Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Health (Why have many of our recent viruses come from bats?), Lifestyle (David Sinclair on how we can stop aging), Society (8 life lessons learned from best writers), Technology (Employers are adding high-tech solutions to solve sleep problems), Environment (One war that humans can't lose) and Book Review (Deep-dive into Media, Gender and the Neo-liberal Indian State)

Published: Feb 29, 2020 08:25:00 AM IST
Updated: Feb 28, 2020 07:35:01 PM IST

reading (2)Image: 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: Health (Why have many of our recent viruses come from bats?), Lifestyle (David Sinclair on how we can stop aging), Society (8 life lessons learned from best writers), Technology (Employers are adding high-tech solutions to solve sleep problems), Environment (One war that humans can’t lose) and Book Review (Deep-dive into Media, Gender and the Neo-liberal Indian State).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended February 28, 2020:

1) The pitfalls of early success – a personal history [Source: rationalwalk.com]
Everyone today wants to be successful. No matter what they try to pursue. And that’s not different for the people in the stock market. The investing profession tends to attract individuals who have a healthy sense of self-esteem. After all, anyone who actively invests is essentially saying that their views regarding investments are superior to the collective wisdom of the rest of the market. Many won’t believe, but random luck plays a major role in one’s life experiences and prospects for overall success. As Warren Buffett often says, he won the “ovarian lottery” by being born into a successful and prominent family in the United States in 1930. His unusual numeracy at a young age served him extremely well whereas it would have been of limited value had he been born into a small hunting and gathering tribe in Africa in 3000 BC. 

Similarly, Howard Marks, in his book Mastering the Market Cycle, makes many such observations. But the most important and intriguing point pertain to the role of human nature and emotion. We always need to remember that when we make the decision to buy or sell an investment, we are making an affirmative statement that we know more than the market and that even though the market often seems “crazy”, it is made up of thousands of investors just like us who are trying to achieve the same objective – outperformance. We must always be thinking about what makes our views better than the market consensus – in other words, what is our edge?

Clearly, the timing of one’s career plays a big role in the type of opportunities available. However, the experiences of a particular era probably have an even greater impact on how we see the world. In the context of the stock market, if we start out in a bull market, we are likely to see the world much differently than starting out in a bear market. Even the author of this piece thought that he was an investing wizard. Only to be grounded, as he underperformed the S&P 500 by nearly 21% in 2009. This experience forced him to reassess his strengths and weaknesses and to be more introspective regarding his abilities. In retrospect, his early success with a small capital base in 1999-2000 resulted in a level of overconfidence and hubris that made him think that he had the ability to time the market in 2008-09. Well, everybody thinks that way, till the market gets them to ground reality.

2) Why have so many of our recent viruses come from bats? [Source: rationaloptimist.com]
Matt Ridley, the author of this blog, says that bats are the root cause of most of the diseases that humans suffer from. We now know that the natural host and reservoir of the new coronavirus, Covid-19, is a bat, and that the virus probably got into people via a live-animal market in Wuhan. This is not the first disease bats have given us. Rabies possibly originated in bats. And so did, Ebola, Nipah, Sars, Mers, etc.

Why are bats responsible for so many recent zoonoses (posh Greek for infections acquired from other animal species)? First, bats are mammals, meaning they are sufficiently closely related to us for some of their viruses to thrive in our bodies. Second, bats have never been domesticated. On the whole, we have already caught the diseases of cows and pigs and dogs. Measles, smallpox, anthrax and tuberculosis were all gifts from our farmed animals. Third, unlike most other mammals, bats live in huge flocks — just as we do.

Fortunately, the modern world not only makes us a tempting target for new diseases, it also gives us new tools to combat them. It took years to sequence the genome of HIV, weeks to sequence the genome of Sars and days for Covid-19. Our ability to diagnose the disease is therefore rapidly catching up, and the chances are that a vaccine will soon be available, while quarantine and strict self-isolation may yet keep the virus from going global. Lastly, the author of this piece has 2 advices: 1) stop bringing wild animals into markets alive (if at all): viruses do not survive long in dead bodies, even if not refrigerated. 2) Let’s keep our distance from bats. Definitely don’t eat them.

3) David Sinclair: "Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don't Have To" [Source: YouTube; Talks at Google]

Everybody wants to stay young forever. If not everybody, at least most of us want to stay healthy and young. Do things that only young people can do. Go trekking, go running, look younger than our age, etc. There are many who can pay an arm and a leg to become young again. But, can we actually become or stay young for an elongated period of time?

We always thought that aging is a normal process of life and we all have to go through it. But, not as per David Sinclair, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. And in this talk, he discusses his new book, “Lifespan”, which distills his cutting-edge research findings on the biological processes underpinning aging. He asks and answers whether we can slow this process and reset it. He says that it’s surely possible with a few lifestyle hacks.

Mr. Sinclair talks about his recent experiment with the aging of mice. He was able to scratch the DNA of these mice and age them faster. So he says, if we can age them faster, we can also reverse this process. Also, he says that one of the ways to improve our longevity is to eat less. Mr. Sinclair himself skips meals. Exercising 10 minutes a day and skipping a few meals a week can make us live longer.

4) The fight to fix the fault in our audits [Source: Livemint]
The quality of audit in India is surely a cause of concern. The list of companies in which auditors were caught napping over the last decade alone is a long one: IL&FS, Yes Bank Ltd, Satyam Computers, Manpasand Beverages Ltd, Vakrangee Ltd, among others. Recently, the Indian ministry of corporate affairs (MCA) began its latest push in a months-long battle to fix the faults in India’s corporate audit system. It came in the form of a discussion paper that proposed sweeping new changes.

As regulators began tightening the screws, the markets could smell that something was brewing. In the first half of 2018, nearly 32 auditors quit from listed firms. And the last straw was the near-collapse of Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd (IL&FS) in September 2018, leaving a ₹99,000 crore hole in the country’s financial system and sent the non-banking financial company sector into a tailspin.

It remains to be seen whether anything tangible comes out of this latest attempt at a radical overhaul. As things stand, auditors now face the heat from six regulators and enforcement agencies, which has created its own mess. Securities Exchange Board of India (Sebi) scrutinizes auditors of listed companies; the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) for auditors of banks and non-banking financial companies; MCA tracks nearly every company under Companies Act 2013; then there are criminal proceedings by the Serious Fraud and Investigations Office (SFIO), penal action by NFRA for audit lapses, and disciplinary proceedings by ICAI. The government also plans to limit the number of audits a company can do.

5) 8 life lessons learned from the best writers in history [Source: Darius Foroux]
Whether you believe it or not, we all are writers. Writers are people who structure their thoughts and put them into words. That’s something we all do every single day. When you’re in a meeting, having a fight with your spouse, negotiating a discount at the car dealership, or trying to raise your kids—you’re constantly putting your thoughts into words. In this blog, Darius Faroux (entrepreneur, blogger, and podcaster) talks about 8 life lessons he learned from 8 great writers from around the world. 

1) Stephen King: Don’t be pretentious – No one likes folks who always want to impress others with how sophisticated they are. Be genuine, be yourself.
2) James Baldwin: Be a reader – The truth is, the more you read, the more you’ll start loving it. Try it. For Mr. Faroux, reading is equal to life.
3) Ernest Hemingway: Be a starter – We always keep procrastinating. We just search for reasons not to start. Once you start writing (even one sentence), the floodgates open. You’ll be awe with the flow of thought.
4) J.K. Rowling: Be disciplined – To achieve anything in life, one needs to be disciplined. It’s easy to get distracted from your goal. Discipline is what separates the professionals from the amateurs. Discipline is the sign of someone who takes their craft seriously.
5) Ray Bradbury: Be stubborn – Everyone will tell you that you are wrong, but you need to keep faith in yourself. Maybe they are right. But what if they are wrong? Are you willing to risk good work for that?
6) Maya Angelou: Be courageous - Playing it safe and trying to be liked by everyone is easy. But saying what’s truly on your mind is hard. So be courageous and do it anyway.
7) Charles Bukowski: Be patient - It takes years to uncover your own character and style. Everyone has a style. And the more you write, the more you uncover your true style. So when you recognize that, you’ll automatically be more patient with yourself.
8) Ernest Hemingway: Love your craft - Pick something that you enjoy doing. Then, love it like it’s the only worthwhile activity on this earth.

6) The one war that the human species can’t lose [Source: New Yorker]   
Global warming and climate change have been in the forefront for some time now. This is something that everyone and every country need to mull upon. Earth’s temperature is rising and the glaciers in the north and south poles are melting faster than we can think. Antarctica is usually a powerfully silent continent except for the gusting winds or the lapping waves on its coastline. The author of this piece watched a towering slice of the continent break off and crash into the Southern Ocean. The iceberg that she watched break off from Antarctica was part of a process called calving. It is normal and a necessary step in nature’s cycle, except that it’s now happening a lot faster and in larger chunks—with existential stakes.

The ice in Antarctica is now melting six times faster than it did forty years ago. The amount of ice on Earth was pivotal in the creation of human civilization ten thousand years ago, a fact that paleo-climatologists only discovered in the late twentieth century. In physics terms, the climate stabilized because there was just the right percentage of ice on the planet. Ice reflects, so sunlight bounces off it back into space and doesn’t overheat Earth or its inhabitants. That’s now changing, as Antarctica (and Greenland) shrink.

“By 2035, the point of no return could be crossed,” Matthew Burrows, a former director at the National Intelligence Council, wrote in a report last year about global risks over the next fifteen years. That’s the point after which stopping the Earth’s temperature from rising by two degrees Celsius—or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit—will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, in turn triggering “a dangerous medley of global disasters.” If we look at climate change as a war, there can be severe consequences in the years to come. And this is a war that we as humans can’t afford to lose.

7) The many ways to mortgage a moat [Source: Intrinsic Investing]
Most of us would have come across this word called ‘Moat’ while reading one of the annual letters of Berkshire Hathway, by Warren Buffet. Moat is something that gives a company an edge over others. When investors worry about a company’s eroding moat, they’re usually focused on external threats. A new competitor with a revolutionary technology or offering. But the external threats often come after a company has mortgaged its moat.

Companies mortgage their moat when they press their advantage too hard and alienate stakeholders in the process. This practice can be particularly tempting for executives aiming to maximize short-term performance at the expense of long-term durability. Well-meaning executives can also mortgage their moat by “over-optimizing” their operations, depriving the company of oxygen needed to deliver on its long-term strategy.

By focusing on the sources of the company’s economic moat, we hope to more quickly recognize situations in which management may be mortgaging their moat. If we do this correctly, we stand a better chance of getting out of the castle before the siege.

8) Employers are adding high-tech solutions to solve a low-tech problem: Getting more sleep [Source: The Washington Post]
Every company wants their employees to perform better. And having a good night sleep is a must in order to focus and perform on the task at hand. Therefore companies are trying to ensure that their employees sleep well. New Balance, the Boston-based athletic shoe company, wanted to help its employees sleep better. So in October, it rolled out Dayzz, a mobile app that offers personal recommendations for better sleep. If users say they watch TV in bed, the app might send a text at bedtime to turn it off. If it’s taking users too long to fall asleep, the app might suggest they get out of bed temporarily and listen to music. Employees can also use the app to scan noise and light intensity levels in their bedrooms and chat online with a sleep coach.

While experts applaud the attention being paid to workers’ sleep, some raise questions about privacy or how useful sleep data, if it’s provided without context, will be for many employees. “These devices can be great measurement tools,” said Michael Grandner, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, who has consulted for FitBit. “But then what do you do with that data?”

But this trend is growing. BlackRock, the giant asset management firm, started buying the Oura Ring, a sleep and activity tracker worn by tech CEOs like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, for select employees in a pilot program launched early last year. It now includes about 100 portfolio managers and other investment professionals. “What we’ve been seeing so far ... is that the measurement makes them more aware,” said Emily Haisley, a managing director at BlackRock who specializes in behavioral science. “They can see the impact of exercise and earlier bedtimes. Some people have started meditating before bed or stopping screens before bed.” 
  
9) Need to Keep Gen Z Workers Happy? Hire a ‘Generational Consultant’ [Source: The New York Times]
For the first time, five distinct generations of employees — traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation Xers, millennials and Generation Zers — coexist in the workplace. The culture clash rooted in the vast age differences among colleagues — who in some industries, like retail or service, can be competing for the same jobs — is amplified by young people arriving with a digital skill set that their managers often need but might not have. Across industries, hiring managers and recruiters have had to fine-tune their strategies to attract a new hiring pool: both because of the sheer number of potential workers and because no one else can figure out how to embed a GIF.

So these employers are hiring generational consultants, the astrologers of the workplace: making broad assessments of a person — and millions like them — based on when they were born and advising hiring managers and human resources accordingly. David and Jonah Stillman, a father/son, Gen X/Gen Z team, operate a consulting business, Gen Guru, that tries to explain the differences — and expectations — that the younger work force brings with them to the office. Jonah says he would never fill out an online application if he could help it: he’d prefer to submit a video, or ideally email the hiring manager, upload his résumé to the company’s Dropbox or Google Drive, then grab coffee with someone who might be on his team, or even the CEO, to ensure that he can connect with the people in charge.

Aram Lulla, a manager at the recruiting firm Lucas Group, has found that if millennials are proud of their workplace, they’ll start to organically promote it in their networks, so he encourages clients to use their social media channels to demonstrate what it’s like to work at the organization itself, through videos and photos. And this type of consultancy services can be used across various sectors. For example, if you wanted to attract young people to a paper company, he suggested, why not get the staff together to fight deforestation?

10) Media, Gender and the Neo-liberal Indian State [Source: epw.in]
In this book review, the author talks about Maitrayee Chaudhuri’s Refashioning India: Gender, Media and a Transformed Public Discourse, and how it is both a critique and chronicle of contemporary India after 1991. Chaudhuri’s book, as indicated in the title, argues that a country cannot develop without the progress of women. She discusses at length the various confusions of the liberal Indian state and its position on women. Women here are perceived as merely cultural symbols. With the advent of liberalism, women also disappeared from the discourse on development and entered the world of welfare. Chaudhuri further argues that the failure of the Indian state to bring about real and sustained changes for women led to the resurgence of the women’s movement in the 1970s.

On advertising, she says that today’s advertisements attribute traits for the desirable Indian woman while remaining silent about the desirable Indian man. Also, the distinction between advertisement and news is constantly blurring. She also examines the Nirbhaya incident to understand new methodologies of news dissemination. On the electoral campaigns, she says the role essayed by the media in 2014 Indian elections was rather unique. She also throws light on how the general elections in 2014 turned a new chapter in election campaigning by effectively using the media machinery.

Even with many promises still unfulfilled, the 2019 elections that granted a second term to Prime Minster Modi indicate that nothing perhaps matters in the media-managed story of Modi’s India. Chaudhuri’s Refashioning India: Gender, Media and a Transformed Public Discourse is an important contribution to the existing scholarship on the neo-liberal Indian state and a transformed media paradigm. It successfully demonstrates the seismic shifts in Indian media by closely analysing various key changes in its role and function. Also, freedom and credibility of the media are sacrificed at the altar of capitalist ideology. This book will be remembered as an important historical compendium of events which changed the Indian media ecosystem and public discourse forever.

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