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 ‘India’s hidden red republic’, ‘biases in online reviews’, and ‘bridge building algorithm of ants’.
Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended March 16, 2018.
1) How money and fame ruin modern thinkers [Source: Financial Times] Simon Kuper of Financial Times believes success has ruined many previously excellent writers and thinkers. According to him, while this is an age-old phenomenon, it has got worse in our era. He laments the fact that the best business nowadays is selling to the elite 1%. A caste of pundits has accordingly arisen to supply them with thoughts and talking points. These pundits make decent money themselves, especially on the speakers’ circuit, which according to Mr. Kuper, is now the place where original thinkers go to ‘die’. He exemplifies his points using some case studies:
Historian: While initial years are spent in the archives producing good books, once you come in the limelight, you start talking about topics such as “What’s next for China?” (The 0.1% want to know the future, because that’s where the money is). When you aren’t being an oracle, you are explaining why you were right five years ago. Eventually you realize you aren’t a historian anymore; just a content provider for the media.
Reporter: Initially, you are multilingual, hardworking and sit in ordinary people’s homes trying to understand what’s going on in their country. But once you are a star, you become a talking head in a complimentary limousine, separated from your material. Focus shifts to princes and diplomats in high places and in trying to understand what’s going on in their countries.
Economist: You spend decades doing brilliant, complex work. But on the side, you have standard political views, and suddenly you’re explaining every day why the other side is wrong.
Political Book writer: You write a thought provoking, original piece of work. A party leader whom you admire calls to say he loved it. Soon you’re texting each other daily. You feel that you have graduated from describing reality to shaping it. In your TV appearances, you start explaining why the party leader is always right.
Rightwing journalist: You are adopted by a rightwing press proprietor. You serve his empire and his friends, telling yourself that his cause is generally just, even if some of the details make you queasy.
Revolutionary writer: You do this so well that you actually make money out of it. You acquire a fine house and even a porcelain collection. Ludwig Börne, the 19th-century German writer to whom this happened, told his rival Heinrich Heine (at least, according to Heine): “You have no idea, my dear Heine, how one is reined in by the possession of beautiful porcelain. Look at me, for instance, who was once so wild, when I had little baggage and no porcelain at all. With possession, and especially with fragile possession, comes fear and servility.”
Mr. Kuper says this list isn’t exhaustive. Being ruined by wealth comes in endless variants. Most thinkers imagine that money will liberate them from drudgery to do their best work. Instead, it removes them from the sphere where they were doing their best work. The effect is worst in the biggest economies. As Martin Amis wrote in 1983: “When success happens to an English writer, he acquires a new typewriter. When success happens to an American writer, he acquires a new life.” And so the global conversation is degraded as original writers and thinkers get ruined.
The work that survives from past eras often wasn’t done by the biggest names. John Galsworthy and JB Priestley were star writers in Britain in the first half of the past century but no longer. Meanwhile, George Orwell went almost unnoticed until 1945, less than five years before his death, when he finally managed to get Animal Farm published. By analogy, today’s most interesting thinker is not the fifty-something, multi-millionaire giving the keynote address, but the ignored 30-year-old blogger.
2) Red Republic of Abujhmad: Inside the unknown hills of south Chhattisgarh [Source: Economic Times] For Jitendra Majhee, a young class VIII schoolboy, who wants to be a doctor, going home means at least a two-day walk negotiating a hilly terrain, wild animals and rivulets. While he lives in Lanka, his school, Orcha Middle School, is 70km away in south Chhattisgarh. He gets a chance to meet his friends and family every Wednesday at the Orcha’s Wednesday bazaar (market). “My relatives regularly come to Orcha’s Wednesday bazaar. They start their journey on Monday morning and reach here by Tuesday afternoon. They sell the goods in the market, buy some stuff and begin their return journey on Thursday morning. They reach home by Friday afternoon,” says Majhee. This is Abujhmad — “Abujh” means what you can’t understand and “mad” means hill in the local dialect. Young Majhee has a textbook open in front of him, with a map of India. Ironically, Abujhmad is possibly the only piece of land in the country where there is no revenue map as yet; villagers have no title deeds (patta) to the land they live in or cultivate. The area is bigger than the state of Goa — about 4,000 sq. km.
Inhabited by about 40,000 people, Abujhmad includes the entire Orcha block and most of Narayanpur district as well as parts of Dantewada and Bijapur districts of Chhattisgarh and Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. The majority of people belong to the Abujhmaria tribe. Naresh Korram, sarpanch of Orcha gram panchayat, says road and phone connectivity hold the key to the mainstreaming of the area. “Four buses ply on a 66-km stretch between Orcha and the district headquarters, Narayanpur. There’s no road to most of the interior villages beyond Orcha. Maoists continue to resist road-building and plying of buses; only in August last year, they burnt down a bus after asking the passengers to get down,” he says. Abujhmad, historically, remained an abandoned area since the time of the British who otherwise conducted revenue surveys in areas as far as the Lushai hills (now Mizoram) or Jammu and Kashmir’s Ladakh region. Even after Independence, most parts of Abujhmad were out of reach for outsiders, at times deliberately, to ensure that the tribes living in the area didn’t dilute their ethnicity and tradition by mixing up with outsiders.
But Orcha village was reasonably developed and there were motorable roads between Narayanpur and Orcha in the 1980s. Things changed as Maoists entered the "unknown hill" in the 1990s and consolidated their stronghold in the early 2000s: they burnt over 50 schools, destroyed roads and set up what they called "Jantana Sarkar" in most of Abujhmad. If locals are to be believed, Maoists even today run schools with their own syllabus in at least two places: Murumwada and Boter. The Maoists also trained a 13-year-old girl to entertain the villagers and spread Maoist ideology in a subtle way. The girl can’t recall when exactly she was picked up by Maoists from her village called Hitawada, located deep inside Abujhmad. “It was sometime during the monsoon last year.” Her trainers at Chetna Natya Mandli (CNM), a wing of the Maoists that propagates their ideology through song and dance, made her undergo a tough daily schedule. After being rescued by a police team last year, Vira enrolled in a school in Orcha. When asked whether she would like to go back to the Maoists, she retorted, “Kabhi nahi (Never).”.
3) In search of the real Silicon Valley [Source: Financial Times] In theory, and on a map, the Silicon Valley stretches across the south-western corner of the San Francisco Bay, from Santa Clara up to Palo Alto. But, in practice, there is little for visitors to see — few landmarks, no obvious valley, nowhere a tourist can take a picture and feel like they’ve arrived at the Silicon Valley they dreamed of. The author Leslie Hook recollects talking to a group of Chinese entrepreneurs who were on a “Silicon Valley tour”. They drove down Sand Hill Road, home to many prestigious venture capital groups in drab office parks, and stopped to take pictures in front of the sign of Kleiner Perkins, a prominent VC firm, until they were shooed away by security guards. As well as Sand Hill Road, there are other routine tour stops: the Computer History Museum, the Stanford Campus, the Golden Gate Bridge up in San Francisco. But none captures the Valley’s essence, because “Silicon Valley” is not really a place any more. Outsiders still dream of somewhere called Silicon Valley, but that dream is increasingly untethered from a physical place.
This was not always the case. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was both silicon (in computer chips) and a valley (the Santa Clara Valley) that was at the forefront of scientific innovation, fuelled by government investment in research and by the nearby Stanford Research Park. The invention of the transistor and the microchip led to waves of technological creativity, closely linked to scientific advances, much of which occurred in the Bay Area. This changed, however, with the advent of the internet and the smartphone, when online businesses and then apps replaced the hard sciences as the currency of disruption. At that point, “Silicon Valley” spread up and down the Bay Area and sparked imitators all over the world — Silicon Alley in New York, Silicon Hills in Austin, Silicon Roundabout in London. The start-ups most associated with the Valley today are companies such as Uber, Airbnb and Twitter, which are all based in San Francisco, dozens of miles from the literal Silicon Valley.
While it is no longer centred in a physical place, there are certain components that make the Valley what it is. First is its brand — so powerful that it needs little explanation. Second is its network of people. This is the true heart of the Valley — and the reason it is so hard for outsiders to discover. The network is not only entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, but also software engineers who avoid the limelight, eccentric billionaires who fund pipe dreams, and Stanford professors with a few side projects. While this network is low profile, it is by far the Valley’s most powerful quality. Then comes the third distinct quality of Silicon Valley: there is a very specific way of thinking here. There is a relentless optimism, which is a necessary quality for any inventor. It is also a place where failure is accepted, even celebrated. It’s considered perfectly normal for an entrepreneur to start a conversation by saying: “Well, my last company didn’t work out, and this is what I’m doing now.”
4) Online reviews are biased. Here’s how to fix them [Source: HBR] In this Internet age, customers are surrounded by online reviews thanks to other consumers who’ve gone to the trouble of posting opinions about products and services online. While online reviews are blessing if they help consumers to make more informed decisions, they also tend to over-represent the most extreme views. Research shows many of today’s most popular online review platforms — including Yelp business reviews and Amazon product reviews — have a distribution of opinion that is highly polarized, with many extreme positive and/or negative reviews, and few moderate opinions. This creates a “bi-modal” or “J-shaped” distribution of online product reviews that has been well-documented in the academic literature. This makes it hard to learn about true quality from online reviews. A recent survey found 48% of job seekers in the U.S. today rely on online employer reviews from Glassdoor, the jobs site as part of their job search process — a huge fraction of America’s 160-million person labour market. Relying on biased online reviews of employers could be a costly mistake — both for job seekers and employers.
In an experiment, a group of online participants were asked to leave reviews of their employer. Then several types of incentives were tested — both monetary incentives, and “pro-social” incentives, in this case reminders that leaving a review would help other job seekers — to see how online company reviews changed with each. For the experiment, Amazon’s MTurk marketplace was used; all participants were paid $0.20 each to review their employer, and some were paid more, to test the effects of extra monetary incentives. The results show that people are more likely to leave online reviews when they’re reminded that doing so helps other job seekers. Simple pro-social incentives also led the distribution of reviews to be less biased, creating a more normal bell-curve distribution of reviews. The impact of monetary incentives was also tested — paying participants extra to leave employer reviews. Monetary incentives can also work, but only if they are high enough. As the size of monetary payments rises, so does people’s willingness to post online reviews — even those with moderate opinions who would otherwise remain silent. In the experiment, offering $0.15 extra — a 75% payment increase to participants — was enough to reduce bias in reviews.
Do the experimental results also hold up in the real world? To test that, a study also looked at an online incentive program on Glassdoor. Glassdoor receives user content in two ways. First, users may voluntarily submit reviews of their employer, salary, and other job information. Second, Glassdoor also uses what’s known as a “give-to-get” policy that provides a strong incentive for users to provide content: After viewing any three pieces of content online, users are asked to submit their own review back into the online community before being able to view additional information. The authors examined whether this real-world incentive policy changed online opinion about companies. Just as in their lab experiment, they found the distribution of online reviews left voluntarily differed markedly from those left by users who were given an incentive to leave reviews. The distribution of voluntary reviews was significantly more extreme — with many more positive and negative opinions of companies — than the more moderate distribution of incentivized reviews. Both in controlled experiments and in a real-world business setting, research shows that providing monetary and pro-social incentives can lead to more balanced and representative online reviews.
Correcting bias in online reviews can sway important decisions in the economy. Imagine a job seeker deciding between a similar job in two industries, such as consulting versus advertising. The authors’ research shows that the ranking of industries in terms of online ratings often flips based on whether reviews are left voluntarily or in response to an incentive. For example, job seekers relying only on polarized voluntary reviews may believe consulting is a less desirable industry than advertising, when a more balanced set of incentivized reviews offers the opposite conclusion. In this way, biases in the distribution of online reviews can affect real-world economic decisions by distorting the information consumers, job seekers, and investors rely on. Online reviews are a powerful tool for sharing information at scale. But it’s important to remember the source — many online reviews today are from those who’ve voluntarily decided to share opinions, giving a distorted view of products, services and companies. 5) Testosterone Rex – Men, women and myths [Source: Financial Times] At first sight, it seems plausible that men and women have inherently different characteristics. In a nutshell, men and women’s investment in their offspring was fundamentally unequal; therefore they needed different approaches to reproductive success. As a result, the sexes evolved different kinds of brains and ultimately disparate natures, with men being inescapably more promiscuous, risk-taking and competitive, women more caring and nurturing. Testosterone features highly in this story, as it is typically thought to produce not only a male reproductive system but also that distinctively male nature and behaviour. In her new book “Testosterone Rex", Cordelia Fine demolishes every link in that chain.
These are the headlines: of course there are genetic, hormonal and genital differences between males and females, which usually — but not always — line up to create biological sex. But why should we expect this to inexorably shape brain and behaviour in clear-cut male or female ways? In fact, we now know that, both across and within species, biological sex does not determine any particular brain structure, or mating strategies, or arrangements for parental care. What characteristics do arise partly depend “on the animal’s ecological, material, and social situation”. In humans, for instance, studies of male and female brains show remarkable similarities. Similarly, when it comes to behaviour, it has been found that sex differences are generally quite small. People are not straightforwardly masculine or feminine: rather, some personality traits and behaviours are more common in males than females, others the other way around. Mostly, we are a blend.
Hormones respond to the environment, and testosterone is one factor in a complex system rather than absolute monarch. Colourful evidence for this comes from the fish Haplochromis burtoni, for instance: the aggressive, colourful, high-testosterone territorial males don’t lose their bold colours as a direct result of castration, but only if they’re subsequently made to share a tank with a bigger territorial specimen. Closer to home, it seems that both men and women who are interested in getting a new sexual partner have higher circulating testosterone than people who are happily either coupled or single.
All this is not just of academic interest: it matters greatly for the daily choices we all have to make. Take the colour-coding of toys. We tend to assume that boys’ preferences for boy toys and girls’ for girl toys are innate, fixed and universal, but biological sex does not prescribe any of this. There is evidence that children show comparable preferences at first, and differences begin to emerge when they start self-socialising around the age of two or three.
6) What does a batsman see? [ Source: ESPN CRICINFO] Are some Batsmen truly gifted in seeing the cricket ball? This article discusses what a batsman sees while facing a delivery and why this is important. In late December 1971, while Greg Chappell was waiting for his brother, Ian, for dinner, a concierge approached Greg and told that there’s a letter for him. It was from his father. There's no letter inside, just a newspaper clipping - an opinion article by the Adelaide Advertiser's chief cricket writer, Keith Butler. It said that Chappell is wasting his enormous talent and the way he's batting he won't make the forthcoming Ashes tour. At the end of the article he saw the one-line message his father had written: "I don't believe everything that Keith says, but it might be worth thinking about." Greg pondered over it, and thought about every single game of cricket that he had ever played, from his very first in the backyard with his brother Ian, to park and beach cricket with his mates, to schoolboys' cricket for Prince Alfred College, to grade cricket for Glenelg District Cricket Club, to Sheffield Shield cricket for South Australia, to county cricket for Somerset, to Test cricket for Australia.
Hours later, he emerged with a stunning realisation: by playing cricket since the age of four, he had, without realising it, developed a systemic process of concentration and a precise method of watching the ball; but he had only been using them consistently on his good days. There lay the answer to his question: all he had to do was use his own systemic process of concentration and precise method of watching the ball every single time he walked out to bat. And then, in Australia's first innings, he scored an unbeaten 115. Eight days later, he scored an unbeaten 197 at the SCG in the fourth unofficial Test. As he walked off to the applause of the 19,125-strong crowd, he knew deep down that his batting had gone to an entirely different level. At the tender age of 23, he discovered what most batsmen spend their entire careers searching fruitlessly for: the secret - for him, anyway - to scoring runs at Test level.
The mental routine that enabled Chappell, in an era when Test bowling was arguably the strongest that it has ever been, to maintain a Test average in excess of 50 for nearly a decade is not particularly complicated. Chappell realised that he had three ascending levels of mental concentration: awareness, fine focus and fierce focus. In order to conserve his finite quantum of mental energy, he would have to use fierce focus as little as possible, so that it was always available when he really needed it. When he walked out to bat, his concentration would be set at its lowest, power-saving level: awareness. He would mark his guard and look around the field, methodically counting all ten fielders until his gaze reached the face of the bowler standing at the top of his mark. At that point, he would increase his level of concentration to fine focus. As the bowler ran in, he would gently and rhythmically tap his bat on the ground, keeping his central vision on the bowler's face and his peripheral vision on the bowler's body. He believed that a bowler's facial expression and the bodily movements in his run-up and load-up offered the batsman valuable predictive clues as to what ball would be bowled. He would not look at the ball in the bowler's hand as he ran in.
He saw that the mistake that most batsmen make, especially when they are striving to fulfill their lifelong dream of playing Test cricket for their country, is that they try too hard. They stop trusting the natural instincts that have got them that far and start worrying about getting out, or fretting about the correctness or otherwise of their technique. The Cricket Monthly spoke to six active professional Australian batsmen - 27-year-old Chris Lynn, 35-year-old Ed Cowan, 24-year-old Kurtis Patterson, 20-year-old Will Pucovski, 46-year-old Greg Blewett, and 28-year-old Joe Burns. They said that they naturally and independently developed a method for watching the ball that is either identical or very similar to Chappell's. According to Patterson, "the best form of coaching would be to just have a conversation… [that] gets someone to think about it themselves." Bradman would approve. The greatest batsman of them all wrote that "the two most important pieces of advice" that he gave young batsmen were "(a) concentrate and (b) watch the ball." How to do those two things is a question that every batsman must answer for himself.
7) The simple algorithm that ants use to build bridges [Source: Quanta Magazine] Army ants form colonies of millions yet have no permanent home. They march through the jungle each night in search of new foraging ground. Along the way they perform logistical feats that would make a four-star general proud, including building bridges with their own bodies. Army ants manage this coordination with no leader and with minimal cognitive resources. An individual army ant is practically blind and has a minuscule brain that couldn’t begin to fathom their elaborate collective movement. “There is no leader, no architect ant saying ‘we need to build here,’” said Simon Garnier, director of the Swarm Lab at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and co-author of a new study that predicts when an army ant colony will decide to build a bridge. Garnier’s study helps to explain not only how unorganized ants build bridges, but also how they pull off the even more complex task of determining which bridges are worth building at all.
To see how this unfolds, take the perspective of an ant on the march. When it comes to a gap in its path, it slows down. The rest of the colony, still barreling along at 12 centimeters per second, comes trampling over its back. At this point, two simple rules kick in. The first tells the ant that when it feels other ants walking on its back, it should freeze. “As long as someone walks over you, you stay put,” Garnier said. This same process repeats in the other ants: They step over the first ant, but the gap is still there, so the next ant in line slows, gets trampled and freezes in place. In this way, the ants build a bridge long enough to span whatever gap is in front of them. The trailing ants in the colony then walk over it. There’s more to it than that, though. Bridges involve trade-offs. Imagine a colony of ants comes to a V-shaped gap in its path. The colony doesn’t want to go all the way around the gap — that would take too long — but it also doesn’t build a bridge across the widest part of the gap that would minimize how far the colony has to travel. The fact that army ants don’t always build the distance-minimizing bridge suggests there’s some other factor in their unconscious calculation.
“In ecology when you see something like this, it usually means there’s a cost-benefit trade-off,” Garnier said. “You try to understand: What is the benefit, and what is the cost?” The cost, ecologists think, is that ants trapped in bridges aren’t available for other tasks, like foraging. At any time on a march, a colony might be maintaining 40 to 50 bridges, with as few as one and as many as 50 ants per bridge. In a 2015 paper, Garnier and his colleagues calculated that as much as 20% of the colony can be locked into bridges at a time. At this point, a shorter route just isn’t worth the extra ants it would take to create a longer bridge. Except, of course, individual ants have no idea how many of their colony-mates are holding fast over a gap. And this is where the second rule kicks in. As individual ants run the “bridging” algorithm, they have a sensitivity to being stampeded. When traffic over their backs is above a certain level, they hold in place, but when it dips below some threshold — perhaps because too many other ants are now occupied in bridge-building themselves — the ant unfreezes and rejoins the march.
This new paper grew out of experiments conducted with army ants in the Panamanian jungle in 2014. Based on those observations, the researchers have created a model that quantifies ants’ sensitivity to foot traffic and predicts when a colony will bridge an obstacle and when it will decide, in a sense, that it’s better to go around. “We’re trying to figure out if we can predict how much shortcutting ants will do given a geometry of their environment,” Garnier said. “We describe army ants as simple, but we don’t even understand what they’re doing. Yes, they’re simple, but maybe they’re not as simple as people think,” said Melvin Gauci, a researcher at Harvard University working on swarm robotics.
8) Hundreds of Canadian doctors demand lower salaries – Yes lower! [Source: Washington Post] Have you ever heard of employees protesting for getting higher pay? In Canada, hundreds of doctors in Quebec are protesting their pay raises, saying they already make too much money. More than 700 physicians, residents and medical students from the Canadian province had signed an online petition asking for their pay raises to be cancelled. A group named Médecins Québécois Pour le Régime Public (MQRP), which represents Quebec doctors and advocates for public health, started the petition Feb. 25. “We, Quebec doctors who believe in a strong public system, oppose the recent salary increases negotiated by our medical federations,” the petition reads in French. The physicians group said it could not in good conscience accept pay raises when working conditions remained difficult for others in their profession — including nurses and clerks — and while patients “live with the lack of access to required services because of drastic cuts in recent years.” A nurses union in Quebec has in recent months pushed the government to address a nursing shortage, seeking a law that would cap the number of patients a nurse could see. The union said its members were increasingly being overworked, and nurses across the province have held several sit-ins in recent months to push for better working conditions.
In a viral Facebook post, Émilie Ricard, a nurse in Quebec, posted a photo of herself, teary-eyed, after what she said had been an exhausting night shift. She had been the only nurse to care for more than 70 patients on her floor. She was so stressed that she had cramps that prevented her from sleeping. “This is the face of nursing,” Ricard wrote, criticizing Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette, who had deemed recent health-care system changes a success. “I don’t know where you're going to get your information, but it’s not in the reality of nursing,” the nurse wrote. She later added: “I am broken by my profession, I am ashamed of the poverty of the care that I provide as far as possible. My Health system is sick and dying.” Her post had been shared more than 55,000 times. “There’s always money for doctors, she says, but what about the others who take care of patients?” said Nancy Bédard, president of Quebec’s nurses union.
Meanwhile, in February, Quebec’s federation of medical specialists reached a deal with the government to increase the annual salaries of the province’s 10,000 medical specialists by about 1.4 percent, or from $4.7 billion currently to $5.4 billion in 2023. The average salary for a specialist in Quebec is already high — $403,537 annually, compared with $367,154 in neighboring Ontario. “The only thing that seems to be immune to the [health-care system] cuts is our salaries,” the petition by MQRP, the doctors group, stated. “Contrary to the Prime Minister’s statements, we believe that there is a way to redistribute the resources of the Quebec health system to promote the health of the population and meet the needs of patients without pushing workers to the end.” The petition ended by asking that the salary increases be canceled and the money be redistributed throughout Quebec's health-care system.
9) The untold story of Uber’s infighting, backstabbing and multi-million dollar exit packages [Source: Business Insider] This story is a roller-coaster ride of Uber cofounder, Travis Kalanick. It is how one of the most powerful people in Silicon Valley, who had built-in protections and seemed untouchable, made a series of decisions that cost him his job and ravaged his reputation all within six months. The downfall of Travis started with a tweet. That tweet was by an Uber engineer, Susan Fowler. She had written a blog post titled "Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber" recounting appalling allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation at the company Kalanick had cofounded. Kalanick didn't know who Susan Fowler was, but he knew this was a problem. "What we went through in 2017 - you probably have friends who have gotten divorced, and it's, like, the relationships are gone," one insider said. While Uber had put some major legal and public-relations disasters behind it, including a case alleging that staffers had used a secret "God View" feature of its software to stalk a reporter, a $100 million lawsuit with drivers over their being classified as independent contractors and a 2014 rape case in New Delhi, India, the good days didn’t last long.
The hashtag #deleteuber was born after the 2016 US presidential election, a few weeks after Uber's Washington, DC, policy team suggested to the head of policy and communications, Rachel Whetstone, that Kalanick join President-elect Donald Trump's business-advisory board. Whetstone, along with others at the company, believed it would be good for Uber to have a seat at the table. Kalanick agreed and became one of a dozen CEOs to join the council, alongside JPMorgan's Jamie Dimon and General Motors' Mary Barra. But it was a mistake according to Kalanick and Whetstone. In January 2017, shortly after Trump had been sworn into office, the new US president signed an executive order barring people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and Uber got caught in the crossfire. Protesters stormed Kennedy Airport, and in solidarity the New York taxi union went on strike. With no cabs available, Uber and Lyft, Uber's archrival in the ride-hailing market, were swamped with ride requests. Uber tweeted it was turning off "surge pricing" (the higher fees it charges during high-demand periods) to show that it wasn't profiteering. But the move backfired: The tweet looked to many like a promotional ploy as people remembered the CEO was on Trump's business council. And #deleteuber went viral.
While Kalanick quit Trump’s business council, first CEO to do so, it was too late. By week's end, more than 200,000 people had deleted their Uber accounts, a loss of 5% of the company's market share. Worse, they were leaping from Uber to Lyft. That week, Lyft passed Uber in the App Store for the first time. This was just the beginning. By mid-February, #deleteuber had slowed to a trickle and Uber's top executives were exhausted. But, then, Susan Fowler’s post describing a "Game of Thrones"-style culture within in his company popped up. To Kalanick's horror the #deleteuber hashtag was trending again. From then the tale of backstabbing, greed, mistrust, and a crisis of conscience overwhelmed insiders at the world's most valuable tech start-up, with friends and colleagues turning into enemies, all using their wits to move and countermove against one another. There was a lot of drama, which included Uber’s executives, board members, investors, Google founders and also former US Attorney General Eric Holder.
It's been a year since Susan Fowler's blog post and nine months since Kalanick resigned as CEO. Fowler has sold her story for a forthcoming book and movie. Kalanick went from a jobless paper billionaire to an actual cash billionaire after he sold $1.4 billion worth of his shares to Softbank. He just announced he is setting up a charitable foundation and investment fund. He remains on Uber's board and still has a huge stake in the company. While he feels that 2017's unrelenting bad PR unfairly villainized Uber, and that the company remains misunderstood, the gut-wrenching ride forced Kalanick to do a lot of reflecting. "In 2013 Travis was hotheaded," one person described. "By 2017 he was a gentle, diplomatic giant compared to what he was. He's a growing, learning human being."
10) Decoding Stephen Hawking’s impact on pop culture [Livemint] When Stephen Hawking was asked to select his Desert Island Discs on BBC’s Radio 4 show in December 1992, he chose, among other things, ‘Please Please Me’ by The Beatles. His other choices included Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart, more in keeping with what one might imagine a genius mind to get stimulated by. But Hawking was thinking of The Beatles as he first heard them in 1962, when he was 20, the same age as Paul McCartney. “Like many others, I embraced The Beatles as a breath of fresh air in the rather stale and sickly scene of popular music,” he said. “I used to listen to the top forty on Radio Luxembourg on Sunday nights.” Radio Luxembourg was only available on pirate radio in England at the time, so it’s hard to shake the image of a young Hawking fiddling with the dials and antenna of a transistor radio to catch a signal.
Hawking wasn’t just the pre-eminent scientific mind of our era, he was also the world’s biggest celebrity scientist; any pronouncement by him made front-page news. Consider the time, when, in November last year, Hawking made some dire predictions about artificial intelligence. At a technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal, he said, “Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization.” Quite fitting, then, that in the comic book Ultimate X-Men #25, Hawking writes a paper on the importance of mutants as a bulwark against the coming war with AI. He was condemned as selling out when he appeared in an advertisement for BT in 1994 and said, “All we need to do is keep talking.” However, many saw that spot as inspiring, including Pink Floyd, who were quick to write a song called Keep Talking for their 1994 album The Division Bell, which sampled Hawking’s voice.
Nor should we forget that he was also one of the most successful non-fiction authors in the history of publishing. A Brief History of Time (1988) has sold over 10 million copies in the past 20 years, and was on the New York Times best-seller list for a full five years, thus making it to the Guinness Book of Records. Hawking authored several more popular books (12 in all), including 2010’s The Grand Design, in which he looked at the workings of the universe and came to the conclusion that it began and exists because of physics, and not God. That met with a backlash, to which Hawking clarified, on an ABC interview, “One can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but science makes God unnecessary.” Neil deGrasse Tyson, another scientist who is as much a pop phenomenon for his books and TV shows, admitted the importance of Hawking’s popular acclaim and the role he played in educating people about science. In an interview, last year, Tyson said, “Stephen Hawking is not only a brilliant scientist, but he himself has committed so much of his life, time and effort in bringing the universe down to earth.”
Classical German composer Rolf Riehm performed a piece in 2011 called Hawking. A bracing, noisy composition, the 35-minute piece was a commentary on Hawking’s life as well as his views on divinity. Riehm agreed with the physicist’s view and expressed his great admiration for a man who was, as Riehm wrote in his concert note, a “metaphor for the ceaseless extension of limits”. Apart from TV, which elevated Hawking to cult status with appearances on Star Trek, The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory, Hawking has been serially referenced in books and music. In science fiction legend Frederik Pohl’s 1986 novel The Coming of Quantum Cats, several Hawkings from several parallel universes make cameo appearances. In a Justice League of America comic book, Batman defeats a villain called Prometheus by downloading Hawking’s physical condition into him. In the ongoing BBC Radio 4’s dramatization of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Hawking is the voice of the famous intergalactic guide.
“If one is disabled, one should concentrate on the things one can do and not regret the things one can’t do,” he said. In his 76 years, Hawkins certainly did much, and then some.
- Saurabh Mukherjea is CEO, and Prashant Mittal is Strategist, at Ambit Capital. Views expressed are personal.