Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Lifestyle (Can you afford to go green when you're not rich?), Management (What to do with a bored millennial employee?), Technology (Indonesia finds unicorns breed best without help; billion-dollar bet to reach human-level AI), Caste (English newspapers are worse than Hindi on representing Dalit, Adivasi writers), Leadership (Some wisdom from Bruce Sewell), and Climate Change (Amazon is approaching an irreversible tipping point)

Published: Aug 10, 2019 09:54:41 AM IST
Updated: Aug 9, 2019 07:55:54 PM IST

g_119693_bg_readingpic_shutterstock_344668877_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: Lifestyle (Can you afford to go green when you’re not rich?), Management (What to do with a bored millennial employee?), Technology (Indonesia finds unicorns breed best without help; billion-dollar bet to reach human-level AI), Caste (English newspapers are worse than Hindi on representing Dalit, Adivasi writers), Leadership (Some wisdom from Bruce Sewell), and Climate Change (Amazon is approaching an irreversible tipping point)

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended August 9, 2019.

1) Can you afford to be green when you’re not rich? [Source: Guardian]

In today’s fast-paced world, people are so busy that they don’t have time to take care of themselves. But still many try to go green. The question that the author of this piece tries to answer is whether people can really afford to go green. How easy is it to go green, to make deliberate, eco-friendly choices when you’re barely getting by? Alison Stine lives in an environmentally conscious place: a rural town with thriving local food businesses, a farmers’ market and many organic farms. But it’s also a small town in central Appalachia, in the poorest county in my state: Ohio. Many people here go hungry. They can’t afford food, let alone organic food.

She kept a diary for a week about the choices that she made pertaining to going green. From getting rid of plastic in kitchen to not washing clothes on daily basis to save water and electricity, she tried it all. She feels, one of the impacts of our current eco-consciousness is some people feeling bad for decisions largely out of their control – and many people not feeling bad for actions they can control. She feels guilty for flying to see loved ones. Do executives at Coca-Cola feel guilty for their massive plastic pollution?

Lastly, she says that it’s overwhelming to think the burden of keeping the world alive rests on the shoulders of consumers. It shouldn’t, not entirely. People need help from the companies that got us into this mess in the first place with their products and pollution. People need incentives – but also, assistance on how to be green. You have to offer and clearly label recycling bins, for instance. Fresh, affordable produce needs to be available before people can focus on organic. In order for people to make eco-conscious choices, there has to be an eco-conscious choice available for them to make.   

2) The L.A. Times’ disappointing digital numbers show the game’s not just about drawing in subscribers — it’s about keeping them [Source: niemanlab.org]

Be it any business, sustain and retaining customers is the toughest part. And the same is happening with the L.A. Times. The article shows how L.A. Times digital subscription is lower than N.Y. Times and Washington Post. But, that wasn’t the case in 2002; L.A. Times’ print circulation was second to N.Y. Times. What L.A. Times failed to understand is that once you get all those subscribers signed up, you’ve got to prove yourself worthy of their money, over and over again. Churn has always been an issue for newspapers, but it’s even more of one in a world of constant competition for subscription dollars.

So, what is L.A. Times missing? Here are 5 pointers that can surely get them there: 1) Frequent messaging that reminds readers of the value of their subscription; 2) Building out unique subscriber-only experiences that make them feel they’ve got an inside pass to something important; 3) Not just creating great journalism, but making sure that the great journalism gets seen by the people who’d enjoy or derive value from it; 4) Using customer data to determine what, exactly, an individual reader finds valuable about what you produce and making sure they come into contact with it as often as possible; 5) Constructing tools that increase the frequency of a reader’s contact with the paper — email newsletters, weekly podcasts, smart news alerts, etc.

If the L.A. Times wants to be in the same conversation as the others, they might want to look at what their peers are doing when it comes to retention. The New York Times has an entire team dedicated to it; 10 people are dedicated just to new subscribers’ first 90 days. You surely need to put in extra effort to give something unique to the readers, or make them feel special.   

3) What to do with a millennial employee that's bored at work [Source: Forbes]

In this piece, Kaytie Zimmerman, founder of Optimistic Millennial, a career advice blog for young adults, throws light on how employers can challenge and keep the bored millennial employees captivated in their roles. According to a recent study released by Udemy, young millennials (ages 21-24) are nearly twice as likely to be bored at work (38%) than Baby Boomers (22%). Udemy’s report found that bored employees are twice as likely to leave or job hop in the next three to six months. Millennials aren’t necessarily bored because they are neglecting responsibilities. In fact, they may be so efficient or tech savvy that they complete their work faster than their peers and find themselves with extra time.

While it wouldn’t be accurate to assume all millennial employees who are bored at work are efficient, it is worth taking a closer look at the ones who are. It’s possible to engage this subset of employees further to retain them. So, how can you retain them? Reducing working hours or giving challenging tasks can surely make it work. Stephan Aarstol, CEO of Tower Paddle Boards, a surf and outdoor lifestyle company, has made the groundbreaking decision to switch his entire staff to a five-hour workday. “I estimate, conservatively, that knowledge workers are four times as efficient as they were 20 years ago,” shared Aarstol. “That’s why I moved my company to a five-hour workday.”

Learning new skills or offering challenging opportunities can resolve the boredom problem. Further, finding flexible ways to adjust working hours, such as measuring staff on work produced rather than hours worked can accomplish the same thing. In short, employers need to get innovative and think out of the box to fix this problem.

4) Indonesia finds unicorns breed best without help [Source: Bloomberg]

What does the communications minister of a vast, multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation do at work? Rudiantara kills fake news. Just ahead of the presidential election verdict in May, the Indonesian minister, who uses one name, had to deal with as many as 600 social-media hoaxes in a day. The usual average is about 100. But, helping breed unicorns is Rudiantara’s other day job. Don’t be surprised if over the next five years, more young firms valued at $1 billion or more are spawned in Indonesia than anywhere else in Asia outside China and India.

Indonesia already has four unicorns, with ambitions embodied by homegrown ride-hailing giant Gojek’s plans for a “super app” for Southeast Asia, just like China’s Alipay and WeChat Pay. In May, Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Group Corp. teamed up with other investors in a $200 million fund aimed at discovering other promising startups. Indonesia’s size is part of its promise. The 267 million population is 47 times that of wealthier Singapore. That helps tilt the upside in Indonesia’s favour even though an average person in the city-state carries out 23 times more digital transactions in a year. 

Indonesia is not in that overachievers’ club, according to the Global Innovation Index report. Part of the problem is the education system, which has long resisted reform. Even here, technology could help. A high-speed internet satellite in 2022 will bring the web to all of Indonesia’s 324,000 schools, Rudiantara says. If the country expands its stable of four unicorns, it won’t be entirely due to the private sector. Telkomsel Indonesia, the dominant state-run player, offers download speeds of 11 megabits per second even in remote West Papua and Maluku, far better than in the capital, according to Opensignal. Thanks to the spread of mobile internet, about 65% of Indonesians are now online. With the fake news menace contained and two decades of democracy bolstered, it’s time now for Indonesia to harness the internet to breed unicorns, not hate.

5) English newspapers are worse than Hindi on representing Dalit, Adivasi writers: Oxfam India report [Source: Caravan Magazine]

Oxfam India and the media watchdog Newslaundry conducted a study and came out with a report recently titled, “Who Tells Our Stories Matters: Representation of Marginalised Caste Groups in Indian Newsrooms”. They studied the representation of people from different caste groups in the Indian media to document “who has a seat at the table and whose voice has a chance of being heard.” It found that the “Scheduled Tribes are almost entirely absent, whereas the Scheduled Castes are represented mostly by social activists and politicians rather than journalists.” It further noted that Other Backward Classes, or OBCs, “are similarly underrepresented even though they are estimated to constitute over half of India’s population.”

The study examined six English and seven Hindi newspapers, 11 digital news outlets, 12 magazines, and flagship debate shows on seven English and as many Hindi television channels to collect caste details of reporters, writers, anchors and debate panelists. Of 121 newsroom leadership positions—such as editors-in-chief, managing editors and bureau chiefs—across the newspapers, TV channels, news websites, and magazines surveyed, the study found that 106 are occupied by journalists from the upper castes, and none by members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

In the surveyed articles published by the Times of India and the Economic Times, 100% of the authors writing on caste issues hailed from the upper castes. In contrast, the Hindi newspapers fared marginally better. Seven Hindi newspapers were chosen for this study—Dainik Bhaskar, Amar Ujala, Navbharat Times, Rajasthan Patrika, Prabhat Khabar, Punjab Kesari, and Hindustan. Upper-caste individuals held nearly 88% of leadership positions, and again, there was no representation of Dalit, Adivasi or OBC journalists. The report concluded that the study “provides substantial evidence that vast sections of India’s marginalised caste groups lack access to the media platforms and discourses that shape public opinion, leading to their invisibilisation.”

6) How the brain and body work together to create thinking [Source: undark.org]

We all know that brain is a very important part of our body. It is the control station. We all know that the main use of a brain is to think. But, quite a few 21st-century psychologists and cognitive scientists believe that the body, as well as the brain, is needed for thinking to actually happen. And it’s not just that the brain needs a body to keep it alive (that much is obvious), but rather, that the brain and the body somehow work together: it’s the combination of brain-plus-body that creates the mental world.

The latest version of this proposition comes from Barbara Tversky, a professor emerita of psychology at Stanford University who also teaches at Columbia. Her new book, “Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought,” is an extended argument for the interplay of mind and body in enabling cognition. She draws on many different lines of evidence, including the way we talk about movement and space, the way we use maps, the way we talk about and use numbers, and the way we gesture.

The author of this piece, Dan Falk, finds the book interesting, but he feels that Tversky should have had more clearly positioned the findings within the larger history of cognitive science — especially because this body-inclusive approach to cognition isn’t brand new. It goes by various names in the literature — embodied cognition, enactivism, extended mind — none of which appear in Tversky’s index. In a similar vein, Tversky outlines what she calls a “mental spatial framework,” which sounds very similar to what other scholars call “mental modelling.” Perhaps they’re not exactly synonymous, but we’re not told one way or the other. Along with Tversky’s new terminology, there are new laws — nine “cognitive laws,” conveniently collected in a list immediately following the book’s final page. Mr. Falk thinks that there’s nothing wrong with organizing ideas into laws, but as someone who’s read many such books, he can testify that they don’t always become widely adopted.

7) Bruce Sewell on Leadership, Silicon Legends, and “Sewell’s Rules” [Source: Columbia Business School]

In this short interview, Bruce Sewell, former General Counsel and Senior Vice President of Apple Inc., chats with Kristin Bresnahan, Co-Director of the Mark Initiative, about his leadership style, Silicon Valley legends and effective organizational culture. Talking about his leadership style, Mr. Sewell says that there’s one universal rule: surround yourself with people that are just smarter than you are. And if you can create a team that just blows you away, the chances are that they're going to blow other people away too.

When asked what makes him a great coach, he says that he approaches problems from a very big picture perspective. He says, “It's probably a limitation in some respects, but I tend to think big picture. And so I can set direction well, I can set strategic goals. I think I can sort of crystallize a vision for the group, but I'm not somebody who wants to be hovering over everyone's shoulder. It's just not my personality. I think you, as a leader, you want to find the things that you're good at, the things where you really add value, and focus on those. As opposed to trying to do people's jobs for them or try to be too involved in what the team is doing.”

Talking about his advice for the young graduates, Mr. Sewell says that knowing/finding your own style of leadership is very important. And then how can you add value in the way that's most efficient for you to add value and you're not interfering with where other team players are adding value. So talk to your team, understand where the weaknesses are, and understand where the strengths are. And then be that sort of strategic compass. Set the goals, set the strategy.

8) Modi 2.0: Navigating differences and consolidating gains in India–U.S. Relations [Source: heritage.org]

This long and elaborate report throws light on the relations between India and US after Mr. Narendra Modi, Indian PM, came to power. The report also talks about how the two countries’ relationship can flourish if they can manage the trade and sanctions disputes that are currently going on. The strategic partnership was jump-started by a transformative dialogue following India’s nuclear test of 1998, and crossed several critical thresholds since: a civil nuclear deal and 10-year defense partnership agreement inked in 2005 (and renewed in 2015), the beginning of a wave of major U.S. arms sales to India in 2008, and the designation of India as a Major Defense Partner in 2016, to name a few.

The report is bifurcated into four parts: 1) Part one of this report explores the BJP’s landslide victory and the challenges facing the Indian government in the years ahead; 2) Part two reviews advances in Indian–U.S. relations during Prime Minister Modi’s first term as well as initiatives undertaken by the Trump Administration to strengthen the partnership; 3) Part three surveys current and forthcoming challenges in Indian–U.S. relations, including disputes over trade and investment practices, current and potential future U.S. tariffs on Indian goods, and U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports and Russian defense exports; and lastly 4) Part four offers policy recommendations for the U.S. government and is followed by a concluding section.

India and the U.S. can accomplish a great deal in the years ahead, but to do so, they must clear some impending hurdles. Resolving their differences will require discomfort and concessions on both sides, but the prize is worth the pain. Their best hope for success is to get to work on a trade and investment deal that would forestall a larger trade war and prevent economic friction from further undermining strategic convergence.

9) The Amazon is approaching an irreversible tipping point [Source: Economist]

Global warming, deforestation and climate change have become massive issues world-wide. And it’s the same with Brazil in Amazon forest. The Amazon basin, most of which sits within the borders of Brazil, contains 40% of the world’s tropical forests and accounts for 10-15% of the biodiversity of Earth’s continents. Since the 1970s nearly 800,000km² of Brazil’s original 4m km² (1.5m square miles) of Amazon forest has been lost to logging, farming, mining, roads, dams and other forms of development—an area equivalent to that of Turkey, and bigger than that of Texas. Over the same period, the average temperature in the basin has risen by about 0.6°C. This century, the region has suffered a series of severe droughts.

Alongside the threat from deforestation, the forest’s capacity to water itself can be weakened by rising temperatures. A study by Divino Silvério and colleagues at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, published in 2015, found that converting forest to pasture increased land temperatures by 4.3°C; if pasture was then turned over to arable crops, things warmed a little more. Even now, the service that the Amazon provides the rest of the world as a sink for carbon dioxide appears to be declining. Owing to increasing tree mortality, primary forests plants absorb, on average, a third less carbon dioxide than they did in the 1990s.

People are now concerned about climate change. “We have no doubt that the forest has a direct effect on the rain cycle,” says Artemizia Moita, the sustainability director of a farming group that has 530km² of soyabean and cattle farms. “If we keep deforesting,” she asks, “how will we keep producing?” Unlike other farmers she admits she is worried about climate change. For many, any shift in attitudes will already come too late. Magdalena is an elderly woman who has spent her life as a river-dweller in one of the rainforest’s reserves. She used to hunt deer and armadillo to make her living. Now she treks 13km to buy beef from a local village. “All the game is gone,” she laments.

10) The billion-dollar bet to reach human-level AI [Source: Financial Times]

Greg Brockman, chairman and chief technology officer of OpenAI, once said, “We think the most benefits will go to whoever has the biggest computer.” Surely, in the race to build a machine with human-level intelligence, it seems, size really matters. The San Francisco-based AI research group, set up four years ago by tech industry luminaries including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman, has just thrown down a challenge to the rest of the AI world. They plan to build a system that can run “a human brain-sized [AI] model”.

But many AI researchers believe that deep learning on its own will never become much more than a form of sophisticated pattern-recognition — perfect for facial recognition or language translation, but far short of true intelligence. Also, some of the most ambitious research groups — including DeepMind, the British AI research company owned by Alphabet — believe that teaching computers new types of reasoning and symbolic logic will be needed to complement the neural networks, rather than just building bigger computers.

One of OpenAI’s most recent experiments — an AI system that beat a top human team at the video game Dota 2 — also showed that today’s most advanced AI systems can perform well at games that are far closer to the real world than board games like chess. If OpenAI’s work ever produces the kind of huge wealth that Mr. Brockman predicts, most of it will flow to the group’s non-profit arm, reflecting its promise to use the fruits of advanced computer intelligence for the benefit of all humanity.

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