Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Business (CEO narcissism), Technology (Why doctors hate computers), Politics (China makes inroads in Europe), Pollution (The real reason behind Delhi's rising air pollution), and Corporate (Does America's big biz need state's help?), among others

Published: Nov 16, 2018

g_110733_reading_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Business (CEO narcissism), Technology (Why doctors hate computers), Politics (China makes inroads in Europe), Pollution (The real reason behind Delhi’s rising air pollution), and Corporate (Does America’s big biz need state’s help?), among others.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended November 16, 2018.


1) CEO narcissism, human capital, and firm value [Source: papers.ssrn.com]
This longish paper throws light on how a CEO’s psychological characteristics affect a firm’s investment, acquisition policy, profitability, and other policies and outcomes. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013), narcissistic individuals overestimate their abilities while underestimating the value of others, feel threatened by others who may draw attention away from them, lack empathy for others, and have impaired interpersonal relations. Working with a narcissistic CEO would be an unpleasant experience. So CEO narcissism could harm a firm’s value by causing the voluntary departures of non-CEO executives who possess valuable, firm-specific human capital that is costly to replace.

The study also delves deeper into a company’s board/management practices of hiring a CEO and how CEO narcissism affects the stock price of the company. Firms with narcissistic CEOs are more likely to experience the turnover of non-CEO executives; this effect is amplified for executives with pay closer to the CEO’s pay. Stock price reactions to narcissism-induced departures are more negative the longer the non-CEO executive’s tenure. If long-tenured non-CEO executives have more valuable human capital, the results imply a relation between CEO narcissism and the loss of valuable human capital.

Also, the research finds parallel results for mass layoffs of non-executive, rank-and-file employees. The findings imply that CEO narcissism impacts firm’s value through its effect on the retention of valuable human capital. According to the research, CEO narcissism matters as these CEOs can also potentially benefit shareholders in that their lack of empathy makes them more likely to terminate executives and workers when appropriate.

2) Why doctors hate their computers [Source: The New Yorker
More than 90% of American hospitals have been computerised in the past decade, and more than half of Americans have their health information in the Epic system, a medical software. This new system provides one platform for doing almost everything health professionals needed—recording and communicating medical observations, sending prescriptions to a patient’s pharmacy, ordering tests and scans, viewing results, scheduling surgery, sending insurance bills. But, Atul Gawande, a surgeon, feels that a system that promised to increase his mastery over work has, instead, increased his work’s mastery over him.

Mr. Gawande isn’t the only one. A 2016 study found that physicians spent about two hours doing computer work for every hour spent face to face with a patient—whatever the brand of medical software. In the examination room, physicians devoted half of their patient time facing the screen to do electronic tasks. And these tasks were spilling over after hours. The University of Wisconsin found that the average workday for its family physicians had grown to eleven and a half hours. The result has been epidemic levels of burnout among clinicians.

While doctors are tech-savvy, somehow they’ve reached a point where people in the medical profession actively, viscerally, volubly hate their computers. In recent years, it has become apparent that doctors have developed extraordinarily high burnout rates. In 2014, 44% of physicians reported at least one of the three symptoms of burnout, compared with 46% in 2011. What’s more in future, no one knows.

3) Hard words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? [Source: ampreports.org]
It’s said that one-third of America's struggling readers are from college-educated families. Also, research shows that children who don't learn to read by the end of third grade are likely to remain poor readers for the rest of their lives, and they're likely to fall behind in other academic areas, too. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than 60% of American fourth-graders are not proficient readers, and it's been that way since testing began in the 1990s. One of the excuses educators have long offered to explain America's poor reading performance is poverty.

The basic assumption that underlies typical reading instruction in many schools is that learning to read is a natural process, much like learning to talk. But decades of scientific research has revealed that reading doesn't come naturally. The human brain isn't wired to read. Kids must be explicitly taught how to connect sounds with letters — phonics. "There are thousands of studies," said Louisa Moats, an education consultant and researcher who has been teaching and studying reading since the 1970s. "This is the most studied aspect of human learning."

To teach the kids to read better, teachers need to be taught appropriately. Lynn Venable, a kindergarten teacher at Calypso who has been teaching elementary school for 21 years, said she used to think reading would just kind of "fall together" for kids if they were exposed to enough print. Now, because of the science of reading training, she knows better. She said her current class of kindergartners had progressed more quickly in reading than any class she'd ever had. "My kids are successful, and happy, and believe in themselves," she said. "I don't have a single child in my room that has that look on their face like, 'I can't do this.'"

4) Trophy Infrastructure, Troublesome Debt: China makes inroads in Europe
[Source: The Wall Street Journal]
Amidst the chaos in Europe, China is taking advantage of a historic opportunity to wedge itself into the heart of the West. Deal by deal, applying experience honed in Asia and Africa, China is constructing parallel financial and commercial networks in Central and Eastern Europe to challenge the global order. It has taken footholds in more than a dozen nations on the periphery of the European Union. Beijing’s offers of trophy infrastructure and financial lifelines to troubled economies give those countries proposals they aren’t hearing from Washington and Moscow, which both generally view the region through prisms of national security.

For European politicians, the Chinese alternative promises quick results and less fuss over contracts and transparency than typically found in the West. The catch is that China’s package deals are government orchestrated and require borrowing from its banks to pay its contractors. Also, the European countries have been supporting China; Greece blocked an EU effort last year to condemn a Chinese crackdown on political activists. As for its influence in Central and Eastern Europe, China points to its investment in the region, noting that it is a fraction of its pan-Europe exposure. Beijing committed nearly $8.9 billion in government-backed project loans and other development assistance to all of Europe last year, up from about $4 billion in 2016.

But China’s ride isn’t a smooth one. U.S. officials have cautioned developing nations that China’s outreach has strings attached. Outside of Europe, China’s $62 billion infrastructure plan in Pakistan is a factor in the country’s debt funk, which helped cost the ruling party a recent election and nudged the country closer to an international bailout. Also, Malaysia’s newly elected prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, ordered a freeze on $22 billion worth of Chinese railway and pipeline construction his predecessor had endorsed, citing inflated contract values and excessive borrowing.

5) USAID, Monsanto and the real reason behind Delhi's horrific smoke season [Source: Ecologise.in]
This article talks about the worsening air pollution in Delhi and surrounding states. Farmers in Punjab usually burnt the paddy straw in late September and early October. However, in recent years, farmers have delayed the burning until late October. The decision to delay the clearing of the fields was not the choice of farmers, but was forced on them by the Punjab government which passed the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act (external link) in 2009. According to the law, farmers could no longer sow rice in April and had to wait until the middle of June. Rice has a 120-day period between germination and harvest, and the restriction on sowing means that the fields would be harvested and cleared only in October by which time the direction of wind would have changed.

But how is the law affecting Delhi’s air? Before this law was passed, the problem in Delhi was limited to vehicular and industrial pollution and there were no reports of the entire metropolitan area being enveloped by smoke. This piece of legislation was passed ostensibly to preserve groundwater, the depletion of which was blamed on rice fields which supposedly used too much water and which were prone to evaporation, but this argument is a very tenuous one. According to the International Water Management Institute, water in rice fields contributes to recharging the groundwater and very little of it is lost to evaporation. The data from Uttar Pradesh in IWMI’s report too shows that rice fields in the state contributed to increasing the level of the water table, thus supporting the claim that water in rice fields replenishes the aquifers.

The group that has been primarily responsible for exerting pressure to move away from growing rice in the name of ‘crop diversification’ is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID has a worldwide reputation of behaving like a front group for American multinational corporations such as Monsanto, and so it should come as no surprise that Monsanto is at the forefront of the purported solution for Punjab’s problems. Apparently, if farmers stop growing rice and replace it with Monsanto’s GMO maize, the problem will be solved. But, Monsanto’s fertilisers and pesticides have accumulated in the ground over the years and this has led to poor retention of moisture in the soil, leading farmers to pump excessive amounts of underground water.

Today, farmers burn the residual straw from the cultivation of rice as it is the cheapest method of clearing the fields. A ban on such burning will destroy the livelihood of small farmers and give way to industrial farming with a few large corporations such as Monsanto, owning all the land and resources. If the Government wants to prevent burning, it must help small farmers clear the fields between the rice and wheat seasons and implement proper water management solutions. This would mean going against the rules set forth by the World Trade Organisation which has mandated that no business other than American multinational corporations can receive aid or subsidies from the government, and any subsidy given to American businesses will be done under the cover of ‘research grants’ funnelled through universities.

6) Cancer gets a sting with new discovery
[Source: medicalxpress.in]
A paper authored by 44 scientists claimed to treat some of the most common cancers with immunotheraphy drugs. In order to come up with a drug that could fight cancer, scientists had to find new ways of using the immune system to fight cancer. One of the proteins that piqued the scientists' interest is called STING. When active, it triggers the body to release a subset of T-cells that are capable of recognising and destroying cancer cells. But can it be activated?

Joshi Ramanjulu, senior director of medicinal chemistry and lead author on the study, says, "Finding a molecule that is a match with the protein you're looking for is a difficult process. We've been studying STING for a number of years to learn more about how it works and what it causes in the cell. Through screening multiple libraries of molecules, we found a family of molecules that showed promising activity, and by tweaking their properties, made them a more efficient activator of the STING protein."

But scientists feel that this is early research and many years away from becoming an approved treatment. The molecules in this paper have not yet been tested in patients and are not approved for use by any regulatory authority. While Mr. Joshi says that they’ll keep studying STING activators, their next step would be finding ways to treat some autoimmune diseases such as lupus.

7) On physician burnout and the plight of the modern knowledge worker [Source: calnewport.com]
In this piece, the author, Cal Newport, talks about the negative consequences of the electronic medical records revolution and occupational burnout, while referring to an article by Atul Gawande. Mr. Gawande, a surgeon, writer and public health researcher, introduces the Berkeley psychologist Christina Maslach, who is one of the leading experts on occupational burnout: her Maslach Burnout Inventory has been used for almost four decades to track worker well-being. One of the striking findings from Maslach’s research is that the burnout rate among physicians has been rapidly rising over the last decade.

A research team from the Mayo Clinic looked closer at the causes of physician burnout. Their discovery: one of the strongest predictors of burnout was how much time the doctor spent staring at a computer screen. Surgeons spend most of their clinical time performing surgeries. Emergency physicians, by contrast, spend an increasing amount of this time wrangling information into electronic medical systems. Mr. Gawande cites a 2016 study that finds the average physician now spends two hours at a computer screen for every hour they spend working with patients.

According to Mr. Gawande, there are two solutions to it: 1) making these systems smaller, more agile, and more responsive to the way specific physicians actually practice, instead of trying to introduce massive, monolithic software that generically applies to many different specialities. 2) introducing more administrative help to mediate between the doctor’s clinical work and interactions with the electronic systems.

8) Does Corporate America really need state's help? [Source: The Atlantic]
US cities are spending tens of billions of dollars to steal jobs from one another. Every year, American cities and states spend up to $90 billion in tax breaks and cash grants to urge companies to move among states. But there are three major problems with America’s system of corporate giveaways: 1) they’re redundant and have no major impact; 2) companies don’t always hold up their end of the deal; 3) it’s still ludicrous for Americans to collectively pay tens of billions of dollars for huge corporations to relocate within the United States.

“We need a national truce, both within states and between states,” said Amy Liu, the director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “There should be no more poaching of private companies with public funds.” But how would the United States ban states and local governments from poaching jobs from one another, or from giving tax dollars to private corporations?

There are three ways to do it: 1) Congress could pass a national law banning this sort of corporate bribery; 2) Congress could make corporate subsidies less valuable by threatening to tax state or local incentives as a special kind of income; 3) the federal government could actively discourage the culture of corporate subsidies by yelling, screaming, and penny-pinching. While Corporate America is getting all the help it doesn’t need, executives such as Jeff Bezos have no reason to care as they are winning by the rules of a broken game.

9) How World War I invented a $16 billion industry: Cosmetic Plastic Surgery [Source: inverse.com
World War I was devastating with 16 million dead and 21 million wounded. Never before had a conflict brought such devastation in terms of death and injury. In response, during the four years of the war, military surgeons developed new techniques on the battlefield and in supporting hospitals which, in the war’s final two years, resulted in more survivors of injuries that would have proved mortal in the first two. By the end of the war, 735,487 British troops had been discharged following major injuries. The majority of the injuries were caused by shell blasts and shrapnel.

Many of the injured (16%) had injuries affecting the face, over a third of which were categorized as “severe”. Major facial injuries were left with deformities that made it difficult to see, breathe easily, or eat and drink — as well as looking horrific. A young ENT (ear, nose, and throat) surgeon from New Zealand, Harold Gillies, working on the Western Front saw attempts to repair the ravages of facial injuries and realized that there was a need for specialized work. Gillies set up Britain’s first plastic surgery unit at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot in January 1916. Many techniques were developed by trial and error, although some mirrored work that had been done centuries previously in India. One of the main techniques Gillies developed was tube pedicle skin-grafting.

The details of the injuries, the operations to correct them and the final outcome were all recorded in detail, both by early clinical photography and also by detailed drawings and paintings created by Henry Tonks, who although trained as a doctor, had given up medicine for painting. The complex facial and head surgery necessitated new ways of delivering anesthetics. Anesthesia generally had advanced as a specialty during the war years — both in the way it was administered and also how doctors were trained.

10) How an Indian wind farm is changing the colour of lizards [Source: qz.com
The article talks about the effects of wind farms on the flora and fauna. According to a recent study by researchers from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, in the Western Ghats, a mountain range that stretches across six Indian states along the west coast, wind farms have reduced the abundance and hunting activity of predatory birds like raptors. The researchers studied the Chalkewadi plateau in Satara district, near the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve and Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Maharashtra. This plateau has had one of the largest and longest-running wind farms in the region. In their study, published earlier this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the researchers compared the site to other protected forest areas in the neighbourhood.

The wind turbines are creating a “predation-free environment” that is changing the behaviour and even the form of creatures lower down the food chain. Change can be most noticed in Sarada Superba or fan-throated lizard. The males of this species, found only in south Asia, have a flap under their throat that becomes brightly coloured as they reach sexual maturity, and they use this to attract partners. Lizard density was higher in areas with wind turbines, and these lizards demonstrated a reduced tendency to escape when they were approached, suggesting that they were getting used to an environment with fewer predators.

The decrease in predatory attacks has resulted in the species thriving in the area, which, in turn, could lead to increased competition for food.  While the long-term ramification of all this is yet unknown, Maria Thaker, co-author of the study and an assistant professor at IISc, says, in theory, there could be a cascading effect at the insect and plant levels lower down in the food chain. Also, with Narendra Modi-led Government’s push for greener energy, large numbers of birds are diminishing in the vicinity of large turbines. According to Thaker, wind turbines should be placed atop buildings or in areas that are already irreversibly damaged by human activity instead of within India’s pristine forests.

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