Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Management (The 'DWYL' mantra and co-option of a laborious work culture), Business (Howard Marks on Capitalism), Health (Are we really too busy to eat well?), Society (Marriages are not made in heaven), Science (The Neuroscience of decision-making), Astrophysics (Mapping the Universe's terra incognita) and Entertainment (How Game of Thrones changed television).

Published: Apr 27, 2019 07:40:19 AM IST
Updated: Apr 26, 2019 03:05:20 PM IST

g_115339_reading_bg_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Management (The ‘DWYL’ mantra and co-option of a laborious work culture), Business (Howard Marks on Capitalism), Health (Are we really too busy to eat well?), Society (Marriages are not made in heaven), Science (The Neuroscience of decision-making), Astrophysics (Mapping the Universe’s terra incognita) and Entertainment (How Game of Thrones changed television).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended April 26, 2019

1) The 'Do What You Love' mantra and co-option of a laborious work culture [Source: The Wire]
Steve Jobs’ “love what you do” philosophy has recently been taken seriously by the young millennial labour force. The 9-to-5 work tradition seems to be becoming extinct day by day. In her 2014 viral essay ‘In the Name of Love’, Miya Tokumitsu knocks the ‘do what you love’ (DWYL) work mantra off its pedestal. ‘According to this way of thinking, labour is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient’. This essay exposes the modern worker’s narcissism and co-option into excessive working hours. In the West, fixed term and zero hour contracts have become de rigueur in higher education. Currently, only about 50% of UK faculty are on regular employment.

One of the factors that are adding to this work culture is co-working. WeWork is a large global provider of co-working spaces with operations stretching from Dallas to Tokyo and 100 other cities in between. The New York Times dubs it ‘the Starbucks of office culture’. The company, which launched in India in late 2016, already has a desk count of 35,000 with forecasts for 1.15 lakh by the end of this year. In addition to desk space, it has been able to monetise the border-collapse between work and life in web and mobile saturated societies. Also, these work places are designed in such a manner that one wouldn’t find the need to go home! Dental floss, shaving blades and toothbrushes, and reassurances: ‘We’ve got you covered. See a community manager for a variety of items you might need in a pinch’.

Ironically, these are spaces pitched as homey to people who don’t want to work from home. And for those who want the semblance of a home on a work trip, the collaborative workspace company is rolling out a new residential model called WeLive. It rents out apartments ‘with tastefully curated interiors’ on a nightly or monthly basis with the distinction of access to communal space and co-living perks such as ‘happy hours, family dinners and Wellness events’. This new work culture has made 9-to-5 job a passé.

 

2) Latest memo from Howard Marks: Growing the Pie [Source: Oaktree Capital]
In his January memo, Howard Marks argued at length that capitalism can be credited with much of what made the United States what it is today. In short, to borrow Ray’s terminology, the capitalist system achieved this by creating the biggest pie: the largest total GDP in the world and one of the highest per-capita GDPs. And only capitalism is likely to cause the pie to continue to grow. The failure of non-capitalist systems to produce economic growth and prosperity is well documented. Obviously, however, when the pie is divided up under capitalism, not everyone gets the same-sized piece. That’s the idea underlying the following line in Winston Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons on October 22, 1945: The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings….

Mr. Churchill said it best: Under capitalism we’re likely to see bigger slices of the pie go, for example, to those who are smarter, more talented and more hardworking, but also to those who are luckier or born into wealth. And what do the “populists of the left” want? For the most part, “fairer” and more equal outcomes. They say relatively little about expanding the pie but more about fairness in how it’s apportioned. Some may feel the capitalism that got us here may have been fine in its time but isn’t needed anymore; thus, we should shift our attention to more equal distribution instead. Capitalism doesn’t know about or care about fairness in the sense of equal sharing. What it considers fair is the proposition that people who have greater ability or work harder should be able to earn more. That potential, it says, provides incentives for hard work and rewards those who achieve, ultimately resulting in a better life for almost everyone. 

Today, too few Americans feel they might own that Cadillac. Taken to the logical extreme, that has the potential to bring the American miracle to an end. Thus, business should do all it can to arrest the trend toward stagnant and unequal incomes…not just to be fair or generous, but to assure perpetuation of the system that got us here. Capitalism is the most dependable route to prosperity. And it has to be responsible capitalism. The solution can’t lie in turning away the Amazons of the world, imposing extra taxes on Cadillacs or otherwise shrinking the pie.

 

3) Are we really too busy to eat well? [Source: Financial Times]
Sui County High School in Henan province of central China has come up with a unique policy of having no chairs in cafeteria. The idea behind this was that students wouldn’t linger around in cafeteria after their lunch and use that time for study. But, this policy was ridiculed widely by both China and beyond. “It’s a terrible idea to make students eat while standing,” stated an editorial in the Chongqing Morning Post. But, is the student in China gulping down a 10-minute lunch so different from the office worker who lunches on a protein bar because there are too many emails and not enough hours in the day?  

Time scarcity is one of the great under­explored reasons why modern food habits differ from those of previous generations. A lack of time — or a perceived lack — hovers over many modern food habits, thwarting our desires and forcing us into compromises we never quite intended. Sliced bread was only the start. Everywhere you look, there are products promising to save you time. There is something paradoxical, however, in our collective perception that we have too little time to eat properly. By absolute objective measures, most of us in affluent countries have far more free time on average than workers did a hundred years ago: nearly 1,000 more hours a year, in fact. In 1900, the average American worked 2,700 hours a year. By 2015 the average American worked just 1,790 hours a year and probably owned a kitchen containing whizzy time-saving gadgets that his or her ancestors could only dream of.

Meals are not just a way to use up time but a series of ceremonies through which we experience time. Like religious worship, or news on the radio, eating used to punctuate the day at certain set moments. But now our eating is out of sync. Our loss of the rituals of shared eating time has consequences. Making time for meals can actually offer health benefits. A classic study by epidemiologist Michael Marmot and colleagues in the early 1970s found Japanese-American men to be more prone to heart disease when they adopted the stress-inducing American habits of eating meals in a hurry. When we never allow ourselves time to stop, sit and digest, we are in effect saying that our own nourishment doesn’t matter very much. We live in an individualist world where each person takes his or her chances with a £3 meal deal. But there was a time when a leisurely lunch in the work canteen was something normal.

 

4) Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and the loneliness of a Bahujan academic [Source: Huffington Post]
The author of this review points to some of the inspiring moments in Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s memoir “From a Shepherd boy to an intellectual”. Mr. Shepherd is an Indian political theorist, writer and activist for Dalit rights, and has himself struggled to make his mark. His interest in writing started when he came across a book on Isaiah Berlin in the Osmania University library. He picked it because he thought the name was Ilaiah Berlin. He was surprised because he had never found names that sounded like his on the covers of books. If finding Isaiah’s name released Ilaiah in some form, his mother was released from something similar when she decided that she was willing to risk Saraswathi’s wrath by sending both her sons to school. Getting free from Saraswathi’, easily the most exciting chapter in the book, narrates the story of how Ilaiah and his brother went to school despite their grandmother’s persistent warnings that Saraswathi, who didn’t like children of lower-castes going to school, would kill them.

There is some repetition in the book. The fact that English was/is deliberately kept away from lower-caste children comes up multiple times, often in the same manner. That Brahmin and Savarna intellectuals who opposed English in government schools and fought valiantly for Telugu-medium schools continued to shamelessly send their own children to English-medium schools is mentioned one too many times. But Ilaiah’s gratitude for being given the opportunity to learn, to read and write haunts him—and by extension the reader—through the book. Some of these repetitions arise from this gratitude, and the sense of injustice that others like him are still kept away from opportunities that can come from knowing English.

Not being taken seriously as an intellectual and a writer is something that Ilaiah has struggled with all his life. Within academia in particular, this is not hard to see. Scholarly networks rarely make room for Dalit and Bahujan intellectuals. Today, because of the internet and web 2.0—thanks to things like conference alerts, which make it less necessary for humans to interact with each other—it is probably easier to access machine-operated networks. But what happens before and after that depends on what privileges one might or might not have. It is not hard to imagine what it must have been like for a Bahujan man to write research papers, send it to conferences, write, take classes—and still maintain an anti-caste stance.

 

5) Marriages not made in heaven [Source: Livemint]
In the 19th century, sambandham (relationship), an informal mode of ‘marriage’ in Kerala, allowed the elites to join in mutually beneficial unions. The arrangement made room for inter-caste unions, with its dynamics determined mostly by economics. In the 19th century Kerala, for non-Brahmin matrilineal groups, it was the bond between brother and sister that was sacred, not that of husband and wife. This relationship was designed with much flexibility. At its core, sambandhams allowed the elites to join in mutually beneficial unions. For Brahmin families, it gave younger sons wives of lower caste who made no claim on their patrimony—if these wives were well-born, it was better still, for they could pay the Brahmins a maintenance. For matrilineal castes, meanwhile, power and wealth vested in the female line—the husband was, in essence, an instrument of procreation.

It was not unknown for men and women to have multiple sambandhams. But this was about to change in the late 19th century. Soon sambandhams were increasingly frowned upon, and the question of whether this was even marriage came under scrutiny. Missionaries saw the system as “very revolting" and the absorption of Victorian morality upset old ways of life. From Madras, newspapers piled criticism on this “obnoxious system of promiscuous marriage", and, as the scholar K. Saradamoni writes, “Sambandham was equated to concubinage and the women to mistresses and the children called bastards."

Scholars like J. Devika have shown how the onus fell on women: They had to be “virtuous", which meant divorcing and keeping multiple husbands was no longer “respectable". Sambandhams became the vestige of an ugly past, remembered with embarrassment—and, sometimes, denial. Sambandhams certainly could be abused. But, in their day, they served a purpose and defined marriage for the people involved. Sambandhams certainly could be abused. But, in their day, they served a purpose and defined marriage for the people involved.

 

6) Magical history tour: the Beatles trail in Rishikesh [Source: Financial Times]
Everyone from India and around the world travels to Rishikesh to find enlightenment. But, this trend was started by the Fab Four, the Beatles. The author of this piece, Tim Moore, also went in search of the same and discover the Beatles life in Rishikesh. As one of the most hallowed sites in the world’s oldest surviving religion, Rishikesh has a durable appeal to the Hindu faithful. Today, 51 years after poor old Ringo dragged a suitcase full of Heinz Baked Beanz into his ashram bungalow, it’s also a magnet for Beatle pilgrims of a certain age. And whether you’ve come to get cosmic in the birthplace of yoga, throw yourself off India’s highest bungee jump or sit on the steps where John and Paul wrote 48 songs, there’s always been a conspicuous drawback to Rishikesh: the inability to experience it in any kind of style or comfort.

The family who are righting this wrong first came to the city not long after The Beatles. In 1971, Vijay and Radha Bhatia founded a husband-and-wife travel agency in Delhi, humbly pitched at local carpet traders. Today, the fast-growing Bird Group, still 100% family-owned, operates in aviation services, hospitality and retail, employing 9,000 staff. Bird Travels’ modest success became rather less modest after 1994, when the Bhatia’s son Ankur — a computer-science graduate affectionately described by his mother as “a geek” — secured a deal that would establish the family firm as the dominant player in India’s computerised airline-ticketing sector. Topping this empire are six luxury hotels in the UK and India operating under the Roseate banner, last month supplemented by the opening of the Roseate Ganges near Rishikesh. If multicoloured, frenetic Rishikesh is a Sgt. Pepper cover, the minimalist, ascetic Roseate Ganges is the White Album. The Roseate Ganges is evidently a labour of love. Dr. Bhatia has immersed himself in the project.

Finding The Beatles ashram is a voyage of discovery in itself. It’s four years since the public were allowed back into a place that was abandoned when the Maharishi’s lease ran out in 1981. But not much seems to have been done to reclaim it from nature. The main attraction is another cavernous hall of incorrect vintage, its end walls decorated with vast murals. The largest shows the four in full Sgt. Pepper kit, flanked around a beaming Maharishi. Ankur Bhatia, Vijay Bhatia’s son, aware of the ashram’s untapped potential plans to have the place restored, in partnership with the authorities.

 

7) The Neuroscience of Decision-Making: Are We Foul or Fair? [Source: YouTube: TEDx Talks]
A human brain can process 40 frames per second. And on the other hand, our unconscious brain can process 1.2 million frames per second of information. There are a group of scientists who believe that the 1.2mn that drives our decision-making and the 40 frames per second is used just to rationalize the decision-making. The truth is that our brain has different reactions to different people. If the unconscious brain is driving all our decisions, then do we have control over our brain? If we don’t have control over our brain then we don’t have control over our decision-making.  

She further talks about a few experiments on how unconscious thoughts can affect how we recall information. She demonstrates how our name, face and voice come into play when talking about unconscious decision-making. Just as neuroscience gives us insight into the problem, it also guides us on the solution. There are many solutions that neuroscience provides us, but the best, according to the speaker is the one based on the weapons identification test and shoot/no shoot test. Weapons identification test can be taken by anyone online. But, in shoot/no shoot test, a person pops up on screen and he is either holding a wallet, a cellphone or a gun. If he is holding a wallet or a cellphone, you don’t shoot, but if he’s holding a gun, you shoot. The only thing that you need to pay attention to is that half of the people who appear on the screen are African-American, and the other half, Anglo-American.

And you use “I” and “E” tabs on the computer to shoot or not to shoot. Also, the computer is going to pay attention to two things: 1) How much time does it take for you to shoot or not to shoot; 2) Measure the number of mistakes that you make. There were some interesting results for the US data. When the African-American is holding the gun, people say shoot. When the Caucasian man is holding the wallet or cellphone, people say no shoot. The problem comes in the other two categories. When the African-American is holding a wallet or cellphone, people still say shoot. But, when the Caucasian is holding the gun, people say no shoot. Finally, she says that our unconscious brain can be changed. We need to train our brain.

 

8) Life after solving climate change: Not mud huts and gruel but clean air and warm homes [Source: usatoday.com]
Climate change is a big problem. If we don’t respect our mother nature and this planet that we live on, then one day there’ll be a disaster on this earth. But, what will happen if we solve the climate change problem? Experts say that we will have comfy homes, good food, whip-smart appliances and robots hopping around on farms. Our living standard will be the same, only a lot greener and more efficient. “Every single proposed solution will simultaneously improve life and decrease carbon emissions,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor of climate science at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who has provided testimony and scientific expertise on climate change to the White House, the governor of California and U.S. congressional offices.

For Earth Day, let’s presume we've successfully made that shift to a carbon-neutral world and you, your children or your grandchildren are waking up on a crisp fall morning sometime between 2050 and 2100. What’s the day like? Houses won’t look all that different, though homes will almost certainly have solar power included if it's appropriate for the area. This will be especially important in hot and sunny parts of the country, to decrease the pressure on power production for cooling during the day. Coal, oil and many natural gas-fired power plants will have long ago closed. Instead, the nation will likely be powered by a mix of nuclear, wind, solar, hydroelectric and some natural gas.

Travelling also will become eco-friendly with electric cars. It’s a shift that’s already underway. In Norway, 58% of all cars sold in March were electric, according to Norway’s Road Traffic Information Council. More and more people will live in cities, which produce dramatically fewer greenhouse gasses per person than suburbs. There’ll be apartment buildings and townhouses that are walkable and with bike paths built in. Work will be more integrated with living areas. But wherever it is, the office will have been built to very high standards to reduce waste, save water and conserve energy. Lastly, the world’s air and water will be cleaner as we stop using polluting energy sources. And it’s all doable, no breakthroughs required, said Stanford's Diffenbaugh. “The knowledge necessary for getting on that path is available,” he said.

 

9) An Astrophysicist who maps the Universe’s terra incognita [Source: Quanta Magazine]
In this interview, Priyamvada Natarajan, a theoretical astrophysicist and professor at Yale University talks about how she loved maps as a kid and her book “Mapping the Heavens”. She says that she always wanted to be a physicist, but wasn’t sure in which area. Also, she feels alone in this industry as she’s a female, she’s brown, she’s interested in physics and she’s highly intellectual in this particular way. When asked how she would describe her tribe, she says, “People who have many serious interests that they intellectually engage in. People who are not solely careerist. My game — cosmology, dark matter, black holes — has a very particular competitive culture that I don’t fit into. But thankfully this is the thing that time does. “

Talking about black holes, she says they are crazy and bizarre. There are three ways to think about them: 1) When stars exhaust their fuel, have a violent end, and they leave behind — like a dead nuclear reactor — these black holes. So black holes are compact inner parts of the stars that have gravitationally collapsed and have become unbelievably dense. 2) Another way is to think about the fact that not even light can escape from a black hole. 3) If you picture space-time as a sheet, then a black hole is a pinch in that sheet. An anomaly in the shape of space. 

When asked to explain how these supermassive black holes might have formed in galaxies’ center, she says, “As we got better and better telescopes, we started finding these bright quasars [luminous galactic centers] powered by billion-solar-mass black holes when the universe was 10% of its current age. That was a huge mystery. The first stars were forming at around the same time, so you don’t have enough time for a stellar remnant, which is at most 100 times the mass of the sun, to grow to a billion times the mass of the sun.”

 

10) How Game of Thrones changed television [Source: Financial Times]
This is the last season of one the world’s most favourite TV series. Yes, Game of Thrones (GOT). At the centre of the Game of Thrones universe are two questions: one, how a strange work of fiction — which features, among other exotica, dragons, eunuch warriors and the living dead — came to have such a hold on our culture; and two, how it’s all going to end. For as the show careers towards its finale on May 19, we are heading for one of those once-in-a-decade events in which it is almost unseemly not to take an interest. Adapted for TV by Benioff and DB Weiss, based on an unfinished series of novels by the American fantasy writer George RR Martin, the show exhausted its source material in 2016; since then Benioff and Weiss have been following a blueprint provided exclusively to them by the novelist, so even the most ardent fans still have no idea where the narrative is headed.

Some of its most transgressive moments would surely never have happened in the #MeToo era. The camera frequently lingers on the female body — it’s worth noting that in the first seven series of Game of Thrones, only one of its 19 directors was a woman — while rape occurs with what feels like unreasonable regularity and in often ludicrous scenarios. Drawing on JRR Tolkien and the 15th-century Wars of the Roses, among other fictional and historical touchstones, it conjures a pre-bureaucratic world in which politics operates primarily through subterfuge and force, a formula that has only taken on greater resonance in our new age of strongman politics. But as Game of Thrones draws to a close, it is less concerned with the fate of individual characters than with that of Westeros as a whole.

At the end of the penultimate season, a maniacal army of undead “white walkers” who have been threatening to descend on the seven kingdoms since the pilot, were on the brink of doing just that. Our last moments in Westeros were spent in the presence of a fire-breathing dragon that was destroying the 700ft wall that had been keeping the walkers at bay — a feat of lavish computerised imagery unlike anything seen before on the show. For Benioff and Weiss, the road ahead has not been entirely smooth. In July 2017, they announced plans for their next epic, a controversial work of alternate history called Confederate that imagined a world in which the American civil war ended in a stalemate and slavery remained legal. “Confederate is the kind of provocative thought experiment that can be engaged in when someone else’s lived reality really is fantasy to you,” American author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic, in response to the announcement.

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