Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are #MeToo (New shades in India's art world), Robotics (The first-ever humanoid visa), Policy (Digital Services Tax in Britain), Wizardry (Ghost in the cell), Proto Internet! (Before the Internet there was Minitel), and a gem that we couldn't dare classify...is it Humour, Gender Studies, Politics or Culture? You decide (Sarah Cooper's satire of the corporate world). Sports returns to Ten Interesting Things after a long time with a dirge on the heartbreaking decline of the Windies (Heartthrob to heartbreak)

Published: Nov 4, 2018

g_110431_bg_shutterstock_611711801_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate  them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are #MeToo (New shades in India’s art world), Robotics (The first-ever humanoid visa), Policy (Digital Services Tax in Britain), Wizardry (Ghost in the cell), Proto Internet! (Before the Internet there was Minitel), and a gem that we couldn’t dare classify…is it Humour, Gender Studies, Politics or Culture? You decide (Sarah Cooper’s satire of the corporate world). Sports returns to Ten Interesting Things after a long time with a dirge on the heartbreaking decline of the Windies (Heartthrob to heartbreak).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended November 2, 2018

1) Time’s up for the Picassos of India’s art world? [Source: Livemint
This brilliant, timely piece highlights how #MeToo in the Indian art world asks the alpha male artist to step back and highlights an urgent need to dismantle existing notions of the female form, talent and power. The background – when #MeToo cases hit Indian art there were only a handful of public statements from the Indian art community about this. For the most part, there was silence; some even dismissed her allegation on social media. A slew of allegations have been made public through an Instagram account called Scene and Herd (@herdsceneand). It reflects survivor accounts, protects identities, and has forced art foundations and galleries to sit up and take notice. The accounts also reflect duplicitous behavior - artists professing a feminist politic but allegedly behaving otherwise.

Corporate solutions and safeguards may not work. Having an HR professional, let alone a sexual harassment cell, seems unfeasible in this kind of a setup, the author says. The art world is may be tight-knit, often run by families and friends, with businesses built on personal connections. So what to do when artists or curators cross the line? In the West, generations of artists devoured women’s bodies for their art. “For me, there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats,” infamously remarked Picasso. The author notes - He revolutionized depictions of the female form by choosing to distort rather than idealize. But was also an admirer of Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus, whose “muses” were young girls whom he depicted provocatively.

The market and capitalist forces dictate the manner in which art history gets written, to make sure that the top-selling artists, mostly male, are protected. This pushes women complainants and survivor accounts into anonymity and tacitly enables the culture of silence. The article quotes a former employee of the Kochi Biennale Foundation as saying that funding, apart from art, artists and curators, should also go towards able administrators and managers and set apart for other aspects of the festival. Solutions may take their time emerging but the second wave of #MeToo has shown that the old vanguard is destabilizing and a new language is being forged.

2) One small step for Sophia, a giant leap  for diplomacy [Source: Forbes
The word “asan” means easy. It is also aptly the acronym for Azerbaijan Service and Assessment Network. ASAN issued her an electronic visa upon her arrival at Baku International Airport in the nation’s capital. The first ever “Robot Visa’ issued to the humanoid ‘Sophia’ who is on a worldwide tour on behalf of her creator, Hanson Robotics of Hong Kong, and made an unexpected stop to the Caucasus this week. The Caucasus stop meant granting the world's first ever visa granted to a robot, a process that took just two minutes thanks to some smart technology, the article says.

When Hanson Robotics asked if the next stop on Sophia’s global tour could be Azerbaijan, ASAN jumped at the opportunity, in turn setting perhaps a template for other nations to follow in accepting and adapting to technology. The humanoid, whom maker Hanson Robotics gave an Audrey Hepburn look for the visit, met Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev. “It’s unusual for a government agency to take the lead in delivering electronic services, but it’s vital for governments to keep ahead of the curve,” the article quotes an expert from a European think tank whose goal is to ensure that artificial intelligence becomes a positive force for mankind and not a threat.

Sophia’s structural framework includes a camera that looks for visual cues such as facial expressions when deciding when to keep a conversation moving. Sophia praised Aliyev for championing the ASAN initiative; “Your visit here [at the ASAN complex dedication] underscores the special attention you are giving to e-governance and the innovation ecosystem.” This shows it is possible to make a robot whose artificial intelligence can not only help it learn tasks — like cleaning — but also have robust conversations with humans. And Sophia is no stranger to firsts – As per a Wiki piece on the jet-setting humanoid, in October 2017, Sophia, the robot became the first robot to receive citizenship of any country. In November 2017, Sophia was named the United Nations Development Programme's first ever Innovation Champion, and is the first non-human to be given any United Nations title.

3) Do we need a Digital Services Tax – Britain shows the way [Source: Reuters
Britain has said it would tax the revenue that online platforms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon make in the country to update a system that had not kept pace with changing digital business models. The article quotes finance minister Philip Hammond as saying in his annual budget speech that “It’s clearly not sustainable, or fair, that digital platform businesses can generate substantial value in the UK without paying tax here in respect of that business.”  The idea is to make established tech giants, rather than start-ups, shoulder the burden.

Big internet had previously paid little tax in Europe, typically by channeling sales via countries such as Ireland and Luxembourg which have light-touch tax regimes, the reporter says. Google, Facebook and Amazon have changed the way they account for their activity in Britain in recent years. In 2016, Facebook started recording revenue from its UK customers supported by local sales teams, and subjecting any taxable profit on the income to UK corporation tax.

While Britain had been leading attempts to reform international corporate tax systems, Hammond says progress had been painfully slow with other nations and their governments. Experts say Hammond’s proposal showed that Britain was becoming frustrated with the slow pace of change in global tax laws. The European Commission has proposed EU states would charge a 3 percent levy on digital revenues of large firms like Google and Facebook but smaller states like Ireland fears losing revenues. Nordic governments think the tax could trigger retaliation from the United States. Given the dominance of U.S. tech giants, the Trump administration may not appreciate such moves… especially in an era of resurgent trade wars.

4) As Diwali arrives, a look through the haze of policy on emissions?
[Source: EPW
There is a growing realisation among the scientific community that the current production-based greenhouse gas accounting framework does not capture the true essence of responsibilities towards global emissions. While production emissions of developed countries have decreased, consumption has gone up. The article argues that this is due to the shifting of energy-intensive industries to developing countries. The increasing gap between consumption and production emissions not only distorts responsibility, but also affects developing countries’ ability to fulfil their nationally determined contributions. The authors, experts from government organisations and think-tanks, discuss the implications and possibilities of a consumption-based methodology for GHG estimating and argue that such accounting is necessary to increase the system’s transparency.

The current methodology does not reflect the true global divide in terms of economic growth and output, one based on the consumption of goods and services, and at the same time, attributing emissions to nations as per established principles of accounting. Negotiations have sought to restore the balance in terms of environmental actions to favour emerging and developing economies, they did not account for the environmental and economic impact of Annex I (industrialised) countries shifting their energy-intensive production facilities to Non-annex I countries. Developing countries were late movers in terms of industrialisation, and they also needed time to overcome the damage caused by the exploitation of their natural resources.

The scholarly piece concludes that, given continued outsourcing of emissions by developed economies, production-based estimations and target-setting may not help achieve the goals of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. Developed countries will seek to achieve their actual GHG reduction targets through outsourcing and emissions transfer. Hence, major developing countries need to press for new rules of accounting, which are based on consumption emissions.

5) Ghost in the cell [Source: The Verge]
Micro black markets are known to exist inside prisons. But inmates at the Marion Correctional Institution, Ohio, took it to a stupendous new dimension. Life-termer Stan Transkiy, 16 years into his sentence, found a calling in prison – recycling trash. Just that he didn’t stop at that, he refurbished computers, hid them in the ceiling, obtained a login to the prison’s network, accessed inner workings of the facility, including databases on inmates and the tools for creating passes needed to enter restricted areas, got access to the outside world, and someone used it to apply for credit cards using the stolen identity of a prisoner. The scheme extended from the prison, to a community nonprofit, to multiple banks — all done under the noses of an oblivious prison staff.

Police compared the incident to Hogan’s Heroes - prison staff acting in the role of the incompetent, outmaneuvered overseers. Interviews with inmates, investigators and staff as well as written correspondence and thousands of pages of public records reveal a complex crime requiring considerable technical savvy. Transkiy worked on the recycling program with two talented colleagues, Scott Spriggs and Adam Johnston. Both loved computers. Johnston and Spriggs had technical experience in C and C++, learned database creation and worked on manual data entry for clients who contracted with the prison. Spriggs became server and network administrator with a prison program, and helped build new computers for the IT department, which gave him a mastery over hardware as well. Is it their fault that they just happened to be murder accused!

The upshot was a regular investigation, though the crime was inside the Marion gaol, one that was the vanguard of ‘prison education’, but one that comically produced geeks. The fallout from the crime began almost immediately. Before the investigators’ report on the computers was released, many staff members involved either retired or resigned from their posts. For Transkiy, it was clear that being separated from Marion’s programs was a momentous loss. In a letter, Johnston suggested Transkiy should try to get to Grafton Correctional when his security level was lowered again. Like Marion, he wrote, it has some great programs!

6) An Antique Land [Source: inference-review.com]
Before the Internet there was Minitel. A book by Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll, Minitel: Welcome to the Internet, seeks reveal - amid accounts of the ongoing digitalization of daily life - the importance of telematics as a step to the emergence of the internet. “As the first computer network to reach mass-scale participation,” Mailland and Driscoll write, “Minitel presaged the near-universal adoption of Internet access in many major metropolitan regions today.” The authors reveal that the age of telematics spanned the early 1980s until around the turn of the century. The book incorporates evidence drawn from interviews.

The goal was to equip every French telephone subscriber access to a wide variety of online services, intended to address the dire state of the country’s telecommunications infrastructure. In 1991, the system reached peak adoption. A fifth of telephone subscribers had a Minitel terminal. The system began an inexorable decline. By 2005, annual connection time had shrunk to 20 million hours. Two years later, that figure had halved. The network was shut down in June 2012. Adult services and, in particular, the messageries roses (pink messages, chat rooms) were among the most popular offerings. “Adult-oriented services,” the authors note, “were not cordoned off; Minitel was infused with sexuality and innuendo.”

In terms of their variety and effectiveness, Minitel’s services prefigured most of what we do online today. Shopping (online same-day delivery grocery shopping, enabling one to order from large stores, specialized wine retailers, or straight from local farms.”); Science (Minitelists were able to chat with aliens!); Natural Language Searching and AI ( “[t]ruly automated personal assistant services with natural-language interfaces began to appear around 1987, such as 3615 AK, a public-facing database of health information similar to WebMD.”); Ticketing and Events (tickets to events which would be delivered by mail, or could be collected from an access point); The Minitel of Things (Domotique was the Minitel of things: “devices from the 1980s included thermostats, VCRs, security systems, lights, yard irrigation, and even kitchen appliances.”); Financial Services (Banking was central to the platform; “Services ranged from checking balances and making appointments with bank personnel, to ordering checkbooks and transferring money.” Same-day online trading and portfolio management services also became available from the late 1980s); Point of Sale (secure payments could be made to “a merchant from home or a point-of-sale system, in real time.”

The authors argue that Minitel shows how telematics was the basis for the development of original services that met the needs of both businesses and consumers. The development of Minitel must be considered not only more important than the arrival of the web, which it prefigured, but in a wider sense as a notable innovation in its own right, the book argues.

7) In 2008, America Stopped Believing in the American Dream
[Source: nymag.com
Things have improved for America since 9/11. No major terrorist attack. Workers are enjoying a blissful 4 percent unemployment rate. A booming stock market up 250 percent since its September 10, 2001, close. The most admired person in America is the nation’s first African-American president. Comedy, the one art whose currency is laughter, is the culture’s greatest growth industry. But the author argues, the mood is dark. Birthrate is at a record low and the suicide rate is at a 30-year high; mass shootings and opioid overdoses are ubiquitous. Fear and despair akin to what followed the crash of 1929, when millions lost their jobs and homes.

This deep gloom arrived in September 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers that kicked off the Great Recession. Everything else also seems broken - race relations, health care, education, institutional religion, law enforcement, the physical infrastructure, the news media, the bedrock virtues of civility and community. American institutions, whether governmental, financial, or corporate, had betrayed the trust the public had placed in them. And when we went down, we took much of the West with us. What angered people was that the Wall Street bandits escaped punishment, as did most of the banking houses where they thrived. Everyone else was stuck with the bill. Millennials, crippled by debt and bereft of Horatio Alger paths out of it, mock the traditional American tenet that each generation will be better off than the one before.

Obama didn’t cause that broken spirit any more than Trump did, says the article. It had been building all along. The original America First movement of the 1920s and ’30s grew in tandem with the widening economic discrepancies of the time. That hastening concentration of American economic power wasn’t fully understood by most Americans then. The rest is history inexorably leading America to this dark place where, nearly a century later, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock is so distant it just may be in China.

8) Sarah Cooper: ‘The workplace is a rich seam for comedy’ [Source: Financial Times
Sarah Cooper, a Google employee turned comedy writer and stand-up comedian, says: “In this fast-paced business world female leaders need to make sure they’re not perceived as pushy, aggressive or competent. One way to do that is to alter your leadership style to account for the (sometimes) fragile male ego.” She outlines how women at work contort themselves when they try to balance being aggressive with being invisible. Her book, How to be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings: Non-threatening Leadership Strategies for Women, is “the non-threatening leadership guide women must follow if we are to be taken seriously in the workplace.

She sets exercises such as how to reduce your expectations so that you will not be disappointed. For example, if a man says he has four kids the implication is that he “needs a promotion so he can take care of his family”. And a woman? “Can’t be promoted, needs to take care of her family.” So the book is for men too, she says. “It can be intimidating if you are the only woman in a room; men should appreciate it. If you are a man who is in a leadership position, you have a lot of power to make sure that women and people of colour feel their perspectives and views are important and valid.”

The workplace is a rich seam of comedy, she says. “I was always observing my co-workers. In meetings everyone is super-tense and wants to impress each other. It’s a weird, passive aggressive environment.” Office culture Ms Cooper describes as “weird”.  “It’s a giant show. It’s all in the hopes of creating a team that will make money for the company but they want it to be that we love each other. And I would totally hang out with you if you weren’t at work.”  You have to put on a show to get ahead. Still, Cooper says she has heard enough mothers describe never getting it right. They either spend “all day at work wishing [they] were at home with the kids, or all day at home wishing [they] were at work”.

9) NASA Fixes Hubble Telescope Like Anyone Else Would — By Turning It Off And On Again
[Source: allthatsinteresting.com
As intelligent as the employees at NASA are, this report reveals that even the brightest minds fix technological difficulties just like the rest of the world usually does. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope needed to put the telescope in safe mode due to a failed gyroscope, used to help the telescope turn and lock in on new targets. NASA reportedly put the telescope through a “running restart,” in which the team switches the telescope between “high mode” and “low mode” while rotating it from side to side. But the process here is more complex than switching a phone “off” and “on.”

In a press statement NASA described their process as follows: “In an attempt to correct the erroneously high rates produced by the backup gyro, the Hubble operations team executed a running restart of the gyro on Oct. 16. This procedure turned the gyro off for one second and then restarted it before the wheel spun down. On Oct. 18, the Hubble operations team commanded a series of spacecraft maneuvers, or turns, in opposite directions to attempt to clear any blockage that may have caused the float to be off-center and produce the exceedingly high rates. During each maneuver, the gyro was switched from high mode to low mode to dislodge any blockage that may have accumulated around the float.” And it worked!

The Hubble is described by NASA as one of the most significant advances in astronomy since Galileo’s telescope. Hubble uses a digital camera to send pictures from the furthest points in the galaxy back down to Earth via radio waves. Hubble photographs have allowed scientists to make such discoveries as the estimated age of the universe at 14 billion years, and the groundwork for the big-bang theory. Hubble going down to one-gyro mode would in particular have hampered our efforts to characterize extra-solar planet atmospheres in the years running up to James Webb,” research scientist Jessie Christiansen at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute said in an interview. “So this is a huge relief!”

10) The Windies once gave us legends and now heartbreaks [Source: The Hindu BusinessLine]  
The author needn’t tell us - the Windies are a heartbreaking shadow of their invincible former self. The recent humiliations reinforce this bitter truth. The 2016 World T20 title in Kolkata and the 2004 Champions Trophy win at London offer little solace. The side that won the World Cup in 1975 and 1979, losing to whom was not considered humiliation because the team was superior in all aspects, has become the butt of jokes. Back then, world cricket needed the West Indies. Back then, jokes routinely did the rounds about how players from the opposition did not mind cooking up excuses to miss a match against the West Indies.

The article quotes the dedication section of A History Of West Indies Cricket. Author Michael Manley raves about players such as Learie Constantine, George Headley, Frank Worrell, Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd for their stellar roles in shaping cricket in all those islands which played under one flag. In later years, Viv Richards and Brian Lara joined the ranks along with the dreaded fast bowlers of different eras. Manley had written, “The first West Indian cricketers caught the imagination of the cricketing publics of England and Australia because they brought to the game a free-moving, free-stroking, lithe athleticism which was all their own.”

The list of legends goes on…Wesley Hall, Charlie Griffith, Alvin Kallicharran, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Patrick Patterson were household names in India. Limited overs hard-hiters like Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo now do the rounds. The decline was rapid - lack of talent, poor administration, the lure of football, athletics and basketball (the promise if better money). The West Indies, sadly, have also lost their spectator base - empty galleries that greet players at Test venues in the Caribbean, music in the stands, and dancing and singing, integral to cricket-watching now seem lost. When noted commentator Tony Cozier fought back tears as he watched the team get pulverised, he symbolised the heartbreak West Indies cricket has come to embody. Will the rhythm return to the Windies cricket calypso?

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