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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Sports (For Djokovic, goal is more than titles; She is 35 and running faster than she ever thought possible), Science (Does evolution of decision-making go back millions of years?), Technology (Race for cheap airfare, it's you vs. the machine), Society (The biggest untapped resource in the world) and Leadership (If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts).

Published: Feb 8, 2020 08:01:07 AM IST
Updated: Feb 7, 2020 07:02:08 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: Sports (For Djokovic, goal is more than titles; She is 35 and running faster than she ever thought possible), Science (Does evolution of decision-making go back millions of years?), Technology (Race for cheap airfare, it’s you vs. the machine), Society (The biggest untapped resource in the world) and Leadership (If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts).

1) For Novak Djokovic, the goal is still titles, but ‘more than that’ [Source: The New York Times
We all know Novak Djokovic as an ace tennis player. But this piece throws light on his off the tennis life. He has shown remarkable resilience and drive, spurred by the memories of growing up in the midst of conflict, privation and uncertainty. He and his wife, Jelena, and their children — a 5-year-old son, Stefan, and a 2-year-old daughter, Tara — start their mornings in Monaco by greeting the day on the balcony of their apartment, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. “We wake up early, because I take my son to school, so we prepare our juices in the morning in the kitchen, and then we go out and watch the sunrise, and then we do our hugging session and singing session,” he said. “And we do a little yoga.”

On achievement, he says, “Everybody talks about trophies, achievements, records, history, and I’m really blessed to be in a position to be one of the guys in the mix and in the midst of these kinds of conversations,” he said. “I am really grateful for the career I’ve had, but for me right now, tennis is more a platform than an obsession about individual achievement.” Besides Tennis, Djokovic and Jelena want to grow their family foundation, which is focused on early childhood education. They want to finish a book on wellness and help answer the questions Djokovic says he gets about how to live a purposeful, healthy life.

Through the years, Djokovic has switched to a gluten-free and dairy-free diet, practiced meditation and visualization and tinkered repeatedly — and not always successfully — with his service motion. He has used a personal hyperbaric chamber during tournaments. Most recently, he split with an analytics consultant in part because Goran Ivanisevic, one of Djokovic’s coaches, believed they needed get to back to “more basics” and not rely on “all these numbers.” But Djokovic is committed to experimentation. Andre Agassi makes it clear he still believes in Djokovic. “Life’s not done, and I understand everybody is still playing,” Agassi says of the Big Three. “But he’ll be recognized as the best.”

2) Investing is more luck than talent [Source: Nautilus
Academic researchers have always pondered over how much inequality is too much. In many countries around the globe, inequality has reached eye-popping extremes. In the U.S., for example, the top 1% of the population holds 42% of the national wealth. And the top 100 individuals now have an average wealth roughly 45,000 times the national average. Could the differences between the very rich and the hugely rich—the differences that amplify moderate inequality into extreme inequality—be the result of pure, dumb luck?

We all know stories of ambitious and talented people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, who grew companies and created great wealth. But for each one of these superstars, there may have been many more people who were equally ambitious and talented, yet did not succeed. The distribution of wealth at the highest end of the scale is quite consistent with pure luck. The author of this piece suggests a coin-flipping analogy to understand this better. What might make a difference, however, is talent—Steve Jobs-scale abilities that allow some players to beat the odds and do better than others.

There is no room for talent in the original version of the investment game, because it assumes that the only source of inequality is pure luck. That’s the whole point of the coin flip. And in truth, talent is an intrinsically hard thing to model: If we knew how to come up with strokes of genius like the iPhone, everyone would be doing it. But there are people who think luck overpowers talent. Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson in a fall 1989 article wrote for the Journal of Portfolio Management discussing the relative roles of talent and luck in the success of mutual fund managers: Those lucky money managers who happen in any period to beat the comprehensive averages in total return seem primarily to have been merely lucky. Being on the honor roll in 1974 does not make you appreciably more likely to be on the 1975 honor roll.

3) The Psychology of Prediction [Source: collaborativefund.com]
Prediction is hard. Either you know that or you’re in denial about it. A lot of the reason it’s hard is because the visible stuff that happens in the world is a small fraction of the hidden stuff that goes on inside people’s heads. The former is easy to overanalyze; the latter is easy to ignore. This piece talks about 12 common flaws, errors, and misadventures that occur in people’s heads when predictions are made. Some of these are: 1) The distinction between “wrong” vs. “early” has less to do with analytics than the social ability to prevent listeners from giving up on you. Say it’s 2003 and you predict the economy is going to collapse under the weight of a housing bubble. In hindsight, you got that right. But it’s 2003. So those who listened to your predictions have to wait four years for that prediction to come true.

2) History is the study of surprising events. Prediction is using historical data to forecast what events will happen next. Historical data is a good guide to the future. But the most important events in historical data are the big outliers, the record-breaking events. 3) Past predictions that end up on the unfortunate side of probabilistic odds might cause hesitancy to make more predictions in the future. If you know how statistics work you know everything is a game of odds, not certainties. By definition sometimes you’ll make a prediction when the odds are in your favor and still watch reality come down on the other side.

4) Predicting the behavior of other people relies on understanding their motivations, incentives, social norms and how all those things change. That can be difficult if you are not a member of that group and have a different set of life experiences. 5) Effort put into a prediction may increase confidence more than accuracy. There are stories of Tiger Woods hitting 1,000 balls at the range without a break. And of Jason Williams practicing dribbling for hours on end without ever shooting a ball. That’s how you become an expert. That’s how you get amazing results.

4) This ground-breaking paper suggests that single-celled organisms can also make decisions [Source: swarajyamag.com]
One hundred and seventeen years ago in the ‘American Journal of Physiology’, a paper was published by one of the pioneers of American biological sciences, Herbert Spencer Jennings. The paper studied how single cellular organisms reacted to the stimuli provided. Jennings, then an established name in the study of a particular branch of unicellular organisms called ‘protozoans’, had shown in his paper how the organism exhibited a complex series of responses.

But in 1967, more than half a century later two researchers, James Reynierse and Gary Walsh contested these claims. They tried to replicate the ‘behavior modification' in Stentor "by using a classical conditioning procedure". They concluded that "regardless of experimental conditions, whenever carmine particles were administered to Stentor, it quickly became free-swimming" and hence declared that "the phenomenon of learning was not demonstrated in this experiment". Soon, Jennings’ findings were forgotten.

Then, in 2019, three systems biologists, two from Harvard University, Jeremy Gunawardena and Joseph Dexter, and Sudhakaran Prabakaran from IISc, India, now with Cambridge University and IIESR Pune, decided to revisit Jennings’ paper. One of the reasons for revisiting the findings of Jennings was because Gunawardena found the 1967 paper "one of the shoddiest studies" he had ever seen. They conducted 60 separate experiments with one, two, or three organisms tested with beads stimulation of one to seven pulses and detailed tables were made and analysed. The paper now clearly proves that there is a hierarchy. While the paper has definitely rediscovered and validated the discovery of Jennings it also increases our understanding of the dynamics of life at the cellular level.

5) In the race for cheap airfare, it’s you vs. the machine [Source: The New York Times]  
In order to get cheaper airfare, we try everything. Sometimes we get lucky, sometimes not. And this all is actually done by the airlines themselves! Travel providers now use artificial intelligence software to re-price their offerings, sometimes dozens of times a day, to maximize revenue. For business and leisure travelers, the result is a variation of the cat-and-mouse game, where travel companies are almost always the cat. Now, changes in travel pricing are being made much more frequently. The practice, called “hyperdynamic pricing,” is poised for significant growth, said Angela Zutavern, a managing director at the technology consulting firm AlixPartners and the author of “The Mathematical Corporation: Where Machine Intelligence and Human Ingenuity Achieve the Impossible.”

If there’s a rock concert in a city where a mega pop star or singer is coming, then the prices of the nearby hotels are sure to surge. The system may anticipate a spike in demand at hotels in cities on the tour and raise rates there. Have hurricanes been in the news? Flight prices may need to come down to entice travelers to tropical locations. Theresa van Greunen, assistant vice president of corporate communications of Aqua-Aston Hospitality, based in Hawaii, said, “A.I. gives us more insights into our data, and opportunities to be more nimble.”

In response to the fluctuating prices, corporate travel departments that book business trips for their employees have begun to develop strategies to catch the lowest prices. Last year, Egencia, Expedia Group’s booking platform for corporate travel departments, introduced a feature that would scan the internet for prices on airline tickets that were already bought through its system. If a cheaper fare for the same flight and class of service was found within seven days of purchase, the system would automatically cancel and rebook the ticket without any action required from the traveler or the traveler’s company.

6) I am 35 and running faster than I ever thought possible [Source: The New York Times]
In this piece, Lindsay Crouse talks about how she plans to qualify for the Olympic marathon team trials and how women are changing the sport. She never thought that an athletic breakthrough was possible for her, especially in her 30s. But recently, she ran a marathon faster than she ever imagined she could. She notes that something extraordinary is unfolding for American female distance runners, and it’s making all the runners better. The fastest among these runners have shattered barriers: In 2017, Shalane Flanagan, at 36, became the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in four decades. The following year, Des Linden, at 34, won the Boston Marathon, the first American woman to do so since 1985.

The most dramatic example is the United States Olympic marathon team trials, which will begin on Feb. 29 in Atlanta. The trials, where the fastest Americans race for the opportunity to be part of the Olympic team, are open to anyone, but to qualify, women have to run a marathon in under 2 hours and 45 minutes. This year, the number of women qualifying skyrocketed to 511. The number of men has increased only slightly, from 211 to 260. Few of these new qualifiers are professional runners. Most of them are women who train in their spare time, often around demanding jobs and families.

To qualify, she had to run a marathon pace of 6 minutes 17 seconds per mile. For her, that’s usually a sprint. When she started training on a path along the Hudson River, she couldn’t even hit that pace for one mile. But slowly and steadily she achieved it. And her thought process changed forever, for better thereon. She realized that she could do a lot of other impossible things. She could be a reporter like the journalists she had always admired. She could produce work that changes corporate policies and reaches millions of people, and she could help other athletes along the way. This is what all these other American women runners are doing right now, in their own ways.

7) Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz [Source: ritholtz.com]
In this podcast, Barry Ritholtz, co-founder, chairman, and chief investment officer of Ritholtz Wealth Management LLC, chats with IIana Weinstein, Founder and CEO of the IDW Group, a leading boutique for hedge funds, private equity and family offices in search of top investment talent. They talk about how she started with recruitment to investments and everything in between. 

Talking about how her business works, she says, “We’ve been in business for almost 17 years, 17 this February. Most of our clients, we’ve been working with practically, if not since the beginning, certainly, within the first few years of inception of IDW. So, what that means is we’re — we really know their business, we’ve helped them build their business and, yes, they are coming to us for specific assignments whether it’s — and the common thread being they’re all senior people who can move the needle, whether it’s someone to do via TMT PM for equities, someone to run in emerging markets business, someone to build and run distress.”

In finance, the demography it’s still really tilted towards the male side. Weinstein says that, “It’s still so much better than the hedge fund industry. We need to do a better job of pulling women in earlier and explaining to them that this is an industry that is not just hospitable to women, we are dying for women. It is rare that I do a search where the client, at some point, does not say to me we’d love for the successful candidate to be a woman. And the — but the problem is, we have a fiduciary duty to hire the best person, not the best woman.”
8) Leila Janah, entrepreneur who hired the poor, dies at 37 [Source: The New York Times]
Leila Janah, a social entrepreneur who employed thousands of desperately poor people in Africa and India in the fervent belief that jobs, not handouts, offered the best escape from poverty, died on Jan. 24 in Manhattan. She was 37. A child of Indian immigrants, Ms. Janah traveled to Mumbai, India, in about 2005 as a management consultant to help take an outsourcing company public. Riding through the city by auto rickshaw, she passed an enormous slum. But after arriving at the outsourcing center, she found a staff of educated middle-class workers. Few, if any, of the nearby poor were employed there. “Couldn’t the people from the slums do some of this work?” she thought.

For her, the intellect of the poorest people in the world “the biggest untapped resource” in the global economy. She started Samasource in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2008 — “sama” means “equal” in Sanskrit — with the aim of employing poor people, for a living wage, in digital jobs like photo tagging and image annotation at what she called delivery centers in Kenya, Uganda and India. Also, at least half the people hired by the company are women. “Leila had a vision about bringing the dignity of work and the promise of a living wage to the world’s most vulnerable,” said Kennedy Odede, the founder and chief executive of Shining Hope for Communities, a grass-roots organization in Kenya that has worked with Samasource.

What’s notable is that Samasource’s employees have worked under contracts with companies including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Walmart, Getty Images, Glassdoor and Vulcan Capital, a holding company formed by Paul G. Allen, a founder of Microsoft. Another venture developed by Ms. Janah is LXMI, a luxury cosmetics line that has the same mission as Samasource: to hire marginalized people and give them a decent wage. On her blog in 2018, Ms. Janah described the challenges of being a social entrepreneur. “We are fighting the battle of birthing a new venture,” she wrote, “while at the same time trying to show the world that we can inject a sense of justice into the business itself, rather than merely trying to rack up profit.”

9) A woman’s greatest enemy? A lack of time to herself [Source: The Guardian]
Many women spend most of their time taking care of the household chores and attending kids. On the other hand, men just concentrate on their professional lives, while the woman in his life takes care of everything else. But, what if that woman gets some leisure time? That’s the crux of this piece. The author talks about an interview that Patti Scialfa gave on how difficult it was for her to write the music for her solo album because her kids kept interrupting her and demanding her time in a way that they never would of their father, Bruce Springsteen. It’s not that women haven’t had the talent to make their mark in the world of ideas and art. They’ve never had the time.

Even today, around the globe, with so many women in the paid labor force, women still spend at least twice as much time as men doing housework and childcare, sometimes much more. One study of 32 families in Los Angeles found that the uninterrupted leisure time of most mothers lasted, on average, no more than 10 minutes at a stretch. In his Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen wrote that throughout history the people who had the ability to choose and control their time were high-status men. He dismissed women on page two, writing that they, along with the servants and the slaves, have always been responsible for the drudge work that enables those high-status men to think their great thoughts.

The poet Eleanor Ross Taylor lived her life in the shadow of her husband, the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, short story writer and professor Peter Taylor. “Over the years, many times I would say to poems, ‘Go away, I don’t have time now,’” she told an interviewer in 1997. “But that was part laziness. If you really want to write, you can. I did keep the house scrubbed and waxed and that sort of thing.” What if Shakespeare was born as a woman? The female Shakespeare would never have had the time or the ability to develop her genius – barred from school, told to mind the stew, expected to marry young, and beaten if she didn’t.

10) If you want to be a leader, learn to be alone with your thoughts [Source: American Scholar]
What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading. But, this essay proves why solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership. Place like Yale or Harvard educate people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to. But, the author of this piece feels there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea.

What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders. What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

But, how do you learn to think? Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by the social media. So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better.

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