Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Skills (Expertise is falling out of favour), Lifestyle (Wealthy Indians count the cost as they say 'I do'), Business ($1 billion solar plant was obsolete before it went online; How chicken became the world's most popular meat), and Book Review (Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow)

Published: Jan 11, 2020 08:41:51 AM IST
Updated: Jan 10, 2020 01:59:43 PM IST

g_126285_reading_bg1_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: Skills (Expertise is falling out of favour), Lifestyle (Wealthy Indians count the cost as they say ‘I do’), Business ($1 billion solar plant was obsolete before it went online; How chicken became the world’s most popular meat), and Book Review (Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended January 10, 2020.

1) At work, expertise is falling out of favor [Source: The Atlantic]
“What else can you do?” You might have come across this phrase during your job interview or few days after joining a company. Ten years from now, the Deloitte consultant Erica Volini projects, 70-90% of workers will be in so-called hybrid jobs or superjobs—that is, positions combining tasks once performed by people in two or more traditional roles. The phenomenon is sped by automation, which usurps routine tasks, leaving employees to handle the nonroutine and unanticipated—and the continued advance of which throws the skills employers value into flux.

“We’re starting to see a big shift,” says Guy Halfteck, a people-analytics expert. “Employers are looking less at what you know and more and more at your hidden potential” to learn new things. His advice to employers? Stop hiring people based on their work experience. Because in these environments, expertise can become an obstacle.

So, can a few brilliant, quick-thinking generalists really replace a fleet of specialists? Is the value of true expertise in serious decline? To seek answers to these questions, the author of this piece joined the crew of a Navy warship. Everybody on the ship regarded every minute on board—even during a routine transit back to port in San Diego Harbor—as a chance to learn something new.

2) Wealthy Indians count the cost as they say ‘I do’ [Source: Financial Times]
Indian weddings are a costly affair and are usually spread across couple of days. But this is changing with India a year into a painful economic slowdown that has cost growth, jobs and consumption. Even the country’s traditionally lavish wedding industry is now feeling the pinch. Vidhi Bhatia, a 27-year-old physiotherapist shopping with her mother ahead of her marriage in February, said she had pared back some of the wedding party’s more indulgent instincts in order to control costs. She opted for a one-day event at a local banquet hall over a multi-day affair, picked out simpler decorations and chose to serve “High Tea” with snacks such as cookies and samosas instead of fully fledged lunch.

India’s weddings are widely said to be recession proof. Families traditionally save for years to finance festivities spread over days, with guest lists across social classes often running well into the hundreds and even thousands. India’s wedding services industry was estimated to be worth Rs3.7tn ($51.5bn) in 2016, according to a KPMG study, commissioned by matchmaking site Matrimony.com, with spending expected to have increased since then. The company forecast that 12m weddings would take place in 2019. But spouses and their families, wedding planners and designers said their resolve to spend was being tested by turmoil in the Indian economy, where growth in gross domestic product fell to a six-year low of 4.5% year on year between July and September.

Jaydeep Trivedi, who runs a bridalwear shop at another Mumbai market, said his profits since November — a key time for pre-wedding shopping — were down about 15% compared with a year earlier, as clients showed more restraint. “Although people have saved for weddings, they decide that even if they want three pieces, they’re making do with two because of the fear,” he said, adding: “They don’t hesitate to take the more expensive piece if they like it.” Even India’s rich, who can face pressure to invite extended networks of social and business peers, have had to find ways of controlling the spending. One, organisers said, was the counterintuitive option of getting married abroad in places such as Italy or Thailand.
   
3) A $1 billion solar plant was obsolete before it ever went online [Source: Bloomberg]
The Crescent Dunes solar plant looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. Ten thousand mirrors form a spiral almost 2 miles wide that winds around a skyscraper rising above the desert between Las Vegas and Reno. The operation soaks up enough heat from the sun’s rays to spin steam turbines and store energy in the form of molten salt. In 2011, the $1 billion project was to be the biggest solar plant of its kind, and it looked like the future of renewable power.

But today it’s mired in litigation and accusations of mismanagement at Crescent Dunes, where taxpayers remain on the hook for $737 million in loan guarantees. Late last year, Crescent Dunes lost its only customer, NV Energy Inc., which cited the plant’s lack of reliability. It’s a victim, ironically, of the solar industry’s success over the past decade. NV Energy, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., had to wait months to cut ties with SolarReserve. Crescent Dunes has been shut down since April, and the Energy Department took control of it in August, according to a lawsuit SolarReserve filed in Delaware Chancery Court seeking to reverse the takeover.

Bill Gould, a SolarReserve co-founder who retired as its chief technology officer last year, blames it all on the contractor. “It was a tragedy of mismanagement,” he says. Spanish company ACS Cobra, he says, delayed necessary work on Crescent Dunes and designed a salt tank that leaked, crippling the plant. SolarReserve similarly blamed ACS Cobra in its Delaware suit but doesn’t appear to have filed any legal claims against the contractor.

4) WeFail: How the doomed Masa Son-Adam Neumann relationship set WeWork on the road to disaster [Source: Fast Company]
What everyone thought could be the next Amazon, is running in losses now, with the founder-CEO being ousted. Adam Neumann, cofounder and CEO of WeWork, the fast-growing global office-leasing player, was sure that his company would become the next Amazon. He had even compared Amazon’s earlier days with that of WeWork in the IPO prospectus. IPO? Yes, Mr. Neumann never wanted to take the company public, but in desperate move in need of funds, he did what he hated doing: taking his company public.

But, when you have an investor like Masayoshi Son, CEO of the Japanese telecom conglomerate SoftBank, why would anyone think of doing that? And that’s where the crown prince of Saudi Arabia comes in. Mohammad bin Salman was Mr. Son’s biggest investor. Earlier, he’d put in nearly half the capital, $45 billion, to launch Son’s $100 billion Vision Fund, a brash and controversial investment vehicle fueling the world’s biggest start-ups, including WeWork, Uber, DoorDash, and ByteDance. In October, the prince would say publicly that he intended to put up another $45 billion. But soon he was entangled in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.  

Later, Mr. Son called Neumann and managed to negotiate a revised $2 billion deal (earlier he had committed to invest $20 billion). On August 14, 2019, WeWork, which had rebranded as the We Company, released its IPO prospectus, a public documentation of the company’s history of questionable management decisions and its poor financial state. Five weeks later, battered by the markets, bad press, and mounting pressure from inside the company, Neumann postponed the offering; a week later, he resigned as CEO. In a little over one month, he’d gone from preparing to celebrate a $65 billion IPO to being ousted from a company teetering on the brink.  
 
5) New hunger games in jobless Bharat [Source: Livemint]
Unemployment rate currently has been high in India, especially in rural areas. In some places it is so bad that families are pinching their stomach by eating one meal less or even two. Last week, as the winter crept into the arid Bundelkhand region spread across the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, Mint travelled to three districts, Chitrakoot, Banda and Panna. The idea was to take stock of the kitchens of landless households dependent on casual work, the most vulnerable among all occupational groups.

After a collapse in rural incomes and a de-growth in causal wages—heightened by the ban on high-value currency notes in end 2016—a recent National Statistical Office (NSO) survey report leaked by Business Standard showed a significant 9% drop in rural consumption, including on staples, between 2011-12 and 2017-18. The last time a fall in consumption was recorded was half a century ago in the early 1970s. Data released earlier this year showed that unemployment was at a four-decade high in 2017-18; over 17% of rural men in the 15-29 age group were unemployed, triple the number in 2011-12.

The distress today is palpable despite the country witnessing record harvests of grains and pulses between 2017 and 2019. In the face of twin adversities—falling incomes and rising food prices—the landless poor in rural India have fine-tuned their food choices. In Bundelkhand, a common sight today is women plucking tender chickpea leaves from the field, the only greens in their diet. In their struggle to put food on the plate, families in villages have stretched themselves thin. Most kids don’t go to schools as they are sent to look after crop fields of upper-caste landlords. For this 24/7 work spanning five months, families are paid in kind—about 200kg of wheat or ₹4,000.

6) Reckoning oil’s worth: The OPEC, Brent Index and how we calculate global oil prices [Source: epw.in]  
In 2014, crude oil sold at $100 per barrel before falling to $30 per barrel in 2016—coinciding with a boom in shale production in the United States (US). In 2018, the price per barrel crossed $85. A decision to further cut oil production could see oil prices skyrocket. Sanctions imposed by the US on Iran and Venezuela, both of whom are major oil producers, has also driven up the price of crude oil. The International Energy Agency, a non-governmental organisation that looks towards ensuring affordable global oil prices, has cautioned against a potential oil glut, and has previously asked the OPEC to “make the right decision” regarding oil supply, in light of a fragile global economy.

Oil supply is just one factor that influences oil prices. So what are the others? 1) OPEC’s influence on oil prices: Bhamy V Shenoy writes that given the ever-changing geopolitical scenarios, it is almost impossible to forecast crude oil prices. Shenoy argues that global oil prices are firmly controlled by the OPEC countries, who produce oil according to a predefined quota—in 2014, Saudi Arabia decided to increase production as per its allotted market share, which resulted in oil prices falling from $90 per barrel to less than $30 in 2016. Shenoy further argues that it is the oil futures market that primarily influences price fluctuations, as it predicts whether or not the OPEC countries will change their production quotas.

2) Calculating the Brent Index: In May 2013, Shell, Statoil and British Petroleum, among other oil companies, were accused of conspiring to “intentionally manipulate” the Brent crude oil index and the Brent futures market. Akshay Mathur writes that an assessment of pricing practices, commissioned by the Group of 20, reveals that the methodology used by indices such as the Brent is at best, opaque. Benchmark methodology is not based on demand and supply, but rather uses information sourced from oil producers, companies and traders.

3) Deciding on the actual market price: Kaushik Ranjan Bandyopadhyay writes that OPEC's decisions on how much oil to produce is not based on global demand, as some international agencies believe, where an equilibrium price for oil exists and where attempts are made to achieve it, but rather on the grouping’s own personal interests. He also further contends that oil prices are largely decided by the futures market.

7) 5G: If you build it, we will fill it [Source: ben-evans.com]
Much has been said of 5G. But how will it help businesses and larger mass? What changes will it bring? Should we care about it? These all questions are answered in this piece. 1) What actual changes should we expect? As with each previous generational change, 5G makes it cheaper and easier for mobile operators to build more capacity. 5G will be deployed on existing cellular radio frequencies, but also lets operators address much higher radio frequencies that have never previously been usable for mobile services. Mainly because of this new spectrum, mobile 5G speeds in good conditions could be well over 100 megabits/sec. Also, 5G is promised to have much better latency than 4G.

2) What does it mean to have steadily fatter pipes? With the advancement and surge in speed, we got smoother and easy access to the world and we can do things now which we couldn’t in 2003. 5G speeds, and ever-faster home broadband, will mean that existing applications will get richer, and also that new applications will emerge - new Flickrs, YouTubes or Snapchats. We don’t know what yet, exactly, though we can make some early guesses, but the creativity of entrepreneurs and platforms and the choices of consumers will decide.

3) AR and VR, and cars: 5G seems rather more interesting for AR. To clarify first, ‘AR’ today is used to describe three different things: a) Waving your phone at something and seeing things on the screen; b) A wearable heads-up display (Google Glass) with no awareness of the world around you; c) A transparent, immersive, fully 3D color display with a sensing suite that allows it to map the room around you and recognise things and people. Also, autonomous cars will certainly use a great deal of data. They will be downloading ‘maps’ and also updating those maps with data from their own sensors, and they will be downloading updates to their driving systems and uploading more data about how real people drive. That’s not all, there’s more that the 5G can be able to do. 
 
8) How chicken became the rich world’s most popular meat [Source: The Economist]
Chicken has been the favourite among most non-vegetarians. Humans gobble so many chickens that the birds now count for 23bn of the 30bn land animals living on farms. In the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, pork and beef consumption has remained unchanged since 1990. Chicken consumption has grown by 70%. Chicken is cheap and delicious. A pound of poultry in America now costs $1.92, a fall of $1.71 since 1960 (after adjusting for inflation). Meanwhile the price of beef has fallen by $1.17 a pound to $5.80.

A study by Martin Zuidhof of the University of Alberta and colleagues documented this shift by comparing chickens that were selectively bred in 1957, 1978 and 2005. The authors found that at 56 days old the three birds had average weights of 0.9kg, 1.8kg and 4.2kg. As raising a single big bird is more efficient than raising two smaller ones, it now takes farmers just 1.3kg of grain to produce 1kg of chicken, down from 2.5kg of grain in 1985. The intense use of antibiotics means that farmers no longer need to spend much time worrying about their chickens’ welfare.

Although the chicken boom has been good for consumers, animal-welfare advocates worry that the meat industry’s cost-cutting measures have come at the expense of the birds. Vicky Bond of the Humane League, an animal-welfare campaign group, says the size of modern chickens is the cause of the worst problems. Broilers have breast muscles which are too big for their bones to support, leading to lameness. Concerns about the health of livestock have also led the EU to pass some of the world’s strictest animal-welfare laws. Bruce Stewart-Brown, a food-safety scientist at Perdue Farms, says that his company would love to raise more organic chickens.

9) Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow [Source: inference-review.com]
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari surveyed the history of the human race; in his second, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, he has written an account of its future. The author of this review feels that Harari has been misinformed and men are not about to become like gods. In Homo Deus, Harari argues that human beings are shortly to be improved. For a start, better genes, better neural circuits, better biochemistry. Thereafter, a variety of implantable contraptions: chips, stents, or shunts. Finally, a full promotion to the pantheon: computer scientists, at last, inscribing intelligence in inorganic matter; the old-fashioned human body declining into desuetude, replaced by the filaments and files of an alien form of life.

The author of this piece feels that Homo Deus is intended as a work of history, and the speculations in which Harari is engaged follow a familiar logical pattern. They are like initial value problems in physics. Talking about future, Harari writes, “As algorithms push humans out of the job market, wealth and power might become concentrated in the hands of the tiny elite that owns the all-powerful algorithms, creating unprecedented social and political inequality.”

As per this review, Homo Deus is not a work of philosophy, but its arguments turn often on philosophical or logical issues. Harari is persuaded that, no matter their convictions to the contrary, human beings are not free in their actions. Human beings, Harari believes, are about to lose their social and economic usefulness as well as their souls. Robots are coming, and, if not robots, then all-powerful algorithms. Having replaced chess champions and quiz show contestants, they are shortly to replace truck drivers, travel agents, accountants, lawyers, and doctors.

10) Colgate and Oral-B are putting AI where you least expected it: Inside your mouth [Source: news18.com]
You must have read news about Aadhar details and biometrics being misused. But now, you better be prepared for a map of your mouth and how well you have brushed your teeth this morning to be an added field in that map. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2020 in Las Vegas, Colgate and Oral-B, two names well known in the dental care space, have unveiled smart toothbrush. And these pair with your smartphone to add the cool AI tricks to the experience of brushing your teeth.

Colgate’s new Plaqless Pro smart electric toothbrush has a tiny sensor embedded that can detect the plaque build-up in your mouth before you start brushing. The toothbrush pairs with your phone via Bluetooth and you will have the Colgate Connect app in your phone which deciphers that data for you. Colgate insists that this will provide precise information in real time that is specific to each mouth.

Not to be left behind, Oral-B also has a smart toothbrush, the Oral-B iO. What you get with the iO is a motorized brushing mechanism—Proctor & Gamble says this is designed to combine oscillating, rotating movements with micro-vibrations to ensure a deep clean. There is also a Bimodal pressure sensor in the toothbrush, which tells the user exactly how much pressure needs to be applied while brushing. Also, this has several cleaning modes including daily clean, sensitive and whiten. Not only phone, now you can also have a smart brush too!

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