Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Sports (It really is Messi's world now, and what Caster Semenya's case means for women's sport), Technology (No country for old people, and Is there AI doctor in the house?), Gender Studies (Why do women still do more house work?), Work-Life (Australian company that banned work on Wednesdays), and Science (The power of Neurofeedback)

Published: May 18, 2019

g_116251_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 Sports (It really is Messi’s world now, and what Caster Semenya’s case means for women’s sport), Technology (No country for old people, and Is there AI doctor in the house?), Gender Studies (Why do women still do more house work?), Work-Life (Australian company that banned work on Wednesdays), and Science (The power of Neurofeedback).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended May 17, 2019.

1) It really is Lionel’s world now: Messi has remade football in his own image [Source: The Guardian]
This piece throws light on how Lionel Messi changed the game of football. He was recently in the news for his not-so-good punch at Fabinho, followed by a mind-bending free-kick goal. Other than that, well, it was more of the same from Messi against Liverpool. Everything was going fine, the fruits of a wonderfully patient piece of team-building all in evidence. Right up until the moment they lost 3-0 because one person decided to bend the night and the entire surrounding story to his own will. Even the previously luddite English Football Association has a team and a system whose so-called “DNA” is Cruyffian, but given shape and legitimacy by Messi’s execution.

That Barcelona model has won: history records this as fact. And yet by any cold application of facts it is Messi who made the details work, who vindicated the theory, who provided some brilliant teammates with an unanswerable cutting edge. Just ask Pep Guardiola how many Champions League finals he’s reached without him. Similarly football’s obsession with star culture and individualism is in part a function of Messi-ism. We live in an age of GOATS, trailed by a global cloud of social media fandom, those who follow an individual, obsessing minutely over these lighted shapes on a screen. Messi makes this make sense, the one authentic genius in the world’s most popular pastime.

In the non-Messi timeline even Cristiano Ronaldo (who is also very good) doesn’t exist as CR7, isn’t propelled to a state of megastar equivalence by that 10-year rivalry. In some ways Messi also made Ronaldo into an icon, just as Usain Bolt made every other top sprinter richer and more famous just by giving them the chance to lose to him. This is the wider point of the Age of Messi. No single person has such vast footprint in the modern history of any big sport – let alone the biggest one of all.  

2) No country for old people [Source: Fouding Fuel]
The author of this piece and founder of Founding Fuel, Charles Assisi, shares his experience about how old people in India are struggling with the changing technology. He talks about this place called Fort Kochi in Kerala, where he used to spend his summer vacations as a boy. Now, whenever he is around the place, he is tasked by his mother to fix somebody’s “malfunctioning” phone, computer, software, link Aadhaar numbers to bank accounts, recover a password, and so on and so forth. There were questions of all kinds he first imagined were inane and lazy. Most questions from those in the sixties and seventies often sounded naïve to someone in his mid-forties. Irritation finally gave way to curiosity and compelled him to listen.

Charles began reading between the lines and soon realised that explaining how to use a specific app or updating the android version wasn’t easy. All technologies are engineered so they are accessible to the largest numbers of people. When looked at from that prism, India is still a very young country. Only 9% of its people are over 60. A data scientist Charles spoke to at an Indian unicorn said Indian entities are collecting data and monitoring how this segment behaves. When looked at clinically, he pointed out, the market isn’t large enough to service them. They are not a profitable segment yet. So, the problem facing older citizens isn’t one created by bad engineers. It is just that the technologies are crafted to meet what younger people may want because that is where the markets are and the profits lie. It is just an issue of demand and supply.

In parts of the world, where the numbers of people over age 60 are growing, public services and businesses are adapting to meet their demands. The New York Times reported how airports across the country are being redesigned and hotel companies are making subtle shifts in their strategies. All of this has to do with that by next year, the number of people aged 60 and over will outnumber children younger than five years. And by 2050, there will be at least 2 billion people on Earth older than 60. We live in an era where medical graduates are outdated even as degrees are conferred upon them. So, we need to adapt ourselves to the situation, and learn, unlearn and learn again.

3) How do you save a million people from a cyclone? Ask a poor state in India [Source: New York Times]
Odisha witnessed one of the biggest storms in years recently. But, the Indian government and the government of Odisha were well-prepared for this disaster. To warn people of what was coming, they deployed everything they had: 2.6 million text messages, 43,000 volunteers, nearly 1,000 emergency workers, television commercials, coastal sirens, buses, police officers, and public address systems blaring the same message on a loop, in local language, in very clear terms: “A cyclone is coming. Get to the shelters.” Cyclone Fani slammed into Odisha with the force of a major hurricane, packing 120 mile per hour winds. Trees were ripped from the ground and many coastal shacks smashed. It could have been catastrophic.

Experts say this is a remarkable achievement, especially in a poor state in a developing country, the product of a meticulous evacuation plan in which the authorities, sobered by past tragedies, moved a million people to safety, really fast. “Few would have expected this kind of organizational efficiency,” said Abhijit Singh, a former naval officer and head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, a research organization. “It is a major success.” This is so different from 20 years ago, when a fearsome cyclone blasted into this same area and obliterated villages, killing thousands. One of the first steps taken after the 1999 disaster was the construction of hundreds of cyclone shelters up and down the coast. The shelters are built up to a few miles from the seashore. The structures designed by the faculty at one of India’s elite universities, I.I.T. Kharagpur, have proved storm-worthy.

In Puri, the winds wrecked just about all the roadside kiosks. Officials said the gusts reached at least 100 m.p.h. They will never know, they said, because the gusts knocked down the machine that measures the wind. The Odisha authorities said more than 100 people were injured. Indian news media reported several people had died, including some killed by flying debris. Many people, even if they hadn’t lost their lives, lost their livelihoods. “Nature punishes the poor people more and spares the rich,” said S.K. Behra, the owner of a smashed tea stall in Bhubaneswar. “What can I do? I am helpless. Slowly I will rebuild my life again.” While the damages can’t be undone, they were much less due to the preparedness of the authorities.

4) Is there AI doctor in the house? [Source: Livemint]
Technology has done wonders to our society and there’s not even a single sector where technology is not used. And it is the same with healthcare. Doctors are using various apps and technologies to the betterment of their patients. Seven years ago, when Dr. Naresh Trehan of Delhi’s Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre (he’s now chairman and managing director of Medanta) used a robotic arm with an endoscopic camera attached that could provide a three dimensional (3D) image of organs, the news was received with a sense of awe. Today, cardiac surgeons routinely use 3D printers to generate replicas of the hearts of patients to strategize for complex procedures.

Robots, too, routinely do surgery—not the kind that you see in Terminator or Rajinikanth movies—but these are robotic assistants being used across private and public hospitals throughout the country. The internet of things (IoT) trend is also deeply influencing healthcare with smartphones and wearables like wristbands and smartwatches that keep track of your overall health with the help of sensors, and even alerting doctors when needed. This does not mean that AI can dispense with doctors. AI companies need medical experts to annotate images to teach algorithms how to identify anomalies. The approach here has been largely collaborative.

But, there are drawbacks as well. According to the CB Insights report, unintended misdiagnoses generated by AI could lead to costly medical errors. Medical errors cost the US health system about $20 billion annually and account for 100,000 to 200,000 deaths each year. Errors brought about by ill-trained AI tools could add to these losses, with hospitals bearing the brunt of the consequences. “What’s changing is the data that is available today," explains Dileep Mangsuli, chief technology officer of Wipro GE Healthcare. “Google is continuously collecting all the data from us, all the devices are collecting data, all the diagnostic equipment are collecting data. Can all this be connected and made some sense out of? That’s what all companies are looking at," he says, adding that the need of the hour is to create “a solution that is going to actually make a family doctor out of all this".

5) Chore wars: Why do women still do more housework? [Source: Financial Times]
Many women work 24x7. They work two shifts. One in the office and one unpaid, at home. The stressed and overworked women become resentful of partners who fail to do their fair share at home; in turn, clueless men wonder why their wives were no longer as affectionate as they used to be. So, the author of this piece, Gavin Jackson, planned an experiment. Keen to do his fair share at home, Gavin decided that they should put the equality of their relationship to the test by using the techniques of modern social science. They both filled the “time-use” surveys that academics employ to peer inside family life and find out how equal they really were.

One issue with the experiment was that they both were aware that they were taking part and may have tweaked their behaviour. But in reality it did not seem possible to game the experiment in any significant way — they had too much to do in too little time. Daniel Hamermesh, a labour economist and author of the forthcoming book Spending Time, tells that as societies have got richer, what we do with our time has become more important to us. With wealth comes increased choices, but not more hours in which to indulge them. After starting a family, women often do more of the “routine” childcare, such as picking up children from school or making sure they are clean and dressed. Men, even when they do the same amount, will tend to do tasks that can be more easily fitted around the working day, such as helping with homework. That makes it easier for men to advance in their careers, one potential explanation for the gender pay gap.

So, what did the test reveal? The test revealed that their relationship already looks pretty inegalitarian. Gabriele (Gabi), Gavin’s fiancée, spends more time on housework than Gavin does and they do different sorts of tasks: Gavin pay bills; Gabi cleans. Man-Yee Kan, associate professor of sociology at Oxford university, who helped them collate the data, encouraged Gavin to think of it in terms of impersonal social forces. She told them that they were among the more equal couples, and “it reflects what happens in the UK and your education levels”. Yet while western societies are becoming more equal, at work and at home, in Japan, women’s share of housework has fallen only slightly, from 93% in 1991 to 87% in 2016. “Gender norms are deeply rooted,” she adds.

6) The Australian company that banned work on Wednesdays [Source: BBC]
What if we had only 4-day work week? Won’t that be awesome! An Australian company, Versa, has actually gone ahead and declared Wednesdays as holidays. Employees at the company do a standard-length day on Mondays and Tuesdays, then return for another two on Thursday and Friday. The policy was implemented in July last year. Since then, revenue at the Australian company has increased by 46%, and profits nearly tripled, says its CEO and founder Kath Blackham. It is vindication for Blackham, who – after a decade of “weird and wonderful goes at flexibility” – had to convince her leadership team to trial the Wednesday-less week and vow to return to five days if it failed.

“What I set out to prove was that in one of the most unlikely industries – a service-based industry known for young people working super long hours – it can work if you come up with something innovative,” says Blackham. A mid-week break lets staff go to the gym, get on top of house work, look after young children, schedule appointments, work on their start-up or just watch Netflix. Sometimes, they’ll catch up on work. Sick days are down, staff satisfaction is up, says Blackham. “You get that Monday feeling a couple of times a week.”

Professor Jarrod Haar isn’t surprised that dropping Wednesday has proven so successful for Versa. As professor of human resource management at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, as part of his own research Haar has interviewed employees on rotating four-day weeks, and found they most enjoyed the Wednesdays off. For employers, shutting down mid-week gives “more bang for your buck”, he says. “The Wednesday break means you return to Thursday fresh, and this is when people feel most productive.” Professor Rae Cooper, a gender and employment relations academic at the University of Sydney, says the four-day week goes to address another key issue: the loss of highly-skilled women from the workforce. And that’s what Versa’s Blackham wants to change, so that everyone can enjoy their personal and professional life.

7) The peculiar blindness of experts [Source: The Atlantic]
The Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich had predicted that it was too late to prevent a doomsday apocalypse resulting from overpopulation. In his 1968 best seller, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich went on to write, “I challenge you to create one more optimistic.” The economist Julian Simon took up Ehrlich’s challenge. To Simon, more people meant more good ideas about how to achieve a sustainable future. So he proposed a wager. Ehrlich could choose five metals that he expected to become more expensive as resources were depleted and chaos ensued over the next decade. Both men agreed that commodity prices were a fine proxy for the effects of population growth, and they set the stakes at $1,000 worth of Ehrlich’s five metals.

If, 10 years hence, prices had gone down, Ehrlich would have to pay the difference in value to Simon. If prices went up, Simon would be on the hook for the difference. The bet was made official in 1980. In October 1990, Simon found a check for $576.07 in his mailbox. The price of every one of the metals had declined. When economists later examined metal prices for every 10-year window from 1900 to 2008, during which time the world population quadrupled, they saw that Ehrlich would have won the bet 62% of the time. The catch: Commodity prices are a poor gauge of population effects, particularly over a single decade. Ehrlich was wrong about the apocalypse, but right on aspects of environmental degradation. Simon was right about the influence of human ingenuity on food and energy supplies, but wrong in claiming that improvements in air and water quality validated his theories.

The idea for the most important study ever conducted of expert predictions was sparked in 1984, at a meeting of a National Research Council committee on American-Soviet relations. The psychologist and political scientist Philip E. Tetlock was 30 years old, by far the most junior committee member. He listened intently as other members discussed Soviet intentions and American policies. Renowned experts delivered authoritative predictions, and Tetlock was struck by how many perfectly contradicted one another and were impervious to counterarguments. Tetlock decided to put expert political and economic predictions to the test. The result: The experts were, by and large, horrific forecasters. The best forecasters, by contrast, view their own ideas as hypotheses in need of testing. If they make a bet and lose, they embrace the logic of a loss just as they would the reinforcement of a win. This is called, in a word, learning.

8) Brain, heal thyself [Source: Aeon]
Suppose you’re scared of snakes, and wish to get away with this phobia, there is a way. And that’s Neurofeedback: one of the most promising and rapidly advancing frontiers in mental health. By linking brain activity to an image or sound in real time, we can use simple game-like techniques to get people to train themselves to forge new neural connections and voluntarily adopt (or avoid) certain mental states. Neurofeedback represents a big leap for many clinical mental disorders such as phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – all of which can be difficult to address because the experience of them can be so overwhelming.

Neurofeedback can be effective even when participants aren’t aware of the goal of the procedure. This new, unconscious reprogramming has far-reaching implications for research on human cognition, tapping into the crux of the mind-body connection, and opening up many new opportunities for novel clinical treatments. But it also has a potential dark side: the risk that neurofeedback could become a back-door for manipulating our brain states, without us even realising it. A new wave of research is focused on a brain imaging technique so similar that its advocates have called it ‘incepted neurofeedback’. These studies show it’s possible to implant thoughts into people’s brains without them being aware of it.

While the outcome is a remarkable advancement for neuroscience, the clinical – and ethical – implications of such methods have barely been explored. If it proves to be robust, neurofeedback could be revolutionary for patients with otherwise intractable disorders, such as schizophrenia, locked-in syndrome, even dementia. Neurofeedback is even coming into its own as a mechanism for affecting higher-order cognition: rather than a simple up-or-down regulation of a particular brain region, one study has even demonstrated that neurofeedback can be used to change levels of confidence. With this newfound opportunity to reprogram patients’ brains with varying levels of conscious awareness, it’s important to reflect on how incepted neurofeedback could be abused in the wrong hands.

9) What Caster Semenya’s case means for women’s sport [Source: Economist]
Caster Semenya, 28-year-old South African athlete, who won back-to-back Olympic gold medals over 800 metres, has been going through turmoil. In 2009, when she breezed to a World Championship title, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the sport’s governing body, began examining whether she might be intersex—an umbrella term for people with developmental conditions affecting the genitalia and gonads. To protect her privacy, the findings are unpublished. The IAAF has since been in a regulatory tussle about whether Ms. Semenya must adjust her testosterone levels to compete as a woman. On May 1st the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an international court for sports, ruled against her. Its decision covers only athletes with one of a group of syndromes known as 46,xy, which means that a person with a male y chromosome and high testosterone does not develop male genitalia. The ruling has implications far beyond Ms. Semenya’s sport—and indeed, beyond sport itself.

The precedent CAS has set could affect every sport. What makes it even more contentious is that testosterone limits also apply to transgender women, who were born male but identify as women. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) already introduced a testosterone cap of 10nmol/l for trans women in all sports in 2016, replacing its previous requirement for athletes to have undergone genital-reconstruction surgery—a procedure few trans people undertake. CAS’s ruling makes the IOC’s policy likely to stand up in court, although it is now considering cutting its limit to 5 nmol/L. Not a single openly trans athlete has yet competed in the Olympics.

Just one in 20,000 people is affected by 46,xy conditions. But an unusually high number of intersex women take part in elite sport. By one estimate, 8.5% of championship medals in women’s middle-distance races in the past 25 years have been won by 46,xy people—1,700 times their share of the general population. The success of intersex athletes in middle-distance running and the 4% decline in Ms. Semenya’s performance after hormone therapy show that testosterone matters. But a couple of studies among small samples of elite women have found no statistical relationship between testosterone levels and performance in certain sports. Also, International sporting bodies are unlikely ever to accept self-identified gender as the basis for admitting trans women to women’s competitions. Even so, many women still worry that the testosterone threshold could allow some fairly good male competitors to become all-conquering female ones. Some trans women call such fears scaremongering. The court’s ruling on Ms. Semenya is not going to settle that argument. 

10) When it comes to waging war, ants and humans have a lot in common [Source: smithsonian.com]
When considering the often-striking similarities between humans and social insects, one fascinating parallel is the existence of warfare in both. The word war has been used to describe all kinds of conflicts among animals and early humans. Those might include raids or other small or one-sided attacks, but what interests the author of this piece the most is the emergence of conflicts we generally have in mind when we think of a war, which he defined in a 2011 article for Scientific American as “the concentrated engagement of group against group in which both sides risk wholesale destruction.” How do such wars arise?

A colony composed of just a few ants can pull up stakes and hike to the next twig at a moment’s notice. The same was true for hunter-gatherers living, as our ancestors usually did, in small bands. They had few possessions and no permanent structures to protect. Honeypot ants feast on foraging termites. Should two colonies come across the same cluster of these plump prey, the ants gather at a tournament site where the workers from each colony circle each other while standing high on their legs. Generally, larger workers come from larger nests, and the size difference is an indicator of which team would win if the colonies fought each other. Once one group appears to be outsized, its workers retreat, and fast: The standoff only turns lethal if the big ants are able to track the small ones home.

All-out wars are almost always carried out by large societies — in our case using techniques refined over centuries dating back before the Roman Empire. No other vertebrate regularly conducts aggressive operations that can endanger their society in this way — but some social insects do. The population size at which both ant and human societies shift from low-risk raids and ritualized fights to full-bore warfare in author’s estimation is somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 to a few tens of thousands. One likely reason for the possibility of warfare in large societies, among both ants and humans, is simple economics. Big communities are more productive per capita: fewer resources are required to feed and house each individual. The outcome is a reserve labor force that can be quickly deployed as needed —in ants, typically as soldiers. Fortunately, our nations can make choices not open to insects by investing excess labor not just in armies but in a host of other areas, among them entertainment, the arts, and sciences.

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