Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Economy (Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world; Put the blame on economists), Technology (Will AIs take our job?), Business (Most watched YouTube channel in the World now has to survive), and Sports (5 Indian women dominate motorsports; The monk who sold his Ducati)

Published: Nov 23, 2019 08:18:22 AM IST
Updated: Nov 23, 2019 02:59:47 PM IST

g_123959_bg_reading_shutterstock_1564874452_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 (Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world; Put the blame on economists), Technology (Will AIs take our job?), Business (Most watched YouTube channel in the World now has to survive), and Sports (5 Indian women dominate motorsports; The monk who sold his Ducati).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended November 22, 2019.

1) Elastic: Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world [Source: Farnam Street]
In the past 50 years many things have changed. With this fast-changing society, we also need to adapt ourselves. And it applies to the way we think also. In his book Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World, Leonard Mlodinow confirms that the speed of technological and cultural development is requiring us to embrace types of thinking besides the rational, logical style of analysis that tends to be emphasized in our society. He also offers good news: we already have the diverse cognitive capabilities necessary to effectively respond to new and novel challenges. He calls this “elastic thinking” – It is about letting your brain make connections without direction.
 
Although incredibly useful in a variety of daily situations, analytical thinking may not be best for solving problems whose answers require new ways of doing things. For those types of problems, elastic thinking is most useful. This is the kind of thinking that enjoys wandering outside the box and generating ideas that fly in and out of left field. “Ours is a far more complex process than occurs in a computer, an insect brain, or even the brains of other mammals,” Mlodinow elaborates. “It allows us to face the world armed with a capability for an astonishing breadth of conceptual analysis.”

The main lesson is that fruitful elastic thinking doesn’t need to be directed. Like children and unstructured play, sometimes we have to give our brains the opportunity to just be. We also have to be willing to stop distracting ourselves all the time. Often it seems that we are afraid of our own thoughts, or we assume that to be quiet is to be bored, so we search for distractions that keep our brain occupied. Mlodinow explains that you can prime your brain for insights by cultivating the kind of mindset that generates them. Don’t force your thinking or apply an analytical approach to the situation. “The challenge of insight is the analogous issue of freeing yourself from narrow, conventional thinking.”
 
2) In praise of being unproductive [Source: HBR]
With all the technology in our hand, we are always online. This piece talks about how we can cut down on being “always online”. In her new book, 24/6, Tiffany Shlain, the founder of the Webby Awards, lays out a plan for surviving our “always on” culture. Taking a cue from her Jewish heritage, she suggests a “tech Shabbat”: one day a week without screens or devices. For thousands of years Shabbat has prescribed that people set aside time to rest and reflect. Shlain writes that her modern interpretation benefits our mental and physical health—and she has spent the past decade practicing it. When we step away from technology on a regular basis, it becomes easier to consider whether we’re using it wisely.

Another idea comes from the artist Jenny Odell, and that’s doing nothing. In How to Do Nothing, her treatise on capitalism’s tendency to equate “useful” with “can make money,” she argues for the value of being useless. But the nothing she favors isn’t about idleness or apathy. It’s about reclaiming our time and putting it toward activities whose point isn’t profit. Odell contends that when our identities depend solely on what we contribute to a company’s P&L statement, we’re likely to end up losing who we really are. Our sense of meaning, she writes, should instead come from our connections to the places in which we live and to the people, plants, and animals we share them with. The digital world can’t match the natural one as a source of purpose.
 
There’s another take from Ryan Holiday, in Stillness Is the Key, explaining why you should do more nothing. It explores the virtues that helped famous figures achieve some of their greatest triumphs. John F. Kennedy (patience, solitude) resisted the urgings of advisers to pursue aggressive military action during the Cuban missile crisis, preferring to wait out the Soviets with a blockade. Napoleon (focus, prioritization) waited weeks to reply to letters, believing that most matters would resolve themselves and saving his attention for the truly important. It seems we all need to take “tech Shabbat” frequently, and explore the offline world.
  
3) Future computerized AIs to take our jobs? [Source: wired.com]
Technology has enriched our lives and made everything (almost everything) easy. But, will the artificial intelligence become smarter than us and take all our jobs and resources? And will the humans go extinct? As per the author of this piece, it’s just a myth. There are also other myths that the author explains why and how. 1) The most common misconception is that intelligence is a single dimension. Most technical people tend to graph intelligence the way Nick Bostrom does in his book, Superintelligence — as a literal, single-dimension, linear graph of increasing amplitude. The problem with this model is that it is mythical, like the ladder of evolution. The ladder of intelligence parallels the ladder of existence. But both of these models supply a thoroughly unscientific view.
  
2) Our belief that we have a general purpose intelligence. This repeated belief influences a commonly stated goal of AI researchers to create an artificial general purpose intelligence (AGI). However, if we view intelligence as providing a large possibility space, there is no general purpose state. Human intelligence is not in some central position, with other specialized intelligence revolving around it. Rather, human intelligence is a very specific type of intelligence that has evolved over many millions of years to enable our species to survive on this planet. 3) At the core of the notion of a superhuman intelligence, particularly the view that this intelligence will keep improving itself, is the essential belief that intelligence has an infinite scale. There is no evidence for this.

4) Another unchallenged belief of a super AI takeover, with little evidence, is that a super, near-infinite intelligence can quickly solve our major unsolved problems. Many proponents of an explosion of intelligence expect it will produce an explosion of progress. There is no doubt that a super AI can accelerate the process of science. We can make computer simulations of atoms or cells and we can keep speeding them up by many factors, but two issues limit the usefulness of simulations in obtaining instant progress. AI is already pervasive on this planet and will continue to spread, deepen, diversify, and amplify. No invention before will match its power to change our world, and by century’s end AI will touch and remake everything in our lives. Still the myth of a superhuman AI, poised to either gift us super-abundance or smite us into super-slavery (or both), will probably remain alive—a possibility too mythical to dismiss.

4) 5 Indian women in Motorsports defying sexist assumptions [Source: feminisminindian.com]
In India, you must have come across this phrase, “If a woman is driving besides your car, stay away from her”. Women can’t be good drivers is what all say. But this article highlights 5 Indian women who have smashed all those stereotypes. And looking at such women, many others are stepping up and doing what once only men could do. So who are these ladies? 1) Alisha Abdullah: She is recognized as the first female National Racing Champion. Her love for driving began early in her life when she began go-carting at the age of 9 and became a winner by the age of 11. She stands as the second fastest bike racer among both men and women in India. 

2) Sneha Sharma: Besides being a commercial pilot with Indigo Airlines, she has been competing in Formula 4 National Racing Championship since the age of 16 years. In 2009, she stood second in the JK Tyre National Karting Championship. She was also accorded the title ‘India’s Fastest Female Racer’ after she secured the 5th position in Mercedes Young Star Driver Program. 3) Aishwarya Pissay: Apart from winning 6 national Titles, she also has a world title in motorsports on motorcycle, the first ever Indian athlete to do so. She is also the first to compete in Bajaj Aragon World Rally in Spain in 2008.

4) Garima Avtar: Apart from being a professional car racing driver, she also serves as the Vice President of Business Development at Delton Cables Ltd., New Delhi. 5) Mira Erda: She became the Youngest Formula 4 Girl Driver in 2014 and the first Indian Woman to race in the Euro JK series. It is as important for women to fight the detrimental effects of these sexist formulations as it is to strike at the very roots of sexism and patriarchy. Unless we stop chiding our boys for playing with dolls and encouraging women to take a liking for homely activities, the perpetuation of these sexist and stereotypical constructions will continue.
 
5) The most watched YouTube channel in the World now has to survive [Source: Bloomberg]
T-Series, India’s largest record label, has recently been trending on various social media sites, courtesy PewDiePie, a Swedish gamer-troll. T-Series became the world’s most popular YouTube channel, dethroning Swedish gamer-troll PewDiePie. When it comes to entertainment, Bhushan Kumar, owner of T-Series, has a better claim on knowing what matters to India’s 1.3 billion people than almost anyone. He’s the custodian of a catalog of Bollywood soundtracks, Tamil pop tunes, and devotional music that accounts for a huge proportion of listening in the most music-crazy country on the planet. T-Series’ in-house production arm has put out more than a dozen releases in the past year, including Kabir Singh, the second highest-grossing Bollywood title of 2019, with about $39 million in box-office revenue.

In February, the company achieved another milestone: It became the world’s most popular YouTube channel. The ascent of T-Series, which has 117 million subscribers to its primary feed, caught many off guard. YouTube has been dominated by pranksters, vloggers, and beauty queens from the U.S. and Europe. No professional media producer, let alone one from Asia, had ever held the top spot. But thanks to low-cost broadband access, India is now the largest source of consumers on the open web, with more than 600 million people online. Eager to cash in, Netflix, Facebook, and Amazon are all pouring resources into India and introducing products there before rolling them out elsewhere. In July, Netflix Inc. chose India to offer its first mobile-only subscription, an option that will be critical to unlocking emerging markets. Facebook wants to use the country as a test bed for payments via WhatsApp.

Komal Nahta, a film industry analyst, estimates the company now holds the rights to as much as 70% of the Bollywood music released in the past three decades. Today, the label offers a wide array of tailored products, from audio-only tracks for users who want to burn less data to versions with English transcriptions, so non-Hindi-speaking fans can sing along, too. For devotional music, there are accompanying slide shows of gods and shrines and portraits of Gulshan Kumar looking devout. T-Series, which still operates legally under the name Gulshan first incorporated, Super Cassettes Industries, isn’t publicly listed. But disclosures filed with the Indian government show that revenue jumped about 18.5%, to about $109 million, from 2016 to 2018—a period that wouldn’t fully capture the recent surge in YouTube subscriptions. In its 2018 financial year, it turned a profit of $29 million. Who will dethrone them, only time will tell.

6) Blame economists for the mess we are in [Source: NY Times
Economists weren’t the favoured ones by those in power. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dismissed John Maynard Keynes, the most important economist of his generation, as an impractical “mathematician.” President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, urged Americans to keep technocrats from power. Congress rarely consulted economists; regulatory agencies were led and staffed by lawyers; courts wrote off economic evidence as irrelevant. But, this changed with World War II. Economists moved into the halls of power, instructing policymakers that growth could be revived by minimizing government’s role in managing the economy. They also warned that a society that sought to limit inequality would pay a price in the form of less growth. In the words of a British acolyte of this new economics, the world needed “more millionaires and more bankrupts.”

Economists began to enter public service in large numbers in the middle of the 20th century, as policymakers struggled to manage the rapid expansion of the federal government. The number of economists employed by the government rose from about 2,000 in the mid-1950s to more than 6,000 by the late 1970s. Economists even persuaded policymakers to assign a dollar value to human life, around $10 million in 2019, to assess whether regulations were worthwhile. The revolution, like so many revolutions, went too far. Growth slowed and inequality soared, with devastating consequences. Perhaps the starkest measure of the failure of economic policies is that the average American’s life expectancy is in decline, as inequalities of wealth have become inequalities of health. Life expectancy rose for the wealthiest 20% of Americans between 1980 and 2010. Over the same three decades, life expectancy declined for the poorest 20% of Americans.

Markets are constructed by people, for purposes chosen by people — and people can change the rules. It’s time to discard the judgment of economists that society should turn a blind eye to inequality. Reducing inequality should be a primary goal of public policy. Willful indifference to the distribution of prosperity over the last half century is an important reason the very survival of liberal democracy is now being tested by nationalist demagogues.

7) Don Hoffman’s ‘A Case Against Reality’: This book will change the way you look at things, literally [Source: swarajyamag.com]
The author of this piece talks about the profound mystery that Don Hoffman’s book takes us through. This initially looks amusing. Then philosophical and psychological. And when you finish the book, you realise that this mystery the book dives in is right at the core of our existence. We see the world in multiplicity. We see the birds and trees and ants and elephants. But is what we see really there? Or are we seeing what we have been made to see? Are we a species that perceives the world around us as it is not? Philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe narrates one of her memorable interactions with Ludwig Wittgenstein in which the latter asked her: “Why do people say that it was natural to think that the Sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth turned on its axis?” Anscombe replied that perhaps ‘because it looked as if the Sun went round the Earth’.

To this, Wittgenstein remarked “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the Earth turned on its axis?” Citing this, Hoffman makes his point that perhaps we have evolved to perceive the world not as it is but as would contribute to increasing our fitness (Fitness beats Truth). Hoffman says that 'using the tools of evolutionary game theory' it can be tested that 'if our perceptions were shaped by natural selection then they almost surely evolved to hide reality.' He further says, “If our senses evolved and were shaped by natural selection, then spacetime and physical objects, like beauty, reside in the eye of the beholder.”

For those in science who dare to take a stand against the conventional tide without falling into the land of pseudosciences, the book is quite a guide. The mainstream stand of cognitive scientists, as Hoffman quotes Stephen Palmer, is that 'visual perception is useful only if it is reasonably accurate'. It is not easy to look at a spoon, a tomato or even a lump of clay again the same way after reading the book. However, at no point does the book lose scientific rigour.
 
8) Sumit Nagal: The monk who sold his Ducati [Source: The Indian Express]
Sumit Nagal’s tennis career has been a rollercoaster ride; from Mahesh Bhupathi sponsoring him when he needed the financial aid to playing his first Grand Slam against Roger Federer, and winning the first set (though he lost the game). Interested in playing all kinds of sports, his father enrolled him in an academy in New Delhi. After the initial struggle with judging the bounce of a tennis ball, Nagal started showing some promise in the game. He trained in Mahesh Bhupathi’s academy. Under his guidance, Nagal travelled to Canada and later on to Germany, on the way to becoming a talented counter-puncher with a killer forehand. And Nagal would have it no other way, for it’s the slugfests that he enjoys the most.

“When you win comfortably, you can’t take much from it because maybe you played too well and the opponent couldn’t do much. You don’t get those often,” Nagal says. “But when you win the ugly ones, the dogfights, you know that you were mentally there and you really feel good. Those are the biggest wins, and I feel very confident in those, the dogfights.” He has set his own target for next year: “The first target is to break into the top-100. And after that it is to make the cut for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics,” he says. “I’ll be chasing that. I think the cut-off for the Olympics comes in July. So I’ve got six-seven months to get as many points as possible.”

Over the last year, Nagal has changed from the short-tempered, injury-prone promising youngster he was when he first came out onto the tour. He’s matured, both on and off the court. When he was 16, he had asked his father to buy him a Ducati, a powerful and expensive motorcycle, for his 18th birthday. He remembers his father saving up for around two years to get him the gift. Soon enough, he saw it practical to sell it. “It was just standing there. Then it didn’t make sense. At the end I probably asked for it because I was young blood, hot blood, you know. You just want to drive fast, ride fast,” he says. “And I’m so happy that, even though I enjoy riding and driving, I’m out of that zone where I want to driver faster. Now I’m in the slow lane, chilling, listening to music, enjoying the car, enjoying the environment.”

9) Multiple factors responsible for East Asia success story, almost all of them present a valuable lesson to India [Source: swarajyamag.com]
Raghuram Rajan, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, speaking in London, called on the Indian government to devise a new growth model that would leverage on the “strength of its democracy”, but pinned the success of East Asian economies on authoritarianism. Rajan asserted that despite centralisation of the government under Modi, it had not seen significant gains. Rajan lays stress on the strength of Indian democracy and its ability to deliver fruits for all. Here are few lessons that the Indian government can take from the success of the East Asian countries. 1) Effective Governance: Take the case of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew inherited a British colonial establishment, but opted for merit over seniority. “I am for an efficient service. I don’t care how many years he’s been in… If he is the best man for the job put him there,” Lee said.

2) Promotion of Economic Growth: Under the guidance of Dutch economist Albert Winsemius, Singapore created a climate favourable to economic development and an export-promotion strategy by encouraging private entrepreneurship. Singapore ensured that there won’t be any red tape when it came to incorporating firms, tax regulation, and visa acquisition. 3) National capitalism vs stigmatized capitalism: In South Korea, the state intervened to provide subsidies to private entrepreneurs to manipulate relative prices in order to spur economic activity, such a policy is the hallmark of late-industrialising nations. But the state also imposed “performance standards” on businessmen in the form of entry into more risky ventures or meeting increased export targets, in return for the subsidies. “Discipline” over private enterprise was an important facet of South Korean industrialisation spearheaded by Park Chung Hee.

4) Technical Capabilities: Taiwan focused on improving its human resource via investments in education. Recognising the need for imbuing the students with best practices, Taiwan encouraged students to go abroad with scholarships and fellowships. On the downside many students who went to the US found employment. Hence, to lure back engineering graduates, the government invested heavily in national research and development projects. No doubt that this surely paid dividends to Taiwan. To sum up, authoritarian policies were only partly responsible for the development of East Asia as lack of political dissent meant these countries could exploit the comparative advantage of labour. There’s a lot to learn for India from these countries.

10) Floppy hats and the five cricketers who just love them [Source: The Cricket Monthly]
Dressing and style are what distinguish people. Steve Jobs is known for his black full sleeve t-shirt. Richard Branson for his French beard. Likewise, on the cricket field, where everyone is kitted out the same, and every modern (male) player has a bunch of tattoos, snazzy shoes 'n shades, and basically the same facial hair, one way to express your individuality is with the throwback floppy hat - worn throughout cricket history as much for comfort as for swagger. So, here are five who wore the floppy hat in style. 1) Richie Richardson: He started his international career in 1983, batting in a cap, and it was not until the late '80s that he switched to a wide-brimmed maroon hat. The swap coincided with Richardson's peak with the bat, and eventually, the sight of him hooking fast bowlers in his floppy hat became a symbol of the fearless brand of cricket West Indies were renowned for.

2) Jack Russell: Except for his debut, Russell wore the same white hat throughout his first-class career while keeping wicket, often with his collar up and sunglasses on. "It's washed twice a season, and to dry it, I use a glass biscuit jar, a tea cosy and a tea towel," Russell wrote in his autobiography. 3) Sultan Zarawani: A rampaging Allan Donald had just taken his third wicket, reducing UAE to 68 for 6 in their chase of 323 against South Africa in Rawalpindi in the 1996 World Cup. In walked UAE captain Zarawani, to face Donald, in a wide-brimmed floppy hat. On seeing Zarawani come out in a hat rather than a helmet, Pat Symcox told Donald to knock some sense into him. Donald obliged, hitting Zarawani right on the head with a bouncer. Upon impact, the hat flew past the stumps, and the ball over the backward point fielder.

4) Shane Warne: One of the iconic images of Warne is of him standing at first slip, looking into the distance between deliveries, chewing gum. Hands behind his back, feet crossed, wearing shoes with red stripes. On his head is a floppy hat. Wearing the baggy green is a matter of pride for many Australian cricketers - to the point of wearing it when at Wimbledon. Not for Warne, who didn't like the "baggy-green worship rubbish". 5) Mithali Raj: The first visual memory that most have of Raj is a full-page photograph in an issue of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine, taken during her then world-record 214. The 19-year-old is shaping up to play on the leg side in a half-sleeve sweater and a dark blue floppy hat. Raj's reason for preferring a floppy is more practical than anything else. Her skin is sensitive and the hat protects her better from the sun than a cap.

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