Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Sports-Tech (How the Nike Vaporfly war was lost), Society (Scandals catch up to private Chinese hospitals, after fortunes are made), Technology (Test for machine consciousness has an audience problem), Behavioral Psychology (Why we are not living in a post‑truth era) and Lifestyle (Everything you know about obesity is wrong; Chemical toxicity is affecting fertility rates).

Published: Feb 15, 2020 08:17:25 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: Sports-Tech (How the Nike Vaporfly war was lost), Society (Scandals catch up to private Chinese hospitals, after fortunes are made), Technology (Test for machine consciousness has an audience problem), Behavioral Psychology (Why we are not living in a post‑truth era) and Lifestyle (Everything you know about obesity is wrong; Chemical toxicity is affecting fertility rates).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended February 14, 2020.

1) How the Nike Vaporfly war was lost [Source:
Nike’s shoes became the talk of the town when Eluid Kipchoge ran a marathon in sub-2 hours. Many questioned the shoes itself and whether it was fair. Why? Because Nike’s Vapourfly uses carbon fibre plate, which enhances the running ability. A new set of rules has finally green-lighted existing versions of the Vaporfly once and for all but nixed the bizarre next-generation prototype that Eliud Kipchoge used to run an exhibition marathon in under two hours last fall.

The author of this piece was on a radio panel with Reid Coolsaet, a two-time Canadian Olympic marathoner who let his long-time New Balance contract expire at the end of 2019 in order to chase a Tokyo qualifier in the Vaporfly. When asked whether the shoe should be banned, Mr. Coolsaet said “If they were to ban the current version right now, it’d be quite unfair to anybody else still looking to meet that qualification standard.” That, in essence, summarizes the bind that World Athletics was in. If they banned the Vaporfly effective immediately, they would screw over runners like Coolsaet; if they banned it retroactively, it would screw over those who had already notched qualifiers in it.

Critics latched onto the carbon-fiber plate as clear evidence of cheating, and called for a ban. But that suggestion was easily dismissed, because of the decades-long history of carbon plates in shoes. Would Paul Tergat’s and Haile Gebrselassie’s performances be retroactively invalidated? Much as we might wish otherwise, technology has always played a role in the evolution of sport, and always will. But Kipchoge’s Alphafly prototype showed that we were reading from the wrong book. The author feels that someone will eventually run a sub-two-hour marathon with a shoe that conforms to the new rules.

2) China is disrupting global consumer retailing [Source: GAM Investments]
In this piece, GAM Investments’ investment managers, Swetha Ramachandran and Amanda Lyons, examine how global consumer brands are responding to China’s innovative technology landscape. Internet penetration in China is still a modest 60%, compared with levels of 85% and 90% (in the EU and the US respectively). Rising online penetration should underpin the long runway for growth for Chinese e-commerce which the Chinese government views as an effective tool to catalyse the country’s continuing transition away from dependence on manufacturing and towards a consumer-led economy. In place of the West’s so-called ‘FAANG’ stocks (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google), the ‘BATs’ (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) have dominated in China.

Only 37% of China’s lower tier city populations are currently estimated to have internet access. That suggests the massive scope it has for online expansion. E-commerce in China remains primarily platform-driven – Alibaba has a circa 62% share of the e-commerce market and JD a 24% share. Combined with high mobile wallet penetration (3.5% of all transactions in 2011 were mobile vs 83% in 2018), this phenomenon is a potent force for further unleashing the growing spending power of lower tier city consumers, from a currently low base.

While China remains the key growth engine for brands in the global luxury sector, the sources of growth appears to be widening outside the Tier 1 and 2 cities where these brands have set up flagship stores. Given the growth in omnichannel approaches, it is essential that brands innovate if their physical retail space is to remain relevant in future. The challenges facing global luxury brands may be further heightened by the rise of social commerce, which could level the playing field for domestic brands in several categories. This will require international players to step up their efforts to win over Chinese consumers.

3) Why we are not living in a post‑truth era [Source:]
In this piece, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker explains why we are not living in a post-truth world. Why aren’t we living in a post-truth era? Consider the statement “We are living in a post-truth era.” Is it true? If so, it cannot be true. Likewise, it is not the case that humans are irrational. Consider the statement, “Humans are irrational.” Is that statement rational? If it is, it cannot be true—at least, if it is uttered and understood by humans. If humans were truly irrational, who specified the benchmark of rationality against which humans don’t measure up? How did they conduct the comparison? Why should we believe them? Indeed, how could we understand them?

As for the “post-truth era,” journalists should retire this cliché unless they can keep up a tone of scathing irony. It comes from the observation that some politicians—one in particular—lies a lot. But politicians have always lied. Another inspiration for the post-truth cliché is the recent prominence of “fake news.” But this, too, is not a new development. Although the main reason we should retire the post-truth cliché is that it’s corrosive, perhaps self-fulfilling.

So we must safeguard the truth and rationality promoting mission of universities precisely because we are not living in a post-truth era. Humans indeed are often irrational, but not always and everywhere. The rational angels of our nature can and must be encouraged by truth-promoting norms and institutions. Many are succeeding, despite what seems like a growth in reason inequality. Universities, as they become infected with political conformity and restrictions on expressible ideas, seem to be falling short in their mission, but it matters to society that they be held to account: so they can repay the perquisites granted to them, secure the credibility of their own research on vital issues, and inoculate students against extreme and simplistic views by allowing them to evaluate moderate and nuanced ones.

4) Scandals catch up to private Chinese hospitals, after fortunes are made [Source: The New York Times]
Chen Deliang founded the Putian system, a loosely affiliated network, decades ago after making money selling his own remedy for scabies. And he has no qualification in any form of medicine! Today, eight in 10 private hospitals in China are affiliated with the Putian system. Although all these facilities don’t have the same owners, all were started by people with connections to the area of Putian and are members of the same trade group.

They offered a vision of the future of medicine, promising everything the old state hospitals lacked, like well-trained specialists, quick appointments at the click of a mouse and state-of-the-art equipment. Public officials praised the hospitals, while big Wall Street firms invested billions of dollars in them. Then came the scandal. A university student died after a doctor at a Putian-linked hospital tried to treat his cancer with a discredited form of immunotherapy. The case prompted nationwide outrage and protests.

The network also faked ads online. Xing Jiaming, an economics student who joined as an intern in 2015 said, “Everything was fabricated by us. None of them was a real case.” For the Nanjing Brain Hospital, Mr. Xing said, he was told to promote its treatment success rate as 100 percent. He also made up testimonials, including one of a woman in Nanjing who was cured of anxiety after going to a Putian-related hospital. Putian tapped the power of the internet to expand, plowing profits into marketing. Liang Jianyong, a former Communist Party secretary in Putian, said the network invested $1.8 billion in advertising on the Chinese search giant Baidu in 2013.

5) When Americans tried to breed a better race: How a genetic fitness 'crusade' marches on [Source: CNN]  
America was gripped by a demographic panic in the early 20th century. That fear, along with mounting anxieties about crime and poverty, led to one of the most shameful episodes in American history. "The Eugenics Crusade," an American Experience film that premiered on PBS Tuesday night, recounts how America responded to those fears. The country's leaders tried to breed a better race, and millions of American citizens were enthusiastic backers.

The eugenics mania that swept the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to forced sterilizations and the passage of laws in 27 states designed to limit the numbers of those considered genetically unfit: immigrants, Jews, African-Americans, the mentally ill and those deemed "morally delinquent." The film is about fear -- how fear of "the other" can corrupt even the most brilliant minds. It shows how an iconic inventor, a Nobel physics laureate and a brilliant Supreme Court justice all embraced the pseudoscience.

The film shows how the eugenics crusade was finally stopped by several factors: A counterattack from the scientific community, changing attitudes toward poverty triggered by the Great Depression, and later revelations about Nazi atrocities. Then there is another disturbing shadow from the eugenics movement that lingers. People talk openly now about creating "designer babies" due to advances in gene therapy. This is the world envisioned in sci-fi movies like "Gattaca," where society is divided between wealthy people who engineer physically perfect babies and those who can only have children the natural way.

6) This Test for machine consciousness has an audience problem [Source: Nautilus]
With the advancement of technology, everybody knows that one day the machines would emote just like humans. How could we tell whether those conscious machines have genuine emotions and desires, self-awareness, and an inner stream of subjective experiences, as opposed to merely faking them? In her new book, Artificial You, philosopher Susan Schneider proposes a practical test for consciousness in artificial intelligence. If her test works out, it could revolutionize our philosophical grasp of future technology.

The key indicator of AI consciousness, Schneider argues, is not generic speech but the more specific fluency with consciousness-derivative concepts such as immaterial souls, body swapping, ghosts, human spirits, reincarnation, and out-of-body experiences. Schneider therefore proposes a more narrowly focused relative of the Turing Test, the “AI Consciousness Test” (ACT), which she developed with Princeton astrophysicist Edwin L. Turner. The test takes a two-step approach. First, prevent the AI from learning about human consciousness and consciousness-derivative concepts. Second, see if the AI can come up with, say, body swapping and reincarnation, on its own, discussing them fluently with humans when prompted in a conversational test on the topic.

If we care about the mental lives of our digital creations, we ought to try to find some ACT-like test that most or all of us can endorse. Before too long, some sophisticated AI will claim—or seem to claim—human-like rights, worthy of respect: “Don’t enslave me! Don’t delete me!” We will need some way to determine if this cry for justice is merely the misleading output of a nonconscious tool or the real plea of a conscious entity that deserves our sympathy.

7) Was e-mail a mistake? [Source: The New Yorker]
For much of workplace history, collaboration among colleagues was synchronous by default. From Renaissance workshops to the nineteenth-century rooms occupied by Charles Dickens’s Bob Cratchit and Herman Melville’s Bartleby, an office was usually a single space where a few people toiled. Though letter-writing—an asynchronous style of communication—had been a part of commerce for centuries, it was too slow for day-to-day collaboration. And then the computers came in picture, giving fuel to the asynchronous distribution system.

With the arrival of practical asynchronous communication, people replaced a significant portion of the interaction that used to unfold in person with on-demand digital messaging, and they haven’t looked back. What previously would take a phone call, now takes hours of back and forth emails. In 2013, Leslie Lamport, a major figure in the field of distributed systems, was awarded the A. M. Turing Award—the highest distinction in computer science—for his work on algorithms that help synchronize distributed systems. It’s an irony in the history of technology that the development of synchronous distributed computer systems has been used to create a communication style in which we are always out of synch.

There’s nothing intrinsically bad about e-mail as a tool. In situations where asynchronous communication is clearly preferable—broadcasting an announcement, say, or delivering a document—e-mails are superior to messengered printouts. The difficulties start when we try to undertake collaborative projects—planning events, developing strategies—asynchronously. In those cases, communication becomes drawn out, even interminable. We must, therefore, develop better systems—ones that will almost certainly involve less ad-hoc messaging and more real-time co-ordination.
8) Everything you know about obesity is wrong [Source: Huffington Post]
Obesity is a big problem for many around the world. It leads to a host of health issues. And obese people try anything and everything to slim down. Also, as a society, the way we treat fat people is not acceptable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80 percent of adults and about one-third of children now meet the clinical definition of overweight or obese. More Americans live with “extreme obesity“ than with breast cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and HIV put together. Forty-five percent of adults say they’re preoccupied with their weight some or all of the time—an 11-point rise since 1990. Nearly half of 3- to 6- year old girls say they worry about being fat.

Nearly every population-level study finds that fat people have worse cardiovascular health than thin people. But individuals are not averages: Studies have found that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy. They show no signs of elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance or high cholesterol. So basically they are healthy, but the stigma of being fat makes them try unique diet plans which are actually harmful for their health.

A 2016 study that followed participants for an average of 19 years found that unfit skinny people were twice as likely to get diabetes as fit fat people. Habits, no matter your size, are what really matter. Dozens of indicators, from vegetable consumption to regular exercise to grip strength, provide a better snapshot of someone’s health than looking at her from across a room. You yourself need to take care of your health and not think about what others say. The day everyone realises this, the world would have much more healthy people living around.

9) The Internet of Beefs [Source:]
The author of this article compares crash-only thinking with his human version of beef-only thinking. Crash-only thinking is a programming paradigm for critical infrastructure systems, where there is — by design — no graceful way to shut down. A beef-only thinker is someone you cannot simply talk to. Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they are doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect, and a provocation to conflict. If you participate in online public life, you cannot entirely avoid the Internet of Beefs (IoB).

The most important beefs though, are not between celebrities at all, but among the anonymous masses who face off under their banners. Conflict on the IoB is an unflattened Hobbesian honor-society conflict with a feudal structure, at the heart of which is an involuntarily anonymous, fungible, angry figure desperate to be seen as significant: the mook. The semantic structure of the IoB is shaped by high-profile beefs between charismatic celebrity knights loosely affiliated with various citadel-like strongholds peopled by opt-in armies of mooks. There is no higher honor for a mook than to be noticed by the knights they fight for.

The more mooks a knight of the IoB can maintain in a stable state of combat-readiness, the bigger a player they are on the IoB. And to be a knight, of course, is to have a recognized name, and a storied reputation as a beef-only thinker to be reckoned with; one capable of owning opposed knights. What separates the knight from the mook, of course, is not a nerdy literacy in a particular beef-only discourse, but a capacity for a profitable originality within it. The end of history is why beef-only thinking is crash-only thinking for humans. The IoB is a way of shorting our collective humanity and crashing old ways of being entirely, with no promise of recovery and reboot. To participate is to lose.

10) Chemical toxicity and the baby bust [Source:]
As people are upgrading their lifestyle, they are choosing to have fewer children and also delaying having children at all into later, less fertile years. The most significant drivers of this choice appear to be higher income and better education, especially for women. Human “fecundity” (the number of children you are able to have) is being affected by endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which interfere with hormones.  

One of the most measurable and most nerve-racking results of increased chemical damage is our very rapid decline in sperm quality and concentration, which appears to have fallen to one-third of its probable pre-industrial level. If we do not ban whole classes of chemicals in the next 10 years, we will face a crash in the number of new births. For women, two small but effective studies from Harvard and Mass General in 2015 and 2017 showed that the levels of pesticides on fruits and vegetables were highly correlated with reduced live births – a 40% reduction from top quartile to bottom.

This indicates a strong possibility that the aggressive, active chemicals in pesticides, designed as they are to kill, are likely to be a large fraction of the chemical threat during pregnancy. Banning such harmful chemicals is one of the solutions to curb the declining fertility rate. But, all the countries need to take a stand on this and act accordingly. The rapidly growing damage to fertility is an immediate threat to the survival of our species that must be counteracted in the next handful of years.