Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to the 'ultimate fake news scenario', the 'role of skill in various sports' and 'similarities in Jane Austen's England and Pakistan'

Published: Oct 29, 2017

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Image: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, including investment analysis, psychology, science, technology, philosophy, etc. We have been sharing our favourite reads with clients under our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week’s iteration are related to the ‘ultimate fake news scenario’, the ‘role of skill in various sports’ and ‘similarities in Jane Austen’s England and Pakistan’.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended October 27, 2017:

1) The ultimate fake news scenario [Financial Times]
Imagine looking in a mirror and seeing not your own reflection but that of Donald Trump. Each time you contort your face, you simultaneously contort his. You smile, he smiles. You scowl, he scowls. You control, in real time, the face of the president of the USA. That is the sinister potential of Face2Face, a technology developed by researchers at Stanford University in California that allows someone to transpose their facial gestures on to the video of someone else. Now imagine marrying that “facial re-enactment” technology to artfully snipped audio clips of the president’s previous public pronouncements. You post your creation on YouTube: a convincing snippet of Mr. Trump declaring nuclear war against North Korea. In the current climate, this video might well go viral before the White House can scramble a denial. It is the ultimate fake news scenario but not an inconceivable one: scientists have already demonstrated the concept by altering YouTube videos of George HW Bush, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin.

Spotting fakery takes time and expert knowledge, meaning that the bulk of bogus pictures slip into existence unchallenged. Now Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the USA, has launched a five-year programme which is intended to turn out a system capable of analysing hundreds of thousands of images a day and immediately assessing if they have been tampered with. Professor Hany Farid, a computer scientist at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, is among the academics involved. He specialises in detecting the manipulation of images, and his work includes assignments for law enforcement agencies and media organisations. “I’ve now seen the technology get good enough that I’m very concerned,” Prof. Farid told Nature last week. “At some point, we will reach a stage when we can generate realistic video, with audio, of a world leader, and that’s going to be very disconcerting.”

The first step with a questionable picture is to feed it into a reverse image search, such as Google Image Search, which will retrieve the picture if it has appeared elsewhere (this has proven surprisingly useful in uncovering scientific fraud, in instances when authors have plagiarised graphs). Photographs can be scrutinised for unusual edges or disturbances in colour. A colour image is composed of single, one-colour pixels. The lone dots are combined in particular ways to create the many hues and shading in a photograph. Inserting another image, or airbrushing something out, disrupts that characteristic pixellation. Shadows are another giveaway. Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have also developed an ingenious method of determining whether the people in video clips are real or animated. By magnifying video clips and checking colour differences in a person’s face, they can deduce whether the person has a pulse.

That said, with the aid of machine learning, fraudsters can build “generative adversarial networks” (GAN). A GAN is a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde network that, on the one hand, generates images and, on the other, rejects those that do not measure up authentically against a library of images. The result is a machine with its own inbuilt devil’s advocate, able to teach itself how to generate hard-to-spot fakes. For instance, two students built a program capable of producing art that looks like genuine art. Their source was the WikiArt database of 100,000 paintings: the program, GANGogh, has since generated creations that would not look out of place on a millionaire’s wall. Such is the epic reach of digital duplicity: it threatens not only to disrupt politics and destabilise the world order, but also to reframe our ideas about art.

2) Our Biggest Economic, Social, and Political Issue - The Two Economies: The Top 40% and the Bottom 60% [Source: Linkedin]
In his recent LinkedIn post, Bridgewater founder and CIO, Ray Dalio, states how it is a serious mistake to look at average statistics when trying to understand what’s going on in “the economy”. This is because the wealth and income skews are so great that average statistics no longer reflect the conditions of the average man. Average statistics camouflage what is happening in the economy, which could lead to dangerous miscalculations, most importantly by policy makers - which in turn could lead the Fed to judge the economy for the average man to be healthier than it really is and to misgauge the most important things that are going on with the economy, labour markets, inflation, capital formation, and productivity, rather than if the Fed were to use more granular statistics. That could lead the Fed to run an inappropriate monetary policy. Similarly, having this perspective will be very important for those who determine fiscal policies and for investors concerned with their wealth management. At Bridgewater, to understand what the true economic picture looks like, he divided the population into quintiles basis income and looked at how the condition of the top 40% differs from the bottom 60% of Americans and how average statistics hide the true picture. Some of the key takeaways in the American context were:

Since 1980, median household real incomes have been about flat, and the average household in the top 40% earn 4x more than the average household in the bottom 60%. Those in the top 40% now have on an average 10x as much wealth as those in the bottom 60%. That is up from 6x as much in 1980. The rates of income and wealth changes of the middle class have been worse than those changes in any of the other groups, once you account for the social safety net and taxes. Until 2008, all the quintiles had seen some growth primarily driven by increases in transfers, benefits, and social programs (especially medical benefits). Interestingly, while the conditions of those in the bottom quintile of society are terrible, and worse than those of the middle class by most measures (e.g., income, health, death rates, incarceration rates, etc.), the rate of change in these conditions has been worse for the middle class. More specifically, the middle class has experienced less post-tax and transfer income growth than the bottom quintile since 1980, partially because government support to the bottom has provided more of a cushion.

Those in the top 40% have benefited disproportionately from changes in asset values relative to those in the bottom 60%, because of their asset and liability mix. The balance sheets of these two groups are sharply different. Though the bottom 60% has a small amount of savings, only a quarter of it is in cash or financial assets; the majority is in much less liquid forms of wealth, like cars, real estate, and business equity. For the bottom, debt is skewed toward more expensive student, auto, and credit card debt. Also, the increasing disparity in financial conditions is a major cause of the slowing of growth, because those in lower income/wealth groups have higher propensities to spend than those in higher income/wealth groups.

For those in the bottom 60%, premature deaths are up by about 20% since 2000. The biggest contributors to that change are an increase in deaths by drugs/poisoning (up two times since 2000) and an increase in suicides (up over 50% since 2000). The odds of premature death for those in the bottom 60% between the ages of 35 and 64 are more than two times higher, compared to those in the top 40%. The US in fact is just about the only major industrialised country with flat/slightly rising death rates.

The top 40% spend four times more on education than the bottom 60%. This creates a self-perpetuating problem, because those at the bottom get a much worse education than those at the top.

While conditions for the lowest income groups have long been bad, conditions of non-college-educated whites (especially males) have deteriorated significantly over the past 30 years or so. This is the group that swung most strongly to help elect President Trump. An aftereffect of this phenomenon is showing up in divorce rates that have more than doubled among middle-age whites without college degrees, from 11% to 23%, since 1980.

3) ‘Psychopath’ hedge fund managers make less money [Source: Bloomberg]
In the world of high finance, it’s been an article of faith among some that the only way to succeed—or even survive—is to be ruthless. But a new study in the latest issue of the Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin suggests those money makers at the top of the food chain, hedge fund managers, could benefit from being a little less mean. It turns out that people who exhibit what health professionals consider psychopathic traits actually perform worse than their peers over time.

Psychologists define a “psychopath” as someone who, among other things, lacks a conscience—an individual who often acts in a manipulative fashion for personal gain. While such traits aren’t the best way to win friends and influence people outside of work, they are seen by the more mercenary as advantageous when it comes to climbing the career ladder or making money. However, this may actually not be the case. Researchers studied the personalities and performance of 101 hedge fund managers, the participants of which—all men are in top positions at their firms. They had median assets under management of $4.6 billion and impressive track records, averaging a 7.27 percent return per year in their flagship funds from 2005 to 2015. To determine whether someone is ‘psychopath’ or not, they looked for verbal and nonverbal cues that psychological research suggests are signs of traits associated with psychopathic behaviour. For example, a manager would get higher marks for psychopathy if he smiled at the misfortune of others or displayed an “eerie calm” when discussing otherwise emotional situations.

With each person categorised as more or less prone to behaviour that could be labeled psychopathic, the researchers turned to how good each hedge fund manager did their job. They found a pattern: Being nice pays. The most “psychopathic” managers had the worst investment records. Those who ranked in the top 16 percent on the psychopathy scale lagged the average by 0.88 percent per year. Narcissistic managers, meanwhile, turned in mediocre returns, but their clients had to endure more volatility to get them. That might be because narcissism, associated with overconfidence, causes fund managers to stick longer with ideas that just aren’t working. “More psychopathic individuals tend to be able to talk the talk, but not walk the walk,” said one of researchers involved in the study. Over time—and measured by an objective standard, such as investment returns—their shortcomings can become glaringly obvious.

Psychopaths are also very difficult to work with, as one could probably surmise. Investing, like other fields, can require collaboration, listening to the ideas of colleagues, and hiring specialists to execute your strategies. The same team in fact did similar analysis for U.S. senators. They found that the more psychopathic senators had fewer co-sponsors of their bills.

4) Why underdogs do better in hockey than basketball [You Tube
If you were to put sports and games on a continuum, where the outcomes reflect pure skill on the right side and pure luck on the left side, where would the big team sports go? Somewhere in the middle right, we’d think but in what order? There’s actually a way to estimate that using statistics. What you find is that NBA is the sport that’s farthest away from random and then you go down the line and NHL is actually the spot that’s closest to randomness. Michael Mauboussin did these calculations for his book, The Success Equation, and his findings are based on the regular season for each league. He found that skill explains less than half of the season standings for the NHL. But that’s not to say hockey players are any less skilled. The continuum doesn’t tell us how skilled the players are, it’s more about how well their sport measures their skill. A big factor in determining a particular sports’ position on the continuum is the sample size, or the number of games in a season. Major league baseball teams play 162 games. Compare that to the NFL where teams play only 16 games. The small sample size pushes football toward the luck side of the continuum, since it’s harder for skill to emerge from the noise with so few trials.

But the number of games doesn’t explain everything. Both the NHL and the NBA play 82 games in a season. So their placement has more to do with the dynamics of the game itself. Like the number of chances, teams have to score during the game that’s another type of sample size. Mauboussin says, “In Basketball they are coming down and they have a shot clock and they have to take lots of shots. They’re forced to take shots, so there are a lot of samples that go back and forth. In hockey of course it’s much more fluid, possessions are much less discrete.” The number of players matters too. Tennis is a sport where skill plays a much bigger role. In large part because there simply aren’t many people involved. That’s why Serena Williams could hold the number one rank for 186 consecutive weeks from 2013 to 2016. When skill dominates, outcomes are more predictable. In a sport like swimming or sprinting, the activities are even more individual, essentially racing a clock. So there’s nothing standing between the athlete’s skill and their ranking. But in team sport you have more players and lots of interactions. And what matters isn’t just how many are on the field at a time but how possession is distributed among a team’s players over the course of the game. Hockey is inherently really fast and erratic, so even the best players need to rest, putting some limits on how much of their skill can influence the results. Whereas in football you have the quarterback involved in every offensive play.

And then you have the question of talent pool. Basketball inherently rewards unusually tall players. The video shows a chart that highlights the height and weight of sportsmen is various sports. NBA players are clearly much taller than an average American man. Mauboussin says, “So what happens is when you shrink your sample size, in anything, you get a lot of variance. So for example let’s say there are some 7 ft players that are really skillful, and there are some 7ft players that are not that skillfull and both groups are in NBA by virtue of their height. As a consequence, you get more variance in performance and skill tends to assert itself more” Soccer and hockey don’t require such an outlier body type, so you’d expect less variance in player skill. And that leaves more to luck. Mauboussin adds, “There’s a really interesting concept in statistics called Pythagorean Theorem of statistics. It says that when you have two random, independent variables, then you can add their variances. Variance is just a measure of how spread out a dataset is. For sports, the equation looks like this: The variance of the observed, real life results equals the variance of skill plus the variance of luck. Skill plus luck is everything that happened. So, for instance, we know the actual variance of win/loss records of all the professional sports teams. If variance is a measure of how spread-out those win/loss records are for the league, one can see that you have more variance in basketball than in hockey.”

The other part of the equation estimates what the results would be in an all luck world. So instead of playing every basketball game the teams just went out and flipped a coin and whoever won the coin toss wins. The variance of luck varies from sport to sport depending on how many games are in a season. More games mean lower variance of luck, just like the more times you flip a coin, the closer your data gets to 50-50. Now that we have two out of the three pieces of the equation, it allows us to estimate the contribution of the other distribution- skill” Mauboussin averaged the results of 5 seasons for each sport, and that’s how he placed them on the continuum.

5) Why Pakistani women adore Jane Austen  [1843magazine.com]
Founded by Laaleen Sukhera, a journalist, the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan or JASP is two years old. The members of JASP, while perhaps a tad more ardent, are not alone in their passion for Jane Austen. Jane Austen is enduringly popular in Pakistan. Bookshops have whole shelves dedicated to her novels, critiques of her novels and novels inspired by her novels. She is taught in schools and read at home. “Austen resonates with us because Regency England is so much like today’s Pakistan,” says Sukhera, 40, a mother of three girls. “I know her books are 200 years old and set in small English county towns and villages but, really, her themes, her characters, her situations, her plots, they could have been written for us now.”

For all their apparent tranquillity, Austen’s books were written in a time of social and economic change. The Industrial Revolution, colonial expansion and the Napoleonic wars were transforming English lives. There was unprecedented internal migration from the country to cities, and new fortunes were being made in the colonies and armed forces. Social attitudes had to adapt to keep abreast of economic developments. Brief but telling glimpses of that societal change are found in Austen’s works. Pakistan, too, has undergone much change in the last 30 years. While Austen’s England had its Napoleonic wars, Pakistan has suffered the blowback from the conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan. As with most wars, it has proved extremely lucrative for some. Generals own multiple flats in central London, sugar and textile mills, as well as prime real estate and agricultural land in Pakistan. As people move to cities in search of economic opportunity, industrial urban centres like Karachi, Sialkot, Lahore and Faisalabad have doubled in size over the past two decades. Although nowhere near the scale of wealth that was pouring into England from its colonial empire in the 18th century, remittances sent home by workers in the Middle East and the West have transformed Pakistan’s economy, kick-starting a consumerist boom.

Pakistan, like Austen’s England, is a place without safety nets. Life for the poor is tough, the welfare state is non-existent and those who slip out of the middle classes have far to fall. Families are therefore of vital importance. And at the heart of every Austen novel, too, is a family – big or small, vulgar or respectable, chaotic or controlling. As Pakistanis often quip: “We have only two institutions left: the family and the military.” The family offers not just economic protection but also identity. Your social standing and financial prospects are gauged not so much by your abilities as by your family’s position. The same was true in Austen’s time. Harriet Smith, a pleasant girl of unknown parentage in “Emma”, cannot expect to make an advantageous marriage. Without a family to locate her in society, she is a nobody.

As in Austen, there are different rules for different strata of society. “If you are an heiress from a powerful family, you can bend the rules,” says Sukhera. “You can rock up to a party on your own and stagger home at five in the morning, without destroying your reputation or bringing shame to your family but if you’re not, you can’t. People are much more judgmental about those who are not rich.” She pauses for a moment, “A bit like Emma, who can make her own rules because she’s rich. But Fanny Price, because she’s a poor relation, doesn’t have that privilege.”

On JASP, members of the group say getting away from the trials of life in today’s Pakistan is part of the point. “I like coming to these gatherings,” said Mina Malik Hussain, a mother of four very young children. “It gives me a chance to enter the world of Jane Austen and, briefly, to escape the demands of my own. I like the clothes, the conversation, the company.” While there is the undeniable aspect of escape, these tea parties are not gossip sessions; there is an agenda of discussion that is adhered to strictly. “We discuss any- and everything to do with Jane Austen,” says Laaleen Sukhera. “Our favourite mean girl in her books, our favourite cad, our favourite mother, the role of money, of sex, of families, her choice of locations. Austen celebrates life, there is pursuit of love and laughter and joy in her books and yet she’s thoughtful and wise. For a brief while, she helps us forget our messy divorces, our broken homes, our demanding jobs, our anxieties about our children, our fears for our security. It is not easy being a woman in a patriarchal society like ours.” Or, as Faiza Khan says, “We love Austen so much because she can deliver a happy ending we can believe in spite of seeing the world just as it is with all its unfairness and pettiness and exploitation and cruelty.”

6) Ivy league, Mental Illness and the meaning of life [Source: The Atlantic
The former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz stirred up a storm with his New Republic essay “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”—a damning critique of the nation’s most revered and wealthy educational institutions, and the flawed meritocracy they represent. He takes these arguments even further in his book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life”. Some of the key takeaways from his recent interview are given below.

Talking about the students of Ivy league schools, he says such students are made to understand that they have to be perfect, that they have to do everything perfectly, but they haven’t turned to themselves to ask why they’re doing it. It’s almost like a cruel experiment with animals that we’re performing—every time the red light goes on, you have to push the bar. This is also why they’re like sheep, he says, because they have never been given an opportunity to develop their ability to find their own direction. They’re always doing the next thing they’re being told to do. The trouble is that at a certain point, the directives stop.

With regards to feeling of grandiosity which means a sense of “you’re the greatest, you’re the best, you’re the brightest”, he says that this kind of praise and reinforcement all the time makes students feel they’re the greatest kid in the world. These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star. What you’re really learning is that your parents’ love is conditional on this achievement. So when you fail, even a little bit, even if you just get a B on a test, or an A- on a test, the whole thing collapses. It may only collapse temporarily, but it’s a profound collapse—you feel literally worthless. These are kids who have no ability to measure their own worth in any realistic way—either you are on top of the world, or you are worthless.

On the values transmitted by the elite-education system, he cites the example of Tony Hayward, the famous CEO of BP. In the middle of this giant environmental disaster he said, “I want to get my life back.” He had been promised certain rewards and now had this horrible experience of actually having to take responsibility for something, and feel bad. So those are the values that the system is transmitting: self-aggrandizement, being in service to yourself, a good life defined exclusively in terms of conventional markers of success (wealth and status), no real commitment to education or learning, to thinking, and no real commitment to making the world a better place.

On ways to improve the education system, he says that self-reflection should become an inherent part of schooling. Aside from the classes themselves, the fact that we’ve created a system where kids are constantly busy, and have no time for solitude or reflection, is going to take its toll. According to him, we need to create a situation where kids feel like they don’t have to be “on” all the time. Given the chance, adolescents tend to engage in very intense conversation, and a lot of life learning happens laterally, happens peer to peer. But if they’re constantly busy, there’s literally no time. We’ve taken adolescence away from adolescents.

7) Collision course: Stars shower space with gold in galaxy far, far away [Source: Financial Times]
Astronomers have recently recorded a cataclysmic collision between two neutron stars in a distant galaxy, which not only set the universe aquiver but also propelled newly created atoms of gold, uranium and other heavy metals into space. Neutron stars are the densest form of matter known — the collapsed cores of massive stars. Each has a mass greater than the Sun in a region of space just 10km across. Putting it another way, a teaspoon of neutron star would weigh a billion tonnes. When gravitational waves from the neutron star collision 130m light years away reached Earth on August 17, these tiny distortions in space-time were picked up by scientists at the new Ligo detector in the US and Virgo, its European counterpart in Italy.

The first four gravitational wave detections since 2015 had all resulted from giant black holes colliding and gave off no visible radiation. This fifth one looked quite different and fitted the theoretical predictions for colliding neutron stars. It lasted for 100 seconds — much longer than the previous four detections — reflecting a final death spiral by the two neutron stars, followed by a mega-explosion called a kilonova that astronomers had not previously observed.

Gravitational waves, whose discovery was recognised with the 2017 Nobel physics prize this month, provide another window on the most violent events in the universe: possibly including reverberations from the Big Bang that began it all. Observations of the neutron star collision and kilonova explosion may answer an important question in astrophysics: where did the heavy chemical elements come from? They did not form in the Big Bang and the nuclear processes in ordinary stars are not energetic enough to produce anything heavier than iron. Astronomers had assumed that heavy elements originated in massive stellar explosions called supernovae but kilonovae now emerge as another source. “We have discovered that this neutron star merger scattered heavy chemical elements such as gold and platinum out into space at high speeds,” said Kate Maguire of Queen’s University Belfast, who was in the international team analysing light bursting from the neutron star collision. These new results have significantly contributed to solving the long-debated mystery of the origin of elements heavier than iron in the periodic table. To put it another way, violent collision of neutron stars is a gold factory.

8) Indian tycoon takes Anglo stake via unusual structure [Source: Financial Times]
How do you buy a large chunk of a big UK company without tying up large amounts of capital or causing a run-up in its share price? Anil Agarwal, the chairman of Vedanta Resources, has an answer. Working with bankers at JPMorgan, the Indian metals tycoon has used exchangeable bonds and short selling hedge funds to purchase 20% of Anglo American in two chunks this year, in March and again in September. In doing so, Mr. Agarwal, who tried to merge part of the Vedanta empire with Anglo in 2016, has made himself the biggest shareholder in the FTSE 100 company and will therefore have a big say in its future. The structure he used is not one commonly employed by activist investors or corporate raiders. It uses the capital markets to create an instrument that can be used to purchase a large block of stock with the minimum of fuss.

It starts by issuing notes that can be repaid in shares. These are called “mandatory exchangeable bonds” and are marketed to hedge funds. To make them attractive, they carry a coupon, in this case of about 4%, which more than covers the cost of financing the trade over the three-year term of the bond. To provide security, the coupon is guaranteed by JPMorgan. The bank has a private arrangement with Mr. Agarwal, whereby the billionaire has pledged a portion of his shares in Vedanta as collateral for the loans used to make the interest payments. Now, the hedge funds buyers do not want to end up owning Anglo American shares when the bond matures. To ensure this does not happen, they create a short position. They do this by borrowing shares from big institutional investors, such as pension funds and insurance companies, and selling them to Volcan, Mr. Agarwal’s family trust. The funds will typically sell enough shares to cover 85% of their investment. This is known as delta hedging. For most FTSE 100 companies it is easy to borrow stock for a small fee from institutions, which are looking for ways to make easy money from positions they could be sitting on for more than a decade.

Once that leg of the transaction has been completed, the corporate raider then has to buy the remaining stock he has not been able to source from hedge funds. In this case, Mr. Agarwal and JPMorgan bought the outstanding shares in the market over a period of 10 days. Bankers say, the attraction of this structure, known as Poems, or purchase of equity via mandatory securities, is the ability to buy a large stake without the share price running away and to manage risk at the same time. In more traditional share swoops, the stake is typically bought in the market, a process that can take time, and then hedged usually through put and call options. “Imagine if you tried to buy 20% of Anglo in the market, you would probably end up paying a huge premium,” says one banker. With Poems, it is possible do all this at once. The economics of the exchangeable are such, say bankers, that the issuer is fully protected if the shares decline, although they have to give up most of the upside in return. And that is why so many people in the City of London do not think Mr. Agarwal’s 20% stake in Anglo is just an investment but has a much broader strategic motive, such as a merger or a takeover. Indeed, it’s worth noting that Mr. Agarwal does not have to repay the bond in shares. He can settle the deal in cash and keep the stock.

9) Big ideas are getting harder to find [Source: Stanford GSB
Modern-day inventors – even those in the league of Steve Jobs – will have a tough time measuring up to the productivity of the Thomas Edisons of the past. That’s because big ideas are getting harder and harder to find, and innovations have become increasingly massive and costly endeavours, according to new research from economists at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. As a result, tremendous continual increases in research and development will be needed to sustain even today’s low rate of economic growth.

To better understand the nation’s sluggish economic growth, Stanford GSB professors and doctoral candidates examined research productivity at an aggregate national level as well as within three swaths of industry: technology, medical research and agriculture. For another measure, they also analysed research efforts at publicly traded firms. Their paper follows a common economic concept that economic growth comes from people creating ideas. In other words, when you have more researchers producing more ideas, you get more economic growth. But the team found a not-so-rosy imbalance. While research efforts are rising substantially, research productivity – or the ideas being produced per researcher – is declining sharply. So the reason the US economy has even grown at all is because steep increases in R&D have more than offset the decline in research productivity, the study found. Specifically, the number of Americans engaged in R&D has jumped by more than twentyfold since 1930 while their collective productivity has dropped by a factor of 41. The paper spelled out the need to increase R&D spends bluntly in numbers: “The economy has to double its research efforts every 13 years just to maintain the same overall rate of economic growth.”

The robust finding of declining idea productivity has implications for future economic research. The standard assumption in growth models has historically been a constant rate of productivity, and the empirical work presented in the study speaks clearly against this assumption.

10) After analysing 4,000 films, researchers confirm that Bollywood movies are still crazy sexist [Source: qz.com]
Bollywood has been notorious for its mistreatment of woman characters—and now data proves it. Over the years, women portraying central characters in Hindi cinema have been few and far between. Those portrayed, including the protagonists, are rarely holistic and mostly subject to ingrained biases. “Different features like occupation, introduction of cast in text, associated actions, and descriptions are captured to show the pervasiveness of gender bias and stereotype in movies,” a recent analysis of Bollywood movies by IBM and two Delhi-based institutions revealed. To study such disparities, researchers used an IBM dataset of Wikipedia pages of 4,000 Hindi movies released between 1970 and 2017, extracting titles, cast information, plots, soundtracks, and posters. They also analysed 880 official trailers of movies released between 2008 and 2017.

Over the nearly 50-year period, males are mentioned on average 30 times per plot on Wikipedia compared to female cast members, who are mentioned only 15 times. This suggests that an actress’s role is not given as much importance as the actor’s, according to the researchers. Also, woman characters are mostly described with surface-level qualities—attractive, beautiful—whereas men are represented as “strong” and “successful” associated with them. “…verbs like ‘kills’ and ‘shoots’ occur with males while verbs like ‘marries’ and ‘loves’ are associated with females,” the researchers noted.

In trailers, women are shown to be much happier and less angry than men. This representation is in line with research from 2012 which found that commercial Hindi films portray “ideal women” as submissive, self-sacrificing, chaste, and controlled, while the “bad” woman is “individualistic, sexually aggressive, westernised, and not sacrificing.” The data also revealed that during introduction sequences, descriptors for males are profession-driven whereas women are associated with physical appearances, emotional states, or their relation to a male, such as the “wife of” or “daughter of” so-and-so.

In most storylines, males had superior occupations: Over 32% of male characters were doctors, compared to just 3% of women; for female characters, the most popular careers were teachers or secretaries. Roles of lawyers, CEOs, and police officers were overwhelmingly played by male actors. Also, despite trivializing their roles, filmmakers don’t hesitate to use women as bait in luring audiences to theatres. “While 80% of the movie plots have more male mentions than females, surprisingly more than 50% movie posters feature actresses,” the researchers noted, citing examples of movies like GangaaJal and Raees. In these movies, the males have more than 100 mentions in the plot and females have none, yet the posters feature females “very prominently.”

Meanwhile, the lack of attention paid towards women extends beyond actresses, too. A soundtrack analysis of film songs released since 2010 showed that women sing consistently fewer songs than men—a trend that leading female vocalists have spoken out about. “If one takes into account the actual part of the song sung, this trend will be even more dismal,” the researchers said. Women are also mostly missing in areas like production, direction, and cinematography.

That’s aid, the proportion of female-centric movies has risen in recent years. “Our system discovered at least 30 movies in last three years where females play central role in plot as well as in posters,” the study said, referring to movies like Neerja, Nil Battey Sannata, Margarita with a Straw, Dear Zindagi, Akira, and more. The data points towards this trend too. Between 2015 and 2017, females were the central characters in 11.9% of Hindi movies released between 2015 and 2017. Back in the 70s, this figure was closer to 7%.

- Saurabh Mukherjea is CEO (Institutional Equities) and Prashant Mittal is Analyst (Strategy and Derivatives) at Ambit Capital Pvt Ltd. Views expressed are personal. 

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