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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (Deadly truth about a world built for men), Lifestyle (Why young Koreans love to splurge), Technology (Unsupervised learning), Brands (Kardashian Clan's 716 trademarks), Investments (Do millennials need money managers?), Water Crisis (India is the largest exporter of water even as taps run dry), and Liberalisation (Devaki Jain on the two forces that might guide India back to justice).

Published: Jul 13, 2019 10:25:11 AM IST
Updated: Jul 12, 2019 02:25:33 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: Business (Deadly truth about a world built for men), Lifestyle (Why young Koreans love to splurge), Technology (Unsupervised learning), Brands (Kardashian Clan’s 716 trademarks), Investments (Do millennials need money managers?), Water Crisis (India is the largest exporter of water even as taps run dry), and Liberalisation (Devaki Jain on the two forces that might guide India back to justice).

Here are the ten interesting things we read this week, ended July 12, 2019.

1) The deadly truth about a world built for men – from stab vests to car crashes [Source: Guardian]
In this male-dominated world, we often sideline the views of women. Sometimes we don’t even consider them. Going back to the theory of Man the Hunter, the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall. When it comes to the other half of humanity, there is often nothing but silence. And these silences are everywhere. Films, news, literature, science, city planning, economics, the stories we tell ourselves about our past, present and future, are all marked – disfigured – by a female-shaped “absent presence”. This is the gender data gap.

The gender data gap is both a cause and a consequence of the type of unthinking that conceives of humanity as almost exclusively male. Every year, 8,000 people in the UK die from work-related cancers. And although most research in this area has been done on men, it’s far from clear that men are the most affected. The average smartphone size is now 5.5 inches. While the average man can fairly comfortably use his device one-handed, the average woman’s hand is not much bigger than the handset itself. This is obviously annoying – and foolish for a company like Apple, given that research shows women are more likely to own an iPhone than men.

Men are more likely than women to be involved in a car crash, which means they dominate the numbers of those seriously injured in them. But when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 71% more likely to be moderately injured, even when researchers control for factors such as height, weight, seatbelt usage, and crash intensity. She is also 17% more likely to die. And it’s all to do with how the car is designed – and for whom. It’s high time that companies think from the perspective of women as well.  

2) Soren Kierkegaard on Boredom [brainpickings.org]
Boredom has a long cultural history and an adaptive function in human life — it serves a vital creative purpose and protects us by helping us tolerate open-endedness; in childhood, it becomes the wellspring of imaginative play. And yet we live in a culture that seems obsessed with eradicating boredom, as if it were Ebola or global poverty, and replacing it with a peculiar modern form of active idleness oozing from our glowing screens. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) defines boredom as a sense of emptiness and examines it not as an absence of stimulation but as an absence of meaning — an idea that also explains why it’s possible, today more than ever, to be overstimulated but existentially bored.

The philosopher feels that boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion. So what, then, are we to do to protect ourselves against the great evil of boredom? As its counterpoint, Kierkegaard offers the virtue of “idleness” — a concept he uses much like we use the notion of stillness today, a quality of being necessary for mindful presence with our own lives.

He says that idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is a truly divine life, if one is not bored… Idleness, then, is so far from being the root of evil that it is rather the true good. Boredom is the root of evil; it is that which must be held off. Idleness is not the evil; indeed, it may be said that everyone who lacks a sense for it thereby shows that he has not raised himself to the human level.  
3) Why young Koreans love to splurge [Source: foreignpolicy.com]
Everybody makes sacrifices for buying a house. You take less holidays or work extra hours so that you can earn that extra income to pay off your housing loan soon. But that is not how it works with the young Koreans. They love to live their lives to the fullest like there’s no tomorrow. They wish to buy (and they do buy) expensive clothes, eat in five star restaurants and splurge their money. But why? It’s because of ‘shibal biyong’. Loosely translated to “fuck-it expense,” the term is a compound noun combining shibal (a swearword for frustration) and biyong (expense).

Shibal biyong didn’t come out of nowhere. It shares a sensibility with phrases like geumsujeo (gold spoon) and hell Joseon (hellish Korea), which became popular several years ago and express the collective despair of a generation of South Koreans who find life in their country intolerable because it seems rigged to benefit people born into wealth (like gold spoon kids) or rich enough to emigrate. According to one survey from 2017, the usual maximum amount people spent on a single shibal biyong was around $90. The rate of increase in consumer spending among millennials—those born in the early 1980s to mid-1990s—since 2014 is twice as high as that of baby boomers, according to credit and debit card usage data obtained by South Korean media last year. At this pace, by 2020 the average millennial may outspend the average baby boomer, despite having far less wealth.

Social media is another driving force in the shibal biyong phenomenon. South Korea has the highest smartphone ownership and internet penetration in the world. Most millennials use platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and KakaoTalk, where conspicuous consumption is celebrated and “fuck-it expenses” have gained social approval. Shibal biyong has begun to resonate with millennials outside South Korea. Young Americans have also started splurging on short-term pleasures despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that so many of them graduated from college in the years following the 2008 financial crisis. Only when measures are taken to make them believe that affluence is attainable will saving for the future make sense.

4) Unsupervised learning: the curious pupil [Source: deepmind.com]
Unsupervised learning is a paradigm designed to create autonomous intelligence by rewarding agents (that is, computer programs) for learning about the data they observe without a particular task in mind. In other words, the agent learns for the sake of learning. While some scientists contend that a sufficiently inclusive training regime—for example, the ability to complete a very wide variety of tasks—should be enough to give rise to general intelligence, others believe that true intelligence will require more independent learning strategies.

Perhaps the simplest objective for unsupervised learning is to train an algorithm to generate its own instances of data. So-called generative models should not simply reproduce the data they are trained on (an uninteresting act of memorisation), but rather build a model of the underlying class from which that data was drawn: not a particular photograph of a horse or a rainbow, but the set of all photographs of horses and rainbows. Another notable family within unsupervised learning are autoregressive models, in which the data is split into a sequence of small pieces, each of which is predicted in turn.

Our ability to learn about the world without explicit supervision is fundamental to what we regard as intelligence. On a train ride we might listlessly gaze through the window, drag our fingers over the velvet of the seat, regard the passengers sitting across from us. We have no agenda in these studies: we almost can’t help but gather information, our brains ceaselessly working to understand the world around us, and our place within it.

5) Kardashian Clan’s 716 Trademarks: How Kim, Kanye, Kylie, and Kendall protect their brands [Source: Forbes]
Kim Kardashian West and her extended family (specifically husband Kanye and half-sisters Kylie and Kendall Jenner) have filed for around 716 trademarks. They are particular about their brand and ensure that no one can infringe on their trademark. The Wests, along with Kylie Jenner, filed trademark applications in their children’s names to prevent other people from using the kids’ names in business ventures. Trademark applications need to be renewed every five years. 

Back in 2016, Kylie Jenner tussled with singer Kylie Minogue over Jenner’s attempt to trademark “Kylie,” a legal fight settled in Minogue’s favor. For Kardashian Khaos, 15 separate applications were filed. Four of those—for matches, “Non-luminous, non-mechanical signs not of metal,” bumper stickers, novelty buttons, and other tchotchkes—are now expired. Coming to Kanye West’s “Past Tell Museum”, applications were filed for plush toys, recording services, retail stores, more clothing, bed linens, dinner and kitchenware, and home furniture, among a gigantic list of other intended uses; this has expired now.

Kylie and Kendall Jenner also have 128 and 34 trademarks respectively. These celebrities aggressively file trademarks to protect their personal brands and try to freeze out anyone who might want to capitalize on their names. It seems like they too possessive with their brand image and can go any length to sue anyone who try to infringe on their trademark.

6) Your professional decline is coming (much) sooner than you think [Source: The Atlantic]
In this longish essay, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, describes how happiness and contentment are most important. One might think that gifted and accomplished people would be less susceptible than others; after all, accomplishment is a well-documented source of happiness. If current accomplishment brings happiness, then shouldn’t the memory of that accomplishment provide some happiness as well? Almost all studies of happiness over the life span show that, in wealthier countries, most people’s contentment starts to increase again in their 50s, until age 70 or so. That is where things get less predictable, however. After 70, some people stay steady in happiness; others get happier until death. Others—men in particular—see their happiness plummet. Indeed, depression and suicide rates for men increase after age 75.

In some professions, early decline is inescapable. No one expects an Olympic athlete to remain competitive until age 60. But in many physically non-demanding occupations, we implicitly reject the inevitability of decline before very old age. According to research by Dean Keith Simonton, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis and one of the world’s leading experts on the trajectories of creative careers, success and productivity increase for the first 20 years after the inception of a career, on average. So if you start a career in earnest at 30, expect to do your best work around 50 and go into decline soon after that.

While decline is inevitable, misery is not inevitable. Accepting the natural cadence of our abilities sets up the possibility of transcendence, because it allows the shifting of attention to higher spiritual and life priorities. Throughout this essay, the author has focused on the effect that the waning of his work prowess will have on his happiness. But an abundance of research strongly suggests that happiness—not just in later years but across the life span—is tied directly to the health and plentifulness of one’s relationships. Pushing work out of its position of preeminence—sooner rather than later—to make space for deeper relationships can provide a bulwark against the angst of professional decline.

7) Do millennials need money managers? [Source: Huffington Post]
Financial investment industry has changed immensely with the advancement of technology. Now you have robots taking care of your investments. You just need to tell what your goal and in how many years you wish to achieve it. Now regulatory changes like the promotion of direct plans in mutual funds, evolution of technology such as hassle free KYC, onboarding and investing, and the spread of cheap mobile data, has resulted in a dramatic shift in the personal finance industry.

Many of these new products and services are targeted at millennials. Unlike the US, where many millennials are likely to be worse off than their parents, India’s young millennials are looking to live better and are betting on technology to make their lives simpler, which would make it one of the world’s youngest countries by demographic segmentation. What this also means is that the success of companies, large or small, is likely to be influenced by the millennials. Indian robo-advisors have latched on to this opportunity to promote mutual funds to meet everyone’s financial goals — be it a vacation or a retirement plan. The Association of Mutual Funds in India (AMFI) has also taken up the mantle to promote mutual funds and has used every medium they can – TV, print and digital media.

Along with this ease of investing, for investors who make their own money decisions, direct plans in mutual funds have come as a life saver. With so many tools available, do millennials need financial advisors? While robo-advisors give the impression of providing better service for cheaper, we forget that for high quality service or advice we still need to pay. In the long run, if we don’t use the help of a professional for financial behavioural guidance, we may actually end up losing out on more. At the end of it all, good financial advice is about empathy, counselling and numbers. It’s not just one thing. You can DIY if you have the inclination and mental framework for it or you can opt for guidance to ensure that you avoid mistakes. Now, you choose.

8) India is the largest exporter of water even as taps run dry [Source: The Print]
India is the world’s biggest exporter of water, but recently, the water crisis in Chennai was at its worse. India’s largest agricultural exports are rice and cotton, which both require thousands of liters of water for every kilogram of product. Sugar and water buffalo meat, two of the other leading farm exports, are also water-intensive. Putting so much water into fattening rice grains and swelling cotton bolls seems a criminal waste of a precious resource that urban areas are crying out for.

While urbanites are having to watch every sip they consume, farmers are living high on the hog. About 70% of agricultural water use comes from groundwater, much of it pumped out of the soil with heavily subsidized, coal-fired electricity and then used in a notoriously wasteful fashion. In the Chennai basin, about 79% of water is set aside for agriculture and livestock farming, with just 11% going to domestic use and another 10% to industry.

If anything, small-scale farmers reliant on hand-drawn wells are even worse off when the water table is being pumped away for nothing by their wealthier neighbors. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed to give every household in the country access to piped drinking water by 2024, a target that will inevitably require farms to take a smaller share of the pie. Worse, climate change and the ongoing over-extraction of groundwater are already pushing the system to a breaking point.
9) ‘Neither Gandhi nor Marx’: Devaki Jain on the two forces that might guide India back to justice [Source: scroll.in]
In this excerpts from the 10th Annual Mahindra Lecture, noted Economist Devaki Jain talks about the two forces that she thinks can bring justice back to India. After the partition, much has been written about the bloodshed, violence, and displacement of people that it generated. As always, women were specially victimised, as they suffered rape, abductions, separation and loss of children. The best figures available suggest that about 1,00,000 women were abducted, killed, or casually cast aside mainly in Punjab.

Recently, feminist movements have been cropping up all over the country. The current uprisings, such as the “Women March for Change” recently organised by women’s groups all over India on April 4, 2019, to raise their collective voices against the current environment of hate and violence, and to reclaim their constitutional rights as citizens of a democratic republic is astounding. Bee it the Dalit movement or the movement about women entering temples.

Global forces further triggered by the internet have now captured India and we are running the same races as most of the globe’s economies with the same experiences of inequalities, exclusions, expropriations and vulnerabilities. Surpluses and shortages live side by side and politics is triggered by greed. She feels that it is the Dalit movement and the feminist movement that might lead India back to issues related to justice, human rights, some form of egalitarianism. The Dalit movement wants space, wherever that is, and voice. So, does the feminist movement. Neither Marx nor Gandhi oversees them.

10) What happens after America graduates from high school? [Source: Forbes]
With the developing technology, half of the jobs in the world would be vanished in a few years. The biggest historical threat to American jobs isn’t artificial intelligence—it was the tractor. From 1910 to 1960, the agriculture industry went from one-third of all U.S. jobs to just 8%, shifting a quarter of the labor force out of farming over the course of one working lifetime. Back then, it meant 9.7 million farm jobs lost; today it would mean some 40 million. That’s the equivalent of all the jobs in the retail, transportation, manufacturing and financial services industries being replaced by new industries. It sounds unbelievable, even insurmountable. But it happened, and we surmounted. Rather than allow a displaced generation to flounder, the American High School Movement was born.

As economists Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz describe in The Race Between Education and Technology, public high schools prepared students for the careers of the day in factories or offices. The American high school movement was a wild success. Few Americans in the early 1900s were educated past 8th grade. In three decades, however, high school enrollment shot up, going from under 10% in 1910 to more than seven of 10 U.S. teenagers attending high school by 1940. For much of the century, mass learning was strongly tied to higher earnings—having a high school diploma put a career-path, middle-class job well within reach for millions.

But, today that’s no longer true. More than 100 million working adults without four-year college degrees are locked out of career-path jobs in part because, whatever skills they possess, they lack the pedigree so many employers now demand. Our economy is more complex than a century ago, so we will likely need more than one solution. At a high level, three competing lifelong-learning models have begun to emerge: 1) College for all; 2) Apprenticeships and work-based learning; and 3) Last-mile training/re-skilling on demand. While there are good reasons to doubt that the workforce displacements ahead of us will be as radical as those which inspired the American high school movement a century ago, we should pursue a lifelong learning system with a sense of urgency. 

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