At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, including investment analysis, psychology, science, technology, philosophy, etc. We have been sharing our favourite reads with clients under our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week’s iteration are related to ‘the death of clothing’, ‘India and the gig economy’, and ‘why good ideas take time to percolate’.Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended February 16, 2018. 1) The death of clothing
At a time when the economy is growing, unemployment is low, wages are rebounding and consumers are eager to buy, Americans are spending less and less on clothing. The woes of retailers are often blamed on Amazon.com and its vise-like grip on e-commerce shoppers. Consumers glued to their phones would rather browse online instead of venturing out to their local malls, and that’s crushed sales and hastened the bankruptcies of brick-and-mortar stalwarts from American Apparel to Wet Seal. But that’s not the whole story. The apparel industry seems to have no solution to the dwindling dollars Americans devote to their closets. The ingredients for this demise have been brewing for decades. In 1977, clothing accounted for 6.2% of U.S. household spending. Four decades later, it’s plummeted to half that. Apparel is being displaced by travel, eating out and activities—what’s routinely lumped together as “experiences”—which have grown to 18% of purchases. Technology alone, including data charges and media content, accounts for 3.4% of spending. That now tops all clothing and footwear expenditures.
Several reasons are behind this shift. Some are beyond the control of apparel companies, as societal changes drove different shopping behavior. But missteps by these companies along the way have hastened the death of clothing. For instance, it used to be that office workers needed suits and ties or pleated pants, long skirts and heels to get through the week. By the early 1990s, that seemed to change. The genesis is debatable, but many attribute it up to the tech firms in Silicon Valley pushing a business-casual look dominated by khakis. That trickled into other industries, as casual Fridays became common. Now, office apparel is just as casual on Monday as on Friday for many workers. Over the past five years, there has been a 10 percentage point spike in employers that permit casual dress any day of the week. The upshot of this is that Americans increasingly need just one wardrobe, because there is so little differentiation between what people wear to work and on the weekends. Neckties are disappearing, even in industries such as Finance. Sneakers can be worn to any occasion, including weddings and religious services. And about half of Americans say they can wear jeans to their professional offices, according to a survey by NPD Group.
When you cut out an entire category of attire, there’s less need to buy new clothes when fashions change. Add to this the woes introduced by general deflation in the clothing industry. Apparel has become cheaper to make in recent years, especially as more production shifts to less expensive labour markets. This has led to pricing pressure which is accentuated by the emergence of low-cost, fast-fashion retailers in the US. Walmart and Target have conditioned Americans that they can get items they want without spending a lot. Now, retailers such as H&M can mimic runway fashions for $35, or men’s jeans for $25, and can typically beat other retailers to market with trendy designs. However, cracks and chasms are emerging in fast-fashion’s success story too. While the number of US H&M locations is still growing, the pace of new store openings is at a two-decade low. The retailer has struggled to clear out products that shoppers didn’t want, in part because customers are skipping messy stores in favor of a streamlined online experience.
The fashion industry used to have a lot of sway over how people dressed. Retailers, magazines and high-end designers were fashion kingmakers. But in today’s consumer-driven economy, social media influencers often call the shots. These online personalities build followings with posts of their outfits, makeup routines and lifestyles. And they’re less loyal to upscale brands. Retailers are devoting more of their marketing spending to digital ads, developing a social media image, paying for promoted posts and conscripting influencers to endorse their products. But because there are now millions of tastemakers online—with a hodgepodge of aesthetics—it’s harder for new trends to really break through. That’s made many apparel brands gun-shy and less prone to taking design risks. To cut costs and speed up products that are known to sell, many brands now buy fabrics in bulk that can be made into multiple designs and patterns, resulting in fewer, “safer” options for consumers. With fewer fashion changes, there are fewer reasons to replenish wardrobes.
When you consider all these varied pressures on the clothing industry, it’s not surprising that apparel store closures peaked last year. This doesn’t simply reflect a shift to online shopping. E-commerce startups were founded to take advantage of the disruption in retail. But even they have stumbled, a sign of the deeper problems plaguing apparel. Stitch Fix Inc., an e-commerce clothing seller that was founded in 2011, has been an exception. The retailer pairs algorithms and data to select customized outfits for its subscribers, giving shoppers a feeling of personalization and an easy, at-home experience. Experts have said more retailers should learn from Stitchfix’s ability to leverage technology for customization, though they face the added challenges of a store base that e-commerce companies largely avoid.
2) If you want to run the world, study a ‘useless’ subject
[Source: Financial Times
Recently, the financier Bill Miller donated $75mn to the study of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. The size of the gift made headlines, but few stopped to remark on the other surprise in the story: that someone who studied philosophy went on to create a fortune estimated at about $1bn — and thought this study valuable enough to encourage others to do the same. Mr. Miller is not an exception - even billionaire investors like George Soros and Carl Icahn studied philosophy.
The brain is like any other muscle: working it makes it stronger, faster, more flexible. Being able to hypothesize, think conditionally and reason inductively as well as deductively are all features of the theoretical training that goes on in good humanities departments — and not only there. The most advanced work in mathematics moves away from real numbers toward imaginary and irrational numbers. That’s where the difficult thinking occurs: in the realm of the imaginary, which is by no means antithetical to the logical. The division between the arts and the sciences is itself a false dichotomy. The word “art” borrows from the old French for “method” or “knowledge”. The word “science” also comes from the old French for knowledge. It was during the Enlightenment that the idea of a “liberal education” took hold: the great philosopher-scientists invented both our modern conception of the sciences and of the arts. In most US universities, a “liberal arts” degree still requires that graduates obtain credits in both arts and sciences.
As robots take over routine jobs, we will need people who can think creatively, imaginatively, logically and laterally. Acquiring a narrow “skillset” of the kind society increasing demands will, in fact, leave students not equipped for the future, but vulnerable to it. This, however, appears not to be the view of most governments. Robert Halfon, former minister of state for education for the UK, announced that “If someone wants to do medieval history that’s fine. . . But all the incentives from government and so on should go to areas the country needs and will bring it most benefit.” We are endlessly told that humanities degrees are useless. Why study the past? Mostly because that’s all we’ve got. You can’t actually study the future — you can only imagine it.
Mr. Halfon himself studied Politics to become an MP. Emmanuel Macron, French president, also studied philosophy — and likes to quote it, too. PPE, the degree taken by scores of leading British politicians over the past 50 years, stands for philosophy, politics and economics. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, may seem an exception, with a PhD in quantum chemistry. Yet studying quantum anything is mostly theoretical, by definition. So the distinction is not between “useful” and “useless” degrees, but between narrow skill-based training and theoretical, independent, evidence-based thinking. The conclusion doesn’t require a philosophy degree. If you want to get a job, study something “useful”. If you want to run the world, get a liberal education.3) Is India ready to embrace the gig economy?
Ruchira Chaudhary, an independent strategy professional and an executive coach, in this article throws light on how businesses are evolving their working style as the traditional job market in India is changing, allowing for greater autonomy and flexibility. A recent study by McKinsey has estimated that up to 20-30% of the workforce in developed markets is engaged in independent work. Similar research by economists Lawrence Katz of Harvard University and Alan Krueger of Princeton University shows that from 2005-15, the proportion of American workers engaged in what they refer to as “alternative work”, jumped from 10.7% to 15.8%. “We find that 94% of net job growth in the past decade was in the alternative work category,” said Krueger. In the consulting/knowledge working context, the gig economy is often referred to as the open talent economy. It’s a way to work or conduct business in a borderless and technology-enabled market where businesses and professionals seek each other out to collaborate on a particular project.
In a gig economy, the job market is characterized by the dominance of limited-period contracts rather than permanent jobs. So, instead of a regular wage, workers get paid for “gigs”. Though proponents of the gig economy claim people can benefit from flexible hours, it has its fair share of detractors, who consider it a form of exploitation, with very little workplace protection. In Asia, the concept of the open-talent or gig economy is in its infancy, though it has definitely become part of a changing cultural and business environment. There is a distinct shift in tenor and tone, and we are seeing the emergence of a new segment which looks at people with high-end skills in marketing, human resources, finance, etc. But why is this happening? The reasons are many: A slowdown in both regional and global economies, organizational downsizing and cost-cutting have contributed to the rise of professionals opting for flexible arrangements, sometimes by design and sometimes owing to the lack of other options. A highly connected, mobile workforce, and the emergence of the millennial generation that values a flexible work schedule so strongly that it would be willing to give up higher pay and promotions for it, is driving the change in rules of the employment game.
In India too, this trend is on the upswing. “Our Future Of Work survey tells us that Indian knowledge professionals are increasingly opting for independent gigs as a matter of choice and are seeking flexibility and purpose in their career,” says Chandrika Pasricha, founder and chief executive officer of Flexing It, a platform for independent consultants in India and South-East Asia. In India, while start-ups were the early adopters, multinational companies, consulting firms and large enterprises are embracing the concept. Flexing It’s research indicates that over a third of the 500-plus organizations surveyed expect to rely up to 50% on flexible talent in the next five years. Wade Azmy , managing director of ICG Singapore, a digital platform and a network for independent consultants, believes the Indian market has many freelancers/non-employees ready to engage in short-term projects—but these have been focused primarily on lower-value projects. High-end skilled freelance work is on the cusp of take-off. Azmy believes freelancers and specialist boutique firms will need to network, integrate and organize themselves in order to fulfill complex client needs while guaranteeing the quality and security of client intellectual property and commercial information.
While global and regional consulting firms clearly envision a future in India, they are cautious in their approach. Sumer Datta and Sanjay Lakhotia, the co-founders of Noble House, a network consulting outfit for independent HR professionals, say there are several reasons to celebrate the gig economy in India but there are practical challenges too: the traditional mindset, lack of networking platforms, a large variance in billing rates and a feeling of isolation. An organization’s ability to engage with talent on an on-demand basis could truly reshape the way businesses work. However, this needs to be implemented with an open mindset and well-articulated expectations.4) Tesla pay deal seeks to blast Elon Musk to infinity and beyond
Elon Musk has set a new bar in the dubious science of benchmarking executive pay. Electric carmaker Tesla has laid out a 10-year deal for its chief executive that could bury him in more than $50bn worth of shares. The entrepreneur has renounced a salary or bonus for the potential reward of 12 tranches of Tesla stock, tied to galaxy-sized targets based on the group’s value, earnings and revenue. To receive the full amount, Mr. Musk would, among other things, have to increase Tesla’s value by about $600bn to $650bn — roughly the market capitalisation of Amazon today. One question is how the unsalaried Mr. Musk will pay for his groceries. The answer: under California state law, he has to receive the minimum wage of $37,000, but for now, according to an interview with the New York Times, he stocks his fridge by borrowing against his shares. A more relevant puzzle is the extent to which money motivates a man like Mr. Musk at all. Strip away the targets and the pay package seems aimed as much at Tesla shareholders as at its mercurial leader. The deal may be unconventional, but it fits a recognisable template: pay is aligned to performance of the stock the investors themselves hold. More important, it binds Mr. Musk to the company in an executive role.
Tesla claims an earlier performance award was “instrumental in motivating” Mr. Musk. But most evidence suggests other forces drive him. “He’s the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted,” writes Ashlee Vance in his excellent 2015 biography. “He’s less a CEO chasing riches than a general marshalling troops to secure victory.” This overarching sense of mission seems to loom larger for Mr. Musk than the financial perks. There’s a message here for all boards: you need to provide more than a big cash cushion to keep your restless executives keen. As Dan Pink memorably laid out in his book Drive, intrinsic motivation — the individual’s desire to succeed, combined with autonomy of action, mastery of the task, and purpose — is very powerful. What we think of as blunt carrot-and-stick methods, including financial incentives, can be counter-productive, or apply only to straightforward tasks. Pink acknowledges a debt to Douglas McGregor, who in 1960 laid out the distinction between traditional Theory X management (carrot-and-stick — or command-and-control, if you prefer) and the innovative Theory Y approach, emphasising worker autonomy.
Tesla, and SpaceX, Mr. Musk’s rocket venture, seem to operate according to another theory — Theory Musk. Their leader sometimes speaks with the authoritarian rasp of an authentic Theory X manager. In his biography, one Tesla employee recalls being dressed down in an email after missing a corporate event for the birth of his child (“You either commit or you don’t,” Mr. Musk wrote). Yet Mr. Musk’s world-changing goals and his trust in his engineers are powerful Theory Y tools that Larry Page, Alphabet’s chief executive, has identified as a competitive advantage: “Why would you want to work for a defence contractor when you can work for a guy who wants to go to Mars and he’s going to move heaven and earth to make it happen?” Mr. Musk’s application of a blend of management styles at Tesla and SpaceX fits the wider research. In a 2014 analysis of published studies about motivation, Christopher Cerasoli, Jessica Nicklin and Michael Ford concluded that performance was shaped by the joint impact of external incentives and internal drive. Intrinsic motivation was important, but not at odds with the use of carrots and sticks.
Where does money rank in Theory Musk? Higher than you might expect, but not for the banal “my bonus is bigger than yours” reasons that motivate ordinary executives. It is the rocket fuel that will take Mr. Musk to infinity and beyond. The entrepreneur is known for pouring gains from prior ventures into his next plan — to a degree unheard of even among Silicon Valley risk-takers. “The reason that [the incentive plan is] important to me personally is that there’s some pretty big things that I want to do,” he told the New York Times. Helping to turn humanity into “a multi-planet species. . . obviously requires a certain amount of capital”.5) Like good coffee, good ideas take time to percolate
British economist, Tim Harford, in this piece talks about Monmouth Coffee - which opened on Monmouth Street in London in 1978. It serves wonderful coffee and the queues often stretch out of the door. However, it has had few imitators over the years, either upmarket or downmarket. Tim says that while it’s now possible to get good coffee in several spots in London, it is hardly ubiquitous. It is even more elusive outside the capital. This is a puzzle. Monmouth may not be a global titan like Starbucks, but it appears to be a highly successful business: the coffee is priced confidently and it is popular. So why has such an obviously good idea been so slow to spread?
Even if you don’t much care about London’s coffee scene, this is an important question. William Gibson, science fiction author, observed that the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed. In that respect, it is much like good coffee. Economics seemingly agrees with Mr. Gibson. The data show that just because good ideas emerge does not mean that they spread quickly. Researchers at the OECD have concluded that within most sectors (for example, coal mining or food retail) there is a large and rising gap in productivity between the typical business and the 100 leading companies in the sector. The leading businesses are nearly 15 times more productive per worker, and almost five times more productive even after adjusting for their use of capital such as buildings, computers and machinery. These are not small gaps. If there were some way to help good ideas to spread more quickly, more people would have good coffee and much else besides.
One natural approach is for a laggard company to seek advice — perhaps from management consultants. A decade ago, economists at Berkeley, Stanford and the World Bank conducted a randomised trial in which the bank paid for some textile factories in Mumbai to receive consulting advice from a global company. These factories tended to have utterly chaotic systems, so help with modern inventory management made a big difference. The factories saw their productivity transformed. More recently, those economists revisited the experiment. How much of the good advice had lasted? Had any of it spread? There was good news and bad news. The good news was that within companies that owned several factories, some of the good ideas first used in a single factory had been adopted across the company. But the bad news was that these proven management processes had not been copied by rival businesses. This is a reminder of how slow good ideas can be to spread, even when they are straightforward to grasp. In his classic textbook, The Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers points out that many inventions have to cross a cultural divide: the person preaching the good idea is often quite different to the person being preached to. Rogers would probably not have been surprised to see that “not invented here” was a barrier to good practice spreading in the Mumbai textile industry.
So good advice can work, but even good advice wears off. And we can all be resistant to new ideas. The status quo is comfortable, especially for the people who get to call the shots. An extreme example of resistance to change lies behind the quip that “science advances one funeral at a time”, based on an observation from the physicist Max Planck. A team of economists has studied the evidence from data on academic citations, and found that Planck seems to have been right: the premature death of a star scientist opens up his or her field to productive contributions from outsiders in other domains. People can be so slow to change their minds that we literally have to wait for them to die. There is an analogy in the marketplace: sometimes old businesses have to die before productivity improves, although that can mean desperate hardship for the workers involved.
But sometimes bracing competition does not kill companies, but makes them stronger. For example, when iron ore producers in the Great Lakes region found themselves exposed to cheap competition from Brazil in the 1980s, the century-old industry faced a crisis. The response — as tracked by economist James Schmitz Jr — was a dramatic surge in productivity, unleashed by changes in work practices. Other economists have found similar responses to trade shocks elsewhere. And for all the talk of relentless change, there is evidence that US industry is becoming less dynamic: there are fewer shocks, and companies respond less to them. OECD research, too, suggests that the productivity laggards tend to be further behind in markets that are over-regulated or otherwise shielded from competition.6) Why Amazon’s grocery store may not be the future of retail
Does the recently launched Amazon Go store signal that smartphone apps and virtual carts will replace checkouts in grocery stores? A low-cost, automated store is certainly an experiment worth watching. But retailers shouldn’t rush to rip out their registers just yet. Retail is littered with promising technologies introduced with great fanfare that didn’t become mainstream because they didn’t sufficiently benefit either the retailer or the customer. One reason is that new tools often don’t save the retailer enough or generate sufficient new revenue to cover their cost. Another is that too many customers simply don’t like them. To become the new normal, a technology has to make it beyond the early adopters – typically 10 to 15% of retail shoppers – and appeal to the less tech-savvy majority. Amazon Go may face challenges in both respects: It is unclear its eventual savings will justify the investment, or whether customers will find the digital surveillance it entails to be a tolerable price to pay for an improved shopping experience.
Self-checkouts, one of Go’s main features, have proved to be successful historically. But more than 10 years since their introduction, most consumers choose them only if lines at conventional checkouts are a big hassle. Retailers have nonetheless embraced them where space is a constraint or labor costs are high. Self-checkouts have become commonplace in convenience stores in the United Kingdom where customers are in a hurry and other parts of Europe, such as the Netherlands, where floor space is limited. But fewer retailers and consumers in the United States consider self-checkouts worthwhile, even in dense urban areas such as New York City, because labour costs and the average value of sales per square foot are usually lower and the lines are just not that bad.
Electronic shelf labels allow store managers to change price displays more easily or to have them update automatically. They are slowly catching on, but it’s taken a decade. The early tags were expensive and often difficult for customers to read, and they were only adopted in markets such as France where store staff are paid relatively well, making the labour savings compelling. But now that upfront installation cost of the tags is declining, more retailers are experimenting. The displays are improving, allowing retailers to show more product information and promotional offers. Today’s labels also have the potential for making real-time price changes that respond to things like surges in supply or expiration dates.
Lastly, there’s the excitement around the use of mobile phone apps, such as Apple Pay, to make payments. Many retailers are considering their own payment apps in part to avoid credit card fees and encourage customers to pre-pay for purchases before they even reach the store. But relatively few consumers use these apps. While many are comfortable with them, most still find their chip, or contactless, credit and debit cards just as easy, fast, and secure. To encourage the use of apps, some retailers, including Starbucks, are starting to offer inducements such as extra loyalty points. The stock market was excited about Amazon Go because it signaled a promising new technology by a digital retail powerhouse that is aggressively moving into physical stores. If Amazon is right, investors are betting, the model could transform traditional retail. But it won’t happen unless the benefits to retailer and customer decisively outweigh the cost of the technology. However, that may not be a major concern for a deep-pocketed company like Amazon, which is perpetually trying new things, learning from mistakes, and then moving on to the next potential big thing.7) Why cape town is running out of water, and who’s next
[Source: National Geographic
This article talks about the water crisis in Cape Town, one of Africa's most affluent metropolises. Population growth and a record drought, perhaps exacerbated by climate change, is sparking one of the world's most dramatic urban water crises, as South African leaders warn that residents are increasingly likely to face "Day Zero." That's the day, now projected for mid-April, when the city says it will be forced to shut off taps to homes and businesses because reservoirs have gotten perilously low, a possibility officials now consider almost inevitable. "The question that dominates my waking hours now is: When Day Zero arrives, how do we make water accessible and prevent anarchy?" says Helen Zille, former Cape Town mayor and the current premier of South Africa's Western Cape province, in a guest newspaper column published last week.
As overdevelopment, population growth, and climate change upset the balance between water use and supply, urban centers from North America to South America and from Australia to Asia increasingly face threats of severe drinking-water shortages. "I'm afraid we're at the 11th hour," says South African resource-management expert Anthony Turton. "There is no more time for solutions. We need an act of God. We need divine intervention." While the situation seems to be worsening by the day, the city is prepping 200 emergency water stations outside groceries and other gathering spots. Each would have to serve almost 20,000 residents. For months, citizens have been urged to consume less, but more than half of residents ignored those volunteer restrictions. So earlier in January, the city requested even steeper cuts, asking residents to consume just 50 liters per day—less than one-sixth of what the average American uses. If consumption doesn't drop steeply and quickly, city officials warned this week, everyone will be forced into Day Zero, where all will have to live on far less—about 25 liters a day, less than typically used in four minutes of showering.
Much like southern California, South Africa is arid, but Cape Town's most recognizable land mass, Table Mountain, traps onshore breezes coming off warm ocean waters, creating local rains that power rivers and fill underground aquifers. It is an oasis surrounded by desert with a Mediterranean climate. Its beauty has driven populations skyward and brought increasing wealth and prosperity. There are pools and water parks and wineries and lush gardens, though even as the city modernized, hundreds of thousands still live in impoverished settlements. Unemployment tops 25%. Over the last 20 years, the city recognized some of the increased threat. It made strides in reducing water use from its six major reservoirs, which hold up to 230 billion gallons of water. Per capita consumption declined, the city reduced leaks, it forced large users to pay more, and generally promoted water efficiency. Cape Town won several international water management awards. It even tries to shame top water users by publishing their names. But officials also made an increasingly common mistake: They assumed future rainfall patterns would resemble the past, or at least not change too quickly.
In the end, the dangers came suddenly. In 2014, the six dams were full, but then came three straight years of drought—the worst in more than a century. Now, according to NASA data, reservoirs stand at 26% of capacity, with the single largest, which provides half the city's water, in the worst shape. City officials plan to cut the taps when the reservoirs hit 13.5%. Already, droughts in recent years have helped spark famine and unrest in rural nations around the Arabian Sea, from Iran to Somalia. But water crises are also threatening massive cities around the world. Already, many of the 21 million residents of Mexico City only have running water part of the day, while one in five get just a few hours from their taps a week. Several major cities in India don't have enough. Water managers in Melbourne, Australia, reported last summer that they could run out of water in little more than a decade. Jakarta is running so dry that the city is sinking faster than seas are rising, as residents suck up groundwater from below the surface.
8) Why Paper Jams persist?
[Source: New Yorker
According to the Wall Street Journal, printers are among the most in-demand objects in “rage rooms,” where people pay to smash things with sledgehammers; Meanwhile, in the song “Paper Jam” John Flansburgh, of the band They Might Be Giants, sees the jam as a stark moral test. “Paper jam / paper jam,” he sings. “It would be so easy to walk away.” Unsurprisingly, the engineers who specialize in paper jams see them differently. Engineers tend to work in narrow subspecialties, but solving a jam requires knowledge of physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, computer programming, and interface design. They’re also a quintessential modern problem—a trivial consequence of an otherwise efficient technology that’s been made monumentally annoying by the scale on which that technology has been adopted. Every year, printers get faster, smarter, and cheaper. All the same, jams endure.
Jams emerge from an elemental struggle between the natural and the mechanical. Paper isn’t manufactured, its processed. In Spain, paper is made from eucalyptus; in Kentucky, from Southern pine; in the Northwest, from Douglas fir. To transform these trees into copy paper, you must first turn them into wood chips, which are then mashed into pulp. The pulp is bleached, and run through screens and chemical processes that remove biological gunk until only water and wood fibre remain. Given these variations, papers are not created equally. Some paper stocks generate excessive friction; others swell in the humidity. (In general, winter jams are more common than summer jams.) Sheets cut from the same forty-ream roll can vary in quality. At the center of the roll, paper fibres tend to arrange themselves in an orderly matrix; nearer the edges, they become jumbled. When heated, wood fibres contract; neatly arranged fibres contract equally in both dimensions, but badly aligned fibres do so unevenly, creating curl. While improvement in printing paper quality has helped reducing incidences of paper jams, even the highest-quality paper can be ruined by poor “paper handling.” A half-used package of paper left to sit will grow damp and curly or dry and “tight.” Reams of paper that are thrown around or kept in stacks can develop hidden curls that lead to jams.
However it seems paper jams are a species within a larger genus. Traffic jams, too; so do tape decks, guns, and sewing machines. On humid days, voting machines jam, leading to recounts; over the aeons, tectonic plates jam, resulting in earthquakes. Ice floating down a river makes an ice jam; floating logs join up into logjams. (Before railroads transformed the transportation of lumber, logjams had to be addressed by “jam breakers”—experts who spotted and removed the “key logs” jamming up the river.) Jamming happens whenever something that’s supposed to flow through a space fails to do so, perhaps because of overcrowding, or bending, or because its constant movement degrades the space through which it travels. To some extent, jamming is what engineers call a “scheduling” problem. Picture a warehouse in which thousands of packages are travelling on intersecting conveyor belts. If the distance between the packages isn’t carefully maintained, they will collide and pile up, creating jams. Printer designers solve this problem by making the paper path smart by using a host of small optical sensors to monitor the location, angle, and speed of individual sheets of paper.
In the largest sense, jamming is a problem in a field called tribology—the study of friction, lubrication, and wear between interacting surfaces. In the nineteen-sixties, the British government asked an engineer named H. Peter Jost to investigate this subject; the 1966 “Jost Report” found that poorly lubricated surfaces—sticky ball bearings, rusty train rails, and the like—cost Britain 1.4 per cent of its GDP. (The term “tribology,” coined by Jost, comes from the Greek verb “to rub”.) The smooth functioning of the world depends on invisible tribological improvements. We rely on axles and gears that don’t grind, artificial joints that don’t stick, and hard drives that spin smoothly. Everything in a printer, likewise, must slide quickly and smoothly over everything else. Paper-path engineers work to accelerate a system that wants to get stuck.9) Why are so many animals homosexual?
Few creatures can boast of devotions so deep as greylag geese. Most are monogamous; many spend their decade-long adult lives with the same goose, side-by-side in constant communication, taking another partner only if the first should die. It’s a remarkable degree of fidelity, and it includes relationships of a sort that some humans consider unnatural. Quite a few greylags, you see, are gay. As many as 20% by some accounts. That number might be high: It includes those males who first take a male partner but later pair with a female, or whose first bond is with a female, but after she dies, takes up with a gander. That said, plenty more are exclusively homosexual from beginning to end. Which raises the question: Why? That’s puzzled quite a few scientists—those who study greylag geese and also the hundreds of other animal species in which homosexuality is, confoundingly, found. After all, evolution is driven by reproduction. Through a reproductive-success lens, homosexuality would appear counterproductive, if not downright aberrant. It’s certainly not aberrant, though, considering its ubiquity.
So to frame the question a bit more scientifically: is homosexuality, in the words of Kurt Kotrschal, a behavioral biologist at the University of Vienna, “preserved because there was some stabilizing selection, or is it an unavoidable product of brain development?” Was homosexuality useful in evolution’s grand pageant—or just something that popped up and stuck around? Researchers don’t have a simple answer. Not even Kotrschal, who has studied greylag geese for decades, working at a research station named for the late, great zoologist Konrad Lorenz, whose most famous studies involved the same bird. Lorenz himself considered homosexuality useful. “We can be sure that every one of these instincts has a very special survival value,” he wrote in 1963, describing how pairs of partnered males frequently attained social superiority in goose colonies. Their superiority in turn attracted lone females with whom one gander might briefly copulate, before returning his attention to the true object of his affections, wrote Lorenz. By that light, homosexuality serves to promote reproduction. That is one possible explanation; there are plenty more.
Other scientists have suggested that homosexual couples might perform some important social duty, such as helping to raise other couples’ goslings or guarding colonies from predators. That would help same-sex couples’ relatives rather than themselves, a well-known evolutionary strategy called kin selection, illustrated most dramatically by honeybee workers who forgo reproduction and sacrifice themselves for their hive’s greater good. Kotrschal himself doesn’t think this likely—there isn’t much evidence for obvious, give-the-nephews-a-wing-up helpfulness in greylag geese, though it could manifest in other, subtler ways. Perhaps homosexuality is the inevitable byproduct of emotional systems that fuel mate pairing: You can’t have heterosexual love without some overflow. As many as 30% of Canada geese, one of the most ubiquitous birds in North America, may in fact be so disposed—something we’d probably notice more if the sexes didn’t look so very much alike.
Or, as homosexuality seems to occur more frequently in species where parenting duties are concentrated in one sex, maybe homosexuality arises when one sex has more free time. A harmless indulgence, then, which might also explain why homosexuality in greylag geese seems to correlate with sex ratios. If there’s lots more males than females, well, some of those males will turn to each other for companionship—and for a species in which social status is paramount, with unpaired individuals bullied and relegated to low-grade foraging grounds, being in a same-sex couple beats being alone. Homosexuality would thus be a byproduct of sociality and competition. It could also be influenced, noted Kotrschal, by what different sexes have evolved to consider most important in mates. For some, the quality of a relationship might trump the niggling particulars of sex. Or all of the above, or some. These speculations are not exclusive of one another. Their applicability also varies: Homosexuality exists in so many far-flung corners of the animal kingdom that it likely didn’t originate in a single common ancestor, but evolved again and again.
Also, homosexuality’s dynamics differ. Sometimes, as with greylag geese, homosexuality is only found in one sex; in other species, including Canada geese, both males and females form same-sex unions. Claudia Wascher, a zoologist at Anglia Ruskin University, adds another nuance: if homosexuality is often adaptive, as she thinks, it’s also not going to be a straightforward trait inherited by some fixed percentage of a population, with frequencies changing in the simple manner of color patterns or height. Rather, the potential for becoming homosexual will vary from individual to individual, like curiosity or boldness or any other personality trait, and be shaped by the complex interaction of biology with social and environmental circumstance. One could even imagine that certain environments cultivate homosexuality more or less than others. Which could make for some intriguing research: How do various urban and rural conditions, for example, influence goose sexuality?”10) Old fashioned silicon might be the key to building ubiquitous quantum computers
For decades, silicon chips have been at the heart of all kinds of computing devices. But in the race to create quantum computers, an incredibly powerful new type of technology, silicon has taken a back seat to other materials. New advances, though, could make it more attractive. In theory, silicon should be a great candidate to power next-generation machines. There’s already a huge infrastructure geared to producing silicon computer chips. And methods already exist for generating qubits, or quantum bits, using silicon-based approaches. Qubits are the fundamental building blocks of quantum machines. A qubit’s ability to be in two states (0 and 1) at the same time—known as superposition—makes possible the massively parallel processing that is destined to outstrip the capabilities of the most powerful conventional computers.
But silicon-based approaches have proved less popular than alternative ways to generate qubits, such as one that uses superconducting materials like aluminum cooled to extreme temperatures. Among other reasons, silicon has been largely shunned because it’s difficult to control qubits generated that way and it’s unclear whether the resulting machines would scale well. Chip giant Intel is hoping that “spin qubits” will help address such concerns. The basic idea is to use tiny microwave pulses to control the spin of an electron on a silicon device and use this to effectively create qubits. Academics have been working on ways to make this approach more efficient. In a paper published recently in Nature, researchers say they were able to program a two-qubit machine based on spin qubits to execute a couple of algorithms that are typically employed to test the effectiveness of quantum machines, including one that could be used for searching a database. Thomas Watson, one of the researchers, thinks that silicon-based systems could ultimately allow qubits to be packed more densely together than other approaches. The closer qubits are to one another, the easier it is to get them to influence neighbors, which boosts machines’ computational power.
It isn’t just coziness that matters, though. If qubits can influence more distant neighbors as well as those near to them, then a computer will have even more computational muscle to flex. That’s been the focus of researchers at Princeton University, the University of Konstanz in Germany, and the Joint Quantum Institute/NIST in Maryland. In another paper published in Nature, they describe a method for using microwave photons to help couple distant qubits. While there’s still plenty of work to be done to get silicon-based qubits to a point where they are taken more seriously, the potential is there. They stay in quantum state longer than their superconducting counterparts, which makes it possible to perform more operations on them. They can also function at higher temperature, which means they don’t need such complex gear to support them.
Intel thinks all this will make it easier to scale quantum computers to the millions of qubits needed to make a really useful commercial system, which is why it has been supporting researchers working on silicon-based quantum technology. It also plans to start producing wafers with many thousands of small qubit arrays in the same factory that handles its advanced transistor technologies. But even silicon’s biggest fan is hedging its bets in the quantum race: Intel is developing superconducting qubits too.- Saurabh Mukherjea is CEO, and Prashant Mittal is Strategist, at Ambit Capital. Views expressed are personal.
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