Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to 'advances in electric aviation', 'Paytm and risks to its wallet business' and 'return of dumbphones'

Published: Sep 23, 2018

g_109507_reading_bg_280x210.jpgImage: Patcharanan / 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 ‘advances in electric aviation’, ‘Paytm and risks to its wallet business’ and ‘return of dumbphones’


Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended September 21, 2018.

1) How the promise of electric power could transform aviation [Source: Financial Times ]
Aviation is on the brink of the biggest revolution since Frank Whittle invented the jet engine in 1937. After decades in which jets have been powered by fossil fuels, advances in materials, battery technology and electrical systems are holding out the promise of cleaner, cheaper commercial flight. Yet in this revolution, the established players in the industry are not guaranteed to retain their positions. Last year, more electric aviation projects were announced than in all of the previous nine years, according to consultants Roland Berger. Of the 100 in the public sphere since 2009, only 30% come from established players such as Boeing, Airbus, or Rolls-Royce. Additionally, in this new era of electric aviation, the market will not just be for so-called flying taxis — small vehicles carrying a handful of passengers over very short distances. A growing number of projects are focusing on the potential for regional aircraft carrying dozens of passengers with ranges of up to several hundred miles — with the larger aircraft aiming at 100 passengers.
 
Electrification means that designers will be able to reimagine the modern aircraft. Instead of jet engines hanging off a wing, multiple motorised fans could be distributed across an aircraft, offering a new canvas for designers to dream up more aerodynamically efficient and potentially safer vehicles. Without the roar of big turbines to wake residents on take-off, airports might be able to operate virtually around the clock or even closer to urban areas, with less noise pollution. Electric aviation could also upset the aerospace hierarchy, undermining the business models of leading aero-engine makers such as Rolls-Royce and General Electric. The possibility of using a smaller gas turbine to drive a generator — providing power not just for thrust but for on-board functions such as air conditioning — means that propulsion may no longer be a distinct system, separate to other power-consuming functions. It is likely to be integral to the very fabric of the aircraft, demanding expertise in electronics and systems that may go beyond the core skills of existing aero-engine makers.
 
The rise in move towards electrification of aviation comes on the backdrop of pressure on the industry to resolve its growing emissions problem. Air travel accounts for 2% of global emissions. But with air traffic doubling every 15 years, aviation emissions are increasing by 4.5-6.0% a year. Notably, the dream of electric flight is not new. The French adventurer Gaston Tissandier became the first aviator to fly an electrically-powered vehicle when he attached a Siemens electric motor to a dirigible in 1883. But the puzzle of how to make a battery and the accompanying electrical systems powerful and light enough to propel a passenger aircraft has confounded aerospace engineers ever since. The difference now is that the push for electric cars is driving such improvements in batteries and systems that what once seemed impossible in commercial aviation may now be within reach — at least in a hybrid form and for shorter flights of up to 1,000 miles, perfect for many of the routes flown by low-cost airlines.
 
For bigger aircrafts, there are fundamental constraints in using wholly electric systems. “Batteries have an energy density 60 times less than kerosene (jet fuel),” says Stéphane Cueille head of innovation at Safran, the French aero-engine maker. “Even if you multiply the current density by five — beyond what labs say we can achieve in future — you would need 180 tonnes of batteries to fly an A320 single aisle aircraft more than 3,000 nautical miles. The aircraft’s take-off weight is only 80 tonnes, so that gives you an idea of the challenge.” As in the car industry, hybrid technology will be the stepping stone. But even hybrid systems will have to advance significantly to be competitive with conventional aircraft. Batteries and fuel cells are still too heavy, and the heat generated by cables and other components needs to be resolved. There is also a greater risk of electrical fires when using higher voltages in the thinner atmospheres where aircraft operate. Finally, power loss across the stages of a hybrid system means that gas turbines remain far more efficient.
 
2) Can inequality only be fixed by war, revolution or plague? [Source: Economist ]
In an age of widening inequality, Walter Scheidel believes he has cracked the code on how to overcome it. In “The Great Leveler”, the Stanford professor posits that throughout history, economic inequality has only been rectified by one of the “Four Horsemen of Leveling”: warfare, revolution, state collapse and plague. So, are liberal democracies doomed to a repeat of the pattern that saw the gilded age give way to a breakdown of society? Or can they legislate a way out of the ominous cycle of brutal inequality and potential violence? “For more substantial levelling to occur, the established order needs to be shaken up,” he says. “The greater the shock to the system, the easier it becomes to reduce privilege at the top.” Yet nothing is inevitable, and Mr. Scheidel urges that society become “more creative” in devising policies that can be implemented.
 
Upon asking whether the society is incapable of tackling income inequality peacefully, Mr. Scheidel says, “No, but history shows that there are limits. There is a big difference between maintaining existing arrangements that successfully check inequality—Scandinavia is a good example—and significantly reducing it. The latter requires real change and that is always much harder to do: think of America or Britain, not to mention Brazil, China or India. The modern welfare state does a reasonably good job of compensating for inequality before taxes and transfers. However for more substantial levelling to occur, the established order needs to be shaken up: the greater the shock to the system, the easier it becomes to reduce privilege at the top.”

If equality can only come about by war, revolution, state-collapse or plague, then is there an argument that we should simply learn to adapt to a new gilded age? He says, “No, but we need to appreciate that measures that worked well in the past may have done so because they were taken in the unique context of massive violent shocks and threats: the world wars and communism. This requires us to be more creative in dealing with inequality. Above all we must think harder about feasibility. It is not enough for economists to come up with recipes to reduce inequality, we also need to figure out how to implement them in an environment that is politically polarised and economically globalised. Both factors limit our scope for intervention.”

Talking about artificial intelligence and automation, he says, “Ideally we would like education to keep up with technological change to make sure workers have the skills they need to face this challenge. But in practice there will always be losers, and even basic-income schemes can take us only so far. At the end of the day, someone owns the robots. As long as the capitalist world system is in place, it is hard to see how even huge productivity gains from greater automation would benefit society evenly instead of funnelling even more income and wealth to those who are in the best position to pocket these gains.”
 
On a more eccentric topic, he feels modernisation may put us on a trajectory toward singularity, a point at which all human beings merge into a globally interconnected hybrid body-machine super-organism and no longer have to worry about inequality. Or perhaps technological advances will instead take inequalities to new extremes by separating a biomechatronically and genetically enhanced elite from ordinary mortals. Or, just as likely, none of the above – we may be moving toward outcomes we cannot even yet conceive. But science fiction takes us only so far. For the time being, we are stuck with the minds and bodies we have and with the institutions they have created. This suggests that the prospects of future levelling are poor. It will be a challenge for the social democracies of continental Europe to maintain and adjust elaborate systems of high taxation and extensive redistribution or for the richest democracies of Asia to preserve their unusually equitable allocation of pre-tax incomes to stem the rising tide of inequality, which can grow only stronger as ongoing globalisation and unprecedented demographic transformations add to the pressure.

3) Paytm may need more than a Warren Buffett vote of confidence [Source: Financial Times ]
More than the $300mn cheque that will help Paytm fund promotions encouraging Indians to use the app for everything from buying train tickets to mutual fund investments, it was the vote of confidence from Warren Buffett’s company that was critical— at a time when Paytm faces questions about rising competition and structural changes in the market. Berkshire Hathaway invested at a valuation of more than $10bn, making Paytm the second most valuable company in Indian ecommerce behind only Flipkart, in which Walmart this year bought 77% stake for $16bn.

Paytm’s mobile wallet business has struggled to add to the custom it won in the aftermath of demonetisation announced in Nov’16. In all, there were 325m Indian mobile wallet payments in July, just 1% above the prior peak reached 15 months earlier. Indians have been slow to embrace ecommerce, partly because of concerns about its reliability. Many are now predicting the gradual disappearance of mobile wallet payments, as consumers turn instead to new services built around India’s new Unified Payments Interface. This new system enables smartphone users to send money directly between bank accounts far more swiftly than through conventional mobile banking apps — and without having to load money into a mobile wallet. Additionally, WhatsApp, which has an Indian user base of more than 200mn and rising, is in the process of rolling out a feature that enables money to be sent as easily as photos.

Mr. Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of Paytm, insists that such rival services, while they might be convenient for sending money to friends, cannot compete with Paytm’s financial platform, which he says is now far more than just a digital wallet. Central to this is the Paytm Payments Bank, a new type of mobile-first bank devised by Indian regulators, which can take deposits only up to Rs100,000 ($1,400) and cannot lend. But in late June, following a routine audit, the central bank said Paytm Payments Bank was not allowed to create any new customer accounts, without making public its reasons. Mr. Sharma sees the payments bank as part of an “ecosystem” that will meet as many user needs as possible, much like that created in China by its major investor Alibaba. This explains the push into ecommerce by Paytm Mall, backed by Alibaba and Japan’s SoftBank. Unlike market leaders Flipkart and Amazon, Paytm is not making big investments in stocking and delivering products. Instead, it wants to provide a platform for India’s millions of small merchants to find customers online.

Paytm currently has about 6% of the Indian ecommerce market, roughly in line with its level last year, and far behind the share of more than 30% held by each of Amazon and Flipkart. The investor firepower behind Paytm, particularly from Alibaba, means it cannot be written off. After Alibaba invested $680mn in 2015, some observers assumed that Paytm would now become its primary vehicle for making inroads into the Indian market. But Alibaba’s focus on Paytm may be lessening. In April, it agreed to let its holding in Paytm Mall be diluted, meaning it and affiliate Ant Financial no longer have a controlling stake. It has since looked to open a second ecommerce front in India, through joint-venture talks with Reliance Industries and the Tata Group.

4) As iPhone X raises the bar and price of smartphones, some consumers opt to switch to 'dumbphones'  [Source: CNBC ]
In today’s world seldom you’ll get to see people using a normal phone, which isn’t smart (smartphone). Everyone today is using an iPhone or an android phone which have endless features. According to a 2015 Pew Research survey, just under half of Americans (46%) said the smartphone is something they couldn't live without, a number that's not likely to have gone down in the two years since the survey. Awareness is not enough to kick the addiction. New York-based educator Gary McLoughlin, a learning specialist at Manhattanville College, said his younger nieces would "constantly have their phones on the table, and they're always scrolling and checking things, and I found this not only hard to understand but really offensive." Yet McLoughlin still found himself unable to disconnect.
 
But, there are a few companies who are catering to consumers who want to disconnect from their smartphones. These companies are making 'dumbphones,' which are attractive, simplistic and sometimes even pricey. They are making phones to lure in the smartphone crowd with its scratch- and impact-resistant glass, feather-light weight, ultra-long battery life and a minimalistic, easy-to-use interface. Peter Neby, founder of Punkt, one of the start-ups in the dumbphone market, said, "I had a stepdaughter at the time who was so hooked on her telephone that I had to — we had to— argue every day, whether it was at dinner or going to bed, that she had to put her phone away". With a Punkt, you basically see what you get. A phone. A contacts book. And text messaging. That's it. No games, no camera, and no way to get the phone to display anything other than the time. But the phone's design evokes a minimalism that's inviting and visually striking compared to other phones, recalling Braun calculators with round buttons, clear numbering and understandable icons. But there’s one catch, it comes with a $295 dollar price tag.
 
If the Punkt mobile stands out for its back-to-basics phone options while retaining the basic smartphone design, the Light Phone stands out for how little it resembles a phone. A slick slab of glass and plastic, the Light Phone's simplicity is eye-catching. The only indication of the technology beneath the glass is the three holes located near the top of the device that hide a speaker. But it is still a full-on phone, running a customised version of android, and includes several basic features: the ability to change ringtones and display basic phone stats like battery life and signal strength. Its cost is $150 plus a $5-per-month service subscription that reroutes smartphone calls to the Light Phone line. It comes with software and a SIM chip that reroutes an existing smartphone number to Light, and the Light phone then operates independently using its own cellular module. The Light Phone does one thing only, and that is make calls, and by that metric alone it may not justify its asking cost.
 
Light Phone said it has sold about 10,000 phones in 71 countries — 3,000 phones through Kickstarter and 7,000 through its website. It raised $400,000 on Kickstarter and went on to raise $3.2 million from investors over the past three years. One investor, which invested $1.7 million, is Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn, which makes the iPhone. Start-ups are not the only tech companies capitalising on a shift to the simple. Former mobile phone behemoth Nokia, now owned by HMD, launched a modernised version of its popular 3310, a colorful slab that took pride in its dumbphone trappings, playing up its durability and battery life. Apple released its Series 3 Watch with a built-in cellular radio, which, coupled with software, allows users to leave their phone at home.
 
5) Freezing credit will now be free – Here’s why you should go for it [Source: NY Times ]
Consumers in the USA will soon be able to freeze their credit files without charge. Security freezes, often called credit freezes, are “absolutely” the best way to prevent criminals from using your personal information to open new accounts in your name, said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy with Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer advocacy nonprofit group. Free freezes were required as part of broader financial legislation signed in May by President Trump. Free security freezes were already available in some states in the USA and in certain situations, but the federal law requires that they be made available nationally. Two of the three major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax and TransUnion, have already abandoned the fees. The third, Experian, said it would begin offering free credit freezes. To be effective, freezes must be placed at all three bureaus.

A security freeze makes it harder for criminals to use stolen information to open fraudulent new accounts, or borrow money, in your name. Credit bureaus house records of your accounts and payment history, which card companies and lenders use to decide whether you are likely to pay your bills. If you freeze your file, the bureaus will not provide information to lenders unless you “thaw” the freeze first, using a special personal identification number. Free security freezes are becoming available more than a year after a huge data breach was discovered at Equifax. The breach compromised the personal information, including Social Security numbers, birth dates and other sensitive details, of more than 145 million people — nearly half the population of the United States. Despite the scale of that breach, and a steady stream of other incidents, security freezes have not really caught on. An AARP survey of about 2,000 adults found that just 14% had frozen their credit files.

Consumers suffer from “optimism bias,” the researchers found. They realized that the breach created risk, but did not think anything would happen to them personally. “People tend to underestimate their own risk,” said Florian Schaub, an assistant professor at the school and one of the study’s authors. Others incorrectly assumed that because they had poor credit or little wealth, they would be unattractive targets for identity thieves. “They think: ‘I don’t have much money. I have nothing to lose,’” Mr. Schaub said. “But that’s not how identity thieves operate.” People interviewed also cited the cost of freezes as a barrier. It can cost as much as $10 per bureau to place a freeze, and a similar fee is charged to thaw it temporarily when you want to apply for credit. But the freeze process is not as easy as it could be, said Mike Litt, consumer campaign director for U.S. PIRG, the consumer advocacy group. He would prefer credit files to be “frozen” by default, and thawed on request. As it stands, consumers must place freezes separately at all three bureaus, and keep track of three PINs.

The new law also requires credit bureaus to allow parents to create and freeze credit files for their children under 16, to prevent their identities from being misused. The Federal Trade Commission offers information on what to do. Freezes will not protect you from other types of fraud, like someone using the number of a credit card you already have, or impersonating you online to claim your Social Security benefits. To help prevent those types of theft, Mr. Litt recommends checking your credit card statements regularly for suspicious charges, and setting up and monitoring an online Social Security account, to prevent criminals from opening one first and diverting your benefit checks.

6) The most important video game on the planet [Source: NyMag ]
Video game has come a long way; from single- to multi-player games which can be played across various devices. The video games which have caught the attention of the youth now are Fortnite and PUBG (PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds). However, Fortnite seems here to stay because it’s modeled not as a series with annual installments, but as a persistent online world that’s always under construction. It feels less like a thing you log in to every few days to waste some time and more like an app that you’re constantly pulling to refresh, always something new to see.

The cadence of a Fortnite game is that nothing is happening and then, very suddenly, everything is happening. The game has three main modes: solo (every player for themselves), duos (teams of two), and squads (teams of three or four), but there are consistently around 100 players in every session. After players land on the island, the first objective is usually to scavenge. Swing a pickax-shaped “harvesting tool” at virtually anything that’s not natural terrain, like you might in Minecraft, and you’ll come away with a stockpile of wood, stone, and metal, used to construct makeshift towers and platforms. Find glowing treasure chests and weapons lying around to build up an arsenal, and defensive items like the shield-granting “slurp juice” to give you an extra advantage. More often than not, you and your teammates will be alone for minutes at a time, deciding where to go, what to do next, and whether you’ve got enough time for a detour before “the storm” closes in (head outside of the circular boundary into the storm and you start taking damage).

On the other hand, PUBG was very much an in-progress game, made by a smaller team that didn’t have years of experience making a shooter. Epic Games (maker of Fortnite) had decades of experience making shooters like Gears of War, privileged access to the engine on which its game ran, and a near-finished game that it could quickly retrofit for the current trend. Plus, Fortnite was already up and running on consoles like Xbox and PlayStation, the most popular hardware for gaming — PUBG wouldn’t come to a console system until the end of 2017, and the game was still a messy work in progress then. At the E3 convention in June in Los Angeles, Fortnite had a large booth on the main show floor, complete with replica makeshift towers and a full-size Battle Bus. PUBG had a meager presence dedicated to the mobile version of its game in the lobby by the exit. If you weren’t looking for it, you might have walked right past.

If you’re good enough at Instagram, you can find a modeling career. If you’re popular enough on Twitter, you can find a job writing professionally. If you excel at Fortnite, you can find yourself chilling online with A-listers like Drake. All you need is a mouse and keyboard, and enough determination. Across the tech industry, more and more software companies are shifting to services. That is, instead of selling one copy of a piece of software for a fixed price, they sell continual access to that software for a recurring fee. Other competitive games, like PUBG and Rocket League, have announced plans for similar “passes,” while perennial franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield have each announced its own plans for a battle-royale mode.

Fortnite is a gamified video game. You’re competing against other people in each game, obviously. But you’re also competing with them across the course of a season. And, most importantly, you’re competing against yourself. Just like running two miles instead of three on a fitness app means you won’t get your badge, getting two weapons kills instead of three leaves a progress bar only partially filled, sitting on the main screen, taunting you. You’re not simply supposed to win games, you’re supposed to earn rewards, titles, badges, and skins. You’re playing because it’s fun — but also because there’s something at stake.

7) Book review: The Cost-Benefit Revolution, by Cass Sunstein [Source: Financial Times ]
In this review by British Economist Tim Harford, he discusses Cass Sunstein’s (of the ‘Nudge’ fame) latest book ‘The Cost Benefit Revolution’. According to the book, cost-benefit analysis prompts us to judge policies not by whether they are popular or ideologically pure, but through technocratic scrutiny of quantified pros and cons. When Sunstein was running the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for Barack Obama, the White House rejected a regulation to control ozone and supported a regulation to control mercury. Environmental groups were perplexed: Did Obama want to save the planet or didn’t he? Was there cynical political triangulation at play? For Sunstein, the answer is nothing so Machiavellian: ozone regulation was expensive and would do little good; mercury regulation was cheaper and would prevent a great deal of harm. This example sums up the challenge for defenders of cost-benefit analysis: it’s important, but it is dull.

Mr. Harford says that the book makes three valuable contributions. First, it relates the history of cost-benefit analysis in US policymaking. Sunstein worked in the Reagan White House as well as for President Obama. In 1981, Ronald Reagan signed Executive Order 12291, requiring administrative decisions to weigh the costs and benefits of action and maximize net benefits. This order, writes Sunstein, “placed the technocrats squarely in charge”, giving them the authority to reject pointless rules. Subsequent leaders, including Obama and Donald Trump, have taken a similar approach — although President Trump has added deregulatory flourishes that, Sunstein mildly comments, “are hard to defend”.

Second, it tackles the economist Friedrich Hayek’s argument that technocrats simply don’t know enough to weigh costs and benefits. Hayek’s objection to central planning is that it cannot work because the planners will never have enough information. Cost-benefit analysis is a kind of central planning, appealing in principle, but delusional in practice. Hayek memorably wanted economics “to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design”. Sunstein acknowledges the problem, but thinks the difficulty is exaggerated. Do we really know so little about costs and benefits that it is futile to even ask? He argues, plausibly, that the right response to Hayek’s warning is to regulate with humility rather than to give up. He argues that regulators should routinely seek comment, experiment, measure the effect of current rules and react if things can be improved.

Finally, it makes a case that cost-benefit analysis could reduce political tribalism. The method makes us reflect, consider the system as a whole rather than some salient part, ask good questions and notice where we do or don’t have good answers.

8) How Young India navigates the urban commute [Source: Livemint ]
A YouGov-Mint Millennial Survey shows a significant share of urban youth, in India’s biggest cities, use public transport, but in smaller cities, most rely on private vehicles. The survey was conducted online among 5,000 respondents from YouGov India’s panel of internet users spread across more than 180 cities. In the six biggest cities, 40% of youth (millennials and post-millennials) said they prefer public transport. In Kolkata and Mumbai, a majority of youth prefer public transport over other means. Public transport includes local train, metro rail, bus, and mini-vans or autos. In smaller cities (tier 2 and tier 3 cities), less than one-third preferred public transport. The higher reliance on public transport in bigger cities seems to be driven by relatively better public transport options. Cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata have relatively well-networked rail or metro systems. In the six big cities, among those owning vehicles, 26% prefer public transport for urban commutes over their personal vehicles, while 7% prefer cab services. In smaller cities, the corresponding figures are markedly lower.

Around 26% of youth from relatively richer households (with net monthly income of over Rs50,000) preferred public transport, whereas 39% from relatively poorer households (with net monthly income of less than Rs20,000) preferred public transport. However, the survey does not suggest that those using public transport today would necessarily continue to do so in the future. An overwhelming majority of India’s urban youth wants to buy a personal vehicle, either a two-wheeler or a car, irrespective of their preferred mode of city commute. This is true across all cities. Even among the youth who said public transport was their most preferred choice for urban commutes, a fourth (25%) said that they planned to purchase a personal vehicle within a year, while 43% said they would purchase a vehicle in the coming years. Similarly, among the youth whose ‘preferred’ mode of commute was private cab services, such as Uber or Ola, the overwhelming majority (70%) intends to purchase a vehicle. This is in line with the trend witnessed in recent years, which have seen rising vehicle ownership and rising congestion on city roads.

A 2015 research paper by Aparajita Chakrabartty and Sudakshina Gupta of the Centre for Urban Economic Studies, University of Calcutta, noted that increasing number of vehicles in Kolkata led to increased congestion on roads. Also, a Cornell University study found that the average speed of taxis in New Delhi reduced from 34.2km per hour (kmph) to 33.6kmph over the course of 2013, due to increased congestion. It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that India’s urban youth spends one to two hours daily on an average in commuting to and from work or college. The time spent by Indians on daily commute appears to be more than what people spend in other countries, according to a 2017 survey by the Berlin-based consumer research firm Dalia Research. Indians spend one and a half hour (91 minutes) on average in commute on a weekday, higher than other countries such as China (57 minutes), Brazil (77 minutes) and Pakistan (86 minutes).
 
9) The AI lion bringing poetry to Trafalgar Square [Source: Financial Times ]
The pride of lions guarding Nelson’s Column is swelling in number. Visitors may be surprised to find a fifth beast now, coated in resin and painted an eye-catching fluorescent vermilion, joining the bronze veterans on Trafalgar Square. An interactive sculpture created by artist and designer Es Devlin, it invites passers-by to “feed” it with a couple of words via a touchscreen. Almost instantaneously, it produces a two-line verse that incorporates those words, displayed on a screen housed within the lion’s open jaws. The epigram is then added to all the others previously submitted, creating a collectively inspired poem that will be light-projected on the body of the lion and up the shaft of Nelson’s column. It is a work that pushes at the edges of design and artificial intelligence, combining light, poetry, public art and technology. The verses are generated by an algorithm provided by Google Arts and Culture, the search company’s non-profit arm and Devlin’s chief partner and funder in the project.

“Trained” on millions of words of 19th-century poetry, the neural network does not simply regurgitate stock phrases and words, but generates original text based on the probability of one word being followed by another in the body of poetry it has analysed — a process akin to predictive text on a smartphone. It is also programmed never to repeat the same line, guaranteeing an element of apparent randomness in its offerings. Not everyone may thrill to the idea of computer-generated poetry, under the aegis of a company whose digital reach is extending ever deeper into our lives. But Devlin is unapologetic and draws a provocative link with the operation of our own neural networks. “I think it’s interesting the degree to which we are carbon-based algorithms anyway. Rather than feeling somewhat nervous about a dystopian future of algorithms taking over the planet and humans being some outmoded husk, [this is] a visual point of view to recognise the commonality that we are systems and algorithms of DNA.”

How are carbon-based poets likely to react to this new source of competition? Helen Mort, whose 2013 poetry collection Division Street was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, has no connection to the exercise but offers a generous assessment of its value, arguing that anything that engages the public with poetry is all to the good. “If you consider the way in which poems can come about from strange convergences of things, I can’t see why you wouldn’t get interesting results sometimes from an AI-generated program. Equally, you might get a lot of stuff that’s essentially meaningless.” Is it not vital for readers to know that they are discovering the intention of the poet, that they are feeling out the emotions or thinking thoughts along the lines laid out for them by a human being? Mort, whose PhD was in the connections between poetry and neuroscience and who teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University, says reading verse is not so straightforward: we do some of the work in “creating a poem” in the act of reading it, as our brain satisfies its predilection for seeing patterns in things. “The poem is partly what’s given to you and also partly what you create in your head in response to what you’re being asked to make patterns from. It is essentially a collaborative act — though I’m not saying anything can be poetry.”

However, Freya Murray, who led the project at Google Arts and Culture, points out a couple of constraints on the system. The reason it was trained on 19th-century poems, she says, is that experiments with contemporary poetry caused it to produce odd and unintelligible verse. The algorithm made better patterns from the more rule-bound style of the Victorian poets. It has also been sterilised for public display, with rude words stripped out from its database of the Oxford English Dictionary. “The lion will simply say ‘I cannot digest that word,’” she says, should mischief-makers attempt to lead it astray after closing time.

10) Lehman anniversary: The five unintended consequences [Source: BBC ]
In this piece, the author discusses his findings pertaining to the aftermath of the Lehman crisis. He travelled around the country questioning experts and fellow 2008 graduates - asking them what happened and how the crisis changed their lives. Second order effects are a reality and it’s showcased by the five unintended he discovered.
 
Fewer children, if at all: Many of them delayed their pregnancy so that they could concentrate on their career, save for the purchase of their house, etc.
 
Accumulated a lot less wealth than prior generations: In the UK, research commissioned by the BBC found that people who are 30-39 years old now were worst affected by the financial crisis - losing on average 7.2% in real terms, or £2,057 ($2,684) a year between 2008 and 2017. The average salary of a newly-minted college graduate in 2008 was $46,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was 8% less, adjusted for inflation, than college graduates aged 25 to 34 earned in 2002.

They hate stock market: Just two out of five millennials are invested in the stock market. And even those who do invest have ventured only about $7,000, according to the Federal Reserve. "Investors' willingness to bear financial risk depends on personal experiences of macroeconomic history", economists at the University of California-Berkeley have found. In other words, if you are a young person who, say, watched the Dow Jones plummet over 500 points in one day - your appetite for risk is slim.
 
They don’t buy homes: The home ownership rate of millennials between the ages of 25 and 34 was 37% in 2015 - 8% lower than that of prior generations, according to the Urban Institute. In the UK, the home-ownership rate for millennials has nearly halved. The average median home value for someone aged 18-33 in 2013 was $133,000 compared to $197,000 for the same age group in 2007.

They trust no one: Trust in institutions was on the decline well before the financial crisis, but as a generation, their faith is especially low. Just 19% of millennials agree with the statement that "generally speaking, most people can be trusted" - compared to 31% for the generation before millennials, and 40% for their parents' generation, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

-Prashant Mittal is Strategist, at Ambit Capital. Views expressed are personal

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