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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Management (Why highly efficient leaders fail), Politics (How sexism plays out on the trail), Society (Religion's relationship to happiness, civic engagement and health), Physics (A different kind of theory of everything), Parenting (What value do we place on caring?), Environment (Canada's forests actually emit more carbon than they absorb), and Technology (An ageing world needs more resourceful robots), among others

Published: Feb 23, 2019 08:11:38 AM IST
Updated: Feb 25, 2019 12:06:54 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, 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 Management (Why highly efficient leaders fail), Politics (How sexism plays out on the trail), Society (Religion’s relationship to happiness, civic engagement and health), Physics (A different kind of theory of everything), Parenting (What value do we place on caring?), Environment (Canada's forests actually emit more carbon than they absorb), and Technology (An ageing world needs more resourceful robots), among others.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended February 22, 2019.

1) Why highly efficient leaders fail [Source: HBR ]
There are various characteristics of a successful leader, but people look up to the one who strikes a balance between tasks and people. Great leaders are able to balance task-focus (getting things done) with people-focus (inspiring, developing, and empowering others). Highly task-focused leaders tend to have tunnel vision in their drive for results, rather than applying a broader lens that recognizes the need to sometimes “go slow to go fast”. Leaders who balance task- and people-focus are equally driven and also strive for results, but they keep the broader organizational needs in mind. They also recognize that it’s not just about being efficient — it’s about being effective.

But if you’re more task-focused, these 5 points can help you: a) Get feedback: Ask key stakeholders how well they think you balance your task-focus versus your people-focus. Ask them to quantify it. b) Identify high-value ways to focus on people: Incorporate the feedback you receive to identify some regular practices to implement, such as having periodic career development conversations with direct reports, eliminating distractions during these conversations so you can actually focus on the other person, or having coffee with a colleague to get to know each other beyond work. c) Engage in self-observation and reflection: Notice in real-time when you are being impatient or moving too fast. This provides an opportunity not only to be more present, but also to improve your self-awareness.

d) De-bunk your limiting beliefs: Create some safe experiments to collect information that disproves the limiting beliefs that are driving your behaviour. This might include talking to others who are good at balancing task- and people-focus to gain some insight into how they do it and how this balance has contributed to their success. 5) Practice self-management: Building greater self-awareness in the moment provides an opportunity to pause and choose a different approach. This might mean choosing not to send a slew of emails about your big project over the weekend, pausing to acknowledge a colleague’s effort, or taking the time to teach a team member something new.  

2) Small teams of scientists have fresher ideas [Source: The Atlantic ]
It took $1.1 billion and a 1,000-strong team to prove Einstein right about gravitational waves. In 2016, the scientists behind the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced that they had finally detected these ripples in the fabric of space and time, formed by colliding black holes. “LIGO was a masterpiece of 21st-century engineering and science,” says James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago who studies the history of science. “But it was perhaps the most conservative experiment in history. It tested a 100-year-old hypothesis.”
Mr. Evans collaborated with his colleague Lingfei Wu to look at more than 65 million scientific papers, patents, and software projects from the past six decades. In every recent decade and in almost every field, Mr. Wu’s analysis found, small teams are far more likely to introduce fresh, disruptive ideas that take science and technology in radically new directions. Having tested this score in various ways to show that it’s valid, Mr. Wu used it to show that small teams produce markedly more disruptive work than large ones. That’s true even for patents, which are innovative by definition. It’s true for highly cited work and poorly cited work. It’s true in every decade from the 1950s to the 2010s. It’s true in fields ranging from chemistry to social sciences.

So why are small teams more disruptive? It’s possible that they do more theoretical work, while big teams (such as LIGO) are needed to test the resulting theories, but Mr. Evans and his colleagues couldn’t find any evidence for this in their data. Still, he argues that agencies must find better ways of encouraging small teams. They don’t just do different kinds of science, but they create work that large teams then build upon. Disenfranchise them, and you destabilize the foundations upon which big science rests. “In 10 years, we’ll be wondering where all the big ideas are,” Evans says. “Some people will wonder if science is slowing down and we’ve eaten all the low-hanging fruit. And the answer will be yes, because we’ve only built engines that do that.”

3) ‘A Woman, Just Not That Woman’: How Sexism plays out on the trail [Source: New York Times]
As some of the US senators like Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris campaign for 2020 Democratic nomination for US president, they’ll have a hard time convincing voters. Why? Because few Americans acknowledge they would hesitate to vote for a woman for president. Reluctance to support female candidates is apparent in the language that voters frequently use to describe men and women running for office. How much sexism ultimately influences votes is a matter of debate. What is not a matter of debate is the array of ways that sexism can manifest on the campaign trail, affecting not only how voters perceive candidates but how candidates present themselves to voters.

There are three broad categories that these candidates are judged upon: a) Likeability: The very first question of Ms. Gillibrand’s campaign was about her likability. “A lot of people see you as pretty likable,” a reporter told her. Did she consider that a “selling point”? In 2016, for instance, both Mrs. Hilary Clinton and Mr. Donald Trump had poor favourability ratings; among voters who said they viewed both candidates negatively, Mr. Trump won by roughly 20 percentage points. b) Masculinity and femininity: The qualities voters tend to expect from politicians, like strength, toughness and valor, are popularly associated with masculinity. This often means that from the moment a man steps onto the campaign trail, he benefits from a basic assumption that he is qualified to run, while a woman has to work twice as hard to show that she’s qualified.

c) Superficial judgments: Perhaps the most obvious way female candidates are judged differently is on their appearance; not only how “attractive” they are and how they dress, researchers say, but also their facial expressions, their body language and their voice. Women are conscious that small elements of how they present themselves are subject to scrutiny. These sorts of criticisms were common in the 2016 campaign, not only against Mrs. Clinton but also against Carly Fiorina, who ran in the Republican primary. “Look at that face,” Mr. Trump said at one point, openly mocking Ms. Fiorina’s appearance. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” History influences what voters see as normal. And for 230 years in the United States, presidential leadership has been male. Will the presence of six women in the 2020 race make any difference? We got to wait and watch.

4) Religion’s relationship to happiness, civic engagement and health around the world [Source: Pew Research Center ]
Are the people who are active in religious congregations happier than those who are not? At least a new Pew Research Center analysis of survey data from the United States and more than two dozen other countries says so. Taking a broad, international approach to this complicated topic, Pew Research Center researchers set out to determine whether religion has clearly positive, negative or mixed associations with eight different indicators of individual and societal well-being available from international surveys conducted over the past decade.

This analysis finds that in the U.S. and many other countries around the world, regular participation in a religious community clearly is linked with higher levels of happiness and civic engagement. This may suggest that societies with declining levels of religious engagement, like the U.S., could be at risk for declines in personal and societal well-being. But the analysis finds comparatively little evidence that religious affiliation, by itself, is associated with a greater likelihood of personal happiness or civic involvement. Moreover, there is a mixed picture on the five health measures. In the U.S. and elsewhere, actively religious people are less likely than others to engage in certain behaviours that are sometimes viewed as sinful, such as smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol. But religious activity does not have a clear association with how often people exercise or whether they are obese.

The exact nature of the connections between religious participation, happiness, civic engagement and health remains unclear and needs further study. While the data presented in this report indicate that there are links between religious activity and certain measures of well-being in many countries, the numbers do not prove that going to religious services is directly responsible for improving people’s lives. Whatever the explanation may be, more than one-third of actively religious U.S. adults (36%) describe themselves as very happy, compared with just a quarter of both inactive and unaffiliated Americans. Across 25 other countries for which data are available, actives report being happier than the unaffiliated by a statistically significant margin in almost half (12 countries), and happier than inactively religious adults in roughly one-third (9) of the countries.

5) How Piketty got it wrong: If you take the case of Dalits in India, liberty and equality can march in opposite directions [Source: Times of India ]
A study by acclaimed French economist Thomas Piketty and his team, titled ‘Indian income inequality, 1922-2014: From British Raj to Billionaire Raj?’ claims inequality in India is at its highest since 1922. This has made development economists and policy makers anxious about whether India is on an appropriate growth trajectory. Wealth, income, asset based inequality between Thakurs and Dalits remains huge. What however has transpired during the past 70 years, in particular following the 1991 reforms, is beyond the critical capabilities of thinkers like Piketty who are born in caste-neutral societies. A seminal study led by Devesh Kapur of the University of Pennsylvania, published in 2008, found a massive positive change in the lives of UP Dalits. For the study field work, they covered 19,087 Dalit households in Bilariaganj block of Azamgarh (east UP) and in Khurja block, Buland Shahar (west UP).

They found that only 0.1% Dalit households in Bilariaganj, and 0.2% household in Khurja block worked as halwahas, a job where families would be tied up with landlords on an unending basis. Also, in both the blocks, over 99% Dalit families had stopped eating millets. In other words, Dalits in both the blocks had acquired food source equality. The inequality gap between a landlord and his workers may be far narrower than inequality gap between a billionaire and his workers.

Also, a rising Gujarat-based Dalit leader argues that the rise of enterprises amongst Dalits can result in rise of inequality among Dalits. For centuries Dalits have faced discrimination on grounds of social status, food sources, clothing, occupations and lifestyles – for example, not being allowed to grow pointed moustaches. To Dalits, thus, freedom from social subjugation and caste dominance is more important than income, wealth based equality. In fact, freedom from caste order may pave the road to income-based inequality.

6) A different kind of theory of everything [Source: The New Yorker ]
We found the God particle (Higgs Boson?). Physicists’ search for the smallest components of the universe may have ended. But what if that’s not the point. Theorists now say we need to find the God question. This is not new; for that matter nothing is, even the making of mankind was somewhere written in the cosmic soup in the aftermath of the Big Bang. The ultimate question so far was, “Why does anything have to exist?” Surely, Mr. Richard Feynman, physicist, wasn’t joking when he proposed this beautiful problem - One of the amazing characteristics of nature is this variety of interpretational schemes.

Physicists have been striving to understand the material content of the universe—the properties of particles, the nature of the big bang, the origins of dark matter and dark energy. But work is shadowed by this ‘Rashomon effect’ which raises metaphysical questions about the meaning of physics and the nature of reality. Feynman’s example understated the mystery of the Rashomon effect, which is actually twofold. It’s strange that there are multiple valid ways of describing so many physical phenomena but even stranger that, “when there are competing descriptions, one often turns out to be more true than the others, because it extends to a deeper or more general description of reality”. Today, physicists know they need to transcend the notion that objects move and interact in space and time. For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity weaves space and time into four-dimensional space-time and equates gravity with warps in that fabric. But the concept breaks down inside black holes and at the moment of the big bang. Is space-time a translation of some other description of reality that can have greater explanatory power.

So, one common scientific conception is that the “theory of everything” (a single equation from which everything follows) ignores, as Feynman lucidly explained, the existence of the many different paths that offer us ingenious, predictions. To the maverick physicist and author of The Future of Fundamental Physics, Arkani-Hamed, the multifariousness of the laws suggests a different conception of what physics is all about. We’re not building a machine that calculates answers, he says; instead, we’re discovering questions. Nature’s shape-shifting laws seem to be the answer to an unknown mathematical question. Arkani-Hamed, now sees the ultimate goal of physics as figuring out the mathematical question from which all the answers flow. He says, “The ascension to the tenth level of intellectual heaven would be if we find the question to which the universe is the answer, and the nature of that question in and of itself explains why it was possible to describe it in so many different ways.” The answers already surround us. It’s the question we don’t know.

7) The parenting problem — what value do we place on caring? [Source: Financial Times ]
This piece throws light on three new books that examine the way parenting is shaped, and in turn how it shapes society and the economy. These books raise questions about businesses’ responsibilities to its employees and the corporate fetishisation of long hours. They shine a light on gendered roles at home as well as the motherhood pay penalty in the workplace. In Love, Money & Parenting, the two economists, Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti, mix personal anecdote drawn from their cosmopolitan familial lives as two European academics now based in US universities, as well as education and economic data. They find that in those countries with low inequality, such as Sweden, parents tend to be more permissive. In countries with high inequality, parents are “both more authoritarian and more prone to instill in their children a drive to achieve ambitious goals”.

Economics also explains different approaches within countries too. “The parenting choices of the rich differ systematically from those of the poor,” the authors write. “For example, psychologists have long noted that authoritarian parenting is more prevalent in families with low income.” Gender is explored more fully in two books by sociologists who focus on the tensions at home and work faced by mothers. In Making Motherhood Work, Caitlyn Collins argues that complaints of work-family conflict are seen as women’s “own fault and their own problem to sort”. This is because, she argues, motherhood is trivialised and seen as a lifestyle choice, a bit like having a puppy. Needless to say this completely misses the point. As Collins points out, children provide crucial benefits as future workers and taxpayers. “We don’t rely on pets to one day become our teachers, post office employees, doctors and garbage collectors. Raising children well is in a country’s collective best interest.”

Like Collins, Shani Orgad also concentrates on middle-class women. In Heading Home, Orgad, an associate professor at the London School of Economics, focuses on stay-at-home mothers, in particular wealthy and educated ones based in London who drop out of work to look after children while their high-flying husbands continue to earn a salary. She finds that, for many women, their decision to leave work was not simply born from a desire to bake cakes and finger-paint. It was far more complicated. It was a decision made after they found themselves caught in the tangled weeds of long-hours work cultures and their husbands’ assumptions that they would be the ones to quit their jobs. She says, when they leave work, these highly educated women try to find status in their roles by “becoming the managers of their families”. But before looking at possible prescriptions, these books demand that the first step is to question the value we place on caring. Only then will we really begin to see change.

8) The untapped promise of LSD [Source: The Walrus ]
In the fall of 1951, Humphry Osmond, a thirty-four-year-old British psychiatrist, travelled from London to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, to become the clinical director of the town’s mental hospital. Back in London, Osmond had become fascinated by hallucinogenic drugs, particularly LSD and mescaline, which is found in the peyote cactus. He thought that these substances had the potential to unlock the mysteries of mental illnesses, but the British psychiatric community, still enthralled by Freud and psychoanalysis, was dismissive of Osmond’s outré biochemical theories. Saskatchewan was a hospitable place for new ideas of all kinds. And at that time, Tommy Douglas’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) government had begun to reform hospital conditions, administration, and training. It had also initiated a massive recruitment drive in medicine, bringing in the best researchers from around the world and granting them almost unlimited freedom and resources. Osmond was one of those researchers, and at Weyburn—initially, at least—he was considered a visionary.

Along with his colleagues John Smythies and Abram Hoffer, Osmond found that mescaline produces symptoms that are almost identical to schizophrenia, and he hypothesized that the drug could be used to essentially induce schizophrenic symptoms in healthy patients in order to help develop treatments for the illness. Osmond later experimented with LSD, finding particular success in using it to treat alcoholism. Michael Pollan, the author of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, feels LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) can be used to treat everything from serious mental illnesses to everyday personal challenges.

Usage of these drugs are getting acceptance now, but slowly, for recreational and medicinal purposes. Last September, London’s Imperial College launched the first placebo-controlled trial of LSD microdosing (that is, taking doses large enough to have positive effects but small enough that they don’t produce a noticeable high). That same month, researchers in Canada, the United States, and Israel began FDA-regulated trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder. More broadly speaking, the legalization of cannabis in Canada and the recent call for the legalization of all drugs by Toronto’s medical officer of health suggests that we may, at last, be living in a climate where not only will drugs be tolerated but their positive aspects will be celebrated.

9) An ageing world needs more resourceful robots [Source: Economist ]
Robots have been of immense help to most of the companies and individuals in the world. But, it’s the older people who need more help from them. Young countries with many children have few robots. Ageing nations have lots. The countries with the largest number of robots per industrial worker include South Korea, Singapore, Germany and Japan, which have some of the oldest workforces in the world. Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University show that, between 1993 and 2014, the countries that invested the most in robotics were those that were ageing the fastest—measured as a rise in the ratio of people over 56 compared with those aged 26-55. The authors posit a rule of thumb: a ten-point rise in their ageing ratio is associated with 0.9 extra robots per thousand workers.

In Germany as well, Ana Abeliansky of the University of Göttingen and Klaus Prettner of the University of Hohenheim found that the growth in the number of robots per thousand workers rises twice as fast as the fall in the growth rate of the population. Population growth is closely related to age structure. Shrinking and ageing workforces matter as much. China is now the world’s largest robot maker, producing 137,900 industrial robots (typically, machines used in assembly lines) in 2017. Between 2015 and 2040, according to the UN, China’s working-age population (aged 20 to 64) will fall by a staggering 124mn, or over 13%. Applying Mr. Acemoglu’s rule of thumb to this decline, China would by the end of the period need to install roughly 2mn more robots. That is more than four years’ worth of all the industrial robots produced in the world in 2018 and six times as many as the increase in worldwide production over the past nine years.

As demographic change speeds up, service robots will become more important. One day, their makers hope, they will enable old people to live alone and stay mobile for longer. Robots will help assuage loneliness and mitigate the effects of dementia. They will make it easier to look after people in nursing homes and enable older workers who want to stay employed to keep up with the physical demands of labour. According to the International Federation of Robotics, an estimated 20,000 robots were sold in 2018 that could realistically be described as helpful for ageing (medical robots, handicap assistance, exoskeletons and the like). That is less than 5% of industrial robots. The number will doubtless grow. The question is how quickly.  

10) Canada's forests actually emit more carbon than they absorb — despite what you've heard on Facebook [Source: cbc.ca ]
Canada is known for its lush green and expansive forests, which work as an immense carbon sink. But, like most things that sound too good to be true, this one is false. That's because trees don't just absorb carbon when they grow, they emit it when they die and decompose, or burn. Canada is now making the case to the United Nations that things like forest fires and pine beetle infestations shouldn't count against them, and that only human-related changes to their forests should be included when doing the calculations that matter to their emission-reduction targets. By that accounting method, Canada's forestry activities would indeed count as a net carbon sink each year. But even then, they wouldn't cancel out their emissions from other sources. Not even close.

Canada emits roughly 700 megatonnes of CO2 each year. This does not include any impacts from forests or other parts of our landscape, such as wetlands and farmland. For the past 15 years, the forests have been "more of a source than a sink," said Dominique Blain, a director in the science and technology branch of Environment and Climate Change Canada. Canada's managed forests were a net contributor of roughly 78 megatonnes of emissions in 2016, the most recent year on record. This includes all areas that are managed for harvesting, subject to fire or insect management, or protected as part of a park or other designation. It covers some 226 million hectares and accounts for 65% of Canada's total forest area. In 2015, largely due to raging wildfires, these forests kicked a whopping 237 more megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than they absorbed.

But when you exclude natural disturbances like fires and insect infestations and look only at the areas directly impacted by human forestry activity, the picture changes. It's these areas where forests act as a net carbon sink, year after year. The "sink" effect is largely the result of new trees being planted and growing, after mature ones are cut down. Mark Cameron is a former policy adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper and now runs Canadians for Clean Prosperity, a non-partisan group that promotes "market-based policies that generate growth while conserving our environment." He says effective management of trees and other biomass still has some value in fighting climate change — even if it's not the "get out of jail free card" or "magic bullet" that some people make it out to be.

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