Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Sports (Slow but steady rise of Karnataka’s women's football team), Economy (Alan Greenspan’s unique theory), History (Lost in transition), Statistics (Why you shouldn’t believe in headline numbers), Leadership (Lessons from the wild) and Environment (How financial institutions are adding to the global warming)

Published: Sep 28, 2019 09:15:50 AM IST
Updated: Sep 27, 2019 05:54:07 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: Sports (Slow but steady rise of Karnataka’s women's football team), Economy (Alan Greenspan’s unique theory), History (Lost in transition), Statistics (Why you shouldn’t believe in headline numbers), Leadership (Lessons from the wild) and Environment (How financial institutions are adding to the global warming).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended September 27, 2019.

1) How Karnataka is channelising growing interest in women’s football through a structured league [Source:]
Football is slowly but steadily gaining recognition in India. And when it comes to women’s football, the progress seems to be astonishing. Women’s football didn’t exist in India, at least not in any official capacity, until the creation of the Women’s Football Federation of India (WFFI) in 1975. From then to the early 1990s, WFFI administered women’s football matches in the country. The WFFI merged with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in the 1990s, and a period of reorganising followed. The team hit a new low in 2009, when FIFA delisted it from the world rankings due to lack of activity for 18 months. But efforts are on to make Indian women’s football more than just a footnote in the game’s history.

After the FIFA delisting, the women’s national team went on several exposure trips, playing in tournaments such as the AFC Olympic Qualifiers Round 2, the Saff Championships, and the Cotif Cup in which they finished third. They also participated in exhibition matches (which are for practice, and aren’t part of tournaments) in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Turkey. The team gradually built on small successes and has climbed the FIFA ranks. This July, its ranking climbed up six places to number 57 in the world – just six spots behind Jamaica who participated in the World Cup this year. The success of the women’s football team can be gauged by the launch of the Indian Women’s League (IWL), similar to men’s Indian Super League, in 2016.

Talking about Karnataka’s football team (Karnataka State Football Association [KSFA]), it’s never before in its 72-year existence has had a women’s league. This changed last year, due to former footballer and journalist M Satyanarayan, who was then a member of the governing board and core committee of the KSFA. Last December, Satyanarayan and KSFA president NA Haris met the AIFF to discuss the possibility of starting a women’s league in Karnataka. To gauge the state of women’s football in Karnataka, Satyanarayan had organised this 11-a-side tournament at the Bangalore football stadium. He was told that only four teams would play at the most. “I just issued a press release to newspapers – a small one saying we wanted to start a women’s tournament, and all the clubs, institutions, teams that are interested could take part,” Satyanarayan says. “And you won’t believe it, 18 teams took part.” This is just the start; maybe one day, the Indian women’s football team will play the world cup.
2) What really brought down the Boeing 737 Max? [Source: New York Times Magazine]
This piece elaborately discusses how airplane accidents are seen and treated around the world. After the airplane accidents happen, the authorities investigate and find out the problem of why the incident occurred. But, not every time it is due to technical mishaps. Sometimes it is due to the incapability of the pilots and co-pilots. Some airlines rush the training period and put the lives of many passengers in the hands of untrained or inexperienced pilots and co-pilots.

After the recent accidents of two planes, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air 610, the flight-data recordings indicated that the immediate culprit was a sensor failure tied to a new and obscure control function that was unique to the 737 Max: the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). The system automatically applies double-speed impulses of nose-down trim, but only under circumstances so narrow that no regular airline pilot will ever experience its activation — unless a sensor fails. Sometimes it’s the owners of these airlines who are to be blamed and who prefer efficiency over regulations. They bother about revenues more than the complaints.   

In 2007, the European Union and the United States permanently banned all Indonesian airlines from their national territories. This was done for reasons of safety. The ban was largely symbolic, because the Indonesians were focused on their expanding regional markets and had no immediate plans to open such long-distance routes, but it signaled official disapproval of Indonesia’s regulatory capabilities and served as a public critique of a group of airlines, some of which were out of control. But, all the blame goes on the manufacturer of the planes, in this case Boeing. Boeing has grown largely silent, perhaps as much at the request of its sales force as of its lawyers. To point fingers at important clients would risk alienating not only those airlines but others who have been conditioned to buy its airplanes, no matter how incompetent their pilots may be.   

3) Alan Greenspan's Underwear Drawer [Source:]
Alison Stewart (host of this podcast) and Luke Burbank of BBP wanted to learn more about Alan Greenspan, head of former Fed Reserve Chairman. So they brought in NPR's esteemed science correspondent Robert Krulwich, who in his former life, was an economic corresponded for NPR, CBS and ABC, spent some quality time with Mr. Greenspan. When asked what Alan Greenspan seems to understand about economics that others don't, Mr. Krulwich said that he would keep his ear as low to the ground. What are people really up to?

Mr. Krulwich went on to talk about Mr. Greenspan’s behaviour. He would look at dry cleaning sales, because he thought people who send their clothes to dry cleaning are doing something slightly luxurious. You could do it in the laundry. So when you're feeling good, you send a few extra shirts to dry cleaning. So he took the dry cleaning stats very, very seriously. Mr. Greenspan always said that if you put enough of men in a pot, you can tell some stuff about an economy. So he would put various attitudes of human in a pot and study them like an oracle. And given his due, he was pretty close to right much of the time.

Mr. Greenspan once told Mr. Krulwich that if you think about all the garments in the household, the garment that is most private is the male underpants because nobody sees it except people like in the locker room and who cares. Your children need clothes. Your wife needs clothes. They have to change. The children grow. You need clothes on the outside. But the last purchase that you don't have to make is underpants. You get a hole in your underpants. So he would look - if you look at the sales of male underpants, it's just been much a flat lie, hardly ever changes. But on those few occasions where it dips, that means that men are so pinched that they are deciding not to replace underpants. And he said that is almost always a prescient sort of (unintelligible) here comes trouble.

4) “Fight Club” presaged the darker corners of the internet [Source: The Economist]
Twenty years ago, Hollywood started to reckon with the internet. “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) was the first major film to understand online marketing, stoking debates in chat rooms over whether its footage was real or fictional. The legacy of “Fight Club” is long and complex. Based on a book by Chuck Palahniuk, it is a satirical thriller about a young office worker known only as The Narrator (Edward Norton). He teams up with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a charismatic radical, to start an underground boxing club that evolves into an anarchist movement. Though the film underperformed at the box office, and received middling reviews from critics, it struck a chord with young men. Two decades on, the film has become a fillip for internet trolls.

On sites such as Reddit, 4chan and 8chan, where some forums cultivate misogyny and real-world violence, “male rampage” films such as “American Psycho” and “Fight Club” are frequently praised. Although “Fight Club” makes no direct reference to the internet, it is easy to see why the film has resonated with its users. It is eventually revealed that The Narrator has split personality disorder and has created the persona of Durden to liberate himself from social constraints. As Durden explains: “I act like you want to act...I’m free in all the ways you are not.” The Narrator has conjured up a stronger, more confident character to anonymously act out the darker impulses stifled by civil society—rather like an anonymous online avatar.

In 1999 the late Roger Ebert wrote in his review that “Fight Club” is “the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since ‘Death Wish’, a celebration of violence in which the heroes write themselves a licence to drink, smoke, screw and beat one another up.” Yet two decades later, the impact of “Fight Club” can still be felt in online communities, cinematic discourse, even politics. It foreshadowed the dark paths that anonymous individuals would be led down. It gave voice to a disaffected group that demands to be heard ever more loudly.

5) Lost in Transition [Source:]
This piece by Ranjit Hoskote, Indian poet, throws light on how no one wants to claim the once splendid period of ‘Riti Kaal’ in the Hindi poetry. The Philadelphia Museum of Art catalogues the painting of “The Poet Bihari Offers Homage to Radha and Krishna”. Bihari may have travelled back into the universe of mythic time, but he hasn’t had much luck travelling forward into our vexed, brutish, polarised present. Although he has been dutifully annotated and translated, no one wants particularly to claim him in the visceral plenitude of his art, as richly veined with the sensuous as it is with the devotional. Nor is anyone over-eager to reclaim his contemporaries in what was known as the kavikul, the ‘family of poets’: Keshavdas, Ghananand, Rahim, Maharaja Jaswant Singh, Aurangzeb’s son Azam Shah, and numerous other representatives of the Riti-Kaal, that splendid efflorescence of Brajbhasha poetry between the 17th and 19th centuries.

The Riti-Kaal poets revelled in a dazzling experimentalism that cut across them, imbued them with the tenderness of a home language. The ‘Krishna’ of formal discourse became, in their poems, the ‘Kanha’ or even the ‘Kanhaiya’ of folktale, fable, and the lover’s song. As the Hindi literary historian Rupert Snell observes, poets like Bihari did not simply express the diversity of their experience, but also exemplified it, transiting across Sanskritic, demotic and Persianate usage in the space of such a line as ‘pratibimbit lakhiyatu jahaan’. Instead of being celebrated as part of modern India’s cultural heritage, the Riti-Kaal poets were consigned to irrelevance during that intellectually formative near-century between 1857 and 1947, when the machines of modernity whirred to life. With the collapse of the Mughal-Rajput order, Riti literature lost its patrons.

What we have lost, in rejecting the Riti-Kaal, is the memory of an extraordinarily confluential period, a precolonial modernity in which individuals collaborated to produce culture across caste, status, region and religion. The Riti-Kaal poets flourished in a public sphere where people wrote in Persian, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi and Urdu. Some of them lived and wrote far from the Braj-mandala, in Rajasthan or the Deccan. Mumbai’s Bhaiyya-bashing nativists might be shocked to learn that Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj had a Braj court poet, Bhushan Tripathi, author of the paean Shivraj-Bhushan (‘Ornament to King Shivaji’, 1673).

6) Statistically, you shouldn’t believe the news [Source:
Tom Chivers, science writer, in this piece reviews David Spiegelhalter’s new book The Art of Statistics: Learning from Data. Mr. Chivers says that the most important sentence of the book is buried in the footnote on page 358. Mr. Speigelhalter applies what he calls “the Groucho principle”, after Groucho Marx’s dictum that he would never join a club that would accept him as a member. That’s because any statistic that is interesting enough to have become a news story, he claims, has probably passed through “so many filters that encourage distortion and selection”, that “the very fact that I am hearing a claim based on statistics is reason to disbelieve it”.

There are many interesting examples in the book of why these interesting examples can be misleading or not true. Things like statistical bias, small sample sizes, or multiple analyses of the same data will have more of an impact, as well as the Groucho Principle that the most dramatic findings are both more likely to be well-publicised and more likely to be false. But they’re illustrative of the fact that you need to be very careful of almost any statistical story you read. So, how can you do that? A useful hack is to ask “is this a big number?” Lots of statistics are presented as bald numbers: “X people have died”. But out of how many? If 25 people have died of cancer out of a population of 50, that’s awful; if 25 people have died of cancer out of a population of 50 million, that’s a statistical miracle.

Similarly, if a story tells you that something has “gone up by 25%”, or that something “increases your risk by 90%”, without telling you what it’s increased it from and to – if it gives you the “relative risk” but not the “absolute risk”, in technical terms – that’s an indicator that it may be worth ignoring. If something doubles your risk from one in 100 million to one in 50 million, you probably don’t care. Also, you can ask, “can I be sure what’s causing this?” Mr. Spiegelhalter dedicates a chapter to how you establish causality. But, according to the book, the bottomline is that… if the statistic makes a headline, it’s probably wrong.

7) What humans can learn about leadership from animals in the wild [Source:]
There’s something or the other we can learn for anything and everything. Our closest relative, the chimpanzees, and we have so much in common that almost 99% of our DNA is shared with the hairy apes. But, Erna Walraven, a Senior Curator at Sydney's Taronga Zoo, has gone a step ahead and observed wild animal ancestors for signs of leadership, and how various styles of leadership are used between species. So what are the different types of leadership styles? Spotted Hyenas (the Adaptable Leader): This matriarchy can claim to be the wild founders of the #MeToo movement. Females have evolved to compete more effectively with males. "All the females are higher ranking than any of the males, and they have developed particular kinds of genitalia that look very much like the males," Walraven said.

Gorillas (the Autocratic Leader): A gorilla is often adored and feared by his followers in equal measure. "He lives in a harem, so he has a bunch of females that are his harem, and he makes all the decisions," Walraven said. "But he is also the protector of his group. He will put his life on the line to protect any member of his group, so when it comes to safety, they really trust their leader to keep them safe and make the right decisions." Elephants (the Maternalistic Leader): They are led by a matriarch, often the oldest female in the herd. The leader looks after her herd like a wise mother or grandmother. Age and experience are highly valued commodities in this challenging environment. 

Chimpanzees (the Political Leader): Male chimps use violence, intelligence and political alliances to gain and retain power. They use all the tricks of politics. Dominant males rule in coalition with one male holding the alpha position. "Some males will only get to the top through bullying, intimidation, and violence, but those leaders don't last very long," Walraven said. "But the leaders who get to the top because of their alliances are the ones who last a long time in a leadership position.” African Buffalos (the Democratic Leader): The females vote for their travel preferences by standing up and staring in their direction of choice, then lying down again. "If there are enough females gazing in one direction, then the herd will go there to feed next. A democratic decision is made," said Walraven.

8) Genetically modified mosquitoes are breeding in Brazil, despite biotech firm's assurances to the contrary [Source:]
The deliberate release of 450,000 transgenic mosquitoes in Jacobina, Brazil has resulted in the unintended genetic contamination of the local population of mosquitoes, according to new research published in Scientific Reports. And the company behind this experiment is Oxitec. The incident is raising concerns about the safety of this and similar experiments and our apparent inability to accurately predict the outcomes. The experiment was conducted to curb the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, such as yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya, and Zika, in the region.

To do that, the company turned to OX513A—a proprietary, transgenically modified version of the Aedes aegypti mosquito. To create its mutated mosquito, Oxitec took a lab-grown strain originally sourced from Cuba and genetically mixed it with a strain from Mexico. These bioengineered mosquitoes possess a dominant lethal gene that results in infertile offspring, known as the F1 generation. By releasing the OX513A mosquitoes into the wild, Oxitec hoped to reduce the population of mosquitoes in the area by 90%. But, the experiment didn’t work according to their plan.

Starting in 2013, and for a period of 27 consecutive months, Oxitec released nearly half a million OX513A males into the wild in Jacobina. A Yale research team led by ecologist and evolutionary biologist Jeffrey Powell monitored the progress of this experiment to assess whether the newly introduced mosquitoes were affecting the genes of the target population. Despite Oxitec’s assurances to the contrary, Powell and his colleagues uncovered evidence showing that genetic material from OX513A did in fact trickle to the natural population. That this project didn’t go as planned is legitimately troubling. The episode demonstrates that releasing genetically modified organisms into the wild can have unintended, unpredictable consequences and that independent scientific monitoring of the outcomes is crucial.
9) Math reveals the secrets of cells’ feedback circuitry [Source: Quanta Magazine]
Mustafa Khammash, a control theorist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), has developed a robot. That’s nothing new, but his robot’s uncanny ability to correct its position gives it what biologists call robust perfect adaptation. “When the dust settles, there is no error,” said Khammash, “That’s the perfect adaptation; it keeps the distance perfectly.” Whether in industrial control systems or in nature, negative feedback is an omnipresent strategy to help systems cope with disturbances. “People have noticed these feedback systems in physiology for as long as people have been studying physiology,” said Noah Olsman, a control theorist at Harvard University.

Biologists have been hard pressed to explain how cells and more complex organisms implement feedback systems with the necessary responsiveness and precision. Most recently, in an important advance this past summer, a team led by Khammash demonstrated a synthetic feedback system that could be installed in cells to help them adapt perfectly to disturbances. The work is backed by a mathematical proof that no simpler answer exists — a good indication that natural feedback systems probably work the same way. Mathematically speaking, negative feedback can correct an error in three ways: proportionally, by considering the size of the error; integrally, by considering the amount of error incurred over the length of its duration; or derivatively, by considering how quickly or slowly the error is changing. The electronic proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controllers widely used in industrial control systems combine all three.

Of the three, integral feedback is the one that confers robust perfect adaptation; proportional and derivative feedback help mitigate disturbances but do not completely correct errors. The proof for this “is an old theorem in control theory,” said John Doyle, a mathematician at the California Institute of Technology. Their first design was a flawed one. From a mathematical standpoint, unicellular organisms are very different beasts from whole creatures. Individual cells contain relatively few molecules, Khammash explained. Randomness from the probability that various molecules will meet, collide and react inside a cell comes into play much more forcefully.

10) Money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns [Source: New Yorker]
Climate change is becoming a serious issue and many are taking serious steps to conserve our nature. Last fall, the world’s climate scientists said that, if we are to meet the goals we set in the 2015 Paris climate accord—which would still raise the mercury 50% higher than it has already climbed—we’ll essentially need to cut our use of fossil fuels in half by 2030 and eliminate them altogether by mid-century. In a world of Trumps and Putins and Bolsonaros and the fossil-fuel companies that back them, that seems nearly impossible. And to add to it, financial institutions are adding more fuel to it.

In the three years since the end of the Paris climate talks, JP Morgan Chase has reportedly committed a $196 billion in financing for the fossil-fuel industry, much of it to fund extreme new ventures: ultra-deep-sea drilling, Arctic oil extraction, and so on. The same is true of the asset-management and insurance industries: without them, the fossil-fuel companies would almost literally run out of gas, but BlackRock and Chubb could survive without their business. It’s possible to imagine these industries, given that the world is now in existential danger, quickly jettisoning their fossil-fuel business. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warned four years ago that the “stranded assets”—the coal, gas, and oil that need to be left underground—amount to a $20-trillion “carbon bubble” that far exceeds the housing bubble that sparked the 2008 financial conflagration.

Is there any chance that Chase might halt its fossil-fuel lending? Perhaps not. However, in 2016, the Rockefeller Family Fund announced that it would divest from fossil fuels. A few of the big European banks have also begun taking steps away from fossil fuels. In June, the French giant Crédit Agricole announced a change that Disterhoft calls the “gold standard to date”: the bank said that it would no longer do business with companies that are expanding their coal operations, and that, by 2021, its coal-business clients in the developed world would have to produce a plan for getting out of the business by 2030; its clients in China by 2040; and its clients everywhere else by 2050. Persuading giant financial firms to give up even small parts of their business would be close to unprecedented. The world would be a cleaner place to live in if such financial institutions stop financing such projects/companies.

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