Marvin’s Best Weekly Reads April 14th, 2024

Marvin Liao
13 min readApr 14, 2024

Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger

  1. “Africa is in play. Russia has just announced that the remnants of the Wagner Group are now formally reconfigured into Russia’s new Africa Corp. Some call it “old wine in new bottles,” but the name alone indicates a significant increase in the direct control over cash flows and diplomatic influence by Moscow over Africa. There is little doubt that Wagner’s operations have increased and become more professionally managed since the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin.

In the past, Wagner was run as a network involving “the complex dynamics between Russia, its oligarchs, and its criminal networks and how they interact with African governments, businesses, and populations,” according to The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. This is more than rebranding. Today, the private military contractor network is becoming a more formal arm of Russian diplomacy and policy.

The Russians had been recruiting in North Africa, looking for people to fight on the front lines of the war with Ukraine. The Ukrainians are now fighting back by going to North Africa as well. The Wall Street Journal says that Ukrainians are now fighting Russians in Sudan. It’s a complicated story. Russia’s access to gold in Sudan has helped finance the war against Ukraine. But, Sudan’s leader actually backed Ukraine. Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is Sudan’s military ruler. He, like many African leaders, has been at risk of a Russian-backed coup for some time.

So, he supplied weapons and support to Ukraine. When Russian forces began to threaten his regime, he asked Ukraine to help him. Ukrainian commandos are now in Sudan fighting Russian-backed rebel forces there. The WSJ quotes Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the Head of HUR, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, saying, “War is a risky business.” “We are in a full-fledged war with Russia…They have units in different parts of the world, and we sometimes try to strike them there.” Ukraine’s war is metastasizing into Africa now.

While these locations don’t get much attention, the reality is that the Global South is experiencing the presence of superpower interests. These places have the potential to trigger wider repercussions that we’ll miss if we keep our focus exclusively on Ukraine and Gaza.”

2. Another example of failed US statecraft. Haiti. This is all the fault of the woke State department.

3. Scary new developments from the Russian military. Never underestimate your enemy.

4. This is a great overview of the latest on what’s up in cultural & creative businesses.

5. Good discussion on what’s happening in geopolitics right now. Scary times to say the least.

6. “Trump badly needs money; his campaign is hurting for funds and he’s in legal trouble as well. Given that, plus his record of corruption, it’s absolutely plausible that he’d sell out to an ally of the Chinese Communist Party for a few bucks. The theory is bolstered by the fact that former Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway is being paid by the Club for Growth to advance ByteDance’s interests on Capitol Hill; Jeff Yass is the Club’s biggest donor.

The TikTok bill’s conservative champions thus abruptly found the rug pulled out from under their feet. The bill might still pass, but given how House Republicans lined up behind Trump on Ukraine aid, it’s fair to say that its future is now much more in doubt.

If the bill gets defeated, it won’t just be the embarrassment of a lifetime for China hawks who placed their hopes in Trump. It will allow an engine of propaganda and spyware to continue to compromise America’s national security. And it will show that the U.S.’ position in the emerging cold war is perilously weak.

Why are both TikTok’s current management and CCP mouthpieces so desperate to prevent a sale? After all, TikTok would still exist, and ByteDance would get tens of billions of dollars in cash. There’s only one answer that makes sense: Chinese authorities believe that TikTok is an important tool for influencing public opinion in the United States.”

7. “Say no to more chores and activities. Let go of FOMO. Do good work that moves the needle instead of work that just shows you’re working.

And how do we prevent a “Revenge of the MORE”?

Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great”, says that a “to-do” list isn’t the only thing that’s valuable. Sometimes it can be even more beneficial to have a “not-to-do” list.

When doing case studies on how 11 companies went from mediocrity to top performers he found, “my research team and I were struck by how many of the big decisions were not what to do, but what to stop doing.”

The companies turned themselves around more effectively not by doing more, new things but by subtracting the bad behaviors. And this can also work for “You, Inc.” It doesn’t just prevent the negative activities but also frees up more time for what’s effective and what makes you happy. Make a “not-to-do” list from your biggest time wasters and the things that drive you crazy and suddenly doing the good stuff seems a lot easier.

Often, the biggest step is just giving yourself permission to subtract. When you do, it’s like you’ve been wearing a backpack full of bricks and you’ve just discovered you can take it off. You feel lighter, freer. You realize that all this time, you’ve been running a race nobody forced you to enter. It’s like discovering a new planet where time moves at a reasonable pace.

Let’s strip away the excess, the clutter, both physical and metaphorical. In subtracting, we might just find something more valuable than what we’re giving up. We might find a bit of peace, a bit of space, and maybe, just maybe, a bit of ourselves that got lost under all that stuff…

I could write a few more paragraphs but you get it.

Sometimes less really is more.”

8. “So here’s my attempt at a key takeaway:

“Understand what everyone is thinking about, and then find what is actually true by understanding where that thinking could be wrong.”

9. “I’ll conclude with this: there is ALWAYS an opportunity to build a massively successful business. Like I said before; the age-old mission of any entrepreneur is to identify opportunities and take advantage of them. All of these canaries represent potential weaknesses to incumbents, but you’re not limited to just waiting for big companies to get cancelled, or for the kick-off of World War 3.

One of the biggest opportunities seems to be in-line with a time-tested recipe. Looking for dinosaur incumbents that are far from dynamic, but who represent massive pools of revenue ripe for the taking. Understanding why a category has remained under-innovated is more critical than ever because if it was easy, it would have been reinvented already.”

10. Lots of interesting thoughts on where the world is going. Commodities, gold, BTC and CBDC’s. America as the Spanish empire not the Roman Empire.

11. A global macro view. Net net, financial weakness is leading us from a unipolar world to a multipolar one.

12. Marc Faber is a global investing legend. I don’t agree with some of his views but like his adventurous spirit. Ultimate value investor.

Identifies Colombia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Thailand as interesting markets for assets.

13. Strong case that De-Dollarization is happening.

14. Lots of gems of wisdom here. Tai Lopez drops some knowledge.

15. Solid discussion on VC math and portfolio strategy.

16. This is such a great discussion on what’s what in tech land.

17. “The most valuable firms are a function of the resources and activities dominating the economy. We have evolved from an agrarian economy to an industrial one to one that runs on oil, then services and now … attention. U.S. Steel, Saudi Aramco, and Alphabet created unprecedented shareholder value as they commanded the seminal resource of their respective eras.

Today the most valuable consumer companies monetize attention. And Reddit commands more attention in the U.S. than any company not owned by Alphabet. If attention is the new oil, then Reddit is Saudi Arabia, and resting beneath the platform is a sea of attention the size of the Ghawar oil field.”

18. This is an important discussion. New space race being a driver for technology advancement.

19. “There is a lot of ruin in a country.” Moving from a unipolar to the multipolar world.

20. Tuzla, Bosnia. Most affordable European city for digital nomads and remote workers.

21. Great guide to hiring execs for your startup well.

“So much of startups is about making quick calls from your gut. Seeing an opportunity and going all-in before you lose the chance. Founders get used to this, and then get tripped up by exec hiring, which rewards thoughtfulness and thoroughness. A bad hire is much worse than another quarter with no hire. Design a good process, take your time, and be sure you’re getting someone great.”

22. “Correlation isn’t causation, but there’s good reason to think that physical (“atoms”) technologies are more conducive to compounding productivity improvements than digital (“bits”) ones. Even AI will have to build a lot of real physical stuff in order to fulfill its promise as a GDP accelerator. Obviously there are a lot of other things that affect physical goods production — NIMBYism, environmental regulation, trade patterns, and so on — but energy availability is probably a key input.

With ultra-cheap and ultra-portable energy from solar power and batteries, who knows what we could achieve — cheap desalination, cheap self-driving cars and e-bikes everywhere, personal air transport, super-powered appliances, robots everywhere, and so on.

But this utopia is under threat, from both increasing demand and limited supply. On the demand side, we’ve invented new digital technologies that could potentially use up arbitrarily large amounts of electricity: Bitcoin and AI. And on the supply side, there are a bunch of bad policies that make it difficult to connect new power sources to the U.S. electrical grid.

Bad laws and regulation prevent humans from enjoying the benefits of technological innovation. We saw this with the Soviet Union and other communist regimes in the 20th century. We saw this when overregulation halted the building of nuclear plants in the 1980s. And if we don’t act now to reform our dysfunctional regulatory systems, we could see it again with the solar and battery boom of the 2020s.”

23. “Biden’s conflicted strategy reflects the realities of contemporary coalition building: when it comes to countering China and Russia, democratic alliances go only so far. Biden’s approach also reflects a deeper, more enduring tension.

American interests are inextricably tied to American values: the United States typically enters into great-power competition because it fears mighty autocracies will otherwise make the world unsafe for democracy. But an age of conflict invariably becomes, to some degree, an age of amorality because the only way to protect a world fit for freedom is to court impure partners and engage in impure acts.

Expect more of this. If the stakes of today’s rivalries are as high as Biden claims, Washington will engage in some breathtakingly cynical behavior to keep its foes contained. Yet an ethos of pure expediency is fraught with dangers, from domestic disillusion to the loss of the moral asymmetry that has long amplified U.S. influence in global affairs. Strategy, for a liberal superpower, is the art of balancing power without subverting democratic purpose. The United States is about to rediscover just how hard that can be.”

24. So much to learn here. Masterclass on building community based businesses and Personal Holding Companies.

25. Important global macro discussion. Japan, Turkey, Gold, Uranium and natural resources.

26. This is the new zeitgeist in startups and its good thing.

“Focusing on capital efficiency and alternative growth methods, particularly the emphasis on customer funding and increasing sales, is becoming more prevalent in the tech industry. This trend towards optimizing resources and exploring diverse funding avenues is likely to gain popularity over time. More entrepreneurs will strive to only raise one round of financing their whole journey.”

27. “So a word of caution as we step back and appreciate the professionalization of startups. There is a spectrum that exists where playbooks can be transformative or manipulative. As the game becomes more well-known, people start playing on the weaknesses of the game itself. And that can leave people vulnerable.

So learn from the people, processes, and playbooks that have been explored. But don’t turn them into dogma.”

28. “In Eriksen’s opinion, the seven liberal arts (or “liberating arts,” not to be confused with the ideological monstrosity found in a specific department of formal education taught by those who are not liberated themselves) are, quote:

Logic: how to derive truth from known facts

Statistics: how to understand the implications of data

Rhetoric: how to persuade, and spot persuasion tactics

Research: how to gather information on an unknown subject

(Practical) Psychology: how to discern and understand the true motives of others

Investment: how to manage and grow existing assets

Agency: how to make decisions about what course to pursue, and proactively take action to pursue it.

I would encourage you to hold these in your mind while pushing into the unknown.

If you prepare yourself with a future-proof mind, what technical skills will be lucrative or useful in the far future are irrelevant because you can adapt as necessary.

To learn the liberating arts, these are the skills I learned:

Marketing & sales — if you don’t know how to attract and persuade, you will never get what you want, and your only option will be for an employer (or the government) to give it to you. (Rhetoric, psychology)

Writing & thinking — the ability to communicate the value in your unique mind. The foundation of getting in front of other people. (Logic, research)

Entrepreneurship — the process of taking my future into my own hands, hunting for my survival, and building products that I want to see in the world (that others care about). (Statistics, agency, investment)

Some may say things like entrepreneurship aren’t a “skill,” but I would argue that any mental process that becomes more efficient with time is a skill.

Everything is a skill, but most people don’t treat their life as a practice.”

29. George Friedman gives such an interesting view on geopolitics and has one of the best understandings of the world. The ultimate pragmatist.

30. “Great startup founders are pattern breakers.

They develop pattern-breaking ideas that differ significantly from our usual practices. Pattern-breaking founders challenge the usual, offering fresh views and solutions that depart from old methods. To most of us, their ideas seem far-fetched, perhaps even foolish, because they’re so different. Airbnb offered a completely different approach to accommodation than traditional hotels. Ridesharing introduced a brand new way for people to travel. Salesforce challenged us to rethink how we used and paid for business software.

But ideas alone don’t shape the future. Those who break the pattern must do more and take differentiated actions to make others believe. Their radical ideas clash with existing beliefs. People usually push back when their perspectives are challenged. So, pattern-breaking founders must find early believers who see the world as they do. They’ll also meet harsh critics, some clinging to the old for personal gain and others who don’t want to change.”

31. Excellent discussion on how to build your personal brand from an expert.

32. “One final point: This risk of a future fiscal tightening is one of the reasons why I do expect the YCC framework will be maintained — why give up a proven and very powerful policy tool when it does not cost you anything.

As long as you set the YCC ‘reference rate’ above the likely free-market rate you’re not obstruction free market price discovery; but when you want to exercise control you can do so easily by forcing a flatter yields curve — YCC effectively gives the BoJ two policy tools, the standard short-term policy rate anchor and a long-bond potential cap. A tool that, when needed, allows to control the slope of the yield curve –and thus net interest margins for the banking system — is a good one to have, desho?

In an age where policy makers around the world are looking for more potential control against free market volatility and disruption, why would the BoJ relinquish a powerful policy tool that, under Governor Ueda’s leadership, has actually re-vitalized private liquidity provision and true price discovery. And it’s a nice zero-cost insurance policy — just in case the market gets overly worried about run-away inflation and the BoJ doing ‘too little, too late’.”

33. I appreciate Justin Waller. Good positive model for young men.

34. Developments being overlooked in the media. Sea-drones. Implication is Ukraine is winning the sea battle even though they don’t have a navy. And showing major weakness on part of Russia’s logistics chain to Crimea.

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Marvin Liao

Ever curious: Tsundoku, Reader, Aspiring Shokunin, World traveller, Investor & Tech/Media exec interested in almost everything! www.marvinliao.com