Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Sports (Solving NFL's scheduling conundrum), Business (Covid is rewriting the rules of corporate governance), Geopolitics (Game of alliances in a possible India-China conflict), and Lifestyle (Negative thinking can actually fuel success!)

Published: Oct 24, 2020 10:40:27 AM IST

reading_bg_190990385Image: 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 (Solving NFL’s scheduling conundrum), Business (Covid is rewriting the rules of corporate governance), Geopolitics (Game of alliances in a possible India-China conflict), and Lifestyle (Negative thinking can actually fuel success!).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended October 23, 2020: 

1. How to solve the NFL’s scheduling conundrum [Source: slate.com]

There have been two schools of thought about playing professional sports amid a pandemic. One method involves sequestering players and team personnel inside a closed, controllable environment. It’s a complicated undertaking, but the NBA, WNBA, and NHL’s “bubbles” resulted in zero COVID-19 cases for players after they made it through the initial quarantine periods. On the other side of the spectrum you have the three-pronged strategy preferred by Major League Baseball and the NFL: Prong 1: Play ball! Prong 2: Hope for the best. Prong 3: See Prongs 1-2. Major League Baseball’s shortened regular season was marred by early positive cases and 45 game postponements, but teams were able to play catchup with a flurry of doubleheaders. They abandoned the ol’ three-pronged strategy for the postseason, however, and games are being held in a few select stadiums—dubbed “playoff bubbles”—to reduce travel and exposure risk.

The outbreaks have unleashed a scheduling nightmare, with each postponed game requiring a cataclysmic chain reaction. An NFL schedule is a delicate thing. Teams only play 16 regular season games, and each of these has to be spaced apart to allow rest for players. Just one postponement is the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in Bangladesh and causing a hurricane in Bangor. The NFL has discussed a “break glass in case of emergency” contingency, which is Week 18. In this scenario, the league would host excess unplayed games the week after the regular season ends. The Week 18 plan has one glaring weakness, however, which is that it’s only one week. If COVID cases keep piling up, it’s not inconceivable that teams will have to endure extended absences.

Isolating 32 NFL squads in a controlled environment is a logistical nightmare, but what if you only needed to isolate two teams? Take, say, the Chargers and Texans and put them in a bubble where they’ll play every week. Dress the players in green jerseys so the networks can superimpose other teams’ uniforms depending on who’s scheduled to play. The remaining 30 NFL teams could take the season off while the Chargers and Texans play out the remaining games. Will your team make the playoffs? Depends on if their colors have been superimposed onto the winning team! Fans might complain, but they’ll still tune in. Nearly 6 million people watched the Dolphins and Jaguars play a Thursday night game on basic cable this season. This green-screen plan is flawless.

2. How “Am I the Asshole?” created a medium place on the internet [Source: The Ringer

This article talks about the famous subreddit that started as a forum for one man to ask about his workplace behavior. Seven years later, it’s become a platform where millions of people discuss good, bad, and everything in between. With everything else going on in the world, the Reddit forum known as Am I the Asshole? has started to feel like a safe space. It’s a place where accountability actually exists, even if only in the form of branding someone right or wrong in one absurd situation. It’s also a place for growth: Sometimes posters return to talk about how their lives changed—almost always for the better—because of the advice they got from thousands of anonymous strangers.

“The ability to define what is wrong and ‘what people are doing that should change’ should be number two on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” says Marc Beaulac, founder of Am I the Asshole? For the first four years of its existence, AITA was a relatively small community in the tens of thousands. But around Thanksgiving of 2018—for reasons unknown to Beaulac—it took off. Beaulac soon added 10 moderators to his team, all volunteers who said they wanted to add something to the forum, and by July 2019, the subreddit had 1 million subscribers. It took less than a year to get to 2 million.

Am I the Asshole? is a deeply human place. It’s full of our worst and most embarrassing or challenging moments. It’s full of people shaming each other for bad behavior and people telling us it’s not too late to do better. It can be a place for change and accountability, a place that urges us to be more honest with each other. Some of us are lucky enough to have friends and family who can play that role. For the rest of us, though, there’s always the opportunity to ask millions of strangers a simple question online: Am I the asshole?

3. How to Vaccinate a Planet [Source: The Walrus

Everyone today is waiting for a vaccine. A vaccine is, in essence, a trick—a sleight of hand that convinces your body to mount a counterattack to a given pathogen before that pathogen actually infects you. There are various ways to pull the trick off: vaccines can be made with a weakened virus, or a killed virus, or just a key part of the virus, or a part of the virus piggybacking on a different, benign virus, or an instruction manual for making that part of the virus yourself. In each approach, you get the benefits of an immune response without the messy business of a disease.

Humans have been trying to outsmart viruses for millennia. There are now more than 200 vaccine candidates for COVID-19 in development around the world, using every conceivable approach. The vast majority of them, however, zero in on the spike as the vaccine’s target protein: the University of Oxford, Johnson & Johnson, and CanSino Biologics all insert the spike into weakened common-cold viruses; Novavax’s vaccine attaches the proteins to microscopic particles that are used as carriers; Moderna and Pfizer’s candidates encode the spike into their mRNA. It’s a good bet. What’s needed to make enough doses for these trials depends on the type of vaccine. For Medicago’s plant-based candidate, there must be well-stocked greenhouses and a dunking tank. Making a successful vaccine is one challenge. Making enough of it to satisfy world demand is another.

Though it can feel like this virus has been with us for roughly eight centuries, it’s not yet been 12 months. In that time, a few hundred vaccine candidates have been created, dozens have entered human trials, and pretty much every promising new technology has been pressed into action. “The speed is not from sacrificing safety,” the WHO’s Crowcroft says. “It’s sacrificing money.” That still won’t buy an end to this pandemic as quickly as we’d like: there’s much mask-wearing and social distancing and staying home ahead. But the average new vaccine takes about a decade to make it to market. The fastest ever to make it to market, for mumps, arrived in four years. We’re virtually guaranteed to shatter that record for COVID-19—one more unprecedented event in an age already full of them.

4. Covid-19 is rewriting the rules of corporate governance [Source: HBR

The current pandemic has change many things in our lives, and most importantly, the way we work. Companies are also adapting to newer working models for the employees. This article suggests five ways a company board’s job is likely to change in the post-Covid era. As boards go through their annual self-assessment process, they will want to review their capabilities and readiness in each of these areas. 1) More Structured Attention to Stakeholders: In the life of a company, there are times when employee interests must come first, times when customer interests should take priority, times when public need is paramount, and times when the interests of shareholders should be the prime concern. As reactions to Covid-19 showed, much depends on the nature of the interests at issue and the circumstances of the company. 2) More Attention to How Business and Society Intersect: Like market forces, societal forces can profoundly affect the business and competitive environment. Post-crisis, boards will want to work with company’s leaders to ensure the company’s risk management and oversight systems encompass the risks arising from large-scale societal problems. In the wake of Covid-19, boards can expect institutional investors, governments, and general public to renew their calls for companies to pay more attention to societal problems. 3) More Comprehensive Approach to Compensation: Pandemic has laid bare glaring disparities in pay across society and within companies. “Essential” workers not only bore the brunt of potential exposure to Covid-19, but they also tended to be the least well paid and the most vulnerable to health and financial risk. As the social and economic context continues to evolve, compensation committees will want to broaden their mandate beyond executive pay to include oversight over compensation policies across the organization. 4) More Deliberative Decision-Making: The pandemic has amplified the importance of judgment and, correspondingly, increased the amount of time that boards are spending in deliberative discussions exploring different options and weighing competing considerations and perspectives. Covid-19 has raised the bar on deliberation and judgment in the boardroom, but the underlying factors driving this development will most certainly outlive the pandemic. 5) More Attention to Board Composition and Director Race and Ethnicity: A board’s role is to provide strategic guidance and oversight, and directors must bring the appropriate skills to address a company’s specific business needs and circumstances. The pandemic and the national awakening to racial inequities in all walks of life have made it abundantly clear that a diversity of experience and perspective in the boardroom is also crucial for boards to do their job.

5. Howard Marks: Coming into focus [Source: Oaktree Capital

In this memo, Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital builds upon his last memo and digs deeper into a few topics. He says that since his last memo not much has changed in the economy or markets. The toll from Covid-19 continues to rise, the economic outlook is largely the same, vaccines remain some time off, and the S&P 500 is back to where it was in August. So he has spent a lot of time thinking. He believes that this down-cycle cannot be fully cured merely through the application of economic stimulus. The root cause needs to be repaired, and that means the disease has to be brought under control.

An effective vaccine will do this, in time, but healthy behavior will be required in the meantime. But even if the disease is controlled, it can’t reverse the damage that it has already done. The economic recovery that everyone’s counting on is not an independent event, unaffected by developments. Rather, it is highly dependent on progress against the disease, but also on the continuation of fiscal expenditures in the interim. Mr. Marks also further talks about the power of interest rates, and changes in the composition of the stock market.

He also talks about inequality in our society and how the pandemic has worsened it. He writes that people further down the economic ladder have had less in terms of financial resources to fall back on during the lockdown, and they generally haven’t benefitted from the increase in asset prices that’s been driven by the reduction of interest rates. Also, low income workers have been more likely to lose their jobs due to the lockdown and recession. He signs off by giving some suggestions for the investors: 1) Invest as you always have and expect your historic returns. 2) Invest as you always have and settle for today’s low returns.

6. The US-China war for tech supremacy is splitting the world in two [Source: foundingfuel.com

China has always been the “the factory of the world”. The only think that it lacked was the technology. But, now that has changed. Chinese dominance in the AI-based applications has already made it a technology powerhouse. Beijing's technological capabilities are no more based on the imitation of Western technological products. Today, the Sino-US ‘techonomic’ war is mostly seen as a race for dominance in AI. Today, the US and China are vying for tech supremacy by installing billions of devices connected to the internet—collecting and disseminating. The internet of things (IoT) architecture is seen as a strategically critical node within the framework of weaponized interdependence.

The recent boundary dispute has led to India banning 59 apps, including TikTok and PUBG. In the post-Covid world, there is a new wave of nationalism across all levels, from individuals to governments. The downward spiral in India-China ties has led to the US tech firms suddenly showing more than a keen interest in occupying the space vacated by the Chinese tech firms. The swiftness with which the US tech giants have shown interest in India bears ample evidence that India is already a significant sphere of influence. US tech giants like Google and Facebook are more than keen to occupy the space vacated by their Chinese counterparts.

Under the current leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has announced to the world that its model of governance is a possible alternative to the Western governance models. Despite having an authoritarian streak, it has been able to project the party's power to respond to people’s problems. The apparent success of China in controlling the spread of the coronavirus by smartly using its IoT and AI has coincided with the glaring failures and vulnerabilities of the Western systems to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Policymakers in different parts of the world are likely to be enamoured and possibly willing to emulate China. Many countries would find China's technology-related exports too challenging to resist, given the reliability of quality and affordability to pay for the products and services.

7. A poker champion says negative thinking can actually fuel success when it comes to decision-making [Source: Business Insider]

This article talks about Annie Duke’s recent book, “How to Decide: Simple tools for making better choices.” An explicit part of the positive-thinking literature is that imagining success will cause (or help) you to succeed. You need a tool that harnesses the power of negative thinking to help you imagine the ways you might fail to achieve your goals in order to address those obstacles before you encounter them. A post-mortem is such a tool. We usually conduct post-mortems, examining the patient after they have died to figure out why, or, in the business sense, trying to figure out why a decision failed after the fact. Of course, by then it’s too late to prevent the failure.

Wouldn't it be better to examine the patient before they've died? Pre-mortems allow you to do just that. Research suggests that this fresh perspective helps identify 30% more obstacles that might lie in your path, allowing you to more successfully navigate your way to your goals. There are three main strategies that will help you prepare for and address those points of failure once you know they might between you and your goals. 1) Identify choices and behaviors that will stymie your plans, then figure out ways to discourage making those losing decisions. 2) Avoid emotional reactions to negative developments. 3) Identify hedges: A hedge is something that you can pay for that mitigates the cost of encountering a potential obstacle.

Annie Duke doesn’t recommend Darth Vader's leadership style of force-choking your employees, because that’s going to get a lot of HR complaints. But as he rightly pointed out, imaging failure is actually the road to success. Be more like Darth Vader and less like Norman Vincent Peale. Whatever downsides were there to Darth Vader’s leadership style, when it came to negative thinking he actually had it right.

8. Major’s Squad: The game of alliances in a possible India-China conflict [Source: swarajyamag.com

What will happen if a war breaks out in between India and China? Which are the countries that will take India’s side, and which others won’t? Major’s Squad is a veteran-led team of defence enthusiasts who get together regularly to discuss recent defence and geopolitical issues. This article gives a snapshot of their discussions. The major started the meeting by saying, “We will cover an interesting topic today. With India-China standoff showing no signs of deescalating, we need to move ahead from the tactics and look at a more strategic picture. Past few months, there has been lot of international comments and commitments, both in favour of and even against India. Let us review who all are our friends and who are not, should India and China decide to go to war….”

From China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) to its close ally, Pakistan, and the Middle East countries, they talk about all and what they can bring to the table if a war-like situation arises. They also talk about Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Major said: “All in all, the answer for India to deal with many of its neighbours ironically enough, starts by India looking within, and kickstarting its own economy to a higher rung. A richer more prosperous India can share its economic largesse via both public and private investment nearby, whilst also upgrading its military capability to the point more of its neighbours consider it their primary secondary guarantor.”

Finally, Soni Sangwan said: “I guess one can say that things happen very fast once the ball is dropped. I hope Indian Diplomacy is working full time to ensure that we have favorable winds and a steady sail if it ever comes to conflict. Everyone needs friends and India and China are no exception. Also, Manik I’m very impressed by your team. They have such great understanding of defence and geopolitics at such a young age.”

9. How not to deal with murder in space [Source: slate.com

What happens when a murder is committed in a no man’s land? A 33-year-old Mario Escamilla, working on T-3, also known as Fletcher’s ice island, shot his colleague for stealing his jug of raisin wine. He had no idea he was about to get tangled up in one of the knottiest homicides in history—a killing that also raises serious questions about how humankind should handle the first, inevitable murder in outer space.

T-3 was technically run by the U.S. Air Force, but Escamilla was a civilian, so they couldn’t court-martial him. The nearest land mass was Canada, but T-3 lay well outside Canada’s territorial waters, so it had no jurisdiction there. Perhaps the United States could have claimed the ice island—similar to the many uninhabited “Guano Islands” full of rich, natural fertilizer that the U.S. government seized during the 1800s. But unlike the Guano Islands, T-3 was temporary—it would melt away in the 1980s—so under international law, no nation could claim it.

The trial presented all sorts of legal issues. First, there was the question of whether the government even had the right to try Escamilla, given T-3’s legal limbo. Second, there was the question of venue. Technically, the marshals and Escamilla had landed in Greenland first on the trip back home, so according to international law, he should have been tried there. The U.S. government simply ignored this. Federal prosecutors also attempted to charge Escamilla under special maritime law for crimes committed on vessels, despite the fact that T-3 wasn’t a “vessel” in any real sense. This story can make for a perfect Hollywood script.

10. Is your chart a detective story? Or a police report? [Source: wired.com

Charts are crucial way of putting data in a form that’s easy to understand. When we see a new and revelatory graph, we want to take it apart and see how it works. Data are the facts. Models are the characters whose perspectives and assumptions shape what we take away from the story. At the simplest level, the choice of how to visualize data structures the viewer’s experience of those data by promoting certain comparisons over others. It’s a character choice, a choice of model.

Much has been written about how different forms of narrative involve the reader in different ways, from the relatively passive engagement of viewers of a film, to the more active involvement of those following a serial television drama, to the experience of people reading novels who must in a sense create entire movies in their heads. Data visualizations can fall in different places along this continuum. The stories told by some are so strong and clear that they require little from the viewer. Others are far more demanding. One could draw an analogy to works of art that are more or less accessible to the audience—but with the difference that hard-to-follow art is often intentionally ambiguous, whereas challenging visualizations are meant to be understood. In that sense, visualizations are more like video games than art or music.

The most effective graphs both anticipate and shape expectations. Regardless of how complicated the graph, the same general principle holds. We make graphs for two reasons: to learn the unexpected (“exploratory data analysis,” in statistics jargon) and to communicate findings to others. The viewing, and hence the construction, of any graph is enhanced by an understanding of the comparison that it represents. As scientists, we can make better graphs if we go beyond the idea of “displaying data” to consider the model we’d like to present, including the reference to which we want the data to be implicitly compared. As consumers of scientific information, we can better read an infographic by being aware that its function is to tell a story through comparisons, which unfold through our own active participation.

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