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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are PoliTech (Facebook's connection with Brexit), Technology (The ugly truth about face recognition), Management (Akbar Nawas' winning formula), Work-Life (World's most successful people get enough sleep), Society (Racial bias built into photography) and Economics (Time to write the epitaph for Capitalism?).

Published: May 4, 2019 09:02:51 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 PoliTech (Facebook’s connection with Brexit), Technology (The ugly truth about face recognition), Management (Akbar Nawas’ winning formula), Work-Life (World’s most successful people get enough sleep), Society (Racial bias built into photography) and Economics (Time to write the epitaph for Capitalism?).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended May 3, 2019

 1.   Carole Cadwalladr: Facebook's role in Brexit -- and the threat to democracy [Source: TED Talk]
Carole Cadwalladr, a British journalist, in this Ted Talk digs deep into one of the most perplexing events in recent times: the UK's super-close 2016 vote to leave the European Union. She had to go to South Wales to write a report. She went to this town called Ebbw Vale because in this town 62% of the population voted to leave the EU. And she wanted to know why. The town had changed drastically and had good infrastructure which was funded by the EU. So, why did so many people vote to leave? The main reason why they wanted to leave EU was because of immigrants and refugees; at least that’s what they all told Carole. But, Carole didn’t come across a single immigrant or refugee during her stay in the town.

When she checked the figures, it showed that Ebbw Vale had the lowest rates of immigration in the country. She thought, from where are the people getting information. Soon she realised that most of them were gaining information, knowingly or unknowingly, through Facebook. But you can’t research these as these feeds or ads vanish in few minutes. So there’s no trace of it. The UK government had asked answers from Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, but he refused them. What Carole and other journalists uncovered was that multiple crimes took place during the referendum and they took place on Facebook.

Hate and fear are sown in all around the world. And it is the same with Brexit. The technology that has been invented is amazing but now it’s a crime scene. And just by saying we’ll do better in the future makes no sense. To stop this from happening again, we have to know the truth. We might think that people are smarter and it’s just a few ads. To which Carole says, “Good luck to that”. What the Brexit vote demonstrates is that liberal democracy is broken. Spreading lies in the darkness, paid for with illegal cash, is not democracy. The British government has tried, but it has failed. It’s not about ‘leave’ or ‘remain’, Trump or not, fair or not, free or not, but about whether we can have a fair election ever again.

2.   Who’s using your face? The ugly truth about facial recognition [Source: Financial Times]
This article throws light on how your photo can be used by the government without your knowledge for some intelligence purpose. Jillian York, a 36-year-old American activist, was shocked when she realised that her pictures were used by a firm without her knowledge. York is one of 3,500 subjects in this database, which is known as Iarpa Janus Benchmark-C (IJB-C). Iarpa is a US government body that funds innovative research aimed at giving the US intelligence community a competitive advantage; Janus, named after the two-faced Roman god, is its facial-recognition initiative. The dataset, which was compiled by a government subcontractor called Noblis, includes a total of 21,294 images of faces (there are other body parts too), averaging six pictures and three videos per person, and is available on application to researchers in the field.

Like York, there were others as well. None of these people were aware of their inclusion in the database. Their images were obtained without their explicit consent, as they had been uploaded under the terms of Creative Commons licences, an online copyright agreement that allows images to be copied and reused for academic and commercial purposes by anyone. The primary use of facial-recognition technology is in security and surveillance, whether by private companies such as retailers and events venues, or by public bodies such as police forces to track criminals. Governments increasingly use it to identify people for national and border security.

Today, as law enforcement bodies and governments are keen to push the limits of facial recognition to lower the costs and time required to identify suspects, the consensus is that even internet faces aren’t truly “wild” because people tend to put up edited photos. The appetite for more diverse face data has led down a rabbit hole of capturing people’s images as naturally as possible, often without their knowledge. In fact, recognising a face is only the first step of biometric surveillance, Adam Harvey, a technology researcher, suggests. “It’s really like an entry-level term to much broader, deeper analysis of people’s biometrics. There’s jaw recognition — the width of your jaw can be used to infer success as CEO, for example. Companies such as Boston-based Affectiva are doing research that analyses faces in real time, to determine from a webcam or in-store camera if someone is going to buy something in your store.”

3. It's not play if you're making money': How Instagram and YouTube disrupted child labor laws [Source: The Guardian]

YouTube has given employment to many. Not to only their employees, but creators as well. Children are among the biggest stars of YouTube and Instagram, earning millions through influencer deals with blue-chip brands or YouTube’s partner program, which gives creators a cut of ad revenues. But, while today’s child stars can achieve incredible fame and fortune without ever setting foot in a Hollywood studio, they may be missing out on one of the less glitzy features of working in the southern California-based entertainment industry: the strongest child labor laws for performers in the country. Those laws, which were designed to protect child stars from exploitation by both their parents and their employers, are not being regularly applied to today’s pint-sized celebrities, despite the fact that the major platforms, YouTube and Instagram, are based in California. The situation is a bit like “Uber but for…child labor”, with a disruptive technology upending markets by, among other things, side-stepping regulation.

Paul Petersen, who founded a support and advocacy group for former child performers, A Minor Consideration, in 1991, says that it is shameful. Mr. Petersen and his group were instrumental in working with lawmakers, including Sheila James Kuehl, a former child star and co-author of the 1999 law that overhauled California’s labor protections for child performers, on the 1999 overhaul of the Coogan Act, California’s original labor law to protect child actors. That bill was enacted in 1939 and is named after Jackie Coogan, the nation’s very first child movie star. Coogan shot to stardom after playing Charlie Chaplin’s sidekick in 1921’s The Kid, and went on to star in a string of movies for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, earning as much as $4mn while still a minor.

But do kidfluencers own their earnings when they don’t even own their social media accounts? YouTube and Instagram ban children under 13 from having accounts, which means that no pre-teen stars own the accounts to which YouTube pays a share of advertising revenue. Influencer arrangements – in which brands pay influencers to post a photo or video of themselves promoting a product – take place off platform, and are presumably negotiated by parents. “We work closely with experts, non-profit organizations, and others in our industry to protect families using our services,” said a spokeswoman for YouTube. “We have a variety of educational materials available to families … to make sure creators are made aware of our policies and applicable labor laws when featuring minors in their videos.”

 4.   I-League: Akbar Nawas’ winning formula [Source: Livemint]
Akbar Nawas, the coach of Chennai City FC in the Indian Super League, is the talk of the town after his team won the I-League. Nawas employed a highly entertaining attacking style of football. Data from analytics company Instat shows that Chennai City made the most number of passes per match (484) and created the most number of goal-scoring chances in the league (136). They had a better scoring rate (2.4 goals per match) than the last eight I-League winners, hammering 48 goals in 20 matches.

“When I was a player, my coach played me wingback a few times. I always roamed forward and loved attacking. I wondered why no one covered my position when I went ahead. Part of this instinct is in my coaching philosophy. I ask my team to play positional possession—not just possession. At all times, every position on the pitch must be filled in if someone leaves it empty by roaming into attack," Nawas explains. This constant movement and combination play has become a hallmark of Nawas’ teams.

Another aspect of his philosophy is to include local talent. Through painstaking scouting and open trials, he got the right mix. Alexander Romario, Ajith Kumar, Pravitto Raju, Edwin Vanspaul and Michael Regin are just some of the Tamil Nadu players who were a vital part of Chennai City’s remarkable journey. Much like Akbar Nawas, who, in his typical unassuming style, transformed a team which had finished eighth twice in a row into champions of the I-League.

 5.   The efficiency delusion [Source: onezero.medium.com
Removing friction works as a business model. Reducing transaction costs has regularly proven to be a powerful way to influence behaviour. And it’s also not hard to see why we, the users, go for it: It’s often genuinely useful when someone automates a difficult or boring task for us. In this piece, Evan Selinger, a philosophy professor, and Clive Thompson a longtime writer for Wired and the New York Times Magazine, discuss why the efficiency mindset is seductive and what can go wrong when it goes too far. The drive to remove friction in the digital technology space permeates everything from social interactions to business transactions, from Facebook bombarding us with notifications about what our friends are saying and doing to millions of people around the world ordering Uber rides on their phones instead of standing on street corners to hail cabs.

But efficiency isn’t always value neutral. Placing efficiency over other values can be a mistake — a lapse in ethical, political, personal, or professional judgment. While writing “Coders”, Mr. Thompson interviewed many engineering and science majors. What really resonated is that some of the engineers he interviewed described experiencing inefficient situations as really troubling, like smelling something awful or tasting something gross. And soon they thought that they could automate most of the boring tasks.

Mr. Thompson gives many examples where people have automated things in order to save time and spend it somewhere else. Self-driving car is one such example. Why are consumers so eager to find a new app that we hope will speed up our lives or give us more free time? Mr. Thompson thinks this has to do with the novelty effect. When we change something in our environment, we sometimes discover that we’re temporarily more productive and creative. Unfortunately, once something is no longer novel and the change in tempo or style stops feeling fresh, the effect fades.

6.   Are we seeing Netflix wrong? The streaming giant may be less about the content and more about data [Source: Scroll.in]
Many people have switched to Netflix from watching television. The streaming site now boasts almost 150 million global subscribers. But, the author of this piece wonders how a company can provide so much unlimited ad-free content for such a low monthly rate, which currently averages around $14. Pouring money into content might generate hits, but not direct profits: Netflix’s sole revenue stream is subscriptions, so its primary goal is to gain and retain subscribers. Having popular content generates buzz, and Netflix hypes its brand by using self-reported numbers to claim that its original films and series like Bird Box (2018) and Sex Education (2019) attract millions of viewers. Yet Netflix only yields the same monthly fee per household, regardless of how much subscribers watch. This makes Netflix distinct from other media companies that use highly profitable hits to generate revenue.

Netflix needs to produce and acquire desirable content to make the service indispensable. But making original content is expensive. Hiring talent and producing movies and television series costs the company more than $15 billion annually. Netflix spends much more cash than it brings in, leading to consistent negative cash flow and a mountain of debt that amounts to more than $10 billion. Even though it reported a record $1.2 billion in profit in 2018, those profits are based on an accounting model that ignores many costs and debts. This has led some financial analysts, like NYU professor Aswath Damodaran, to believe that Netflix’s business model is unsustainable. “The more Netflix grows,” he wrote last fall, “the more its costs grow and the more money it burns. I’m not sure how it’s ever going to turn that around.”

One theory is that Netflix is playing the long game, pitting itself against social media companies like Facebook and YouTube, rather than just film studios or TV networks. Media commentator Matthew Ball argues that Netflix is in a race with the social media giants to occupy “every minute of leisure time available.” Yet Netflix’s financial model is the inverse of Facebook’s and YouTube’s. What else could Netflix do, beyond product integration, with the valuable information? When linked to website trackers, Netflix could, for example, cross-reference that viewing data with your social media accounts, your purchasing habits, your search history and even your emails. In the age of surveillance capitalism, such data could be worth a fortune to marketers, political campaigns and advertisers.

7.   Dare to declare capitalism dead – before it takes us all down with it [Source: The Guardian]
George Monbiot, the author of this piece, talks how economic system is incompatible with the survival of life on Earth and it is time to design a new one. Talking about capitalism, the author says that there are two things to consider. First, it is the system, rather than any variant of the system, that drives us inexorably towards disaster. Second, you do not have to produce a definitive alternative to say that capitalism is failing. The statement stands in its own right. But it also demands another, and different, effort to develop a new system.

Capitalism’s failures arise from two of its defining elements. The first is perpetual growth. Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity. The second defining element is the bizarre assumption that a person is entitled to as great a share of the world’s natural wealth as their money can buy. In the New York Times on Sunday, the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz sought to distinguish between good capitalism, which he called “wealth creation”, and bad capitalism, which he called “wealth grabbing” (extracting rent).

So what does a better system look like? While Mr. Monbiot doesn’t have a specific answer, he sees a rough framework emerging. Part of it is provided by the ecological civilisation proposed by Jeremy Lent, one of the greatest thinkers. Other elements come from Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics and the environmental thinking of Naomi Klein, Amitav Ghosh, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, Raj Patel and Bill McKibben. The author believes our task is to identify the best proposals from many different thinkers and shape them into a coherent alternative. Because no economic system is only an economic system but intrudes into every aspect of our lives, we need many minds from various disciplines – economic, environmental, political, cultural, social and logistical – working collaboratively to create a better way of organising ourselves that meets our needs without destroying our home.

8.   The world's most successful people get enough sleep [Source: UnHerd]
One thing that the author of this piece comes across from early risers is that, at that time of the day, there’s no one to distract you. And the trouble is that these early risers put pressure on everyone else. Whether it’s a case of starting early, staying late or being always available via electronic means, the pioneers put pressure on everyone else, which managers are all too happy to exploit. It’s not that the bosses are necessarily squeezing extra value out of their workforce. More often, the author suspects it’s a case of managerial laziness – rather than tackling impediments to productivity in the workplace, the path of least resistance is allow work to spill-over into officially non-working hours.

What we’re putting in danger is one of the great social advances of the modern age — the miraculous reduction in the working week, working year and working lifetime. From the latter part of the 19th century to the latter part of the 20th, working hours declined massively as wages increased. In countries across the world today there is an inverse relationship between working hours and wage levels. Whether or not the wage stagnation of recent years is being exacerbated by longer working hours is difficult to ascertain, because the tech-enabled additional hours that workers are putting in from outside the workplace are hard to measure – especially when they’re not being paid for in overtime.

All employment contracts should clearly state the real, rather than the official, working hours of the job – and also the true likelihood of it intruding into the home life of employee. If, in ‘exceptional circumstances’, those normal working hours are to be significantly exceeded (and work/life boundaries violated) then that should be formally recorded and explained by the employer. Employees should also have a duty to notify line managers about extra hours of work they undertake, especially those outside the workplace. This would provide a basis on which employers could be held accountable for the working cultures, for which they are ultimately responsible.

9.   This is what happens when you try to sue your boss [Source: Bloomberg]
This piece talks about how an arbitration process gets lengthy and time-consuming. Alex Beigelman was terminated from his service from UBS. Also, Mr. Beigelman learnt that he wouldn’t get his bonus. And if he wanted his deferred comp, about $530,000, he’d have to promise not to fight the termination. He did not agree to that. Three months after he was fired, he demanded a hearing. If you have a job in the US, chances are good you’ve signed an arbitration agreement that will stop you from suing from your bosses in court for pretty much any reason.

About 60mn Americans, including workers in 2 out of 3 big nonunion, are bound by the agreements, according to the Economic Policy Institute. After the #MeToo movement revealed that forced arbitration has been used to keep sexual harassment complaints quiet, a handful of companies, including Google and Facebook Inc., agreed to get out of it for harassment claims. But that’s less a win for workers’ rights than it would seem. If you want to sue your boss for cheating you out of money or discriminating against you because of your race, you’re still out of luck, stuck in this shadow legal system. And yet no one except those who’ve been through arbitration understands what it’s really like, how it works, or whether it leads to anything resembling justice.

If both sides want to be in arbitration, the process can be fast, cheap, and effective. In May 2018, two months after Beigelman faced UBS in the conference room for that last time, the arbitrators handed down their decision. They awarded him more than $400,000, giving him the deferred comp, but allowed UBS to keep any bonus. Beigelman, who now owns his own risk advisory firm, is less annoyed by the decision than by the process that led up to it. 

 10. The racial bias built into photography [Source: The New York Times
Can a photographic lens condition racial behaviour? Sarah Lewis, an assistant professor at Harvard University, wondered about this as she was preparing to speak about images and justice on a university campus. “We have a problem. Your jacket is lighter than your face,” the technician said from the back of the one-thousand-person amphitheater-style auditorium. “That’s going to be a problem for lighting.” She was handling the video recording and lighting for the event. It was an odd comment that reverberated through the auditorium, a statement of the obvious that sounded like an accusation of wrongdoing. Another technician standing next to her stopped adjusting microphone and jolted in place. The phrase hung in the air, and she laughed to resolve the tension in the room then offered back just the facts: “Well, everything is lighter than my face. I’m black.”

The comment reminded Sarah of the unconscious bias that was built into photography. By categorizing light skin as the norm and other skin tones as needing special corrective care, photography has altered how we interact with each other without us realizing it. Photography is not just a system of calibrating light, but a technology of subjective decisions. Light skin became the chemical baseline for film technology, fulfilling the needs of its target dominant market. For example, developing color-film technology initially required what was called a Shirley card. When you sent off your film to get developed, lab technicians would use the image of a white woman with brown hair named Shirley as the measuring stick against which they calibrated the colors. Quality control meant ensuring that Shirley’s face looked good. It has translated into the color-balancing of digital technology.

In the mid-1990s, Kodak created a multiracial Shirley Card with three women, one black, one white, and one Asian, and later included a Latina model, in an attempt intended to help camera operators calibrate skin tones. These were not adopted by everyone since they coincided with the rise of digital photography. The result was film emulsion technology that still carried over the social bias of earlier photographic conventions. Fuji became the film of choice for professional photographers shooting subjects with darker tones. The company developed color transparency film that was superior to Kodak for handling brown skin. Race changed sight in America. This is what we experience. There is no need for our photographic technology to foster it.

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