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Ten interesting things that we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to 'biases in self-evaluation', 'effect of multiplex on movie content', and 'role of luck in wealth distribution'.

Published: Mar 10, 2018 08:59:53 AM IST
Updated: Mar 10, 2018 09:47:04 AM IST

Ten interesting things that we read this weekImage: 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 ‘biases in self-evaluation’, ‘effect of multiplex on movie content’, and ‘role of luck in wealth distribution’.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended March 9, 2018.  

1)    People actually don’t know themselves very well  [Source: The Atlantic]
Adam Grant, renowned author and professor at the Wharton School, opines in this piece that no one has perfect self-awareness-you probably believe more than a few things about yourself that are false. Whether it’s in trying to land a job or impress a date, people spend a staggering amount of time making claims about themselves. And it makes sense: you’re the only person on Earth who has direct knowledge of every thought, feeling, and experience you’ve ever had. Who could possibly know you better than you? But your backstage access to your own mind sometimes makes you the last person on Earth others should trust about it. Adam draws an analogy with owning a car: just because you’ve driven it for years doesn’t mean you can pinpoint when and why the engine broke down. As an example, he highlights how sixteen rigorous studies of thousands of people at work have shown that people’s coworkers are better than they themselves are at recognizing how their personality will affect their job performance. In fact, they’re often more than twice as accurate. They can see things that you can’t or won’t—and these studies reveal that whatever you know about yourself that your coworkers don’t is basically irrelevant to your job performance.

A test by psychologist Simine Vazire had people rate themselves and four friends on a bunch of traits, ranging from emotional stability and intelligence to creativity and assertiveness. Then, to see if they had predicted their own personalities better than their friends had, they took a bunch of tests that measured these traits. The good news: you have some unique insight into your emotional stability. But they did no better than their friends (or than strangers who had met them just eight minutes earlier) at forecasting how assertive they’d be in a group discussion. And when they tried to predict their performance on an IQ test and a creativity test, they were less accurate than their friends. People know themselves best on the traits that are tough to observe and easy to admit. Emotional stability is an internal state, so your friends don’t see it as vividly as you do. With more observable traits, we don’t have unique knowledge. If you’re a raging extrovert or a radical introvert, we don’t need to ask you—it can be picked up pretty quickly from your impromptu karaoke performances or your complaints that your husband types too loudly. And with the most evaluative traits, you just can’t be trusted. You probably want to convince everyone—and yourself—that you’re smart and creative.

This is why people consistently overestimate their intelligence, a pattern that seems to be more pronounced among men than women. It’s also why people overestimate their generosity. Adam highlights a new bias here: the I’m-not-biased bias, where people tend to believe they have fewer biases than the average American. But you can’t judge whether you’re biased, because when it comes to yourself, you’re the most biased judge of all. And the more objective people think they are, the more they discriminate, because they don’t realize how vulnerable they are to bias. So essentially, any time a trait is easy to observe or hard to admit, you need other people to hold up a mirror for you. Romantic partners and close friends might be more informed, because they’ve observed you more—but they can also have blurrier vision, because they chose you and often share that pesky desire to see you positively. You need people who are motivated to see you accurately. According to Adam, work colleagues fit this role much better. The people you work with closely have a vested interest in making you better (or at least less difficult). The challenge is they’re often reluctant to tell you the stuff you don’t want to hear, but need to hear.

He shares his learning on how to overcome those personal barriers: 1) If you want people to really know you, weekly meetings don’t cut it. You need deep dives with them in high-intensity situations. He refers to an example of new astronauts being sent into the wilderness by NASA for 11 days together. Their guides promptly let them get lost, and they said they came out of that experience knowing each other better than colleagues they’d worked with for years; 2) Looking under your own hood at what makes you tick and writing it down can provide a useful reference. But having colleagues do that is even better. On a visit to the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, Adam saw people rate each other daily on up to 77 different dimensions. It sounds intense, but it forces people to be honest with themselves; 3) Put yourself in situations where you can’t ignore feedback from multiple sources. The Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, told Adam that he makes up 90% of his stand-up comedy on stage. He just starts riffing on topics and gets instant input on what’s funny from a whole crowd. He finally closes the article with a piece of advice: Don’t talk about your intelligence. It’s something you prove, not something you claim. As comedian Patton Oswalt quipped about humor, the only person who goes around saying “I’m funny” is a not-funny person. If you were really funny, you’d just make people laugh.

2)    How multiplex killed the Bollywood movie [Source: Business Standard]
Upcoming big releases in 2018 like Thugs of Hindostan, Sanju and Zero, offer hope to India’s Rs142 billion film industry pulverized by stagnating box-office revenues and falling ticket sales. They are what Akshaye Rathi, director, Saroj Screens, calls, “Tent pole films.” His firm owns and operates 17 single-screen theatres across Central India. “Single screens in small towns are starved of content. They survive only on tent pole films. We need more Hiranis, Rajamoulis and Rohit Shettys, who can do a mass film,” he says. “Admissions (ticket sales) have been declining for the last few years and are less than half of that at their peak. The only way growth is happening is through rising ticket prices, but that has driven half the people out of theatres,” says Ajit Andhare, COO, Viacom18 Motion Pictures. Last year, ticket sales across India were estimated at under a billion, from a peak of 2.5 billion a decade back. Going by the Indian Readership Survey data, the cinema going habit has been falling steadily. The biggest Hindi hits, like Dangal or Baahubali II, get just 3-5% of all Indians into the theatre. The lack of screens, high GST and rising costs are some of the reasons India’s iconic film industry is in trouble. But the biggest reason, say people across the value chain in production, distribution and exhibition, is the ‘multiplex skew.’

“We need more universal films like Dangal (2016), Sultan (2016) or Padmaavat (2018) that work across single-screens and multiplexes,” says Rajesh Mishra, CEO, UFO Moviez. UFO has digitised over 5,100 theatres and has its finger firmly on the pulse of the single-screen market. “Nine out of ten scripts that come to us for testing are with a multiplex audience in mind. Writers do not have the ability to write for single-screens; a bulk of them are from a cosmopolitan/Western mind set, so content is more metro skewed” says Shailesh Kapoor, CEO, Ormax Media, a consulting firm. He points to Tamil and Telugu cinemas. On average ticket price and net box office collections parameters, each of these amasses half or less than the earnings for Hindi movies. However, on ticket sales, occupancy and margins they do better, making for a healthier industry. Going by Ormax data in 2017, Telugu films sold 240 million tickets against 248 million for Hindi, which is spoken by six times as many people. One big reason Telugu and Tamil cinema do well, is the dominance of single-screens and the poor penetration of multiplexes in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

From 2000, corporatization brought organized finance and a more process-oriented approach for the Hindi film business. Much of this was led by the growth of multiplexes which brought order to a fragmented business where revenue leakage was endemic. Over the years, however, they had some unintended consequences. The first is a revenue skew. Over 2,000 of the 9,000 odd screens India has are in multiplexes owned by five major companies. These are easier to enter into a deal with than the 7,000 individual screen owners. They offer better revenue shares on a higher average ticket price. More than 60 per cent of the Hindi industry’s revenues come from multiplexes. This commercial dominance means films are being written largely for this audience. And that is the second consequence. Multiplexes allow for lots of segmentation, helping films such as Vicky Donor (about a sperm donor) or Piku (about an old man’s trouble with constipation) find their audience. But these films don’t yet work in, say, Kanpur or Vadodara. About 20 years back, a Hindi film had to work across India to be profitable. Now a release in 800-1,000 (multiplex) screens, TV and online rights is all it needs. Rathi reckons that almost 90% of the 300-odd Hindi films cannot be released in single-screens and small towns. Fewer universal Hindi films have meant dropping footfalls that has led to theatres shutting down at an alarming rate.

“What we need is more high-concept movies which make it imperative to go to the theatre — Bareilly ki Barfi, Hindi Medium or Shubh Mangal Savdhan, something that pulls,” says Siddharth Roy-Kapur, president, Film and Television Producers Guild of India. Many years ago, Hollywood went through a similar crisis and discovered that large spectacle films, with super-heroes, aliens, sci-fi or snazzy computer graphics and sequels were the answer. While India has done the odd Bahubali, “we can’t match Hollywood budgets for spectacle,” says Kapoor. Besides, spectacle films such as Padmavat or Manikarnika sourced from Indian mythology are becoming a pain to make and release as hyper conservatism grows. That leaves the universal Hindi hit in difficult territory between an audience that watches Golmaal 4 (a bawdy comedy) and Newton (on elections in the Naxal belt). To find the lowest common denominator will take creative calisthenics that very few film-makers in India are capable of.

3)    If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Turns out its just chance [Source: MIT]
In this article, the author discusses how luck plays an important role in the lives of the wealthy people. The most successful people are not the most talented, just the luckiest, a new computer model of wealth creation confirms. Taking that into account can maximize return on many kinds of investments. The distribution of wealth follows a well-known pattern sometimes called an 80:20 rule: 80% of the wealth is owned by 20% of the people. Indeed, a report last year concluded that just eight men had a total wealth equivalent to that of the world’s poorest 3.8 billion people. It is a well-studied pattern called a power law that crops up in a wide range of social phenomena. But the distribution of wealth is among the most controversial because of the issues it raises about fairness and merit. Why should so few people have so much wealth?

The answer often is that we live in a meritocracy in which people are rewarded for their talent, intelligence, effort, and so on. Over time, many people think, this translates into the wealth distribution that we observe, although a healthy dose of luck can play a role. But, while wealth distribution follows a power law, the distribution of human skills generally follows a normal distribution that is symmetric about an average value. For example, intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, follows this pattern. Average IQ is 100, but nobody has an IQ of 1,000 or 10,000. The same is true of effort, as measured by hours worked. Some people work more hours than average and some work less, but nobody works a billion times more hours than anybody else. And yet when it comes to the rewards for this work, some people do have billions of times more wealth than other people. What’s more, numerous studies have shown that the wealthiest people are generally not the most talented by other measures.

Then what determines how individuals become wealthy? Today we have an answer thanks to the work of Alessandro Pluchino at the University of Catania in Italy. Her team created a computer model of human talent and the way people use it to exploit opportunities in life. Pluchino and co’s model consists of N people, each with a certain level of talent (skill, intelligence, ability, and so on). This talent is distributed normally around some average level, with some standard deviation. So some people are more talented than average and some are less so, but nobody is orders of magnitude more talented than anybody else. This is the same kind of distribution seen for various human skills, or even characteristics like height or weight. Indeed, we are all quite similar. The computer model charts each individual through a working life of 40 years. During this time, the individuals experience lucky events that they can exploit to increase their wealth if they are talented enough. However, they also experience unlucky events that reduce their wealth. These events occur at random.

At the end of the 40 years, Pluchino and co rank the individuals by wealth and study the characteristics of the most successful. They also calculate the wealth distribution. They then repeat the simulation many times to check the robustness of the outcome. When the team ranks individuals by wealth, the distribution is exactly like that seen in real-world societies. Also, the results are something of an eye-opener. Their simulations accurately reproduce the wealth distribution in the real world. But the wealthiest individuals are not the most talented (although they must have a certain level of talent). They are the luckiest. And this has significant implications for the way societies can optimize the returns they get for investments in everything from business to science. “It is evident that the most successful individuals are also the luckiest ones,” they say. “And the less successful individuals are also the unluckiest ones.”

4)    America’s real digital divide
[Source: NY Times ]
Nowadays most of the children are hooked on to mobile/TV screens than playing out in the open. And that’s what Naomi Schaefer Riley, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of ‘Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat’ talks about in this article. A group of former Facebook and Google employees last week began a campaign to change the tech companies they had a hand in creating. The initiative, called Truth About Tech, aims to push these companies to make their products less addictive for children — and it’s a good start. But there’s more to the problem. If you think middle-class children are being harmed by too much screen time, just consider how much greater the damage is to minority and disadvantaged kids, who spend much more time in front of screens. According to a 2011 study by researchers at Northwestern University, minority children watch 50% more TV than their white peers, and they use computers for up to one-and-a-half hour longer each day. White children spend 8 hours and 36 minutes looking at a screen every day, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, while black and Hispanic children spend 13 hours.

While some parents in more dangerous neighborhoods understandably think that screen time is safer than playing outside, the deleterious effects of too much screen time are abundantly clear. Screen time has a negative effect on children’s ability to understand non-verbal emotional cues; it is linked to higher rates of mental illness, including depression; and it heightens the risk for obesity. In 2004, Dimitri Christakis of Seattle Children’s Hospital wrote in the medical journal Pediatrics that “early exposure to television was associated with subsequent attention problems.” Even when controlling for socioeconomic status, gestational age and other factors, he discovered that an increase of one standard deviation in the number of hours of television watched at age 1 “is associated with a 28% increase in the probability of having attention problems at age 7.” Every additional hour of TV increased a child’s odds of attention problems by about 10%. Kids who watched three hours a day were 30% more likely to have attention trouble than those who watched none.

A 2010 article in Pediatrics confirmed that exposure to TV and video games was associated with greater attention problems in children. Meanwhile, Paul Morgan at Penn State and George Farkas at the University of California, Irvine, have found that black children are more likely to show symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder than their white peers. Unfortunately, too often the message we send low-income and less-educated parents is that screen time is going to help their children. When politicians and policymakers talk about kids and technology, it is usually about “bridging the digital divide,” making sure that poor kids have as much access as wealthier ones. But there is no evidence that they don’t. According to a 2015 Pew report, 87% of Americans between the ages of 13 and 17 have access to a computer. For families earning less than $50,000 a year, that number is 80%. As for a racial divide, Pew finds that African-American teenagers are more likely to own a smartphone than any other group of teenagers in America. These facts have not been allowed to get in the way of the shiny-new-things approach to learning.

In 2014, New York received a half-million-dollar grant to lend internet hot spots to low-income families. According to the Urban Libraries Council, such lending programs are “the latest buzz.” Similar programs have begun in Chicago, Seattle and St. Paul, with funding coming from Google and other companies. But no one is telling poorer parents about the dangers of screen time. For instance, according to a 2012 Pew survey, just 39% of parents with incomes of less than $30,000 a year say they are “very concerned” about this issue, compared with about six in 10 parents in higher-earning households. Make no mistake: The real digital divide in this country is not between children who have access to the internet and those who don’t. It’s between children whose parents know that they have to restrict screen time and those whose parents have been sold a bill of goods by schools and politicians that more screens are a key to success.

5)    Why financial statements don’t work for digital companies [Source: HBR]
On February 13, 2018, the New York Times reported that Uber is planning an IPO. Uber’s value is estimated between $48 and $70 billion, despite reporting losses over the last two years. Twitter reported a loss of $79 million before its IPO, yet it commanded a valuation of $24 billion on its IPO date in 2013. For the next four years, it continued to report losses. Similarly, Microsoft paid $26 billion for loss-making LinkedIn in 2016, and Facebook paid $19 billion for WhatsApp in 2014 when it had no revenues or profits. In contrast, industrial giant GE’s stock price has declined by 44% over the last year, as news emerged about its first losses in last 50 years. Why do investors react negatively to financial statement losses for an industrial firm but disregard such losses for a digital firm?

In the 2016 book, The End of Accounting, NYU Stern Professor Baruch Lev claimed that over the last 100 years or so, financial reports have become less useful in capital market decisions. Recent research lets us make an even bolder claim: accounting earnings are practically irrelevant for digital companies. Our current financial accounting model cannot capture the principle value creator for digital companies: increasing return to scale on intangible investments. This becomes clear when you look at a company’s two most important financial statements: the balance sheet and the income statement. But, these statements have little salience for a digital company. Let’s look at the balance sheet. Assets reported on a balance sheet have to be physical in nature, have to be owned by the company, and be within the company’s confines. However, digital companies often have assets that are intangible in nature, and many have ecosystems that extend beyond the company’s boundaries. Consider Amazon’s Buttons and Alexa powered Echo, Uber’s cars, and Airbnb’s residential properties, for example. Many digital companies have no physical products and have no inventory to report. Therefore, the balance sheets of physical and digital companies present entirely different pictures.

The digital company is built on research and development, brands, organizational strategy, peer and supplier networks, customer and social relationships, computerized data and software, and human capital. The investments in its building blocks are not capitalized as assets; they are treated as expenses in calculation of profits. So, the more a digital company invests in building its future, the higher its reported losses. Investors thus have no choice but to disregard earnings in their investment decisions. As digital companies become more prominent in the economy, and physical companies become more digital in their operations, income statements too become less meaningful in investors’ decisions. Facebook’s value increases as more people use its product because the benefits accrue to an existing user with the arrival of each new user. Its value growth is powered by the network in place, not by increments of operating costs. Therefore, the most important aim for digital companies is to achieve market leadership, create network effects, and command a “winner-take-all” profit structure. Facebook’s gross margin of 76% on its 2017 revenues of $46.5 billion illustrates this reaping of rewards — every additional dollar of revenue creates almost equivalent value for shareholders.

Now, if earnings are so meaningless, then why do investors react positively to rumors concerning a digital company turning profitable? For example, when Twitter reported its first profits, its share prices jumped 20%. The same thing happened to Yelp. One plausible reason could be that this news has an important signaling effect – that the company might have crossed its initial investment phase, that it might now break even, or that it might catapult into a trajectory where it can reap winner-takes-all rewards. As balance sheets increasingly fail to reflect the value of the company’s resources and the income statements increasingly fail to capture the value created by the company, CEOs are now wondering what to do. They often ask: What does preparing and auditing accrual-based financial statements achieve? The answers are not yet clear. It is unlikely that accounting standards will change in the near future to allow digital companies to capitalize their intangible investments. But there are things companies can do to convey their real worth to investors. Investors look for certain cues about the success of a company’s business model, such as acquisition of major customers, introduction of new products and services, technology, etc. Companies can disclose these items in the Management discussion and analysis section of their annual report.

6)    The 10 year itch: why two of Asia’s biggest celebrity chefs are shutting shop [Livemint]
The prestigious list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants is released each year, with thousands of chefs jostling for a coveted spot. For the past three years, the world renowned chefs, Gaggan Anand (Kolkata-born chef/owner of Bangkok-based modern-Indian restaurant Gaggan) and Andre Chiang (Taiwan-born chef/owner of Restaurant Andre in Singapore), have been winning the first and second spot, respectively. Both the restaurants are always packed, the reservations are as precious as a four-leaf clover and they have a waiting list for months altogether. But, both have shocked the world with their announcement of closure of their restaurants. Gaggan will cease to exist in 2020 and Restaurant Andre served its last table about three weeks ago, on 14 February. These individual announcements have taken everyone by surprise and sent shock waves in a world where they are regarded as heroes. So, what brought this about?

When the author asked Chiang the reason behind this unexpected move, he likened a restaurant to a painting. You start with a blank canvas, and slowly choose your colours and create something new. Day in and day out, you tweak it a little bit here and a tad bit there until one day, you decide that the masterpiece is “complete”. You could hold on to that painting forever and bask in its glory, or you sign the canvas, put the painting on the side and start again from scratch. Anand mirrors these sentiments too. In his words, “To rise again, you always have to head back down and go up. One can’t possibly jump from one mountain to another.” It has to be more than a coincidence that both chefs agree on a 10-year life cycle. Anand believes that by 2020, the restaurant would have completed 10 years and would have given its all. It is not that he is sitting around idle in the meantime, though. With interests in various ventures, he has many projects on and promises to keep cooking and evolving his food.

For Chiang, it is more of a way of life. “Every 10 years, I get restless”, he shares. “I look at my life and think of how to shake it up. Complacency is not something I can live with. 10 years back I moved to Singapore from France, and now the time has come to go back to my motherland, to Taipei.” In his statement announcing the impending closure, Chiang respectfully returned his two Michelin stars and also requested that his Taipei restaurant, RAW, which is what he will focus on now, not be included in any future Michelin guides if they were to launch in Taiwan. “These accolades do not allow you to grow naturally. They push you to create a sense of perfection and stand still at that point. I want to nurture RAW and let it transform gently until I believe it is ready,” he says.

El Bulli, Gaggan and now Andre - Iconic restaurants that each left a distinct mark in this world. These are restaurants that are spoken about in respectful hushed tones, some even years after they shut their doors. The closure of these restaurants at the peak of their popularity may be attributed to many factors. But the true genius lies in the men who created them. Men who sought and eventually attained perfection in their creations, but more importantly, had the courage to walk away from their masterpieces towards nothing but a blank canvas. Shedding their egos along the way and taking along merely their colours and enviable talent.

7)   How UPS delivers faster using $8 headphones and code that decides when dirty trucks get cleaned [MIT]
A wrongly placed box could keep you from getting your packages on time. Avoiding those mistakes, and doing so efficiently, is key to a logistics company’s survival. The boom in e-commerce means UPS now delivers as many as 31 million packages a day. Keeping track of all that is an immensely difficult problem. It’s made worse because fulfilling online orders often requires driving to far-flung residences. That is more expensive for UPS than delivering to businesses, where drivers typically can leave and pick up multiple packages at each stop. And the recent news that Amazon is preparing to launch a low-cost package delivery service means UPS is about to face intense competition from a company with top customer-tracking capabilities and even artificial-intelligence expertise. The company sees advanced analytics as critical to addressing this challenge.

In 2016, it began collecting data across its facilities. Today there are about 25 projects based on that data, grouped under the acronym EDGE (which stands for “enhanced dynamic global execution”). The program has sparked changes in everything from how workers place packages inside delivery trucks in the morning to how the vast army of temporary hires that UPS recruits during the busy holiday season are trained. Eventually, data will even dictate when UPS vehicles get washed. The company expects to save $200 million to $300 million a year once the program is fully deployed. EDGE is only one of several technology projects UPS is undertaking to improve its deliveries in the 220 countries and territories it serves. Its $1 billion annual technology budget also covers upgrades in drivers’ tools, including the handheld computing devices they use to scan packages and collect customer signatures, and mapping software called ORION (for “on-road integrated optimization and navigation”) that calculates the most efficient way for drivers to complete their routes.

It all started last year when UPS started equipping its delivery trucks with plastic Bluetooth receivers to reduce the likelihood of misloaded packages. The rectangular beacons emit a loud beep if a worker places a parcel into a vehicle that’s not headed to the package’s destination. When workers enter the correct truck, they hear a different beep that confirms they’re in the right place. Before developing the technology, UPS didn’t do a final scan of parcels that confirmed the truck on which they belonged. Drivers who discovered errant packages had to travel out of their way to deliver them or summon a supervisor to transfer them to the correct truck. When UPS workers scan packages in the morning, the data updates the service the company has put in place to send people progress e-mails about their shipments. Customers who have signed up for the free service then receive a message that their package will arrive that day, along with an estimated delivery time. Another project tells seasonal workers where to direct the outbound packages that UPS vehicles pick up throughout the day and bring to the company’s sorting facilities.

UPS still botches some deliveries, so the company also has a project that tells managers how many returned parcels will arrive at their processing center and when. That way, they can assemble the appropriate number of workers to reroute the packages. The data comes from a variety of sources, including drivers’ handheld computing devices and the ORION software, which UPS first launched in 2013. Previously, UPS managers relied on historical data and radio conversations with drivers to gauge how many undeliverable parcels they would need to handle each night. “Amazon does have the money and ability to set up a new freight and parcel delivery company, and the disruptive thing is that they’d be able to start from scratch, with technology at the center of their operations,” says Barbara Ivanov, a logistics expert at the University of Washington’s Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center. While Amazon’s current delivery infrastructure lags far behind that of UPS or FedEx it does have a head start in artificial intelligence, and UPS is still trying to catch up. “UPS needs all the technology and analytics and AI it can get if it’s going to compete with a company like Amazon,” says Thomas H. Davenport, a Babson College professor who studies corporate analytics programs.

8)    Sonja Bata, whose museum of shoes tells a story, dies at 91 [Source: NY Times]
Shoes function first as barriers between our bodies and the elements. We slip into and out of them as we do clothes, for protection and comfort, in adherence to social norms, but also to show our discernment. For some, shoes are objects of fascination, collectibles worthy of walk-in closets and hours spent waiting in line to acquire. Others see them as architecture, feats of engineering that we stand atop, connecting us to the world. For Sonja Bata, shoes were all of the above and more. On Feb 20, Mrs. Bata added one last pair to her collection of more than 13,000 shoes — a trove, spanning 4,500 years of history, that is on permanent display at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The museum also chronicles a personal history — of a life spent traveling the world with her husband, Thomas Bata, who led his family’s Czech shoe manufacturing and retail business, the Bata Shoe Company, onto an international stage.

Mrs. Bata was born Sonja Ingrid Wettstein on Nov. 8, 1926, in Zurich to the former Cleopatra Sutter and George Wettstein. Her father was from a line of distinguished lawyers with international clients. Her mother was known as a perfectionist homemaker who frequently entertained international guests. Sonja became acquainted with Thomas Bata, the heir to the Bata Shoe Company, during a ski weekend in St. Moritz. A romance blossomed, and on a plane that Mr. Bata, an amateur pilot, was flying from Basel to Zurich, she received a sky-high proposal to marry him. They wed in 1946. After they married, Mrs. Bata, long accustomed to the sophistication and convenience of Zurich, moved with her husband to the village of Frankford, near Lake Ontario midway between Toronto and Ottawa. Just south of their home, Mr. Bata had developed 1,600 acres into a planned community called Batawa, a hybridization of the shoe manufacturer’s name and the Canadian capital. The couple spent much of their time traveling for business, to Africa, Asia and South America. The trips gave Mrs. Bata opportunities to express her love of architecture by commissioning factories and retail locations as a business partner with no formal title. The time spent abroad also bolstered her growing shoe collection, which in the course of a few decades had grown to 1,500 pairs. There were towering chopines from the Italian Renaissance and three-inch-long women’s shoes from China.

In 1979, after three decades of touring the world, Mrs. Bata asked an ethnologist friend in Toronto, Alika Webber, to examine her collection, which also includes clothes, shoemaking tools and other artifacts. Ms. Webber noted that the items, many of which were handmade, reflected methods of shoe production that were in danger of being forgotten; she deemed them artifacts worthy of a museum. Later that year, Mrs. Bata established the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation, which funded research projects and housed her collection until the museum in Toronto opened its doors in 1995. She had a profound interest in the history of indigenous peoples, fueled by her far-flung travels, and dedicated funds to preserving their shoemaking processes. Through the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation, she supported footwear research in the Arctic and throughout Europe and Asia, which yielded exhibitions of furry Inuit boots and books on how the making of traditional Siberian garments reflects religious beliefs.

Bata shut down its operations in Batawa in 2000, after attempts to compete with the low cost of labor in Asia became unsustainable. After her husband died, Mrs. Bata commissioned the renovation of the old Bata factory into a sustainable, affordable housing complex. It is set to open in 2019. But her crowning achievement was the Bata Shoe Museum. While it bears her husband’s family name, it is hardly an ode to the company’s designs. “There are fewer than 10 Bata shoes in our collection,” Sheila Knox, acting director of operations at Bata Show Museum said. “This was never intended to be a corporate museum or an archive of the Bata Company. It was always intended to tell a story of humans and human history through footwear.”

9)    Robotic bee could help pollinate crops as real bees decline [Source: ]
A drone that can pollinate flowers may one day work side by side with bees to improve crop yields. About three-quarters of global crop species, from apples to almonds, rely on pollination by bees and other insects. But pesticides, land clearing and climate change have caused declines in many of these creatures, creating problems for farmers. Pollination is needed for reproduction in flowering plants. Male flower parts, or stamens, produce pollen that fertilises female parts, known as pistils, to make seeds. In self-pollinating flowers, the stamen sheds pollen directly onto the pistil. Cross-pollination, however, requires the transfer of pollen from one plant to another. This mostly relies on pollen becoming stuck to the bodies of bees and other insects when they feed on flowers, and then being deposited on the next plant they visit. It has advantages over self-pollination, in that it increases genetic diversity and improves the quantity and quality of crops.

Eijiro Miyako at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, and his colleagues have used the principle of cross-pollination in bees to make a drone that transports pollen between flowers. The manually controlled drone is 4 centimetres wide and weighs 15 grams. The bottom is covered in horsehair coated in a special sticky gel. When the drone flies onto a flower, pollen grains stick lightly to the gel, then rub off on the next flower visited. In experiments, the drone was able to cross-pollinate Japanese lilies (Lilium japonicum). Moreover, the soft, flexible animal hairs did not damage the stamens or pistils when the drone landed on the flowers. Miyako says the team is now working on developing autonomous drones that could help farmers to pollinate their crops. GPS, high-resolution cameras and artificial intelligence will be required for the drones to independently track their way between flowers and land on them correctly, though it will be some time before all that is in place.

“We hope this will help to counter the problem of bee declines,” says Miyako. “But importantly, bees and drones should be used together.” Saul Cunningham at the Australian National University in Canberra says that using drones to pollinate flowers is an intriguing idea but may not be economically feasible. “If you think about the almond industry, for example, you have orchards that stretch for kilometres and each individual tree can support 50,000 flowers,” he says. “So the scale on which you would have to operate your robotic pollinators is mind-boggling.” Several more financially viable strategies for tackling the bee decline are currently being pursued, says Cunningham. These include better management of bees through the use of fewer pesticides, breeding crop varieties that can self-pollinate instead of relying on cross-pollination, and the use of machines to spray pollen over crops.

10)    What the winter Olympics TV ads can teach artists: It’s all about the movie in our heads   [Chicago Tribune]
Nowadays, in advertising, the product no longer matters. What matters are the subject’s aspirations. If you watched the ads for the Super Bowl, and especially during the Winter Olympics airing on NBC, you’ll have witnessed how quickly and completely Madison Avenue has surrendered to this self-actualizing reality. Emphasizing the actual attributes of that which is being advertised now is a rare act. It’s no longer just a matter of positioning a product in the subject’s life as part of a classic promotional mix. Ergo, Diet Coke is no longer the real thing. Actually, it no longer wants to say it is any kind of thing — which is dangerous in these tribal and divided times. It would much prefer to be a cipher for whatever you want it to be, for it can and will play that role if you will only pop the ring-pull and take a sip. The new slogan? “Because I can.” Consider the Gillian Jacobs Diet Coke spot (seen during the Super Bowl and beyond) that says, hey, “life is short, if you want to live in a yurt, yurt it up.” And after Diet Coke generously gives us further permission to run a marathon, it tells us that if we’d rather not, then that will be equally fine. “Just do you,” it says.

Diet Coke would not want to say what “you” is, actually, although it wouldn’t mind a spot in your hand as you’re doing ‘you’. Toyota is similarly self-effacing. If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you’ll know it keeps telling you to “Start Your Impossible,” even though that very three-word phrase actually is a contradiction in terms. Except that the word impossible is now a synonym for challenging. In one eye-poppingly emblematic spot, the skater Ashley Wagner, ice dancing and chasing her dreams under a silvery moon, insists that “the harder we fall, the stronger we rise,” which is way more comforting than true. There is no car in sight in Wagner’s sylvan dreamscape, and the switch to the use of second person from her personal narrative is far from coincidental, even though it ignores that Wagner, like all athletes, actually has to beat back the dreams of others in order to win herself. Even as you watch the best in the world, you are now constantly being asked to buy your own potential.

When the author read Deanna Isaacs’ smart recent Chicago Reader analysis of the seriously declining audiences at the Lyric Opera, this was in his mind: an under-reported problem that she argued was being solved, in large part, by reducing the number of performances, not changing their content. And when he read Tim Wu’s recent op-ed in The New York Times wherein Wu, an academic at Columbia University, persuasively argued that convenience has become the leading criteria by which we make all our decisions. Wu wrote that our obsession with, say, conveniently ordering on Amazon, actually is a dark and tyrannical force that is slowly ruining most of what makes life meaningful for us. And that would include the arts. He’s right. The author finds it near-impossible, for example, to persuade his sons to pour a Diet Coke from a cheaper two-liter bottle. They’d rather buy cans. Starbucks — simultaneously convenient and respectful of your need to customize personal choices — has ridden this trend all over the world.

The arts are inherently inconvenient for many people, which perhaps explains some of the issues at the Lyric. Then there’s another problem. A lot of young artists have become very used to being empowered by Diet Coke and its pals to be themselves, and thus their work tends to be about them and their ideas and feelings, with far less apology or mitigation than you would have seen in previous generations. No problem, you might think, if a young artist and a young audience member are on the same page. But they’re actually not. The moment a playwright disappears into their own navel, they risk the audience, metaphorically speaking, thinking about the marathon it would like to run itself, Diet Coke in hand! What many artists, and arts organisations, have not yet figured out is how to switch, as does Wagner in that Toyota ad, to the second person at just the right moment. But it is the key to long-term survival. We just have our heads in the sand. Madison Avenue, which knows how to ensure its own survival, is now aware that it doesn’t matter what Diet Coke feels, but what we feel about Diet Coke. Or to put that another way, we don’t want to watch the movie in someone else’s head, but the one in our own.

- Saurabh Mukherjea is CEO, and Prashant Mittal is Strategist, at Ambit Capital. Views expressed are personal.

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