Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (Embracing Jeff Bezos' 'Scope'; Electric-car lesson that China is serving up for America), Technology (Using AI to catch online defamation; International phishing expedition looking to hook India's big fish), Covid (Did people or nature open Pandora's box at Wuhan?; BMC Commissioner on tackling oxygen shortage, vaccination tsunami and more), and Extreme Sports (The toughest, weirdest race you've never heard of).

Published: May 29, 2021 06:28:07 AM IST
Updated: May 28, 2021 04:30:25 PM IST

Image: 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 (Embracing Jeff Bezos’ ‘Scope’; Electric-car lesson that China is serving up for America), Technology (Using AI to catch online defamation; International phishing expedition looking to hook India’s big fish), Covid (Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?; BMC Commissioner on tackling oxygen shortage, vaccination tsunami and more), and Extreme Sports (The toughest, weirdest race you've never heard of).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended May 29, 2021.

1)     The big lessons of the last year [Source: Collaborative Fund]
Morgan Housel, the author of this blog, talks about how we fail to learn from the past. A question that always arises after a terrible event is why haven’t we learned our lesson? So what are the lessons that we must learn from the past year? 1) Big risks are easy to underestimate because they come from small risks that multiply: Big risks are easy to overlook because they’re just a chain reaction of small events, each of which is easy to shrug off. Covid is the same. A virus shutting down the global economy and killing millions of people seemed remote enough for most people to never contemplate. Before a year ago it sounded like the one-in-billions freak accident only seen in movies. But break the last year into smaller pieces and you will know how they multiply into something big.

2) A lot of undue pessimism comes from underestimating how quickly and firmly people adapt: People are astoundingly good at adapting. When contemplating change it’s tempting to draw a straight line and assume a change in circumstances leads to an equal change in how you feel. But it’s never like that. When faced with a change people quickly say, “OK, this is the new baseline. Our expectations now begin there.” It’s part of why we are so bad at forecasting. Last year in January, nobody thought that people would start working from home, there would be lockdowns, people would be laid off, etc. It is too easy to assume that when faced with terrible circumstances people will only muster a normal response. But it’s never like that.

3) History is only interesting because nothing is inevitable: The finance industry spent a decade debating what the biggest risk to the economy was. Was it tax hikes? Money printing? Budget deficits? Trade wars? Setting interest rates at 0.5% when the proper rate should have been 0.75%? And of course the answer was none of those. It was a virus. Look at virtually any decade and you’ll see that the most important news story was something no one was talking about until the moment it occurred. Whatever your view of the world was a year ago, it’s different now. Maybe Covid’s biggest lesson is accepting how true that will be going forward, too.

2)     Why brilliant minds like Jeff Bezos embrace the simple rule of scope [Source: inc.com]
Jeff Bezos meetings are known for “no presentations”. Instead, Amazon uses the scope. In project management terms, "scope" is used to describe the details of what's involved in a job, along with the amount of time and effort it takes to complete it. There are reasons why it’s important to define the scope of a job: 1) Motivation: By defining the scope, you can help give yourself the motivation you need to keep going--because you can easily track what you've done, and see how far you have to go. 2) Execution: Every company and every project has a set of unwritten tasks that everyone assumes will just get done, even if no one knows who's going to do them. Guess what? Those tasks usually don't get done. Defining the scope helps make those tasks clear, so that someone makes sure they're completed.

3) Unity: As Bezos explains, many jobs are harder, more involved, or take more time to complete than most people imagine. It's more likely that a team actually achieves great results if everyone involved understands just how much time and effort are needed. 4) Forward progress: "Scope creep" is another project management term that describes how a job's requirements tend to increase over time. For example, if you're responsible for building a new product, you know how quickly the list of requested features for that new product can grow. Of course, you can add those features to the list, but if it's out of the originally defined scope for the product, it's going to cost: It will either take more time or raise the budget of the project. Defining the scope helps those in charge keep from getting bogged down by additional requests, and keep moving forward.

5) Reduced stress: It's so easy to take on too much, thinking there's a way to fit everything in. You think that time will magically appear or that a job will somehow get done by itself. But, it won’t. If you properly define scope, you reduce stress and help life go more smoothly. So, the next time you find yourself frustrated with the way a job is going, take a step back--and take a page out of Jeff Bezos's playbook: Define the scope.   

3)     These ex-journalists are using AI to catch online defamation [Source: Wired]
What if there would be a system in place that could flag potentially risky stories before publication could save serious time and money. CaliberAI is the startup that does exactly that. The basic idea is to provide an extra, automated set of eyes to reporters and editors—like a warning system for potential libel. But the long-term play is more ambitious. The startup is the mastermind of a father-son duo, Conor Brady and his son Neil, both former journalists. The idea popped up during a casual conversation about AI and news.

Carl Vogel, a professor of computational linguistics at Trinity College Dublin, has helped CaliberAI build its model. He has a working formula for statements highly likely to be defamatory: They must implicitly or explicitly name an individual or group; present a claim as fact; and use some sort of taboo language or idea—like suggestions of theft, drunkenness, or other kinds of impropriety. If you feed a machine-learning algorithm a large enough sample of text, it will detect patterns and associations among negative words based on the company they keep. Logically enough, there was no data set of defamatory material sitting out there for CaliberAI to use, because publishers work very hard to avoid putting that stuff into the world. So the company built its own.

The result, so far, is something like spell-check for defamation. You can play with a demo version on the company’s website, which cautions that “you may notice false positives/negatives as we refine our predictive models.” It would be fitting if a team led by journalists helped shape the next phase of social media content moderation. Conor Brady, who teaches journalism at an Irish university, notes that the journalism profession is guided not just by legal pressures but by a set of values—like accuracy, impartiality, and independence—that date back to the late 19th century.

4)     The electric-car lesson that China is serving up for America [Source: The Atlantic]
China’s plan of dominating the world is well-known. And hence, it is going full gas on electric vehicle. P7, the sleek new model launched last year by China’s hot start-up XPeng, has started gaining momentum. In the past year, the company has signed deals with investment funds linked to the city of Guangzhou, Xpeng’s hometown, and the surrounding province, Guangdong, worth $700 million. XPeng has also gotten preferential terms on land, low-interest loans and tax breaks, and state subsidies that have helped it reduce the P7’s showroom price. Fueled by government largesse, China’s electric-vehicle sector has raced ahead of America’s, sparking fears that the United States has fallen dangerously behind its chief rival in a crucial future industry.

Beijing’s goal is to leapfrog Western powers into the forefront of next-generation technologies, dominance that could hand China’s leaders the political clout to shove the U.S. aside and become the world’s premier superpower. In 2016, 336,000 electric passenger vehicles were sold in China, according to data from S&P Global Platts. Last year, the number topped 1.2 million, four times greater than in the U.S. But, there are some challenges too. Persuading the Chinese to drive a P7 over a Model 3 is difficult enough; wooing Americans, Europeans, and others will be harder. Rather than a cutting-edge new export industry, overrunning the old-timers of the West, the Chinese electric-vehicle sector could become an industrial island; companies and brands would hold great influence at home but marginal sway in major international markets.

If Washington does head down China’s state-heavy road, Beijing’s experience offers crucial lessons. Subsidies to automakers and their customers might be necessary to give the industry the initial push it needs, but excess generosity could prop up failing firms. Taxpayer money might be more productively spent supporting R&D and building infrastructure such as charging stations, because in the end, the electric-vehicle war will be won in research labs and car showrooms, not the halls of Congress.

5)     BMC Commissioner on tackling oxygen shortage, vaccination tsunami and more [Source: Financial Express
In this interesting interview, BMC Commissioner, Iqbal Singh Chahal, talks about the rising Covid cases, working on oxygen shortage, tips for Delhi, vaccination drive, etc. He starts by talking about the horrific mid-April, when he was tackling the issue of oxygen capacity. He says, “…on the intervening night of April 16-17, I was informed around midnight that six hospitals were running out of oxygen. There were 168 patients there… So between 1 am and 5 am, we deployed 150 ambulances and brought these patients to our jumbo Covid centres. Fortunately, we had 3,600 empty beds, of which 850 were oxygenated beds. I was so relieved that no lives were lost.” And he knew that this was just the start, there would be more to come. So, he messaged top functionaries of the Government of India, including the Cabinet Secretary, Home Secretary, and Health Secretary and started planning on building oxygen capacity.

One of the cities that have been battling with shortage of oxygen is Delhi. Talking about Delhi, he mentions 5 areas in which they can work on. Just like Mumbai did. 1) Availability of stock and dedicated supply: Like from the moment an oxygen tanker leaves the manufacturing unit, it should be clear where it is going, and who is going to take custody of the tanker. 2) Capacity of installed oxygen tanks is limited in hospitals: “…if you want to increase beds like Mumbai, don’t pressurise the hospital… What we did was to have more beds at jumbo centres which also have higher oxygen capacity.” 3) Leakage of oxygen: Having an emergency stock is the key. Mumbai has six points where emergency stock is stored. In times of crisis, this comes in handy.

4) Protocol for oxygen consumption: The doctors said, “…saturation level should not be maintained beyond 94, and we circulated the protocol to all of Mumbai’s 176 hospitals. There is no need for saturation of 97-98.” 5) High-flow nasal oxygen is a guzzler: You should not blindly give it to everybody just because it’s available. It should be used as a last resort. The BMC Commissioner also feels that ramping up the vaccination drive is the key. And if the time comes for the third or fourth wave, the BMC is well-prepared tackle the situation seamlessly.

6)     The international phishing expedition looking to hook India’s big fish [Source: The Ken
The Indian army soldiers were targeted through phishing attack. When the officers clicked on the link in their mail it downloaded an app containing an assortment of circulars and news related to the Indian army. That, however, was just an eyewash. Its true purpose was to unleash malware, which would course through the victim’s computer or phone, stealing everything from WhatsApp chats to SMSes and media files. This malware, if left unchecked, could stay on a target’s system indefinitely, constantly pilfering sensitive data. The data was being transmitted to a command and control centre in the Netherlands—the source of the phishing attack. The hackers made use of the country’s many ‘bulletproof hosting’ services, which essentially allow hackers to securely host malicious content which can be used to carry out cyber attacks. These servers, which were paid for in Bitcoin, were accessed from Karachi, Pakistan.

Phishing attacks—using fraudulent or manipulated messages to steal information—are nothing new. In this case, hackers first compromised the email credentials of a serving officer and used it to send malware-laden emails to others. Coming from a high-ranked official and from an official ID, few suspected anything was amiss. According to a response in the Lok Sabha from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), cyber intrusions in the country could have links with Pakistan, China, North Korea, Russia, and the US, among others. As of 2014, MeitY had already introduced a stringent email policy. Seven years on, however, official email addresses are still vulnerable to bad actors, both foreign and domestic.

To make matters worse, critical agencies such as the National Informatics Centre (NIC)—which manages the entire network and IT infrastructure of the government—remain understaffed and often underfunded. While NIC’s security controls have improved over the years, there is much more that needs doing. Sources close to MeitY believe the ministry and the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) can do more to enforce existing controls and add new ones. When a malware attachment is received in an NIC inbox, it should generate an alert. In addition, there’s a need for protection on each user’s devices, and while MeitY’s guidelines previously prescribed antivirus software, there is now a need to upgrade to malware detection systems. Already, hacker groups are selling the login credentials of compromised users on dark web forums. So, India needs to make its IT infrastructure stronger.

7)     An End to Globalization [Source: inference-review.com
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the demise of globalization. Travel, labor markets, and consumer spending have come to a halt and may never again be the same. The most disappointing aspect of the crisis, from the point of view of globalization, has been the lack of international economic policy coordination. In previous international crises, there was always a committee that people hoped might save the world. That such a directed sense of hope does not now exist is testament to the fracturing of the world order and the growing difficulty in marshaling a call to action on the part of groups such as the G20 and G7, let alone the G2.

The succession to globalization is not infinitely open: it may proceed in one of two ways. 1) The misery of the 1920s and 1930s is replayed. 2) The replacement of a globalized world and its replacement by a multipolar one. A multipolar world will be one dominated by at least three large regions: the US, the EU, and China, with the possible addition of the India–Dubai region. These are regions that will be marked by very distinctive policies. The stress test provided by the coronavirus appears to confirm the development of a multipolar world. The rivalry between the US and China has intensified, the US has pirated protective equipment and medical research destined for Europeans, and there is a great deal of talk about bringing supply chains back home. In a multipolar world, competing economic models are expected to replace a single international model.

Debt is one area that deserves attention. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, the world’s debt-to-GDP ratio was at a level matched only by the aftermath of the Second World War. It will now balloon into the levels reached after the Napoleonic Wars. The coronavirus has presented an appalling humanitarian crisis. In economic terms, it serves to remind us that the world is becoming more fractured. The risk is that some remedies and policy methods will intensify the fracturing until these schisms become overbearing.

8)     The origin of Covid: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?
[Source: thebulletin.org
The author of this article does a deep-dive into how it all started and where the virus actually came from. He doesn’t conclude to anything, but gives the readers enough evidence to make their own judgements. He starts with a tale of two theories. After the pandemic first broke out in December 2019, Chinese authorities reported that many cases had occurred in the wet market — a place selling wild animals for meat — in Wuhan. This reminded experts of the SARS1 epidemic of 2002, in which a bat virus had spread first to civets, an animal sold in wet markets, and from civets to people. A similar bat virus caused a second epidemic, known as MERS, in 2012. This time the intermediary host animal was camels. The decoding of the virus’s genome showed it belonged a viral family known as beta-coronaviruses, to which the SARS1 and MERS viruses also belong.

Wuhan, however, is home of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a leading world center for research on coronaviruses. So the possibility that the SARS2 virus had escaped from the lab could not be ruled out. He also writes how various scientists have pointed to a possibility that the virus could have escaped a laboratory in Wuhan. Also, natural emergence was the media’s preferred theory until around February 2021 and the visit by a World Health Organization (WHO) commission to China. The author also points out how a scientist was experimenting on coronavirus. It cannot yet be stated that the scientist did or did not generate SARS2 in the lab because records have been sealed, but it seems the scientist was certainly on the right track to have done so.

Neither the natural emergence nor the lab escape hypothesis can yet be ruled out. There is still no direct evidence for either. So no definitive conclusion can be reached. That said, the available evidence leans more strongly in one direction than the other. The author feels that proponents of lab escape can explain all the available facts about SARS2 considerably more easily than can those who favor natural emergence. Also, it’s documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice. In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute.

9)     Into the Mystical and Inexplicable World of Dow
[Source: outsideonline.com
The article takes you through the history dowsing. Leroy Bull was a boy who felt things other children did not. He would not learn until his twenties that he could call upon the hush to find things—water, minerals, utility lines—on a map; he would be in his forties before he learned to summon from the silence images of missing people or lost pets or misplaced wedding rings; and not until he was a half-century old would he realize, with shock, that on rare days he could project visions onto the landscape to guide him in his search, like the time a golden grid of shimmering lines snapped above the grass and led him to a well site.

Many of those who hire a dowser say they don’t know how the magic works, only that it does. “It’s just—insane,” says Steven Strong, a homeowner in Vermont’s Upper Valley. “I’m an engineer. I know physics. I can’t explain any of it.” But when the well on his property stopped producing about five years ago, the man Strong contracted to drill a new one had no idea where to put it. At the driller’s recommendation, Strong hired a dowser, a man from up north named Steve Herbert. He watched Herbert circle his property for some time. Then, about 50 feet from the dried-up well, the dowser hammered a stake into the earth. He proclaimed that, if placed right here, perfectly vertically, the rig would hit a spring that gushed 25 gallons per minute of good, clean water. The driller drilled. Water rushed. “Honest to goodness, without any embellishment,” Strong said, “it was exactly spot-on. Not 23.5. Not 26. But 25 gallons a minute. I was there and I didn’t believe it, and the well driller was slack-jawed.”

Drilling companies rarely recommend dowsers to their clients, but the practice is common nonetheless. Bull may have a knack for water, but he’s received calls from seekers of many other things. Car keys. Cash. Wills. A long-lost galleon. Also: missing people, which can be dark work. Many dowsers believe that water snakes up from the earth in narrow veins. Striking it, therefore, would be a feat. But geology tells us that water is distributed in sheets under the earth, in pores and cracks and pockets in subsurface rock. We call this groundwater. In many regions, it’s everywhere beneath the surface of the earth. There’s no official body that tracks dowsers’ work.

10)     Big Dog's Backyard Ultra: The toughest, weirdest race you've never heard of
[Source: BBC
Can you run 4.16 miles (~6.69km) in an hour? You can. But can you run the same back-to-back for hours and hours, for 2-3 days at a stretch? That’s Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra. This race only finishes when there's one person left standing. Big Dog is race organiser Gary Cantrell's pet bulldog, who spends most of his time snoozing under a table at the start-finish line, barely lifting a droopy eyelid as dozens of sleep-deprived runners shuffle past him day and night. The backyard is Cantrell and wife Sandra's sprawling farm in Bell Buckle, rural Tennessee, where runners complete a loop of the woods every hour during the day, before switching to an out-and-back route on the road at night for safety reasons.

The current record, held by a Belgian dentist, is 75 hours, or 312 miles. Guillaume Calmettes, a French software engineer who ran 245 miles (59 hours) to win in 2017, says: "It's painful, but it's painful in a good way." The event is endearingly low-key: makeshift tents double as runners' homes for days on end, food is whatever you can rustle up on a camping stove, and the closest that competitors get to comfort is slumping in a fold-up chair with their feet perched on a cool box. Cantrell describes the race as "half running, half poker", adding: "Everybody acts like they feel great - when you know they've been dying for hours."

But, why do people go through so much? "It doesn't feel like a race," says 40-year-old Guterl, who has taken part in Big's for the past three years. "It's super fun." Johan Steene, a 47-year-old chief executive of a Swedish technology company who clocked up 283 miles in 68 hours to win in 2018, describes it as a "special game with fantastic rules". "It's a fun mental challenge," says American Courtney Dauwalter, runner-up to Steene with 279 miles and a big enough star in the niche world of ultra-running to be a guest on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. "It's all in your head," says Cantrell, who launched Big's in 2011 because he wanted a race that rewarded runners who were the toughest mentally rather than the fastest or fittest. "It's a war between your mind and your body."   


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