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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Science (A first in gene-editing babies), Environment (Insect apocalypse is here), Technology (Learning to love robots), Health (Extreme athleticism is the new mid-life crisis), and Writing (Sharpening your writing skills), among others

Published: Dec 8, 2018 06:48:25 AM IST
Updated: Dec 14, 2018 03:51:10 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 Science (A first in gene-editing babies), Environment (Insect apocalypse is here), Technology (Learning to love robots), Health (Extreme athleticism is the new mid-life crisis), and Writing (Sharpening your writing skills), among others.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended December 07, 2018.

1) ‘I feel an obligation to be balanced.’ Noted biologist comes to defense of gene-editing babies [Source:]
A researcher in China, He Jiankui, recently claimed to have created the first gene-edited babies. While how and where this experiment was done is yet to be known, many scientists and fellow members have criticised him, except one. Geneticist George Church, whose Harvard University lab played a pioneering role in developing CRISPR, the genome editor used to engineer embryonic cells in the hugely controversial experiment, is the only one who spoke in Mr. Jiankui’s defense. But, Mr. Church also has reservations about the actions of Mr. Jiankui. In this short interview, Mr. Church answers all questions; from progress of gene editing to CRISPR and Mr. Jiankui’s experiment to importance of ethics.
Mr. Church remains balanced about the criticism being heaped on Mr. Jiankui. He feels that now what happens to babies is more crucial. Talking about the experiment and Mr. Jiankui’s decision to cripple a gene to prevent HIV infection, Mr. Church feels that it was a bold choice. In some ways, it doesn’t make sense, but in another way it makes more sense than β-thalassemia or sickle cell, both of which you can prevent with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.
When asked whether he would have been a part of the experiment, he denies it. Talking about the backlash to Mr. Jiankui’s experiment, he says, “In the early days of gene therapies when there were far fewer preliminary studies, there were three deaths that set back the field. It may have just made us more cautious. And gene therapy is certainly back in force. And I don’t think these kids [the babies whose genomes Mr. Jiankui edited] are going to die.”
2) What would it take to decarbonise the global economy? [Source: The Economist]
Why Norway is filled with Teslas? One of the reasons is that Norway’s electricity is emission free. The electricity is generated from hydropower delivered by cascading waterfalls, dams and rivers that run so close to the roads that you can almost run your fingers through them. Alongside China, Norway has helped supercharge demand for electric vehicles, but it could afford to finance the tax breaks and other incentives because of the immense wealth it derives from oil and gas. Hydrocarbons produced by the state energy company, Equinor, generated 310m tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2017. That was almost as much as the total carbon dioxide (CO2) belched out by Britain, a country with 12 times Norway’s population.

While the world is moving far too slowly to decarbonise its energy system, to stabilise global temperatures, humans must put no more CO2 into the atmosphere than they are taking out by about mid-century. Renewables are advancing, absorbing twice as much investment for power generation as coal, gas, oil and nuclear combined last year. Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) are also gaining momentum. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a clean-energy consultancy, it took 17 months, from mid-2014 to 2016, for the global number of passenger EVs to rise from 1mn to 2mn. It took just six months this year for them to go from 3mn to 4mn.
If we need to stop global warming then we should encourage zero-carbon electricity and battery storage. In order to limit global warming to less than 2°C, total emissions from global energy use across industry alone will have to be 50-80% lower by 2050 than they are now, and as much as 75-90% lower if the rise in temperatures is to be capped at 1.5ºC, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an un-backed body of experts. For every tonne of cement produced, almost three-quarters of a tonne of CO2 seeps into the atmosphere. Cars and trucks are an even bigger burden on the climate.
So, how much time will it take to decarbonize this world? Industry experts say that 2025-35 could see the emergence of battery and hydrogen-powered long-distance lorries, and hydrogen-fuelled residential heating. In the 2030s, synthetic hydrocarbons may be developed for ships and planes. In the 2040s, CCS (carbon capture and storage) and hydrogen could be applied at vast scale in industry. By the 2050s there would be full-scale carbon removal, either by massive reforestation or direct capture from the air. In a report, the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) says that to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions, global hydrogen production needs to rise from about 60mn tonnes a year today to 500-700mn tonnes by mid-century, even without assuming there will be many hydrogen fuel-cell cars.

3) Battling Entropy: Making order of the chaos in our lives [Source: Farnam Street]
The second law of thermodynamics states that “as one goes forward in time, the net entropy (degree of disorder) of any isolated or closed system will always increase (or at least stay the same).” In short, all things tend towards disorder. This is one of the basic laws of the universe and is something we can observe in our lives. You can think entropy as nature’s tax. Uncontrolled disorder increases over time. Energy disperses and systems dissolve into chaos. The more disordered something is, the more entropic we consider it. In short, we can define entropy as a measure of the disorder of the universe, on both a macro and a microscopic level.
Entropy is all around us. Cells within our body are dying and degrading, an employee or coworker is making a mistake, the floor is getting dusty, and the heat from your coffee is spreading out. Zoom out a little, and businesses are failing, crimes and revolutions are occurring, and relationships are ending. Zoom out a lot further and we see the entire universe marching towards a collapse. Most businesses, as many as 80%, fail in the first 18 months alone.
So how can we use entropy to our advantage? Whether you’re starting a business or trying to bring about change in your organization, understanding the abstraction of entropy as a mental model will help you accomplish your goals in a more effective manner. Because things naturally move to disorder over time, we can position ourselves to create stability. There are two types of stability: active and passive. Consider a ship, which, if designed well, should be able to sail through a storm without intervention. This is passive stability. A fighter jet, in contrast, requires active stability. In essence, for a change to occur, you must apply more energy to the system than is extracted by the system.
4) Extreme athleticism is the new midlife crisis [Source: Medium]
The author of this piece, Paul Flannery, covers NBA for SB Nation, tells how he coped with depression in his 40s. He also gives examples of other people who have gone through same and have emerged as winners. He has been a runner for years, and it has long provided a rare respite from stress and anxiety, though it was paying diminishing returns. In 1957, a Canadian psychologist named Elliot Jacques presented a paper to the British Psychoanalytical Society on what he called the mid-life crisis. Mr. Jacques’ theory was that as we approach middle age, we begin to realize our own mortality, and then, consequently, we begin to freak out.

Getting older can trigger a kind of introspection, and often that introspection focuses on how much time has passed, how much is left, and what to do with it. That can create anxiety, and that anxiety can be multiplied by depression, stress, or good old-fashioned existential ennui. Today, almost a third of all triathlon participants in the United States are between the ages of 40 and 49, according to the U.S. Triathlon organization. That’s the largest age demographic by decade and one of the most competitive. A research paper by Martin D. Hoffman and Kevin Fogard found that the average age of participants in 100-mile ultras was 44. The reason why people are turning to extreme fitness is that it is less about being young again and more about building yourself up for the years ahead. In short, getting better at getting older.
The author has gradually expanded his extreme fitness it to include better nutrition and smarter strength training, along with yoga and meditation practice. Outside of family and work responsibilities, his life revolves around training schedule. While he has accepted that he can’t outrun depression and can’t live passively with it, he has made it his training partner. It keeps him motivated to avoid the lows and grounded when he gets too high.

5) Learning to love robots [Source: The New Yorker]
Robots have evolved from mere machines to human-like figures, demonstrating emotions. Also, with advancing artificial intelligence (AI), robots are being used for multiple purposes. From Loomo, the new hoverboard designed by Segway, to Paro, a furry baby harp seal the size of a small duffelbag that autonomously wriggles and turns its head, swishes its flippers, and bats its eyelashes, responding to the sound of its name, there various types of robots available today. But, not all robots have been so warmly received.
Last November, Knightscope’s K5, a five-foot-high, four-hundred-pound missile-shaped security bot—hired to patrol the grounds of an animal shelter in the Mission District of San Francisco—was smeared with barbecue sauce and covered with a tarp, allegedly by locals who suspected that its real purpose was to harass the homeless. More recently, a humanoid named Fabio, who’d been brought on as a shopping assistant at a Margiotta grocery store in Edinburgh, was fired after giving hazy answers to questions (the beer was “in the alcohol section”; the cheese was “in the fridge”) and for spooking patrons by offering hugs and greeting them with a loud “Hello, gorgeous!”

Keeping the technicality aside, robots are also known for grabbing our jobs. Spokeshumans for all these robots insisted that their cyber-servants were not intended to replace employees but to give the employees more time to pay attention to guests. Nevertheless, it is predicted that, by 2030, over 30-47% of our jobs will become theirs. Elon Musk, who recently managed to lose his job as chairman of Tesla to a human, believes that a guaranteed universal income is the only solution to the inevitable mass unemployment. This will also mean more time to play with robots.

6) Apple News’s radical approach: Humans over machines [Source: NY Times] (
Apple’s executives grandly proclaim that they want to help save journalism. And how are they doing it? By ensuring that every news that’s published on their app is hand-picked. Apple News’s editor in chief, Lauren Kern, hand-picks top stories that feature on the company’s three-year-old news app, which comes preinstalled on every iPhone in the United States, Britain and Australia. “We put so much care and thought into our curation,” said Ms. Kern, 43, a former executive editor of New York Magazine. “It’s seen by a lot of people and we take that responsibility really seriously.”

Apple has waded into the messy world of news with a service that is read regularly by roughly 90 million people. But while Google, Facebook and Twitter have come under intense scrutiny for their disproportionate, and sometimes harmful, influence over the spread of information, Apple has so far avoided controversy. One big reason is that while its Silicon Valley peers rely on machines and algorithms to pick headlines, Apple uses humans like Ms. Kern. The former journalist has quietly become one of the most powerful figures in English-language media. The stories she and her deputies select for Apple News regularly receive more than a million visits each.
Daniel Hallac, chief product officer for New York Magazine, said traffic from Apple News has doubled since December to now account for nearly 12% of visits to the magazine’s website. Soon, the company aims to bundle access to dozens of magazines in its app for a flat monthly fee, sort of like Netflix for news. Apple also hopes to package access to a few daily-news publications, like The Times, The Post and The Wall Street Journal, into the app, the people said. Given Apple’s ambitions and growing team of former journalists, will it ever start producing the news and not just aggregating it? Nobody knows, but there’s surely a chance.

7) The Poker aces playing a key hand in the $5 trillion ETF market [Source: Bloomberg]
In this piece, the author throws light on how a company that took inspiration from poker is now the largest US traders of ETFs. The company here is Susquehanna International Group LLP. It’s a giant in options trading and has plowed into sports betting, private equity, and even Bitcoin. Susquehanna built its empire on poker. All six co-founders met in the late 1970s at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where they gathered to play cards before advancing to Las Vegas casinos. That’s when one of the co-founders, Jeff Yass, got the insight that card skills could transfer to Wall Street.

Five months after Susquehanna was founded, the U.S. stock market crashed, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average suffering its largest-ever one-day percentage decline. Susquehanna not only survived, but thrived. By October 1988, the firm had 100 employees, and it had brought in about $30 million in its first year, compared with $43 million earned by PaineWebber & Co., which had about 12,900 employees, according to a Washington Post story at the time. Today, including those who work at its Pennsylvania headquarters, Susquehanna has about 2,000 employees in six other offices in the U.S., five in the Asia-Pacific region, and two in Europe. It trades about 7% of U.S. ETF volume and more than $1.5 trillion in ETFs globally on an annual basis.
Susquehanna’s recruits, the majority of them straight from undergraduate programs, undergo rigorous training at poker tables, where they receive feedback on their strategy. Traders who make losing bets for the right reasons are favoured over those who get lucky betting against the odds. “The basic concept that applies to both poker and option trading is that the primary object is not winning the most hands, but rather maximizing your gains,” Yass told Schwager in The New Market Wizards.
But, the regulators have their eyes on them. Regulators have started taking a greater interest in the role that firms such as Susquehanna play in the market. Concerned about volatility and a lack of transparency in the ETF market, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission approved a rule in 2016 that requires ETF issuers to disclose which firms they use to smooth trading in their products. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ended a federal ban on sports betting outside of Nevada, and Susquehanna has been posting job openings for sports traders at the Bala Cynwyd office. That could deal Yass and his firm yet another winning hand.

8) On writing better: Sharpening your tools [Source:]
Jason Zweig was personal finance columnist for The Wall Street Journal and editor of the revised edition of Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, the classic text that Warren Buffett has described as “by far the best book about investing ever written.” In this article, he gives timeless pointers on how to handle words so they work for you instead of against you. He elaborates on avoiding: 1) passive voice, and 2) clichés.
Avoid passive voice: Passive language is the bane of every writer’s existence, whether you know it or not. Passive wording is the plague within you: Just as none of us ever stops to think of the approximately 100 trillion microbes that populate our gastrointestinal tract, novice and experienced writers alike almost never notice how their writing teems with passive phrasing. Unlike the microbes that live in your gut, however, the passive language that infests your writing is almost never beneficial. Passive language is insidious and relentless; it never goes away, never ceases trying to kill your potential as a writer. Because the advice is so universal, and because the instances of the problem are often so obvious, avoiding the passive seems like a battle you can win without any effort.

Avoid clichés: Clichés are just another form of passive language.  Every time you write “going south” or “going through the roof” or “taking a nosedive” or “the only game in town” or “I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole” or “a veritable Who’s Who of [whatever]” or “off on a wild goose chase” or “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” or “paying the piper” or “shooting the lights out” or “shoot first, ask questions later,” these words are happening to you; you aren’t making them happen. You aren’t writing; you aren’t even typing; your fingers are moving as mindlessly and automatically as they do when you button your shirt in the dark.

As the great Viennese journalist Karl Kraus wrote, “The closer one looks at a word, the farther away it moves.” Your goal should be to treat every word you write as an alien object: You should be able to look at it and say, What is that doing here? Why did I use that word instead of a better one? What am I trying to say here? How can I get to where I’m going if I use such stale and lifeless words?

9) The insect apocalypse is here [Source: NY Times]
What if insects one day just vanish? Will anybody care about it or everybody will be busy in their daily struggles? Some of the conservationists and people are wondering where all the insects have suddenly vanished. According to entomologists, climate change and the overall degradation of global habitat are bad news for biodiversity in general, and insects are dealing with challenges posed by herbicides and pesticides, along with the effects of losing meadows, forests and even weedy patches to the relentless expansion of human spaces.
In 2013, entomologists of Krefeld, a German city, confirmed that the total number of insects caught in one nature reserve was nearly 80% lower than the same spot in 1989. In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies fell by 90% in the past 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patched bumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87% over the same period. A German study found that, measured simply by weight, the overall abundance of flying insects in German nature reserves decreased by 75% over just 27 years.

But why should we bother about the vanishing insects? Because, trillions of bugs flitting from flower to flower pollinate some three-quarters of our food crops, a service worth as much as $500 billion every year. If monetary calculations like that sound strange, consider the Maoxian Valley in China, where shortages of insect pollinators have led farmers to hire human workers, at a cost of up to $19 per worker per day, to replace bees. Each person covers five to ten trees a day, pollinating apple blossoms by hand. Bugs are vital to the decomposition that keeps nutrients cycling, soil healthy, plants growing and ecosystems running. If insects were to disappear completely, scientists feel it will lead to chaos, collapse, Armageddon.

10) What’s really happening to retail? [Source: the Atlantic]
Amazon has shuttered most of the brick-and-mortar stores. But, restaurants are Amazon-proof businesses. “Food & Beverage” has been the largest category of new retail leases for the past three years in New York City, according to Cushman & Wakefield. “Fast casual” restaurants that combine quick service with high-quality ingredients, like Sweetgreen and Chipotle, have grown by 105% in the past 10 years. “This is a restaurant city, not a food city,” says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at NYU. “It’s as if nobody knows or cares about cooking. Young people barely know how to make coffee.”
The fastest-growing chain in New York City in the past decade was Dunkin’ Donuts, with 271 new locations added since 2008. That’s one new Dunkin’ franchise in the city about every 12 days. Since around 2012, restaurant spending has surged, especially among the young, rich, educated, and urban. For the richest 20%, restaurant spending has grown by twice as much as spending on food prepared at home since 2012. Americans between the age of 25 and 34 now spend about half of their food budget eating out, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey. Restaurants are so critical to the future of retail that neighbourhoods visibly suffer if they prove inhospitable to culinary culture.
But, a few people are of the view that these are causing the disappearance of the old New York. Critics often seem to see the recent past as superior to the emerging future, but the city has its optimists, too. Mitchell Moss sees a surprising pathway for the city to reestablish its old-fashioned weirdness. “We’re going to have a whole new industry,” he said. “Cannabis distribution centers. The retail market will be saved by the potheads.” Also, the urban America’s changes have been driven by more positive structural factors, including the nationwide decline of crime that made cities safe for young, affluent graduates and the companies that wanted to employ them.

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