Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Sports (Master the inner game), Society (Inside India's first corporate panchayat), Health (One couple's tireless crusade to stop a genetic killer), Education (Moulding public policy schools as institutions of practice) and Lifestyle (To achieve big goals, start with small habits; Why is taking action hard?)

Published: Jan 25, 2020 08:13:11 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: Sports (Master the inner game), Society (Inside India’s first corporate panchayat), Health (One couple’s tireless crusade to stop a genetic killer), Education (Moulding public policy schools as institutions of practice) and Lifestyle (To achieve big goals, start with small habits; Why is taking action hard?).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended January 24, 2020.

1) The Silicon Valley economy is here – And it’s a nightmare [Source:]
This piece talks about how the future is unfolding for the gig economy in California. What is less widely acknowledged is how the gig economy interacts with other trends in California and forces unleashed by Silicon Valley—rising housing costs, choked infrastructure—to make life hell for those who live at or near the epicenter of America’s technology industry. By most official measures, California’s economy is humming. Its unemployment rate, at 3.9%, is at a record low. It is home to some of the world’s most valuable companies: Google, Apple, Facebook. But the state’s affluence is spread unevenly, resulting in an increasingly bifurcated economy that privileges the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. This is particularly apparent in cities like San Francisco and San Diego, where the gig economy is most prevalent.

Rideshare gig drivers have reported earning so little that they resort to sleeping in their cars during off-peak times so that they don’t have to waste time commuting to higher-earning areas when they start driving the next day. Most gig companies don’t offer reimbursements for expenses like gas, parking, or tickets. Nor do they provide adequate insurance to cover wear and tear on personal vehicles, or hikes in data-usage plans for workers’ smartphones.

The next frontier in gig companies’ plans to dominate urban life is the “e-scooter,” the motorized, rentable scooters that now litter the sidewalks and streets of many cities. Two of the biggest scooter companies—Lime and Bird, both based in California—rely on independently contracted workers to run around cities to electrically charge the scooters or fix them. The companies say that e-scooters are a “greener” form of transit than cars, but the evidence is underwhelming. One study published in August in an environmental journal, Environmental Research Letters, posited that whatever emissions electric scooters saved were offset by the greenhouse gas that gig workers expended chasing after scooters to perform maintenance and charging duties. Gig workers are gradually starting to demand basic workplace safeguards and job security. But will they get their right, only time will tell.

2) AI and Economic Productivity: Expect Evolution, Not Revolution [Source:]
Technology has certainly improved our productivity. But will AI save energy and increase productivity as it is depicted by many? In 2016, London-based DeepMind Technologies, a subsidiary of Alphabet (which is also the parent company of Google), startled industry watchers when it reported that the application of artificial intelligence had reduced the cooling bill at a Google data center by a whopping 40%. What’s more, we learned that year, DeepMind was starting to work with the National Grid in the United Kingdom to save energy throughout the country using deep learning to optimize the flow of electricity.

The detailed assessments by consulting organizations such as Accenture, PricewaterhouseCoopers International (PwC), and McKinsey, proved that AI-enabled technologies will dramatically increase economic output. Accenture claims that by 2035 AI will double growth rates for 12 developed countries and increase labor productivity by as much as a third. PwC claims that AI will add $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030, while McKinsey projects a $13 trillion boost by that time. In order test this, the author of this piece did some research and what he found was astounding. He looked more deeply into the economic promise of AI and the rosy projections made by champions of this technology within the financial sector.

After the investigation of the AI start-ups, the author of this piece found that many were proving not nearly as valuable to society as all the hype would suggest. In all, he examined 40 U.S. start-ups working on AI. These either had valuations greater than $1 billion or had more than $70 million in equity funding. Most of the 40 AI startups he examined will probably stay private, at least in the near term. But even if some do go public several years down the road, it’s unlikely they’ll be profitable at that point, if the experience of many other tech companies is any guide. It may take these companies years more to achieve the distinction of making more money than they are spending.

3) Inside India’s first corporate panchayat [Source: Livemint]
Villages are run by the gram panchayats in India. But what if the people reject them and choose a corporate entity to run the village? This has happened in India. Kizhakkambalam, a village in Kerala, has been under the grip of a silent revolution over the past five years. The dusty common corners have turned into neat wide roads lined by several freshly painted, new houses, as a race is on to turn it into a world-class—and the country’s No. 1—village by 2020. Behind all this is a man by the name Sabu Jacob. One of the few Malayali businessmen who regularly finds a place in the annual Hurun list of billionaires, Jacob’s father founded Kitex Garments Ltd, and its associated Anna Group, with just eight employees in a small factory in Kizhakkambalam.

Mr. Jacob came up with this vision of ‘Twenty20’ where it planned to turn the village into a world-class model by 2020. In 2015, the outfit captured power in elections to the local administrative unit, Kizhakkambalam Grama Panchayat. Since then, Kitex has gained a virtual monopoly over every aspect of public life in the village—from laying roads to directing the electorate to vote for a particular party in parliamentary elections. The way wasn’t/isn’t smooth. There were people who stood against them. The year in which Kizhakkambalam was supposed to achieve its milestone also got off to a rough start, when the panchayat’s president K.V. Jacob quit on New Year’s Day, citing that Sabu Jacob was becoming a dictator.

Jacob explains that he started Twenty20 to end what he describes as political and economic oppression of the people. “They (politicians) are looting the country. Simply, they’re fooling the people. And they are all making money," he said. On the other hand, he funnels money into public projects. Jacob claims that in 2019 alone, he pumped in ₹1.5 crore from his personal fortune into Twenty20. That is roughly the same amount a panchayat in Kerala gets from the government annually to fund development. After five-long years of the Twenty20 experiment, some have already come to a judgement. “It was an experiment doomed to fail," said D. Dhanuraj, head of Kochi-based think tank Centre for Public Policy Research. Caught up within these competing world views lies the future of an unusual village on the outskirts of Kochi and its dreams of being India’s No.1.

4) Why it is critical to mould public policy schools as institutions of practice [Source:]
A few entrepreneurs are starting public policy schools. These schools mostly have post-graduate programmes offering degrees or certificates in public policy. Existing higher educational institutions such as IIT Delhi, IIM Ahmedabad, Ashoka University, etc., have also jumped into this space. There has been a surge in the number of youngsters wanting to participate actively in the big public debates of our time. Their idealism to contribute is heartening and should be welcomed. In the political space, there is an exponential growth in the involvement of young graduates and professionals in election campaigns.

Employees in these organisations would need as much insight into the policy world as much as others. But there seems to be general vagueness about the skills demanded for performing these roles. The lack of clarity is quite understandable, since even within the policy space there is a great diversity of KSAs (knowledge, skills and abilities) that are required to succeed. Policy schools should sensitise students to the ‘arts and crafts’ of policy making than teaching the ‘hard knowledge’ of drafting policies. A fundamental flaw in designing curriculums of policy schools will be to see them as extended economics or sociology or political science departments.

Above all of these, policy practitioners should know the society they want to serve better. No amount of training will help if there is no immersive experience of working in a village or with the urban poor for a reasonably long period of time. Since policy schools themselves are entities in a burgeoning field, may be entrepreneurs will experiment and find ways to innovate. Public policy programmes can open the doors of imagination for students by exposing them to various avenues through which they can contribute to the greater good.

5) Housing is at the root of many of the rich world’s problems [Source: The Economist]  
The mismanagement of the housing market can be gauged by the financial crisis of 2008-2010. Traditionally politicians like it when house prices rise. People feel richer and therefore borrow and spend more, giving the economy a nice boost, they think. When everyone is feeling good about their financial situation, incumbent politicians have a higher chance of re-election. But there is another side. Costly housing is unambiguously bad for the rich world’s growing population of renters, forcing them to trim spending on other goods and services.

Housing is also a big reason why many people across the rich world feel that the economy does not work for them. Whereas baby-boomers tend to own big, expensive houses, youngsters must increasingly rent somewhere cramped with their friends, fomenting millennials’ resentment of their elders. Thomas Piketty, an economist, has claimed that in recent decades the return to capital has exceeded what is paid to labour in the form of wages, raising inequality.

Other research, meanwhile, has found that housing is behind some of the biggest political shocks of recent years. Housing markets and populism are closely linked. The rising cost of housing is surely a cause of worry, and various countries are accepting that. In Britain the government now openly says that the housing market is “broken”. Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, has pledged to make housing more affordable. Canada’s recent election was fought partly on who would do more to rein in the country’s spiralling housing costs. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has put housing front and centre in her response to the protesters. Governments across the world need to act decisively, and without delay. Nothing less than the world’s economic and political stability is at stake.

6) To achieve big goals, start with small habits [Source: HBR]
We’ve all been there. When presented with a problem that requires behavior change, we pounce on it with big goals — only to find ourselves locked into a self-defeating cycle. As high achievers, we’re programmed to “go big or go home” and to “set big hairy audacious goals.” It’s great to dream big, but the way to achieve big is to start small — through micro habits. Consider these five steps for getting started: 1) Identify a “ridiculously small” micro habit: The author of this piece says that “You will know you’ve truly reached the level of a micro habit, when you say, ‘That’s so ridiculously small, it’s not worth doing’”. For e.g., reading only one paragraph each night.

2) Piggyback on a daily task: No matter the size of the task, it’s easy to get distracted, make excuses, or forget. Perform your new action at the same time as (or right before) an action you do without thinking. Need to read a paragraph each night? You can do that while brushing your teeth. 3) Track your progress: As the saying goes, “What gets measured, gets done.” Again, if your measurement process is elaborate, you’re less like to complete it. Keep it simple.

4) Hold steady for a long time: It’s hard to think small to begin with; it’s even harder to stay small. You’ve stuck with your original micro habit long enough when you feel bored with it for at least two weeks in a row. Then increase it only by about 10%. 5) Seek help in holding you accountable: It might sound strange to enlist a partner to monitor your daily reading of one paragraph or doing two push-ups. But having people support you and hold you accountable can cement new behaviors, and it helps them in return. When you want to change behavior, jumping headlong into a major goal with both feet is often a waste of time. Remember, slow and steady wins the race.

7) The Inner Game: Why trying too hard can be counterproductive [Source: Farnam Street]
In any sports, physical fitness is of utmost importance. But, there’s something more important than that – and that’s the mental fitness. It all starts and ends in the mind. If one thinks that the opponent is strong and has no once of winning, he/she is defeated even before the game starts. This phenomenon—winning or losing something in your mind before you win or lose it in reality—is what tennis player and coach W. Timothy Gallwey first called “the Inner Game” in his book The Inner Game of Tennis. Gallwey wrote the book in the 1970s when people viewed sport as a purely physical matter.

In tennis, success is very psychological because there are really two games going on: the Inner Game and the Outer Game. Ostensibly, The Inner Game of Tennis is a book about tennis. But dig beneath the surface, and it teems with techniques and insights we can apply to any challenge. It is about overcoming the external obstacles we create that prevent us from succeeding. You don’t need to be interested in tennis or even know anything about it to benefit from this book.

What’s the most common piece of advice you’re likely to receive for getting better at something? Try harder. Work harder. Put more effort in. Pay more attention to what you’re doing. Do more. Yet what do we experience when we are performing at our best? The exact opposite. Not only are we often advised to try harder to improve our skills, we’re also encouraged to think positively. According to Gallwey, when it comes to winning the Inner Game, this is the wrong approach altogether. Whatever we’re trying to achieve, it would serve us well to pay more attention to the internal, not just the external.
8) Why is taking action hard? [Source:]
Inaction is something we’ve all experienced. We all want to take action about something or the other, but we procrastinate. We all know action is hard. But why? Why do we struggle so much to take action? Some of the reasons are: 1) Confidence: If your projects tend to fail, your expectations are low and motivation withers. If your projects tend to succeed, your expectations go up and motivation stays strong. 2) Social-Desirability Bias: One view of the conscious mind is that it functions more as the brain’s public relations manager than as its CEO, confabulating reasonable-sounding explanations for its behavior rather than actually calling the shots.

3) Daydreams Feel Different From Reality: You might think about your fitness goal in terms of losing weight, being healthy and looking great (all abstract, idealized goals). Yet, when you go to the gym you mostly think about how hard you’re breathing, the sweat dripping down your face and how uncomfortable it makes you. 4) Don’t Stick Your Neck Out: It may be that our hardwiring for ambition itself is based on our environment. Many of our ancestors lived in times when standing out, taking actions that go beyond cultural expectations could get you killed or exiled. Our natures, then, may be trying to sniff out the cost-benefits of taking actions, willing to retreat to placid conformity in case those early ventures get punished.

5) We’re Too Short-Sighted: In particular, human beings exhibit inconsistent time preferences for satisfaction here and now, versus long-term rewards in the future. Procrastination may be a delaying tactic to avoid wasting energy here and now, even if you think you might work harder in the not-so-far future. So, how can we get better at taking action? Traditional approaches to this problem have often focused on human will as single thing. But the reality is that our minds are fabulously complicated things, with many different integrating control mechanisms, both conscious and unconscious. To take action, then, you need to not only have new inputs to your conscious mind to nudge you in the right direction, but those nudges need to translate into all the other control systems you possess to keep you headed in that direction.

9) One couple’s tireless crusade to stop a genetic killer [Source:]
Kamni Vallabh in her early 50s started experiencing weird symptoms. Her body, too, was rapidly declining. Soon she couldn’t eat, stand, or bathe herself. She had trouble sleeping and spent her rare moments of lucidity grieving for the burden she had placed on her family. After her death, her daughter Sonia Vallabh realised that she too had this disease. She and her husband, Eric Minikel, tried everything to stop this and cure Sonia. She was suffering from prion disease. Prions are abnormally folded proteins that form toxic clumps in the brain. The illnesses they cause are rare and invariably fatal. Sometimes the disease is passed down from an unlucky parent. Whatever the cause, once symptoms start, the prions do their work quickly and irreversibly. They tear through the brain and kill healthy tissue, leaving empty holes behind.

Within a few weeks of the diagnosis, Sonia had quit her job to study science full time, continuing classes at MIT during the day and enrolling in a night class in biology at Harvard’s extension school. The pair lived off savings and Eric’s salary. Eric, not wanting to be left behind, quit his job too and offered his data-­crunching expertise to a genetics lab. The deeper they dove into science, the more they began to fixate on finding a cure. The couple gave a presentation at the Broad Institute, a research center jointly operated by MIT and Harvard, laying out their ambitions. They hoped to develop a drug that would target the misfolded PrP protein, stymieing plaques before they could form. Through a nonprofit they had founded in 2012, the Prion Alliance, they had already raised about $17,000, mostly in small donations.
They would use the money to fund tests of a promising compound that had been shown to clear prions in mouse cell cultures. If all went well, they thought the research might even one day lead to a clinical trial in humans. While they have all the approvals in place, the next task is getting someone to test these drugs. Vallabh and Minikel’s final “impossible task” is to recruit trial volunteers—no small feat, given that genetic prion diseases are so rare and only 23 percent of people known to be at risk follow through with predictive testing. Still, they hear regularly from prospective patients around the world, many of whom see participating in a trial as almost a civic duty.

10) First hint that body’s ‘biological age’ can be reversed [Source:]
A small clinical study in California has suggested for the first time that it might be possible to reverse the body’s epigenetic clock, which measures a person’s biological age. For one year, nine healthy volunteers took a cocktail of three common drugs — growth hormone and two diabetes medications — and on average shed 2.5 years of their biological ages, measured by analysing marks on a person’s genomes. The participants’ immune systems also showed signs of rejuvenation. “I’d expected to see slowing down of the clock, but not a reversal,” says geneticist Steve Horvath at the University of California, Los Angeles, who conducted the epigenetic analysis.

The epigenetic clock relies on the body’s epigenome, which comprises chemical modifications, such as methyl groups, that tag DNA. The pattern of these tags changes during the course of life, and tracks a person’s biological age, which can lag behind or exceed chronological age. The latest trial was designed mainly to test whether growth hormone could be used safely in humans to restore tissue in the thymus gland. The gland, which is in the chest between the lungs and the breastbone, is crucial for efficient immune function.

Horvath used four different epigenetic clocks to assess each patient’s biological age, and he found significant reversal for each trial participant in all of the tests. “This told me that the biological effect of the treatment was robust,” he says. What’s more, the effect persisted in the six participants who provided a final blood sample six months after stopping the trial, he says. Cancer immunologist Sam Palmer at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh says that it is exciting to see the expansion of immune cells in the blood. This “has huge implications not just for infectious disease but also for cancer and ageing in general”.