Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Podcast (Naval Ravikant: The Angel Philosopher), Prediction (Y2K disaster scenarios were a hoax), Business (Egypt's female lion tamers show the men how to do it; Homeworking experiment can be permanent; Magnus Carlsen checkmates Coronavirus virtually) and Health (Locking down the world could have saved the world)

Published: Apr 4, 2020 09:22:45 AM IST
Updated: Apr 4, 2020 10:20:49 AM IST

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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: Podcast (Naval Ravikant: The Angel Philosopher), Prediction (Y2K disaster scenarios were a hoax), Business (Egypt’s female lion tamers show the men how to do it; Homeworking experiment can be permanent; Magnus Carlsen checkmates Coronavirus virtually) and Health (Locking down the world could have saved the world).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended March 03, 2020-

1) Naval Ravikant: The Angel Philosopher [Source: Farnam Street
In this longish podcast, Naval Ravikant talks about varied topics like reading, habits, decision-making, etc. He also talks about what his typical day looks like, his habit stacking technique, favorite mental models and his response to the investor who wanted to be just like Steve Jobs. Mr. Ravikant is the CEO and co-founder of AngelList. He’s invested in more than 100 companies, including Uber, Twitter, Yammer, and many others.

On talking about his reading habits and how he finds time for it, he says that reading was his first love. As a child he was a voracious reader and used to read anything and everything that he came across. If he likes a certain book, then he will buy a couple of copies to give it away. Also, he reads whenever he is bored of doing other stuff, and he gets bored easily!

On happiness, he says that the most common mistake the people make is the idea or belief that you are going to be happy because of some external circumstances. We are addicted to externals things that we believe is going to get us joy and happiness. The fundamental mistake that we all do, according to Mr. Ravikant is by thinking “I’ll be happy when I get that.” Lastly, when asked what is the meaning and purpose of life, he gives 3 answers: 1) Find your own meaning; 2) There’s no purpose or meaning in life, you need to create one; 3) Maybe there’s a meaning to life but not a satisfying purpose.

2) China, Italy and Covid-19: Benevolent support or strategic surge? [Source: Istituto Affari Internazionali]
After China, it is Italy who has been hurt the most by Covid-19. In these uncertain times, prompt and decisive responses are needed and expected. One can argue on the circumstances, the hidden motivations and the numbers, but nobody can deny that China has provided prompt and direct support to Italy in its time of need. Following Italy’s request, China sent medical supplies and staff, receiving much media and political attention in Italy. While there were lapses on the part of the EU, China was quick to run and help Italy.

The message is that China does not forget those who assist her, thus contrasting expressions of Chinese gratitude and reciprocity to a supposed selfishness of other Western actors. But, is China genuinely helping its friends in distress, or is there more than meets the eye? Some feel that China is exploiting this moment to reshuffle the cards of the international order and craft a special position for itself and its soft power vis-a-vis other countries, particularly in the West. Crises are always a great opportunity for change. Xi Jinping now has the chance to once again try to project the image of a benevolent and solidary China, rising peacefully.

Some might say that Italy is falling prey to China’s tactics. But, Italy is not selling its soul to China nor is about to endanger Europe or the Atlantic alliance. If the worry is that China could buy Italian enterprises in distress or offer a loan to Italy and push the country into an alleged debt-trap, this is very unlikely to happen for two reasons. The first is that China’s economy is not doing great itself and long gone are the days of double-digit GDP growth. Secondly, Italy is already preparing to further strengthen its ability to protect enterprises from external acquisitions. Global partners, however, should stop considering Italy as a weak link and understand that while circumstances made Italy the first country to receive Chinese aid, it will not be the last.

3) The one who provided the whistle [Source: Evernote]  
This longish article throws light on how a Chinese doctor could have contained the spread of Covid-19, if only she were brave enough to be transparent in her communication. The doctor here in discussion is Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department of Wuhan Central Hospital. As of March 9, 2020, four medical staff with the Wuhan Central Hospital died of the novel coronavirus infection. Since the outbreak, the hospital, just a few kilometers away from the Huanan Seafood Market, has become the hospital with the largest number of sick employees in Wuhan.

It all started on December 30, 2019 when Ai Fen received a virus test report for a patient with an unknown pneumonia. She circled the word “SARS coronavirus” in red. She took a picture and sent it to her college classmate, who is also a doctor.  That night, the report spread to doctor circles in Wuhan, and those who forwarded the report included the eight doctors who were disciplined by the police. Soon it spread like wildfire, and even the hospital staffs were infected. Many mulled on putting their papers. 

It was her classmate who had spread the original message. If he hadn’t, fewer would have known about the virus. Looking at how this has unfolded, the doctor feels that everyone should be allowed their own independent thinking. Someone needs to step up and tell the truth. There needs to be this someone and the world needs different voices. If only she could have blown the whistle herself, instead of passing it on to someone else, the scenario would have been different.

4) Q&A with Ben Thompson on Big Tech, innovation, and China [Source: aei.org]
Will the big-4 tech companies remain leaders 10 or 20 years down the line? Maybe, and maybe not. In this interview, Ben Thompson, author and founder of Stratechery, a subscription-based newsletter focused on business and strategy for the technology industry, talks about the four American trillon-dollar tech companies, innovation and China. Mr. Thompson feels that 10 years from now, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Google, will be the most valuable US companies.

Could one of the biggest tech companies 15 years from now be a genetic editing company or biotech company? Mr. Thompson says, “I don’t know that would be a tech company, per se. But yeah, sure, absolutely. I mean, it was only a decade ago all the largest companies, I believe, still were all the oil companies. Everyone at Stratechery remembers this because Apple was dueling with ExxonMobil to be the biggest company in the world for quite a while before zooming past it, along with these other companies.”

Further, they talk about these companies stifling competition, buying smaller companies, surveillance capitalism, etc. Also, Mr. Thompson doesn’t feel that they need a “Made in America 2025” plan. He is more concerned about China going forward. Simply because China was so freewheeling and was arguably more capitalistic than the US, in some respects, for 30 years. And that was a big part of their success. Now they are rapidly accelerating in the opposite direction, with much more top-down state control.

5) Should we have locked the world down? [Source: swarajyamag.com]
Should you allow a few vulnerable people to potentially die or suffer? The answer is obviously a resounding no. And so it should be. But what if the process of saving those people necessitates measures to send a very large number of people in penury, joblessness, and potentially, death? The answer surely is not the opposite of before. It is neither a yes, nor a no. Instead, the question begs for data, the pros and cons of each action, or lack of it. Even then, it is walking on a razor’s edge of a significant moral dilemma. In the wake of the spread of coronavirus, the developed world has decided to go with one option over the other.

Now, everyone thinks that the curve of Covid-19 needs to be flattened. WHO initially mentioned a mortality rate of 1-3%, which is many times higher than the seasonal flu (0.1-0.2% of infected). The first evidence of the unreliability of the data, which raised the suspicion, was the very large differences in rate of mortality between South Korea and China. The differences in percentage of fatalities are very large. It ranges from 10% in Italy (4,032 death in 47,000 cases) to 0.1% in Germany (577 deaths in 19,000 cases). The second is the total number of people tested for. It is not physically possible to test everyone, and countries would differ on the basis of the number of tests they could realistically perform. But, if the number of tests are so low, we are likely going to get a patchy picture of the underlying data of viral spread.

The author feels that this new virus is rapidly infecting a population that is naïve to its spread, but killing a much smaller percentage of population which encounters the virus. More than 99%, and may be 99.5% of the population coming in contact with the virus is unaffected, or act as mediators to spread the virus to possibly vulnerable population. The only good way is a randomised test in untested populations where the virus spread has halted, e.g. in Wuhan, China.

6) The Y2K disaster scenarios were a hoax [Source: inc.com]  
Nobody seriously questions the existence of Y2K bugs. The question is whether Y2K bugs were serious enough to cause the predicted disasters, which included: Power grid failures, planes falling out of the sky, home appliances exploding, total collapse of the financial system, meltdowns of nuclear power plants, etc. Y2K, in other words, if not fixed would be "the end of the world as we know it."

In September of 1998, twenty-one Y2K experts "ranked the problem ranged from 0 for absolutely no concern to 10 for a belief that the problem is so serious that major worldwide social, economic, and technological disruptions will occur." That list of "experts" included the most widely-quoted Y2K sources including Dr. Ed Yardeni, who ranked the seriousness at 8.0, Ed Yourdon, who ranked it at 8.0, and Dr. Gary North, who ranked it at 10.0. All but one expert rated the seriousness of Y2K at a 6.0 or higher, with the bulk of the rankings clustering around 8.0. So, the consensus--at least among experts who were building their careers around Y2K--was that the problem represented a major, world-changing threat.

But why is Y2K still important? The failure of any Y2K disaster to occur distorts how some people view climate change. Some people compare climate change to Y2K and believe it's a similar hoax. That's dumb because climate change, unlike Y2K which had a deadline, is something that we're experiencing on a daily basis. It's not something where we'll hit a certain date and then we'll find out whether or not the disaster scenario is real.

7) Egypt’s female lion tamers show the men how to do it [Source: The New York Times]
Lion taming is not an easy job. But, for Luba el-Helw, it’s a piece of cake. For Ms. el-Helw, lions are a family business. Her grandmother Mahassen was the Arab world’s first female lion tamer, and her father, Ibrahim, was a star of Egypt’s state-run National Circus during its heyday in the 1980s. Her father, who married three times, had seven daughters but, try as he might, no sons. So he passed his skills, and his passion, to his daughters. Egyptians are not used to seeing a woman in charge. According to the World Economic Forum, women occupy just 7% of managerial roles in Egypt.

Comparing men and lions, Ms. El-Helw says, “Lions can be easier to deal with than people”. She also dismissed accusations that such old-fashioned circuses are cruel to the animals. Ms. el-Helw is one of six working female lion tamers in Egypt, mostly from the same extended family, whose old-fashioned shows draw, and delight, legions of Egyptians every year. Wearing spangled outfits, and using stage names like “The Queen of Lions,” they coax big cats through rings of fire or allow them to stroll over their bodies. Some have become minor celebrities. Others have survived attacks. None has a man in their acts.

As the coronavirus closed in on Egypt in recent weeks, her sister Ousa el-Helw transported her eight lions and two tigers to a desert compound outside Cairo, where they will wait for the show to resume. A far bigger blow, both sisters said, was the death this year of their father, Ibrahim, 74. He taught them how to love lions, how to punish them, and the importance of treating them with respect. “Animals remember,” Ousa el-Helw said. “Whatever happens, they remember.”

8) Magnus Carlsen launches elite online tournament amid coronavirus lockdown [Source: Financial Times]
With world is in lockdown state, everyone’s entertainment is restricted to screens at home. And that’s how Magnus Carlsen, World Chess Champion, got an idea to start an online tournament. Eight grandmasters, including the Norwegian prodigy, will compete for $250,000 in the ‘Magnus Carlsen Invitational’. It will be the world’s first computer-based professional chess competition for elite grandmasters. The competition will be screened online through the Chess24 website, which Mr. Carlsen partially owns, and will pit the grandmaster himself against other top players including China’s Liren Ding and Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi.

In the past two weeks, Chess24’s usual traffic has increased by 500%. The move is a potentially lucrative gambit for Mr. Carlsen, one which could disrupt the tightly-controlled — and politically byzantine — world of tournaments and their sponsorship rights presided over by chess’s global governing body, the International Chess Federation (FIDE). Chess24 hopes to initially raise up to $500,000 in sponsorship fees for further events this year, if the plan is a success.

“Chess is unique in the sports world, as the moves are the same whether played on a wooden board or a computer screen,” said Mr. Carlsen. Last week, FIDE was forced to cancel the Candidates Tournament in Ekaterinburg, Russia, as the Kremlin suspended all flights into the country. The winner would have earned the right to challenge Mr. Carlsen for the world title. Mr. Carlsen’s prominence — he is one of the few figures in chess with a celebrity profile beyond the game’s community — will lend his new proposed online-only tournament significant credibility. To prevent cheating, players in the Magnus Carlsen Invitational will be using computers issued by Chess24. Each player will be physically monitored by two cameras.  
  
9) Unraveling the Enigma of Reason [Source: scotthyoung.com]
This piece revolves around Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier’s book, The Enigma of Reason. Reasoned thinking is better than unreasoned thinking. Being able to reason means being smarter—a kind of universal cognitive enhancement that is good for all types of problems. Sure, we don’t always use it and it can be slower than intuitive judgements, the classic view goes, but reasoning is always good. The reason human beings often don’t use reasoned thinking is that our faculties of reason are actually much more restricted in their use. We use it only when necessary, and otherwise adopt the same strategies animals use to make intelligent behavior.

A few most important implications of Sperber and Mercier’s theory are: 1) Reasoning isn’t a big part of intelligence or (potentially) consciousness: One common view of psychology is described as the elephant and the rider. We are the riders, loudly proclaiming where we want our behavior to go, yet it is really the elephant, the unconscious mind, that is the driving force. 2) It’s possible to have smart decisions, but not be able to have reasons for them: In a classic view of reason, having no reason for an action makes it almost certainly a bad one. Unless it happens to randomly be correct, there’s no reason to trust it if there is no reason behind it.

We are smarter when we argue than when we think alone: Sperber and Mercier call their theory the “argumentative theory” of reason. This is because they claim that the function of reason is to provide socially justifiable reasons for beliefs and behaviors. 4) Feedback loops may explain the role of classical reason: This explanation may seem like it dismisses too easily the focal example of classical reasoning: smart people thinking carefully to arrive at a hard-won, but brilliant, insight. However, when we see that reason can both generate and evaluate reasons for things, this forms a potential feedback loop. In the end, our minds are not separated into a war between a ruling, but often frail and feeble, reason, and a willful unconscious. Instead, it is split between many, many different unconscious processes, each with their own domains and specialized functions, with reason standing alongside them.

10) How is the homeworking experiment going? [Source: Financial Times]
Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, many today are working from home. The coronavirus pandemic has triggered an experiment in mass remote working that is putting strain on resources, human and technological. It is taxing the physical and mental wellbeing of staff, and perhaps changing the way people work permanently. Following India’s decision to send its citizens home last week, it is estimated as much as a quarter of the world’s population is now living under some form of coronavirus lockdown. Not all are able to work from home, but many companies have been caught out by the scale of the demand for equipment and support for remote workers.

Some 65,000 of Unilever’s 155,000-strong workforce are now operating remotely. Leena Nair, chief human resources officer, says the company “had to buy 1,000 laptops overnight” as well as dongles that allow 4G internet access, so that more of its 4,000 Indian staff could work from home. Also, combining working at home while also looking after children is putting employees under greater strain. Some mothers have been told by employers that women are being furloughed, or asked to take unpaid parental leave, while their male peers are not. Many working parents combining childcare with multiple online meetings complain that they are unable to get meaningful work done until later in the day.

Matt Dean, co-founder of Byrne Dean, a workplace consultancy that works with financial services and law firms, says this is a big opportunity for leaders to show their human side. Talking about the road ahead, the long-term consequences of obligatory remote working are hard to predict. The crisis is certainly already making many managers and workers realise what is possible. But while the crisis persists, the feeling of alienation from colleagues is bound to increase. “I’m a big hugger,” says Unilever’s Ms. Nair. “Social distancing is really hard for me because I really miss the banter and physical hugging.”

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