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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (Learning from comedians), Operations (Mathematical solution to hospital overcrowding!), Management (Joy of absence; How explorers handle high stress), Technology (Streaming returns bad old days of TV), Sports (Fairytale rise of Real Kashmir), Economy (Obscure world of negative yields), and Capitalism (Back to basic liberalism)

Published: Aug 31, 2019 08:18:12 AM IST
Updated: Aug 31, 2019 08:16:53 AM 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: Business (Learning from comedians), Operations (Mathematical solution to hospital overcrowding!), Management (Joy of absence; How explorers handle high stress), Technology (Streaming returns bad old days of TV), Sports (Fairytale rise of Real Kashmir), Economy (Obscure world of negative yields), and Capitalism (Back to basic liberalism).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended August 30, 2019.

1) What companies can learn from comedians [Source: The Economist]
Many companies hire comedians for entertainment, but have you ever thought that employees can be comedians and speak their heart out (thereby giving an idea for the new product, campaign, etc.). The Second City, a comedy club in Chicago’s North side offers wannabe funny folk workshops on how to make others giggle. This club has hosted acts by Joan Rivers, John Candy, Bill Murray and others from the genre. Firms have used comedy as a way to hone their employees’ soft skills for some time.

Companies from Motorola and McDonald’s to Nike and Nissan believe that sending executives to comedy classes can help them get better at their day jobs. Many corporate customers think jockery can encourage serious lateral thinking among workers, and get them into the habit of welcoming other’s ideas. Coming to marketers and advertisers, they are tapping comics for fresh ideas. Who knows, a joke can be the next campaign for one of their clients.

There are many such comedy clubs springing up in America which are offering professional services to the corporates. IO in Chicago and the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre in New York also offer professional services. The Second City says that its corporate activities already make up nearly a third of its revenues, which total over $50m a year. Looks like the laughing business is a serious one.  

2) The digital curation problem [Source: Kyle Chayka Industries]
Companies like Facebook and Netflix are giving importance to curation now. Of course, with so much content out there, the algorithms can miss some obscure content. But, the chance of missing out such content by a human is less. Netflix announced that it is experimenting with “collections” of content assembled by human curators instead of its algorithm, with themes like “artful adventures” and “critics love these shows.” Curators were a fixture of the art world long before “curation” was such a meme on the internet, before it became a word for assembling aspirational digital moodboards rather than organizing scholarly exhibitions. But it’s easy to see why that role is so important online.

Curators have the responsibility of the expert academic as well as the task of the teacher: to communicate clearly and succinctly, sharing what matters about the material at hand and presenting an interpretation for broad consumption. They eliminate the fake and emphasize the most relevant. In today’s world of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, full human curation is more or less impossible; tech companies either make us responsible for ourselves or automate the process.

Smaller streaming services like Criterion already boast curation as part of their service — they’ll help you decide which films to watch and educate you about the work of the actors or directors they highlight. Curation enhances what’s already there on the platform. Yet curation is still discussed as a luxury or a bonus, even though it’s vital. The author of this piece feels that curation is an important and skilled job, and we need as much intelligent selection by un-automated humans as possible.  

3) The joy of absence [Source: Economist]
If one is spending hours and hours in their office working till late, are they actually productive? Studies suggest that, after 50 hours a week, employee productivity falls sharply. At the blood-testing firm Theranos, Sunny Balwani, then boyfriend of the founder, Elizabeth Holmes, had an obsession with employee hours, and would tour the engineering department at 7.30pm to check people were at their desks. All those hours were wasted when the company eventually collapsed (prosecutors have charged Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani with fraud).

There will be days when you do not have much to do, perhaps because you are waiting for someone else in a different department, or a different company, to respond to a request. As the clock ticks past 5pm, there may be no purpose in staying at your desk. But you stay because your boss is still in office, and you try to look busy. Rather than work hard, you toil to make bosses think that you are. Leaving a jacket on your office chair, walking around purposefully with a notebook or clipboard and sending out emails at odd hours are three of the best-known tricks. After a while this can result in collective self-delusion that this pretence is actual work.

To be productive one needs to be present in mind, and not only in body. Dealing with colleagues face-to-face creates a feeling of camaraderie, allows for a useful exchange of ideas and enables workers to have a better sense of their mutual needs. In the grand sweep of humanity, presenteeism is a recent phenomenon. Before, workers were paid for the amount they produced, but now workers are paid for their time. That’s why most of the corporates today have biometric/ID scan at the entrance. But modern machinery like smartphones and laptops is portable. It can be used as easily at home as in the office. Turning an office into a prison, with inmates allowed home for the evenings, does nothing for the creativity that is increasingly demanded of office workers as routine tasks are automated.

4) The world’s most famous explorers on how they handle high-stress situations [Source: Quartz]
Most of the people can’t handle high-stress situations. People panic over tasks like fretting over client deadlines and delayed flights. But, is there a way in which people can handle stress better? Who better to ask about their mantras for keeping calm in high-stress situations? Someone: 1) Being suspended over a molten methane gas pit. 2) Losing visibility while free climbing a 3,000-foot cliff face. 3) Being hit in the face with a jellyfish while deep-sea scuba diving. 4) Having your oxygen tank explode while circling the Moon. Here’s what some of these people have to say.

1) Vanessa O’Brien, mountaineer: She was the first American/British woman to summit K2. She says when in stress, you could visualize an angel on one shoulder and the devil on another—just be careful to know which is which if you start speaking to one!

2) Dafydd (Dave) Williams, astronaut: He completed the most spacewalks an astronaut has performed in a single mission. Whenever he faces adversity, he tries and focuses on the problem and work at finding the best possible solution, pursue that solution, and regroup as necessary.

3) James Moore, planetary geologist: The first person to measure the strength of the Earth’s crust—and Mars’s—from space, says “I find just the knowledge that I’m in a high-stress, risky, or dangerous situation can focus the mind greatly.” 4) Don Walsh, submarine oceanographer: He is the first (with Jacques Piccard) to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the ocean. He feels that clear thinking is absolutely essential when a situation arises. In aviation, the first rule of handling an emergency is to “fly the airplane.” It’s simple, but that’s what he used to do at sea.

5) Streaming video will soon look like the bad old days of TV [Source: New York Times]
By 2010, nine in 10 American homes were subscribed to a pay-television service. Many had also come to hate it. The cost of the average cable package, stuffed with unwanted channels, had grown to $65 per month — and that was before hidden fees and unavoidable equipment charges. So it wasn’t surprising when people switched to streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu, which offered a balm for pay-TV’s frustrations. According to Nielsen, the average American now watches nearly a quarter less traditional television than a decade ago, with those under 34 years old having halved their consumption.

But the streaming video era is already starting to resemble the old age of television that viewers were so excited to escape. Many of the problems TV watchers thought they had left behind are just being remixed under different brands and bundles. The next 12 months will see several video services come to market, including Disney+, AT&T/WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, Comcast/NBCUniversal’s unnamed service, Apple TV+ and Quibi from the Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. Yet in this new multiplatform world, viewers will find they have to pay for a fistful of streaming subscriptions to watch all of their favorite programs — and in the process, they’ll again end up paying for lots of shows and movies they’ll never care to watch.

Although much has been said about how Netflix and Amazon have disrupted the video business, no media company has figured out how to make premium movies or TV shows significantly more cheaply. But the rise of digital video is bringing back more than just bloated bundles and bills. Many companies are returning to TV’s original business model: selling you anything and everything but the television show in front of you. Even as the video industry reconstitutes with new players — under old business models and familiar problems — most people agree that TV has never been better. Consumers have more options, better shows and more diversity than ever before.

6) The global gag on free speech is tightening [Source: Economist
The Indian government recently shut down the internet in disputed Kashmir for the 51st time in this year. In recent months Sudan shut down social media to prevent protestors from organizing. Congo’s regime switched off mobile networks so it could rig an election in the dark. Free speech is hard won and easily lost. According to Freedom House, a watchdog, free speech has declined globally over the past decade. There are two main reasons for this: 1) ruling parties in many countries have found new tools for suppressing awkward facts and ideas. 2) they feel emboldened to use such tools, partly because global support for free speech has faltered.

What counts as offensive is subjective, so “hate speech” laws can be elastic tools for criminalizing dissent. One way to silence speech is to murder the speaker. At least 53 journalists were killed on the job in 2018, slightly more than in the previous two years, according to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a watchdog. The deadliest country for journalists was Afghanistan, where 13 journalists were killed. Perhaps the most brazen murder in 2018 was of Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime. Gauri Lankesh, an editor who often lambasted Hindu nationalism, was gunned down outside her house in 2017. Pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) commenters celebrated and the man arrested for shooting told that his handlers told him he had to do it to “save” his religion.

In some countries, the ruling party forces media houses to broadcast/print positive news about the party. Or the ruling party cultivates tycoons who depend on the state for permits or contracts, and urge them to buy up media outlets. Meanwhile, in mature democracies, support for free speech is ebbing, especially among the young, and outright hostility to it is growing. In the coming months/years, free speech might remain just a two-letter word.

7) 'It's an act of hope': the fairytale rise of the Real Kashmir football team [Source: Guardian]
Kashmir has always been on burner with Indian military guarding the valley from threats; especially from the other side of the border. The heavy Indian troop presence has brought Kashmiri youths out on the streets hurling stones at the soldiers while demanding azadi (freedom) from India. Living a peaceful life in Kashmir can be difficult, but if the Real Kashmir football team have a match, everything standstill for 90 minutes. This Kashmir’s first professional football club had already been stunning crowds by defeating more experienced club to make it to the I League, one of Indian football’s premier competitions.

Real Kashmir was born out of a discussion (about endless violence) between Sandeep Chattoo, a Kashmiri Hindu, and his friend Shamim Mehraj. The name is meant to show the ‘real‘ face of Kashmir with boys playing football and families cheering them on instead of the usual images of violence. In most of India, cricket is the religion but not in Kashmir. The team didn’t have proper infrastructure or ground to practice/play on. The team had to train at the grounds of a tourist centre which was an open field with fencing and not even a wash room.

The club has transformed life in the Valley. “Real Kashmir is more than football. It’s an act of hope,” said Chattoo. Over 20,000 people regularly fill the 15,000-capacity stadium in downtown Srinagar. Thousands stand outside. Protest marches have been called off for a match. The club’s story is getting attention. Adidas India announced a partnership with the club – the first with any club in India. BBC Scotland and Al Jazeera have made documentaries. Netflix is working on a film and so is Bollywood. The accolades are merely spurring Chattoo on to push for greater things. “I want football to change life in Kashmir. Football makes people happy and Kashmir needs happiness.”

8) Interest rates and the obscure world of negative yields [Source: The Hindu]
Everything in an economy depends on interest rates. Interest rate, as most people would explain, is that additional amount paid over the original borrowed amount. A more useful way to conceptualise interest rate is to think of it as the premium demanded by a lender to part with his monies across time. This premium, when viewed from the lender’s side includes the risk of lending to a person or institution (often called counterparty risk) and a compensation for parting with his liquidity (cash today is substituted for uncertain cash tomorrow).

When governments borrow, usually by issuing bonds (they receive investor monies and issue a promissory note to pay it back over time), the government bonds offer the investor a promised rate of return over the life of the bond (called the “yield” of the bond). Nearly 20 years ago, more than 50% of the world’s bond market offered yields greater than 5% per year. Now, only 3% of the world’s bond market offers yield greater than 5% per year. What makes matters strange today, or even surreal, is that nearly 27% of the world’s bonds offer negative yield. More explicitly, around $16 trillion have been lent out by lenders who expect to receive less in return over time.
For many, who hear of negative yields for first time — up is down, down is up. The obvious question is why do lenders lend money in order to receive less in the future? Basically there are two reasons: 1) As advanced economies continue to age, their investors prefer extremely low risk assets which may well earn negative yields but largely keep the principal safe. Thus, they prefer safety of principal over all else. 2) post 2008 crises, “tail” risk — unexpected asset valuation declines — has increased. Thus, large institutions now overwhelmingly prefer liquidity over maximising growth prospects and therefore go out of their way to pay extra for liquid government bonds (which increases its price and lowers the yield). There are other short-term explanations too — fears of recession over next 18 months, lack of “safe” assets in the world etc.
9) Capitalism needs a welfare state to survive [Source: Economist]
The architect of the British version of welfare state, William Beveridge, did not want to use the power of the state for its own sake. The point was to give people the security to pursue the lives they chose. And liberal reformers believed that by insuring people against some risks of creative destruction, welfare states would bolster democratic support for free markets. In the decades since Beveridge published his seminal report in 1942, welfare states have spread, grown larger, more complex and, often, less popular. As countries become richer they tend to spend higher shares of national income on public services and benefits. Spending on “social protection”, such as pensions, unemployment insurance and assistance for the hard-up, has risen from an average of about 5% of GDP in rich countries in 1960 to 20% today.

But what the welfare state does is perhaps more important than its size. It should seek to allow individuals to make their own choices, whether through support for parents to return to work as in Scandinavia, personal budgets for disabled people to select their own provision as in England, or Singapore-style learning accounts so that the jobless can acquire new skills. Everyone needs enough to live on. Many of those who drop out of the job market, or who work in the gig economy, struggle to get by. And too often, help for the poor comes in ways that are cruel, inefficient, paternalistic or complex. In some rich countries, the unemployed face marginal tax rates of over 80% when they begin a job, because of the loss of benefits.

Reform, however, also requires taking on two challenges that did not cause Beveridge much concern. The first is ageing. The ratio of working-age people to the retired in rich countries is projected to fall from about four to one in 2015 to two to one by 2050. And as countries grey, welfare spending becomes more biased towards the elderly. To mitigate rising intergenerational inequality, it would make sense to cut the cushiest benefits for the elderly and steadily raise retirement ages. The second challenge is immigration. Across Europe, “welfare chauvinism” is on the rise. This supports a generous welfare state for poorer, native-born people—but not immigrants. Populists argue that, if migrants from poor countries immigrate freely to rich ones, they will bankrupt the welfare state. Others argue that liberal migration policies depend on curbing access to it: build a wall around the welfare state, not the country.

10) To solve hospital overcrowding, think like a mathematician [Source: undark.org]
The emergency of any hospital at any given point of time is mostly overcrowded. It seems like the answer to overcrowding in the emergency department should be simple: Build more beds. But not as per Eugene Litvak, president of the non-profit Institute for Healthcare Optimization. Mr. Litvak specializes in operations management, a branch of applied mathematics that uses statistical techniques to efficiently match resources with variable demand. In the late 1990s, he began looking for ways to apply his professional training to American health care. What Litvak found, however, was that patients showed up to emergency departments in fairly predictable patterns; the problem was that hospitals were trying to meet that naturally varying demand with guesswork and intuition instead of statistics. Litvak also found a second, self-inflicted contribution to overcrowding: hospitals’ own scheduling and triage practices.

Mr. Litvak figured that if he could apply the methods of operations management to anticipate natural variability and work closely with hospital administrators to root out sources of artificial variability, he could more closely align a hospital’s resources with the ups and downs of patient demand. In the operating room, that meant telling surgeons when to operate; in the emergency room, it meant imposing standardized triage protocols to make admissions more predictable. In the early 2000s, Mr. Litvak put his methods to the test at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, Missouri and Boston Medical Center in Massachusetts. In just over a year, the operating room cut wait times by around 30% and overtime hours by 57%, despite a sharp increase in the number of surgeries performed. Yearly revenue increased by more than $130 million, and a $100 million hospital expansion was not needed.

Implemented on a national level, efficiency gains like these could yield truly staggering numbers. Writing in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2013, Mr. Litvak and his co-author predicted that if each American hospital achieved just one tenth of what Cincinnati Children’s and others had, the savings would approach $60 billion. If every hospital avoided adding just one extra bed through improved efficiency, the country could save between $6 billion and $12 billion. But why isn’t it implemented? Because many health care professionals, patients, and legislators aren’t even aware that there exists such a promising method to reduce overcrowding, improve the quality of health care, and reduce total per capita spending.

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