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Dad shoes get a glow up
What we are reading this weekend
Good morning! There is no edition of The Intersection today, since The Signal team is on an extended Holi break. We will resume our regular editions beginning March 13. Until then, here’s our curation of the best long reads of the week.
Sneak(er) attack: From being the ‘dad shoe’ of the ‘90s to the darling of the ‘normcore’ aesthetic, New Balance has had an unexpected meteoric rise in high fashion. The sneaker brand is sponsoring high-flying athletes, collaborating with breakout designers, and getting visibility in sports such as basketball. This also leaves New Balance vulnerable to public scrutiny of its brand ambassadors and collaborators; Adidas is reeling under a $540 million quarterly loss after cutting ties with Ye (formerly Kanye West) over his anti-Semitic remarks. But New Balance is relying on a new game plan. This story in GQ charts out how the company is reversing its own playbook of flying below the radar to sneak past more storied competitors.
The spy who robbed me: There’s more to China-US tensions than meets the eye. China has been luring members of its diaspora to steal trade secrets from American research universities and top corporations. This feature in The New York Times Magazine revolves around Hua, a Chinese-origin American engineer at GE Aviation who was sucked into a Chinese operation to steal proprietary information from the company. Hua eventually helped the FBI identify and arrest a Chinese government official conducting the espionage operation and helped uncover China’s modus operandi. A must-read for anyone who’s a sucker for espionage stories.
Soft power: What do BTS and Elvis Presley have in common? All BTS members will start military service, just like Presley was drafted into the US Army in March 1958. The optics of a high-profile conscription align with the South Korean military’s strategic goals. Recruits have historically suffered poor wages, unhealthy meals, inadequate healthcare, and abuse, among other problems. It doesn’t help that South Korea is caught in a bind between North Korea and China. Foreign Policy highlights how the country is using pop superstars to polish its not-so-clean image.
Fraud in the billions: In September 2014, Financial Times journalist Dan McCrum received a tip about a fast-growing German fintech company, Wirecard. Over the next few years, McCrum led an investigation that eventually resulted in the company disclosing a €1.9 billion ($2 billion) hole in its accounts and filing for insolvency in June 2020. Behind it all was one man, Wirecard’s COO Jan Marsalek, who has been a fugitive ever since and is a person of interest to the intelligence agencies of at least three countries. This piece in The New Yorker details how the biggest fraud in German history unravelled. It involves a secret mansion near the Russian consulate in Munich, which Marsalek rented for €680,000 ($720,000) a year to host meetings with spies and government officials.
Rage against the algorithm: Rotterdam is tough on welfare fraud. Of its 30,000 people who rely on state-sanctioned benefits each year, up to 6,000 are investigated annually after being red-flagged. The hawkishness began in 2017 with the deployment of an algorithm originally developed by Accenture, but eventually managed by Rotterdam’s welfare department. Horror stories emerged soon after. Most people shortlisted for potential fraud were red-flagged on parameters that reek of bias. Women, immigrants, the chronically ill, divorced individuals, and even tattooed people were deemed ‘high risk’. This Wired story is a must-read for its prescient warning about the dangers of blind faith in everything-AI.
Stirred, not shaken: When Nicolas Maduro took over as Venezuela’s president in 2013, the country’s GDP was $373 billion. In 2018, its GDP had shrunk to $45 billion. Under Maduro’s authoritarian rule, Venezuela’s inflation has skyrocketed by nearly 14,000%. Opposition leaders, the media, and even the judiciary have been muzzled. Maduro is unpopular among his people, armed forces, and even his party, but continues to have an iron grip ten years into his presidency. Why? The Financial Times dives deep into why the west-backed acting president Juan Guaidó couldn’t topple Maduro, and the US’ unsuccessful attempts to destabilise the current regime.