Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (Lessons from the Donut King who went from rags to riches, twice), Education (Alarming rise in education costs in New India), Technology (Top 10 emerging technologies of 2020), Science (Life on the inside as a locked-in patient), and Biotech (DeepMind is answering one of biology's biggest challenges)

Published: Dec 5, 2020 08:30:25 AM IST
Updated: Dec 4, 2020 06:16:28 PM IST

reading_4th dec_bgImage: 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 (Lessons from the Donut King who went from rags to riches, twice), Education (Alarming rise in education costs in New India), Technology (Top 10 emerging technologies of 2020), Science (Life on the inside as a locked-in patient), and Biotech (DeepMind is answering one of biology’s biggest challenges).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended December 04, 2020-

1) Business and life lessons from the Donut King who went from rags to riches, twice [Source: BBC]
The life story of Ted Ngoy makes for a perfect Bollywood/Hollywood flick. Ted Ngoy was a high school student in Phnom Penh when he first set eyes on Suganthini Khoeun (later changed name to Christy), the daughter of a high-ranking government official. After all the drama in their love life, they married and started a family, and life was good until civil war broke out in 1970, between the government and the communist Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. Soon the family arrived in California and started their own doughnut business after saving money and Ted working three odd jobs.

The family worked 12 to 17 hours a day, with all hands on deck. At the weekend the oldest children, Chet and Savy, then nine and eight, helped out by pouring coffee, packing doughnuts and folding boxes. During the week, they went to school, where sometimes they were so hungry they stole snacks from other kids' lunchboxes. In a year, Ted had saved enough to put down a deposit on a second doughnut shop, a "mom-and-pop" shop called Christy's. The number of stores started multiplying. By 1985, 10 years after arriving in the US as refugees, Ted and Christy were millionaires, owning around 60 doughnut shops. But soon, Ted’s downfall began with the addiction of gambling. He lost every single store that he had owned. In 1993, Ted and Christy moved back to Cambodia. They had lost their beautiful home and their chain of shops, but still had enough money to live comfortably. Ted now had a new passion - politics.

While Ted was immersed in Cambodian politics, Christy flew to the US for the birth of a grandchild. But while she was gone Ted had an affair. Devastated that he had broken their pact, she filed for divorce. By 2002 Ted was broke. He had spent all his money on electioneering and on a failed attempt to introduce a new type of hybridised rice, which he believed would improve yields. Then, after falling out with a powerful political rival he feared for his life and fled to the US. Still penniless, after nearly four years of exile, Ted flew back to Cambodia. Still homeless, he moved to the coastal town of Kep, on the Gulf of Thailand. He had no way of making a living until a Chinese contact from better days asked him to help out with a real estate deal. Ted negotiated well and got a good commission. More land deals followed and he has now worked his way back to being a millionaire.     

2) The alarming rise in education costs in New India [Source: The Hindu Business Line]
You surely must have heard this phrase, “education cost has risen dramatically”. Education cost is becoming a burden for most of the households in India. Enrolment has increased significantly in school and higher education, and the gender gap in enrolment has reduced up to secondary education. However, the Report of the NSSO’s 75th Round survey of “Household Social Consumption of Education in India” conducted from July 2017 to June 2018 provides some very disturbing results. Essentially, this expansion in education has involved increasingly burdening households for the payment, creating a situation in which education beyond the secondary level is essentially unaffordable for most working people.

Why are households having to shell out so much when a significant amount of enrolment is still in public institutions which should be much more accessible to all? The Right to Education Act, 2009, specified that school education up to the age of 14 years would be free and compulsory, and the spirit of that legislation clearly required that the costs of elementary schooling would be borne by the state. Yet, only a minority of students receive free education, and less than a quarter in urban areas. And there are also other costs associated with schooling — such as textbooks, uniforms, transport — which also add to the financial burden on households. And in this respect, very few students received any assistance.

In urban areas, nearly 40% of a casual labourer’s wage would be required for the education of two children. The proportions are lower for rural wage workers, mainly because they are effectively excluded from seeking higher education for their children. Unequal access and high personal costs involved in educating more of the young may well boomerang on society; both employment conditions and educational access need urgent policy action.  

3) Top 10 emerging technologies of 2020 [Source: World Economic Forum]
The world is all about tackling Covid-19 now. We might have a vaccine soon, but what about the future? Could technology help us to be well prepared for future? A new report from the World Economic Forum and Scientific American magazine says that we could be well prepared in future. From electric planes to tech sensors that can “see” around corners, this year’s list is packed with inspiring advances. Experts whittled down scores of nominations to a select group of new developments with the potential to disrupt the status quo and spur real progress.

Some of the technologies that we could see in near future are: a) Microneedles for painless injections and tests: These tiny needles, at no more than the depth of a sheet of paper and the width of a human hair, could bring us pain-free injections and blood testing. Now we won’t have to be scared of getting injected! b) Virtual patients: If the goal of swapping humans for simulations to make clinical trials faster and safer sounds simple, the science behind it is anything but. Data taken from high-res images of a human organ is fed into a complex mathematical model of the mechanisms that control that organ’s function. Then, computer algorithms resolve the resulting equations and generate a virtual organ that behaves like the real thing. Such virtual organs or body systems could replace people in the initial assessments of drugs and treatments, making the process quicker, safer and less expensive.

c) Digital medicine: Digital medicine won’t replace doctors any time soon, but apps that monitor conditions or administer therapies could enhance their care and support patients with limited access to health services. Many smart watches can already detect if their wearer has an irregular heartbeat, and similar tools are being worked on that could help with breathing disorders, depression, Alzheimer’s and more. d) Green hydrogen: When hydrogen burns, the only by-product is water – and when it’s produced through electrolysis using renewable energy it becomes “green”. Earlier this year it was predicted green hydrogen will become a $12 trillion market by 2050. Why? Because it could have a key role in the energy transition by helping decarbonize sectors – like shipping and manufacturing – that are harder to electrify because they require high-energy fuel.

4) Employment, income in India during and after lockdown: A V-shape recovery? [Source: Business Standard]
The stock market has recovered sharply, but what about the employment rate and income? After skyrocketing to nearly 25% in April and May, the unemployment rate returned by July to its February level of around 7% where it has remained since. However, the unemployment rate provides an incomplete picture of labour market conditions and of the ongoing experiences of Indian households. It calculates employment as a share of the labour force, which only includes those that are employed and those that are actively looking for work. A back-to-normal unemployment rate may mask workers exiting the labour force if they cannot find work, or because of health concerns.

Business Standard analysed data from the CMIE’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey (CPHS), a panel survey of approximately 175,000 households. The data confirms these concerns and reveals a less complete labour market recovery than what one might conclude solely based on the unemployment figures. The employment to population ratio (“EPOP,” which includes the full working-age population) has not yet returned to its pre-lockdown level. After a collapse in April and May, the EPOP among those 15 years of age or older has hovered around 37-38% between July and October, from a base of closer to 40% pre-lockdown.

In addition to job losses, income may remain depressed if individuals earn less in the same occupation. The analysis reveals widespread drops in wage income across many occupation groups. While substantial recovery had occurred by June (the latest month of data availability), median wage incomes remained depressed in about 80% of occupations in that month. The drop in total income during the lockdown was primarily driven by a sharp drop in labour income, but was supplemented by a decline in business profits. During the lockdown, income losses were more pronounced among households in the bottom 90% of the income distribution; however, these households also experienced a faster recovery post-lockdown such that by June 2020, their incomes were 18% below January 2020 levels (in April, this drop was 41%).

5) 'Is anybody in there?' Life on the inside as a locked-in patient [Source: The Guardian]
Jake Haendel was diagnosed with toxic progressive leukoencephalopathy, also known as “chasing the dragon syndrome”, usually caused by inhaling the fumes from heroin heated on aluminium foil. And in the next few days/months, his health deteriorated. Jake was fighting for his life. He was scared, confused, sometimes hallucinating. Damage to the myelin, the protective sheaths surrounding nerve cells in the brain, progressed until he had no motor control, and could neither speak nor direct his eye movements. An electroencephalogram (EEG) of his brain showed disrupted patterns of neural activity, indicating severe cerebral dysfunction. “Jake was pretty much like a houseplant,” his father told me. They had no way of knowing Jake was conscious. In medical terms, he was “locked in”: his senses were intact, but he had no way of communicating.

He struggled to make sense of this new reality, unable to communicate, and terrified at the prospect of this isolation being permanent. “I would interject all the time when people were talking around me. If one nurse asked another, ‘Can he hear me right now?’, I would shout in my head, ‘Yes, I can hear you!’” Jake continued: “I loved when anyone would talk to me, even if they didn’t truly believe I was ‘in there’. One of the aides sang to me. Another said: ‘Jake, you look like a Greek god.’ I admit I did like that.” After six months, Jake had lived longer than the state had expected he would, and could no longer receive at-home palliative care. Medical staff still had no idea if he was conscious, but his vital signs were stable enough that he could be moved. He was admitted to Massachusetts general hospital in Boston for re-evaluation in May 2018.

Soon, Jake started recovering slowly. For the next few months, he remained confined to his bed and a wheelchair, but he was moving again, interacting with people and gaining confidence. By spring 2019, after intensive therapy, he was speaking again: first vowel sounds, then simple phrases, like “I love you” and “thank you”, and later full sentences. He made video calls to family and friends who hadn’t known his whereabouts for months, ecstatic at the opportunity to say: “Surprise, I’m alive!” Locked-in syndrome is rare – estimates say there are only a few thousand in the US at any one time. Most sufferers are victims of stroke or traumatic brain injury, and very few regain significant motor function.

6) India can’t make up its mind on PSUs, 30 years after liberalisation [Source: Livemint]     
The central government of India asked the public sector undertakings (PSUs) owned by it to pay higher dividends and not wait for the end of the financial year to do so. Also, the Centre has been nudging PSUs to channel corporate social responsibility funds (CSR) to central government schemes. It has been asking them to do share buybacks. It has been asking one PSU to buy the government’s stake in another PSU, as was the case with ONGC acquiring HPCL. The stock market has not taken the performance or predicament of PSUs kindly. In the last six-and-a-half years, while the bellwether BSE Sensex has increased 76%, the BSE PSU index has fallen 40%.

The operational performance of PSUs has been under serious stress even before covid-19. According to the Public Enterprises Survey 2018-19, which maps the financial performance of all central PSUs, there were 249 non-banking PSUs in operation. Another 86 were being set up, and a mere 13 were either under closure or liquidation. Over the last five years, the turnover of operating PSUs has increased at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7%. Meanwhile, during the same period, their borrowings have increased at a CAGR of 15.3%. This comes in the backdrop of their margins coming under pressure and the government asking them to distribute higher dividends.

Even the outright sale of chosen PSUs by the government is proving to be quite a task. The government is struggling to sell the laggards. A case in point is Air India, which it has been trying to sell since 2018. Two efforts so far have come a cropper. For ONGC, whose principal business was oil exploration, HPCL gave it an extension into fuel retailing. The government received funds, while ensuring it still effectively owned HPCL. It was a deal of the government, by the government, for the government. And that seems to be happening with many things in the PSU space.

7) DeepMind is answering one of biology’s biggest challenges [Source: The Economist]
Proteins are the worker ants of biology. Proteins, in the guise of enzymes, catalyse almost all of the chemical reactions that keep bodies running. Analysing a protein’s amino-acid composition is now easy. Machines to do so have existed for decades. But this is only half the battle in the quest to understand how proteins work. At the moment, molecular biologists can probe proteins’ shapes experimentally, using techniques like X-ray crystallography, but doing so is a fiddly and time-consuming process. Now, things may be about to get much easier. On November 30th researchers from DeepMind, an artificial-intelligence (AI) laboratory owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, presented results suggesting that they have made enormous progress on one of biology’s grand challenges—how to use a computer to predict a protein’s shape from a list of its amino-acid components.

It is a big achievement. Replacing months of experiments with a few hours of computing time could shed new light on the inner workings of cells. It could speed up drug development. The idea of using computers to predict proteins’ shapes is half a century old. Progress has been real, but slow, says Ewan Birney, deputy director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, a multinational endeavour headquartered in Germany. It now measures its progress by how well algorithms perform in something called Critical Assessment of Protein Structure Prediction (CASP). This is a biennial experiment-cum-competition which started in 1994 and is jokingly dubbed the “Olympics of protein folding”. In it, algorithms are subjected to blind tests of their ability to predict the shapes of several proteins of known structure.

At this, its second attempt, DeepMind has aced CASP. Its first try, dubbed AlphaFold, made waves two years ago by performing much better than any existing program. The current version, AlphaFold 2, has stretched that lead still further. There have, indeed, already been promising successes. AlphaFold 2 was, for example, able to predict the structures of several of the proteins used by SARS-CoV-2 virus, including spike. As for Dr. Birney, he says, “We’re definitely going to want to spend some time kicking the tyres. But when I first saw these results, I nearly fell off my chair.”

8) India’s quest to fix its payments puzzle [Source: Livemint]
In early November, National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), which runs the unified payments interface (UPI), RuPay and other digital payments infrastructure, went further than most regulators have dared. NPCI announced market share caps on third-party UPI apps, the largest of which are owned by two large American firms, Walmart and Google. NPCI also finally allowed WhatsApp Pay, which had been barred from expanding its pilot for nearly three years, to launch its service but to less than 5% of its users in the country for now. Critics say that the 30% market share cap on third-party apps is arbitrary and introduces operational distortions that will limit the ability of UPI apps to expand and potentially hurt customer experience on UPI—and still leave UPI dominated by the American third-party apps.

On the same day that NPCI announced the 30% cap, it also gave approval to WhatsApp to launch on UPI. Though the collective share of PhonePe and Google Pay will be capped at 60% from its current level of 80%, the slack is likely to be picked up by WhatsApp Pay or even Amazon Pay, both of which are American firms. “I don’t understand how a 30% cap will solve the problem," a veteran fintech entrepreneur said. “It’s not that much lower than 40% (the rough market shares of PhonePe and Google Pay each currently). Tomorrow, if PhonePe or Google Pay goes down, 30% of the system will still be gone. So how does putting a 30% restriction solve for systemic risk?"

Meanwhile, PhonePe, Google Pay and other digital payment companies are attempting to wield more influence with NPCI. Last week, NPCI announced that it had added 19 new shareholders including PhonePe, Google Pay, Paytm Payments Bank and Amazon Pay, selling 4.63% of its equity shares. Though these companies presently have a much smaller stake than the banks, their rising clout—and popularity with users—will present a regulatory headache for NPCI for many years to come. In effect, the battle over who gets to process India’s payments may have only just begun.

9) Singularity: Marie Howe’s Ode to Stephen Hawking, Our Cosmic Belonging, and the Meaning of Home, in a Stunning Animated Short Film [Source: brainpickings.com]
This animated short film is inspired by Marie Howe’s poem ‘Singularity’. While inspired by Stephen Hawking and titled after his trailblazing work on black holes and singularities — work that shines a sidewise gleam on the origin of everything — the poem is at bottom a stunning meditation on the interconnectedness of belonging across space and time, across selves and species, across the myriad artificial unbelongings we have manufactured as we have drifted further and further from our elemental nature.

Its closing line is an invocation, an incantation, ending with a timeless word of staggering resonance today: home. As we now stand on a profound precipice two years later — facing our deeply interconnected ecology of being on this shared cosmic home as we look back on fifty years of Earth Day built on Rachel Carson’s legacy, facing the most intimate meaning of home in our isolated shelters scattered across this “small and lonely planet” — the poem pulsates with a whole new meaning, as all great poems do in the veins of time.

So, as a special treat for the 2020 Universe in Verse, the author teamed up with SALT Project, a kindred clan of visual storytellers, who have won some hearts and won some Emmys with their soulful shorts ranging from book trailers to bird migration documentaries, to bring Howe’s “Singularity” to life in a transcendent short film, illustrated by paper collage artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner and featuring original music by the heroic cellist Zoë Keating, who was present in atoms at the 2018 show when “Singularity” premiered and who also composed the score for “Antidotes to Fear of Death” — the headlining miracle of a poem for the 2020 show.

10) On masculinity, grief, and learning from suffering [Source: longreads.com]
Suffering is something that everyone goes through, no matter in which form. But, it’s the suffering that teaches and makes us a better version of ourselves. In this longish article, Devin Kelly, the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen, and the co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series, shares his experience of losing friend’s mother, who treated him like his own kid. Julian, Nick, and Ben are Devin’s running buddies. Devin first met them in 2009. They were runners, all four; the only four male distance runners in their class in college, bonded by the simple objectivity of rules and restrictions. But it wasn’t the runs that cemented their relationship. It was a woman. Julian’s mother, Nancy; she treated them as her own kid.

When Nancy was diagnosed with cancer, too young, and then beat it, and then was diagnosed again, and then again — well, it taught Devin something. It taught Devin something about the deep inner strength that can exist inside a person, the grace that encapsulates such strength, and how strength itself should be divorced from any mention of stereotypical masculinity, should be redefined as moving through the reality of suffering with a compassion for the world. The author further talks about kindness, grief, compassion, suffering, and how these are very important aspects of our lives.

He feels many people don’t know what to do with kindness. And he thinks, that many men don’t know how to be kind. It has so often been his fantasy to be relentless, to be trapped in grit, and to imagine a world watching, and to earn its love that way. As a world, our kindness so often exists as a reaction. The sooner we realize that crisis and suffering are part and parcel of living, the sooner compassion becomes a requirement for living as well. Men have a lot to learn from this because men are not taught to suffer openly, and they learn their response to suffering from those who suffer openly, so often, at the hands and words of men. This is a destructive paradox. To confront it openly is to realize how much work and care are needed to create a more vulnerable and less hardened masculinity.

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