Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Society (How a fight over a haircut brought communities together), Psychology (Surprising value of obvious insights), Business (China's entrepreneurs are wary of its future), and Extreme Sport (Alex Honnold's death-defying free solo). Also, we have a couple of intriguing Technology pieces; 1) Roger McNamee on Facebook; 2) Why Canada is attracting the 'best' people; and 3) What happens when you upload bad music on Spotify

Published: Mar 1, 2019 03:46:56 PM IST
Updated: Mar 1, 2019 04:06:27 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 (How a fight over a haircut brought communities together), Psychology (Surprising value of obvious insights), Business (China’s entrepreneurs are wary of its future), and Extreme Sport (Alex Honnold’s death-defying free solo). Also, we have a couple of intriguing Technology pieces; 1) Roger McNamee on Facebook; 2) Why Canada is attracting the ‘best’ people; and 3) What happens when you upload bad music on Spotify.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended March 01, 2019.

1) Roger McNamee: ‘It’s bigger than Facebook. This is a problem with the entire industry [Source: Guardian ]
In this interview, Roger McNamee, Mark Zuckerberg’s mentor and an early investor in Facebook, talks about Facebook, Brexit and his latest book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. Talking about privacy, he says that he had been banging the drum about privacy and feels that Facebook violated civil rights. On reaction from the insiders of Facebook, he says, “One of the things that most surprised him is that no one at Facebook communicated with me since February 2017. I have known Sheryl since 2000 and she is one of the most politically savvy, exceptionally capable executives you could possibly meet. And the notion that they would not reach out to critics is astonishing. It’s so harmful to them to be so closed-minded about criticism.”

When asked whether this is a Facebook problem or a Mark Zuckerberg problem, Mr. McNamee says that it’s bigger than Facebook. This is a problem with the entire internet platform industry, and Mark is just one of the two most successful practitioners of it. He also feels that the culture into which Facebook was born was this deeply libertarian philosophy that was espoused by their first investor, Peter Thiel, and the other members of the so-called “PayPal mafia”. That philosophy got baked into their companies in this idea that you could have a goal – in Facebook’s case, connecting the whole world on one network – and that goal would be so important that it justified whatever means were necessary to get there.

Lastly, Mr. McNamee comments on Mark Zuckerberg’s argument. Mr. Zuckerberg argued that the downsides of Facebook are the same as the downsides of the internet. But, Mr. McNamee doesn’t feel the same. He says, “the internet is the way it is because Google and Facebook have made it this way. To Mark’s credit, Facebook has been a spectacular success on its own terms, but we should not forget that these are Facebook’s terms.”
2) What happens when you create a fake music record label and upload bad music to Spotify [Source: ]
Is making and uploading crap music on Spotify easy? The authors of this piece tried to test it. After recording a series of sounds, their search for suitable aggregators who were willing to distribute them began on Spotify’s website, which lists a series of recommended aggregators. Initially, they explored the deals offered by TuneCore, IndigoBoom, RouteNote, and CD Baby. Like most music aggregators, these companies either charge musicians an annual fee for distributing their sounds or distribute music against a certain percentage of future revenue. Even though they eventually managed to sign a deal with an aggregator for all of the releases, the process of doing so revealed the arbitrary methods by which music is approved for commercial streaming services.

Their album Fru Kost—which contained a recording of breakfast sounds, such as the sound of coffee being poured—was rejected twice on first attempt to release it. Then, the same was used to critically assess the issue of limited payouts to artists. This was done by examining if it was possible to analyze Spotify’s business model by automating fake Spotify listeners. The experiment resembled a Turing test, in which they asked themselves what happens when—not if—streaming bots approximate human listener behaviour in such a way that it becomes impossible to distinguish between a human and a machine.

Spotify did not seem to care whether a computer or a human was listening to its music archive. Or at least, it appeared as though the company had not taken any serious steps to make sure that such a distinction could be made. The Fru Kost experiment raises several ethical issues; they were, after all, contravening some of Spotify’s user agreements. After the intervention, during the summer of 2016, Spotify also started using CAPTCHAs as well as reCAPTCHAs with image identification, allegedly to better protect its system. Repeating the same experiment after that change would have been considerably more difficult.

3) India has problems that the West does not have and that’s an advantage [Source: Factor Daily ]
With over 500 highly influential citations, Professor Mausam of IIT-Delhi is one of India’s foremost AI researchers. Now, he’s focussed on a new solution that could help India get over the data scarcity problem that’s troubling research on artificial intelligence in India. In this interview he gives a peek into his work, especially at the intersection of machines, knowledge and language, and how it impacts systems around us. He also talks about his approach to solving India’s data problem.

Talking on the challenges that India face when it comes to AI research, he says there are no challenges from an Indian point of view. But there are challenges from a point of view for any place that’s similar to India. In research we have vehicles of research and, of course, students are the vehicles often. There we have to have an ecosystem where interesting problems can come out. Broadly, your problems can be characterised as human resource problems, compute resource problems and an ecosystem issue. We have a huge number of students. But how many of them do research in India is still questionable.

With low data in machine learning, he says, “We have been thinking about how to use deep-learning methods when data is less. The challenge is deep-learning is compute-hungry and data-hungry. We have compute. But we don’t 100,000 or million labels for every task. That becomes hard.” They have been thinking how to use deep-learning with less data. Lastly, talking about commercializing research, he says, “Researchers are really good at research. To productise something, it’s a substantial initiative in itself. Some researchers like to do that. And I know some of my colleagues who are very interested in doing that. Eventually, someone has to really work hard in taking from prototype to a well-oiled system. That’s a different level of initiative which a researcher is only a small part of.”

4) The surprising value of obvious insights [Source: sloanreview ]
Adam Grant, the author of this piece and organizational psychologist at the Wharton School, talks how some insights can be so obvious that you don’t even think about it, but still it’s crucial. People analytics at Google studied how to onboard new hires effectively and they came up with a list of tips. The one that stood out for Mr. Grant was: Meet your new hires on their first day. To the author this was like Pele saying the key to becoming a great soccer player is wearing shoes. Who needs to be told to meet their new hires on their first day? What kind of manager wouldn’t do that? A busy one, it turns out.

Mr. Grant has learnt that obvious insights are valuable in overcoming three obstacles to change. The first barrier is resistance to new data: Come in with a contrarian data point, and managers who have parked their careers in their lot of intuition and experience find it threatening. The visceral response is skepticism followed by denial. The second one is resistance to change: The second-most irritating sentence in workplaces worldwide according to Mr. Grant is “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.” How did that stance work out for Kodak and BlackBerry? The third one is the organizational uniqueness bias: Honorable mention for the most exasperating sentence belongs to “That will never work here.” That’s like saying shutting the willingness to learn.

The people analytics folks at Google could’ve easily compiled the table stakes for being a good manager from half a century of external research. But by gathering commonsense data points internally, they gained credibility with their engineers, who couldn’t claim themselves exempt. And they didn’t just discover that classic management techniques worked in their backyard; they also learned which implementation tips were most useful for which managers. Ultimately, the beauty of leading with obvious insights is that you gain legitimacy. Your data don’t always have to say something new if they say something true.

5) Google employees fought for their right to sue the company — and won [Source: ]
With the #MeToo movement at the forefront, many individuals are coming in front and admitting publicly that they have been sexually harassed. But, working for a conglomerate would dim your chances of getting justice, as when you join a company, you are asked to sign the mandatory arbitration agreement. The rise of mandatory arbitration has made it nearly impossible for workers to seek legal justice for wage theft, overtime violations, and job discrimination. This secretive system also has the potential to hamper the #MeToo movement. But, Google employees have been pressuring the tech company to end mandatory arbitration since November of last year, when 20,000 Google employees and contractors around the world walked off the job to protest the company’s response to sexual harassment claims. And they won, partly. Last November, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced the company would drop forced arbitration for sexual harassment and assault claims.

“We commend the company in taking this step so that all its workers can access their civil rights through public court,” a group of employees wrote in a Medium post. They also expressed disappointment that the policy doesn’t require contract companies that provide Google with thousands of workers to do the same. The remarkable rise of mandatory arbitration in the workplace is the result of multiple Supreme Court rulings that have allowed businesses to expand its use. Information about arbitration cases is scarce because they all take place outside the court system. But in 2015, California began requiring arbitration firms with clients in the state to publish limited data about all their cases in the United States.

If you ask employers why they require workers to use arbitration, they often say it’s a faster and less expensive process than the courts. They’re not wrong. But legal research, surveys, and employment attorneys point to the largest incentive of all: keeping employment claims from reaching a jury. Research shows that arbitrators can be biased toward employers who repeatedly pick them to handle their cases. This is known as the “repeat player effect,” a term coined in 1997 by Lisa Blomgren Amsler, a public affairs professor at Indiana University Bloomington whose research showed that workers were nearly five times less likely to win their case if the arbitrator had handled past disputes involving her employer. But, this doesn’t end here. Google employees say they are planning to lobby for a federal ban on forced arbitration this year.

6) How a fight over a haircut brought communities together [Source: The Times of India ]
This piece throws light on how Jogaram Karela, a taxi driver turned activist, fought for the rights of the untouchables and lower castes in Chamu Gaon in Jodhpur, Rajasthan (India). This revolution of Jogaram started with an incident when his sons were thrown out of a barber shop. Once considered untouchables because of their hereditary occupation as tanners, Meghwals now fall under the Scheduled Caste (SC) classification created to uplift depressed groups. Incidentally, barbers also fall within Other Backward Classes (OBCs) but they are still a notch above SCs and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the caste hierarchy.

Today, Chamu’s 21 barber shops serve all castes. So, how did this happen? Dalit activists used the threat of a police case filed under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 to bring upper castes to the negotiating table. Eventually, Chamu’s 2,185 citizens came together to abolish this centuries-old practice without resorting to FIRs or violence. Today as well, in districts like Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Barmer differences between lower and upper castes are well known. Casteism is so ingrained, in fact, that Jogaram struggled for years to get Chamu’s SC-ST communities to rally around the barber issue. It wasn’t easy for Jogaram; even an NGO got involved and a letter was sent to the collector which escalated the matter quickly. 
The same shop which had denied cutting Jogaram’s children’s hair says that now his business is booming with 50% of the clients being SC-ST. But, other barbers complain that drunk SC-ST men get belligerent and threaten to file FIRs if asked to wait or pay full price. Many Dalits in Chamu still find upper caste salons intimidating. That’s why Pratapram, a Bhil tribal, encourages his son to take friends along so that more people overcome their hesitation.

7) China’s entrepreneurs are wary of its future [Source: The New York Times ]
China has been a booming economy, growing at a rapid pace. But lately, a few people have started questioning the Chinese governance model. And these are from China itself. Recently, Chen Tianyong, a Chinese real estate developer in Shanghai, boarded a flight to Malta last month with no plans to return anytime soon. In a 28-page article, Mr. Chen wrote, “China’s economy is like a giant ship heading to the precipice. Without fundamental changes, it’s inevitable that the ship will be wrecked and the passengers will die.” It is unclear how many people saw the article before it disappeared from China’s heavily censored internet. Mr. Chen said that China’s leadership has mismanaged the world’s second-largest economy, and China’s entrepreneur class is losing confidence in the country’s future.

China’s economy is slowing, and the trade war with the United States has pinched growth. But many entrepreneurs are more broadly worried that China won’t pursue the economic and political liberalization it needs. On the contrary, since Xi Jinping took control of the Communist Party in 2012, the party has increased its dominance in every aspect of Chinese society. China’s long-term prospects look so grim that some businesspeople are comparing China’s potential future to another country where the government seized control of the economy and didn’t ease up: Venezuela. Only one-third of China’s rich people say they are very confident in the country’s economic prospects, according to a recent survey of 465 wealthy individuals by Hurun, a Shanghai-based research firm. Two years ago, nearly two-thirds said they were very confident.

Those who have no confidence at all rose to 14%, more than double the level of 2018. Nearly half said they were considering migrating to a foreign country or had already started the process. “The most important cause of their pessimism is bad policy and bad leadership,” said Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who is in frequent contact with business figures. “It’s clear to the private businesspeople that the moment the government doesn’t need them, it’ll slaughter them like pigs. This is not a government that respects the law. It can change on a dime.” Mr. Chen further says that the founders of Alibaba and Tencent are meagre small-time businesspeople in the eyes of some senior officials. Mr. Chen looked for various countries to settle down, but Malta provided the warmth, and is also a member of the European Union, which meant he would be able to travel to other countries in the bloc.

8) Toronto tech: Why Canada is attracting the ‘best’ people [Source: Financial Times ]
Last year, Canada’s largest city had created more tech jobs than San Francisco — or any other US metropolis — in the preceding five years. Its population of software developers, engineers and programmers grew by more than half between 2012 and 2017, according to CBRE, the commercial real estate firm. The 82,100 technology jobs it added over that period made it North America’s fastest-growing tech centre, CBRE calculated, to the surprise of many south of the border. But why is Canada attracting foreign tech workers? Many entrepreneurs feel since the elections of Justin Trudeau in 2015 and Donald Trump in 2016, attitudes to immigration in Ottawa and Washington have diverged markedly.

In particular, Mr. Trump’s administration has tightened the requirements for granting H-1B visas and threatened to ban spouses of people on such permits from working. The prescription has a distinctly Canadian ring to it. Canada already grants foreign students work permits for up to three years after graduation, and in June 2017 the country’s immigration and employment authorities launched what they called their Global Skills Strategy, with the goal of making it easier for employers to bring in highly skilled foreign workers. Among its promises was that work permits for such individuals would be processed within two weeks, subject to police and medical checks. Within little more than a year, more than 12,000 people had applied, of whom 95% had been accepted.

Canada has long worried about a “brain drain”, and a recent study found that a quarter of the 2015 and 2016 STEM graduates from the universities of Toronto, British Columbia and Waterloo were working outside the country, most of them in higher-paying US tech clusters. But now a growing domestic tech industry is persuading more Canadians to stay, or to return. For now, Toronto’s tech companies will have to show that they can compete with the best of Silicon Valley, says Hubba’s Mr. Ben Zifkin. “The people we’re trying to attract to Toronto are world-class folks. All they care about is working for winning companies.”

9) Workism is making Americans miserable [Source: The Atlantic ]
Economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour workweek in the 21st century, creating the equivalent of a five-day weekend. But, he did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. He failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism. Today’s rich American men can afford vastly more downtime. But they have used their wealth to buy the strangest of prizes: more work!

“For many of today’s rich there is no such thing as ‘leisure’; in the classic sense—work is their play,” the economist Robert Frank wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “Building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun.” Workism may have started with rich men, but the ethos is spreading—across gender and age. In a 2018 paper on elite universities, researchers found that for women, the most important benefit of attending a selective college isn’t higher wages, but more hours at the office. In other words, our elite institutions are minting coed workists.

Workism offers a perilous trade-off. A staggering 87% of employees are not engaged at their job, according to Gallup. That number is rising by the year. The vast majority of workers are happier when they spend more hours with family, friends, and partners, according to research conducted by Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. In one study, she concluded that the happiest young workers were those who said around the time of their college graduation that they preferred careers that gave them time away from the office to focus on their relationships and their hobbies.  

10) How Jimmy Chin filmed Alex Honnold’s death-defying free solo [Source: National Geographic ]
Imagine climbing a steep cliff. Some mountaineers or rappellers will say that’s easy with all equipments. But what if you had only your body, no equipments? That’s scary! But, Alex Honnold did the impossible by climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan (~3,000-foot granite) without a rope. It was never easy. Jimmy Chin, Honnold’s friend, shot the whole journey with 13 climber-cinematographers. But, there were some rules: 1) No one was allowed to whisper, sneeze, drop a lens cap, dislodge a pebble—any of which might create the distraction that sends him hurtling to his death; 2) No one was allowed to talk to Honnold about the epic climb, at least not directly.  
Meanwhile Honnold had been privately contemplating what it would take to free solo El Cap. “After Half Dome it seemed like the next obvious thing,” Honnold says. “At the end of each season, I’d think I’d be ready to do it the next year, but then I’d look up at it and think, Whoa, that’s still too scary.” Finally, in late 2015, Honnold told Chin and Vasarhelyi he was ready, and they agreed to work together in secret on a film about the climb. “It was very important that the film would be about Alex’s process,” Chin says. “Whether it ended with him summiting El Cap or deciding not to go for it didn’t matter. It was always about how do you even think about doing something so mind-bending.” Each practice session required many hours of preparation.

Around 5 p.m. on June 2, 2017, feeling that he was at his peak, Honnold asked Chin if the team could be ready to shoot the next day. “I think I’ll go scrambling,” he said. Chin nodded, acting like it was no big deal: “My mind was racing with all the things we needed to put in place before it got dark, but I didn’t want to upset his mind-set, so I hung out with him for a while.” Finally Chin told Honnold he’d see him in the morning and walked slowly until he was out of his friend’s line of sight. Then Chin ran like hell. He jumped on the crew’s walkie-talkie channel and, using Honnold’s code name, alerted the team to what was about to happen. “Bambi is going for it! Repeat: Bambi is going for it!” And yes, he finished the climb in around 4 hours.