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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Sports (Girl who could be the next Anju Bobby George), Health (Quest to live for 180 years), Management (Management lessons from the streets of India), Society (How UBI solves widespread insecurity and inequality), Technology (How to stop computers being biased), and Lifestyle (How to cope with a mid-career crisis), among others

Published: Feb 16, 2019 06:34:02 AM 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 Sports (Girl who could be the next Anju Bobby George), Health (Quest to live for 180 years), Management (Management lessons from the streets of India), Society (How UBI solves widespread insecurity and inequality), Technology (How to stop computers being biased), and Lifestyle (How to cope with a mid-career crisis), among others.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended February 15, 2019.

1) Shaili Singh: Girl who could be the next Anju Bobby George [Source: Indian Express ]
When you have the champion herself saying that this girl can break her record of 14 years, then surely that girl is bound to be a world-class athlete. The girl here is Shaili Singh; she broke the under-16 national record at the junior nationals at Ranchi in November. There is merit in Anju Bobby George’s prediction when Shaili’s record jump at Ranchi is compared to those who came before her. Asian Championship bronze medallist Nayana James had held the record in the under-16 category with 5.79 metres achieved in 2010. The rise of Shaili can be traced back to a fortuitous string of events a little over a year ago.

Coach Robert Bobby George, Anju George’s husband, first saw Shaili at the girls’ under-14 long jump final at the 2017 national junior athletics championships in Manglagiri, Vijayawada. Shaili had finished fifth with a middling distance of 4.64 metres but the coach looked beyond the result. What he saw in the youngster was raw talent, lean muscle tone and the physique of a born jumper. A strong-willed attitude even when she had been beaten convinced him that he had chanced upon a rough diamond. “She didn’t have a specialised coach, and her technique was poor or rather she had no technique. She was just running and jumping but she was not willing to give up. Her body language remained positive till her sixth jump. I could see the determination on her face,” George recalls.

Shaili has adopted the hitch-kick technique but the coach says she is a work in progress because this is the stage when she has to be handled with kid gloves. “I have not started any advance training, be it technique or physical workout. She has not started weight training yet. Her muscles have to develop naturally and her bone structure too will mature,” George says. “She has just turned 15 so she has a lot of time on her hands. She will be eligible to participate in two world junior championships. There is no need to rush her. Our aim is to target the 2024 Olympics.”

2) The bulletproof coffee founder has spent $1 million in his quest to live to 180 (https://goo.gl/bR7pz4)
Dave Asprey, the founder of Bulletproof Coffee, is the reason everyone started slipping a pat of butter into their coffee a few years back. At least one of the Kardashians is a fan, and Jimmy Fallon has extolled the virtues of the high-fat beverage on The Tonight Show: “It’s the most delicious thing ever. But it’s actually good for you. It’s good for your brain.” But while the coffee is what put Asprey on the map, his aspirations are much bigger than that—and having the longest human life span ever recorded is just one part of his plan.

In his search for becoming fitter and living longer, Asprey came across Biohacking. Asprey speaks of biohacking as empowerment. As wearable devices become increasingly sophisticated, even those of us who aren’t wealthy and who aren’t scientists have the ability to turn our bodies’ confusing signals into clean, personalized data. Asprey dreams of a world where, instead of deferring to medical experts and profit-driven drug companies, we become experts in our own systems and experiment on them at will.

But there are some who disagree with Asprey. Abby Langer, a registered dietitian based in Toronto, says that if you follow Asprey’s advice to a T, you’ll be spending a hefty amount on dietary supplements with names like NeuroMaster and Unfair Advantage. The evidence for their ability to “provide brain-enhancing energy” or make you “feel cognitively sharper” is not as clear-cut or definitive as Asprey makes it sound. A few days after his 45th birthday, Asprey said, “I think of it as, I’m now 25 percent of the way to my minimum goal [of living to 180]. So I’m officially a young adult. Is living a long time a kind of superpower? Yes. Although I might die trying.”

3) What Fortnite can teach us about the next wave of globalization (https://goo.gl/LsViJZ)
The US and China may be locked in a trade war, but Fortnite (online game) itself is a product of Sino-American co-operation. Epic Games Inc, the North Carolina-based studio behind the title, is 40% owned by China’s Tencent Holdings Ltd, one of the world’s largest social media companies. That Fortnite is free to play and has more than 200mn registered users worldwide is thanks in large part to the $330mn investment that Tencent made in 2012. Discussions about globalization, and its costs and benefits, often focus on physical goods such as steel beams, cars, or soybeans. The reality is that the integration of economies is increasingly a digital one that happens in invisible daily bursts, like the sessions in which far-flung armies of Fortnite players face off against each other on an imaginary island.

“The digital economy is everywhere, and much of it is international without our even knowing it,” says Anupam Chander, a law professor and expert on digital trade at Georgetown University. While Fortnite is notionally free to play, its maker booked billions of dollars in revenue last year from purchases of limited-edition “skins” and “battle packs” that allow players to customise their avatars. These types of transactions, however, are often not logged properly in economic data. If a player in China or Germany buys an outfit or weapon designed in North Carolina, he is effectively importing a digital good from the US — and helping to support a high-paying job in America.

Richard Baldwin, author of “In The Globotics Upheaval” argues that the new wave of globalisation is bringing even bigger productivity gains and economic benefits than the earlier wave of integration did. His big concern, though, is that white-collar workers who lose their jobs could join blue-collar brethren still bitter about the deindustrialisation brought about by the last wave, with major political consequences. “That,” Baldwin says, “could be a social revolution.” The effect of that would last far longer than even the craze over Fortnite and leave far deeper scars on the world economy.

4) India UnInc: Management lessons from streets of India [Source: YouTube ]
In this video, Captain Raghu Raman, ex-Indian military officer, throws light upon the unorganized sector in India and how we can learn a few management lessons from this sector. This talk is filled with living examples and anecdotes from our day-to-day lives. He starts with a short video of a few examples of the unorganized/informal businesses. Mr. Raman feels that we do a lot of injustice to the unorganized business world. These businesses outperform most of the businesses in the way they function. He says, 50% of the GDP comes from the unorganized sector in India. The unorganized sector provides employment to ~90% of the workforce in India. And most importantly, they beat the organized sector on every business metric.

He begins with: 1) Return on investment (RoI) per square feet: At the payment level, compared to these big malls and stores, the RoI of the unorganized sector is exponentially high. He gives an intriguing example of a book seller and shelf space. 2) Equitable distribution of profits: Bulk of the money in big restaurants and shops is been kept by these establishments and the supply chain gets meagre sum. But, it’s the opposite in the unorganized sector. 3) Degree of empowerment of decision-making: An unorganized business can give 50% discount at the snap of a finger, but when it comes to a large conglomerate, to get a 5% discount, the marketing head will have to take the idea to the board and by the time the decision comes, the opportunity might have gone.

There is more fluidity in the street markets than any other businesses that you’ve seen. While India Inc. is reducing or cutting jobs, the unorganised sector is creating jobs. Mr. Raman also feels that it’s high time we stop building cities that are smart, but instead build cities that have heart. He believes that India doesn’t need unicorns like two or three, 5,000-crore companies, what we need is 5,000, 2-3 crore companies. But, how can we make a difference? He feels that a “We See” fund can do the trick. You can make a difference by not only money, but it can be done by sweat equity, passion, and ideas. It can be by just giving a leg up to someone and create an orbit shift.

5) The new crime buster: Tracking gait technology (https://goo.gl/FPzMxp)
Advances in technology have already cut down time spent on long-winded processes, but forensic gait analysis is doing wonders in helping investigators. In September 2018, a special investigation team of the Karnataka police identified Parashuram Waghmare as one of the alleged killers of journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was shot dead in 2017 at her Bengaluru residence. The lead came through the examination of the walking pattern of the killers as captured in the CCTV footage at the time of the murder. The Directorate of Forensic Sciences in Gujarat, which was working with the police on the investigation, used a technique called forensic gait analysis to match the walking pattern of the killers with that of the suspects.

Forensic gait analysis is based on the premise that every individual’s walking pattern is unique. It comes in handy to identify a person in cases where the CCTV camera has captured the act of the crime but couldn’t capture the face of the perpetrator due to poor lighting, the position of the camera, or because the face was covered with a mask or cloth. The technique was first admitted as evidence by a London court in a murder case in 2000. The perpetrator caught on CCTV footage had a bow-legged gait matching one of the suspects, which according to the gait expert who offered testimony during the trial was found in only 5% of the country’s population.

During gait analysis, the walking style of the perpetrator from the CCTV footage is examined to generate a pattern called gait signature. It is then compared with the gait signature generated from a second footage of suspects, which can be from a CCTV footage captured before or after the crime or a re-enactment of it by law enforcement agencies during the investigation as was done in Gauri Lankesh murder investigation. If done right, forensic gait analysis could possibly revolutionize policing in ways similar to the impact that fingerprint analysis had on the field in the early 20th century.

6) “Slow The Game” to accelerate business innovation [Source: Forbes ]
Technology gets a lot of credit for boosting worker productivity, but not enough recognition for the way it enables individuals to improve or innovate upon how work actually gets done. Yes, “how” we work is a fundamentally different measure than “how much” we have accomplished. Companies that focus primarily on additional output miss out on much of the value. The value of new technology doesn’t come solely from yielding greater capacity or throughput. Technology doesn’t mean cutting down employee count.

Today, technology-driven automation also means slashing the significant amount of time knowledge workers spend on a growing list of low-value tasks. More than 40% of respondents to a survey said they spend at least a quarter of their work week on manual, repetitive tasks; 75% say automation will free up time for more interesting, valuable work. And there’s no better way to slow the game than that. Many of the technologies driving new levels of visibility and automation require little or no technical expertise to implement, which means they can be deployed by virtually any team in any business. By the way, that means your competitors are probably deploying them right now.

So, when you have so much freed-up time, what do you do? Insurance agents can underwrite more policies, using precise data to better assess and manage risk. Mortgage brokers can develop client relationships that enable them to write new loans more quickly and with greater confidence than ever. And recruiters can locate the best candidates with greater precision. In other words, when the game slows down due to the structure, simplicity, and predictability enabled by technology, new doors open to develop insights and innovation. So, invest in the right technology tools and enable employees across the spectrum to understand and engage with their work in a more meaningful way.

7) How Universal Basic Income solves widespread insecurity and radical inequality [Source: evonomics.com ]
Today is the best time to be alive. With a click of a button you get everything. Why then, does it not feel like the best time ever? Contrary to the predictions of mid-twentieth-century economists, the age of universal wellbeing has not really materialised. Working hours are as high as they were for our parents, if not higher, and the quality of work is no better for most people. Many people work several jobs they do not enjoy, just to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and the lights on. It seems inequality and insecurity are the main causes.

Big problems require big ideas. Our current generation of politicians doesn’t really have ideas big enough to deal with the problems of widespread insecurity and marked inequality. And now we need an idea with bigger and bolder scope. That idea might be the Universal Basic Income. It is a regular financial payment made to all eligible adults, whether they work or not, regardless of their other means, and without any conditionality whatever. It should not be a fortune, but it should ideally be enough that no-one ever needs to be hungry or cold.

But, there are a few questions that come to everyone’s mind. How can we afford such a scheme? Why should I give my money to people for them to do nothing in return? Why would anyone work if they were given money for free? Why should we give money to the rich, who don’t need it? This piece answers them all in an elaborate manner. Whether the UBI will be a hit or not is just a matter of time.

8) Electricity does not change poor lives as much as was thought [Source: Economist ]
Almost 140 years after Thomas Edison began selling filament light bulbs, just under 1bn people worldwide still lack access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency, a research group. Almost two-thirds live in Africa, mostly in the countryside. The UN believes all should have power, and has set a target date to achieve universal access of 2030. That sounds plausible—since 2000 the number of people without power has fallen by 700mn. Sadly, it is unlikely to happen. And recent economic research shows that rushing to illuminate the world is a bad idea.

The old-fashioned way of bringing electricity to the masses entails building power stations and transmission lines. This is still popular. Last year India’s government claimed that it had connected every village to the power grid, although this does not mean every household is connected, still less that power is available 24 hours a day. Myanmar and Senegal are racing to do the same. Solar home systems provide much less power than grid connections, but are far cheaper to set up. But the adults’ working lives changed hardly at all. Solar lamps appear not to rescue people from poverty.

Nor even does a grid connection. A detailed study of rural Tanzania, where America’s Millennium Challenge Corporation built power lines and subsidised connections, found little effect on adults’ welfare. Offering cheap connections cut the proportion of people living on less than $2 a day from 93% to 90%—hardly a transformation. Electrification may bring benefits that economic studies miss. Robin Burgess of the International Growth Centre (IGC) argues that a short-run study of households may not be the right lens: electrification might mostly benefit businesses, and not at once. Moreover, countries will have to bring power to their people eventually. But to spend a lot of scarce cash doing so now, in the hope that benefits will turn up, hardly seems enlightened.

9) How to stop computers being biased
[Source: Financial Times ]
One of the first major court cases over how algorithms affect people’s lives came in 2012, after a computer decided to slash Medicaid payments to around 4,000 disabled people in the US state of Idaho based on a database that was riddled with gaps and errors. More than six years later, Idaho has yet to fix its now decommissioned computer program. But the falling cost of using computers to make what used to be human decisions has seen companies and public bodies roll out similar systems on a mass scale.

As machine-made decisions become more common, experts are now working out ways to mitigate the bias in the data. “In the last few years we’ve been forced to open our eyes to the rest of society because AI is going to industry, and industry is putting the products in the hands of everyone,” said Yoshua Bengio, scientific director of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms and a pioneer of deep learning techniques. Techniques include ways to make an algorithm more transparent, so those affected can understand how it arrived at a decision. For instance, Google has implemented counterfactual explanations, where it allows users to play with the variables, like swapping female for male, and seeing if it changes the outcome.

But even with the brightest minds working to screen unfair decisions, algorithms will never be error-free because of the complex nature of the decisions they are designed to make. Trade-offs have to be agreed in advance with those deploying the models, and humans have to be empowered to override machines if necessary. But, do benefits outweigh the dangers? “The number one way to remove bias is to use a simpler, more transparent method rather than deep learning. I’m not convinced there is a need for [AI] in social decisions,” said David Spiegelhalter, president of the Royal Statistical Society. 
10) How to cope with a mid-career crisis [Source: HBR ]
In this podcast, Alison Beard from HBR talks about mid-career crises with Kieran Setiya. He’s a philosophy professor at MIT who wrote a book called Mid-life, and the HBR article, “Managing your Mid-career Crisis.” Some have regrets about paths not taken or serious professional missteps; others feel a sense of boredom or futility in their ongoing streams of work. The answer isn’t always to find a new job or lobby for a promotion. Motivated by his own crisis, Mr. Setiya started looking for ways to cope and discovered several strategies that can help all of us shift our perspective on our careers and get out of the slump without jumping ship.

When asked whether mid-life and mid-career crisis are two different things or linked, Mr. Setiya thinks they’re linked, and they run in parallel. So the most recent reliable research on people’s life satisfaction by age comes from economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald. And it suggests that, in general, life satisfaction has this gentle “U” shape. It starts high in youth, it bottoms out in your 40s, and then it picks up again in older age. Elaborating on how Mr. Setiya himself figured out how to still be happy as a philosophy professor, he says, “There are decisions in which you take a better option, and you have no regrets. If I say to you, do you want $50 or $100, you’ll take $100. You will not feel conflicted about it. But that’s actually a comparatively rare case.”

Shifting one’s mindset sometimes is very hard. So how does he do it? For Mr. Setiya, it isn’t hard. He says, “For me, in some of these cases I think the cognitive therapy worked for me as cognitive therapy. Like, I recognized that I was making a mistake, and that was enough to make a real difference. So some of the things that I’m missing out or regret for me were like that.” Also, he recommends mindfulness meditation.

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