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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to 'Amazon's private label advantage', 'why no one wins car at mall', and 'science behind slow-motion time perception'

Prashant Mittal
Published: Jul 14, 2018 08:55:52 AM IST
Updated: Jul 13, 2018 04:17:35 PM IST

Ten interesting things 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 ‘Amazon’s private label advantage’, ‘why no one wins car at mall’, and ‘science behind slow-motion time perception’.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended July 13, 2018.

1) How Amazon steers shoppers to its own products [Source: NY Times
Around 2009, Amazon quietly entered the private label business by offering a handful of items under a new brand called AmazonBasics. Early offerings were the kinds of unglamorous products that consumers typically bought at their local hardware store: power cords and cables for electronics and, in particular, batteries — with prices roughly 30% lower than that of national brands like Energizer and Duracell. The results were stunning. In just a few years, AmazonBasics had grabbed nearly a third of the online market for batteries, outselling both Energizer and Duracell on its site. The company now has roughly 100 private label brands for sale on its huge online marketplace, of which more than five dozen have been introduced in the past year alone. But few of those are sold under the Amazon brand. Instead, they have been given a variety of anodyne, disposable names like Spotted Zebra (kids clothes), Good Brief (men’s underwear), Wag (dog food) and Rivet (home furnishings).

On the surface, the move into the private label business appears to be a deft move by Amazon. Analysts predict that nearly half of all online shopping in the United States will be conducted on Amazon’s platform in the next couple of years. That creates a massive opportunity for Amazon to more than double revenue from its in-house brands to $25 billion in the next four years. That’s the equivalent of all of Macy’s revenue last year. In a response to a list of questions, Amazon said its overarching goal is to provide customers a wide range of products and brands. “We take the same approach to private label as we do with anything here at Amazon: We start with the customer and work backwards,” the company said in its statement.

Amazon is hardly alone in its charge into private label. Big-box retailers like Walmart and Target have been offering store brands for years and are also racing to start more private labels, particularly in apparel. But Amazon holds a unique position in the global marketplace. From its beginnings in 1994, Amazon’s platform was designed to democratize retail. Small vendors or manufacturers could sell outdoor grills, computer bags, and children’s toys alongside established brands. Now, with its expansion into private label, Amazon has shifted away from being an impartial, may-the-best-product-win distribution partner to being a direct competitor to those other vendors. It’s not only low prices, Amazon is utilizing its knowledge of its powerful marketplace machine — from optimizing word-search algorithms to analyzing competitors’ sales data to using its customer-review networks — to steer shoppers toward its in-house brands and away from its competitors, say analysts. The emerging private label threat from Amazon presents a quandary for small vendors and big, national brands alike. Even as Amazon takes away market share and eats into their profit margins, they have little choice but to continue to sell on Amazon’s platform in order to get themselves in front of millions of potential customers.

For Amazon, the starting line for deciding what goods or products to replicate for an in-house brand is not that different than what happens at retailers like Target or Walmart. They look at what is selling online and figure out if they can manufacture it cheaper. Amazon’s advantage over traditional retailers is its knowledge and access to data from its platform. Take word searches. About 70% of the word searches done on Amazon’s search browser are for generic goods. That means consumers are typing in “men’s underwear” or “running shoes” rather than asking, specifically, for Hanes or Nike.

In light of these practices, the Capitol Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based news service that examines business and regulation, published a story arguing Amazon risked antitrust enforcement by the Trump administration for using its algorithms and platform to promote its own products over “those of merchants that are dependent on Amazon’s platform and with whom Amazon competes.” Amazon has two strong defenses when these issues are raised – a) At least since the 1970s, courts have been very skeptical of antitrust plaintiffs who can’t show that the challenged conduct would cause prices to go up or quality to go down. In this case, Amazon can argue, quite vehemently that, through its platform, consumers are paying lower prices, say legal experts; and b) while Amazon’s brands have quickly gained market share on its platform in some areas, in other segments, such as apparel, they account for less than 1% of the inventory sold. And when broadened out to include brick-and-mortar stores, its online share of the battery market equals less than 5%. Until Amazon’s share of the total market starts to reach closer to 40% or more, it is difficult to argue there is an attempted-monopolization case, say legal experts.

2) Why there will always be a place for the office jerk [Source: Financial Times]
Pilita Clark in this piece recollects her experience of working with an extremely difficult yet very clever newspaper journalist with a stunning knack for getting scoops. She would answer Ms. Clark’s phone when she was out and urge Clark’s contacts to talk to her instead. She would fashion missiles from whatever was on her desk and lob them at startled colleagues on deadline. And although she could be kind and generous, Ms. Clark and her colleague became so pathetically rivalrous that their boss used to call them “the dorsal twins”. She recollected her experience while reviewing a book on Barclays Bank and its many bosses, not least Bob Diamond. He quit after Barclays was fined for rigging interbank lending rates and was once branded the unacceptable face of banking. But he was also a big proponent of the no-jerks policy: employees who did not behave like a team player had to change or leave, no matter how talented they were.

However such a policy has limits. A few years later, an ex-Barclays banker in the rigging scandal told a court that his manager used to whack him over the head with a 12-inch baseball bat and once made him stand on a chair on the trading floor when he could not name the capital of the Philippines. Still, it is now widely accepted that Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor, was right when he wrote in his 2007 book, The No Asshole Rule, that nasty workers are often more trouble than they’re worth. Netflix has said for years it will not tolerate “brilliant jerks” because the cost to good teamwork is too high. Entrepreneur Michael Liebreich insisted on an “asshole-free-zone” when he started the New Energy Finance research outfit he later sold to Bloomberg. Even the US Treasury once had a Secretary, Tim Geithner, with a rule of “no peacocks, no jerks, no whiners”.

Ms. Clark says that while she is pleased with all these findings and complementary support from businessmen, she doubts the working world will ever be entirely free of jerks and, in some cases, she says she isn’t sure that it should. She takes the example of a famous gold medal ‘jerk’- Steve Jobs. Whether the late Apple boss launched the iPhone because he could be such an awful bully, or despite it, is hard to say. But the fact is that he did. Jobs could’ve been an outlier, yet there is a good deal of evidence that disagreeable people, especially men, are more successful at work and paid more. That’s one reason she doesn’t expect them to disappear from offices any time soon: they often end up running the show. On top of that, as the Barclays case suggests, jerks are hard to spot and eradicate in big companies, no matter what top executives say.

Finally, she wonders if the jerk is always what he or she seems. In her experience, a lot of the trickiest people at work belong to a subset of jerkdom that former England rugby coach, Sir Clive Woodward, has called “energy-sappers”, people whose negativity drains those around them. Yet she says, such people are also some of her favourite colleagues. They are often the only ones willing to point out obvious office flaws. She suspects them to be like whistleblowers. Sometimes, they are simply nice people who have gone through a rough patch at home or were shoved into a management job without training. In other words, their personality is not the problem.

3) How the dominance of European football is hurting the World Cup [Source: Livemint
This football World Cup in Russia has been, largely, an unusual and a predictable one. Watch the matches between, say, Uruguay and Egypt, or France and Australia, if you take the jerseys away or can’t identify the individuals, it will be hard to say which is which just by their style of play. Almost all the teams at the tournament have been sitting compact in their own halves without possession, focused more on disrupting and denying space to the opposition. Whilst in attack, the packed centres have instigated the use of flanks to get crosses in. The result has been a high percentage of goals being scored from set pieces. The use of video assistant referees (VAR) has meant very few infractions in the box go unpunished. As a result, in only 10 days of initial action the number of penalties awarded in Russia equalled those in the entire tournament in Brazil. Apart from the goals conjured by individual brilliance, set pieces and VAR have been the two buzzwords from Russia.

In the aftermath of Germany’s win over Sweden, the German striker Timo Werner summed it up succinctly when he said: “There are no normal goals in this cup. It’s either a set piece, own goal or a banger. And this time it (Toni Kroos’ goal) was a banger.” The big international teams have been known for certain styles of play. England were wedded to their 4-4-2 formation, the Brazilians had their technically brilliant flair football, the Germans had their organisation and efficiency, Nigeria would thrive with their sense of adventure. But the lines have become increasingly blurred in Russia. The shape of the Brazilian defence in their opening match against Switzerland could have easily been mistaken for England. The primary reason for all the teams effectively playing the same style is down to the footballing education of the players involved. Most talented players are bought at a very young age by European outfits where they learn the craft of their trade. The case of the Brazilian youngster Vinicius Junior is instructive. Last summer, Real Madrid signed the 16-year-old before he had even debuted for Flamengo’s senior side.

The primacy of European football, which has come about as a consequence of financial riches—bringing with it state of the art facilities and salaries that are beyond the means of their non-European counterparts—has led to a greater divide in quality between the teams with Europe-based players and those without them. Morocco is a good example of a team that has a majority of players based in Europe. In fact, several of them come from the European diaspora. They became part of the Moroccan set up after failing to make the grade in their adopted countries. The Dronten, Netherlands-born midfielder Hakim Ziyech was on the periphery of making it to the Dutch national team, but after being repeatedly overlooked by the Dutch set up, he switched allegiance to his ancestral country. Amine Harit represented France in youth teams up to the Under-21s before answering the Moroccan call. Only two members of their 23-man World Cup squad are based in Morocco. Coach Herve Renard gives his team talk in French and English instead of Moroccan Arabic.

The smallest outfits like Iran, Panama and Tunisia have resorted to very defensive formations, putting more emphasis on stifling the opposition attack than creating moves of their own. And it makes sense. The international managers do not get enough time to plan elaborate attacks, it is much easier to drill a defensive shape and rely on individual brilliance for the goals. It is not a new development, however. Smaller teams with less quality players have always practised a defensive brand of football in attempts to eke out a point. But the loss of national team identities for the bigger names has been pronounced in Russia. Apart from Morocco, Senegal and Colombia are two relatively small teams that played attractive attacking football and were in the running for a place in the round of 16. Whilst they too have players playing in top Europe leagues, most of them cut their teeth at non-European outfits. Peru is another side that looked distinctly South American, with their propensity to play flair football. It is no coincidence that only five of their 23-man squad play in Europe. The concentration of top talent in Europe helps the quality of their domestic leagues, but a global product like the World Cup is suffering because of it.

4) Why nobody ever wins the car at the mall [Source: thehustle.co
We all have seen those advertisements in mall where a big car is showcased with a tag saying, “shop worth $XXX and stand a chance to win a car!” Or just fill in your details and might stand a chance to win a car. Once you’ve done your shopping and filled the necessary details, the staff will tell you that the winner will be declared on so and so date. Does anyone ever win the damn car? The answer is no. So what’s this all about? Who runs these sweepstakes? What do they do with our information? In search for the answers of these questions, the author of this piece, Zachary Crockett, came across a vortex of shady marketing tactics, timeshare salesmen, and third-party resale markets — and exposed the dirty underbelly of how our information is brokered. First thing’s first: the mall isn’t behind these giveaways; they merely rent out the advertising space (for around $1.5k per day). And as it turns out, their partnership standards are pretty low.

The car that’s displayed is also a loaner from a local dealer — and despite what the sweepstakes’ marketing may suggest, it’s not up for grabs; the author called the dealer and they confirmed that the vehicle on display isn’t part of the giveaway at all. What you’re really signing up for is the opportunity to win an opportunity to possibly win a small amount of taxable cash. Here’s what actually happens: 1) You enter the sweepstakes; 2) You have to attend a 90-minute timeshare presentation; 3) You get a scratch-off lotto ticket; 4) If you’re a “grand prize winner,” you get to play a game for a chance to win $100k. The “game” is that the finalist gets to open 4 “mystery envelopes” with random amounts of cash. Last year’s two “big winners” walked away with checks for $575 and $700 — about enough to buy one side view mirror for your car. That’s the absolute best-case scenario of entering one of these contests.

Days after entering to win the car, Maggie Nicholson received a call informing her that her name was drawn. After sitting through a 2-hour timeshare presentation with Boiler Room-like sales tactics, she was told there was no car — but she was eligible for a vacation package. “[When I declined], they proceeded to tell our 12 year old daughter, ‘I guess your parents won’t take you on your dream vacation!’” she says. Then, they handed over her “prize:” a $25 restaurant voucher that required a $100 minimum spend to redeem. In short, nobody wins the car in these telemarketing schemes. There are other types of car giveaways run by more legitimate parties (charity raffles, event promotions) that do deliver the goods — but if you win, you’re liable to pay a hefty gift tax. In one instance, a man who won a 2015 Tesla Model S at a casino would have had to pony up $38k in fees to take it home, and ended up selling it instead. He walked away with less than $25k on a $92k vehicle.

It’s a marketing gimmick to get your information. To enter a car contest at the mall, you have to enter a sweeping range of your personal information: Mobile number, full name, marital status, age, where you like to go on vacation, combined annual income, what type of credit card(s) you own, etc. Only after you enter all of this are you presented with the terms — and buried at the very end of them, in small print, is something rather scary: your data can be used for virtually any purpose by telemarketers. In today’s digital economy, the practice of offering a free service, product, or opportunity in exchange for data is widespread. Companies like Facebook and Google give free access to their platforms in exchange for a wide, sweeping range of your personal information, which they analyze and use to sell targeted ads. Other free services, like Unroll.me, sell your anonymized data to third-parties outright. In the words of Lee Tien, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “If you’re not paying for it with money, you’re paying for it with data.”

5) Richard Feynman: How to not cheat yourself out of life’s beauty
[Source: Medium
There are few people who evoke as much awe out of intellectuals as Richard Feynman. He was a physicist by trade, but confining his thinking to one easy label would be doing him an injustice. His mental range was broad and flexible, and he knew how to balance differing viewpoints. We use the word ‘beautiful’ liberally, but broken down, we only mean a couple of things with it. The most common association is with scenes that move us. It’s with what we can’t define or capture any other way because this “what” is simply not a thing that’s easily pinned down. The aesthetic sense of an artist, as Feynman mentions in his monologue, plays into exactly this kind of beauty. It works by understanding wholes. It doesn’t try to reduce things like love or art or meaning into concrete steps because it knows that it would be futile to try to do so.

The only point of defining love or art or meaning is to provide utility; it’s not to capture truth. Once something is beautiful in this sense, that’s the last meaningful word concerning it. The reason for all this is that such beauty doesn’t hide in a specific function of a thing, but more so, it hides in the essence of the whole thing. As soon as a small part of it is disturbed, as is the case when we try to reduce it down, then the entire thing breaks down. There is a famous expression in the world of linguistics that states that “the map is not the territory” — that as soon as we describe something, it loses some of its truth in the process. When it comes to things that are beautiful in their general essence, the only way to get close to them is to develop the aesthetic appreciation of the artist — to reason with the senses. Sometimes, what is experienced when beauty of this kind presents itself is the last word. We all feel this, of course, but it takes an artistically refined view to fully take it in every time. The essence is the only full truth.

Of course, Feynman did have a point in that there is another path leading to a similar end. Throughout history, many have suggested that what is simple and functional — meaning that when a thing works and it works well — is intimately connected to the aesthetically pleasing. In mathematics and physics, for example, how beautiful a proof is provides some evidence that it might be right. The fact that it’s elegant is valuable beyond just how it makes us feel. In the sciences, we don’t work with wholes, and we rarely accept that something should be taken as it is without it needing to be broken down. If we did, progress would be a lot slower. That said, when good science works, it creates its own kind of beauty. It gives us the power to control a little more of our environment, and it brings us closer to understanding the nature that creates us. It may not explain an essence, but it does uncover a different world. It’s often forgotten that in the process of understanding, we find ourselves with even more questions. The fact that Feynman knew that the flower evolved to attract insects didn’t just give him an answer, but it opened up a pathway for him to marvel at even more mysteries.

Feynman’s intellectual contribution to the world extends far beyond just a brief monologue he happen to utter in an interview, which in turn shows the kind of mind he was working with. He could see how paradoxes work together, and he showed that when talking about beauty. The artist and the scientist both see and appreciate the aesthetically profound, but they don’t always fully experience what the other person experiences when they look at something. The artist is better attuned to use his deeply refined sense intelligence to feel the essence of something that is considered beautiful and that essence can’t be captured any other way. The scientist, however, has the edge when trying to zone in on the details. She is trained to really understand the simplicity and the functionality of something on a deeper level, and that leads to questions, which then leads to mysteries that present their own kind of beauty.

There is much in the world that we do know and can touch and a lot of it contains profundity. These labels are, of course, generalisations, but they represent archetypes of two different kinds of beauty that exist in the world; kinds that all of us have access to if we know to look. Although some people will gravitate toward the first at the expense of the second, or vice versa, it isn’t impossible to train yourself to find awe in one as much as you do the other. The patterns of reality are both complex and simple. Fortunately, we can learn to value both.

6) Thailand cave rescue unites a nation and grips the world [Source: Financial Times]
The disappearance of the Muu Pa (Wild Boar) boys’ football team in a cave, their discovery more than a week later and daring rescue by divers through an obstacle course of flooded chambers has captured the world’s imagination. For Thais, divided by politics and class and drifting politically since a 2014 military coup, the drama at Tham Luang cave has served as a cathartic and unifying national moment, showing each other and the outside world their best selves. About 10,000 people in all took part in the rescue effort over 17 days. Farmers near the cave consented to having their rice paddies deluged with millions of litres of muddy water pumped from underground. Volunteers brought home-cooked food and drinks or hauled equipment for the rescuers and international press pack that descended on Mae Sai near the Myanmar border.

Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn responded by playing his most public role since assuming the throne in 2016. He donated to the rescue, commended the international team who found the boys and sponsored the funeral of a diver who died during the rescue operation. Thailand’s ruling junta, under criticism at home and abroad for postponing elections four years after they seized power, managed the crisis competently. Thais believe the crisis could influence the country’s politics in months to come, although they say it is too early to predict how. Crucially — and uncharacteristically for a nationalistic military government that in the past has bristled at what it saw as foreign meddling — the generals invited foreigners to take leading roles. Experts from the UK, US, Australia, China and other countries were called on to provide knowledge or technology. Foreign divers worked alongside Thai Navy Seals.

At the centre of the saga though, were the teenage boys who, trapped deep underground for a fortnight, remained composed and high-spirited under the guidance of Ekkapol “Ake” Chantawong, their coach. The children wrote touching letters to their parents, asking for favourite foods or less homework when they got out. In hospital after the rescue, some of the boys warmed Thais’ hearts by reportedly asking for Khao grapow, a comfort food of stir-fried meat and basil served with fried egg and rice. Media analysts said the boys’ plight and rescue had an “X” factor that had global appeal at a time of ugly nationalism and international discord. “There’s something very potent about the basic elements: innocents who are trapped in a life-threatening situation with limited time to survive; heroic efforts to save them; and of course, suspense,” said Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University. “You would almost have to be inhuman to feel indifferent toward their fate — and that means high interest in the story around the world.”

Thais remained in high spirits after the rescue, releasing a cascade of online memes showing wild boars swimming to safety or declaring “Hoo-yah”, the Navy Seals’ trademark victory exclamation, as each child was freed. However, as Thais heaped admiration on the military men who took part in the operation, analysts said this would not necessarily translate into support for the junta.

7) Facebook and Google are arbitraging the data laws [Source: Financial Times
As scandals over the misuse of personal information proliferate and data protection laws are tightened, technology companies are leaping to a surprising conclusion: they are publishers. Facebook emphasised its role as a publisher with editorial discretion in a California court last week in an effort to block a lawsuit from a developer. Google attempted something even more audacious in a UK case this year involving the “right to be forgotten” in search engine results. It laid claim to an exemption for publishers of journalism, art and literature under European law. Google’s legal sally was ridiculous and was squashed by the high court judge. “I do not consider that Google’s own activity can be equated with journalism,” he wrote firmly, ruling that the technology titan wanted, as one would, to have its cake and to eat it. It was claiming the data-handling privileges of publishers without trying to meet the same journalistic obligations as they do.

Technology titans are dancing around the question of whether, and to what extent, they are publishers because of a shift in public opinion. Taking limited responsibility for what appears on social networks or in search results, no longer sounds like making a stand for liberty. They cannot ignore the “fake news, clickbait, spam and data misuse”, cited by Facebook itself in one ad promising to do better. Traditionally, technology companies have argued that they host information neutrally, but that defense is slipping. As laws such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) start to bite, acting as a publisher with broader freedom than others to handle and to disclose personal information starts to be attractive. Why not, lawyers whisper, combine the advantages of both?

There are tempting opportunities. Facebook’s argument in California that it was allowed to exercise editorial control by cutting off developers’ access to photos published on its network by users’ friends is clearly valid. However, it sounds odd for Facebook to claim the right to behave like a publisher in this manner, while insisting elsewhere that it is not a media company. But the safe harbour laws for “interactive computer services”, as the 1996 Communications Decency Act refers to them, give it exactly this right. Blame that act and its European equivalent for allowing internet titans ambiguous status.

Technology groups are not the only ones parsing the laws on information disclosure and those on data privacy to find which one suits them best. The Bank of England this week rejected a Financial Times request under the Freedom of Information Act to identify people who paid to spend time with Mark Carney, BoE governor. It cited a need to protect personal data under the GDPR. This sort of thing is inevitable when laws overlap and the same item of information can be defined differently. Is a photo snapped in a public place publishable as journalism or protected as a sensitive piece of personal data that identifies the subject’s ethnic origin and physical or mental condition? At a technical level, when everything is broken into bytes, there is no simple distinction.

8) HBO must get bigger and broader, says its new overseer [Source: NY Times]
Change is coming to HBO, now that it is part of the AT&T corporate family. That much was clear to the 150 employees who attended a recent town hall meeting at the network’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. The main speaker was John Stankey, a longtime AT&T executive who now oversees HBO in his new role as chief executive of Warner Media. During a straight-shooting, hour-long talk, he laid out his rough vision for the network, and warned his audience that the months ahead would not be easy. “It’s going to be a tough year,” Mr. Stankey said. “It’s going to be a lot of work to alter and change direction a little bit.” AT&T executives said all the right things during the long prelude to the company’s $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner, which was completed last month. They acknowledged that the corporate culture of a Dallas-based telecommunications giant was different from that of the more freewheeling media and entertainment concerns in New York and California. They pledged to take a hands-off approach to the company’s crown jewel, HBO, which has won endless Emmys while generating billions in profits.

But the town hall meeting suggested that AT&T would not be a passive corporate parent. Richard Plepler, HBO’s gregarious and urbane chief executive, hosted the talk at the cozy HBO Theater on the building’s 15th floor. Mr. Stankey’s appearance came as part of a tour that included stops at Warner Bros. and Turner, the media properties that were once part of Time Warner and now belong to AT&T’s Warner Media division. Mr. Plepler, 58, and Mr. Stankey, 55, sat angled slightly toward each other on the modest stage. During the conversation, which began at noon on June 19, Mr. Stankey never uttered the word “Netflix,” but he did suggest that HBO would have to become more like a streaming giant to thrive in the new media landscape. Mr. Stankey described a future in which HBO would substantially increase its subscriber base and the number of hours that viewers spend watching its shows. To pull it off, the network will have to come up with more content, transforming itself from a boutique operation, with a focus on its signature Sunday night lineup, into something bigger and broader.

“We need hours a day,” Mr. Stankey said, referring to the time viewers spend watching HBO programs. “It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month. We need hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.” Continuing the theme, he added: “I want more hours of engagement. Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow’s world.” Known for “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld,” HBO has long favored quality over quantity. Its high-gloss productions often take years to develop and can cost millions per episode. That approach has won the network more Primetime Emmy Awards than any of its competitors over the last 16 years, with Mr. Plepler the master curator.

“As I step back and think about what’s unique about the brand and where it needs to go, there’s got to be a little more depth to it, there’s got to be more frequent engagement,” Mr. Stankey said. Bringing the point home, he added that HBO must “build that brand so that it’s broad enough to make that happen.” Mr. Plepler tried to pin down Mr. Stankey on the question of how much AT&T planned to invest. Without specifying any certain amount, Mr. Stankey said, “I do believe there needs to be stepped-up investment.” Mr. Plepler interjected: “Let’s give him a hand for that simple sentence! That simple sentence deserves a hand!” “Also,” Mr. Stankey said, “we’ve got to make money at the end of the day, right?” “We do that,” Mr. Plepler responded, to scattered applause. HBO has, in fact, been a consistent moneymaker. Over the last three years, while allocating more than $2 billion a year to its programming, the network has made nearly $6 billion in profit. But if it is to compete with upstart rivals like Netflix, which plans to lay out some $8 billion this year, its level of spending must increase considerably.

Mr. Stankey also made the case that HBO’s employees should consider themselves fortunate to have AT&T as their new corporate parent, rather than a company in the same business. “The good news for many of you in this organization is that it’s not Fox or Disney sitting up on this stage now,” Mr. Stankey said. “There’s virtually no duplication with AT&T in what we do.” In other words, your jobs are safe. But he cautioned that HBO’s employees would notice a change in tempo and metabolism in the days ahead. “I suspect if we’re in a situation where we’re going to be investing heavier, that means that there’s going to be more work for all of you to do — and you’re going to be working a little bit harder,” Mr. Stankey said.

9) When bad things happen in slow motion
[Source: nautil.us
John Hockenberry, the heavily-decorated journalist and commentator, recollects his accident from 38 years ago “I was on a road in Pennsylvania. I was sleeping in the back of a car. I woke up. The driver of the car was also asleep. The car was veering off the road. The passenger next to her reached over very slowly, it seemed, grabbed the wheel, and pulled that wheel as hard as she could … and the car veers to the right. And very slowly we hit the guardrail, the car flips into the air, and I can feel in my gut that all of life is going to change.” Retired fire chief Richard Gasaway refers to this apparent slowing down of time in tense situations as tachypsychia, which roughly translates as “fast mind.” “This phenomenon afflicts many first responders,” Gasaway claims, based on hundreds of interviews he has conducted for his research, blog, and speaking engagements on “situational awareness.” Bolstered also by what he judges to be personal experiences of tachypsychia, Gasaway has come to consider it as a sometime component of the overall stress response. For first responders, the phenomenon is dangerous, he says, because it can warp situational awareness and decision-making processes.

But is tachypsychia real, or an illusion? David Eagleman of the Baylor College of Medicine set out to answer this question with a test. Together with his colleagues, he developed a wristwatch-like “perceptual chronometer” that alternately displays red digits and their negative images (a red background with unlit pixels in the shape of the digits) at rates faster than a threshold at which the toggling images fuse into what appears to be a uniform patch. This threshold is called a critical fusion frequency, or CFF. Eagleman hypothesized that if he could terrify people while they were looking at the chronometer, then their CFF would spike, they would switch into slow-motion perception mode, and they would suddenly be able to discern the digits on the chronometer. To carry out the tests, Eagleman took 20 people to the Zero Gravity Thrill Amusement Park in Dallas. There he strapped them into the Suspended Catch Air Device of the 16-story-high “Nothin’ but Net” ride, in which the chronometer-wearing participants would free fall 31 meters before landing in a net. The participants were tasked to keep an eye on their chronometer during their jaw-clenching, 2.5 second drop.

The data from the other participants made it clear: No one could discern the digits during their free falls. But, when asked after the fact to estimate the duration of their own falls (by replaying their experience in their minds and with a stopwatch in hand), the participants recorded, on average, that their drop lasted about a third longer than the drops of others they had witnessed as at-ease spectators. Eagleman concluded the subjective experience of time slowing down under harrowing circumstances is an artifact of memory, not an actual trait of real-time perception. In short, time was not slowing down for anybody. “Under normal circumstances, most of the stuff flowing through your sensorium, you don’t remember,” Eagleman explained. “What happens in a life-threatening situation is that everything gets written down. Everything is retained in memory.” Because the brain is not used to memory of such density, he continued, “the brain’s interpretation is that the whole thing must have gone more slowly.”

The CFF for people is, on average, 60 flickers per second, which is why televisions’ refresh rates are at or above that frequency. In the animal kingdom, it runs from as low as 6.7 for a cane toad, to 108 for a ground squirrel, to 240 for a common blowfly. Generally speaking, the faster an animal’s metabolism or the smaller its size, the higher its CFF. These differing CFF values seem to offer some fascinating explanatory power. No wonder it is hard to kill a fly with your murderous swatting hand. With a CFF of 240, the fly might well see your approaching hand as though it were muscling through molasses. There is some evidence that this temporal dimension could be critical to the planet’s ecological competitions: “Time perception might constitute an important and overlooked dimension of niche differentiation,” says zoologist Andrew Jackson of Trinity College Dublin. When cold-blooded swordfish dive in pursuit of squid, for one, they upshift their CFF by surging warm blood to their eyes. People can’t get away with this eye and brain warming tactic to crank their CFF; it would mean heating up tissue into high-fever territory where proteins unravel and cells start to not care about living anymore.

That said, Jackson believes that it may be possible that we all have slightly different CFFs, which could help explain details of our personality, talents, choices, and perceptions. “Should a person have a higher CFF than their group mates, then they would effectively have the potential to react to events in the world that would to their group mates seem impossibly fast,” Jackson said. “I kind of wonder if this might explain the feeling sometimes when you are playing sports like soccer and you feel completely on top of your game, and able to breeze past your opponent with a feeling that the game feels almost slow to you.”

10) Why you need an untouchable day every week [Source: HBR]
Neil Pasricha, the New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Equation and The Book of Awesome, in this piece talks about his discovery to keep him away from distractions and concentrate on the task at hand. When he worked as Director of Leadership Development at Walmart, his days were full of meetings. He hates meetings as they are time consuming. And when he quit two years ago to strike out on his own as an author and keynote speaker, he thought his days full of meetings were behind. But he was wrong. He now has research calls and phone interviews; lunches with literary agents and web developers; conference calls about book titles and publishing schedules; and radio interviews and media prep calls. And before every speech he gives, there’s always a meeting with the client and meeting planner to clarify goals and logistics for the event.

He used to be one of those “wake up at 4 a.m.” or “keep chugging ‘til 4 a.m.” guys who grinds away at work for hours while everybody else sleeps. It’s how he wrote a thousand blog posts in a thousand days. But he now understands that you can only drive in the express lane for so long before the wheels come off. He’s no longer that guy. Now when he gets home after work, he soaks in time with his wife and two little boys. Nothing is or will ever be as precious to him, and he resists insight from anyone who isn’t making space for loved ones. He realized that what he needed was a practical way to get more work done without taking more time. And, he needed it fast. Why? Because in his first year as a full-time author, he actually started feeling his productivity slipping — even though he had quit his full-time job. It wasn’t just disheartening; it was also embarrassing.

But then, he finally found a solution that he feels has saved his career, his time, and his sanity. He calls this solution: “Untouchable Days”. These are days when Neil is literally 100% unreachable in any way, by anyone. Untouchable Days have become his secret weapon to getting back on track. They’re how he completes his most creative and rewarding work. To share a rough comparison, on a day when he writes between meetings, he’ll produce maybe 500 words a day. On an Untouchable Day, it’s not unusual for him to write 5,000 words. On these days, he is 10 times more productive. So how does he finalise the “Untouchable Days?” He looks into his calendar sixteen weeks ahead of time, and for each week, he blocks out an entire day as UNTOUCHABLE. He puts it in all-caps just like that, too. UNTOUCHABLE. He doesn’t write in all-caps for anything else, but he allows UNTOUCHABLE days to just scream out.

Also, these days are sacrosanct for him. During Untouchable days, he has also planned for emergency and his wife knows well where to hunt for him. Before he started using Untouchable Days, he treaded water — he wrote articles, he gave speeches. But something was missing. When he implemented Untouchable Days in 2017, magic happened. He wrote a new 50,000 word memoir, wrote and launched a new 60-minute keynote speech, drafted book proposals for his next three books, and completely planned and began recording his new podcast — all while travelling and giving more speeches than he ever had before. With a year of Untouchable Days under his belt, does he still go through the exercise of scheduling one Untouchable Day every single week? The honest answer is no. Now he schedules two.
-Prashant Mittal is Strategist, at Ambit Capital. Views expressed are personal

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