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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Sports (Build mental endurance like pro athletes), Business (Sundar Pichai on managing Google through the pandemic), Entertainment (Regional cinema is taking the game away from Bollywood), Oceanography (Could listening to the deep sea help save it?), and Technology (Would you spend a week in VR headset?; New consoles and cloud gaming will shake up the gaming industry)

Published: Nov 14, 2020 09:29:32 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 (Build mental endurance like pro athletes), Business (Sundar Pichai on managing Google through the pandemic), Entertainment (Regional cinema is taking the game away from Bollywood), Oceanography (Could listening to the deep sea help save it?), and Technology (Would you spend a week in VR headset?; New consoles and cloud gaming will shake up the gaming industry).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended November 13, 2020: 

1. Build mental endurance like a pro [Source: NY Times

It has been tough 6-8 months for most of the people across the globe. Confined to four walls of the home, with nothing much to do. And in such times, patience and perseverance is what you need to get through. This article highlights how some endurance athletes embrace a special kind of exhaustion. It’s a quality that allows an ultramarathoner to endure what could be an unexpected rough segment of an 100-mile race, or a sailor to push ahead when she’s in the middle of the ocean, racing through hurricane winds alone.

In this article, Conrad Anker (57-year-old mountaineer), Coree Woltering (professional ultrarunner), and Dee Caffari (a British sailor) have one common message. And that’s…You are stronger than you think you are, and everyone is able to adapt in ways they didn’t think possible. But there are a few techniques to help you along — 100-mile race not required. Training to become an elite endurance athlete means learning to embrace discomfort. Instead of hiding from pain, athletes must learn to work with it. A lot of that comes down to pacing, the sports psychologist Carla Meijen said.

Mr. Woltering is especially skilled at conquering mini goals. The long-distance runner has stood on the podium after races from 50 kilometers to 100 miles. This summer, he set his sights on breaking the running record on the Ice Age Trail: some 1,147 miles across Wisconsin. He ran more than 50 miles a day for three weeks in a row to accomplish the feat. “I’m really good at breaking things down into small increments and setting micro-goals,” he said. How micro? “I break things down to 10 seconds at a time,” Mr. Woltering continued. “You just have to be present in what you are doing and you have to know that it may not be the most fun — or super painful — now, but that could change in 10 seconds down the road.”

2. Lessons in losing, from Cleopatra to Thatcher [Source: The Economist; 1843 Magazine]

We all love winning. But it’s how we respond to defeat that defines us. This article shows real-life examples of celebrities, sportsman and others who failed, and how they responded to that. Defeat comes with a greater repertoire of responses. Do we spit and stamp like Rumpelstiltskin? Do we embrace it, like the comedian Bob Newhart, passed over seven times for an Emmy, who nevertheless agreed to spend the 2006 ceremony on display in a glass box.

One such example was of Ariadna Gutiérrez in 2015. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. Thanks to the carelessness of Steve Harvey, compère of the Miss Universe contest in 2015, Ariadna Gutiérrez, a model from Sincelejo, became an exemplum of loss of the sort you find on tarot cards or the pages of Bunyan. Harvey declaimed the name of the winning country. Gutiérrez wept, waved to the crowd, made the peace sign. Her rose-gold frock shimmered. She accepted an armful of flowers, the Miss Universe tiara and a little paper flag of her home country.

When Harvey skittered forward to confess that he’d read out the wrong name, she was puzzled. In the clip, you see her trying to compute the new data, realisation moving through her like cold poison. But she is burdened by the paraphernalia of victory, and has to bob down to allow her predecessor to uncrown her. After the ceremony, she confessed to feeling humiliation. But that’s not visible in the footage. She is gracious, it seems. And so are we, because we only had to watch the video. Able to handle defeats positively is what will make one stronger.

3. How Kamala Harris’s immigrant parents found a home, and each other, in a black study group [Source: NY Times

Kamala Harris became the first women Vice President-elect of the USA. She credits her upbringing to her mother. Donald Harris and Shyamala Gopalan (Kamala Harris’ parents) grew up under British colonial rule on different sides of the planet. They were each drawn to Berkeley, and became part of an intellectual circle that shaped the rest of their lives. They both had their own share of struggle. At 24, Donald J. Harris was already professorial, as reserved as the Anglican acolyte he had once been. But his ideas were edgy. One member of the audience found them so compelling that she came up to him after the speech and introduced herself. She was a tiny Indian scientist wearing a sari and sandals — the only other foreign student to show up for a talk on race in America. Shyamala Gopalan was, he recalled, “a standout in appearance relative to everybody else in the group of both men and women.”

Senator Kamala Harris often tells the story of her parents’ romance. They were idealistic foreign graduate students who were swept up in the U.S. civil rights movement — a variation of the classic American immigration story of huddled masses welcomed on its shores. As a couple, Don Harris and Shyamala Gopalan Harris stood out, with their upper-crust accents and air of intellectual confidence, their contemporaries said. Anne Williams, 76, who was still in her teens when they met, found Mr. Harris “reserved and academic in his presentation,” difficult to get to know. Ms. Gopalan was “warm” and “charming.”

Protests around civil rights were a big part of the young couple’s life. In her speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, Senator Harris said that her parents “fell in love in that most American way — while marching together for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.” Ms. Gopalan Harris, a research scientist who published influential work on the role of hormones in breast cancer, filed for divorce in 1972. The split left her so angry that, for years, she barely interacted with Mr. Harris. Senator Harris has recalled that, when she invited both her parents to her high school graduation, she feared that her mother would not show up.

4. Sundar Pichai on managing Google through the pandemic [Source: The Verge

In this interview, Sundar Pichai talks about the challenges Google faces during this time, including a shift in its core ad business and the challenges of managing the company remotely. Pichai is himself adapting to remote work; he’s actively blocking out more time on his calendar to read and think, something he used to do during his commute. And he’s learning to make pizza from scratch by watching YouTube videos. “It came out okay,” he said. Pichai also talked about Google’s commitment to its hardware business, including the Pixel phone line, and how the company is continuing to try to simplify its famously complex messaging app strategy.

Twitter just announced that you can work from home for as long as you want. Will Google also go the Twitter way? Mr. Pichai says, “I want to be driven by data here, and so I view it as a research phase, and [we’ll] see where the data leads us. In some ways, I’m glad Twitter is running a kind of one-end-of-the-spectrum experiment. So thanks, Jack. It’s good to see that end of the spectrum. Productivity is down in certain parts, and what is not clear to me is — in the first two months, most of the people are already on projects in which they kind of know what they need to do. But the next phase, which will kick in is, let’s say you’re designing next year’s products, and you’re in a brainstorming phase, and things are more unstructured. How does that collaboration actually work? That’s a bit hard to understand and do. So we are trying to understand what works well and what doesn’t.”

Talking about working around coronavirus, Mr. Pichai says, “By now, we’ve committed over a billion dollars in various ways, be it grants to public health organizations, ad credits to small / medium businesses, and then working in each country through the official agencies’ direct loan programs to small / medium businesses as well. We have undertaken efforts on PPE. There’s the deep work we have done on ventilators out of Rick’s team. And obviously, our support for schools through products like Meet. We have provided Chromebooks. So it spans a wide variety of effort. And obviously, exposure notification, and the work in the contact tracing has a big effort, jointly with Apple as well.”

5. How regional cinema is taking the game away from Bollywood [Source: Livemint

Covid-19 pandemic has hit the Indian film industry very hard. It’s the OTT platforms like Zee5, Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video that have gained significance. The inability of movies to seek or afford a theatrical release or to find audiences willing to step out to watch them remains the biggest factor aiding the sudden spurt in the growth of regional streaming services. “There are so many Marathi films lying around waiting for a theatrical release, but the truth is nobody knows what the future of theatrical showcasing will be like," film producer Akshay Bardapurkar explained with regard to why a new streaming service made sense even though Planet Marathi is a late entrant in a market that seems cluttered to many.

It has taken television 50 years to reach 80% of India’s population, while OTTs have already been embraced by 70% of the country’s online population, said Vishal Shah, managing partner at GroupM-owned media agency MediaCom. According to a report by Recogn, the market research division of digital marketing agency WATConsult, 70% of Indians will access the internet in their native languages by the end of this year. It adds that programmes on topics like food, entertainment and education are always deemed better in local languages. So, even as Bollywood battled allegations of drug abuse and denial of opportunities to actors not belonging to traditional film families, India’s non-Hindi local language industries have waged their own battle to come to terms with the fact that the entertainment ecosystem has broadened beyond the movie theatre.

As cinemas across the country attempt to bounce back, states like West Bengal took the call to permit the reopening of theatres as early as Durga Puja. With pan-India theatrical release for Hindi films seeming unlikely for many months, local language films are expected to help restart the theatrical cycle in specific states. “Regional films could definitely benefit at the cost of Bollywood," film trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar pointed out. As the self-appointed face of Indian cinema, it is time Bollywood realizes it is just another language movie industry, Uma Vangal, filmmaker and professor at the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy, pointed out. “People have been getting tired of it (Bollywood) and that discontent was brewing," Vangal added.

6. Could listening to the deep sea help save it? [Source: NY Times

Whenever we get sick, we listen to our body, visit the doctor and take the necessary medicines/precaution in order to recover or stay healthy. Can we do the same with our planet? This is the question that this article answers. Hydrothermal vent (black plumes billowing from deep-sea pillars encrusted with hobnobbing tubeworms, hairy crabs, pouting fish) allows researchers to listen to the sea. To the trained ear, the vent sounds like many things. When asked during a Zoom call to describe the recording more scientifically, Tzu-Hao Lin, a research fellow at the Biodiversity Research Center at Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan, took a long pause, shrugged, and laughed. People always ask him this, but he never has the answer they want to hear. “I usually tell people to describe it with their own language,” Dr. Lin said. “You don’t need to be an expert to say what it sounds like to you.”

Dr. Lin adores acoustics; in his official academic headshot, he wears a set of headphones. He has listened to the sea since 2008, and to the deep sea since 2018. He has deployed hydrophones, which are microphones designed for underwater use, in waters off Japan to eavesdrop on the noises that lurk thousands of feet below the surface. He published these recordings in August at a conference of the Deep-Sea Biology Society. Dr. Lin joins a growing field of acousticians who believe that sound may be the quickest, cheapest way to monitor one of the most mysterious realms of the ocean. A database of deep-sea soundscapes could provide researchers with baseline understanding of healthy remote ecosystems, and singling out the sounds of communities or even individual species can inform scientists when populations are booming.

“You need to know what the habitat sounds like when it’s healthy,” said Chong Chen, a deep-sea biologist at Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, or JAMSTEC. “When the soundscape has changed, the habitat may have changed, too.” Though light travels faster, in ocean, it’s the sound that travels faster. Dr. Lin wants to make all his soundscapes available online for anyone to use. This way, researchers can sort through the recordings to single out a particular fish chorus, or any other particular sound. Dr. Lin’s eventual goal, the Ocean Biodiversity Listening Project, is an international, open-access database of underwater recordings that can establish a baseline of healthy, deep-sea ecosystems. He knows he’s working against the clock. “Deep-sea mining is about to start anytime now,” Dr. Chen said.

7. This guy spent a whole week in a VR headset [Source: Futurism.com

Jak Wilmot, the co-founder of Atlanta-based VR content studioDisrupt VR, spent 168 consecutive hours in a VR headset — that’s a full week — pent up in his apartment. “This is quite possibly the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, but welcome to a week in the future,” he said in a video about the experiment. To make the experience even more futuristic, Wilmot livestreamed the entire week on Twitch late last month, later uploading a wrap-up video on his entire week on YouTube.

The rules were simple: he could switch from a computer-based Oculus headset to a different, untethered headset for thirty seconds while his eyes were closed. His windows were blacked out, he said, so that his physical body didn’t have to rely on the daylight-dependent circadian rhythm. His more mobile VR headset had a built in camera in the front, so that he was able to “see” his physical surroundings — but not directly with his own eyes. Wilmot worked, ate and exercised inside virtual reality. Sleeping in the headset turned out to be “more comfortable” than Wilmot anticipated, though his eyes burned a bit.

Wilmot believes that virtual reality is what you make it. If you want to be alone, you can spend time by yourself in a gaming session, slaying dragons in Skyrim VR. Or you can chose to join the cacophony of VRChat — a communal free-for-all multiplayer online platform that allows you to interact with avatars controlled by complete strangers. “VR is stepping into the shoes of someone else, or stepping into a spaceship and talking to friends,” said Wilmot. “It’s very easy to find your tribe, to make friends, to communicate with others through a virtual landscape, where its no longer through digital window [like a monitor], but actually being there with them. To me that’s what VR is — connection.”

8. Brand purpose: When good intentions aren’t enough [Source: kantar.com

Getting the purpose right is the key for any successful business. And with the current pandemic, giving more to the society has been at the forefront. Kantar’s recent Global Business Compass study (4,500 organisations the world over) shows 34% of businesses plan to play an increased role in supporting society. And the business benefits go beyond altruism; an analysis of the BrandZ database from 2006 to 2018 showed that brands with a strong purpose grew their value by 175%, more than double that of brands with weak purpose.

Some other brand purpose examples have drawn equal attention for all the wrong reasons. Examples include overly simplistic portrayals of complex societal issues, or using charitable donations as some sort of game – we will donate to X every time X happens – which can sit really badly with customers. Simply declaring that your brand is purposeful won’t win you points with consumers. Once ‘purpose’ becomes part of the marketing mix, a new set of expectations arise. Fail to deliver on the purpose authentically, and people will likely perceive that you are co-opting a cause to help you promote and sell things for your brand.

All too often brands default to stereotypical expressions of purpose. For example, purpose advertising often adopts a ‘caring’ tone, as seen recently in a lot of pandemic advertising. The advertising then starts to all look the same regardless of the brand – and people tune out. Executed this way, brand purpose does nothing for differentiation or clarity in the brand’s positioning. And herein lies the challenge. There are a lot of ways a brand could talk about purpose.

9. Inevitability and Eternity [Source: inference-review.com] 

Paweł Machcewicz, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, reviews Timothy Snyder’s book, The Road to Unfreedom. Mr. Machcewicz writes that Snyder seeks “patterns and concepts that can help us make sense of our own time,” and to “define the political problems of the present, and to dispel some of the myths that enshroud them.” Snyder, an American historian and professor at Yale, has become well-known for his commentary on contemporary politics, striving not only to divine meaning in the complications and chaos of the present, but also to explain the historical roots of current phenomena.

The Road to Unfreedom is, on the one hand, an erudite and expansive historical account that reaches back to the Kievan Rus’ in the early Middle Ages and brings to light Russian political philosophers from the early twentieth century who remain virtually unknown in the West. But it is also a political treatise, written with passion and infused with the contemporary experiences of its author. The events described in the book are ascribed to two competing worldviews. Their point of intersection, according to Snyder, is where the most important events of recent decades can be found. Snyder labels these two worldviews the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity.

From the arguments and evidence presented by Snyder in The Road to Unfreedom, and from the case of Poland in particular, it is the inherent fragility of democracy and freedom that is most striking. The degree of attachment to democratic values has turned out to be considerably less than it seemed just ten years ago. Are there any reasons for optimism? In the absence of truth, according to Snyder, democracy cannot survive. It is for this reason that the book is dedicated to reporters and invokes the work of Thucydides. In practical terms, what is really needed to safeguard the future of democracy and freedom are people ready to accept risks and make sacrifices.

10. New consoles and cloud gaming will shake up an industry turbocharged by the pandemic [Source: The Economist

What have you been doing in the lockdown due to the Covid pandemic? Most of the answers would be playing video games on phone or consoles. The gaming industry has gained massively due to Covid-induced lockdowns. The pandemic has given a filip to other forms of indoor entertainment, from board games to video-streaming to books. But the scale of the surge has caught industry-watchers by surprise. Tom Wijman at Newzoo, a games-industry analytics firm, says that when the pandemic began, his company predicted a boost of around $2bn to industry revenues on top of its existing forecasts. The latest figures, he says, suggest the real figure has been nearer $17bn. Newzoo now reckons industry revenues will reach $175bn this year, a rise of 20%.

Two companies that are gaining from this trend are Microsoft and Sony. Both are gearing up to replace their existing consoles with new, more powerful machines. Sony is upping the ante with PlayStation 5, and Microsoft with Xbox Series X. With a locked-down Christmas looming in many parts of the world, demand for both will be high. If industry rumours about pre-orders are correct, some consumers may have to go without.

It is too early to pick out winners and losers, but most analysts think Microsoft is well positioned. Its Azure cloud business is the world’s second-biggest, giving it a reach that many competitors lack. Last year Sony, which lacks cloud infrastructure of its own, said it was exploring the option of using Azure to power its own gaming services. And unlike Google or Amazon, its only real cloud rivals, Microsoft has decades of experience in the games business. But its competitors have strong points, too. Amazon has 150m subscribers to its Prime service, which already includes streamed video and music. Google could leverage YouTube, where gaming videos are popular. Facebook plans to pitch its service at people who already play simpler, browser-based games on its existing platform, which boasts over 2bn users a month. And Sony’s success with the PlayStation has proved that size is not everything. There is all to play for.

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