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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Society (What people actually say before they die), Surveillance (We have become the watchers, as well as the watched), Astronomy (The greatest discovery in human History?), Business (India's online paradox), Health (Why everyone around you seems to be getting Cancer), and Sports (Few sports are doing enough to protect athletes from brain damage), among others

Published: Feb 9, 2019 05:59:51 AM IST
Updated: Feb 8, 2019 04:44:03 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 Society (What people actually say before they die), Surveillance (We have become the watchers, as well as the watched), Astronomy (The greatest discovery in human History?), Business (India’s online paradox), Health (Why everyone around you seems to be getting Cancer), and Sports (Few sports are doing enough to protect athletes from brain damage), among others.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended February 08, 2019.

1) What people actually say before they die [Source: The Atlantic ]
Mort Felix’s most of his end-of-life speech didn’t make sense, but Felix’s 53-year-old daughter, Lisa Smartt, kept track of his utterances, writing them down as she sat at his bedside in those final days. Smartt majored in linguistics at UC Berkeley in the 1980s and built a career teaching adults to read and write. Transcribing Felix’s ramblings was a sort of coping mechanism for her, she says. Smartt also wondered whether her notes had any scientific value, and eventually she wrote a book, Words on the Threshold, published in early 2017, about the linguistic patterns in 2,000 utterances from 181 dying people, including her father. It turns out that vanishingly few have ever examined these actual linguistic patterns, and to find any sort of rigor, one has to go back to 1921, to the work of the American anthropologist Arthur MacDonald.

To assess people’s “mental condition just before death,” MacDonald mined last-word anthologies, the only linguistic corpus then available, dividing people into 10 occupational categories (statesmen, philosophers, poets, etc.) and coding their last words as sarcastic, jocose, contented, and so forth. MacDonald found that military men had the “relatively highest number of requests, directions, or admonitions,” while philosophers (who included mathematicians and educators) had the most “questions, answers, and exclamations.” The religious and royalty used the most words to express contentment or discontentment, while the artists and scientists used the fewest.

End-of-life communication will only become more relevant as life lengthens and deaths happen more frequently in institutions. Most people in developed countries won’t die as quickly and abruptly as their ancestors did. Thanks to medical advances and preventive care, a majority of people will likely die from either some sort of cancer, some sort of organ disease (foremost being cardiovascular disease), or simply advanced age. Those deaths will often be long and slow, and will likely take place in hospitals, hospices, or nursing homes overseen by teams of medical experts. But studying language and interaction at the end of life remains a challenge, because of cultural taboos about death and ethical concerns about having scientists at a dying person’s bedside.  

2) Surveillance: Laurie Taylor explores the way in which we have become the watchers, as well as the watched [Source: BBC ]
Someone keeping a watch on us is terrifying. And in this podcast, Laurie Taylor chats with Kirstie Ball, Professor of Management at the University of St. Andrews and David Lyon, Professor in the Department of Sociology at Queen's University, Canada, about surveillance. From 9/11 to the Snowden leaks, stories about surveillance increasingly dominate the headlines. But surveillance is not only 'done to us' – it is something we do in everyday life. We submit to surveillance, believing we have nothing to hide. Or we try to protect our privacy. At the same time, we participate in surveillance in order to supervise children, monitor other road users, and safeguard our property. Social media allow us to keep tabs on others, as well as on ourselves.

Talking about surveillance, David says we are a part of it and experience it constantly. Social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc. are immensely valuable. It’s the data about a person, his identity that makes it valuable. Everything is being stored. Even our TV might have surveillance power. There are chances that when you’re watching it, it might in return be watching you. That would get anyone paranoid.

In the book Surveillance and Democracy in Europe, Kirstie chose to specifically focus on three key areas automatic car number plate recognition (ANPR), credit scoring and neighbourhood watch-games. She feels that these three exemplify three different kinds of surveillance relationships. ANPR exemplifies a state-citizen surveillance relationship for law enforcement, credit scoring is surveillance for commercial purpose, and neighbourhood watch is surveilling each other. Lastly, talking about refashioning surveillance, David says that it demands multi-level approaches. Also, there needs to be ethical seriousness.

3) If true, this could be one of the greatest discoveries in human History [Source: Haaretz.com ]
Last October, Avi Loeb, chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department, and his postdoctoral student Shmuel Bialy, also an Israeli, published an article in the scientific outlet “The Astrophysical Journal Letters,” which seriously raised the possibility that an intelligent species of aliens had sent a spaceship to Earth. The “spaceship” in question is called Oumuamua. Oumuamua is the first object in history to pass through the solar system and be identified as definitely originating outside of it. Oumuamua was actually discovered by a Canadian astronomer, Robert Weryk, using the Pan-STARRS telescope at the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii. “Oumuamua” is Hawaiian for “first distant messenger” – in a word, “scout.” It was discovered on October 19, 2017, suspiciously close to Earth.

Whereas all the planets, asteroids and meteors that originate within the solar system more or less circle what is called the Ecliptic plane, that of our sun, since they were formed from the same disc of gas and dust that rotated around itself, Oumuamua entered the solar system north of the plane, in an extreme hyperbolic orbit and at a speed of 26.3 kilometers per second faster relative to the motion of the sun.

Mr. Loeb firmly believes in the article that they published. He says, “I’m head of the astronomy department, and founding director of the Black Hole Initiative, an interdisciplinary center at Harvard dedicated to the study of black holes. In addition, I’m director of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. So it could be that I’m committing image suicide, if this turns out to be incorrect. On the other hand, if it turns out to be correct, it’s one of the greatest discoveries in human history.” If it’s true, it will surely open up many possibilities.

4) Why are Germans so obsessed with saving money? [Source: Financial Times ]
The author of this piece went to a German museum to understand why is saving so important to Germans. And he found that during the years of the eurozone crisis, complaints over German austerity and German surpluses became commonplace. Governments across southern Europe were forced to impose harsh budget cuts in a frantic bid to bring their wayward deficits into line, and fend off the hounds of the global bond market. The economic picture was as dire as it was complex, but on the street the finger of blame often simply pointed north: to those tight-fisted Germans and their cruel obsession with fiscal discipline and budget austerity. 

Germany takes pride in the solidity of its public finances, in balanced budgets and high savings rates, in the fact that society as a whole knows how to delay gratification, tighten its belt and wait for jam tomorrow. The habit is mostly inculcated when they are young. “Saving is seen as the morally right thing to do. It is more than a simple financial strategy,” says Kai Uwe Peter, the managing director of the Berliner Sparkasse, a savings bank that boasts some 2mn clients in the capital. German households save about 10% of their disposable income, twice as much as the average EU or American.

German savings banks continue to control 37% of all deposits. German children are no longer subjected to the kind of overt propaganda that was the hallmark of earlier periods. But when the author’s six-year-old returned from his first day at a Berlin junior school, he was clutching a bright red folder from the local Sparkasse filled with play money. German savings banks are legally mandated to encourage and promote saving, and they waste no time in doing so, with the support of local school authorities.

5) Why are young people pretending to love work? [Source: The New York Times ]
People hate Mondays, but there are some who love Mondays. Welcome to hustle culture. It is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor, and — once you notice it — impossible to escape. In the new work culture, enduring or even merely liking one’s job is not enough. Workers should love what they do, and then promote that love on social media, thus fusing their identities to that of their employers. This is toil glamour, and it is going mainstream. Most visibly, WeWork — which investors recently valued at $47 billion — is on its way to becoming the Starbucks of office culture. It has exported its brand of performative workaholism to 27 countries, with 400,000 tenants, including workers from 30 percent of the Global Fortune 500.

It’s not difficult to view hustle culture as a swindle. After all, convincing a generation of workers to beaver away is convenient for those at the top. “The vast majority of people beating the drums of hustle-mania are not the people doing the actual work. They’re the managers, financiers and owners,” said David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founder of Basecamp, a software company. Mr. Heinemeier Hansson said that despite data showing long hours improve neither productivity nor creativity, myths about overwork persist because they justify the extreme wealth created for a small group of elite techies.

Aidan Harper, who created a European workweek-shrinkage campaign called 4 Day Week, argues that this is dehumanizing and toxic. “It creates the assumption that the only value we have as human beings is our productivity capability — our ability to work, rather than our humanity.” It’s cultist, Mr. Harper added, to convince workers to buy into their own exploitation with a change-the-world message. “It’s creating the idea that Elon Musk is your high priest,” he said. “You’re going into your church every day and worshiping at the altar of work.” But, on some level, you have to respect the hustlers who see a dismal system and understand that success in it requires total, shameless buy-in. If we’re doomed to toil away until we die, we may as well pretend to like it. Even on Mondays.

6) The disturbing, surprisingly complex relationship between white identity politics and racism [Source: New Yorker ]
In her new book, “White Identity Politics,” the Duke political scientist Ashley Jardina examines the increasing relevance of white identity in America. In this interview she throws light on how Donald Trump has unified different groups of white voters around his Presidency, and why some Americans who score low on tests of racism still identify strongly as white. When asked how has the white identity changed over the past several decades, she says, “One thing that’s different is how salient and politically relevant it is. We don’t have good public-opinion data going back in time to indicate that levels of white identity in the population have changed, or that now more people are identifying with their racial group than in the past. But what’s certainly clear is the extent to which white identity, or racial identity for some whites in the United States, matters for how they view the political and social world.”

She feels there’s not much of a connection between strongly identifying with whiteness and racist attitudes. It’s certainly the case that there are some people who identify as white and who are also racist. But it’s not a one-to-one relationship. On changing conception of white people since Trump announced that he was running for President, she says there hasn’t been much of a shift. “For some white people, Trump has made the idea of identifying as white a little bit more taboo. I have observed a slight decrease in levels of white identity since Trump took office. But for the most part I think Trump has made most of his base of white identifiers feel pretty secure in their identity.”

The political scientist also feels that Trump does well among voters who don’t score high on racial resentment but do score high on white identity. And that’s part of why he’s been so effective compared to other Republican candidates. Racial attitudes, racial resentment did a great job predicting support for Republican candidates and their primaries across the board, but Trump was the only candidate (in the 2016 Republican primaries) who also appealed to whites who were high on white identity. Lastly, talking about Obama’s election, she says, “Whites who score really high in white identity were far less likely to vote for Obama in 2012. So white identity mattered politically at the national level before Trump ever entered the scene.”

7) Norway's $1 trillion man talks Brexit, China and Big Tech [Source: Bloomberg ]
Yngve Slyngstad, CEO of the world's biggest sovereign wealth fund, Norges Bank Investment Management, talks about what makes a good money manager, how he learns about China’s economy, his concerns regarding information monopolies, and why all investing is active. When asked why he chose to do degrees in politics, economics, law, and business, when normal people make do with one or two, or maybe even none, he says it’s because of curiosity. He had a genuine desire to learn, and to read a lot of books. He doesn’t think that you necessarily need to narrow down your profession, definitely not in investing. Investing is really something that is broad. It’s all about the future, so having an open mind probably was the most important thing for him.

Talking about China, he says that it’s an important market. “What moves the markets today is to a large extent either events in the U.S. or events in China. So these are two markets that you just have to pay very close attention to.” He also feels that currently, the Chinese economy and the U.S. economy are very intertwined. It is hard to see how it can be unwound. Next comes up the UK and Brexit. He says that they are still invested in the UK with a long-term horizon. “If we look past this—10, 20, 30 years—the UK will be an important economy in Europe, and it will remain in Europe. We expect business on that timeline to develop positively no matter the outcome.”

Coming to private equity and infrastructure, the CEO says that private equity is not an asset class for them. It would just be an extension of what they do in the equity portfolio. Lastly, every fund has its own set of stakeholders and obligations to its constituents. When asked whether there’s a model that he would like to emulate, he says, they have a fund that has at least three purposes: 1) Stabilization Fund: As a way to just transition the inflow of the oil money, and to that extent it’s just a stabilizing mechanism. 2) Reserve Fund: What happens if the oil price suddenly drops? Can they immediately have funds available for stabilizing the economy? Yes, they do, so it’s actually used in that context. 3) Generational Fund: There’s no one in their generation who has any specific entitlement to the revenue stream of the North Sea just because the revenue is coming in their generation. It is wealth that was there a long time before this generation existed, and it’s wealth that they should protect for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

8) Smaller than you think: India’s online paradox [Source: Livemint ]
Internet usage in India has gone mainstream. By all accounts more than 500 million Indians will have smartphones by 2022 or 2023. The economy is expected to continue to be one of the fastest-growing ones in the world, yet so many of its most successful internet entrepreneurs are just not interested in the mass market. The new start-ups by Myntra founder Mukesh Bansal and Ibibo Group founder Ashish Kashyap cater to high-income earners in urban India. These businesses, Bansal’s CureFit, and Kashyap’s IndWealth, as well as Cube Wealth and Cred are ventures that can only serve a few million people no matter how fast the economy expands over the next few years.

The decision by these entrepreneurs to enter niche businesses and ignore the mass market reveals a lot about their view on India’s consumer internet market. “You may want to build mass market businesses but pretty soon you realize that the unit economics become prohibitive. India doesn’t have the spending power or infrastructure or ecosystem yet to support profitable businesses on the internet for the masses. This is something you understand deeply as a second-time entrepreneur," says Satyen Kothari of Cube Wealth. While the growth in new users on e-commerce platforms appears to be strong it is still very low on an absolute basis. Overall, there are only about 15-20 million users who buy from e-commerce sites on a monthly basis, according to e-commerce executives. That’s a paltry number in a country where more than 500 million have access to the internet.

“Building for the next 200 million users is a massive work-in-progress," said Vinod Murali, managing partner at venture debt fund Alteria Capital. “There is consuming capacity but what works is still being figured out because of issues like language, payments and reach. You may need an omni-channel strategy and a different organization structure to reach this set of users to build trust. It’s not going to be enough to have good quality products and a good tech platform. You will need feet-on-the-street in businesses like ed-tech to reach these users and then of course a margin structure that justifies the sales force. You will definitely see more businesses cater to these users even though the issues of reaching them are still being addressed."

9) Why everyone around you seems to be getting Cancer [Source: The Wire ]
In this piece, Sri Krishna, a researcher at the US National Cancer Institute, talks about how Cancer is becoming a common disease.  Cancer is, fundamentally, a disease of genetic wear and tear. Over our lifetime, the cells in our body’s organs and tissues are constantly replenished. This is possible because the cells repeatedly divide, making copies of themselves – including their DNA. Each time a cell divides and replicates its DNA, there is a chance that it will make a genetic typo, incorporating the wrong DNA-base at some point in the sequence. This typo is called a mutation. Most often, these mutations are harmless and are kept in check by various biological mechanisms. But sometimes, a mutation might cause cells to divide uncontrollably and never die. These cells become cancer cells.

A useful starting point is to compare cancer rates in a developing country like India with those in a high-income country like the US. In 2015, researchers estimated that 1 in every 3 individuals in the US would be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. This rate is much lower in India: we get a million cases a year from a population of 1.2 billion. However, look at the data between 1990 and 2016 and then compare the two countries. You will see that cancer has jumped three spots up on the list of causes of death in India but hasn’t budged in the US list. So our intuitions are in a sense true: the incidence of cancer does seem to be increasing in India.

With the sheer number of cells in our body (~37 trillion), it’s only expected that the probability of cancer increases dramatically with age. This isn’t a radical or even new idea; we’ve known this since the 1950s. However, we’re only seeing the effect of this in India now. Between 1990 and 2016, India’s average life expectancy went up dramatically, from the late-50s to the mid-70s, and it’s only been rising. And this increase in average lifespan is the major reason we’re seeing more cancer cases in the developing world. In essence, we – as a species – are paying the price of living longer. If India can invest in early cancer detection, we can save numerous lives in the coming decade and billions of taxpayer rupees as well.  

10) Few sports are doing enough to protect athletes from brain damage [Source: Economist ]
Head injuries are one of the fatal ones. In 2014 Phillip Hughes, an Australian cricketer, was killed by a blow to the back of the neck from a ball. Last year a female Australian football player was killed after clashing heads with a team mate. Since 2017 four professional boxers have been killed by head injuries sustained during bouts. These are just a few. An occasional broken limb is an accepted, if unfortunate, part of such games. The big worry is about what they do to the brain. In 2017-18 some 291 concussions were reported in the National Football League (NFL), the highest number since records began six years ago. The same year English rugby union recorded 18 concussions per 1,000 hours of play, almost one a match, and three times as many as five years earlier.

A study in 2017 of 111 deceased NFL players found that 110 had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that may cause erratic behaviour, memory loss and depression, and can be diagnosed definitively only after death. The study was self-selecting because families nominated deceased relatives with symptoms of the disease. But evidence from it and from analysis of collisions in the NFL suggests that 20-45% of professional American footballers may sustain CTE during their careers, a far higher proportion than among the general population, says Thomas Talavage of Purdue University.

But, how can one prevent concussions? One way is prevention. The Ivy League American-football competition has moved the kickoff and touchback lines to encourage players to avoid collisions with one another. As a result, the rate of concussions per 1,000 kickoff plays has decreased from 11 to two. Some professional sports are beginning to make similar tweaks. In 2014 Major League Baseball amended its rules to prevent base-runners and catchers colliding. The second-tier rugby-union cup in England is currently experimenting with lowering the maximum height at which a tackle is allowed to the armpits of the person being tackled, rather than to below the neck. Changing practice routines is another way to make sport safer. Coaches who insist on competitive conditions in training may end up harming their players.

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