Three Longs & Three Shorts

Published on: 17th Mar, 2019

This week’s reads focus on how parents make their kids models for brands on social media, the social logic of college admissions in the US, the world of undersea cables, the impact of rising life expectancy on wealth managers, why 737 Max should not be feared and how China is gaining the upper hand over Germany.

1.       Long read: How Parents of Child Influencers Package Their Kids’ Lives for Instagram

Author: Allie Volpe
Source: The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/02/inside-lives-child-instagram-influencers/583675/)

Parents are now spending serious time and effort get their kids’ images online from the time they are toddlers. Even before they can start walking, these kids become infant “style hackers” – basically, paid models for clothing companies – as their parents post their photos on Instagram and other social media sites. Some parents have even quit their jobs to do this full time:

“Many of these posts are sponsored by retailers, such as the Honest Company, Jessica Alba’s natural-baby-product brand, or eBay. Wixom said that these companies accurately represent her Los Angeles–based family’s values—which means you won’t see @ministylehacker promoting CBD oils, diet pills, or anything Collette thinks her kids would be embarrassed by when they grow up. When Collette started @ministylehacker, she was working in yearbook sales. Now she makes her living by working with an agent, brokering partnership deals (Wixom declined to share her fees for sponsored posts), and packaging her family’s life for Instagram and YouTube.”

Clothes is just the tip of iceberg. These children are also used to promote toys, foods and even kitchen appliances. Instagram has been particularly influential in bringing to the fore this new form of advertising:

“Since the early days of mommy blogging, kids’ everyday lives—and the merchandise associated with them—have been common internet fodder. As the popular platform for documenting one’s life shifted from textual blogs to the more visual medium of Instagram, it became easier to make money through simply sharing a picture of a child and a product rather than presenting a narrative around parenting itself, Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist at Australia’s Deakin University, told me.

Though a photo might appear simpler to create than a long narrative blog post, complex preparations go into packaging a kid’s life for Instagram. “When the money came into play, the visual aesthetic, the vocabulary, and the processes of capturing parenthood on social media greatly changed,” Abidin said. “With the rise of the influencer industry en masse, instead of the stories of children going through the process of trying out the products with their moms, they have been reduced to props.””
There is big money being made by some of the parents but as you can imagine this sort of commercialising of your children’s lives might not end well. In fact, the rise of this phenomenon itself is an interesting commentary on how many of us struggle to understand the ethics underpinning what we do in life:

“The ease with which fun with kids can easily become work leads many Instagram parents to draw careful boundaries. Foos told me that she took a step back from social media after she woke Vada up one day before school to take a picture. “That just didn’t feel right,” she said. Foos and Vada took a couple of two-week posting hiatuses at the start of the year to reset. Dedukaj said she once canceled one of Laerta’s appearances because she thought she was putting too much pressure on her daughter.

As these kidfluencers age—and age out of their parents’ vision of their life—what will become of their platform? Princeton Cannon, a 10-year-old from Atlanta, is aware of the work involved in making his Instagram pop: the photo shoots, the exclusive events, the outfit selection. (Princeton receives thousands of dollars’ worth of clothing to model on his feed.) “He says, ‘Do you think my fans would like this?’” Keira Cannon, Princeton’s mother, told me.”

2.       Long read: Getting In – The social logic of Ivy League admissions
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Source: The New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/10/10/getting-in)

In the wake of last week’s American college admissions scandal (which ironically was brought to light thanks to a securities fraud accused), this 2005 New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell highlights the farcical nature of elite school admissions that most parents get drawn into. Gladwell at his investigative best, shows how Harvard (and later Yale and Princeton) changed its admissions process in the 1920’s, first to stop the growing proportion of Jews who would dominate any academic criteria to now when it is akin to a ‘luxury-brand-management business’ i.e, meeting more of a social need than an economic one (here Mr Housel concurs)

“The admissions office at Harvard became much more interested in the details of an applicant’s personal life. Lowell told his admissions officers to elicit information about the “character” of candidates from “persons who know the applicants well,” and so the letter of reference became mandatory. Harvard started asking applicants to provide a photograph. Candidates had to write personal essays, demonstrating their aptitude for leadership, and list their extracurricular activities. “Starting in the fall of 1922,” Karabel writes, “applicants were required to answer questions on ‘Race and Color,’ ‘Religious Preference,’ ‘Maiden Name of Mother,’ ‘Birthplace of Father,’ and ‘What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully).’ ”

….Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful…

…At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training—that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide. Fuelling the treatment-effect idea are studies showing that if you take two students with the same S.A.T. scores and grades, one of whom goes to a school like Harvard and one of whom goes to a less selective college, the Ivy Leaguer will make far more money ten or twenty years down the road.

…. For most students, though, the general rule seems to be that if you are a hardworking and intelligent person you’ll end up doing well regardless of where you went to school. You’ll make good contacts at Penn. But Penn State is big enough and diverse enough that you can make good contacts there, too. Having Penn on your résumé opens doors. But if you were good enough to get into Penn you’re good enough that those doors will open for you anyway. “I can see why families are really concerned about this,” Krueger went on. “The average graduate from a top school is making nearly a hundred and twenty thousand dollars a year, the average graduate from a moderately selective school is making ninety thousand dollars. That’s an enormous difference, and I can see why parents would fight to get their kids into the better school. But I think they are just assigning to the school a lot of what the student is bringing with him to the school.”

…The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in—that those who are denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow been harmed. If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you are harmed. But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it turns away are not sick. Élite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience—an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an élite —and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.

3.       Long read: People think that data is in the cloud, but it’s not. It’s in the ocean
Author: Adam Satariano
Source: NY Times
(https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/03/10/technology/internet-cables-oceans.html)

With wireless internet becoming ubiquitous, most of us are oblivious to the fact that much of the data criss-crossing the internet travels through cables, mostly under-sea. And it isn’t just internet or telecom service providers, big tech including the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc are laying their own undersea cables to get proprietary infrastructure to move data – it is indeed the new oil. Some fascinating data points in the NY Times piece by Adam Satariano about what goes into laying these cables. Eg, it takes four weeks to load a ship with the cable to be laid out in the sea,  cables connecting the continents now run up to as much as three fourths of a million miles, etc

“People think that data is in the cloud, but it’s not,” said Jayne Stowell, who oversees construction of Google’s undersea cable projects. “It’s in the ocean.” Getting it there is an exacting and time-intensive process. A 456-foot ship named Durable will eventually deliver the cable to sea. But first, the cable is assembled inside a sprawling factory a few hundred yards away, in Newington, N.H. The factory, owned by the company SubCom, is filled with specialized machinery used to maintain tension in the wire and encase it in protective skin.

The cables begin as a cluster of strands of tiny threads of glass fibers. Lasers propel data down the threads at nearly the speed of light, using fiber-optic technology. After reaching land and connecting with an existing network, the data needed to read an email or open a web page makes its way onto a person’s device.

In the manufacturing process, the cables move through high-speed mills the size of jet engines, wrapping the wire in a copper casing that carries electricity across the line to keep the data moving. Depending on where the cable will be located, plastic, steel and tar are added later to help it withstand unpredictable ocean environments. When finished, the cables will end up the size of a thick garden hose.

A year of planning goes into charting a cable route that avoids underwater hazards, but the cables still have to withstand heavy currents, rock slides, earthquakes and interference from fishing trawlers. Each cable is expected to last up to 25 years. A conveyor that staff members call “the Cable Highway” moves the cable directly into Durable, docked in the Piscataqua River. The ship will carry over 4,000 miles of cable weighing about 3,500 metric tons when fully loaded. Inside the ship, workers spool the cable into cavernous tanks. One person walks the cable swiftly in a circle, as if laying out a massive garden hose, while others lie down to hold it in place to ensure it doesn’t snag or knot. Even with teams working around the clock, it takes about four weeks before the ship is loaded up with enough cable to hit the open sea.

Poor weather is inevitable. Swells reach up to 20 feet, occasionally requiring the ship captain to order the subsea cable to be cut so the ship can seek safer waters. When conditions improve, the ship returns, retrieving the cut cable that has been left attached to a floating buoy, then splicing it back together before continuing. Work on board is slow and plodding. The ship, at sea for months at a time, moves about six miles per hour, as the cables are pulled from the giant basins out through openings at the back of the ship. Closer to shore, where there’s more risk of damage, an underwater plow is used to bury the cable in the sea floor.

The Durable crew doesn’t expect the work to slow down anytime soon. After the Latin America project, Google plans to build a new cable running from Virginia to France, set to be done by 2020. The company has 13 data centers open around the world, with eight more under construction — all needed to power the trillions of Google searches made each year and the more than 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube each minute.

“It really is management of a very complex multidimensional chess board,” said Ms. Stowell of Google, who wears an undersea cable as a necklace. Demand for undersea cables will only grow as more businesses rely on cloud computing services. And technology expected around the corner, like more powerful artificial intelligence and driverless cars, will all require fast data speeds as well. Areas that didn’t have internet are now getting access, with the United Nations reporting that for the first time more than half the global population is now online. “This is a huge part of the infrastructure that’s making that happen,” said Debbie Brask, the vice president at SubCom, who is managing the Google project. “All of that data is going in the undersea cables.”

4.       Short read:  How Merrill Lynch is Planning for its Customers to Live to 100
Author: Susan Wilner Golden, Laura Carstensen
Source: Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2019/03/how-merrill-lynch-is-planning-for-its-customers-to-live-to-100)

As lifespans increase, there is good chance that many of us will live into our 90s. This is going to create new avenues for wealth managers to make money. Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch Wealth Management is seeking to latch on to these opportunities.

“In 2014, the company convened multiple business lines for a strategic meeting. They reviewed the new demographic changes and asked leaders from each group to consider how longevity would impact their business and to identify needs and opportunities it created.

Initially, the company asked: “What is on people’s minds when they think about retirement?” Research projects and in-depth studies on the question produced a comprehensive framework for financial advisors that helped people get to and navigate through retirement. It is called the 7 Life Priorities. The program enhances the retirement planning by focusing well beyond just financial health to encompass all 7 major areas in which life priorities change in retirement: Family, work, health, home, giving, leisure, and, of course, finances.

New initiatives, research, tools, checklists, training, and education were also created to enhance the use of the new framework and the institution’s longevity strategy. The goal was to be sure each client and their advisor could address the simple question: “Are You Fit to Live to 100?””
The article describes the six program that Merrill has unveiled to capitalise on this opportunity:

“A Specially Trained Longevity Advisor Force: Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch Wealth Management hired the industry’s first financial gerontologist in 2014 to help the more than 14,000 financial advisors better understand the needs of their clients…The financial gerontologist, provides training, education, resources and one-on-one attention to engage clients on the topics of aging, longevity, retirement, and life planning….A supplemental training module on Cognitive Decline and Alzheimer’s disease was added recently, and a training program across different life stages has also been developed.

New Tools and Resources for Clients to Prepare for Longevity:…A Preparing for Longevity Checklist was created that outlines points to consider at every stage of retirement, including: Planning for the Future (ages 50-59); Medicare and Required Distributions, Social Security and Withdrawal Strategy (ages 60- 70 ½). Additional checklists and assessment tools were created, e.g., How Sound is Your Estate Plan? And What’s Your Investment Personality?…

Forums for Discussions on Longevity and Related Issues: Communities across the country have held meetings for clients, business, civic and nonprofit representatives to start dialogues about longevity and its impact on local communities….
Financial Education for Clients: …The company partnered with Khan Academy to create financial literacy videos and online resources, called Better Money Habits, on a broad range of topics, and including content focused on caregiving.

New Tools for the Unique Planning Needs of Women: In 2018, Merrill Lynch conducted research on women and financial wellness. It identified a $1 million wealth gap for women by the time they reach retirement, due to the wage gap and career interruptions, and on average longer lifespans than men. These findings led to a new initiatives, tools and checklists focused specifically on women’s life journeys, including parenting and elder caregiving. The research also found that women’s number one financial regret is not investing more of their money, so their financial advisors now plan with a goals-based approach that takes into account a woman’s longer lifespan and unique planning needs towards financial wellness.…

“Longevity will become the core organizing principle for all financial services companies,” according to Russ Hill, Chairman and CEO of Halbert Hargrove Global Advisors, a financial services industry expert. “It will be necessary for considerations of time,” as lifespan and health span will be the new paradigm.”

5.       Short read: Do not fear flying on the Boeing 737 Max
Author: John Gapper
Source: Financial Times (https://www.ft.com/content/4a496d0e-44bc-11e9-a965-23d669740bfb)

This piece was written before Trump grounded the 737 Max’s in America but most other countries had. Still, John Gapper’s arguments in favour of automation in aviation or ‘fly-by-wire” as it is called, make a lot of sense. His key argument rests on the overwhelming data that most aerial accidents have been attributed to pilot error. Indeed, he shows that fatal accidents have reduced from 11 in a million to 0.1 in the last six decades, thanks to technology. Whilst French investigators are checking out the blackboxes to ascertain the cause of the Ethiopian airlines crash, Gapper reckons the error could be similar to that of the Lion Air crash in Indonesia last October, where the system overrode the pilot causing the crash but the override was triggered by a faulty sensor. He goes on to point out that such very overrides have indeed prevented several potential crashes in the past. Ironically, the advent of technology has only reduced the alertness and skills of pilots (90% of flying time in America is on autopilot). Fearing a backlash on technology, he instead recommends improving on sensors and software fixes and pilot training than otherwise.

“….flying is far less dangerous than it was decades ago — the 11 fatal accidents per million flights in 1960 fell to around 0.1 in 2017, with only six fatal crashes and 19 deaths. The main contributor to this advance is technology, especially fly-by-wire software that responds to the pilots’ touch on the controls by adjusting the thrust, flaps and other surfaces to produce the desired outcome. This includes “flight envelope protection”, which means that if a pilot tries to turn the jet too sharply, or push up the nose and risk a catastrophic stall, the software can disobey in some modes.

As fly-by-wire aircraft have superseded earlier generations of autopilot, the number of crashes caused by pilot error (which is responsible for more than half of accidents) has fallen. Nearly half the commercial aircraft in service are now fourth generation jets, which have reduced “loss of control in flight” crashes such as the Lion Air case by 75 per cent, according to Airbus.

Technology has its drawbacks — the spread of fly-by-wire and use of autopilot means that some of the biggest dangers lie on the border between human and computer control. Pilots usually switch on autopilot shortly after take-off and do not fly manually until landing (the FAA estimates that autopilot is used for 90 per cent of flying time), which limits their experience.

The best known recent case of pilots being unable to cope without technology was the Air France flight 447 crash of an Airbus 330 over the Atlantic in 2009. Its autopilot disengaged in a storm because airspeed sensors were blocked and an inexperienced co-pilot put it into too steep a climb. While the control system warned loudly of the danger, it stalled and fell out of the sky.  The 737 Max 8 may have suffered the opposite problem — the pilots were flying both jets manually but part of the flight software is designed to override the aircraft’s tendency to pitch its nose up when climbing and turning. In the Lion Air case, a faulty sensor reading could have made the computers respond as if it was breaching its flight envelope, although it was not.

The 737 Max 8 crashes will turn out to have been avoidable if its software contributed to losses of control. But Boeing need not redesign its aircraft entirely, and curbing the involvement of computers in flight systems more generally makes little sense. The moral is that pilots should be sufficiently trained and practised to fly manually if required.

Given the choice of flying on an aircraft with pilots who are wholly in charge of the trip, or one on which software is able to countermand them if it senses an error, I would pick the latter. The 737 Max 8 accidents, tragic though they are, do not alter that.”

6.       Short read: China gains the upper hand over Germany
Author: Wolfgang Munchau
Source: Financial Times (https://on.ft.com/2UoEB4K)

This perceptive piece from Wolfgang Munchau underscores just how powerful China has become relative to almost every other country in the world barring the United States. Chinese power is not so much about raw economic growth as it is about China’s growing technological prowess. Munchau writes that “Last week, a German business magazine reported that a senior official of Angela Merkel’s chancellery had visited China to explore an anti-spying agreement. Such agreements are usually not worth the paper they are written on. The context of this visit was the bid by Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications equipment maker, for the fifth generation mobile licences in Germany (on which a decision is due at some point this month). A no-spying agreement would allow Germany to pretend that China does not constitute a security threat after all…Germany is ambivalent about China. It needs Chinese technology, such as Huawei’s. German mobile phone operators are particularly keen on Huawei’s 5G bid because they already use the Chinese company’s hardware in their networks”
Even as Germany is keen to maintain access to Chinese products, it is passing legislation to limit China’s ability to acquire German companies: “But Germany also worries about Chinese companies acquiring its technology. Last December, a new law reduced the threshold of equity stakes that automatically trigger a mergers investigation. The new industrial strategy, recently proposed by Peter Altmaier, the economy minister, wants to protect entire sectors from Chinese acquisitions — aircraft, finance, telecommunication, trains, energy and robotics…Germany once saw China as an export market for machinery with which China would develop its industrial base. Today, China is becoming the senior partner in the relationship.”

In contrast to this, we in India have few, if any, safeguards to protect ourselves from the growing technological might of the Chinese. Most of our electronics – including the core of our telecom networks – come from China. Moreover, Alibaba is now an omnipresent investor in the Indian tech services sector. As we spend our mornings reading the PM’s latest pronouncements regarding Pakistan, one cannot but help wonder whether we are still fighting last century’s war. The real threat is more muscular, more technologically advanced, better equipped and financially mightier than Pakistan.

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