Ten interesting things that we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to 'India's newest growing caste', 'Evolution of smart devices', and 'medieval roots of bro culture'

Published: Feb 11, 2018

g_103383_reading_bg_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, including investment analysis, psychology, science, technology, philosophy, etc. We have been sharing our favourite reads with clients under our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week’s iteration are related to ‘India’s newest growing caste’, ‘Evolution of smart devices’, and ‘medieval roots of bro culture’.


Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended February 9, 2018.  

1) Say Hello to India’s newest and fastest growing caste [Source: LinkedIn]
Sajith Pai, the author of this article, highlights how a new caste is emerging in India - Indo-Anglians. Unlike Anglo-Indians, the original English-speaking community in India, who were Christians, Indo-Anglians comprise all religions, though Hindus dominate. Indo-Anglians are also a highly urban lot; concentrated in the top 7 large cities of India (Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad and Kolkata) with a smattering across the smaller towns in the hills and in Goa. Also, their kids go to International schools and have ‘first-world yoga names’ such as Aryan, Kabir, Kyra, Shanaya, Tia, etc. A large majority of these Indo-Anglian households have emerged over the past decade and over the next 5–7 years, are likely to see a spike, perhaps even a doubling in these numbers. This is on the back of growing westernization, demand for English education and more critically, rising intercaste or intercommunity marriages, the single biggest cause of Indo-Anglian households (when parents have different mother tongues the child usually ends up speaking English).

Indo-Anglians also have members from ‘dominant’/upwardly mobile but historically lower castes, e.g., Yadavs. Once accepted into the Indo-Anglian fold, members fold their traditional caste identity into Indo-Anglian culture. Caste is rarely discussed amongst Indo-Anglians and few caste or religious conventions are followed. Members of Indo-Anglian households will happily marry members from non- Indo-Anglian households provided the potential partner speaks good English and can fit into Indo-Anglian circles. Seen in this light Indo-Anglians are India’s newest and fastest growing caste; and the only one where birth is not a necessary condition for inclusion. Indo-Anglians are not very religious either. They are not frequenters of temples, nor do they perform religious ceremonies. That said, they are, what the author calls, ‘FabIndia religious’, following soft cultural traditions, dressing up on occasions etc. They do have spiritual needs though, for they are a far lonelier, stressed out, emotionally over wrought community than most other Indian communities, thanks to their rootlessness, limited interaction with relatives, and depending on their careers to derive their identity. To meet these needs they turn to new-age gurus of the likes of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar & Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.

Coming to business, as the Indo-Anglian population grows, several businesses and sectors have emerged to tap their distended wallets, most notably the media and the education sector. The education sector is important as it both creates and is in turn fashioned by Indo-Anglians. What is particularly interesting is the creation of a distinct education pathway for the children of IAs by Indian education entrepreneurs over the past decade or so. New-age schools began across most cities in India in the ’90s promising a less stressful inquiry-oriented teaching method. Parents who had grown up on hypercompetitive rote-oriented learning and teaching styles were happy to acquiesce. The kids who emerged through the system were soft, well-rounded kids; not the battle-hardened tigers that their parents were. This was all fine when they were to go to US or UK for their undergraduate education. Those who stayed behind in India went to less competitive but still ‘prestigious’ institutions such as the National Law Schools, Srishti Design, Symbiosis, Manipal, etc. Similar to the education and media sectors, other businesses too have emerged to tap these Indo-Anglian and English First households. The most notable of these are organic/healthy food and cosmetics brands — think 24 Mantra, Forest Essentials, Kama Ayurveda, Raw Pressery, Epigamia, Paperboat etc. Restaurants are another category that is aiming hard for these segments — Starbucks, Social, Hoppipola, etc.

Indo-Anglians or even the broader English Firsts segment are not sizeable enough to influence elections; not even in cities or relevant constituencies where they are concentrated, such as Indiranagar or Bandra or DLF Phase V. The only exception to Indo-Anglians’ legislative irrelevance may be Goa. It has about 10,000 Indo-Anglian households as per the author’s estimate (out of a population of 1.8mn). Increasingly, Indo-Anglians from outside the state are investing in a second house in Goa, attracted by the westernized culture, popular restaurants and beaches, as well as the presence of other Indo-Anglians. It is also emerging as a popular retirement destination. Also, Indo-Anglians are a paradox. They are both India’s most visible and yet invisible class. While Indo-Anglians do not view themselves as a caste, they do fulfill the key condition for being considered a caste; restricting marriage to members of their caste. Only the criteria for entry into the caste is superior English speaking skills, and confidence to navigate Indo-Anglian circles. Indo-Anglian identity is not entirely fixed or stable yet, but is evolving as the numbers of this community swell, which is happening rapidly. It will be fascinating to see how this community evolves, and shapes (and is shaped by) the transforming Indian Republic.

2)    Cloning breakthrough heralds China’s scientific rise [Source: Financial Times]
Scientists in China recently announced they had cloned monkeys. It is the first time the technique used to create Dolly the sheep has been applied successfully to primates. While the milestone has spurred discussion about whether it could herald the onset of human cloning, the real story is the meteoric rise of China on the scientific stage. The country is pouring billions into efforts to become a research superpower. It is setting records, year on year, for the number of papers published in prestigious international journals. It files more patents each year than any other country (a record 1.1m in 2015), and more than the US, Japan and Korea combined. But China is also raising eyebrows for its use of cash incentives: many institutions pay scientists for papers published. The country’s most prolific scholars are pocketing amounts akin to City of London bonuses.

To create a clone, a monkey embryo was emptied of its DNA and the vacancy filled with DNA taken from a tissue cell of a macaque foetus. Two embryos altered in this way resulted in successful live births, producing two clones of the same macaque foetus. (Nature is also capable of creating two genetic clones in the form of identical twins, which result from a single embryo dividing in the womb). The research, published in the journal Cell, was carried out by scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience. The arithmetic behind their success bears testimony to the technical difficulty of cloning primates, similar to hurdles facing those cloning sheep or mice. Of 109 cloned embryos, three-quarters were implanted into 21 surrogate monkeys. This led to a handful of pregnancies and two successful births (although more clones are due to be born). As with the experiments that produced Dolly in 1996, the majority of cloned embryos that survive to implantation tend to abort spontaneously, or produce animals with birth defects. These dangers, as well as more obvious moral considerations regarding human individuality, render human cloning unethical to most scientists.

China is pursuing a policy called World Class 2.0, an attempt to catapult six universities into the league of top global institutions by 2020. The Thousand Talents programme, meanwhile, is luring international professors with generous packages and a $160,000 golden hello. That the country is raising its research game is clear from another measure. China has overtaken the US when it comes to the total number of scientific publications: 426,000 to 409,000, in 2016. The US, though, still triumphs when it comes to highly cited papers (a measure of influence). Some wonder whether China’s extraordinary ascent in the scientific firmament is due to cash payments for publication in top journals. One trawl through university websites revealed that, in 2016, a researcher could earn an average personal payment of about $44,000 for landing a paper in Nature or Science, the two most globally recognised journals. The highest payment on offer was a staggering $165,000 per paper — and this in a country where a professor typically earns less than $9,000.

China is also comparatively unhindered by regulatory oversight, allowing it to notch up a string of controversial biotechnology breakthroughs. It achieved a canine double-whammy last year, by cloning a gene-edited puppy. It is now pioneering gene-editing in humans. It is also reaching for the moon — literally — with plans to build a lunar outpost. Mastering artificial intelligence is high on the government’s agenda, prompting concern at the number of Chinese firms investing in American tech start-ups. While the US still spends more than any other nation on basic science — $86bn in 2015 — the OECD estimates China will outspend its rival on R&D by 2019.

3)    Smart homes and vegetable peelers [Source: ben-evans.com]
With the whole hype around ‘smart’ devices, Ben Evans in this piece asks three questions to ascertain their evolution: a) Will people buy 'smart' anything at all? Will people buy a whole lot of smart things, or just one or two (for example, a door lock, a thermostat and nothing else). And Why? b) If they do buy more than a handful of things, will they all be connected into one system, with a voice front end? c) Finally, if lots of people do have three dozen smart things all connected to Alexa (or Siri, or Google), does that change the broader tech environment? Does it result in massive company creation? Does it give, say, Amazon a major platform advantage - is the end result anything more than the sale of a bunch of ultra-low-margin generic Shenzhen boxes and a small reduction in the number of people cancelling Amazon Prime?

First he looks at the ‘Why?’. According to him, many of the things that get a connection or become 'smart' in some way will seem silly to us, just as many things that got 'electrified' would seem silly to our grandparents. The technology will be there, and will become very very cheap, so it will slide unnoticed into our lives. On the other hand, many things that people did think might get electrified did not, and many of the ideas that did work were not adopted in a uniform way. Electrical components became cheap commodities that let people experiment with all sorts of ideas - today, the smartphone supply chain is a firehose of cheap commodity components that, again, let people experiment with all sorts of ideas for smart things. Some will work, some won't, but our children will take the ones that do work for granted. However, there is a difference in the character of what might get created. Washing machines and vacuum cleaners saved huge amounts of time and effort - they replaced entire jobs and liberated people from drudgery. In comparison, many smart home devices do not look as though they’re solving the same magnitude of problem. Instead what these devices are doing is removing tiny pieces of friction- much the way electric devices like electric kettle and dishwasher did. And this is what will help their acceptance.

Next he talks about a unified ecosystem of smart devices. According to Ben, it’s not necessary to have each device on one system. Some things would ideally need no interaction at all, some need to be interacted with directly, some can be controlled remotely, and some might get some value from talking to other devices but others might not. And many might fit into several of these. He gives multiple examples of how smart devices might operate in the future and how their interconnectivity will make the entire system complex. Part of the challenge he says, is that very few people will convert their entire existing home to 'smart' all in one go, even if all of the possible products were available.  We buy new smartphones every two to three years, but fridges and water heaters last for a decade or two. If you want people to replace a 'dumb' thing with a 'smart' thing, then either you must fit into the existing replacement cycle for that thing, or that thing must be cheap enough to be replaced off-cycle. This means adoption overall will take a long time no matter how much sense you think it makes, but it also means that most smart things have to make sense as a single thing by themselves without being part of a larger system.  

He then talks about effects of having a centralized interface like Alexa/Siri. Ben says that the main reason for Amazon/Google or Apple’s interest here is to get the leverage to their ecosystems. He says there three levels worth thinking about. First, these devices help with retention - they keep you in the broader ecosystem. The HomePod, Watch, Apple TV and AirPods are all accessories to your iPhone - they have some reason of their own to exist, and some margin of their own, but their main benefit to Apple (like Apple Music) is make you more likely to replace your iPhone with another iPhone and not an Android. Second, like Apple TV or Google Maps, these devices also extend the number of touch points to those ecosystems in new ways, sometimes in ways that let them do quite new things. Like the way 'hey Alexa, I need more soap' would allow Amazon to have an even stronger and more embedded role in people’s buying, and gain even more control over its. Third, there is now an idea that voice is a new fundamental platform, with possibilities for search, discovery and application development platform that might be as significant as smartphones or social. Voice will be as important as multitouch, apparently.

Ben however is skeptical about utility of these smart devices and believes they will remain accessories rather than achieve importance like that of a smartphone. One major reason for this is little or no network effect associated with these devices. While there may be a network effect inside your home - you may want everything that is centrally controlled to be on the same system, and not have to talk to Google for the lights and Alexa for the appliances, there is almost no network effect between homes. You don’t have to buy one product over another because your friends have it, not will one product get irresistibly better if it has more market share. This point in turn means that there will be no winner-take-all effect either. A Google Home can answer the same questions and control much the same devices whether it has 15% or 85% market share.

4)    The problem with plastic  [Financial Times]
Every year an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic material flow into the oceans. And, over the past few months, there has been a huge increase in public and political concern about this marine pollution, to a level where it is approaching climate change as an environmental issue. In the UK, Sir David Attenborough’s TV series Blue Planet II has made a big impact, drawing attention to the harm done to creatures that become entangled in plastic or eat fragments that they have mistaken for real food. In one heart-rending sequence, Lucy Quinn of the British Antarctic Survey shows the plastic bags regurgitated by a wandering albatross chick on South Georgia. That bird is still alive but Quinn, close to tears, then shows the decaying corpse of another young albatross. “Unfortunately there was a plastic toothpick that has gone through its stomach,” she says. “Something as small as that has managed to kill the bird. It’s really sad to see.”

While many people have only recently become aware of the global plastic pollution crisis, others have been wrestling with it for years. One such is Mandy Barker, the Leeds-based photographer whose images illustrate this article. Barker has focused her work on plastic pollution, drawing material from beaches and harbours around the world and from a voyage to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an ocean current that traps exceptionally large amounts of floating debris. Another one is Richard Thompson, head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, who welcomes the new sense of urgency worldwide but is somewhat puzzled about why interest is surging now in an issue that has preoccupied him for so long. “There is a snowball effect, as media stories build on each other,” he reflects. “People who live far from the sea are beginning to realise that they share responsibility for marine litter.” Malcolm David Hudson, a marine ecologist at Southampton University, adds: “I think it is becoming clear to scientists and, increasingly, to the public that we are getting close to various tipping points within natural systems, as a result of plastics in the oceans.”

While large pieces of plastic waste are all too visible on beaches and in the ocean, toxicologists are sounding an urgent alarm about the smaller fragments, known generally as microplastics, whose dimensions are measured in fractions of a millimetre. Many microplastics come from the disintegration of plastic debris but some are manufactured as “microbeads” to add a slightly abrasive character to health and beauty products, including toothpastes and exfoliating creams. “Nurdles” are another source; these are tiny pellets used to make plastic products, which find their way into the sea through spills and mishandling. Fish and birds eat microplastics, which often look like perfect bite-sized morsels of real food, by mistake. Inside the gut they act as poisons, both through their physical presence and because they release toxic chemicals.

Jennifer Lavers of the University of Tasmania carries out most of her research on Lord Howe Island, 600km east of the Australian mainland. She found 225 pieces of plastic in the stomach of one three-month-old chick, weighing 10 per cent of its body mass. That would be equivalent to an average human carrying about 6kg-10kg of plastic. The number of marine species — fish, mammals, birds and invertebrates – known to be adversely affected by plastic waste has risen from around 260 when the first assessment was carried out in 1995 to 690 species in 2015 and 1,450 now, according to Lavers. Scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh released research this month showing that the shores of Scapa Flow in the Orkneys contain as much microplastic pollution as the Clyde and Firth of Forth: about 1,000 tiny particles and fibres per kilo of sediment. “The fact that a relatively remote island has similar microplastic levels to some of the UK’s most industrialised waterways was unexpected – and points to the ubiquitous nature of microplastics in our water systems,” says Mark Hartl, the project leader.

Dealing with plastics could have two parts: cleaning up what is already in the oceans (an estimated five trillion pieces of plastic, according to Lavers) and stopping more from getting in. Marine scientists, however, say the overwhelming priority must be prevention: cutting quickly the flow of those eight million tonnes every year — as much as half of it carried by rivers. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading anti-waste charity, estimates that international clean-ups could not deal with more than 0.5 per cent of plastics entering the seas. That means changing both consumer behaviour and product design — to discourage non-essential use of plastics, particularly for packaging, and making it far easier to recycle the plastics that are used. While government intervention would help, Thompson believes the biggest gains would come from compelling manufacturers to design recyclability into their products, transforming the traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) into a “circular economy”. Also, while use of microbeads is declining, another ubiquitous micipollutant – plastic fibers is causing concerns. Their main source seems to be clothing and textiles made from synthetic fibers, which become detached in washing machines and are not filtered out by water-treatment plants.

5)    Adpocalypse now!- How Youtube’s clean-up is helping India’s streaming sites [Source: factordaily.com]
When ads by famous brands like Mercedes Benz and Marie Curie and the UK Government start running on top of pro-Nazi videos or videos from ISIS and Al-Qaeda supporters, what would happen? The brands would obviously pull out ads. And that’s what’s happening. At stake is the reputation of YouTube and billions of dollars in video advertising that the Google company and rival vacuum every year. As much as $20 billion will leave the duopoly and head back to the quality end of the market over the next three years, Ricky Sutton, a war correspondent turned video entrepreneur, told FactorDaily. The duopoly he refers to is Google and Facebook. “This creates an opportunity for the public, publishers, broadcasters and advertisers,” says Sutton, the founder of Oovvuu, an artificial intelligence-powered video platform for publishers. Most big spenders in India are global brands and they tend to behave similarly across markets. For YouTube which saw brands like P&G cut down on ad spend during the adpocalypse, the worry in India is whether Hindustan Unilever and others would do something similar.

“People want trusted video and lots of it. Publishers have the audience and broadcasters have the video, and advertisers want the brand safety, engagement and scale they can provide,” says Oovvuu’s Sutton, who says he has met dozens of C-level executives in India last year. As per Vidooly’s estimates, advertisers spent close to Rs1,700 crore on digital video ads in 2017 and are likely to spend nearly 30% more this year: some Rs2,200 crore. Of last year’s number, about Rs900 crore to Rs1,100 crore was spent on YouTube and the rest was split between Hotstar, Facebook and others. Hotstar, owned by Rupert Murdoch-controlled broadcaster Star India, is estimated to have raked in about Rs 370 crore in advertising revenue in 2017.

Voot, owned by Viacom18, has 32 million monthly active users and six million daily active users who watch about 50 minutes of video on the platform on an average. In 2017, the year the adpocalypse played out, Voot grew the number of advertisers from 100 to 350. This year, the company plans to launch its subscription business, go global, and improve its viewership, says Gaurav Gandhi, COO at Viacom18 Media. Hotstar, with nearly 100 million monthly active users, is also gearing up to get a bigger share of the advertising market. In September, Star India outbid rivals including Amazon, Facebook, and Sony Pictures and acquired five-year exclusive rights to telecast the Indian Premier League for a stunning Rs16,347 crore.

Despite the setbacks, YouTube’s dominance will not be easy to overturn. For one, the company is quick to react to advertisers concerns and secondly, its reach is way beyond what competitors can offer and, thirdly, its technological prowess is such that it can quickly detect and scrap problematic videos. YouTube has reviewed its guidelines for creators twice – once in April 2017 and then in January this year. First, it said channels needed 10,000 lifetime views to be able to run ads. Earlier this month, YouTube said creators needed 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time within the past 12 months to be eligible for ads: tightening the terms to be able to get ad revenues. This move has enraged newer content creators, who now have to work harder to be able to monetise their videos.

6)    African Union accuses China of hacking headquarters
[Financial Times]
African Union officials have accused China of hacking its headquarters’ computer systems every night for five years and downloading confidential data. Beijing funded the AU’s $200m building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, while a Chinese state-owned company built it. Analysts said the fact that the hack remained secret for a year after being discovered and that the AU was not commenting publicly demonstrated China’s dominant relationships with African states. The hack underscores the risk African nations take in allowing Chinese technology companies such prominent roles in developing their telecoms backbones, despite the US placing restrictions on investment by Huawei and ZTE. The two companies have “built most of Africa’s telecoms infrastructure”, according to a McKinsey report.

Le Monde reported that data transfer activity was at a peak every night between midnight and 2am from January 2012, when the building was inaugurated, to January 2017. AU technicians discovered the organisation’s secrets were being copied on to servers in Shanghai, according to the article. The AU has now acquired its own servers and all electronic communication is now encrypted and no longer passes through Ethio Telecom, Ethiopia’s state-run operator. Other enhanced security features have also been installed. Analysts say the hack was “really alarming”, partly because it exposed that “African countries have no leverage over China”.

China’s ministry of foreign affairs denied the hacking allegations, calling the reports “baseless” and “complete nonsense”. However, a western diplomat based in the region said the AU should not have been surprised considering China built and fitted out the 19-storey building that dominates the Addis Ababa skyline. “When you let them build the whole system, of course they are listening in,” the diplomat said.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, promised $60bn in investment and aid to African countries at his last summit with African leaders, in South Africa two years ago. Chinese companies have built much of the road and rail infrastructure across the continent and more than 10,000 Chinese companies are active in the region. There is no other country with such depth and breadth of engagement in Africa across the dimensions of trade, investment, infrastructure financing, and aid. However, concerns about technological backdoors in Chinese tech hardware led US policymakers in 2012 to recommend blocking acquisition attempts from ZTE and Huawei. Huawei has repeatedly been barred from making acquisitions in the US over national security concerns. This month, American carrier AT&T dropped its deal with Huawei to distribute Chinese-made handsets in the US.

7)    The lonely mission of India’s sole luger [Source: NY Times
For his first five Olympics, the Indian luge pilot Shiva Keshavan competed using sleds he had rented, borrowed or cobbled together from parts. His competitors traveled with whole retinues of mechanics, psychologists, sponsors and chaperones; Keshavan didn’t even have a coach. Now he finally has a state-of-the-art sled. But on Dec. 8, just before he was supposed to compete in a World Cup contest in Calgary — a race he needed to complete in order to secure his spot in the Pyeongchang Games — his sled runners cracked beyond repair. At the last minute, he borrowed a set of runners (the blades that curve up like ram’s horns from below the luge) from Daria Obratov, a Croatian pilot. The runners were entirely the wrong size, and he didn’t have time to try them before racing. But for Keshavan, this barely qualified as an impediment. In Calgary, he scored the point that would help him get to this year’s Olympics. It will be his sixth and probably his last. But he’s willing to play it by ear.

To many ears, the word “India” paired with “sledding” sounds oxymoronic, but Keshavan grew up in the Himalayas, in a mountainside village in the far northern state of Himachal Pradesh. He guesses that he was 3 the first time he skied, on homemade wooden runners. And he even tried luge — but in the summertime, using a homemade sled outfitted with wheels, zipping downhill on mountain roads. “There have been mishaps,” he says. “The worst is the potholes.” His parents seem to have been as freewheeling as he: His mother is from Italy, his father from the southern Indian state Kerala, and they met while backpacking in the Himalayas in the late ’70s. In 1996, the year Keshavan turned 15, he had a reputation as a skilled skier but had no specific ambition. Then the Austrian luge champ Günther Lemmerer came to Keshavan’s school to scout for the International Luge Federation. Luge is one of three Olympic sled sports (it’s the one in which the racer lies fully exposed, faceup and feet first) and it has always been dominated by Germany, Austria and Italy.

In the 1998 Games, Keshavan was the only Indian to ever to qualify for luge and, at 16, the youngest luge Olympian in history.  Four years later, the Italian luge team offered Keshavan full use of its world-class coaches and facilities, an off-season job in the Italian police and eventual citizenship if he agreed to compete under their flag. Keshavan never even considered it. “For me the dream was to get the Olympics to my hometown,” he says. “And that was the only reason I was doing it. To show that we are also here.” Keshavan has never won a medal in the Winter Olympics — no Indian has. But he is the reigning Asian champion of the sport, winner of 10 Asia Cup medals and holder of the Asian speed record (83.5 miles per hour). India, the second-most-populous country in the world, is the absolute worst at the Olympics in general, with the lowest number of medals per capita. Indian Olympic officials sometimes seem determined to embarrass their country’s athletes. Two years before the 2014 Games, the Indian Olympic Association was suspended from the Games over a corruption controversy, and Keshavan had to walk in the opening ceremony as an “Independent Olympic Participant.”

Luge is also one of the most dangerous winter sports. Keshavan’s suit is made of fire-retardant material, but when he nudges the wall, he often gets a burn. Keshavan’s injuries also include stress fractures, damaged ligaments, a compressed vertebra and a herniated disk. These, he says, are “part of the sport.” Dying shouldn’t be, but sometimes it is. Hours before the 2010 Vancouver Games, Keshavan had just completed a training run when a Georgian luge pilot, Nodar Kumaritashvili, flew out of the track at over 89 m.p.h. and crashed fatally into a steel pole. And yet the most important thing a luge pilot must do is relax. “If you’re relaxed,” he said, “you can absorb the bumps, absorb the imperfections of the ice, and still keep your direction.

8)    The medieval roots of ‘Bro’ culture
[Source: electricliterature.com ]
Our cavalier approach to sexual consent goes back more than 500 years. In 1472, England, Edmond Paston wrote a letter to his older brother John. Edmond, a twenty-something younger son of a prominent gentry family living unhappily at home, complained that their widowed mother unfairly fired his favourite servant Gregory. He wrote that Gregory swears he did not have sex with anyone under Margaret Paston’s roof — he had sex with her outdoors in the rabbit-warren-yard, not indoors like the plowmen — but Margaret, ever unreasonable and overbearing, blames him anyway for instigating the whole thing. Edmond begs his brother to hire Gregory, whom he insists is “as true as any man alive.” It seems a bit odd that Edmond would tell this story as justification for why John should hire Gregory: He’s the best servant ever! Yeah, sometimes he gets carried away with lust and maybe facilitated something that sounds like it might have been a gang rape, but he only commits his sexual indiscretions outdoors!

But despite the 546-year difference, there’s nothing about Edmond’s letter—excusing sexual misconduct, treating women as tradable commodities without agency, valuing a man’s reputation more than the harm he’s caused—that should feel unfamiliar to us in the present day. This tale shared between brothers sheds light on the long history of our current views of consent, the social power of the term “whore,” and the role of exchanging obscene material — photos, videos, stories — in shaping bonds among men. By casting Gregory’s crime as merely “fuck[ing] a whore” (he would have written the Middle English “quene”), Edmond implies that the woman has consented to everything. It is not clear whether she is a professional sex worker or if Edmond simply uses the term to remove blame from his servant, as “quene” could designate a prostitute, a lower-status woman, a woman with a bad reputation, or any woman you wanted to insult. Edmond’s choice to call the woman a “quene” removes both the possibility for her to say no, and the necessity of her saying yes. By calling her a “quene,” Edmond ensures that the exchange between Gregory and the plowmen can always potentially be read as three men haggling over the price of a hire for the night. His word choice erases the possibility of sexual violence, shifts responsibility away from Gregory, and allows the woman to be blamed for what happens to her.

Edmond’s depiction of consent here illustrates how the label of “whore” operates. He claims that the plowmen, aroused by the sight of their colleague having sex, ask Gregory if they can go next. They do not ask the woman. Her consent is bypassed altogether, as the label of “quene” nullifies her right to say no. We do not know if she consented or objected, and Edmond makes it clear that it would not have mattered either way. Furthermore, Edmond claims that Gregory is unable to refuse his co-workers’ request by framing it as a “require[ment]” of “company,” part of the code of relations among a close-knit community of men. His depiction of Gregory granting sexual access to his partner because his bond with his co-workers “require[s]” him to do so both minimizes Gregory’s actions and excuses his choice to hand the woman over to the plowmen for the rest of the night. It wasn’t me, bro, he seems to say.

This story has chilling contemporary parallels, illustrating how little has changed when it comes to consent, slut-shaming, and obscene sexual storytelling among groups of men. Since March 2016, nine federal Title IX lawsuits have been filed against Baylor University, alleging that the university mishandled scores of rapes committed by members of its football team. One of these lawsuits, filed in May 2017 by a former member of Baylor’s volleyball team, contains disturbing links to Edmond Paston’s tale of the three servants and the “quene.” In the suit, the woman alleges that that the school’s football players regularly participated in gang rapes of freshman women, including her, as a “team bonding” activity. She recounts how she was drugged and raped by as few as four and as many as eight Baylor football players at an off-campus party in February of her freshman year. The plaintiff in the Baylor case alleges that the football players circulated photos and videos of themselves assaulting semi-conscious women after drugging them. While their use of technology to re-perpetrate sexual assault is new, their sharing of women’s exploitation for the purposes of male bonding is decidedly medieval.

9)    Does ‘The Cable Guy’ actually suck? [vice.com]
A bleak look at the loneliness of the TV Generation, Ben Stiller’s 1996 comedy The Cable Guy starred Matthew Broderick, an unassuming guy who needs a cable hookup, opposite Jim Carrey, a stalker who desperately wants a friend. It’s difficult to tell whether Carrey’s character is a sinister force or simply oblivious as to how human interaction works. With flashbacks of his dark childhood, sitting alone in front of the television with no one around, the audience can’t help but to sympathize with him. At one point in Chip and Steven’s short friendship, they have dinner together at Medieval Times where Chip’s a weekly patron. Even a day-to-day act like having a sit-down dinner needs to be distracting for Chip; he needs to be perpetually entertained by a show, his enjoyment heightened when it’s revealed that he had volunteered themselves to become apart of the spectacle. The Cable Guy was released just two years after Carrey notched a string of box office hits, including Dumb & Dumber, The Mask, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. 1994 was also the year that saw Stiller’s directorial debut Reality Bites, which received mixed reviews but has since become a cult classic.

A marked departure from Carrey’s wacky and cringy-but-lovable characters from the 1994 films, The Cable Guy was perhaps the first time an audience witnessed Carrey in an unlikable and malevolent role. (Sure, he played a villain in 1995’s Batman Forever, but his depiction of The Riddler could hardly be considered malevolent, or even unlikable.) For this reason, even though The Cable Guy fared well in the box office, the film was met with mixed reviews from critics. Many panned the film for featuring a character unlike the Carrey they knew and loved; Roger Ebert wrote, “We want to like Jim Carrey. A movie that makes us dislike him is a strategic mistake.” Carrey’s performance was not a continuation of the characters from his previous box office successes, but did the film owe it to the audience to continue assigning him the same roles? Perhaps the Jim Carrey audiences loved in 1994 wasn’t the real Carrey at all. In the recently released Netflix documentary “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”, Carrey’s interviewed about the never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage of him working on the Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon”. His Kaufman-like method acting approach to the role of Andy (and Andy’s alter ego Tony Clifton) caused all three personas—Jim, Andy, and Tony—to wreak havoc on the set. In the interview, Carrey refers to the audience thusly when discussing his start in comedy: “I asked myself, what do they want?”

He reveals that he built up a character—his “Hyde,” a carefree person totally unlike his real self—to entertain the masses. This outrageous on-stage persona made him a bona fide Hollywood star, and if at any point in his emerging career Carrey was opting to leave this alter ego behind, it was during The Cable Guy, in which he went from the “carefree guy” to the guy who cares too much. Indeed, the original script was a lot less dark before Carrey convinced the writers to make changes. In an interview, Judd Apatow, a producer on the film, told Vulture: “I always thought that the script Lou Holtz Jr. wrote was great, and it’s what got us all very interested. But Jim wanted to change it significantly and make it much more of a comedic version of “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” or “Unlawful Entry”, whereas the original draft was a little bit more like a “What About Bob?” annoying-friend movie.” It was the first time an audience witnessed Carrey demonstrating his emotional range beyond acting like a carefree fool, and that seems to be Carrey’s doing.

Chip’s lively joyfulness paired with a mysterious inner darkness has become a familiar aspect in Carrey’s characters. A slew of Jim Carrey’s outrageous characters that also exhibit a marked duality come after this film—specifically, I Love You Phillip Morris and especially Me, Myself & Irene, where his character tries to function with two dichotomized personalities. After the release of this film, he went from well-meaning fool to complicated individual, shedding certain aspects of the Carrey he created for the audience, and demonstrating his immaculate talent. And ironically, it’s Jim Carrey’s previous characters—from Ace Ventura to Lloyd Christmas— that many kids energetically quoted throughout the 90s. Ace Ventura was the VHS generation’s friend like Ricky Ricardo was to the TV generation, and The Cable Guy illustrates what could happen when real relationships are replaced with one-dimensional characters. It’s a simple moral that’s exceedingly relevant in a world where one can be lonely—even with 10,000 online friends.

10)    Facebook may soon tell if you are rich or poor  [Source: Economic Times]
Facebook has filed a patent application for a technology that will automatically detect the users' socio-economic status and segregate them in one of three classes - working class, middle class or upper class. According to the patent, the social media giant wants to build a system that collects users' personal data, such as education, homeownership and internet usage, in order to predict their socio-economic status. The patent suggested an algorithm that might improve Facebook's targeting capabilities, helping it serve up more relevant advertisements to users. "By predicting the socio-economic groups of users, [Facebook] is able to help the third party present sponsored content to the target users," the patent read. "Third parties are able to effectively promote their products or services, and the online system can provide a more engaging user experience to users," it added.

Facebook would ask the users what is their age and from there, it would throw questions that would be seemingly relevant to users of that age group. "In the filing, 20 to 30-year-olds are asked how many Internet devices they own, while 30 to 40-year-olds are asked whether or not they own a house," the report said. However, it is still unclear if the patent will ever actually be used for user targeting. The social media giant might also consider other information like a person's travel history, what kinds of devices the user owns, how many Internet-connected devices they own and what their highest level of education is, to know the socio-economic status. Interestingly, Facebook has skipped the income question acknowledging that users might not be comfortable telling about how much they earn per year, the report said. "Online systems often do not have information about the income of users, for example, because the users are typically not inclined to share income information, which may be sensitive information, on online systems," the patent said. Facebook could also refer to the "actions performed by the user on Facebook.

- Saurabh Mukherjea is CEO, and Prashant Mittal is Strategist, at Ambit Capital. Views expressed are personal. 

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