Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (Leaked! What gave Zuckerberg sleepless nights), Politics (Coronavirus reveals hidden sickness of China), Society (The anxiety pandemic that's eating at India's human resources), Technology (Secret history of facial recognition; Indian tech savvy start-ups are rebooting banking), Corporate (Food is on the menu for new office design) and Communication (Original sins of grammarians still plague us)

Published: Feb 22, 2020 09:15:13 AM IST
Updated: Feb 20, 2020 02:09:19 PM IST

ten 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 (Leaked! What gave Zuckerberg sleepless nights), Politics (Coronavirus reveals hidden sickness of China), Society (The anxiety pandemic that’s eating at India’s human resources), Technology (Secret history of facial recognition; Indian tech savvy start-ups are rebooting banking), Corporate (Food is on the menu for new office design) and Communication (Original sins of grammarians still plague us).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended February 20, 2020.

1) Inside Mark Zuckerberg's Lost Notebook [Source: Wired]
This piece has been adapted from Facebook: the Inside Story, by Steven Levy, to be published on February 25, 2020. It talks about the Facebook founder’s early life and how he planned and started his portal. Mr. Levy also throws light on how Mark Zuckerberg kept a journal, in which he would jot down each and every idea pertaining to Facebook. And he was so disciplined in this that each page had a date. 
 
But now, the notebooks have mostly disappeared, destroyed by Zuckerberg himself. He says he did it for privacy reasons. This is in keeping with sentiments he expressed to Mr. Levy about the pain of having many of his early IMs and emails exposed in the aftermath of legal proceedings. But Mr. Levy discovered that those early writings aren't totally lost. Snippets, presumably those Mr. Zuckerberg copied and shared, present a revealing window into his thinking at the time. Mr. Levy got hold of a 17-page chunk from what might be the most significant of his journals in terms of Facebook's evolution. He named it “Book of Change.”

The best part was that the book had Mr. Zuckerberg’s phone number with a message. The first page had his address and phone number, with a promise to pay a $1,000 reward for return of the book if lost. He even scrawled an epigram, a message to himself: “Be the change you want to see in this world.” Mahatma Gandhi. The book also had the plan of his two new launches: News Feed and Open Registration.

2) The Secret History of Facial Recognition [Source: Wired]
Face recognition technology isn’t new, but rarely does anyone knows that this technology was discovered years ago by Woodrow Wilson Bledsoe, always Woody to everyone he knew. Early in his career, Woody had been consumed with an attempt to give machines one particular, relatively unsung, but dangerously powerful human capacity: the ability to recognize faces. Today, facial recognition has become a security feature of choice for phones, laptops, passports, and payment apps. Woody’s facial-recognition research in the 1960s prefigured all the face recognition technological breakthroughs and their queasy ethical implications. And yet his early, foundational work on the subject is almost entirely unknown. Much of it was never made public.

He teamed up with his friend and colleague Iben Browning, a polymath inventor, aeronautical engineer, and biophysicist, and together they created what would become known as the n-tuple method. According to an essay coauthored by Robert S. Boyer, a mathematician and longtime friend of Woody’s, the n-tuple method helped define the field of pattern recognition; it was among the early set of efforts to ask, “How can we make a machine do something like what people do?” Building on his and Browning’s work with the n-tuple method, he intended to teach a computer to recognize 10 faces. That is, he wanted to give the computer a database of 10 photos of different people and see if he could get it to recognize new photos of each of them.

Only in the past 10 years or so has facial recognition started to become capable of dealing with real-world imperfection, says Anil K. Jain, a computer scientist at Michigan State University and coeditor of Handbook of Face Recognition. Nearly all of the obstacles that Woody encountered, in fact, have fallen away. For one thing, there’s now an inexhaustible supply of digitized imagery. “You can crawl social media and get as many faces as you want,” Jain says. And thanks to advances in machine learning, storage capacity, and processing power, computers are effectively self-teaching.

3) The age of anxiety [Source: Mumbai Mirror
Every one suffers from anxiety at some point in life. But, this article throws light on how it affects the lives of a few people. This mental health crisis is clawing away at one in every seven Indians, says a recent study. But experts believe those numbers fall way below reality. The study conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) found that in Maharashtra, out of one lakh people, some 3,400 to 3,959 suffer from anxiety, and the state ranks sixth on this ignominious tally after Kerala, Karnataka, Telengana, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh.

The study also finds out that prevalence of both depressive disorders and anxiety were reported to be higher in the southern states than those in the north. A number of Mumbai-based psychiatrists and psychologists have pointed out that the ICMR study has grossly underestimated the number of people suffering from anxiety. Anxiety is a natural emotion that every person feels, whether before a job interview, on the day of the wedding, or during a Barcelona-Real Madrid match. “But when it interferes with their day-to-day functioning, it becomes a disorder,” says psychiatrist Hozefa A Bhinderwala.

So what should we do? There is no one formula that people resort to when dealing with panic attacks. A sociologist, who works with underprivileged children and was diagnosed with mental health issues, says getting a pet helped her deal with her situation. Sometimes when a person is diagnosed with a physical health problem, especially a critical one, the mental aspects often get sidelined. It is high time that like physical fitness, even mental fitness needs to be given utmost importance.

4) Here’s what Coronavirus does to the body and what China is hiding [Source: National Geographic; swarajyamag.com]
The outbreak of Coronavirus is something that’s worrying all the countries on this planet. The contagious virus has till now killed many and yet more are infected from it, with no cure yet. Unlike their common-cold-causing cousins, these emergent coronaviruses can spark a viral-induced fire throughout many of a person’s organs, and the new disease—dubbed "COVID-19" by the World Health Organization on Tuesday—is no exception when it is severe. But what actually happens to your body when it is infected by the coronavirus? The new strain is so genetically similar to SARS that it has inherited the title SARS-CoV-2. So combining early research on the new outbreak with past lessons from SARS and MERS can provide an answer.

The virus directly affects the lungs, stomach, liver, kidney and other vital parts of the body. IT’s so severe that there are doubts regarding pregnant women passing on the virus to the new born. If this outbreak continues to spread, there’s no telling how harmful it could become. A leading epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong warned that COVID-19 could infect 60% of the globe if left unchecked. On Thursday, China’s National Health Commission said more than 1,700 health care workers are ill with the new virus, and the announcement came just a day after the WHO wrapped a summit on the best protocols for hospital care and the development of therapeutics, like vaccines.

Also, on the part of telling the world about this virus, China has been secretive. Even when the government knew about the coronavirus, they decided to keep mum. One proof is the green signal given to the people of Bai Bu Ting Lu area in Wuhan to celebrate their reunion feast, called “Wanjia Banquet” on 18 January, when the Wuhan Coronavirus was already detected on 30 December 2019. Bai Bu Ting Lu is approximately 7km from Huanan Seafood Market, from where the outbreak is thought to have originated.

5) Youngsters’ job preferences and prospects are mismatched [Source: The Economist]
Teenagers may have unrealistic expectations about the kind of work that will be available. This came up from a survey of 15-year-olds across 41 countries by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries. Four of the five most popular choices were traditional professional roles: doctors, teachers, business managers and lawyers. Teenagers clustered around the most popular jobs, with the top ten being chosen by 47% of boys and 53% of girls. Those shares were significantly higher than when the survey was conducted back in 2000.

Teenagers will have encountered doctors and teachers in their daily lives. Other popular professions, such as lawyers and police officers, will be familiar from films and social media. But many people end up in jobs they would not have heard of in their school years. You settle for what is available. The OECD points out that some of the fastest-growing occupations are rarely mentioned by young people. But surely the surprise is not that “user support technician” is ranked only 158th out of 543 professions and “computer user support specialist” appears in 229th place. Rather, it is astonishing that young people know that such jobs exist at all.

The biggest problem in the labour market may not be that teenagers are focusing on a few well-known jobs. It could be a mismatch: not enough talented women move into technology and not enough men take jobs in social care. Any economist will recognise this as an inefficient use of resources. Wherever the root of the problem lies—be it the education system, government policy or corporate recruiting practices—it needs to be identified and fixed.

6) How tech savvy start-ups are rebooting banking [Source: Livemint]  
Today, all or most of the start-ups in the Indian financial services space want one tag to be associated with their names. And that’s neo bank. That quirky term has found currency in the startup world rather suddenly. Vinay Bagri, co-founder of NiYO, which is already positioned as a neo bank, says that when his startup launched in 2016, no one, including him, had heard of a neo bank. Neo banking is a catch-all term for firms that are attempting to build digital banking startups. “The whole idea of neo banking is to be able to create a bank on a mobile phone. The cost structures of banks, many of which are based in prime real estate locations, is very high and these costs are eventually passed on to customers," said Mr. Bagri. 

Neo banks in India raised $116 million in 2019, a seven-times jump year-on-year, according to data from Venture Intelligence. While the figure itself is not huge, what’s striking is that many of these companies raised seed rounds of $5-20 million on paper ideas alone without having launched actual products. Before neo banks, many internet startups were already offering niche financial services. But neo banking startups and their investors believe that none of these firms hold an indomitable position. They point out that these firms do not offer core banking services like bank accounts and cards and they also say that insurance, mutual funds and other financial products are still not very well understood by customers.

Co-founder of epiFi Sujith Narayanan, who helped launch and oversee the expansion of Google Pay, said that startups will find it tough to become “everything for everyone". What adds credence to the wave of neo banking startups is the profile of entrepreneurs at these firms. Many of them have expertise in financial services, and some have worked at both financial services and internet firms. But despite the optimism and the widely held perception within the startup world that neo banking is the flavour of the season, significant risks still remain. While payments banks have tried to sell other financial products such as insurance and mutual funds, the success of this attempted diversification is unclear.

7) Do algorithms make better decisions than people [Source: YouTube]
This piece has been adapted from Facebook: the Inside Story, by Steven Levy, to be published on February 25, 2020. It talks about the Facebook founder’s early life and how he planned and started his portal. Mr. Levy also throws light on how Mark Zuckerberg kept a journal, in which he would jot down each and every idea pertaining to Facebook. And he was so disciplined in this that each page had a date. 
 
But now, the notebooks have mostly disappeared, destroyed by Zuckerberg himself. He says he did it for privacy reasons. This is in keeping with sentiments he expressed to Mr. Levy about the pain of having many of his early IMs and emails exposed in the aftermath of legal proceedings. But Mr. Levy discovered that those early writings aren't totally lost. Snippets, presumably those Mr. Zuckerberg copied and shared, present a revealing window into his thinking at the time. Mr. Levy got hold of a 17-page chunk from what might be the most significant of his journals in terms of Facebook's evolution. He named it “Book of Change.”

The best part was that the book had Mr. Zuckerberg’s phone number with a message. The first page had his address and phone number, with a promise to pay a $1,000 reward for return of the book if lost. He even scrawled an epigram, a message to himself: “Be the change you want to see in this world.” Mahatma Gandhi. The book also had the plan of his two new launches: News Feed and Open Registration.

8) Why food is on the menu for new office design [Source: Financial Times]
How do you attract new and young talent? It seems the answer is through stomach. Companies are putting food back at the heart of office life to attract and engage employees. From an in-house cooking school at UBS to comfy hotel lobby-style dining areas, this means making food fun. Not only are the companies coming up with new and healthy menu, but some are going a step ahead. UBS’s new US wealth management headquarters in New Jersey, for example, runs a cooking school to help foster collaboration and teach employees new skills.

Trends including working from home have put the canteen’s future into question. But what employees really want is new food options in a more inviting space. Lee Elliott, head of occupier research at UK-based estate agent Knight Frank, says when he joined the industry 20 years ago, “everyone talked about the death of the office. We missed the point, people wanted a variety. It didn’t happen immediately but in the last five years we have seen a rethink about what the office is.”

Experts in the field predict developments will be led by three trends: informality, delivery and sustainability. Mr. Elliott also notes the trend for wellbeing, adding that corporate canteens will become increasingly attuned to the importance of catering to a diverse workforce. He sums up the new ethos: “Not meat and two veg, but a variety of different types of food.” 
  
9) Data from Spotify suggest that listeners are gloomiest in February [Source: The Economist]
Music is said to be a stress-buster, but not always. Residents of the northern hemisphere might think that their moods are worst in January. Christmas is over, the nights are long and summer is a distant prospect. Newspapers often claim that “Blue Monday”, in the third week of January, is the most depressing day. To measure seasonal misery, The Economist used Spotify’s data.

Spotify offers 50m tracks to 270m users in over 70 countries, mostly in Europe and the Americas. The firm has an algorithm that classifies a song’s “valence”, or how happy it sounds, on a scale from 0 to 100. The algorithm is trained on ratings of positivity by musical experts, and gives Aretha Franklin’s soaring “Respect” a score of 97; Radiohead’s gloomy “Creep” gets just 10. 

The icy north shows the biggest seasonal swings. Finland’s mood in July is 11% happier than usual. Overall, on days when a country gets one more hour of sunlight than its annual average, the valence of its streams increases by 0.6%. In contrast, wet days bring particularly downcast tunes. So why might some countries with long days and clear skies in February get the blues? Perhaps the global dip is explained simply by the calendar. For most people, the first weeks of a promising new year have disappeared with little sign of improvement.

10) The original sins of grammarians still plague the rulebooks [Source: The Economist]
Ever wondered who wrote the first rules of grammar? Where did they come from? In the mid-18th century there were few studies of English grammar, and none was comprehensive or authoritative. Furthermore, the first major grammarians of English were working before modern linguistic methods—based on evidence and comparison—had evolved. They used a combination of logic, Latin analogies and their own instincts. Unfortunately, some of the missteps they made as a result still hold sway. The now obscure but once feted contribution of Robert Lowth (1710-87) is a case in point.

Today academic linguists condemn Mr. Lowth for being a scold, and for getting his scolding wrong. Lowth is considered responsible for some of the hoariest non-rules of the English language—proscriptions that were invalid even when he wrote them, but which have nonetheless been imposed on schoolchildren since. The most famous is the injunction not to end a sentence with a preposition. Another is the notion that two negatives equal a positive, so that “He didn’t say nothing” means “He said something.” A third is that “whose” cannot be used with reference to an inanimate noun, as in “an idea whose time has come”.

But, Mr. Lowth did not say sentences should never end in a preposition; he said it was more elegant if they didn’t. Mr. Lowth’s followers took his often subtle suggestions and turned them into rigid rules, often with added disdain for those who were not familiar with them. Today, the gulf between professional linguistics and practical advice is wide, as if biologists understood the germ theory of disease but bedside doctors still believed in the four humours.

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