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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Politics (More the MP's farmers grow, more they get angry), Technology (To keep pace with Moore's law, chipmakers turn to chiplets), Education (Will B-school teachers rise up to the challenge?), Health (What's the purpose of our dreams?), and Lifestyle (Can anyone retire in their 30s?), among others

Published: Nov 30, 2018 04:27:04 PM IST
Updated: Nov 30, 2018 11:18:45 PM IST

Ten interesting things we read this weekImage: 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 Politics (More the MP’s farmers grow, more they get angry), Technology (To keep pace with Moore’s law, chipmakers turn to chiplets), Education (Will B-school teachers rise up to the challenge?), Health (What’s the purpose of our dreams?), and Lifestyle (Can anyone retire in their 30s?), among others.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended November 30, 2018.

1)    Shivraj Chouhan’s Madhya Pradesh shows the more the Indian farmer grows, the angrier he is [Source: The Print]
Madhya Pradesh (MP) registered the highest agricultural growth of any state in India for 10 years now. Over the past five, it’s been a phenomenal 14% per annum. Between 2010 and 2015, MP’s farm output grew 92%. Two years ago, MP beat Punjab and Haryana to emerge as the largest contributor of wheat procured in the country. From wheat, to soybean, to pulses, oil seeds, onion and garlic and of course that special crop, legal opium poppy, Madhya Pradesh has granaries and mandis overflowing with more produce. The incumbent chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who has led the state to this incredible miracle over 13 years, should be sitting pretty as he seeks his fourth term.

But that’s not how it is. Though the CM won the last election in 2013 with a 9% lead over the Congress, the coming election would be a challenge. Why? Because the farmers aren’t happy. When the author of this piece, Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief of the Print, went exploring in the mandis (market) of MP, he came across the real reason. Rameshwar Chandravanshi, a farmer, says, “We need nothing else but a good price which, for wheat, should be about Rs3,000/quintal (100kg) and for soybean, 4,000”. Even though this is more than 30% above today’s market prices, he says, “Why should I care? Let the government bear the loss, or export. We will then ask for nothing more, nor complain”.

The Chouhan government has increased Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) for wheat and paddy, and it gives a bonus on top of it. For produce not under MSP, like soybean, a bonus of Rs500/quintal goes into the farmer’s account. The Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations’ (ICRIER) Ashok Gulati feels that the MSP, when nearly twice the market price, still doesn’t pay for the farmer’s costs. So, the more the farmer produces, the more the government pays, the more money both lose. Politicians won’t be rewarded only because they enable farmers to increase production. Unless they also think good, modern economics and link agriculture to the markets, they will continue to deal with paradoxes like a perilous election in spite of a decade of incredible boom in an agricultural state. Throwing money is no solution.

2)    To keep pace with Moore's law, chipmakers turn to 'chiplets' [Source: wired.com
Moore’s law states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles every two years, and now it is getting an overhaul. This law had led to the digital evolution from minicomputers to PCs to smartphones and the cloud by cramming more transistors onto each generation of microchip, making them more powerful. But as the smallest features of transistors reached about 14 nanometers, smaller than the tiniest viruses, the industry fell off its self-imposed pace. The 2016 edition of a biennial report that usually renewed an industry pledge to sustain Moore’s law abandoned that focus to consider alternative paths forward. “We're seeing Moore's law slowing,” says Mark Papermaster, chief technology officer at chip designer AMD.

This slowdown is forcing chipmakers to look for alternate ways to boost computers’ performance—and convince customers to upgrade. Papermaster is part of an industry-wide effort around a new doctrine of chip design that Intel, AMD, and the Pentagon all say can help keep computers improving at the pace Moore’s law has conditioned society to expect. The new approach comes with a snappy name: chiplets. These chiplets are small high-tech blocks. “I think the whole industry is going to be moving in this direction,” Papermaster says. Ramune Nagisetty, a senior principal engineer at Intel, agrees. She calls it “an evolution of Moore’s law.”

Chiplets also provide a way to minimize the challenges of building with cutting-edge transistor technology. AMD tested its chiplet approach last year, with a server processor called Epyc made by bundling four chiplets. That helped AMD’s chip offer more data bandwidth to memory and other components than competing server chips from Intel with more conventional designs, Papermaster says. The Epyc chip made by Taiwanese chip foundry TSMC with 7-nanometer transistors is also used in the newest iPhones. “This is a historic moment for AMD where they have a chance to reposition the company as a real competitor for Intel,” says Kevin Krewell, who follows the semiconductor market as an analyst at Tirias Research.

3)    The end of the beginning
[Source: ben-evans.com]
Virtually everyone is connected today. Most of the people on earth now use a smartphone and others who aren’t would so very soon. However, Benedict Evans, Partner at Andreessen Horowitz feels that the use of this connectivity is still only just beginning. Ecommerce is still only a small fraction of retail spending, and many other areas that will be transformed by software and the internet in the next decade or two have barely been touched. Global retail is perhaps $25 trillion dollars, after all.

Meanwhile, as companies address more and more of this with software and the internet, they do it in new ways. We began with models that presumed low internet penetration, low speeds, little consumer readiness and little capital. Now all of those are inverted. Tech is building different kinds of businesses, and so will take different shares of that opportunity, but more importantly change what those industries look like. Tesla isn’t interesting because of what it does to gasoline, but because of what it does to the car. Netflix changes TV, but so does Twitch.

Finally, as we think about the next decade or two, we have some new fundamental building blocks. The internet began as an open, ‘permissionless’, decentralized network, but then we got (and indeed needed) new centralised networks on top, and so we’ve spent a lot of the past decade talking about search and social. Machine learning and crypto give new and often decentralized, permissionless fundamental layers for looking at meaning, intent and preference, and for attaching value to those.

4)    Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s leaders fought through crisis [Source: NY Times]
Over the past few years, Facebook, and particularly its founder Mark Zuckerberg and COO Ms. Sheryl Sandberg, have gone through tough times of answering people on various issues. From privacy-related issue to Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm that worked with Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, Facebook went through turbulent times. While many executives have left the company after several disputes over Facebook’s priorities, Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg remain undeterred. Mr. Zuckerberg, who controls Facebook with 60% of the voting shares and who approved many of its directors, has been asked repeatedly in the last year whether he should step down as chief executive. And answer that came every time was a resounding no.

Three years ago, Mr. Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook in 2004 while attending Harvard, was celebrated for the company’s extraordinary success. Ms. Sandberg, a former Clinton administration official and Google veteran, had become a feminist icon with the publication of her empowerment manifesto, “Lean In,” in 2013. But time was about to change. But as Facebook grew, so did the hate speech, bullying and other toxic content on the platform. When researchers and activists in Myanmar, India, Germany and elsewhere warned that Facebook had become an instrument of government propaganda and ethnic cleansing, the company largely ignored them. Facebook had positioned itself as a platform, not a publisher. Taking responsibility for what users posted, or acting to censor it, was expensive and complicated. Many Facebook executives worried that any such efforts would backfire.

Then came the US elections. Donald J. Trump ran for president. Facebook’s security team discovered that Russian hackers appeared to be probing Facebook accounts for people connected to the presidential campaigns. Months later, as Mr. Trump battled Hillary Clinton in the general election, the team also found Facebook accounts linked to Russian hackers who were messaging journalists to share information from the stolen emails. This was just the start. Later the matter became universal and the platform was criticised for it. While various countries are asking for stringent privacy norms when it comes to social media, what’s more in store for the social media giant, only time will tell.

5)    Apps installed on millions of android phones tracked user behavior to execute a multi-million-dollar ad fraud scheme [Source: Buzzfeed]
This piece throws light on the digital ad fraud scheme involving more than 125 android apps. More than a dozen of the affected apps are targeted at kids or teens, and a person involved in the scheme estimates it has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from brands whose ads were shown to bots instead of actual humans. So how does this fraud works? How did anyone not notice this fraud? How do these fraudsters get away with it?

One way the fraudsters find apps for their scheme is to acquire legitimate apps through We Purchase Apps and transfer them to shell companies. They then capture the behavior of the app’s human users and program a vast network of bots to mimic it, according to analysis from Protected Media, a cybersecurity and fraud detection firm that analyzed the apps and websites at BuzzFeed News' request. This means a significant portion of the millions of Android phone owners who downloaded these apps were secretly tracked as they scrolled and clicked inside the application. By copying actual user behavior in the apps, the fraudsters were able to generate fake traffic that bypassed major fraud detection systems.

Another fraud detection firm, Pixalate, first exposed one element of the scheme in June. At the time, it estimated that the fraud being committed by a single mobile app could generate $75 million a year in stolen ad revenue. After publishing its findings, Pixalate received an email from an anonymous person connected to the scheme who said the amount that’s been stolen was closer to 10 times that amount. The person also said the operation was so effective because it works “with the biggest partners [in digital advertising] to ensure the ongoing flow of advertisers and money.” The apps are also spread among multiple shell companies to distribute earnings and conceal the size of the operation.

App metrics firm AppsFlyer estimated that between $700 million and $800 million was stolen from mobile apps alone in the first quarter of this year, a 30% increase over the previous year. Pixalate’s latest analysis of in-app fraud found that 23% of all ad impressions in mobile apps are in some way fraudulent. Overall, Juniper Research estimates $19 billion will be stolen this year by digital ad fraudsters, but others believe the actual figure could be three times that.

6)    What’s the true purpose of our dreams? [Source: newscientist.com
Everybody dreams, but have you ever thought why? It’s said that dreaming helps us to come to terms with our daily lives. Mark Blagrove at Swansea University in the UK and his colleagues have found that the emotional strength of the experiences we have when we are awake is linked to the content of our dreams, and the intensity of our dreaming brainwaves. The team asked 20 student volunteers to keep a detailed diary of their daily lives for 10 days, logging the main things they had done. Where appropriate, the students noted any accompanying emotion, and scored it for intensity.

On the evening of the tenth day, the volunteers slept in the team’s dream lab while wearing an EEG cap that measured their brainwaves. Each person was woken during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and if they had been dreaming, a report of the dream was recorded. The team then compared the content of such dreams with the daily logs, looking for links. For example, you might have a scary near miss while cycling, and later dream about riding a bike. During REM sleep, electrical activity in the brain oscillates at a frequency between 4 and 7 hertz, generating a type of brainwave known as theta waves. Blagrove’s team found that the intensity of a person’s theta waves was positively correlated with the number of diary items that appeared in their dreams.

The researchers also discovered that events that had a higher emotional impact were more likely to become incorporated into a person’s dreams than blander, more neutral experiences. Together, these findings suggest that the most intense dreaming activity happens when our brains are working hard to process recent, emotionally powerful experiences.

7)    World's most valuable AI start-up takes China tactics abroad [Source: Bloomberg ]
SenseTime Group Ltd., which specializes in systems that analyse faces and images on an enormous scale, has become the world’s most valuable artificial intelligence start-up. It raised $600 million from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and other investors at a valuation of more than $3 billion. While SenseTime has nearly doubled its valuation, it’s spearheading Beijing’s ambition to become the leader in AI by 2030. If you’ve ever been photographed with a Chinese-made phone or walked the streets of a Chinese city, chances are your face has been digitally crunched by SenseTime software, a contributor to the world’s biggest system of surveillance.

The company is also developing a service code, “Viper” to collect data from thousands of live camera feeds. To make this big, it’s already in talks to raise another round of funds and is targeting for a valuation of more than $4.5 billion. In an interview, SenseTime co-founder Xu Li said, “We’re going to explore several new strategic directions and that’s why we shall spend more money on building infrastructure”. The company turned profitable in 2017 and plans to grow workforce by a third to 2,000 by the end of this year.

Out of a plethora of AI outfits, SenseTime is the largest. Xu says the company’s ability to work across wide datasets and diverse products sets it apart from rivals. “What is difficult is if you’re dealing with different video streams in different formats,” he said. While the company has long considered an initial public offering, Xu said those plans are on hold pending rules that facilitate tech listings in mainland China. “We are still waiting for a fixed rule to come up with a new strategy,” he said. “Probably not this year.”

8)    Will B-school teachers rise to the challenge? [Source: Livemint]
As the world changes and evolves, so do the problems of managing a company. The management students that step out in the corporate world are bound to face new challenges compared to previous decades. For instance, Google’s issues with data privacy are no longer just a ‘customer’ issue. The contours of this problem touch multiple uncharted areas: contested definitions of privacy, what constitutes ethical use of data, regulatory oversight of data usage and storage.

Current business education provides useful tools to grapple with these issues, but most of the financial, organizational and strategic frameworks are, as an Aspen Institute report (Charting a new course for next-generation business leaders, 2018) pointed out, tied to the logic of the marketplace and typically short-term oriented. What today’s students need is development of multiple perspectives, synthesis of views, engagement with ethical frameworks and dilemmas and creativity—skills that liberal art disciplines offer.

So, if students have to be taught how to think holistically and how to connect the dots, teachers need to be able to do both well and be comfortable doing so. Co-teaching, and that just does not mean dividing the course between two teachers, is the best way to set an example to students. Changing our own belief structures is a critical prerequisite to changing the institution’s belief structure. All change must start from within to have a lasting impact.

9)    Are Pop lyrics getting more repetitive? [Source: The Pudding
You’ll be amazed to learn that your favourite musician/singer’s lyrics are mostly repetitive. From Eminem to Rihanna and Green Day to Taylor Swift, all these artists’ songs can be compressed to a couple of lines, if we remove the repetitive words. In this piece, the author analyses the repetitiveness of a dataset of 15,000 songs that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1958 and 2017.

The author uses the Lempel-Ziv algorithm, which is a lossless compression algorithm that powers gifs, pngs, and most archive formats (zip, gzip, rar...). The Lempel-Ziv algorithm works by exploiting repeated sequences. How efficiently the algorithm can compress a text is directly related to the number and length of the repeated sections in that text. It turns out, for example, that the entire lyrics of Cheap Thrills reduce in size 76% when compressed.

And what beats that? Around The World by Daft Punk gets reduced a whopping 98%. It goes from 2,610 characters to 61. Small enough to fit in a tweet - twice! People have described 1989 as the album where Taylor Swift fully transitioned from country singer/songwriter to popstar. But, according to the data, 4 of her 5 most repetitive songs are from 1989. While the repetition in songs is increasing, it’s yet to be seen where this ends.

10)    Can anyone retire in their 30s? Meet the people who say yes [Source: The Guardian ]
In this piece, Stephen Moss throws light on financial independence, retire early (Fire). Everyone thinks of retiring early and gaining financial freedom, but very few actually have a plan for this. Talking about “Fire”, the movement originated in the US, but has spread to the UK, attracting twenty- and thirty-somethings who do not intend to spend 40 years strapped to the corporate machine. People yearning to live their life on their own terms, follow blogs like Mr. Money Moustache in the US and the Escape Artist in the UK. They also live a frugal life in order to achieve their goal.

Jordan Hall, who is following Fire says that it’s a question of being organised, not miserly. “I wouldn’t want to come across as some tight old git who doesn’t socialise,” he insists. He says the choices he makes are simply rational, and mentions using the free coffee machine in his office rather than stopping off for an expensive one at the shop at the entrance. “You would not believe how many people every single day get the coffee downstairs, paying £2.50 or £3. Do that every day for a year and it adds up to quite a significant number. Going out for lunch is another big thing.” Make your own sandwiches, he suggests.     
The article also gives some other examples of people who have achieved financial independence and retired early so they can travel the world, spend time at home with their family, etc. But, a few financial advisors dismiss the Fire approach. Some say that we aren’t able to live our lives and create memories if we go on saving for retirement. The US personal finance guru Suze Orman says that she hates the Fire approach. “As you get older, things happen. You’re hit by a car, you fall down on the ice, you get sick, you get cancer. Things happen, and if you don’t have a significant amount of money, what are you going to do? You are going to burn up alive.” By significant amount of money she didn’t mean $250,000 (£195,000) or even a million. “Two million is nothing,” she said. “It’s nothing. It’s pennies in today’s world.” She thought $10m might just about do it.

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