Ten interesting things we read this week
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 (Fake bazaar in India!; Why rich people don’t stop working; Jeff Bezos and his faster decision-making secret), Neurotech (Implants that can control your brain), Management (Podcast of chats with a16z co-founders), Politics (The national language debate) and Learning (Lessons from ‘coach’ Rahul Dravid).
Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended October 25, 2019.
1) Fake bazaar! From lipsticks to toothpastes, noodles to milk, counterfeit products make a killing [Source: Outlook India]
They say, in India everything is possible. Yes, it is. And this article throws light on how the products that a consumer buys thinking they are genuine products as being cheated. As the organized sector matured and flourished in recent decades, so has the unorganized market. Name anything and you can find its counterfeit product. The span of fake branded goods takes in a wide variety—besides tea, salt, spices, ghee, paneer and the like, and toothpaste, shampoo, hair oil, conditioner, bathing soap, there’s mobile phones, computer hardware, apparel—and yes, liquor. And most dangerously, pharmaceuticals.
These fake products are not only present in offline physical stores, but also online. Many reports point towards large-scale presence of counterfeits in online buying. The authorised attorneys of some top companies admit some 40-50% products sold online via top e-commerce sites are fake. Cameron Walker, a regional brand protection manager with Beiersdorf, the German company that makes Nivea cream, admitted in a recent Delhi conclave that China is a major source of cheap cream in India.
Both government and companies claim losses on account of counterfeits, but the biggest losers are consumers. Sandeep Kumar, a farmer from Yamunanagar, Haryana, bought Ferterra brand insecticides, but it proved spurious and destroyed his crop. “I’d bought it from a local shop. I have lodged an FIR,” Kumar says. The degree of crime is actually heightened with fake food products. Experts say present penal provisions are no deterrent. The FSSAI needs urgent revision, says Sanjeev Kumar of Luthra & Luthra Partners Law Offices. “Its technicalities must be simplified, video recording of raids must be mandated so as to minimise corruption/manipulation, and adulteration must bring on stringent punishment,” he adds. It’s public health, finally, that we are talking about.
2) Why don’t rich people just stop working? [Source: The New York Times]
They say too much is never enough, and many normal, non-billionaire people wonder: why is that? Studies over the years have indicated that the rich, unlike the leisured gentry of old, tend to work longer hours and spend less time socializing. Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, whose worth has been estimated in the hundreds of millions, has said that he wakes up at 3:45 a.m. to mount his daily assault on his corporate rivals. Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla and SpaceX, is worth some $23 billion but nevertheless considers it a victory that he dialed back his “bonkers” 120-hour workweeks to a more “manageable” 80 or 90.
The 1 percent have, as of last decade, 85 percent of their net worth tied up in investments like stocks, bonds and private equity, where value has exploded. When they have everything that they can afford, why do they work round the clock? There are different purposes for different people that keep them going. Some might want to stay competitive. Take Larry Ellison, the billionaire co-founder of Oracle. Mr. Ellison always felt competitive with Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, Mr. Frank said. “So when Paul Allen built his 400-foot boat, Larry Ellison waited until it was done and built a 450-foot boat. Larry Ellison would never be happy until he was No. 1.”
Living inside bubbles, the rich need greater excess just to feel the same high, said Steven Berglas, a psychologist, executive coach and author. “If you’re an alcoholic,” he said, “you’re going to take one drink, two drinks, five drinks, six drinks to feel the buzz. Well, when you get a million dollars, you need 10 million dollars to feel like a king. Money is an addictive substance.” Maybe that’s why they say, if it takes lots of money for you to be happy, you won’t find happiness. Apex entrepreneurs and financiers, after all, are often “adrenaline-fueled, transgressive people,” said Dr. T. Byram Karasu, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx who said he has worked with numerous high earners in his private practice. “They tend to have laser-focused digital brains, are always in transactional mode, and the bigger they get, the lonelier they are, because they do not belong.”
3) The implant that can control your brain [Source: Nautilus]
In this piece, the author discusses with a neuroscientist, Shaun Patel (also on faculty at Harvard Medical School), all about putting a chip in the brain, Neuralink’s new brain probe, the language of the brain, and his vision of enhancing humans with machines. Patel isn’t driven in his pursuit of new means of brain control by visions of a dystopian future. “It’s just a fundamental curiosity,” Patel said. It began in a neuroscience class on abnormal psychology. “The class was about all these interesting disorders that make humans do unusual things that are hard to imagine people doing,” he said. “The description was always that we have neurons in our brain that fire action potentials, these instantaneous changes in voltage. They’re connected to other neurons, and through this, there’s some communication that happens that ultimately results in these behaviors. But nobody could explain with any level of detail the actual mechanism by which this could happen.”
That’s when Mr. Patel knew what he had to do. And mesh brain implants is what he came up with. Talking about what these are, Mr. Patel says, “These are interfaces reimagined from the ground up. Nerve tissue is insanely, astronomically dense. We have neurons, astrocytes, glia, and different compartments in those cells. These interfaces are ultra-small, in the scale of brain cells. They’re also ultra-flexible. They can remain implanted without mounting any unwanted immune reactions or side effects. This fundamentally changes the way we can think about how neural electronics can be applied as a therapeutic for patients with brain disorders. If you can understand the language of the brain, its code, the spatial localization of neural firing patterns, you can use electrical stimulation to artificially input information into the brain to control thoughts and behavior.”
Once you understand the code, you can merge the brain with machines. But, when asked whether he has tried on any human, Mr. Patel says that he is very close to trying it on human subjects. Finally, on deep brain stimulation, he says that it delivers electrical stimulation, much like a pacemaker would to the heart, in order to attenuate unwanted symptoms. It’s been used most successfully in movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease. But that approach to date is limited by the technology that we use, specifically the electrode that interfaces the brain. So if you understand enough about the neural code and how that code represents the symptoms that you’re targeting, then you can imagine there might be more intelligent ways to turn on and off, or augment, the stimulation profile to better enhance the therapy.
4) The deluded cult of social justice [Source: unherd.com]
Being identified as a victim of injustice has become a kind of privilege, handed out to favoured groups and denied to others according to the shifting diktats of progressive opinion. The suggestion that individuals and groups may suffer different degrees and kinds of injustice is rejected as reactionary thinking. Overthrow the prevailing power structures, and injustice will simply vanish. Anyone who questions this vision is not just wrong but evil. Some injustices may be worse than others, but no world is imaginable which all the demands of social justice are fully realised.
Markets are condemned because the distribution of income and wealth is partly random. But so is the distribution of genes. Egalitarian thinkers take a similar line today. Selection by ability by grammar schools is rejected by large swathes of progressive opinion. Quite a few seem to find it less objectionable to send their children to schools where selection is by parental income. At present, when large sections of society have failed to benefit from many years of economic growth, measures going well beyond securing people against destitution are required. The goal must be to ensure a decent measure of economic security to everyone.
The shift may be too great for liberal societies to accept. Protecting people from market-generated insecurity may involve some reduction of overall economic growth. The largest obstacle to a shift in thinking on these issues is the zeal with which ideas of social justice are held and promoted. If there is anything approaching an iron law in history, however, it is that revolutions are followed by injustice worse than existed in the ancien régime. The social justice movement is not based on errors in fact or reasoning. It is a cult, whose chief beneficiaries are the social justice warriors themselves.
5) How Jeff Bezos uses faster, better decisions to keep Amazon innovating [Source: Forbes]
What is that one think that keeps a company focused on its goal? For Jeff Bezos, it’s knowing that every day is ‘Day 1’. He has reminded employees that Amazon will never stop being a startup. He even went so far as to name a building on Amazon’s campus Day 1, and when Bezos switched buildings the name followed him to his new building. Bezos thinks this focus is a necessity considering what happens on Day 2, once the startup times are over. “Day 2 is stasis,” he wrote in his 2016 Letter to Shareholders. “Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”
A 2012 Fortune profile of Bezos revealed that senior executives start meetings at Amazon in silence, with everyone reading six-page narrative memos about the topic they are gathered to discuss, for up to 30 minutes. By making the reading of the memo part of the meeting, everyone starts on the same page, with the same information. But the more important result is getting people within the company accustomed to framing their decision-making in narrative writing, rather than bullet points. “Full sentences are harder to write,” Bezos told Fortune. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”
He made sure people knew it was about the way of communicating information, not about the application itself, explaining, “If someone builds a list of bullet points in Word, that would be just as bad as PowerPoint.” Bezos also said it is important to classify decisions into two types since not all decisions have equal consequences. Type 1 decisions can’t be reversed and as such require great care. Type 2 decisions can be easily reversed. Bezos highlighted that it is important to avoid shortcuts and use the right process for the right type of decisions. “Any companies that habitually use the light-weight Type 2 decision-making process to make Type 1 decisions go extinct before they get large.”
6) Revisiting the role of the Science Journalist [Source: undark.org]
This piece throws light on what counts as science journalism and what doesn’t. For Erin Zimmerman, a plant molecular biologist turned freelance science writer living in Ontario, Canada, a recent plant science conference presented a rare opportunity to meet scientists working in the field and to gin up some story ideas. But things didn’t turn as planned. The conference organizer would only grant her a press pass if she allowed researchers she reported on, along with the conference committee, to review anything she wrote. In a series of haranguing emails, the older scientist dismissed journalistic standards, slammed scientific publishers like Nature, and criticized Zimmerman’s own work — including a story written for Undark. (To date Zimmerman has been published by Smithsonian.com, New York Magazine’s “The Cut,” and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.).
This provides an extreme example of a common misconception regarding science journalists. Some people believe that a science journalist is merely a translator whose job is to convey scientific information uncritically, and in a way that’s compelling and makes sense to non-technical readers. It’s true that effective and engaging translation of technical information is a skill any science journalist ought to have — but the job does not stop there. Zimmerman says that they use skills to capture the beauty and complexity of scientific endeavor, to be sure, but also its shortcomings, its failings, its biases, and conflicts. They ask critical questions about sample-size and research design, and communicate why those aspects of science matter, too. And they do so on behalf of readers, not scientists.
From 2008 to 2017, newsrooms eliminated nearly one out of four staff positions, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. And it wasn’t that long ago that media watchdogs worried that science reporting itself was on a path to extinction. Even in a diverse and welcoming communications ecosystem, however, the distinct role of journalism matters. Independence and accountability are vital to a functioning democracy, said Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. “Only science journalism can consistently deliver that.”
7) Podcast: Entrepreneurs, Then and Now [Source: a16z.com]
In this special podcast, to commemorate a16z’s 10th anniversary, Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, interviews the a16z co-founders, Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz. They talk about how new cycles of technology come and go, including some secular shifts. They also talk about how the tech landscape was different 10 years ago, when the firm was founded, and what it is now.
10 years ago, not only had the global economy just seen a recession, but trends like mobile, cloud and social media were just starting off. Further they discuss, how in these 10 years have made tech entrepreneurs as well. And what’s changed in the firm itself, given that Marc and Ben were yet again entrepreneurs in founding the firm too.
Talking about second time founders, they say that these people now know what they are doing as they’ve already been through everything. But, that’s not all. They too have problems. Throughout their conversation, they also recommend a few books which include “Who is Michael Ovitz”, and “Thinking in Bets” by Annie Duke.
8) National Language Debate: What does it mean for Indian pluralism? [Source: epw.in]
Hindi has been the official language of India, but many have rejected it (mostly in South India). The debate was recently resurrected by the Draft National Education Policy which seems to be giving Hindi more importance than other Indian languages. In fact, the number of native Hindi speakers in India are only around 44%, which includes speakers of languages such as Bhojpuri. In order to understand this we need to deep dive into the long history of the national language debate in India. 1) Language is a Primary Constituent of Identity: One of the reasons people feel very strongly about issues related to a national language or the “imposition” of a language is because language is at the core of an individual’s identity. It is in a language that an individual conceptualises and communicates his thoughts which enable him to actively participate in society.
2) The Role of the Constituent Assembly: The National Language Debate goes all the way back to the time of the Constituent Assembly. It was given the responsibility to debate the language question. However, many scholars such as Rama Kant Agnihotri believe that the assembly debates were dominated by a group of elites therefore marginalising the aspirations of the minorities. 3) The Deceptive Eighth Schedule: As multiple languages were being spoken by state populations of millions across the continent, an elusive solution came forth in the formation of the Eighth schedule. It comprises a list of official languages and the government is under obligation to ensure their development. However, the Eighth Schedule led to the destruction of mother tongues that were relegated to subordinate positions.
4) Language – The Centre of Nationalist Propaganda: Various policies on language have been framed both by the central and state governments that have been termed as forms of linguistic chauvinism. These include making Bengali compulsory in school of West Bengal and a pitch of making Marathi compulsory in all schools in Maharashtra. Another controversial policy was the three-language formula in the South. 5) The Emphasis Should Be on Official Languages: V K R V Rao pleads for a patient and national approach to the problem of language. He asks decision makers to not be clouded by temporary passions or the quest for short period expediencies. He believes the focus should not be on establishing one national language, but should be shifted to strengthening the official languages whose importance cannot be disregarded.
9) How coach Rahul Dravid is bridging the gap between domestic and international cricket [Source: The Hindu]
He known for his resilience, calmness, discipline and of course his batting ability! A sterling work ethic and a value-system drawn from the heart of cricket made him what he was — a role model on and off the field. His contribution to the Indian cricket while playing for the country has been immense and he hasn’t stopped there. After retirement, as a coach of the India under-19 and ‘A’ teams, he assumed charge in mid-2015. He has guided the next generation, honing their technique and, crucially, preparing them mentally for the challenges of international cricket.
Young players, who now play for the Indian cricket team, like Mayank Agarwal, Rishabh Pant, and Vijay Shankar, among others adore him and seek his advice. When Mayank Agarwal was pitchforked into the vital Melbourne Test, travelling on an SOS from India, he not only displayed a tight game against Mitchell Starc & Co. but also exhibited the strength of mind needed for the big stage on Boxing Day. Later, Mayank revealed that Dravid had spoken to him about “managing his mental energy” on the eve of the Test. What wonderful advice!
Even the selectors appreciate and seek Dravid’s advice on selecting players. Former India seamer Venkatesh Prasad, who headed the junior panel for more than two years, said, “Rahul is not only a great player but has wonderful communication skills.” Prasad added, “He throws up a lot of ideas during conversations. Rahul bridges the gap with the boys, puts them at ease, and encourages them to express themselves. And there is so much respect for him.” After batsman Shubman Gill was selected for the New Zealand tour, M.S.K. Prasad revealed, “We have discussed with Rahul (Dravid), that Shubman is ready for international cricket. The best part is the clutch of ‘A’ tours which has made all these players battle-ready for the biggest challenge.” It’s heartening that Dravid, constantly raising the bar, is leading this silent revolution. He continues to be a man on a mission.
10) Can ‘supercharged’ plants solve the climate crisis? [Source: foreignpolicy.com]
Do we have a solution to this climate change and rising global warming? The botanist Joanne Chory and her team of scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego think that they have found a solution. As part of her Harnessing Plants Initiative, Chory is focused on genetically modifying plants to absorb more carbon dioxide—and then hold on to it for longer—than their wild cousins through a larger and deeper network of carbon-storing roots, creating so-called Ideal Plants. Every year, humanity emits 37 gigatons of carbon dioxide; photosynthetic life can process and capture nearly half of that amount. Chory believes that coaxing a little more productivity out of plants could make a dramatic difference.
Talking about her Ideal Plant project, she says that the project was officially launched in 2017. It proposes a different way of thinking about climate change in casting carbon dioxide as a friend—as opposed to a villain in some epic, horrible science fiction story. There’s an urgency to deal with the rising carbon dioxide. And one way to solve that problem is to have plants absorb some of those carbons. The Ideal Plant project has chosen a compound that all plants make in their roots: It’s called suberin, and it’s the perfect carbon storage device. They are trying to get plants to make more suberin. All they have to do is make them about 2% more efficient at redistributing carbon than they are right now, and there will surely be a global change.
But, how and why will the farmers come aboard to use these supercharged plants? She says, “Farmers have a tough life as it is. They’re always mortgaging their house every year when they start their growing season. They can’t tolerate a loss in yield. That’s something we have to be very cognizant of and make sure that we have plants that will be attractive to the farmers. Also our plants are going to take about 10 years to really get online, and by then, things might be so bad that maybe we will have carbon taxes on companies that aren’t compliant on carbon footprint regulations. Maybe there will be credits for farmers who have crops that suck up carbon dioxide.” She also says that there are further more challenges like law and policies, but she is confident that this is the way forward.