Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Economy (Economists on the run), Technology (Machines beat humans on a reading test), Environment (What happens when a city bans car from its streets; Lessons from London's pollution revolution), and Education (Why the most successful students have no passion for school)

Published: Nov 2, 2019 08:22:58 AM IST
Updated: Nov 2, 2019 10:59:29 AM IST

g_122999_bg_shutterstock_697785253_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: Economy (Economist on the run), Technology (Machines beat humans on a reading test), Environment (What happens when a city bans car from its streets; Lessons from London’s pollution revolution), and Education (Why the most successful students have no passion for school).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended November 01, 2019.

1) Biology is Eating the World: A Manifesto [Source: a16z.com]
Today, modern tools like CRISPR and gene circuitry enable us to program biology with greater and greater precision and sophistication, from bacteria that is engineered to produce new chemicals and proteins, to cells that are engineered to attack cancer. The explosion of “programmable medicines” (in the form of genes, cells, microbes, even mobile apps and software that can improve our health itself) are today leading us closer than ever before to that holy grail of medicine, the cure.

Already, today you can download a therapeutic to manage complex chronic conditions like diabetes or behavioral disorders—potentially better than any existing medicines can. For these complex conditions, software may be our best way to impact biology. These digital health therapeutics have the potential to not only make you better, but themselves get better and better over time as they treat you. Now biology doesn’t just evolve, our therapeutics do, too. 

Biology, of course, doesn’t just impact human health and disease. With its unparalleled ability to evolve, replicate, and create, biology is one of the most advanced manufacturing technologies on earth. As per the author of this piece, Bio today is where information technology was 50 years ago: on the precipice of touching all of our lives. This next generation of companies will be built by a new generation of founders who are multidisciplinary, with deep expertise in their domains. The bio companies of the future will take learnings from predecessors in other spaces: consumer, enterprise, fintech, and beyond.
  
2) Economists on the run [Source: foreignpolicy.com]
In a series of books and articles beginning in the 1990s, the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman branded just about everybody who questioned the rapid pace of globalization a fool who didn’t understand economics very well. “Silly” was a word Krugman used a lot to describe pundits who raised fears of economic competition from other nations, especially China. Don’t worry about it, he said: Free trade will have only minor impact on your prosperity. But now, Krugman has come out and admitted that his own understanding of economics has been seriously deficient as well. In a recent essay titled “What Economists (Including Me) Got Wrong About Globalization,” adapted from a forthcoming book on inequality, Krugman writes that he and other mainstream economists “missed a crucial part of the story” in failing to realize that globalization would lead to “hyperglobalization” and huge economic and social upheaval, particularly of the industrial middle class in America.

As the journalist Binyamin Appelbaum writes in his new book, The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society, economists came to dominate policymaking in Washington in a way they never had before and, starting in the late 1960s, seriously misled the nation, helping to disrupt and divide it socially with a false sense of scientific certainty about the wonders of free markets. The economists pushed efficiency at all costs at the expense of social welfare and “subsumed the interests of Americans as producers to the interests of Americans as consumers, trading well-paid jobs for low-cost electronics.”

Asked whether the mistakes made by him and other economists helped lead to the rise of Trump, Krugman responded: “We’re still debating this, but as far as I can tell Trump’s trade policy isn’t resonating with many people, even his blue-collar base. So it’s kind of hard to blame trade analysts for the phenomenon.”   

3) China’s plan for world dominance [Source: fountainink.in]
China has always tried to dominate globally with various countries. As a country that seeks state hegemony, political and economic, China has exploited the open regional and international system in a globalised world to the maximum. Sitting on foreign currency reserves of US$ 3.10 trillion as of July 2019, the People’s Republic of China, led by the Communist Party of China (CPC), has brought an entire spectrum of non-European, non-North American countries into its expansionist alliances. Its economic leverage is great enough to draw even hardcore Islamist and Salafist countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia into its orbit, turning a blind eye to state-sponsored atrocities in Muslim-majority Xinjiang province.

China has also taken Russia by its side through mutual partnership on various projects. A China-Russia alliance coupled with like-minded partners from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and probably Latin America would stand for the opposite of all that the western alliances profess. A China-led pact would be a model of autocracy, forcible control of populations by electronic or cyber means. These countries generally use democracy as camouflage and at times proclaim their economic model as libertarian economics.
 
A country that aspires to be a superpower has to be attractive, seductive even. Though power is the foundation it has to stand for more, as the US for democracy and free markets, and the Soviet Union for a workers’ republic. The facade has to humanistic, and must appeal to the widest possible audience. Cash is a mere lubricant.  In that context, China’s treatment of its own Muslims goes against everything the Islamic countries want. Its human rights record is dismal. If China manages get ahead of the US and dominates the world, the scenario would be different, or somewhat devastating.

4) Machines beat humans on a reading test. But do they understand? [Source: Quanta Magazine]
In an April 2018 paper coauthored with collaborators from the University of Washington and DeepMind, the Google-owned artificial intelligence company, Sam Bowman, a computational linguist at New York University, introduced a battery of nine reading-comprehension tasks for computers called GLUE (General Language Understanding Evaluation). The test was designed as “a fairly representative sample of what the research community thought were interesting challenges,” said Bowman, but also “pretty straightforward for humans.” For example, one task asks whether a sentence is true based on information offered in a preceding sentence. If you can tell that “President Trump landed in Iraq for the start of a seven-day visit” implies that “President Trump is on an overseas visit,” you’ve just passed.

In October of 2018, Google introduced a new method nicknamed BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers). It produced a GLUE score of 80.5. On this brand-new benchmark designed to measure machines’ real understanding of natural language — or to expose their lack thereof — the machines had jumped from a D-plus to a B-minus in just six months. But is AI actually starting to understand our language — or is it just getting better at gaming our systems? As BERT-based neural networks have taken benchmarks like GLUE by storm, new evaluation methods have emerged that seem to paint these powerful NLP systems as computational versions of Clever Hans, the early 20th-century horse who seemed smart enough to do arithmetic, but who was actually just following unconscious cues from his trainer.

Indeed, Bowman and his collaborators recently introduced a test called SuperGLUE that’s specifically designed to be hard for BERT-based systems. So far, no neural network can beat human performance on it. But even if (or when) it happens, does it mean that machines can really understand language any better than before? Or does just it mean that science has gotten better at teaching machines to the test?

5) R N Kao, India’s legendary Spymaster [Source: Bloomberg]
He played a pivotal role in helping the Bengalis of East Pakistan create a new nation. He secured the merger of Sikkim into the Indian dominion. He built R&AW into a formidable outfit. But, R N Kao: Gentleman Spymaster reveals interesting stories about the person and how he is revered by his colleagues and enemies too! He always hated limelight and kept away from the media. 

A very disciplined and punctual man, RNK disliked sloppiness. His routine was set. Breakfast at 9am, lunch at 1:30pm and dinner at 9pm. 'When he used to ask us to be ready by 8, we made sure that we were ready by 5 to 8,' his daughter Achala recalls. A teetotaller and vegetarian, RNK nevertheless was an extremely gracious host and served alcohol to his guests. Malini Kao was a good cook and enjoyed entertaining people. Meticulous to the core, he always wore three-piece suits during winters and white, khadi bush shirts in summer months. He had immaculate taste and was particular about dress and manners.

Sankaran Nair who succeeded RNK in 1977 as the second chief of the department, albeit briefly, had this to say about Kao, 'Ramji ... a person of high intellect, a true Hindu and a man who will not harm his worst enemy. Once I found one of our ex-colleagues, who had retired, waiting to see him for some favour. I queried Ramji why he was willing to help this man who had been spreading false rumours about him. His reply was that rumours would not harm him, but any assistance provided to our ex-colleague would help him.' The friendship and professional collaboration between Nair and RNK is legendary in the secretive world of foreign intelligence.

6) What happens when a city bans car from its streets [Source: BBC
Pollution has become a serious issue all over the world. For the last 100 years, the car has come to dominate the urban landscape. Streets have been widened in many cities to accommodate automobiles, and huge amounts of space are given over to parking them. Private vehicles have revolutionised mobility, but they have also introduced many ills, from air pollution to traffic accidents. And today a small but growing number of cities are trying to design the car out of the urban landscape altogether. Both Oslo in Norway and the Spanish capital Madrid have made headlines in recent years for their plans to ban cars from their centres – although neither have entirely got rid of them yet. But they seem to be headed in the right direction.

JH Crawford is perhaps the world's leading voice on car free cities and an author of two books on the topic. “Besides the well-documented problems of air pollution and the millions of deaths caused by traffic every year, the largest effect cars have on society is the tremendous damage they do to social spaces,” he says. Crawford's argument is that cars significantly reduce social interaction. “The places that are most popular in cities are always the spaces with no cars,” he says. They may be parks, squares or pedestrianised areas.
 
A city without cars sounds like a nice idea but is it possible – or even desirable? What about emergency services? Or people who have mobility problems? And what about sprawling suburbs; is the notion of going car free only relevant to young professionals who wish to live in compact city centres? “The quickest way to make a city centre die is to stop people getting in there,” says Hugh Bladen of the Association for British Drivers. Britain’s declining high streets won’t be helped by restrictions on driving, he argues, "otherwise town centres just get full of druggies and drunks". He acknowledges that “some towns and cities get clogged up but that's just because of poor planning; they should have better parking options”. How far the trend for car free cities goes is yet to be seen.

7) Lessons from London's pollution revolution [Source: Livemint]
Delhi is known for its high level of air pollution, and in winters it gets even worse. Last year, post-Diwali smog moved Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to tweet that “Delhi has become a gas chamber" as the air quality index spiked to nearly 1,000 (below 50 is considered safe), which was then roughly ten times worse than Beijing. This year, it’s still only October, but Kejriwal has already announced restrictions on the use of private cars, massive distribution of free face masks, and 1,000 new electric buses for the public transport network. Kejriwal’s urgent actions in the capital are commendable, but the problem extends across the region. According to AirVisual, the leading source of international air quality data, India is home to 20 of the world’s 25 worst polluted cities.

Can Delhi do something about this? Surely, it can. It needs to look at China and London. China’s comprehensive legal standards and strict environmental law enforcement have propelled Beijing entirely out of AirVisual’s list of the 100 most polluted cities in the world. It’s currently at 122. The UN Environment Programme’s chief scientist has said, “Beijing’s efforts, achievements, experiences and lessons in air pollution control over the last 20 years are worth analysing and sharing in order to progress global environmental governance."

London, under Mayor Sadiq Khan, has turned around with bold innovations that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. Soon after taking office, Khan, whose grandparents had migrated from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh to Pakistan following the Partition, reached out to Shirley Rodrigues, who was born into a Goan family in Nairobi, to serve as his deputy mayor for environment and energy, and tasked this veteran of environmental policy-making with tackling London’s air pollution problems. The deputy mayor pointed to the remarkable success of Central London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which in April became the world’s first 24-hour, 365-days-a-year area with toughest global emission standards. The zone imposes a hefty daily fee on cars which emit more than 75g/km of carbon dioxide. Now, 35% fewer such vehicles show up on city streets, and the city has earned £55 million to reinvest in its transportation network.
 
8) India must stop being the West’s digital colony [Source: rediff.com]
Marc Andreessen, the creator of the world's first Internet browser, Mosaic, and a successful venture capitalist, had suggested that software companies were 'poised to take over large swathes of the economy' in 2011. Today, that has happened with the likes of Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook, Microsoft, Alibaba, Tencent etc. dominating various market segments as the proverbial '800-pound gorillas' in 'winner-take-all markets'. In 2018, after the Cambridge Analytica brouhaha, New Scientist magazine ran an article titled 'We've only just realized the huge power and value of our data'. Sadly, India hasn't yet.

In this context, the tussle over where India's user data should be stored takes on significance. It is pretty clear that it must be stored in India, and it's only lobbyists for Big Tech who could argue otherwise. It is not that India is devoid of platforms: UPI or Universal Payment Interface is a fine infrastructural play, surprisingly invented by the government. India missed the software products revolution (and now is in danger of missing the platform revolution), complacent that we are the software experts of the world based on IT services prowess. The key to success going forward is invention: Creating intellectual property and products based on defendable IPR, or platforms that you can defend by using your ability to execute better or your customer intimacy.

So what can India do now? Unless something dramatic is done, India will become (or has already become) a digital colony of the West, and perhaps also of China. A certain level of protectionism is needed to nurture local firms. India should ignore global firms complaining that local-content norms will unfairly help, say, Reliance Jio. They all come from mercantilist nations. As per the author of this piece, the main reason Indian entrepreneurs fail is that they do not understand the market.

9) Half of Mumbai to drown by 2050! [Source: The New York Times]
Everything is changing in the world due to global warming and climate change. Even the sea levels are rising. If this continues and the governments all over the world don’t take strict actions to cut down carbon footprint, one day the world will sink. But, it looks like few coastal cities will submerge into water real soon. Southern Vietnam could all but disappear by 2050. More than 20 million people in Vietnam, almost one-quarter of the population, live on land that will be inundated. And this is same with Bangkok (Thailand), Shanghai (China), Alexandira (Egypt), and Mumbai (India).

New projections suggest that much of Mumbai, India’s financial capital and one of the largest cities in the world, is at risk of being wiped out. Built on what was once a series of islands, the city’s historic downtown core is particularly vulnerable. Over all, research shows that countries should start preparing now for more citizens to relocate internally, according to Dina Ionesco of the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental group that coordinates action on migrants and development.  “We’ve been trying to ring the alarm bells,” Ms. Ionesco said. “We know that it’s coming.” There is little modern precedent for this scale of population movement, she added.

In other places, the migration caused by rising seas could trigger or exacerbate regional conflicts. Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq, could be mostly underwater by 2050. If that happens, the effects could be felt well beyond Iraq’s borders, according to John Castellaw, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general who was chief of staff for United States Central Command during the Iraq War. “So this is far more than an environmental problem,” he said. “It’s a humanitarian, security and possibly military problem too.” If the countries don’t take serious steps now, the judgment day would be soon near.

10) Why the most successful students have no passion for school [Source: aeon.co]
Passion, that’s what you need to have if you want to succeed. You must have come across this phrase many a times in your lives. However, there are telling counterexamples where passion doesn’t seem to be a necessary ingredient for success. One such case is academic success. You might think that successful students should be passionate about their schooling, and that this passion for school would account, at least partly, for why some students succeed and why some don’t. But this isn’t right. Research done by the author of this piece found that there is in fact no relationship between how well students do academically and what their attitude toward schooling actually is. A student doesn’t need to be passionate about school to be academically successful.

The author’s research findings derive from the analysis of a large-scale international database called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In the most recent 2015 PISA assessment, 72 countries and economies contributed. As it turned out, simple and direct correlations between students’ academic achievement and their attitudes toward school were near zero. The near-zero result was replicated in the PISA 2003, 2009, and 2012. There were no differences with respect to students’ socio-economic backgrounds. Gender did not affect the finding, and it holds for both developing and developed countries. Only about 2 per cent of the PISA mathematics performance was explained by students’ attitudes toward school in 62 countries. This means that in most countries, academically able students do not hold their schooling in high regard.

If there is no real relationship between academic achievement and attitude, then what motivates bright students to achieve academic success? Other PISA-based research has suggested that what sets academically able and less able students apart is self-belief about their own strengths and weaknesses. Individual psychological variables such as self-efficacy, anxiety and enjoyment of learning in itself explain between 15% and 25% of the variation in students’ academic achievement. But this is a problem. Adults responsible for making decisions about schooling need to be more cognisant about the long-term influences that the school experience can exert on students’ attitudes and beliefs. A stronger emphasis must also be given to the inclusion of hands-on group activities that emulate what they may do in life once they graduate.

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