Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Politics (Apocalypse Now for democracy?), Technology (What is a Tech company?, How DeepMind is trying to solve complex problems), Society (How meritocracy is ripping America apart), Neuroscience (A step closer to solving the puzzle of consciousness), Language (When words fail), and Sports (How Chess grandmasters are trying to be world champions by not touching the chess board)

Published: Sep 21, 2019 09:25:10 AM IST

g_121403_bg_reading_shutterstock_440494636_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: Politics (Apocalypse Now for democracy?), Technology (What is a Tech company?, How DeepMind is trying to solve complex problems), Society (How meritocracy is ripping America apart), Neuroscience (A step closer to solving the puzzle of consciousness), Language (When words fail), and Sports (How Chess grandmasters are trying to be world champions by not touching the chess board).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended September 20, 2019.

1) What is a Tech Company? [Source: Stratechery]
If asked years ago what a tech company is, the most probable answer would have been: a company that uses software. Fifty years ago, the answer would have been: IBM was the tech company, and everybody else was IBM’s customers. That’s a bit of exaggeration, but still you get the point. The author of this piece talks about WeWork and Peloton, and discusses how whether both these companies are tech companies or not. One company rents empty buildings and converts them into office space (WeWork), and the other sells home fitness equipment and streaming classes (Peloton).

The author further classifies a few companies on 5 characteristics with software playing the central part: 1) Creates ecosystem; 2) Has zero marginal costs; 3) Products improve over time; 4) Offers infinite leverage; and 5) Enables zero transaction costs. The question of whether companies are tech companies depends on how much of their business is governed by software’s unique characteristics, and how much is limited by real world factors. 

Peloton is a tech company because, classes are held once and available forever on-demand; the company has not only digitized space but also time, thanks to technology. This definition also applies to Netflix, Airbnb, and Uber; all digitized something essential to their competitors, whether it be time or trust. But when it comes to WeWork, though the company’s business is unique, it seems to rely primarily on unprecedented access to capital. That may be enough, but it does not mean WeWork is a tech company. Software is used by all companies, but it completely transforms tech companies.
 
2) Positional Scarcity [Source: alexdanco.com]
Positional scarcity is nothing but paying to get a better place in line. You want your ad to show up on the first page of Google search, you got to pay. Positional scarcity comes in a lot of different flavours. The author of this piece discusses three different types of scarcity and how they overlap: 1) Curation, 2) Prestige, and 3) Access. The most interesting forms of positional scarcity combine several of these elements. Unlike curation and prestige, which are both subjective problems, access is more of an objective, literal challenge. When everyone has something, or everyone’s selling something, or everything’s available somewhere, it can become hard to reach whoever you need to reach.

Then there’s the intersection between access and prestige, which the author calls proximity. Take the real estate for example. How much are you willing to pay to live in a good neighbourhood versus a bad one? When it comes to deciding where to live, people will pay a premium in order to live next to people who will also pay a premium. In conditions of mounting abundance and congestion, proximity becomes increasingly scarce.

The real positional scarcity businesses take time to develop, especially loyalty businesses that are difficult to get off the ground before a retail or consumption environment is fully understood. Anywhere you encounter a situation that makes you think that “all of this abundance is making my place in line feel scarce”, there’s opportunity for creative business models there for sure.  
 
3) The meritocracy is ripping America apart [Source: New York Times]
The author of this piece discusses two types of meritocracy in America; 1) Exclusive meritocracy; and 2) Open meritocracy. Exclusive meritocracy exists at the super-elite universities and at the industries that draw the bulk of their employees from them — Wall Street, Big Law, medicine and tech. And then there is the more open meritocracy that exists almost everywhere else. In the exclusive meritocracy, prestige is defined by how many people you can reject. The elite universities reject 85-95% of their applicants. Those accepted spend much of their lives living in neighborhoods and attending conferences where it is phenomenally expensive or hard to get in.

People in this caste work phenomenally hard to build their wealth. As Daniel Markovits notes in his powerful new book, “The Meritocracy Trap,” between 1979 and 2006, the percentage of workers in the top quintile of earners who work more than 50 hours a week nearly doubled. People in this caste are super-skilled and productive. There are more than 70 law firms, Markovits notes, that generate over $1 million in annual profit per partner. Parents in the exclusive meritocracy raise their kids to be fit fighters within it. Markovits calculates how much affluent parents invest on their kids’ human capital, over and above what middle-class parents can afford to invest. He concludes that affluent parents invest $10 million more per child.

You don’t have to travel far to get outside the exclusive meritocracy. Last spring the author spent a few days at Arizona State University (ASU), which is led by Michael Crow. A.S.U. defines itself not by how many people it can exclude but by how many it can include. Between 2013 and 2018, undergraduate enrollment rose by 45%. Between 2009 and 2018, the number of engineering students grew to 22,400 from about 6,400. People in both the exclusive and open meritocracies focus intensely on increasing skills. But it’s jarring to move from one culture to the other because the values are so different. The exclusive meritocracy is spinning out of control. If the country doesn’t radically expand its institutions and open access to its bounty, the U.S. will continue to rip apart.

4) The hidden heroines of chaos [Source: Quanta Magazine]
Edward Norton Lorenz is known as the father of chaos theory, but rarely people know that 2 women were behind Lorenz’s success. This piece throws light on the work and life of these two women. In the fall of 2017, the geophysicist Daniel Rothman, co-director of MIT’s Lorenz Center, was preparing for an upcoming symposium. The meeting would honor Lorenz, who died in 2008, so Rothman revisited Lorenz’s epochal paper, a masterwork on chaos titled “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow.” Published in 1963, it has since attracted thousands of citations, and Rothman, having taught this foundational material to class after class, knew it like an old friend.

But this time he saw something he hadn’t noticed before. In the paper’s acknowledgments, Lorenz had written, “Special thanks are due to Miss Ellen Fetter for handling the many numerical computations.” Rothman wondered who this lady was. “It’s one of the most important papers in computational physics and, more broadly, in computational science,” he said. And yet he couldn’t find anything about this woman. “Of all the volumes that have been written about Lorenz, the great discovery — nothing.” Somehow he got in touch with Ellen, and from Ellen, Rothman learned another name, the name of the woman who had preceded Fetter in the job of programming Lorenz’s first meetings with chaos: Margaret Hamilton.
 
These were the two women who helped Lorenz with his paper. Hamilton, who popularized the term “software engineering,” later led the team that wrote the software for Skylab, the first U.S. space station. She founded her own company in Cambridge in 1976, and in recent years her legacy has been celebrated again and again. She won NASA’s Exceptional Space Act Award in 2003 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. In 2017 she garnered arguably the greatest honor of all: a Margaret Hamilton Lego minifigure. Fetter, for her part, continued to program at Florida State after leaving Lorenz’s group at MIT. After a few years, she left her job to raise her children. In the 1970s, she took computer science classes at the University of Colorado, toying with the idea of returning to programming, but she eventually took a tax preparation job instead.

5) Inside DeepMind's epic mission to solve science's trickiest problem [Source: Wired]
DeepMind's AI has beaten chess grandmasters and Go champions. But founder and CEO Demis Hassabis now has his sights set on bigger, real-world problems that could change lives. For Hassabis, and the other two founders of the company, if the first nine years of DeepMind have been defined by proving its research into reinforcement learning – the idea of agent-based systems that are not only trying to make models of their world and recognise patterns (as deep learning does) but also actively making decisions and trying to reach goals – then the proof points offered by gameplay will define the next ten years: namely, to use data and machine learning to solve some of the hardest problems in science. And the first problem that the company has set his eyes on is protein folding.

Protein folding is the science of predicting the shape of what biologists consider to be the building blocks of life. “Proteins are the most spectacular machines ever created for moving atoms at the nanoscale and often do chemistry orders of magnitude more efficiently than anything that we've built,” says John Jumper, a research scientist at DeepMind who specialises in protein folding. “And they're also somewhat inscrutable, these self–assembling machines.” “If we can learn about the proteins that nature has made, we can learn to build our own,” Jumper says. “It’s about getting a really concrete view into this complex, microscopic world.”

Even as the company expands into its new headquarters, Hassabis maintains that DeepMind is still a start-up, albeit one that is competing on a world stage – “China is mobilised and the US… there are serious companies trying to do these things,” he says. He feels that there is still a long way to go in DeepMind’s bigger mission of solving intelligence and building AGI. “I still want us to have that hunger and the pace and the energy that the best startups have,” he says. As DeepMind grows, it will be the role of the founders to pursue the road ahead, while keeping an eye on the founding principles of a business focused on what is likely to be the most transformative technology of the coming years, one fraught with possible dangers, as well as opportunities.

6) Are we close to solving the puzzle of consciousness? [Source: BBC
The question of whether other brains, quite alien to our own, are capable of awareness, is just one of the many conundrums that arise when scientists start thinking about consciousness. When does an awareness of our own being first emerge in the brain? Why does it feel the way it does? And will computers ever be able to achieve the same internal life? "Integrated information theory" by Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of the most exciting theories of consciousness to have emerged over the last few years, and although it is not yet proven, it provides some testable hypotheses that may soon give a definitive answer.

In his published research, however, he built his reputation with some pioneering work on sleep – a less controversial field. “At that time you couldn’t even talk about consciousness,” he says. But he kept on mulling over the question, and in 2004, he published his first description of his theory, which he has subsequently expanded and developed. It begins with a set of axioms that define what consciousness actually is. From these axioms, Tononi proposes that we can identify a person’s (or an animal’s, or even a computer’s) consciousness from the level of “information integration” that is possible in the brain (or CPU). According to his theory, the more information that is shared and processed between many different components to contribute to that single experience, then the higher the level of consciousness.

Tononi’s methods so far only offer a very crude “proxy” of the brain’s information integration – and to really prove his theory’s worth, more sophisticated tools will be required that can precisely measure processing in any kind of brain. Daniel Toker, a neuroscientist at the University of California Berkeley, says the idea that information integration is necessary for consciousness is very “intuitive” to other scientists, but much more evidence is required. “The broader perspective in the field is that it is an interesting idea, but pretty much completely untested,” he says. Even if Tononi’s theory doesn’t prove to be true, it’s helped to push other neuroscientists to think more mathematically about the question of consciousness – which could inspire future theories.

7) The shocking paper predicting the end of democracy [Source: politico.com]
The author of this piece attended the International Society of Political Psychologists’ annual meeting. One person, 68-year-old Shawn Rosenberg, captivated everyone with his paper. Why? Mr. Rosenberg, a professor at UC Irvine, was challenging a core assumption about America and the West. His theory was that the democracy is devouring itself and it won’t last. We’re to blame, said Rosenberg. As in “we the people.” His prediction? “In well-established democracies like the United States, democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will eventually fail.”

His theory is that over the next few decades, the number of large Western-style democracies around the globe will continue to shrink, and those that remain will become shells of themselves. Taking democracy’s place, Rosenberg says, will be right-wing populist governments that offer voters simple answers to complicated questions. His argument is that in a democracy people need to respect those with different views from theirs. But, he says that human beings don’t think straight. For example, racism is easily triggered unconsciously in whites by a picture of a black man wearing a hoodie. Our brains, says Rosenberg, are proving fatal to modern democracy. Humans just aren’t built for it.

He has concluded that the reason for right-wing populists’ recent success is that “elites” are losing control of the institutions that have traditionally saved people from their most undemocratic impulses. When people are left to make political decisions on their own they drift toward the simple solutions right-wing populists worldwide offer: a deadly mix of xenophobia, racism and authoritarianism. What is happening around the world shows that the far-right is on the march. And when it comes to the U.S., the problem might be larger than one man. Liberals have been praying for the end of the Trump presidency, but if Rosenberg is right, democracy will remain under threat no matter who is in power.

8) When words fail [Source: Nautilus]
Why do we have words? Many psychological factors drive one to speak, and one of them is the need to tell our story. However, for some, the motivation to tell our story can outstrip our capacity to do so, no matter how adept we are at words. In the history of brain evolution, words are a recent addition to the neurobiological repertoire. Like a non-native species, words have invaded the human brain and ascended to dominance as a tool to render experience. Beyond their information value, words assumed a phatic function, the empty pleasantries that establish social relationships and let us pose questions like, “How are you?” for which we do not expect answers.

Our closest living relatives—the old-world monkeys—route trillions of electrical messages through their gray and white matter and manage to fill their large brains with neural activity, while remaining devoid of words. Their grunts, barks, screams, and hoots and accompanying range of facial expressions convey messages including nuance, even some rudimentary elements of language. It’s difficult to know what they may be experiencing. Do their perceptions raise conflicts, questions, doubts, and anxieties that require communication tools beyond their capacity? Whatever the mental states of non-human primates, at some point words usurped a wordless consciousness.

A great deal of brain tissue is preoccupied with words. The specific mapping of a vocabulary onto brain activity, albeit plastic and dynamic, narrows the gap between mind and brain. The circuitry of word meaning functions in flux with our internal bodily state. The pattern elicited by the word apple depends on whether we feel hungry or sated. Words are imperfect vehicles for thought, incapable of completely encompassing the nonlinear leaps through the brain. While the stories we tell rely on words, our collective stories, the stuff of myths and legends, fables and beliefs, reside, in part, within the default network. They arise from brooding about the night sky or mentally wandering through a nondescript expanse of partial sensations about a lost loved one.
 
9) The grandmaster diet: How to lose weight while barely moving [Source: Sony ESPN]
Everyone knows that Chess is the game of mind. But, not anymore. The world chess champions are becoming physically fit in order to improve their chess. Many would think how is that possible? How will doing cardio or playing tennis improve their game of chess? American grandmaster in chess and the No. 2 player in the world, Fabiano Caruana’s everyday schedule includes a 5-mile run, an hour of tennis, half an hour of basketball and at least an hour of swimming. 

Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Stanford University, says a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day. Based on breathing rates (which triple during competition), blood pressure (which elevates) and muscle contractions before, during and after major tournaments, Sapolsky suggests that grandmasters' stress responses to chess are on par with what elite athletes experience. "Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners," Sapolsky says. In 2017, Magnus Carlsen realized he had a problem. The reigning world No. 1 for four years felt his grasp on the title loosening.

When consulted, he was advised to cut back on the orange juice he drank during tournaments. Carlsen has even managed to optimize sitting. Carlsen claims that many chess players crane their necks too far forward, which can lead to a 30% loss of lung capacity, according to studies in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. The Norwegian rests his lower back against the chair so it retains a natural curve, his knees slightly apart at the edge of the seat, feet firmly on the ground, and leans forward at about a 75-degree angle. In this position, which he arrived at through reading studies and trial and error, he's not too far forward to lose alertness and not too far back to use extra energy.

10) How China is waging a silent war against India using news apps [Source: Medium]
We all have read about the wars that go on the borders of several countries. But, times are changing now. With the advancement of technology, a country can wage a war on another by sitting in an office. And as per the author of this piece, this is one of the tactics that China is using against India. Many Chinese companies/investors like Alibaba and Tencent own or have majority stake in news apps, such as Newshunt and UC News. Some would say, what’s the big deal in it, but if you read between the lines, you would realise what it actually means.

If you list out the new-age news apps in Google play with at least 10 million user base in India, there are only three News apps, Newspoint by Times Group, Jio News Express by Reliance and Way2News by Way2Online, which are backed by domestic investors, while the rest are either owned or funded by foreign investors, mainly Chinese. While there’s a regulatory cap in broadcast and print media, when it comes to the Digital Ecosystem, there is no regulating body acting upon the foreign funding in Indian News media or the foreign media spreading over the Indian digital market.

Considering the conditions in which the Chinese companies work, it is evident that the governing communist party in China asserts control over every key decision of the business operations and their investments in the foreign nations. It is to be noted that Google left its operations in China, rather than providing access to the user data on demand to the Chinese authorities. Interference in the internal political decisions, propagating the fake news to fuel up the fire between different communities, negative propaganda regarding the Government’s stance on international affairs, inducing Anti-national ideologies with biased and persuading content, etc. are some of the strategies of cyber propaganda, which creates social and political instability in the targeted nation. If the freedom of press is not maintained, then soon the country’s future would be questionable.

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