Three Longs & Three Shorts

Published on: 24th Mar, 2019

This week’s reads focus on the world of safecrackers, the English vs Mother Tongue debate, how social media is transforming commerce, education and politics, leadership lessons from the Qantas CEO, what makes a fulfilling career and how cleaner environs are killing our immunity.

1. Long read: Meet the safecracker of last resort
Author: Geoff Manaugh
Source: The Atlantic  (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/12/professional-safecracker-reveals-his-craft/577897/)

This story profiles Charlie Santore, a 48-year-old safecracker licensed in the city of Los Angeles. Charlie operates under the name Santore & Son and he goes about his business in a 1997 Mercedes so overloaded with safecracking equipment that its trunk nearly scrapes the ground. The author says:

“I spent more than six months shadowing Santore because I wanted to know what the city looks like through the eyes of a safecracker, a person for whom no vault is an actual barrier and no safe is truly secure. There are a lot of safecrackers, I learned, but the good ones, like Santore, live in a state of magical realism, suspended somewhere between technology and superstition. The safecracker sees what everyone else has been hiding—the stashed cash and jewels, the embarrassing photographs. He is a kind of human X-ray revealing the true, naked secrets of a city.

A good safe technician can pass through sealed bank vaults and open jammed strongboxes after just a few minutes of casual manipulation, using skills that often look more like sleight of hand. But just when I started to think that it was all art, pure finesse, I’d see feats of sheer industrial brutality, watching Santore bore through several inches of heavy metal at a time, aerosolized steel filing past his face like smoke.”

Unlike many Indian promoters, Charlie has already got his succession planning in place: “The son in Santore & Son is Charlie’s kid Louis, 13, who appears now and then on the Instagram feed. Louis Santore is being groomed…to take over the family business.”
Demand for Charlie’s services is so high that he rarely gets a spare minute: “As Santore completes one job, another will arise in the form of frantic phone calls—a jewelry business locked out of its vault, a suburban father whose gun safe no longer operates, an investor flipping houses who discovers a locked safe in the floor of her newest conquest. He even keeps a bulletproof vest in his car trunk for when he’s called out to open an ATM, in case he gets held up for the cash inside.”
What makes Charlie’s career even more interesting is that supply is limited in his industry: “An invaluable resource for the field is a members-only online forum hosted by the National Safecrackers’ Organization. The forum is small, with slightly more than 200 active members, but it is very busy, buzzing most of the day with posts…”

2.        Long read:  ‘We spoke English to set ourselves apart’: how I rediscovered my mother tongue
Author: Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
Source: The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/mar/14/we-spoke-english-to-set-ourselves-apart-nigeria-childhood-igbo-language )

Most of us in urban India often find it frustratingly amusing that how our kids can patiently respond in English to our endless questions intentionally thrown in the vernacular. In this beautiful piece in the Guardian, Adaobi narrates his experience of English versus the mother tongue in Nigeria, an experience that most Indians will be able to relate to, given similarities around colonial history and the heterogeneity of local dialects.

“..my parents had chosen to speak only English to their children. Guests in our home adjusted to the fact that we were an English-speaking household, with varying degrees of success. Our helps were also encouraged to speak English. Many arrived from their remote villages unable to utter a single word of the foreign tongue, but as the weeks rolled by, they soon began to string complete sentences together with less contortion of their faces. My parents also spoke to each other in English – never mind that they had grown up speaking Igbo with their families. On the rare occasion my father and mother spoke Igbo to each other, it was a clear sign that they were conducting a conversation in which the children were not supposed to participate.
Adaobi brings out the Singapore experience of adopting English as a critical tool towards becoming a developed economy under Lee Kuan Yew. “…he believed the future of his country’s children depended on their command of the language of the latest textbooks, which would undoubtedly be English.

“With English, no race would have an advantage,” he wrote. “English as our working language has … given us a competitive advantage because it is the international language of business and diplomacy, of science and technology. Without it, we would not have many of the world’s multinationals and over 200 of the world’s top banks in Singapore. Nor would our people have taken so readily to computers and the internet.” Within a few decades of independence from Britain in 1965, Singapore had risen from poverty and disorder to become an economic powerhouse. The country’s transformation under Lee’s guidance is often described as dramatic.

Speaking English was just one way of showing off, especially when one lived, like my parents, in what was then a small, little-known town. Some of my parents’ contemporaries distinguished themselves by appending their academic qualifications to their names. Apart from academics and medical doctors, it was common to hear people describe themselves as Architect Peter or Engineer Paul or Pharmacist Okoro.

Africans are no longer helplessly watching outsiders tell our own stories, as we did in past decades, but foreigners still retain the veto over the stories we tell. Publishers in Britain and America decide which of our narratives to present to the world. Then their judges decide which of us to award accolades – and subsequent fame. The literary audiences in our various countries usually watch and wait until the west crowns a new writer, then begin applauding that person. Local writers without some western seal of approval are automatically regarded by their compatriots as inferior.

Perhaps Ngũgĩ and some other African writers care little about westerners being able to read their works. It could be that Nobel prizes and sales figures mean absolutely nothing to them. Maybe they are quite content with a local audience – but the local audiences themselves may not be able to read the authors’ books written in Gikuyu or Igbo or Chi.

Africa currently has the world’s lowest literacy rates. Unesco reports that more than 1 in 3 adults in sub-Saharan Africa are unable to read and write, as are 47 million young people (ages 15-24). The region accounts for almost half of the 64 million primary school-aged children in the world who are not in school. Not even the English are born with the ability to read their language. They are taught – usually in schools.

That said, having one language to dominate others must have reduced conflict. If, for example, we decided to dump English and use a mother tongue as the language of instruction in local schools, which of the at least 300 tongues in Nigeria or the 70 in Kenya or the 120 in Tanzania (and so on) would those countries use to teach their children? This would be more difficult than ever today, when many African societies are becoming urbanised, with different ethnic groups converging in the same locality. Which language should schools select and which should they abandon? How many fresh accusations of marginalisation would arise from this process?

3. Long read: What the hell is going on?
Author: David Perell
Source: Perell (https://www.perell.com/blog/what-the-hell-is-going-on)

Most of us would have observed and pondered over the effects of social media on various aspects of the society and economy alike. David Perell puts those observations in a framework that allows the reader to distinctly see these changes, especially focusing on the fields of commerce, education and politics and how the effects are in someways similar in all three fields. Central to the transformation is the shift from information scarcity to information abundance in the hands of the consumer, the student and the voter. Such a shift is obviously disrupting incumbents breaking down entry barriers (brand and distribution are no longer the competitive advantages that they used to be) whilst allowing new comers to take a shot at an industry’s profit pie which hitherto would have been out of reach given the stranglehold of mass media as the main tool of influence and the consequent prohibitive costs. “…legacy advertisers, distribution channels, and the mass media once formed an impenetrable holy trinity but now that trinity rests on wobbly ground, and its parts will decompose into fossils of the Mass Media era….among the top 100 consumer-packaged good (CPG) brands, 90 percent experienced a decline in market share in 2015 and in the past three years, over $17 billion in sales has evaporated from the 10 largest U.S. packaged-food companies.”

In education, large universities are being disintermediated to the benefit of both students and teachers to deliver the value proposition in the industry. David reckons ”Harvard and Stanford will be okay, but dark days are ahead for mid-tier universities” But given the unravelling of admission processes, it is not clear why the Ivy league should be any more moated.

“Burdened by rising costs and unable to justify tuition prices, mid-tier universities are on the brink of bankruptcy. Clayton Christensen, who coined the term “disruption,” predicts 50% of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States will be bankrupt in the next 10 to 15 years. The challenges are most acute for mid-size liberal arts schools such as Concord University in West Virginia. Its freshman enrollment fell 19% in five years. It burned through $12 million in reserves, and now it can’t afford to tear down to empty dormitories. “

The best section of the article is the one on politics which David uses to conclude why despite the threat of fake news and the ability of politicians or anyone else wanting to use social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to influence public opinion, it is still better than the status quo – in the past, given the information asymmetry we took for granted any information thrown at us by an individual or entity with a perceived sense of authority – such as Walter Cronkite’s (the influential CBS anchor) role in tilting Amercians’ opinion about the Vietnam War or the role of Britannica encyclopedia as the ultimate authority on a subject of our curiosity vs our ability to question Wikipedia’s authenticity. Now with not just a shift towards information abundance but also two-way information flow, the ability to influence public opinion is with the anti-status quo.

“In political science, the “Overton Window” represents the range of acceptable opinions in society. Rather than controlling speech itself, people can control speech by determining the limits of acceptable conversation. As Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics said: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum…

Before cable, the limits of acceptable speech were enforced by political parties, who, due to their incentives for mass appeal, encouraged political centrism. With the stroke of a pen, small groups set narratives for the masses. Every town has one or two newspapers and three TV stations — all centrist, pro-business, and respectful of authority. Newspapers and television stations monopolized the distribution of information within their local territory. Through their power, they built social cohesion by eliminating diverse opinion and creating a shared intellectual ground for citizens…”

4.   Short read: Qantas Airways CEO Delivered a Masterclass in Leadership
Author: Dan Pontefract
Source: Forbes (https://www.forbes.com/sites/danpontefract/2019/03/11/qantas-airways-ceo-delivered-a-masterclass-in-leadership/#6239a5ad6d1d)

The article describes a remarkable exchange of letters between Irishman Alan Joyce is the CEO of Qantas Airways and 10 year old, Alex Jacquot, the self-appointed CEO of Australia’s newest airline company, Oceania Express.

Alex wrote to Alan Joyce a letter in which he posed a range of questions: “First, being on school holiday, Jacquot wonders what he should be doing as CEO, given he has “more time to work with.”

Second, Jacquot is looking for a few tips on starting an airline, stating, “I’d be very grateful to know what you have to say.”

And third, Jacquot is curious about the Sydney/Melbourne to London flight on the new A350 airplane, and is “having a lot of trouble thinking about sleep.” He wishes for advice from Joyce on what to do for the passengers over the gruelling 25-hour flight.”
Remarkably, Alan Joyce not only took the time to respond but also requested Alex to join him for a strategy session.

“Here’s how the letter opened: Thank you for letting me know about your new airline. I had heard some rumours of another entrant in the market, so I appreciate you taking the time to write. First, I should say that I’m not typically in the business of giving advice to my competitors. Your newly-appointed Head of Legal might have something to say about that, too. But I’m going to make an exception on this occasion because I too was once a young boy who was so curious about flight and all its possibilities.”…
Joyce then invited Jacquot to Qantas headquarters for “a Project Sunrise meeting between myself, as the CEO of Australia’s oldest airline, and you, as the CEO of Australia’s newest airline.”
No word yet on how that meeting between CEOs turned out, but at the very root of this story is Joyce’s touching example of compassion. It’s also a clear-cut example of love-based leadership, something I’m going to be discussing in this column more and more over the coming weeks and months.”

5. Short read: What makes a fulfilling career? Ask a teenager
Author: Janan Ganesh
Source: Financial Times (https://www.ft.com/content/ce31b2de-3a7b-11e9-b856-5404d3811663)

When we are young, we want to do something creative, something fun in our lives. As we grow older, other considerations kick in and often we find ourselves stuck in a career which is anything but fund & creative. Janan Ganesh delves into why this happens and what we can do stop the next generation getting caught in the same rat race.

“The bitterest divide among working people I know is not money, even though their incomes now range from well south of the national average to the tens of millions. It is the extent to which they are able to express themselves in their work…Those who cannot are apt to lose themselves in the extramural with an avidity that only makes me wonder at what they must be escaping. Beyond a certain level of material comfort…people start casting restlessly around for opportunities to create.

…art forms that have always struck me as monstrously over-supplied, such as fiction and, in Britain, stand-up comedy, now make all the sense in the world. Many of the jobbing practitioners did not start out in these fields at 18 or 21. They are eking out an escapist sideline to their unloved careers. They are not dilettantes. They are more desperate than that…Regardless, they will keep writing or acting or honing jokes until they absolutely have to give it up…To have no outlet at all is a kind of death.

These are, I realise, improbable candidates for sympathy. They are well into the fourth tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They have sustenance, material trappings (often lots of them), intimate relationships and professional respect. It is just that the transition into the fifth tier — “self-actualisation” — turns out to be a great divider in life….The young, when charting their way in life, deserve to know.”

6. Short read: Your Environment Is Cleaner. Your Immune System Has Never Been So Unprepared
Author: Matt Richtel
Source: NY Times  (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/health/immune-system-allergies.html?action=click&module=Discovery&pgtype=Homepage)

When one of our readers sent this article to us, I immediately forwarded it to the missus to score a point in the endless debate over kids’ hygiene. But even the more relaxed amongst us are far more obsessed about cleanliness compared to our previous generations. Our fathers would have recommended applying a bit of soil from the football pitch on the wound from the fall and get on with the game but I am not sure if many from our generation would find it cool enough. Matt Richtel, in this well researched piece shows that with increase in cleanliness and hygiene conditions, humans’ immune system does not interact regularly with the natural world and hence becomes hyper sensitive and prone to allergies.

“….”I tell people, when they drop food on the floor, please pick it up and eat it,” said Dr. Meg Lemon, a dermatologist in Denver who treats people with allergies and autoimmune disorders. “Get rid of the antibacterial soap. Immunize! If a new vaccine comes out, run and get it. I immunized the living hell out of my children. And it’s O.K. if they eat dirt.”

Dr. Lemon’s prescription for a better immune system doesn’t end there. “You should not only pick your nose, you should eat it,” she said. She’s referring, with a facetious touch, to the fact our immune system can become disrupted if it doesn’t have regular interactions with the natural world. “Our immune system needs a job,” Dr. Lemon said. “We evolved over millions of years to have our immune systems under constant assault. Now they don’t have anything to do.” She isn’t alone. Leading physicians and immunologists are reconsidering the antiseptic, at times hysterical, ways in which we interact with our environment.

“..The British Journal of Homeopathy, volume 29, published in 1872, included a startlingly prescient observation: “Hay fever is said to be an aristocratic disease, and there can be no doubt that, if it is not almost wholly confined to the upper classes of society, it is rarely, if ever, met with but among the educated.” Hay fever is a catchall term for seasonal allergies to pollen and other airborne irritants. With this idea that hay fever was an aristocratic disease, British scientists were on to something. More than a century later, in November 1989, another highly influential paper was published on the subject of hay fever. The paper was short, less than two pages, in BMJ, titled “Hay Fever, Hygiene, and Household Size.” The author looked at the prevalence of hay fever among 17,414 children born in March 1958. Of 16 variables the scientist explored, he described as “most striking” an association between the likelihood that a child would get hay fever allergy and the number of his or her siblings.It was an inverse relationship, meaning the more siblings the child had, the less likely it was that he or she would get the allergy. Not just that, but the children least likely to get allergies were ones who had older siblings. The paper hypothesized that “allergic diseases were prevented by infection in early childhood, transmitted by unhygienic contact with older siblings, or acquired prenatally from a mother infected by contact with her older children. “Over the past century declining family size, improvements in household amenities, and higher standards of personal cleanliness have reduced the opportunity for cross infection in young families,” the paper continued. “This may have resulted in more widespread clinical expression of atopic disease, emerging in wealthier people, as seems to have occurred for hay fever.”
“We survived over tens of thousands of years. Eventually, we washed our hands, swept our floors, cooked our food, avoided certain foods altogether. We improved the hygiene of the animals we raised and slaughtered for food. Particularly in the wealthier areas of the world, we purified our water, and developed plumbing and waste treatment plants; we isolated and killed bacteria and other germs. The immune system’s enemies list was attenuated, largely for the good. Now, though, our bodies are proving that they cannot keep up with this change. We have created a mismatch between the immune system — one of the longest surviving and most refined balancing acts in the world — and our environment. Thanks to all the powerful learning we’ve done as a species, we have minimized the regular interaction not just with parasites but even with friendly bacteria and parasites that helped to teach and hone the immune system — that “trained” it. It doesn’t encounter as many bugs when we are babies. This is not just because our homes are cleaner, but also because our families are smaller (fewer older children are bringing home the germs), our foods and water cleaner, our milk sterilized. Some refer to the lack of interaction with all kinds of microbes we used to meet in nature as the “old friends mechanism.”

What does the immune system do when it’s not properly trained? It can overreact. It becomes aggrieved by things like dust mites or pollen. It develops what we called allergies, chronic immune system attacks — inflammation — in a way that is counterproductive, irritating, even dangerous. The percentage of children in the United States with a food allergy rose 50 percent between 1997–1999 and 2009–2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The jump in skin allergies was 69 percent during that period, leaving 12.5 percent of American children with eczema and other irritations. Food and respiratory allergies rose in tandem with income level. More money, which typically correlates with higher education, has meant more risk of allergy. This may reflect differences in who reports such allergies, but it also springs from differences in environment.

These trends are seen internationally, too. Skin allergies “doubled or tripled in industrialized countries during the past three decades, affecting 15–30 percent of children and 2–10 percent of adults,” according to a paper citing research from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. By 2011, one in four children in Europe had an allergy, and the figure was on the rise, according to a report by the World Allergy Organization. Reinforcing the hygiene hypothesis, the paper noted that migration studies have shown that children born overseas have lower levels of some types of both allergy and autoimmunity than migrants whose children are born in the United States.”

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