Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Productivity (From John Steinbeck to Maya Angelou all swore by this weird productivity trick), Investing (Guy Fieri Theory of Investing in the Internet Age; Don't call bitcoin a bubble), Technology (Facebook is a doomsday machine?), Management (Engineering a culture of psychological safety) and Covid (Meet the group giving virus-origin theories a DRASTIC reality check

Published: Jun 19, 2021 09:00:00 AM IST
Updated: Jun 18, 2021 07:09:39 PM IST

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: Productivity (From John Steinbeck to Maya Angelou all swore by this weird productivity trick), Investing (Guy Fieri Theory of Investing in the Internet Age; Don’t call bitcoin a bubble), Technology (Facebook is a doomsday machine?), Management (Engineering a culture of psychological safety) and Covid (Meet the group giving virus-origin theories a DRASTIC reality check).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended June 19, 2021.

1) Famous writers from John Steinbeck to Maya Angelou all swore by this weird productivity trick. You should steal it [Source: inc.com]

Many feel that work from home has reduced their productivity, or they struggle to strike a balance between work and leisure/family time. This article throws light on Georgetown professor Carl Newport’s idea of “work from near home” than “work from work”. The idea of a third space that's neither the office nor the home isn't novel, Mr. Newport acknowledges, but thanks to the pandemic, it's a productivity hack that's time has finally come. "If an organization plans to allow remote work, the extra cost to subsidize the ability of workers to escape household distraction will be more than recouped in both the increased quality of work produced and the improved happiness of the employees, leading to less burnout and reduced churn," Newport chides bosses.

The article highlights how some famous writers loved writing in some weird places. John Steinbeck preferred to write at an unstable little desk on his fishing boat. Another giant of American letters, Maya Angelou, liked to rent out hotel rooms and write perched on the bed. Peter Benchley, who wrote Jaws, penned the thriller from the clanging back room of a furnace factory. Even if your manager isn't forward-thinking enough to support your efforts to find your own productivity hideaway, you don't need his or her approval to steal the idea from some of America's most cherished writers. A garden shed, a friend's spare room, or your local park's picnic area could be all you need to radically increase your work-from-home productivity.

2) The Guy Fieri Theory of Investing in the Internet Age [Source: A Wealth of Common Sense 

Ben Carlsen makes an interesting analogy between popular culture and investing in this blog. He explains how Guy Fieri went from popular food network host to a mockery to someone the hipsters liked in an ironic way to the most popular celebrity chef on the planet. He recently signed a new 3-year, $80 million contract that pays him more than many professional athletes. In the internet age, people don’t really know what they truly like or why they like it because our opinions are being shaped by a firehose of information, viral videos, new stories, influencers and social media posts.

Gamestop started a revolution for like 3 days and almost took down a giant hedge fund in the process. Yet the chart looks like any of the historic bubbles of the past. The stock was trading for around $6 a share at the outset of 2020, ran up to nearly $350 a share in the meme stock madness and then proceeded to crash almost 90%. Much like every character that dies in a Marvel superhero movie, Gamestop keeps coming back from the dead. After dropping 89%, it rose more than 500%. The stock then fell another 55% only to double from those levels in recent weeks. It remains up well over 1000% in 2021. It’s not just Gamestop. Same is with Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency. It seems weird markets are the new normal.

3) Don't call bitcoin a bubble. It's an epidemic [Source: Bloomberg

In this article, John Authers, senior editor for markets at Bloomberg, talks about Robert Shiller’s latest book, Narrative Economics. Mr. Shiller dislikes the concept of a “bubble” and would prefer something else. The word bubble swiftly attached itself to the scandal of the South Sea Bubble in early 18th century England, and its twin the Mississippi Bubble in France. When asked whether the stock market today is in a bubble, Mr. Shiller says, “The term bubble, or “boule” in French, appears to have suddenly appeared in 1720 -- it was called the Mississippi event. Speculating on Mississippi became a name for the first really big stock market crash, 75 years before the New York Stock Exchange was founded. Somebody called it “boule” and it has persisted to this day.”

Mr. Shiller feels that it suggests something that is factually wrong, which is that they end in a crash, a one-day event, but that’s not historically accurate. “So I wish we could have another name for a bubble, maybe call it a fad, fads can come back again in a different form”, Mr. Shiller suggests. The word “bubble” implies a phenomenon supported by nothing but air that can only burst. That’s a fitting description for a Ponzi scheme, or any deliberate fraud. The analogy of a fad, or of a virus that finds a way to mutate, is a better one than a bubble. There is a burgeoning literature in defending bubbles as a by-product of healthy excitement over investing in new technologies — but it’s impossible to support a true “bubble” like the South Sea Bubble or tulipmania. Defending investment fads or epidemics makes far more sense.

4) Facebook is a doomsday machine [Source: The Atlantic

Social media has become an important part of our lives. The author of this article says that today’s social networks, Facebook chief among them, were built to encourage the things that make them so harmful. It is in their very architecture. She also says that Facebook is not a media company, but a Doomsday Machine. In recent years, as Facebook’s mistakes have compounded and its reputation has tanked, it has become clear that negligence is only part of the problem. No one, not even Mark Zuckerberg, can control the product he made.

The author writes, “Facebook—along with Google and YouTube—is perfect for amplifying and spreading disinformation at lightning speed to global audiences. Facebook is an agent of government propaganda, targeted harassment, terrorist recruitment, emotional manipulation, and genocide—a world-historic weapon that lives not underground, but in a Disneyland-inspired campus in Menlo Park, California.” We may not be able to predict the future, but we do know how it is made: through flashes of rare and genuine invention, sustained by people’s time and attention. Right now, too many people are allowing algorithms and tech giants to manipulate them, and reality is slipping from our grasp as a result. This century’s Doomsday Machine is here, and humming along.

5) What comes after Zoom? [Source: ben-evans.com

We are all social animals, but the pandemic has changed everything. Now, suddenly, we’re all locked down, and we’re all on video calls all the time, doing team stand-ups, play dates and family birthday parties, and suddenly Zoom is a big deal. At some point many of those meetings will turn back into coffees, but video will remain. The author feels there will continue to be hard engineering, but video itself will be a commodity and the question will be how you wrap it.

When Snapchat launched, there were already infinite ways to share images, but Snap asked a bunch of weird questions that no-one had really asked before. Why do you have to press the camera button - why doesn’t the app open in the camera? Why are you saving your messages - isn’t that like saving all your phone calls? Fundamentally, Snap asked ‘why, exactly, are you sending a picture? What is the underlying social purpose?’ You’re not really sending someone a sheet of pixels - you’re communicating. That’s the question Zoom and all its competitors haven’t really asked. Zoom has done a good job of asking why it was hard to get into a call, but it hasn’t asked why you’re in the call in the first place. Why, exactly, are you sending someone a video stream and watching another one?

6) Happy is a relative state [Source: longreads.com]

This excerpt from Renée K. Nicholson’s Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness highlights about the life’s joy and miseries. It is a memoir about ballet and illness from a creative writing teacher whose career as a ballerina was stopped by rheumatoid arthritis. When, inevitably, Nicholson moved on from dancing, severed from her first love by illness, she discovered that she retained the lyricism and narrative of ballet itself as she negotiated life with rheumatoid arthritis.

About her life, she writes, “Today I am sick, and tomorrow I will be sick, as I will be every day until I die. I may not like it, but that’s how it is. The rest of my life will always be entwined with rheumatoid arthritis. But it’s my choice to also be something more, to not feel sick, to still find those shadows of a dancer, which is to say tiny flecks of magic, within me. Like anyone who is hopelessly in love, I will always be the keeper of a flame. I’ve never regained full mobility with my prosthetic knee, but I’m able to do things now I thought I might never do again. Take the good with bad, the saying goes, or is it the other way around? The ending isn’t simply happy or sad. It isn’t really an ending.”

7) The face of a viral war: tracking the economics of masks, from shortage to mass accessory [Source: Economic Times]

“Wear a mask” has been the norm since March 2020. The phrase has been used countless times all over the world to encourage the use of masks to prevent and control the spread of the disease. It is one of those simple interventions that can be the most effective and make a significant impact. In India, the use of masks has been mandated since the pandemic broke out, but even more than a year later, half of the country’s population doesn’t wear one. But still the mask industry has flourished in the last one year. From shortage and panic purchasing during the early phase of the pandemic, mask manufacturing in the country has taken off on the back of awareness and a surge in demand.

When the pandemic first struck, there were only four main companies making N95 masks and the government had banned exports. Now, there are more than 200 manufacturers in the category. It’s the same with PPE kits. Masks are here to stay, at least for the next couple of years. However, demand may vary from time to time depending on the Covid-19 cases in the country. After the first wave in India last year, demand had dropped significantly, and companies were sitting with high inventories and idle capacities. But demand surged again during the second wave. Such volatility is likely to continue. Meanwhile, from a public-health perspective, a silver lining is that there is a higher level of acceptance among the public when it comes to wearing masks. If this habit continues, it can not only help control the spread of Covid-19 but also keep other respiratory ailments caused by pollution at bay in the longer run.

8) The dark, democratizing power of the social-media stock market [Source: The New Yorker

What if Elon Musk was a cryptocurrency? How much would you pay for one coin? In early March, about fifty investors received links to an anonymously created, password-protected Web site. On the site was a seven-page white paper, which opened with the question “What Is BitClout?” BitClout, the paper explained, is a social network that runs on blockchain technology, allowing users to “speculate on people and posts with real money.” Every user is given a public price, which is the amount of money that it costs to buy his or her “creator coin.” Purchasing a creator coin is a way to invest in someone’s reputation. If Elon Musk launches a rocket to Mars, his value should go up. If he uses a racial slur during a press conference, then, as the paper explained, “his coin price should theoretically go down.”

Within weeks, users were spending millions of dollars a day on the platform. BitClout’s founders were completely unprepared. BitClout hadn’t been listed on any cryptocurrency exchanges—once you converted your dollars to bitclout, you couldn’t get them out. The founders were faced with a choice: pull the plug, or let it ride. They chose to keep the platform up. Cryptocurrencies like bitclout aim to make investing more equitable. But they all tend to suffer from the same problem: the possibility of financial disaster, without any guardrails. The exchanges that BitClout most resembles—the stock market, gambling—are highly regulated; BitClout is not. It’s volatile, untested, and difficult to understand.

 9) Engineering a culture of psychological safety [Source: Inside Intercom 

We need to be thoughtful about how we balance work people love, with work the company needs to get done. Good managers are proactive about moving on an engineer who is a poor fit for their team’s workload. Great managers expand their team’s remit to make better use of the engineers they have, so they feel their skills and talents are valued. So how to build psychological safety into your own team? Few pointers to work on are:

1) Make respect part of your team’s culture: It’s hard to give 100% if you spend mental energy pretending to be someone else. We need to make sure people can be themselves by ensuring we say something when we witness disrespect.

2) Make space for people to take chances: Creating an expectation that everyone on the team should think outside the box, and ensuring that the whole team can go off-piste at the same time, is a powerful message.

3) Make it obvious when your team is doing well: The author writes, “I love how my team writes goals on Post-It notes at our daily standups and weekly goal meetings. These visible marks of success can be cheered as they are moved to the “done” pile.” 4) Make your communication clear, and your expectations explicit: When discussing an employee’s own fallibility, they need to feel safe to share all relevant information, with the understanding that they will be judged not on how they fail, but how their handling of failures improved the team learning, their product and the organization as a whole. 5) Make your team feel safe: Treat psychological safety as a key business metric, as important as revenue, cost of sales or uptime. This will feed into your team’s effectiveness, productivity and staff retention and any other business metric you value. 

10) Blame it on bats or a lab leak? Meet the group giving virus-origin theories a DRASTIC reality check. [Source: Economic Times

Finding the origins of the coronavirus is important to prevent a repeat of it. Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating Covid-19 (DRASTIC), a collective of researchers, has pieced together some telltale information and data on the issue. They have foraged through historic records and data to piece together telltale information on the topic. Last January, when the first official versions of the origins of the coronavirus surfaced in China, scientists lost no time to toe the conventional line, linking the outbreak to a natural occurrence. But as the episode unfolded, it turned out that their conclusion was based on flawed assumptions, lacked rigorous studies, and had an angle of shrewd deception.

At a larger level, researchers are trying hard to push WHO to revisit its findings. The revelations in the coming months can put embarrassing question marks on the credibility of highly ranked public-health officials, WHO, and researchers who had downright dismissed the lab-leak hypothesis. If found true, another flashpoint in the frosty relations of the US and China may further hobble the global economy. The chilling drama on the origins of the virus is being watched closely.


Click here to see Forbes India's comprehensive coverage on the Covid-19 situation and its impact on life, business and the economy​

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