caribbean CFO Naftali Holtz commented on where his company stands now during its first-quarter earnings call.

"I'd like to comment on capacity and load factor expectations over the upcoming period. We plan to restart operations on all remaining ships by the end of June. 

"We plan to operate about 10.3 million APCDs [available passenger cruise days] during the second quarter, and we expect load factors of approximately 75% to 80%," he said. 

"Our load factor expectations reflect the higher occupancy we are seeing in the Caribbean and lower expectations for repositioning voyages and early season Europe sailings."

It's clear that demand is a factor when it comes to why certain sailings are sailing with fewer passengers than others. 

Carnival has had to limit the cabins it has been selling on its United Kingdom-based Cunard line due to staffing issues.

“As you may have seen in the news, the wider impact of Covid-19 is affecting hospitality and is disrupting airlines and as such this is impacting the number of crew members we are able to get to our ships,” said the company in a statement.

“We naturally want to ensure that all guests across the fleet experience the high standards of service on board that they would expect from Cunard and which we are committed to delivering,” the company added. 

“We are therefore limiting the number of guests sailing as we build crew numbers back up."

Normal Cruise Crowds Are Coming

Once staffing issues return to normal — something that is slowly happening — the biggest concern may be whether the economy slows demand. 

Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said he expects his company to get close to normal over the summer during the cruise line's first-quarter earnings call.

"We're well on our way back to full cruise operations, with three-quarters of our capacity having resumed guest operations and a plan to return the balance of the fleet for the summer season. And while the conversation around covid-19 is greatly reduced, we still have to and are successfully actively managing," he said.

And while neither Carnival's nor Royal Caribbean's CEO said it directly, passengers sailing this summer will likely experience passenger counts in line with tradition. 

That does not mean some sailings won't have limited capacities, or sell poorly, but many will not as long as demand remains within historical norms.

 

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Spread & Containment

Lab, crab and robotic rehab

I was in Berkeley a couple of months back, helping TechCrunch get its proverbial ducks in a row before our first big climate event (coming in a few weeks,…

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I got previews of a number of projects I hope to share with you in the newsletter soon, but one that really caught my eye was FogROS, which was just announced as part of the latest ROS (robot operating system) rollout. Beyond a punny name that is simultaneously a reference to the cloud element (fog/cloud — not to mention the fact that the new department has killer views of San Francisco and frequent visitor, Karl) and problematic French cuisine, there’s some really compelling potential here.

I’ve been thinking about the potential impact of cloud-based processing quite a bit the last several years, independent of my writing about robots. Specifically, a number of companies (Microsoft, Amazon, Google) have been betting big on cloud gaming. What do you do when you’ve seemingly pushed a piece of hardware to its limit? If you’ve got low enough latency, you can harness remote servers to do the heavy lifting. It’s something that’s been tried for at least a decade, to varying effect.

Image Credits: ROS

Latency is, of course, a major factor in gaming, where being off by a millisecond can dramatically impact the experience. I’m not fully convinced that experience is where it ought to be quite yet, but it does seem the tech has graduated to a point where off-board processing makes practical sense for robotics. You can currently play a console game on a smartphone with one of those services, so surely we can produce smaller, lighter-weight and lower-cost robots that rely on a remote server to complete resource-intensive tasks like SLAM processing.

The initial application will focus on AWS, with plans to reach additional services like Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. Watch this space. There are many reasons to be excited. Honestly, there’s a lot to be excited about in robotics generally right now. This was one of the more fun weeks in recent memory.

V Bionic's exoskeleton glove shown without its covering.

Image Credits: V Bionic

Let’s start with the ExoHeal robotic rehabilitation gloves. The device, created by Saudi Arabian V Bionic, nabbed this year’s Microsoft Imagine Cup. The early-stage team is part of a proud tradition of healthcare exoskeletons. In this case, it’s an attempt to rehab the hand following muscle and tendon injuries. Team leader Zain Samdani told TechCrunch:

Flexor linkage-driven movement gives us the flexibility to individually actuate different parts of each finger (phalanges) whilst keeping the device portable. We’re currently developing our production-ready prototype that utilizes a modular design to fit the hand sizes of different patients.

Image Credits: Walmart

This is the third week in a row Walmart gets a mention here. First it was funding for GreyOrange, which it partnered with in Canada. Last week we noted a big expansion of the retail giant’s deal with warehouse automation firm, Symbotic. Now it’s another big expansion of an existing deal — this time dealing with the company’s delivery ambitions.

Like Walmart’s work with robotics, drone delivery success has been…spotty, at best. Still, it’s apparently ready to put its money where its mouth is on this one, with a deal that brings DroneUp delivery to 34 sites across six U.S. states. Quoting myself here:

The retailer announced an investment in the 6-year-old startup late last year, following trial deliveries of COVID-19 testing kits. Early trials were conducted in Bentonville, Arkansas. This year, Arizona, Florida, Texas and DroneUp’s native Virginia are being added to the list. Once online, customers will be able to choose from tens of thousands of products, from Tylenol to hot dog buns, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Freigegeben für die Berichterstattung über das Unternehemn Wingcopter bis zum 25.01.2026. Mit Bitte um Urhebervermerk v.l.: Jonathan Hesselbarth, Tom Plümmer und Ansgar Kadura von Wingcopter GmbH. Image Credits: © Jonas Wresch / KfW

There are still more question marks around this stuff than anything, and I’ve long contended that drone delivery makes the most sense in remote and otherwise hard to reach areas. That’s why something like this Wingcopter deal is interesting. Over the next five years, the company plans to bring 12,000 of its fixed-wing UAVs to 49 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. It will cover spots that have traditionally struggled with infrastructural issues that have made it difficult to deliver food and medical supplies through more traditional means.

“With the looming food crisis on the African continent triggered by the war in Ukraine, we see great potential and strong social impact that drone-delivery networks can bring to people in all the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa by getting food to where it is needed most,” CEO Tom Plümmer told TechCrunch. “Especially in remote areas with weak infrastructure and those areas that are additionally affected by droughts and other plagues, Wingcopter’s delivery drones will build an air bridge and provide food from the sky on a winch to exactly where it is needed.”

Legitimately exciting stuff, that.

Image Credits: Dyson

In more cautiously optimistic news, Dyson dropped some interesting news this week, announcing that it has been (and will continue) pumping a lot of money into robotic research. Part of the rollout includes refitting an aircraft hangar at Hullavington Airfield, a former RAF station in Chippenham, Wiltshire, England that the company purchased back in 2016.

Some numbers from the company:

Dyson is halfway through the largest engineering recruitment drive in its history. Two thousand people have joined the tech company this year, of which 50% are engineers, scientists, and coders. Dyson is supercharging its robotics ambitions, recruiting 250 robotics engineers across disciplines including computer vision, machine learning, sensors and mechatronics, and expects to hire 700 more in the robotics field over the next five years. The master plan: to create the UK’s largest, most advanced, robotics center at Hullavington Airfield and to bring the technology into our homes by the end of the decade.

The primary project highlighted is a robot arm with a number of attachments, including a vacuum and a human-like robot hand, which are designed to perform various household tasks. Dyson has some experience building robots, primarily through its vacuums, which rely on things like computer vision to autonomously navigate. Still, I say “cautiously optimistic,” because I’ve seen plenty of non-robotics companies showcase the technology as more of a vanity project. But I’m more than happy to have Dyson change my mind.

Image Credits: Hyundai

Hyundai, of course, has been quite aggressive in its own robotics dreams, including its 2020 acquisition of Boston Dynamics. The carmaker this week announced that part of its massive new $10 billion investment plans will include robotics, with a focus of actually bringing some of its far-out concepts to market.

Another week, another big round for logistics/fulfillment robotics, as Polish firm Nomagic raised $22 million to expand its offerings. The company’s primary offering is a pick and place arm that can move and sort small goods. Khosla Ventures and Almaz Capital led the round, which also featured European Investment Bank, Hoxton Ventures, Capnamic Ventures, DN Capital and Manta Ray.

Amazon Astro with periscope camera

The periscope camera pops out and extends telescopically, enabling Astro to look over obstacles and on counter tops. A very elegant design choice. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

We finally got around to reviewing Amazon’s limited-edition home robot, Astro, and Haje’s feelings were…mixed:

It’s been fun to have Astro wandering about my apartment for a few days, and most of the time I seemed to use it as a roving boom box that also has Alexa capabilities. That’s cute, and all, but $1,000 would buy Alexa devices for every thinkable surface in my room and leave me with enough cash left over to cover the house in cameras. I simply continue to struggle with why Astro makes sense. But then, that’s true for any product that is trying to carve out a brand new product category.

A tiny robot crab scuttles across the frame. Image Credits: Northwestern University

And finally, a tiny robot crab from Northwestern University. The little guy can be controlled remotely using lasers and is small enough to sit on the side of a penny. “Our technology enables a variety of controlled motion modalities and can walk with an average speed of half its body length per second,” says lead researcher, Yonggang Huang. “This is very challenging to achieve at such small scales for terrestrial robots.”

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Scuttle, don’t walk to subscribe to Actuator.

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