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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Corporate (How America's oldest gun maker went bankrupt), Technology (Is superintelligence possible?), Book Review (Mueller report is a racy thriller), Lifestyle (Global meat-eating is on the rise, bringing surprising benefits), Sports (Ellyse Perry: 'There has never been more interest in women's cricket'), and Climate Change (A million species are at risk of extinction).

Published: May 11, 2019 06:46:50 AM IST
Updated: May 10, 2019 05:43:22 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 Corporate (How America’s oldest gun maker went bankrupt), Technology (Is superintelligence possible?), Book Review (Mueller report is a racy thriller), Lifestyle (Global meat-eating is on the rise, bringing surprising benefits), Sports (Ellyse Perry: ‘There has never been more interest in women’s cricket’), and Climate Change (A million species are at risk of extinction).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended May 10, 2019.

 1) How America’s oldest gun maker went bankrupt: A financial engineering mystery [Source: The New York Times]
Cerberus Capital Management, a private-equity firm, bought Remington before it opened office in Huntsville. It was purchased at a relative bargain. When Cerberus bought Remington in 2007, the world was hurtling through the greatest rush of private-equity acquisitions in history. There were never fewer than 1,700 private-equity transactions annually; in 2007 the figure peaked at 7,400. In exchange for tens of millions in incentives, Remington had only to commit to a few terms, laid out in a fat document called a development agreement. First, it had to hire enough employees every year so that, in 2021, it would have a local work force of 1,868. Second, starting immediately, it had to pay those employees a minimum average hourly wage of $19.50, rising to $20.19 in 2017. All parties signed.

But, there was a hidden, vaguely mysterious quirk of the company’s finances. In 2012, more or less in the middle of the best climate for gun makers in a generation, America’s oldest continually operating manufacturer abruptly, and for no easily discernible reason, borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars. Cerberus had somehow made a great deal of money on Remington even before opening the Huntsville factory. In order to buy Remington, Cerberus, as most private-equity firms would, created a new entity, a holding company. Instead of Cerberus buying a gun company, Cerberus put money into the holding company, and the holding company bought Remington. In 2010, Cerberus had the holding company borrow $225 million from an undisclosed group of lenders, most likely hedge funds.

The holding company spent most of the $225 million buying back its own stock, effectively transferring all the borrowed cash to Cerberus. In April 2012, Cerberus did something fateful, which probably seemed smart at the time. It had Remington borrow hundreds of millions of dollars and use it to buy the holding company’s debt. America’s oldest gun company now owed the money that Cerberus had used to pay itself back for having bought the company in the first place. Suddenly Remington was carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in debt that, if it could not be paid, would cause the business to go bankrupt. Remington executives arranged a meeting with their creditors. After listening politely, the banks made a proposal: They would exchange the money they were owed for an ownership stake in Remington, a so-called Chapter 11 bankruptcy or “debt-for-equity swap.” This arrangement would allow Remington to stay running, albeit under distant ownership, until a plan could be drawn up for its future, such as a sale or a liquidation of assets.  

2) The terrifying potential of the 5G network [Source: The New Yorker]
We all are aware of the hype that’s surrounding the 5G. It’s said that with 5G, you can download a full-length movie in just 4 seconds. While there are many benefits of 5G, one also needs to consider cyberattacks and surveillance. Even before the introduction of 5G networks, hackers have breached the control center of a municipal dam system, stopped an Internet-connected car as it travelled down an interstate, and sabotaged home appliances. Ransomware, malware, crypto-jacking, identity theft, and data breaches have become so common that more Americans are afraid of cybercrime than they are of becoming a victim of violent crime.

Tom Wheeler, who was the F.C.C. chairman during the Obama Administration, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times titled “If 5G Is So Important, Why Isn’t It Secure?” The Trump Administration had walked away from security efforts begun during Wheeler’s tenure at the F.C.C.; most notably, in recent negotiations over international standards, the U.S. eliminated a requirement that the technical specifications of 5G include cyber defense. “For the first time in history,” Wheeler wrote, “cybersecurity was being required as a forethought in the design of a new network standard—until the Trump F.C.C. repealed it.”

The United States is not there yet, and may never be. But, as 5G begins to be rolled out, the pressure to capture and capitalize on new streams of data from individuals, businesses, and government will only grow more intense. Building safeguards into the system seems like an obvious and necessary goal. Robert Spalding, the senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council, warns, the danger is not limited to a single nation-state. “What is existential to democracy is allowing totalitarian regimes—or any government—full knowledge of everything you do at all times,” he said. “Because the tendency is always going to be to want to regulate how you think, how you act, what you do. The problem is that most people don’t think very hard about what that world would look like.”


3) Is superintelligence impossible? [Source: Edge.org]
John Brockman, the author of By The Late John Brockman and The Third Culture, chats with David Chalmers and Daniel C. Dennett about the growing world of AI. David Chalmers is a University Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science and co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness at New York University. Daniel C. Bennett is a University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. Mr. Chalmers starts by saying that he believes superintelligence is possible. Then he goes on to explain why and how it can happen and what are the challenges that would arise.

Mr. Dennett concurs with what Mr. Chalmers said. He goes on to talk about the “possible”. There are lots of things that are possible, and philosophers love to talk about what’s possible, but many things that are obviously possible are never going to be actual. It’s possible to build a bridge across the Atlantic. We’re not going to do it, not now, not in a hundred years, not in a thousand years. It would cost too much money and would be a foolish endeavor. He also says that we ourselves are AIs. “We’re robots made of robots made of robots. We’re actual. In principle, you could make us out of other materials. Some of your best friends in the future could be robots” he says.

One of the challenges that these speakers talk about is about autonomy. While it’s possible to create autonomous, intelligent, conscious AI, we shouldn’t do it and maybe we won’t do it. Instead, what we should do is create tools. He uses the wonderful analogy of Google Maps, where Google Maps tells you how to get someplace, but you still have to get there. If you want to get somewhere, it'll show you a route, but you still have to follow the route. Maybe you’ve got a superintelligent AI and you want to know how to get to Mars or how to win a war or something, the AI will tell you what needs to be done, but the human will still be in the loop.


4) The spycraft revolution [Source: foreignpolicy.com]
This piece talks about how the spy world would mostly focus on technology in near future. The winners will be those who break the old rules of the spy game and work out new ones. It has become harder for Western countries to spy on places such as China, Iran, and Russia and easier for those countries’ intelligence services to spy on the rest of the world. Technical prowess is also shifting. Much like manned spaceflight, human-based intelligence is starting to look costly and anachronistic. Meanwhile, a gulf is growing between the cryptographic superpowers—the United States, United Kingdom, France, Israel, China, and Russia—and everyone else. Technical expertise, rather than human sleuthing, will hold the key to future success.

Traditionally, spies depended on cover identities. Until a few years ago, a visiting Canadian in Moscow who claimed to be a graduate student in architecture could present a cover that would be difficult for Russian counterintelligence officers to crack. Not anymore. A cover identity that would have been almost bulletproof only 20 years ago can now be unraveled in a few minutes. For a start, facial recognition software—mostly developed by Israeli companies and widely deployed in China and elsewhere—allows governments and law enforcement agencies to store and search vast numbers of faces. They can then cross-check such data with the slew of personal information that most people voluntarily and habitually upload online.

As the cost of conducting espionage operations—in money, time, and effort—has shrunk, spying has become less esoteric. These days it is an integral part of business, finance, sports, and family litigation over divorce and child custody. Indeed, modern life encourages people and institutions of all kinds to adopt the thinking and practices of the spy world. Are you worried about your date? Then you will find open-source information establishing whether he or she has a criminal record, bad credit, unfortunate habits involving drug use, or unusual sexual preferences. The same goes for prospective hires.


5) Book review of the Mueller report as literature [Source: Slate.com]  
One critic has deemed the report the best nonfiction book so far on the Trump administration, pointing to special counsel Robert Mueller’s ability, unlike other writers, to subpoena witnesses and enforce their truthfulness. The book is divided into two volumes. The first volume, devoted to Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, begins, like any good political thriller, with a bang. Multiple Russian spy organizations fan out across the internet and America itself, manipulating social media platforms, fomenting partisan acrimony, hacking into servers, leaking documents, organizing Trump rallies, and engaging in other devious efforts to promote their candidate of choice (and to a lesser degree, Bernie Sanders).

The second volume of the Mueller report is a compendium of evidence that the president attempted to obstruct the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and also the special counsel’s investigation itself, has the earmarks of a dramatic work instead: King Lear is the one most often cited by observers, but The Madness of King George seems equally apropos. The characters are cooped up together in the White House like crabs in a bucket. They are forced to humor and manipulate their demented old king, who has a schoolchild’s conception of his own job: He thinks he’s now the boss of the whole world and tantrums every time he’s thwarted.

According to the author of this piece, the qualities of Mr. Trump’s tenure that have destabilized and degraded the government are the same qualities that make them entertaining after the fashion of reality TV: escalating conflict, ruthless maneuvering, larger-than-life-characters, knee-jerk stereotypes, dramatic reversals. Just try to pay attention to anything else! Like the fictional movie that gives David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest its title, Trump’s shitshow seems capable of hypnotizing all into watching it so avidly that people waste away staring at screens. The Mueller report, Olympian and meticulous, feels like an attempt to wrest back the government on behalf not just of real lawyers but of reality itself.


6) Global meat-eating is on the rise, bringing surprising benefits [Source: The Economist]
Animal products are excellent sources of essential vitamins and minerals. And with the increasing standard of lifestyle, people are opting for meat. Between 1961 and 2013 the average Chinese person went from eating 4kg of meat a year to 62kg. Half of the world’s pork is eaten in the country. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), an agency of the un, estimates that the global number of ruminant livestock (that is, cattle, buffalo, sheep and goats) will rise from 4.1bn to 5.8bn between 2015 and 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario. The population of chickens is expected to grow even faster. The chicken is already by far the most common bird in the world, with about 23bn alive at the moment compared with 500m house sparrows.

Many sub-Saharan Africans still eat almost no meat, dairy or fish. The FAO estimates that just 7% of people’s dietary energy comes from animal products, one-third of the proportion in China. Yet this frugal continent is beginning to sway the global food system. The UN thinks that the population of sub-Saharan Africa will reach 2bn in the mid-2040s, up from 1.1bn today. That would lead to a huge increase in meat- and dairy-eating even if people’s diets stayed the same. But they will not. The population of Kenya has grown by 58% since 2000, while the output of beef has more than doubled. The FAO predicts that in 2050 almost two out of every five ruminant livestock animals in the world will be African. The number of chickens in Africa is projected to quadruple, to 7bn.

Also, there are many health benefits of eating meat and dairy products. Studies in several developing countries have shown that giving milk to schoolchildren makes them taller. Recent research in rural western Kenya found that children who regularly ate eggs grew 5% faster than children who did not. But meat—or, rather, animals—can be dangerous, too. In Africa chickens are often allowed to run in and out of people’s homes. Their eggs and flesh seem to improve human health; their droppings do not. One study of Ghana finds that childhood anaemia is more common in chicken-owning households, perhaps because the nippers caught more diseases. It is often said that sub-Saharan Africa lacks an industrial base, and this is true. But to look only for high-tech, export-oriented industries risks overlooking the continent’s increasingly sophisticated food-producers, who are responding to urban demand.


7) Ellyse Perry: ‘There has never been more interest in women’s cricket’ [Source: Financial Times]
Cricket is no longer only a gentleman’s game. Women’s cricket is also developing very quickly and there is so much access for girls to play. Ellyse Perry, one of Australia’s greatest cricketers, is one of the reasons why Australia’s women’s cricket is growing rapidly. The 28-year-old all-rounder, which means she bats as well as bowls, is a phenomenal athlete. She switched from football to cricket. She burst on to the international stage in 2007 when, aged just 16, she became the youngest player to represent Australia. Perry joined a new generation of exciting young players, including Meg Lanning and Alyssa Healy, who have helped Australia win four of the past six world cups in short-form T20 cricket and become the world’s highest-ranked team.

In 2017, Australia retained the Ashes in a hard-fought series against England and Perry played a key role, smashing an unbeaten 213 in the deciding test match in Sydney. In November, she became the first Australian to take 100 wickets in T20 matches. Talking about pursuing cricket, Perry says, “Sometimes players had to pay for the privilege of representing their country or their state. When I first started playing, cricket was a part-time pursuit where everyone worked full-time or part-time or studied. Playing cricket was like a representative honour that you did before or after work or on weekends.” That changed in 2017, when Cricket Australia agreed a landmark pay deal, providing 150 female cricketers with their first proper salaries, increasing total player payments from A$7.5m to A$55.2m over five years.

Perry’s polished professional image hides a playful sense of humour, according to several former teammates, who recount tales of mischievousness such as playing pranks and joking around on tours. “Ellyse was the youngest in the squad and was your annoying little sister,” says Lisa Sthalekar, a former Australia captain who coached Perry when she was a junior. “She was always pulling faces and throwing things while you were doing interviews — and giving you wedgies.” Teammates say Perry is her own harshest critic and typically the first player to arrive at training and the last to leave. “It sounds weird but I actually enjoy training as much as I enjoy competing or playing matches,” she says. “For me the joy in doing something like this every day is a challenge and an opportunity to get better. And then when things go well it is an affirmation that, yes, I’m doing something right.”


8) The opium trader who became one of India's richest men [Source: The Hindu]
Everyone in India knows Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy. Be it through his educational institutes like Sir J.J. School of Arts or through hospitals like J.J. Hospital. But, rarely you will find someone knows about the life of this man who became the first baronet of Bombay (now Mumbai). Mr. Jejeebhoy was once captured by the French in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars and hostilities between the British and the French. And that’s when he came across William Jardine, a young doctor of the East India Company. This meeting turned, as historian Jesse S. Palsetia writes in his book Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy of Bombay, into a friendship “that would change both men’s lives and influence the course of history.”

Mr. Jardine went on to set up his own firm. His firm would become so enormously successful because it was soon going to corner the market on one particular commodity, one that was much more profitable than cotton, and one whose demand was exploding because the British had got millions of Chinese hopelessly addicted to it: opium. The opium came from the East India Company’s nearby colony, India. It was grown in Malwa and shipped from Bombay. At its height, almost one-third of the entire trade was going to one firm, Mr. Jardine’s trading house in Canton. And the man who enabled this trade from India was becoming stunningly wealthy. By the time he was 40, Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy had allegedly made more than ₹2 crore — in the 1820s. He was already one of the richest men in the entire country, but he had his eye on even greater prizes.

The life of Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy makes for an excellent story. It neatly divides into two acts. In the first act, Jejeebhoy lives a life of adventure and daring. In the second act, he becomes an elder statesman, a civic figure working for the benefit of the community. When his son Cursetjee was old enough, Jejeebhoy began to step back from the business to focus on civic life. While opium was seen as just another item of trade within these mercantile circles, it is possible that Jejeebhoy wanted to distance himself publicly from the drug trade. Mr. Jejeebhoy’s donations have been prolific. By 1855, his commercial empire was mostly complete and he had devoted himself entirely to philanthropy and public life. In his biography, historian J.R.P. Mody calculates that Jejeebhoy would have donated £2,450,00 over the course of his life. In current terms, that would be around £10 million or ₹100 crore.


9) Atheist bashing at Al-Jazeera: Columbia professor claims that New Atheism is a resurrection of imperialism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, and so on [Source: whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com]
In this piece, the author throws light on an article by an Iranian-born Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Hamid Dabashi. The occasion for Mr. Dabashi’s splenetic eructations is the publication of a transcript of the “Four Horsemen Discussion” in book form, The Four Horsemen: The Conversation that Sparked an Atheist Revolution. The four men here are: 1) Sam Harris: Author of End of Faith; 2) Christopher Hitchens: God is not Great; 3) Richard Dawkins: The God Dellusion; and 4) Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Mr. Dabashi says that all four of these men are ignorant of Islam, are “Islamophobic”, are white supremacists and imperialists, and are in league with Christian conservatives in espousing a “toxic ideology”. Moreover, he implies, they bear some responsibility for the attack on the mosques in New Zealand, for the Easter terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, and for the deaths of Palestinians during “right of return” demonstrations at the Israel-Gaza border. In the end, though, his whole critique rests on these men’s criticism of Islam.

These charges, the author feels, are ridiculous because they have all separated criticism of Islam from criticism of Muslims, have decried not only the Christian Right but also Christianity (and other faiths), and are certainly not white supremacists. As for the terrorist attacks, it’s ridiculous to blame these men for what happened in New Zealand, and of course the attacks in Sri Lanka were carried out by Muslims. Mr. Dabashi takes on each one particularly and talks how Muslims and Islam are not how these four men have portrayed in their books.

In all of this, Mr. Dabashi picks on particulars, not addressing the general critiques of religion tendered by the Horsepersons, the criticisms that promoted the resurgence of atheism. These include the fact that there’s no evidence for religion’s fact claims or for a divine being, that the various religion conflict with each other in both claims about reality and, on the ground, militarily, and that all religions promote dogma and behavior that is divisive, oppressive, and inimical to the progress of liberal society. Instead, Mr. Dabashi just tars New Atheists with various slurs. 


10) A million species are at risk of extinction. Humans are to blame. [Source: Vox]
How long would it take for evolution to replace all the mammal species that have gone extinct in the time humans have walked the earth? Some 300 mammal species have died off since the last ice age 130,000 years ago. Their answer: It would take 3 to 7 million years for evolution to generate 300 new species. The UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released a summary of an upcoming 1,500-page report on the state of biodiversity on Earth. The report has 145 authors from 50 countries, and it sums up about 15,000 scientific papers on the threats against life in the age of humans.

The report says that species of all kinds are disappearing at a rate “tens to hundreds times higher than the average over the last 10 million years” due to human activity. So why do we have this biodiversity crisis? There are five main reasons: 1) Changes in land and sea use; 2) Direct exploitation of organisms; 3) Climate change; 4) Pollution; and 5) Invasive alien species. To solve the biodiversity crisis, it’s going to take more than the actions of individuals. It’s going to take countries deciding to set aside more room for nature, in the form of protected areas. It’s going to take lessening the load of plastic pollution on our seas. It’s going to take addressing climate change and its various inputs.

When we lose species, we lose access to learning about their biology. Last year, scientists discovered that a rare species of corn essentially makes its own fertilizer. It’s possible that biologists will figure out how to add this trait to other plants, boosting their productivity while lessening the need for chemical fertilizer, which is hugely polluting. And we lose out on the rich ecosystems those species help sustain. The biodiversity crisis also means we’re potentially setting ourselves up for a food crisis. Increasingly, the world’s diet is homogeneous. Earth is the only place in the universe with life. If life exists in the solar system — on Mars, on in the oceans of Enceladus, Saturn’s ice moon — it’s probably very primitive, singled-celled at most. The Earth has the greatest diversity of life in our solar system, perhaps in the galaxy, perhaps in the universe. And we’re eroding it. 

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