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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Lifestyle (Habits vs Goals, who wins?), Social Media (Secretive world of the Indian content moderators), Quantum Computing (Are we prepared for the end of Moore's Law) and Health (World after Coronavirus; Learnings from Singapore; Home quarantine won't help much)

Published: Mar 28, 2020 06:49:05 AM IST
Updated: Apr 3, 2020 02:45:54 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: Lifestyle (Habits vs Goals, who wins?), Social Media (Secretive world of the Indian content moderators), Quantum Computing (Are we prepared for the end of Moore’s Law) and Health (World after Coronavirus; Learnings from Singapore; Home quarantine won’t help much). 

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended March 27, 2020- 

1) Yuval Noah Harari: The world after coronavirus [Source: Financial Times

Covid-19 is said to be the world’s biggest crisis of our generation. The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They will shape not just our healthcare systems but also our economy, politics and culture. In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.

Today, for the first time in human history, technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time. By closely monitoring people’s smartphones, making use of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging people to check and report their body temperature and medical condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify suspected Coronavirus carriers, but also track their movements and identify anyone they came into contact with. Centralised monitoring and harsh punishments aren’t the only way to make people comply with beneficial guidelines. When people are told the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders.

Both the epidemic itself and the resulting economic crisis are global problems. They can be solved effectively only by global co-operation. A coronavirus in China and a coronavirus in the US cannot swap tips about how to infect humans. But China can teach the US many valuable lessons about coronavirus and how to deal with it. Countries should be willing to share information openly and humbly seek advice, and should be able to trust the data and the insights they receive. Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century. 

2) Habits vs. Goals: A look at the benefits of a systematic approach to life [Source: Farnam Street

Everybody loves setting goals. Be it related to health, finance, work or anything else. Everyone sets a target, but many don’t achieve it. Why? The main reason for this is that we fail to build a habit to achieve the set goal. Habits are algorithms operating in the background that power our lives. Good habits help us reach our goals more effectively and efficiently. Bad ones make things harder or prevent success entirely. Habits powerfully influence our automatic behavior.

The difference between habits and goals is not semantic. Each requires different forms of action. For example: We want to read more books. We could set the goal to read 50 books by the end of the year, or we could decide to always carry a book with us (habit). Habits can be as small as necessary. A common piece of advice for those seeking to build a habit is to start small. If you want to read more, you can start with 25 pages a day. After this becomes part of your routine, you can increase the page count to reach your goal.

By switching our focus from achieving specific goals to creating positive long-term habits, we can make continuous improvement a way of life. This is evident from the documented habits of many successful people. Warren Buffett reads all day to build the knowledge necessary for his investments. Stephen King writes 1000 words a day, 365 days a year (a habit he describes as “a sort of creative sleep”). Athlete Eliud Kipchoge makes notes after each training session to establish areas which can be improved.

3) Inside the secretive world of India’s social media content moderators [Source: Livemint]

Social media has taken the world by storm. Rarely there would be anyone who is not on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp or any other social media sites. With rising users, the number of creators is also surging. And to ensure all the content is appropriate there are moderators who screen hundreds of videos and pictures daily. Some of the mods view as many as 6000 images over the course of a workday. The average time to make a judgment call: 4.5 seconds. Nearly all of them follow an internal, company-specific guideline document, which some insiders snidely describe as a “policy Wikipedia" for its seeming vastness.

“I don’t know what brain made these policies (guidelines). You can’t question them," said Sania (name changed), who moderates content for Facebook, through its India partner Accenture. During the course of a recent workday, Sania landed on an image where a person is showing off a freshly made tattoo which is still bloody. This must be tagged as a violation of Facebook’s guidelines, even though she knows that it shouldn’t offend anyone. Also, she has to keep up her accuracy or she will lose her job. Her seniors tell her she has to have an accuracy rate of at least 90%, but she hasn’t been able to surpass 85% yet.

Besides the job being boring, it gets stressful as well. Post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression are quite common, said a counsellor who Facebook appoints to help moderators deal with the stress of their jobs. Talking about moderation, a moderator for Bigo Live said they don’t allow content which includes “topless men", “people smoking on the platform", etc. For political content, the tolerance is even lower. “If the government says a Shaheen Bagh protest has to be banned, it will be banned," he said.

4) The world needs to learn from Singapore on tackling Coronavirus [Source: Financial Times

Singapore reported its first two deaths from the pathogen only just recently, despite being one of the first countries to be hit by the outbreak outside China two months ago. That has made it one of the safest places in the world for patients of the disease, which has already killed more than 13,000 people globally. The city’s success in dealing with the outbreak is attributed to the government’s speed in imposing border controls soon after the disease first erupted in China, meticulous tracing of known carriers, aggressive testing, a clear public communication strategy and a bit of luck.

After controlling the first infections, Singapore now faces a second wave of cases from returning travellers. Authorities tightened travel restrictions and social distancing measures after the number of cases doubled to 455 in the past week. Yet many analysts believe Singapore will also bring everything under control. As of March 20, Singapore had conducted 38,000 tests, or about 6,800 examinations per million population, the health ministry said. That rate outpaced South Korea, the region’s poster child for fast and expansive testing, which had administered about 6,100 tests per million population in the same time frame.

The government has also come up with a mobile app, TraceTogether. It is an app that uses bluetooth to record distance between users and the duration of their encounters. People consent to give the information, which is encrypted and deleted after 21 days, to the health ministry. The government has also used a tough new online falsehoods law to correct misinformation in posts about the coronavirus, which critics have argued gave authorities too much latitude to censor. Even though Singapore has been successful so far, the battle is far from over. 

5) We are not prepared for the end of Moore’s Law [Source: MIT Technology Review]

Gordon Moore in 1965 had predicted that the number of components on an integrated circuit would double every year until it reached an astonishing 65,000 by 1975. When it proved correct in 1975, he revised what has become known as Moore’s Law to a doubling of transistors on a chip every two years. Though the pace of progress has slipped in recent years, the most advanced chips today have nearly 50 billion transistors.

But what happens when Moore’s Law inevitably ends? Some even think that it’s dead. “It’s over. This year that became really clear,” says Charles Leiserson, a computer scientist at MIT and a pioneer of parallel computing, in which multiple calculations are performed simultaneously. Moore’s Law, Mr. Leiserson says, was always about the rate of progress, and “we’re no longer on that rate.” Numerous other prominent computer scientists have also declared Moore’s Law dead in recent years. In early 2019, the CEO of the large chipmaker Nvidia agreed. The move to chips designed for specific applications, particularly in AI, is well under way. 

Deep learning and other AI applications increasingly rely on graphics processing units (GPUs) adapted from gaming, which can handle parallel operations, while companies like Google, Microsoft, and Baidu are designing AI chips for their own particular needs. AI, particularly deep learning, has a huge appetite for computer power, and specialized chips can greatly speed up its performance. Quantum computing, carbon nanotube transistors, even spintronics, are enticing possibilities—but none are obvious replacements for the promise that Gordon Moore first saw in a simple integrated circuit. We need the research investments now to find out, though. Because one prediction is pretty much certain to come true: we’re always going to want more computing power.

6) We must get serious about saving the world [Source: Financial Times

The way Covid-19 is spreading across the world is scary. All countries are in panic mode now. Some even think that this can wipe out human race. Yet here we are, argues philosopher Toby Ord in The Precipice, a new book about the bleak survival chances we now face as a species. Visions of post-apocalyptic collapse are familiar from disaster movies, or novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Ord’s concern is more with what he calls “existential” risk: an apocalypse in which there is no “post”; just the end of all of us. Hence his calculations of the chance of human life ending entirely during this century: one in six.

Many might quibble with the exactitude of Ord’s probabilities, but his message about the rising likelihood of civilisational disruption is grimly convincing — all the more so for being delivered in admirably clear prose. Of his various apocalyptic horsemen, he worries most of all about “unaligned artificial intelligence”, giving odds of one in 10 to the notion that future intelligent machines might wipe out their human underlings — a scenario that has also alarmed the likes of the late scientist Stephen Hawking and entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Five mass extinctions have scarred our planet’s 4.5bn-year history, the most recent wiping out the dinosaurs 65m years ago. How should we prepare for such a possibility? Some take matters into their own hands. From renovated nuclear bunkers being sold to well-heeled survivalists in North Dakota, to nuclear disaster tourists in Chernobyl, O’Connell’s book, published next month, is a wryly amusing tour of the end of the world. Our chances of survival may well prove to be much greater than one in six. But the odds of serious disaster are also far higher than most of us would like to think.

7) How Indian firms have de-risked from China [Source: Livemint]

The rising cases of Covid-19 have alarmed every company all over the world. This piece throws light on how few companies have insulated themselves from such global vagaries. Some Indian factories are running at half their capacities since manufacturers, overall, are heavily reliant on China for components. India’s overall imports from the Middle Kingdom totalled $70 billion in 2018-19 and the trade deficit runs at over $50 billion. But, humans play second fiddle at home appliances maker Lloyd’s highly-automated factory in Rajasthan’s Ghiloth.

Earlier, the company sourced nearly everything from China. Havells India Ltd. acquired the consumer business of Lloyd in 2017 and planned local manufacturing. “By July of 2020, the local value addition would go up to about 75-80%. The compressor would be the only imported product," said Shashi Arora , CEO of Lloyd. “Similarly, our washing machines were entirely China-sourced till about a year ago. Now, we moved part of the production within India," he added. Slowly but surely, other manufacturers are slashing their dependence on China, too.

The de-risking trend is all set to accelerate further because of the coronavirus pandemic. The scare, however, wasn’t around five years back. Similarly, the mobile handset manufacturing and bulb industries are the two sectors which are seeing increasing domestic manufacturing. “We are far more detached from China than what we were a few years back," said Sumit Joshi, the chief executive of Signify Innovations India Ltd, the new avatar of Philips Lighting India Ltd. “About 98% of what we sell in India is made in India. I don’t depend on China for finished goods," he added. Most companies, perhaps, are now realizing that a local supply-chain, besides being greener, can cushion against black swan events such as the coronavirus pandemic.

8) The agonies of stock-picking in a falling market [Source: The Economist

Everybody in the stock market wants to own multi-baggers. But when the market falls and gives that opportunity, they get scared. In this piece, the author talks about how one can approach stocks when the markets have fallen dramatically. In his lifetime, he saw three bear markets in which the value of shares in aggregate has fallen by half. For a long-term investor who doesn’t have to worry about perfect timing, there should be opportunities to buy good stocks at attractive prices. 

China has just experienced its sharpest downturn in a century. That is scary. But 2008 was scary. The dotcom bust was scary. In the meantime, stock prices can keep falling. The author says how having a good portfolio in the time of recession is essential. One would have to be a genius to time the shift in trend perfectly. No one is a genius to time the market. The best you can hope for is not to get it too badly wrong.

There will come a time when the market surveys the whole panorama—bad businesses cleared out; interest rates even lower; fiscal policy in the pipeline; cheaper stocks—and changes direction. You have to be ready for that. The S&P 500 is America’s capital stock. It will survive (or most of it will). People will want to fly, stay in hotels and go to restaurants and coffee bars again. You need to keep that in mind always.   

9) Home quarantine won’t be of much help [Source: pensford.com]

In this piece, the author highlights points regarding how we are overreacting to the current pandemic, Covid-19. He feels that social distancing provides the illusion of control, not actual control, over this virus. Because there is no vaccine. Flattening the curve simply kicks the can down the road.  It’s not like we go on lockdown for a few weeks while doctors go door to door inoculating us. Next he asks, at what cost is this lockdown? If we are truly only on lockdown for the next two weeks, it’s probably a cost we are all willing to bear.  But he has some bad news – it won’t be two weeks. The next announcement is coming. Two weeks will become four weeks. A month will become three months.  This could drag on the rest of the year.

Flattening the curve helps, but its benefit is overstated when we factor in economic costs. Soon, more people will start running the cost/benefit analysis.  “I can’t pay my bills.  I can’t pay for food. I will take my chances. Open the doors and let the chips fall as they may.” At some point, are we better off just resuming life and taking our chances? 

Feels that the stats going around online on social media are bullshit. He further goes on to explain why by comparing the 2009 swine flu. Also, he gives a few charts and explains why they are misleading. Mortality rate is something that we need to see and that’s what matters. The WHO’s own guidance says this coronavirus has a mortality rate today of 3.4%, but that’s based on testing done on those with the most severe symptoms thus far. Once you factor in those that have not been tested before now and those that have had it and recovered, the number will be much lower. 

10) That discomfort you’re feeling is grief [Source: HBR

HBR got in touch with the world’s foremost expert on grief, David Kessler, to understand how one can manage grief. He co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. His new book adds another stage to the process, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. He is also the founder of www.grief.com which has over 5 million visits yearly from 167 countries. 

Understanding the stages of grief is very important according to Mr. Kessler. “There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.” Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.

Grief helps us feel what’s inside of us. When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. One unfortunate byproduct of the self-help movement is we’re the first generation to have feelings about our feelings. We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse. We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.

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