Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Culture (Indian music is evolving and even Bollywood is adopting it), Management (How people are ghosting their employers), Technology (A study on driverless-car ethics), Society (Rise of the Muslim middle), Comics (Tintin turns 90), Science (Researchers are a step closer to creating tech to read minds) and Climate Change (How to transform sinking cities into landscapes that fight floods) among others

Published: Feb 2, 2019

g_112753_reading_bg_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 Culture (Indian music is evolving and even Bollywood is adopting it), Management (How people are ghosting their employers), Technology (A study on driverless-car ethics), Society (Rise of the Muslim middle), Comics (Tintin turns 90), Science (Researchers are a step closer to creating tech to read minds) and Climate Change (How to transform sinking cities into landscapes that fight floods) among others.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended February 1, 2019


1) How people are ghosting their employers [Source: BBC ]
Adapted from Ghosting at Work, an episode of Business Daily from the BBC World Service presented by Ed Butler and produced by Elizabeth Hotson, this piece shows how employees come up with weird reasons to quit a company. Yuichiro Okazaki and Toshiyuki Niino are great at quitting. In the last 18 months, they’ve resigned from at least 1,500 jobs. But the Tokyo-based pair aren’t leaving their own positions. They’re the co-founders of a start-up that offers a bespoke service to employees who are dying to resign but need a bit of help.

But, why people hiring them? “Most of them are scared of their bosses,” says Okazaki. “They know their bosses are going to say: ‘No, you cannot quit’. I think it’s because of the culture of Japan – to quit something is bad. When they want to quit, they feel like they are a bad person.” Mr. Okazaki estimates that there are probably 30 companies offering a similar service in Japan. Workers there have traditionally stayed with one employer for life, but in recent years more people have been switching jobs and the shrinking labour force means it’s also a job-seekers’ market.

What if you need to leave quickly or find the job really isn’t what you had in mind – or maybe even find out you can’t do it? What if, instead of having the awkward chat, you just disappeared? This form of work-place behaviour is known as ghosting – a phrase that evolved in the dating world and means to suddenly end all contact without any explanation. Now it appears to be transitioning to the workplace. As for workers, while walking out might suit their immediate needs, they should also consider the potential long-term impact of ghosting an employer. Because, just like in the dating world, no-one thinks particularly fondly of someone who never said goodbye. 

2) Indian music is evolving and even Bollywood is adopting it [Source: pinkvilla.com ]
Lately, a hip-hop based film in India has been making waves. Yes, it’s an upcoming movie of Ranveer Singh, Gully Boy which is based on two Mumbai-based Hip Hop artists (Divine and Naezy) from slums in Kurla and Andheri. The two young non-mainstream guys are already very popular and now in their early 30s both are getting a movie made on them! The Gully Boy music album has some upbeat, fast rap with powerful lyrics about personal, society and political issues. There are 18 songs and you can expect a lot from this album.

The film is directed by Zoya Akhtar. The Akhtar brother-sister duo has always been pushing it and changing the movies as our country changes! The brother-sister duo further surprised and released a music album which has 3 songs which hit back at today’s politicians, political state and effects of that on society. In an era where speaking up is considered to be sensationalist or calling for problems, this sort of stuff could have not come from anyone but such young bunch of people.

The two songs that stand out are Apna Time Aayega and Mere Gully Mein. The latter has gone viral and brought the two artists to limelight. After a long time, there is a music album that feels fresh. It’s a perfect combination of high tempo rap, soft songs and poems. Also, after sports, it’s the Indian musicians now to be watched out; non-Bollywood music and new genres are already starting with some very good writing.

3) A study on driverless-car ethics offers a troubling look into our values [Source: New Yorker ]
With the technological advancement, driverless car might soon be a reality. But, there are few queries that need to be sorted before these cars ply the street. And to figure out how autonomous vehicles should respond during potentially fatal collisions, a group of scientists set out to learn what decisions human drivers would make. Azim Shariff, a thirty-one-year-old teaching psychology at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi, Iyad Rahwan, a thirty-four-year-old professor of computing and information science, and Jean-François Bonnefon, a French professor of cognitive science went on to study how driverless car would function in an emergency. In order to do that, they first had to study human behaviour.

In June of 2016, the M.I.T. Media Lab, in Cambridge, launched a website that invited people from all over the world to play a game called Moral Machine. In the game, players are presented with a version of the trolley problem: a driverless car can either stay its course and hit what is in its path, or swerve and hit something else. In the next two years, more than two million people—from some two hundred countries and territories—participated in the study, logging more than forty million decisions. It is the largest study on moral preferences for machine intelligence ever conducted. The paper on the project was published in Nature, in October, 2018, and the results offer an unlikely window into people’s values around the globe.

On the whole, players showed little preference between action and inaction, which the scientists found surprising. The players showed strong preferences for what kinds of people they hit. Those preferences were determined, in part, by where the players were from. Players in countries with high economic inequality (for example, in Venezuela and Colombia) were more likely to spare a business executive (a figure walking briskly, holding a briefcase) than a homeless person (a hunched figure with a hat, a beard, and patches on his clothes). If billions of machines are all programmed to make the same judgement call, it may be a lot more dangerous to cross the street as, say, an overweight man than as a fit woman. And, if companies decide to tweak the software to prioritize their customers over pedestrians, it may be more dangerous to be beside the road than on it.

4) How family-owned Mars Inc., 107 years old, thinks about tomorrow [Source: Bloomberg ]
The family-owned company, based in Virginia, does more than $35 billion a year in revenue and has expanded beyond candy to become a powerhouse in the pet space. In this interview, Grant Reid, president and CEO of Mars Inc. talks about the success of the company, working with Tata in India and more. When asked about how pets fit into their portfolio, Mr. Reid says, there’s a lot of crossover in the way you build a brand—the geographies they’re in, supermarkets and other places—but they are separate categories. They’re very different businesses and have all got their individual visions.

On asking what are the advantages of working for a 100-plus-year-old, family-owned, privately held, secretive business, the CEO says, “The fact that I can sit down and talk to family members. It is their business, and they really care—about the brands, about our associates. That’s a big difference. They take very little out. They reinvest in us. They reinvest in the consumer. That’s one big difference in terms of the dividend level vs. some other companies. It’s their approach and their love for the business. My job is to make sure that I’m setting us up for the next 100 years. To do that, you need a vibrant company that’s growing, that’s bringing in the best talent.”

Also, Mr. Reid says that their vision is to keep the company privately held forever. On their partnership with India, he says that India has tremendous issue with malnutrition and deficiencies in protein and other elements in the diet. And they are working with Tata to launch a series of affordable products based on local tastes and local proteins. Talking about plastic used in packaging and how it has clogged the oceans, Mr. Reid says that 90% of Mars packaging is recyclable; 10% is still an issue, but it’s even broader than that because, even if it’s recyclable, is it really being recycled? They are looking at a multitude of solutions.

5) Joining the India story: Rise of the Muslim middle [Source: Livemint ]
A small, emerging yet visible Muslim middle class has surfaced, breaking the perception of a monolithic impoverished community. In India, the term ‘middle class’ itself is rather ambiguous. Nearly everyone claims to be in the middle class. But, this longish article throws light on three people who have achieved great heights. These stories of hope and perseverance are not scattered everywhere, and they’re not easy to find when it comes to Muslims in the country, but they do exist.

Naved Iqbal, from Old Delhi is now 44, and is the director of operations at General Electric (GE) Oil and Gas, India, a position that is only second to the CEO’s. Mukhtar Khan, from Rampur, is 33, and is part of Air India’s senior cabin crew. He is expected to soon become a commercial pilot—a dream not many in his Rampur could dare to have at the time he moved out. Bushra Shad, 39 now, is a corporate lawyer and a partner at Mumbai-based law firm LawCept Partners. All three knew that they had to study in order to rise and shine. Nothing about Naved and Mukhtar’s physical appearance points to their belief system. Both say they want to follow their religion in their personal space, and don’t want the religion to decide what they do or don’t do in their professional lives.

But, life wasn’t easy for them. They had to face discrimination. With the class rise, even though the lifestyles and incomes change, the discrimination may not necessarily go. If anything, it just becomes more refined. Despite hard work and determination, not all Naveds win their fight to secure a better life. There still are countless Mukhtars who stare at the sky and then give up on their dreams, because the people around are too hostile to them, for who they are.

6) As Tintin turns 90, the comic book hero is still teaching children about the world [Source: Scroll.in ]
For most kids, Tintin has been one of the most fascinating cartoon characters. For such a perennially young man, always in a hurry to right the world’s wrongs, it may be strange to hear that Tintin has spent nine decades fighting bad guys around the world. From his earliest adventures in January 1929, as he journeyed into the Soviet Union to report on the excesses of Stalinism, the young journalist’s exploits with his friend Captain Haddock have been translated into more than 70 languages and, at last count sold more than 230 million copies around the world. There are a number of reasons we should celebrate Tintin.

From a comic book perspective, Tintin had a number of important firsts: Tintin was the first successful comic book series in Belgium and led directly to the beginning of the comic book industry there. However, more generally, The Adventures of Tintin are important in an educational sense. Comics should be encouraged as reading materials in schools because they are a way of getting children reading more generally. Reading comics also helps the development of visual literacy which is becoming increasingly important in modern society.

While according the author of this piece, Tintin is important and beneficial for children. But at their heart they are carefully crafted, beautifully illustrated rollicking adventure stories, filled with colourful characters, intrigue, suspense, humour and, above all, good cheer. If you have never read the stories, or it is a while since you have, give them a whirl, and you will be entertained – and informed.

7) Why writers who hate violence write violent thrillers [Source: vulture.com ]
In this piece, Adam Sternbergh, author of The Blinds, talks about writing violent thrillers even though he hates violence. Being a pacifist by nature, he favours strong gun control, criminal-justice reform, and turning the other cheek over an eye for an eye. Also, he spends part of his days willingly and even enthusiastically imagining the most creatively gruesome methods for killing people. No doubt he has written three crime novels. But, Adam isn’t the only one. Authors who tweet stridently about, for example, the lunacy of American gun policy are often the same ones who concoct gloriously thrilling gunplay and depict psychopaths with chilling accuracy. “I’m still not sure how I defend writing about crime and violence,” says Laura Lippman, the best-selling author and former journalist. “I just try to make the crime-y parts of my books the most boring, banal parts. And I try to make sure the victims matter, that the readers care about them.”

Some thriller writers have also faced tough questions from readers on how they feel about contributing to a culture of violence. But, Adam doesn’t believe that violence in fiction, or onscreen for that matter, contributes to real-world violence any more than he believes that playing Dungeons & Dragons turns you into a Satanist. He has come to believe that the distinction between writing about violence and considering its effects in the actual world boils down to the difference between “why” and “how.” On the question of gun violence, for example, the debate too often gets mired in the why, which is abstract and endlessly debatable (why would someone do this?), rather than the how, which is concrete and addressable (guns).

During his early days in Sunday school, Adam encountered two more memorable lessons: That an acceptable reaction to wrongdoing is a willful communal obliviousness (witness the Catholic Church and its sex scandals); and that the world is neatly divided into good and evil and the temptation to stray into the latter is the product not of human nature but of a malevolent supernatural being. Eventually he came to believe that those ideas are exactly wrong. What appeals to Adam about crime writing is that, at its best, it refutes them both. Adam’s goal is to recognize the muck and murk of the moment and, rather than turning away, to respond to it by persisting in asking why.

8) How top-performing college grads fall into the 'Prestige Career' trap [Source: Medium ]
What’s the sure-shot way of achieving prestige in the society? Study hard, get into one of the top colleges, and get a job in consulting and/or investment banking. In 2017, nearly 40% of Harvard graduates took consulting or finance jobs. That statistic remains equal or higher across other Ivy League universities. Most of these graduates end up at the so-called top firms. In consulting, that’s McKinsey, Bain, BCG; in finance, it’s Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan.

This means thousands of the brightest, most hardworking (and privileged) young adults are going to work for only a handful of firms every year. Fewer candidates are left for other fields that need them, such as healthcare, education, energy, and environmental science. Even worse, most of these students have no idea what they’re getting into. They’re doing it because of the prestige; landing one of these jobs is seen as the pinnacle of a status culture in which they’ve been immersed. Eventually, they realize that prestige and overachievement are no longer as important as when they were younger — but by then, they’re trapped.

In a world that values skill-building and ever-evolving career growth, college graduates are attracted to the promise that these firms will teach them skills they can apply anywhere. However, it’s unclear whether working at Goldman Sachs or Boston Consulting Group will teach you to be anything but a better banker or consultant. Many young people move ahead in prestige careers simply because they believe these jobs are as good as it gets. High-achieving students are capable of extraordinary feats. They enter college wide-eyed, with a belief that they can achieve anything. Eventually, many of them succumb to the prestige machine and are funneled into a handful of narrow, transaction-based careers.

9) Researchers take step closer to creating tech that can read minds [Source: Financial Times ]
There are many people in this world who can’t speak. But, researchers in the US have for the first time constructed clear and intelligible synthetic speech using computer processing of human brain activity, in a significant step towards creating technology that can read people’s thoughts. So, there’s hope that these people can one day start speaking their thoughts out! “Losing the power of one’s voice . . . is devastating,” said Nima Mesgarani, project leader at Columbia University in New York. “With today’s study, we have a potential way to restore that power. We’ve shown that, with the right technology, these people’s thoughts could be decoded and understood by any listener.”

The scientific challenge of turning thought directly into speech is harder than enabling paralysed patients to move a limb or robotic arm by thinking of the movement, Dr. Mesgarani said, “because we don’t really know yet how speech is generated in the brain and, without knowing that, we don’t know how to decode it”. Neuro engineers at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute approached the problem by analysing the brain activity of volunteers who were listening to other people’s voices. The study, published on Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports, was carried out with epilepsy patients whose skulls were open for brain surgery. They agreed to have an electronic array implanted temporarily to record neural activity while they listened to different people speaking to them.

The researchers used a vocoder — an artificial intelligence program that synthesises speech after being trained on recordings of people talking — to process the brain signals from patients listening to a series of numbers. To test the accuracy of the process, the team asked other people to listen to the output and report what they heard. “We found that people could understand and repeat the sounds about 75 per cent of the time, which is well above and beyond any previous attempts,” said Dr. Mesgarani. “The sensitive vocoder and powerful neural networks represented the sounds the patients had originally listened to, with surprising accuracy.” There’s much more research needed, but Dr. Mesgarani is confident that it will be possible.  

10) How to transform sinking cities into landscapes that fight floods [Source: Tedx ]
Climate change is an important issue that the world is facing and most of the people are talking about it, but very few are taking steps to improve the world we are living in. Major cities around the world are facing the same problem every year that is “flood”. From London to Tokyo, climate change is causing cities to sink and our modern concrete infrastructure is making us even more vulnerable to severe flooding, says landscape architect and TED Fellow Kotchakorn Voraakhom.

In this inspiring talk, Voraakhom gives an example of Bangkok. Bangkok is sinking more than 1cm per year, which is four times faster than the rising sea level. But what if we could design cities to help fight floods? Six years ago, she started a project and she won the design competition for Chulalongkorn Centenary Park. This was the big, bold mission of the first university in Thailand for celebrating its hundredth anniversary by giving this piece of land as a public park to the city.

She developed a massive park in Bangkok that can hold a million gallons of rainwater, calling for more climate change solutions that connect cities back to nature. She says that this park is not build to get away with floods, but to live with it and not a single drop of rain is wasted in this park. She further suggests that we can use landscape architecture as solutions. A concrete roof can be converted into an urban farm which can help absorb rain, reduce urban heat and grow food in the middle of the city. But, creating a park is just one solution. The awareness of climate change means we, in every profession involved, are increasingly obligated to understand the climate risk and put whatever we are working on as part of the solution.

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