Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Evolutionary Linguistics (Esperanto — the language whose time never came), Sociology (the myth of meritocracy), Lifestyle (is the way you work killing you?), Music (decline of music literacy), Technology (future where everything becomes a computer) and Super-realism (Instagram and DeepMind are disrupting the 'reality' of photography)

Published: Oct 28, 2018

g_110257_bg_shutterstock_455809774_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 through our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Evolutionary Linguistics (Esperanto – the language whose time never came), Sociology (the myth of meritocracy), Lifestyle (is the way you work killing you?), Music (decline of music literacy), Technology (future where everything becomes a computer) and Super-realism (Instagram and DeepMind are disrupting the ‘reality’ of photography).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended October 26, 2018

1) The myth of meritocracy: who really gets what they deserve? [Source: Guardian ]
In this piece, the author deep dives into the topic of meritocracy and its effects. Michael Young, who has been called the greatest practical sociologist of the past century, pioneered the modern scientific exploration of the social lives of the English working class. He aimed to ameliorate the damage he believed “class” could do. What would supplant the old, caste-like system of social hierarchy? For many today, the answer is “meritocracy” – a term that Young himself coined 60 years ago. Meritocracy represents a vision in which power and privilege would be allocated by individual merit, not by social origins.

Inspired by the meritocratic ideal, many people these days are committed to a view of how the hierarchies of money and status in our world should be organised. We think that jobs should go not to people who have connections or pedigree, but to those best qualified for them, regardless of their background. This alternative vision, in which each of us takes our allotment of talents and pursues a distinctive set of achievements and the self-respect they bring, was one that Young had learned from his schooling at Dartington Hall.

But, putting aside the merit, what encourages people to do things? It is money and status that can encourage people to do the things that need doing. The social rewards of wealth and honour are inevitably going to be unequally shared, because that is the only way they can serve their function as incentives for human behaviour. But we should not secure our children’s advantages in a way that denies a decent life to the children of others. Each child should have access to a decent education, suitable to her talents and her choices; each should be able to regard himself or herself with self-respect.
 
2) The tragic decline of music literacy (and quality) [Source: Intellectual Takeout ]
When it comes to learning music, reading music notation is one of the keys to becoming a pro. But, with the rapidly developing technology and auto-tune, making music nowadays sounds like an easy task. You can tune a guitar within seconds with a digital guitar tuner. But, if you ask most of the guitarists to tune it by ear, people able to do that would be less. Jazz masters like John Coltrane would practice six to nine hours a day, often cutting his practice only because his inner lower lip would be bleeding from the friction caused by his mouth piece against his gums and teeth. His ability to compose and create new styles and directions for jazz was legendary. With a few exceptions such as Wes Montgomery or Chet Baker, if you couldn’t read music, you couldn’t play jazz.

Over the last 20 years, musical foundations like reading and composing music are disappearing with the percentage of people that can read music notation proficiently down to 11%, according to some surveys. Besides the decline of music literacy and participation, there has also been a decline in the quality of music. Today’s music is designed to sell, not inspire. Today’s artist is often more concerned with producing something familiar to mass audience, increasing the likelihood of commercial success.
 
So, what can be done to improve music literacy? How can we ensure that the next generation becomes good musicians? 1) Musical literacy should be taught in schools. 2) Parents should encourage their children to play an instrument because it has been proven to help in brain synapse connections, learning discipline, work ethic, and working within a team. While contact sports like football are proven brain damagers, music participation is a brain enhancer.

3) Is the way we work killing us? [Source: Livemint ]
Today, what’s the No.1 source of stress, according to multiple studies? Work. Yes, with the timeless work culture, people are not able dedicate time to take care of health. Talking in numbers, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a tenfold increase in the incidence of diabetes, from 1.2% of Indians in 1971 to 12.1% in 2000. A study led by Rajeev Gupta and published in May by Elsevier, an information analytics company, reports that deaths due to heart disease have gone up by 34% over the last 25 years. According to a study released in September and conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research, the Public Health Foundation of India and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, in India, suicide is the leading cause of death in the 15-39-year-old age group.

Every hour, a student commits suicide in India, according to 2016 data sent to the ministry of home affairs by all states and Union territories. Stress escalates when they enter the workforce: in a 2016 ManpowerGroup survey of 19,000 millennials in 25 countries, Indian millennials reported working the longest hours, 52 hours a week. A 2018 Cigna-TTK survey had a whopping 95% of Indian millennials reporting high levels of stress. All this is leading to heart disease. Data from the Indian Heart Association shows that 25% of heart attacks in Indian men hit those younger than 40.

So, what can we do about it? First, acknowledge the problem. Second, stop fixing the individual: fix the environment. Third, measure the problem. Fourth, apply win-win solutions today. While it looks distant at the moment, we must not give up on imagining a future of work where it becomes a source of purpose and satisfaction, contributing to our health and well-being rather than detracting from it. Those of us who lead people are contributing to this culture. The transformation of work cannot be led by doctors or HR—line managers, starting from the very top, have to spearhead this effort, and, like true leaders, take responsibility for their people.

4) How restaurants are using big data as a competitive tool [Source: WSJ ]
While it’s known that shopping websites track our moves on their websites and keep a tab of it, now restaurants are also following suit. The Culver City, California-based salad chain believes using a mobile app to gather data on guests’ allergies and tastes will allow it to suggest dishes that regulars at its 88 restaurants are sure to love. Data is emerging as a powerful weapon in the increasingly competitive battle for the restaurant consumer. An explosion of food vendors, and menu items, is giving diners more choices than ever. Some restaurants say using customer data to tailor menus to their tastes can give them a leg up.

It wasn’t long ago that such careful attention to diners’ preferences was the province of mom-and-pop restaurants and some fine-dining establishments. But the mobile age has changed all that, allowing chains to develop that capability, using mobile apps and digital reservation systems to track customer preferences and spending habits and sharing it across their systems. Some 2.8 billion restaurant orders were placed digitally in the past year, market-research firm NPD Group Inc. says, or 5% of total orders. That is up from 2% in 2015. Restaurants are using the knowledge to improve service and target guests with promotional events.

Besides gathering data, restaurants are also customizing needs of their customers. If a person says that quinoa leaves them feeling full and energized for hours, the app will be able to tailor menu choices around that. “The challenge for any personalized experience is how you create a sense of discovery,” Mr. Jonathan Neman, Sweetgreen co-founder and chief executive, says. “There’s a huge opportunity to do that in food.”
 
5) A future where everything becomes a computer is as creepy as you feared [Source: NY Times ]
Technology is developing so rapidly that everything will become smart (not only phone or TV) in a few years. The industry’s new goal? Not a computer on every desk or a connection between every person, but something grander: a computer inside everything, connecting everyone. And this movement is led by giants, among them Amazon, Apple and Samsung. For instance, Amazon last month showed off a microwave powered by Alexa, its voice assistant. Also, both Facebook and Google unveiled their own home “hub” devices that let you watch videos and perform other digital tricks by voice.
 
While there may be many advantages of the increasingly technological advances, there’s just one catch, which often goes unstated: If their novelties take off without any intervention or supervision from the government, we could be inviting a nightmarish set of security and privacy vulnerabilities into the world. Bruce Schneier, a security consultant who explores the threats posed by the internet of things (IoT) in a new book, “Click Here to Kill Everybody,” is a pessimist here. He argues that the economic and technical incentives of the internet-of-things industry do not align with security and privacy for society generally. Putting a computer in everything turns the whole world into a computer security threat — and the hacks and bugs uncovered in just the last few weeks at Facebook and Google illustrate how difficult digital security is even for the biggest tech companies.
 
Also, Mr. Schneier feels that only government intervention can save us from such emerging calamities. Regulation and government oversight slow down innovation, that’s one reason techies don’t like it. But when uncertain global dangers are involved, taking a minute isn’t a terrible idea. Connecting everything could bring vast benefits to society. But the menace could be just as vast. Why not go slowly into the uncertain future?

6) The jobs crisis is going to get worse: Nandan Nilekani [Source: Swarajmag.com ]
Today, the biggest problem in front of the Indian Government is to provide employment to millions of youngsters entering the labour market. In this interview with Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and non-executive chairman of Infosys Limited, R Jagannathan, the author of “The Jobs Crisis in India”, talks about technology, Fin-tech, education and jobs. Starting off with technology throwing up jobs challenge, and governments’ role in handling it, Mr. Nilekani thinks that things are changing too fast, and the pace of change is driven by technology which moves very quickly, whereas the pace of job creation depends on societies and markets.
  
According to Mr. Nilekani, one major thing is automation which is affecting both services and manufacturing. Other Asian countries overcome the problem and start creating job opportunities as well as raise income. India is the only country facing the double whammy of this jobs crisis and illiteracy. He further goes on to say that the financial services like banking have already been hit by job crisis due to automation. We can send money, receive money, make a deposit, sign a contract [digitally]. So, why do we need a branch? It’s all happening.

In order to alleviate the jobs crisis issue, Mr. Nilekani feels that we need a signaling mechanism that reduces the gap between demand and supply. Also, we need to encourage the creation of mass services and assume the future of jobs in small enterprises. Our education model is also largely broken and it requires a leapfrog using highly tech-base access to infrastructure, access to infrastructure for anytime, anywhere learning and automation assessment.

7) Esperanto, a language whose time never came [Source: Livemint ]
There are many languages spoken all around the world with English being the universal one. But, with about two million speakers, Esperanto is the world’s most widely spoken “artificial” language. In 1887, L. L. Zamenhof, a Polish Jew, published a booklet in Russian announcing his plans for a new language. Built on 16 basic grammar rules, using the Roman script and weaving influences from Latin and the modern Romance languages, at first glance Esperanto appears robustly logical, attractively simple.

But in the past few years, this tiny tribe has grown rapidly. Apart from the Mumbai University club, Premji University (APU) in Bengaluru set up a club in 2014, the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune floated their club early this year, and Dhruba Chand Halder College in South 24 Paraganas, West Bengal, began offering a course last year. This December, Esperantists will gather in Tirupati for their first national conference since 2013.

In 2015, Duolingo, the language learning portal, introduced an Esperanto learning option (which now has 100,000-plus users) followed by the app Amikumu in 2017. The internet has helped connect older learners who might have fallen out of touch or new learners looking to practise with others online. A 90-member WhatsApp group for active Indian Esperantists has also consolidated a core group of speakers. But some say the entire project is utopian—and ultimately just an oddball experiment. Even Esperantists admit that it never transformed into the common linguistic currency Zamenhof had hoped for.
 
8) What next for photography in the age of Instagram? [Source: Guardian ]
In this article, the author throws light on how technology is increasingly shaping how we see and share the world, and how in turn photography is changing. Today, around 350mn photographs a day are uploaded on Facebook; 95mn photographs and videos are shared on Instagram daily. The combined number of images shared, uploaded on both platforms now exceeds 290bn, while there are 188m daily active users of Snapchat. With the arrival of the smartphone camera, taking a perfect picture is just a matter of click.
 
So, what’s happening to traditional photography? In the past few years, photography festivals and fairs have sprung up across the globe, challenging the commercial grandstanding of big established events such as Paris Photo and the annual Rencontres d’Arles. In September alone, Unseen Amsterdam and BredaPhoto were held in the Netherlands, Images Vevey in Switzerland, Organ Vida in Croatia and, closer to home, the Guernsey photography festival and the Brighton photo biennial. That’s more photography festivals in a month than there used to be in a year.

Instagram has become a way of telling stories, or creating narrative, about ourselves. Of late, contemporary photography has become a nexus for visual storytelling of an often stylised, metaphorical or semi-fictional nature. Also, talking about the future of smartphone camera technology, in February this year, researchers from Alphabet Inc’s DeepMind division released thumbnail images of a range of everyday subjects: a dog, a butterfly, a hamburger and an ocean view. All were AI-generated images produced from scratch by an algorithm called BiGAN. All look disturbingly like real photographs. Sooner than we think, it will be impossible for the human eye to tell the difference between an AI-generated image and a real photograph.

9) Amazon wants India to shop online, and it’s battling Walmart for supremacy [Source: Bloomberg ]
With smartphone in everyone’s hand, all are on a shopping spree on online ecommerce apps like Amazon, Flipkart, Paytm, etc. But, now there’s a new entrant. Desperate to keep up, Walmart Inc. in May spent $16 billion to acquire Amazon’s primary rival in India, the homegrown online retailer Flipkart Online Services Pvt. But, Amazon won’t succumb to brick-and-mortar shops. Amazon opened its Indian website in June 2013. Then, Amazon stored and shipped products from a single, relatively small 140,000-square-foot warehouse in a crowded suburb outside Mumbai. And today, Amazon has more than 50 fulfillment centers in India.

Everything didn’t come easy for Amazon. Amazon realized early on that it couldn’t depend solely on such logistics partners as the India Post, the federal mail carrier. So it created its own network of couriers in vans, motorcycles, bikes, and even boats to reach the remotest parts of the country, such as the river islands in eastern Assam. Like its rival Flipkart, Amazon accepts cash on delivery, since few shoppers have access to credit cards. Customers have the option to deposit change from a cash transaction as credit in their Amazon accounts, one of the company’s many efforts to get people more comfortable with the idea of digital payments. In one initiative, Amazon turned 14,000 local shipping offices into e-commerce training centers, called Easy Stores, where counselors are available to escort buyers through the virtual mall.

While Amazon and Flipkart’s customers are generally wealthy and speak English, the real challenge for these companies, and for the future of e-commerce in India, hinges on the next 100 million users—a portion of the population that is less educated and speaks 1 of the country’s 22 major languages at home.

10) Average income of the super-rich has grown at faster pace under Modi Government [Source: Business Standard ]
Data released by the Central Board of Direct Taxes show that during the first three years of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, the income of the country’s super-rich has grown at a much faster pace than that of those not so affluent. The number of crorepatis (earning more than Rs10 million) grew by a staggering 40% and those earning less than 250,000 per year contracted by 40% between assessment years (AY) 2015-16 and 2017-18. Those earning between Rs250,000 and Rs500,000 annually grew by 21%. The incomes of return filers have been divided into six slabs for this analysis: 1) Those earning less than Rs250,000; 2) Those earning between Rs250,000 and Rs500,000; 3) Those earning between Rs500,000 and Rs1 million; 4) Those earning between Rs1 million and Rs5 million; 5) Those earning between Rs5 million and Rs10 million; and 6) those earning Rs10 million or more — the crorepatis.

It must be noted that while the data on direct taxes capture some traits about incomes in the formal sector, they do not provide a comprehensive picture of the economy, since the informal sector provides most of the jobs in India. However, these numbers do provide an insight into the changing income distribution and the level of inequality in India. This analysis is based only on data for income-tax filers, not all taxpayers. Now, at an aggregate level, the number of I-T returns filed by individuals rose by 15% between AY 2015-16 and AY 2017-18, while the total gross income grew by 32%. But the trend of I-T returns filed across income slabs sheds some light on the inequality between lower and higher income levels. At the granular level, the rise in incomes and returns filed are much higher among higher incomes slabs than that among lower income slabs.

Average income of an Indian crorepati rose about 4% from Rs25.8 million per year to Rs26.8 million a year in two years. The income of an average person in the first taxable slab also grew at a rate near 4%, but in absolute terms that increased the average income marginally from Rs340,000 a year to Rs355,000 a year. This hardly even covers the impact of inflation. For a person in the lowest income slab, the average annual income actually declined from Rs180,000 per year in AY 2015-16 to Rs160,000 per year in AY 2017-18. A reduction in average annual income to the tune of Rs20,000 at the lowest slab, while an incremental income of Rs1 million added to the average crorepati income in two years, seems to explain the enormity of India’s income skew.

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