Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Lifestyle (How India's first man in space keeps a low profile), Technology (Balancing safety, privacy and freedom), Book Review (How domestic violence turns men into terrorists, and What to do when you're a country in crisis), Business (Sanctions create business risks and opportunities as well), and Leadership (Being an anti-CEO)

Published: May 24, 2019 04:15:33 PM IST
Updated: May 24, 2019 06:47:33 PM IST

g_116551_reading_bg718707103_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 Lifestyle (How India’s first man in space keeps a low profile), Technology (Balancing safety, privacy and freedom), Book Review (How domestic violence turns men into terrorists, and What to do when you’re a country in crisis), Business (Sanctions create business risks and opportunities as well), and Leadership (Being an anti-CEO).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended May 24, 2019.

1) India’s first man in space, Rakesh Sharma, on how keeping a low profile has been liberating [Source: Factor Daily]
In this podcast of Outliers, Pankaj Mishra chats with Rakesh Sharma, former Wing Commander and the first Indian man to visit space. Throughout the conversation, Mr. Sharma not only avoids sharing the experience of being in space but tones it down every time Mr. Mishra even touched the subject. “There’s nothing extraordinary about it,” he tells. “You could feel the same way (about being too small) standing on this hilltop too.” Mr. Sharma starts with saying that he was hooked on to be an Indian Air Force pilot at the age of five when his cousin, who was in Air Force then, took him for a parade and that’s when he first sat on the cockpit.

He further shares his experience about visiting space and also why he keeps such a low profile. Mr. Sharma says that he doesn’t need to be visible. He gives an example of a celebrity or an actor; their future depends on being in the face of the audience. That’s their job and they need to be visible and popular. But, Mr. Sharma says that he doesn’t need to be popular. He is not a recluse; he goes for talks at Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institute of Management (IIMs) to add value.

He also talks about his upcoming biopic and how it has been going on for the past 10 years. And he feels that this movie can inspire young generation to get into space sciences. He also says that if you want to get into this field, you need to be passionate. Talking about his failures and mistakes in life, Mr. Sharma says that he is blessed and is extremely lucky as he got a chance to do everything very early in life. Lastly, he says that it is important and liberating to be yourself.  

2) Don’t talk (too much) about religion at work [Source: Economist]
Religion is a very touchy topic, and when it comes to work, discussing it or preaching it can cost you your job. One such example is Sarah Kuteh, a devoutly Christian nurse, who was fired for her behaviour. A British employment-law judge reaffirmed that a hospital in the south-east of England had been acting within its rights when it dismissed Ms. Kuteh after she persisted, despite warnings, in having rather assertive religious conversations with patients. In Britain and most other democracies, law and jurisprudence have tried to achieve a careful balance between two things: first, upholding freedom of speech, and the freedom to practise and indeed advocate one’s beliefs; and second, people’s desire to be protected from unwanted or even bullying proselytism, especially when they are in vulnerable situations.

In the United States, where religious faith and the sanctity of free speech are generally held in higher regard than in some parts of Europe, there is a similar struggle to achieve a balance. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that upholds anti-discrimination law, warns employers that if one worker is allowed to preach aggressively to another, that can give the targeted worker grounds to sue the bosses for allowing a hostile work environment.

But bosses looking for a simple rule of thumb to handle religious issues in the work-place won’t find one. International human-rights norms, including the European Convention on Human Rights, affirm the right to manifest one’s beliefs, in public and private. Given the harsh persecution which rages in many parts of the world, that is not a trivial entitlement. But as is noted by Tom Heys, an employment laywer with the London firm of Lewis Silkin, “There is often a fine line between…the manifestation of a belief and its inappropriate promotion.”

3) Home Grown: How domestic violence turns men into terrorists [Source: Guardian]
In this book, Home Grown, Joan Smith examines the roots of terrorism, but fails to address the complexities of social inequality. Smith, a feminist and human rights activist, contends that if victims were believed, domestic abuse was better recognised, policed efficiently and addressed appropriately in court, then numerous acts of terrorism, committed in the name of religion, extreme ideology and misogyny, could – and can – be avoided. So why is this link ignored? Salman Abedi, who detonated a homemade bomb in the foyer of the Manchester Arena with such horrific consequences. Abedi, 17, had punched a fellow female student in the head, telling her that her skirt was too short; he went unpunished, leaving no warning sign, according to Smith’s theory, which could have provided invaluable information to the security forces.

Smith quotes Nazir Afzal, a solicitor and former chief crown prosecutor for the north-west of England who has been indefatigable in his pursuit of child sexual exploitation and violence against women: “The first victim of an extremist or terrorist is the woman in his own home.” He points out that 25,000 men are on the radar of police and the security services as potential terrorist threats. “You can’t monitor 25,000. But you shouldn’t have to. You already know which ones to target by flagging up violence against women as a high-risk factor.” In the book, Smith repeatedly insists the scale and effects of domestic abuse “are played down or even denied altogether”.

In the final chapters of Home Grown, Smith offers her unsurprising recommendations, including better police training. She also acknowledges what may prove fruitful for even earlier identification of both potential abusers and terrorists. Domestic abuse is rooted in inequality and that needs to be aggressively tackled.

4) The Platform Challenge: Balancing Safety, Privacy and Freedom [Source: YouTube]
In this talk, Alex Stamos, Professor, Freeman-Spogli Institute, Stanford University, a cybersecurity expert, business leader and entrepreneur, talks about anything and everything about security. Prior to joining Stanford, Alex served as the Chief Security Officer of Facebook. In this role, Mr. Stamos led a team of engineers, researchers, investigators and analysts charged with understanding and mitigating information security risks to the company and safety risks to the 2.5 billion people on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. During his time at Facebook, he led the company’s investigation into manipulation of the 2016 US election and helped pioneer several successful protections against these new classes of abuse.

He talks about misinformation and disinformation at length and then elaborates on fake news. He goes on to give examples of misinformation and disinformation by showing two images. Mr. Stamos also says that disinformation is different from fake news. Talking about solutions, he brings up Microsoft. In their earlier days, Microsoft was in trouble; not for being monopolistic, but their software were insecure. According to Mr. Stamos, all software were crap in the 90s. But, Microsoft got most of the blame because they were the most powerful consumer software company. Then, Bill Gates, Microsoft founder, wrote a letter to all employees. They stopped all developments and re-trained their engineers. They rebuilt their software development life-cycle.

When asked about his opinion on Julian Assange and Wikileaks, Mr. Stamos says that he was from that group of people who thought that when Wikileaks was dumping legitimate war crimes in the Iraq war that was a legitimate journalistic exercise. He lost interest around the time of the Manning leaks, which were all of the cables of all of the embassies around the world, which ended up with people dying. People were arrested because their names popped up in secret classified communications between the US embassies and the state department. By the 2016 elections, he was at the minimum a useful idiot to the Russians. He thinks Assange isn’t a Russian agent. If that was true, the Russians wouldn’t set up their own version of Wikileaks, DCLeaks. They wouldn’t do that if Wikileaks was their reliable tool.

5) What to do when you’re a country in crisis [Source: New York Times]
Jared Diamond’s “Upheaval” belongs to the genre of 30,000-foot books, which sell an explanation of everything. So the author of this piece dug into Diamond’s latest, intrigued by his thesis that the way individual humans cope with crisis might teach something to countries. Then, before long, the first mistake caught his eye; soon, the 10th. Then graver ones. Errors, along with generalizations, blind spots and oversights, that called into question the choice to publish. He began to wonder why we give some people, and only some, the platform, and burden, to theorize about everything. The theory proposed by Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of several books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Guns, Germs and Steel”, is interesting. Human beings go through personal crises all the time. We know a lot about how people change in order to cope — or fail to.

At the end of each chapter, each mini-history, Mr. Diamond pauses to ask some variant of: “How does Indonesia’s crisis fit into our framework?” And this is a tell. The Framework is driving the inquiry here, and everything stands at its service. The people we encounter are seldom richly portrayed, because only The Framework matters. The stories we learn about each country are often partial and slanted, because only The Framework matters. Countries where racism and tolerance, sexism and equality have long been in tension are portrayed as being entirely one thing before magically becoming the opposite thing, because The Framework can only process monoliths. With a focus on The Framework, facts recede in importance. The book is riddled with errors. Mr. Diamond gets wrong the year of the Brexit vote. He claims that, under President Ronald Reagan, “government shutdowns were nonexistent.” But they occurred a number of times. And many such instances.

Sometimes the book feels written from a drying well of lifelong research rather than from the latest facts. While “Upheaval” does list sources in the back, Mr. Diamond seldom quotes books. He is far fonder of quoting his many friends. “Why does Japan pursue these stances? My Japanese friends suggest three explanations.” That’s what we’re going with? Or he describes “the 1973 coup that many of my Chilean friends characterize as inevitable.” The author says, why are we paying you to hear your friends’ random theories? Second of all, how can a coup ever be inevitable? Does it mean that a plot as delicate as that could under no scenario have gone wrong? A remaining problem with “Upheaval” is one that cannot be fact-checked away, but, happily, is already being fixed across the world of letters.

6) Sanctions create business risks—and opportunities [Source: Economist]
Violation of sanctions and monitoring them has lately been a headache for various governments. With headquarters in Israel and backed by investors, including David Petraeus, a former director of the CIA, and John Browne, a former boss of BP, Windward is helping companies navigate a maze of sanctions. It is not alone. Proliferating sanctions are creating problems for some companies and potential profits for others, as an industry emerges to help firms comply with them and understand their effects. Nowhere is this more evident than in the energy trade, encompassing oil companies, banks, asset managers and traders, as well as shipbrokers, maritime insurers, bunkering firms and vessel owners.

The risk to businesses is rising, for two reasons. First, the use of sanctions has grown more complex since Marc Rich, the founder of Glencore, a huge trader, was indicted in 1983 for working with Iran, which was then holding Americans hostage (he was infamously pardoned in 2001 by Bill Clinton). Second, blackballed countries and unscrupulous middlemen are getting better at evasion. In March advisers to the UN, relying in part on Windward data, and American Treasury officials published separate reports that described common ways of doing it.

Companies are reinforcing in-house compliance programmes, too. Trafigura, a large energy trader, now contractually bars buyers in north Asia from turning off their ships’ transponders, so that vessels can be tracked. It also requires them to disclose when and where cargo is unloaded. But progress is uneven. “There is growing awareness of why this is a problem, but people have been pretty slow to act,” says Hugh Griffiths, who has led a UN panel of experts on North Korea. He was surprised that, as of last year, few maritime insurers screened the transmissions data for the vessels they cover. In March the Treasury, echoing the UN panel’s recommendations on North Korea, urged businesses to adopt more robust methods to clamp down on sanctions violations. On May 2nd it published new guidelines for compliance. That will create more business for law firms and others. Their gain may, however, be the Treasury’s loss.

7) Hamdi Ulukaya: leading as an ‘anti-CEO’ [Source: Financial Times]
Before yoghurt made him a billionaire, Hamdi Ulukaya hated business. Growing up in a family of semi-nomadic shepherds in Turkey, he blamed capitalism for the suffering of the poor. Even now — aged 46, sitting in a slick SoHo loft and having helped take “Greek”, or strained, yoghurt from 1 per cent to more than half of the US market — Chobani’s founder does not call himself a capitalist. “I’m still having an issue with the word ‘capitalism’, simply because of the old days,” he says, “but I love the word ‘entrepreneurship’.” Mr. Ulukaya, whose untamed hair seems to fit his impassioned manner, elaborated on his objections to the corporate norm in a TED talk in April, tying the story of Chobani’s beginnings to his argument that his peers are following a “broken” playbook.

Working just to maximise profits for shareholders was “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” he charged, issuing a call for “noble” business leaders to lift up struggling communities and make the financial and personal sacrifices to “stand shoulder to shoulder with employees”. Chobani already offered above-average wages and benefits when in 2016 Mr. Ulukaya handed his 2,000 employees 10% of the company. Without a public listing or change of control, staff cannot trade the stock. Mr. Ulukaya says he is still working out how to resolve this but sees the scarcity of models to encourage private companies of Chobani’s size to give employees a financial stake as another flaw in capitalism. An initial public offering would solve the problem, but he says he is still trying to figure out whether it would be compatible with the independence he has enjoyed as a private owner. For now, he shows little appetite for surrendering control.

“I think we as a business community . . . [hear] a lot of opinions from the lawyers, a lot of opinions from the PR people,” he says: “We lost being human. I think it’s extremely important for brands and businesses to stay human because [business] is made of human beings.” “Building sales is the easiest thing to do,” he says: “Building companies is very hard. And building companies that have values, have standards, have cultures and blueprints is work, and that requires a leader’s time and effort.”

8) Send in the clowns: how comedy conquered politics [Source: Financial Times]
Politics isn’t a funny business, but comedians are stepping into the role of politicians now. In 2015 comedian Jimmy Morales was elected president of Guatemala with 67.4% of the vote. In 2010 “Tiririca” — a clown — was the most-voted-for congressman in the Brazilian general elections. Both still hold political office. Comedians running for office are easily dismissed as running jokes — until they win. Which they do. In the US, comedian Al Franken — who made his name on Saturday Night Live — served as a Democratic senator until 2018 (he resigned after being accused of sexual misconduct).

The most notorious comedian to poke his red nose into politics is Beppe Grillo. A founder of Italy’s Five Star Movement, Grillo brought 2m protesters to the streets in 2007 for a “V-Day” rally. The “V” variously stood for victory, vendetta and vaffanculo — polite translation: “Get lost!” From a piazza in Bologna, he excoriated the Italian political circus with sword-swallowing satire. “We are part of a new Woodstock,” he roared. “Only this time the drug addicts and sons-of-bitches are on the other side.” The crowd roared back, waving their middle fingers in the sky. Like medieval bouffons chasing the evil spirits out of the churches, comedians are arriving in office promising to exorcise the political bull of their predecessors. We are living through a modern Day of the Donkey; and every donkey will have its day.

“In the past there would be a set of institutional gatekeepers that would prevent you from mounting a successful run for office if your background was mostly in comedy,” says David Litt, a former senior presidential speech writer to Barack Obama. Countries that look to their politicians for entertainment are living through humourless times. There is nothing funny about what Ukraine — for example — has endured. A five-year war on the Russian border, aggressive corruption and acute economic challenges are no laughing matter. Comedians intuitively understand power. Stand-up is a medieval blood sport. Own the spotlight or die.

9) What's the use of our constitution without liberal judges, asks Fali Nariman [Source: The Wire]
In this video chat with advocate Karuna Nundy, Fali Nariman, a veteran jurist, talks about issues plaguing the Supreme Court, including the composition of benches. When asked how he approaches a case, Mr. Nariman said that it’s necessary to stop reading, step back and think about it. Also, he says that it is the best advice he had received. The way you approach a case has totally changed from the times of Mr. Nariman to now. He says that there were times when judges used to throw papers at advocates if the papers were stitched wrongly or something like that. 

Mr. Nariman gives many examples from his practicing days and talks about various judges and advocates who inspired him. Talking about specialization, he says that specializing is a wrong thing to do. When you specialize, you earn more money but you go down the slope. Is the Supreme Court coping better now than the Supreme Court did in 1975? He is quick to say that he is not sure yet as the PM is finding his feet now and cornering the country. He also says that he is a little skeptical now.

Coming to composition of benches, he says it is very difficult to tell what system is the best. The Chief Justice of India (CJI) needs to be appointed through seniority, as there’s no other way and it’s complicated. Also, he feels that the CJI should command fear, at least, if not respect. Lastly, talking about free speech and hate crime, he says that human beings are not civilized, they need to be civilized. 

10) The '3.5% rule': How a small minority can change the world [Source: BBC]
In this world of hatred and violence, the power of peaceful protests is mostly underrated. If we go through the history, most of the struggles were won through peaceful protests. In 2003, the people of Georgia ousted Eduard Shevardnadze, former President, through the bloodless Rose Revolution, in which protestors stormed the parliament building holding the flowers in their hands. Earlier this year, the presidents of Sudan and Algeria both announced they would step aside after decades in office, thanks to peaceful campaigns of resistance. In each case, civil resistance by ordinary members of the public trumped the political elite to achieve radical change.

There are, of course, many ethical reasons to use nonviolent strategies. But compelling research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, confirms that civil disobedience is not only the moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics – by a long way. Chenoweth looked at hundreds of campaigns and found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. She also says that it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change. Chenoweth’s research builds on the philosophies of many influential figures throughout history. The African-American abolitionist Sojourner Truth, the suffrage campaigner Susan B Anthony, the Indian independence activist Mahatma Gandhi and the US civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King have all convincingly argued for the power of peaceful protest.

“Numbers really matter for building power in ways that can really pose a serious challenge or threat to entrenched authorities or occupations,” Chenoweth says – and nonviolent protest seems to be the best way to get that widespread support. Ultimately, Chenoweth would like our history books to pay greater attention to nonviolent campaigns rather than concentrating so heavily on warfare. “So many of the histories that we tell one another focus on violence – and even if it is a total disaster, we still find a way to find victories within it,” she says. Yet we tend to ignore the success of peaceful protest, she says. 

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