W Power 2024

Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to 'Aging and muscle loss', 'Issues around African urbanization' and 'how to date someone out of your league'

Prashant Mittal
Published: Sep 16, 2018 06:07:00 AM IST
Updated: Sep 14, 2018 06:11:58 PM IST

Image: Logvinyuk Yuliia / Shutterstock
At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, including investment analysis, psychology, science, technology, philosophy, etc. We have been sharing our favourite reads with clients under our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week’s iteration are related to ‘Aging and muscle loss’, ‘Issues around African urbanization’ and ‘how to date someone out of your league’.
Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended September 14, 2018.

1) Trade wars: China fears an emerging united front [Source: Financial Times ]
As another fruitless round of China-US talks to avert a trade war wrapped up in Washington on August 23, foreign officials were arriving in the US capital for a potentially far more consequential meeting the next day. The occasion was an unusual trilateral forum that brings together trade officials from the US, EU and Japan. Their mission: to combat the allegedly unfair trading practices by unspecified “third countries”. The trilateral gathering represents a potentially critical shift in the confrontation between Washington and Beijing. President Donald Trump has threatened to tax all Chinese exports to the US — worth more than $500bn last year — within months. But what really keeps them up at night, according to the author, is a potential coordinated assault by the Trump administration, EU and Japan on their unique model of Chinese “state capitalism” that has been integral to the country’s economic success over the past 40 years.

In recent months, the EU and Japan have joined forces with the US in WTO complaints against “forced technology transfers” in China through mandatory joint venture structures with local partners. After a period when Mr. Trump picked trade fights with any number of countries, Beijing worries that he has stumbled on to a more effective trade strategy that involves isolating China. However, many are sceptical that the US president will succeed in training his fire on China alone. “For that to happen, Trump would have to behave in a very different way,” says one senior European banker. “The Europeans don’t trust him — and they shouldn’t.” His recent threat to leave the WTO, the banker notes, is an example of the kind of erratic behaviour that could rupture any alliance with the EU and Japan, which prefer to work through the multilateral trading body. Mr. Trump’s frenetic summer trade talks with the EU, China, Mexico and Canada have nonetheless added to the pressures building on President Xi Jinping.

Whether the Chinese leadership is ultimately confronted by the US alone, or by the US, EU and Japan, is important for Beijing, especially as it continues a campaign against risky financial practices that have slowed investment and economic growth. Yet the Chinese have also begun to conclude that there is much more to Mr. Trump’s trade threats than empty bluster. An increasing number of officials and analysts in Beijing see the escalating trade war as just the leading edge of a larger effort by the US to “contain” China. “The risk of China and the US sliding into a new cold war is increasing,” says Tu Xinquan, a professor at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics. “It will be a nightmare for China, the US and the world.” “In the wake of the US defining China as a ‘strategic competitor’, Sino-US relations will undergo a profound readjustment,” Long Guoqiang, vice-president of the State Council’s Development Research Centre, wrote in an August 29 article in the People’s Daily. “In the past, the Soviet Union and Japan were hampered by the US. With the rapid development of China’s economy and comprehensive national strength, the US has fully turned its attention on China.”

Even people who are critical of China’s trade and economic policies agree that such official interpretations of Mr. Trump’s ultimate goal are probably correct. They say the only trade deal he would accept from China is one Mr. Xi could not possibly offer, because it would include concessions on how the party manages everything from industrial policy to state-owned enterprises and the renminbi. Others argue that Mr. Trump’s ideal outcome is in fact no deal at all, so he can implement long-term tariffs on all Chinese exports to the US in a bid to bring about a radical overhaul of global supply chains. In one indication that this strategy may be working, on August 31 Ford announced that it was cancelling plans to export China-made Focus vehicles to the US from next year. The vehicles would have been subject to a 25% tariff on Chinese car exports imposed by the Trump administration in August. Great Wall, China’s most successful domestic SUV manufacturer, is also reassessing its plans to export to the US.

2) Preventing muscle loss as we age [Source: NY Times ]
Many people past 50, have a condition called Sarcopenia — a decline in skeletal muscle with age. It begins as early as age 40 and, without intervention, gets increasingly worse, with as much as half of muscle mass lost by age 70. “Sarcopenia can be considered for muscle what osteoporosis is to bone,” Dr. John E. Morley, geriatrician at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, wrote in the journal Family Practice. He pointed out that up to 13% of people in their 60s and as many as half of those in their 80s have Sarcopenia. As Dr. Jeremy D. Walston, geriatrician at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, put it, “Sarcopenia is one of the most important causes of functional decline and loss of independence in older adults.” Yet few practicing physicians alert their older patients to this condition and tell them how to slow or reverse what is otherwise an inevitable decline that can seriously impair their physical and emotional well-being and ability to carry out the tasks of daily life. Sarcopenia is also associated with a number of chronic diseases, increasingly worse insulin resistance, fatigue, falls and, alas, death.

A decline in physical activity, common among older people, is only one reason why sarcopenia happens. Other contributing factors include hormonal changes, chronic illness, body-wide inflammation and poor nutrition. In 1988, Walter R. Frontera and colleagues at the Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University demonstrated that 12 previously sedentary men aged 60 to 72 significantly increased their leg strength and muscle mass with a 12-week strength-training program three times a week. Two years later in JAMA, Dr. Maria A. Fiatarone and colleagues at the Tufts research center reported that eight weeks of “high-intensity resistance training” significantly enhanced the physical abilities of nine frail nursing home residents aged 90 and older. Strength gains averaged 174%, mid-thigh muscle mass increased 9% and walking speed improved 48%. Proper technique is critical to getting the desired results without incurring an injury. It’s very important to start at the appropriate level of resistance. Strength-training will not only make you stronger, it may also enhance bone density.

The fact that you may regularly run, walk, play tennis or ride a bike is not adequate to prevent an incremental loss of muscle mass and strength even in the muscles you’re using as well as those not adequately stressed by your usual activity. Strengthening all your skeletal muscles, not just the neglected ones, just may keep you from landing in the emergency room or nursing home after a fall. Dr. Morley, among others, points out that adding and maintaining muscle mass also requires adequate nutrients, especially protein, the main constituent of healthy muscle tissue. Protein needs are based on a person’s ideal body weight, so if you’re overweight or underweight, subtract or add pounds to determine how much protein you should eat each day. To enhance muscle mass, Dr. Morley said that older people, who absorb protein less effectively, require at least 0.54 grams of protein per pound of ideal body weight, an amount well above what older people typically consume.

“Protein acts synergistically with exercise to increase muscle mass,” Dr. Morley wrote, adding that protein foods naturally rich in the amino acid leucine — milk, cheese, beef, tuna, chicken, peanuts, soybeans and eggs — are most effective. To help doctors screen patients for serious muscle loss, Dr. John E. Morley and Theodore K. Malmstrom devised a simple questionnaire that anyone can use. It asks how difficult it is for you to lift and carry 10 pounds, walk across a room, transfer from a chair or bed or climb a flight of 10 stairs. It also asks how often you have fallen in the past year. The more challenging these tasks and more often you’ve fallen, the more likely you have sarcopenia.

3) African cities surge to top of global growth league [Source: Financial Times ]
In the capital city of Mali, Bamako, land prices have gone up almost 25 times in a span of just a decade. Such a surge signifies how almost unnoticed, Africa has become the world’s most rapidly urbanizing continent. From 2018 to 2035, the UN predicts that the world’s 10 fastest growing cities will be African. In semi-rural neighbourhoods of Bamako, shacks built by people recently arrived from the countryside jostle with houses being constructed by Bamakois who are snapping up cheaper plots of land on the city edge. However, as Bamako has grown exponentially it poses huge logistical problems for the cash-starved authorities that are replicated across the continent. According to a World Bank study, 472m people in sub-Saharan Africa live in cities. High birth rates and migration from the countryside mean that by 2040, Africa’s urban population will more than double to 1bn, it says, a rate that far outpaces urbanization elsewhere in the world.

Some of Africa’s megacities, including Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital of 21m people, and Kinshasa, the chaotic capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, are sucking in hundreds of thousands of new people each year. Smaller cities, such as Yaounde in Cameroon, are growing almost as fast. Urbanization is what helped ignite the “Africa rising” narrative promoted by the likes of McKinsey, a consultancy, whose 2016 Lions on the Move II report highlighted cities as an engine of productivity. From 2015 to 2045, McKinsey found, 24m more Africans would be living in cities each year, compared to 11m in India and 9m in China. “Urbanization has a strong correlation with the rate of real GDP growth,” it said, adding that “productivity in cities is more than double that in the countryside”. But managing urban growth, with its associated problems of service provision, housing, crime and congestion, has become one of the biggest policy challenges on the continent.

“For me this is a catastrophe foretold,” says Issa N’Diaye, a professor of philosophy at the University of Bamako, of his city’s untrammelled growth. “Bamako is a time-bomb.” Bamako, he says, and by implication many other cities in Africa, lacks the resources and institutional capacity to cope with explosive growth. There is not even a proper land registry, he says, meaning multiple claims on the same plot can be tied up in court for years. Skyrocketing land prices have led to rampant corruption, Mr. N’Diaye says, alleging that land allocated for schools in his own neighbourhood has been sold off by unscrupulous officials. Rapid urban expansion has also left people bereft of services, he says. “There’s been no planning whatsoever of the road system, water drainage, electricity or urban transport. The city is becoming more and more unlivable.”

Somik Lall, the World Bank’s lead economist for urban development in Africa, says the continent’s urbanization is running ahead of its income. Africa, he says, is 40% urban with a per capita gross domestic product of roughly $1,100. By the time Asia reached 40% urbanization, its GDP per capita was $3,500, he says.

4) Moving HBO to a Netflix strategy will be a terrible mistake [Source: Medium ]
In this piece, the author, Scott Galloway, explains why running after quantity rather than quality would be a terrible mistake for HBO. Consumers are busy, and the fastest way to digest and process information is the optimal method for any processor: binary. Most consumer sectors are bifurcating into a mass offering where you are the product (ad supported) or a niche, quality offering where you pay vs. having you or your data rented out. You can get a great deal at a fairly nice resort in Cabo for $100 a night if you endure a two-hour tour of their time-share units, or you can pay $685 a night at Las Ventanas. This is happening everywhere. iPhones only command 18% of the market, but garner 87% of the profits, as Android dominates market share and uses that data to support Alphabet’s supernova business model — digital marketing. HBO has been garnering not only awards but billions in EBITDA every year despite spending less on original content. How have they done this?

Time Warner/HBO and Disney are the only firms over the last several decades that have developed a process for pulling off the impossible — scaling creativity. Lucasfilm couldn’t do it. Condé Nast hasn’t been able to do it; they’re consolidating. The process at HBO attracted and retained the not-so-secret sauce in media — A-list talent. AT&T may have the correct strategy, but John Stankey, the new head of Warner Entertainment, is taking unnecessary, even reckless risks with a unique process/culture. And it’s a process that’s a moat wide enough to protect Westeros. Amazon is the second-largest spender on original content, and they have nothing to match Girls, much less Game of Thrones. Amazon appears to be able to roll over anybody with cheap capital, except HBO.

According to Mr. Galloway, Mr. Stankey’s approach feels like the strategy of the CTO of DirecTV who is suddenly charged with overseeing one of the most creative communities ever assembled. When your firm is acquired, the fear is somebody shows up and provides rational reasons for actions that will ultimately kill what’s unique and special about the asset they acquired. Trying to transform HBO from Emirates to United will produce Spirit Airlines. The author says that Mr. Stankey cemented his budding reputation as the Prince of Tone Deaf when he used the following analogy to describe the coming year to HBO employees: “You will work very hard, and this next year will — my wife hates it when I say this — feel like childbirth,” he said. “You’ll look back on it and be very fond of it, but it’s not going to feel great while you’re in the middle of it.” If the massive and freakishly strong hands of AT&T crush the skull of HBO, a community even smaller than HBO viewers will be the champion — AT&T shareholders.

5) How the marvel of electric light became a global blight to health [Source: Aeon ]
According to this piece, Light pollution is often characterized as a soft issue in environmentalism. This perception needs to change. Light at night constitutes a massive assault on the ecology of the planet, including us. It also has indirect impacts because, while 20% of electricity is used for lighting worldwide, at least 30% of that light is wasted. Wasted light serves no purpose at all, and excessive lighting is too often used beyond what is needed for driving, or shopping, or Friday-night football. The electric light bulb is touted as one of the most significant technological advancements of human beings. But as with any new and spectacular technology, there are invariably unintended consequences. With electric light has come an obliteration of night in much of the modern world; both outside in the city, and indoors during what was once ‘night’ according to the natural position of the Sun.

Life has evolved for several billion years with a reliable cycle of bright light from the Sun during the day, and darkness at night. This has led to the development of an innate circadian rhythm in our physiology; that circadian rhythm depends on the solar cycle of night and day to maintain its precision. During night, beginning at about sunset, body temperature drops, metabolism slows, hunger abates, sleepiness increases, and the hormone melatonin rises dramatically in the blood. This natural physiological transition to night is of ancient origin, and melatonin is crucial for the transition to proceed as it should. We now know that bright, short-wavelength light – blue light – is the most efficient for suppressing melatonin and delaying transition to night-time physiology; meanwhile, dimmer, longer-wavelength light – yellow, orange, and red, from a campfire or a candle, for example – has very little effect. Bright light from the Sun contains blue light, which is a benefit in the morning when we need to be alert and awake; but whether we are outdoors or indoors, when bright, blue light comes after sunset, it fools the body into thinking it’s daytime.

Mr. Richard expressed the first serious concern about the potential health consequences of electric light at night 30 years ago, when he asked whether over-lighting might increase the risk of breast cancer. Lowered levels of melatonin (an effect of over-lighting) had been traced to heightened levels of oestrogen (at least in rodents), a clear breast-cancer risk factor. Later evidence has shown that women who work the night shift are at higher breast-cancer risk. Evidence suggests that circadian disruption from over-lighting the night could be related to risk of obesity and depression as well.

The current ‘lightmare’ traces back to the 1950s, when a road-building frenzy, including construction of the Interstate Highway System, aimed to solve the problem of congestion in the United States. But the roads turned out to increase congestion and pollution, including light pollution, too. In retrospect, the result was preordained: build a bigger freeway, and more people will use it to the point where there is more congestion than before the new road. To understand the phenomenon, economists developed the idea of induced demand – in which the supply of a commodity actually creates demand for it. So the more roads one builds, the more people drive on them, and the more that congestion results. In his book The Conundrum (2012), David Owen eloquently extends the idea of induced demand from larger roadways to the perils of increased efficiency in general. More efficient energy-production and use, without concerted public education on reduction of use, can make the pollution problem worse. He includes the example of energy-efficient, and thereby cheaper to use, light bulbs; as people use more efficient light bulbs, the total energy required to burn them – along with light pollution – increases.

True to Owen’s tenet, a major report published in Science Advances in 2017 showed that from 2012 to 2016 there has been a dramatic increase in both the brightness of the metropolitan areas of the world and the geographic extent of light pollution. This is despite the fact that, since 2012, high-efficiency LED street lighting has been increasingly installed in much of the industrialized world so as to ‘save energy’. But with overuse, it seems to be doing the opposite. The hyper-aggressive marketing of bright, white LED street lighting to cities and towns has advanced to a breathtaking level. The US Department of Energy (DoE) and a group of international partners have launched an effort called ‘Rise and Shine: Lighting the World with 10 Billion LED Bulbs’ in ‘a race to deploy 10 billion high-efficiency, high-quality and affordable lighting fixtures and bulbs (like LEDs) as quickly as possible’. Ten billion is more than the number of people on the planet.

In response to this relentless attack on night, the American Medical Association (AMA) stepped up and adopted an official policy statement in 2016. Mr. Richard was one of the co-authors of the AMA statement, in which his colleagues and he recommended reducing the brightness and blue content of the LED products being deployed by utilities around the country. The reaction from the DoE and the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IES) was swift and highly critical of the AMA’s audacity, asserting that the AMA was not qualified to make any statements on lighting. But this reaction was disingenuous because without the AMA statement, the nationwide retrofit would have continued unabated without regard to the environment or human health. Electric light can be a great benefit to people when used wisely. But there must also be a desire for effective use of electric lighting on the part of government and the public. Different LED products can be marketed that are much friendlier to the environment and our circadian health. This is of paramount importance when lighting the inside of buildings where we live and work. In the life of the planet, destruction of night is as important an issue as the poisoning of water and air.

6) Why English is such a great language for puns [Source: Economist ]
A few days ago, the Economist contained the following headlines: “Rooms for improvement” (in a story about British housing); “Though Mooch is taken, Mooch abides” (on the firing of Anthony Scaramucci); and “LIBOR pains” (on interbank loan rates). The Economist is not alone in its taste for wordplay. The Financial Times routinely sneak subtle jokes into their headlines (July 17th: “Why China’s global shipping ambitions will not easily be contained”) while those at the tabloids indulge themselves more obviously. On the arrest of a famous golfer for drink-driving: “DUI of the Tiger”. These authors are fortunate to work at English-language publications. For English is unusually good for puns. It has a large vocabulary and a rich stock of homophones from which puns can be made. It is constantly evolving, with new words being invented and old ones given fresh meanings. And it is mostly uninflected, allowing for verbs and nouns to switch places.

Newspaper editors get paid to write silly jokes for an audience. But over the past few years a growing band of amateurs has taken up the sport. In New York, a monthly event called Punderdome features jokesters with pseudonyms such as “Punder Enlightening”, “Jargon Slayer” and “Words Nightmare” who compete over the course of four increasingly absurd rounds. Similar competitions exist in Washington, DC, (Beltway Pundits), Milwaukee (Pundamonium), San Francisco (Bay Area Pun-Off) and elsewhere. The annual O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin, Texas, which started in 1978, bills itself as the genre’s World Championship. But who would pay to watch people make puns? That was how Joe Berkowitz, an editor at Fast Company, an American business magazine, reacted when he first discovered Punderdome. He went on to spend a year travelling round America, attending pun-parties and interviewing humour experts and comedy writers. The outcome? “Away With Words”, a faintly anthropological examination of puns and the people who make them. The chief attraction of these competitions, he reports, is that they create a space for something “people feel like they’re not supposed to like and ought not to do.

Puns are widely held in low esteem, a justifiable consideration. They are one of the first forms of humour that children understand and deploy, before they move on to more sophisticated jokes that use language semantically, Vinod Goel, a neuroscientist, tells Mr. Berkowitz. That may account both for the reaction that puns get from listeners—the groan suggesting that the punster ought to know better—but also for their popularity. Many puns are indeed juvenile. They are also easy to understand. Yet puns demand intelligence, creativity and general knowledge: the best draw on cultural references, allude to several things at the same time and are intricately constructed. The Harry Potter series would be less magical without Knockturn Alley and Diagon Alley. Salman Rushdie uses puns without shame.

It is not just the quality of puns that is divisive but also the definition. At Punderdome a pun is simply “a play on words”. The winners are picked by volume of applause. At the O. Henry Pun-Off onstage referees disqualify what they consider subpar wordplay, and a panel of judges holds up scores at the end of each round. Every potential topic is heavily pun-tested by organisers before being deemed fit for play. “I sometimes get embarrassed by how seriously I take this,” says one veteran contestant of both competitions. He is not alone. This reviewer disregards any pun that requires a hyphen (ovicular puns are egg-specially eggs-cruciating) and believes that puns must have a set-up (the more elaborate the better). Throughout “Away With Words” punsters, comedy writers and academics offer their own standards for how to tell a good pun from a bad one. Mr. Berkowitz himself cannot resist the temptation to set a few rules. The four types of bad pun, according to him, are those that suffer from bad timing, are too obvious, have no second meaning or are too earnest.

7) India gay sex court ruling sets stage for cultural battle [Source: Financial Times ]
Within minutes of India’s Supreme Court decriminalizing homosexuality, jubilant LGBT activists and the Hindu nationalists who consider themselves the arbiters of Indian identity — were already squaring up for the next round of their bitter culture war. The contrasting reactions to the landmark Supreme Court verdict reflect the powerful cross-currents playing out in India as a young urbanizing society chafes against traditional social strictures and insists on the right to live in the manner of its choosing. Inter-caste or interfaith marriages are on the rise, often provoking a fierce backlash from their families and communities, and rightwing Hindu political groups. Women are challenging sexual harassment in the workplace, and their right to safely access public spaces. Unapologetic single mothers are taking on dual roles as breadwinners and primary care givers.

“Change is happening at such a rapid pace,” said Parmesh Shahani, head of the Godrej India Culture Lab, a space for dialogue on contemporary Indian society. “Some people are participants in the change, and some people are feeling left out or don’t understand, which is why they cling on to ideas that might be bigoted but give them comfort.” In this clash of ideas, India’s Supreme Court has come down, mostly, on the side of the liberal values of individual rights and personal freedom, enshrined in the country’s progressive constitution. In 2017, a rare nine-judge Supreme Court bench ruled unanimously that the constitution establishes a fundamental right to privacy, creating a zone of personal autonomy, within which the state cannot intrude. That landmark judgment, which paved the way for last week’s decision to decriminalize homosexuality, was considered a major step forward for India and a rebuke to an overbearing state seeking to prescribe how Indians should live.

In ending the 158-year-old, Victorian-era ban on “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” last week, the Supreme Court acknowledged widespread public disapproval of homosexuality, but said that this could not be grounds for depriving the LGBT community of their core constitutional rights. “Fundamental rights do not depend on the outcome of elections,” wrote Justice RF Nariman. “Constitutional morality always trumps any imposition of a particular view of social morality by shifting and different majoritarian regimes.”

While India’s LGBT community is still absorbing the impact of its legal victory, activists say the fight for full equality and acceptance in society, including in corporate settings which have expressed token support for the gay community, is just beginning. Interestingly, Ashis Nandy, a sociologist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said that the anti-gay attitudes of socially conservative groups were not even authentically Indian but rather colonial-era imports from Britain. “Traditionally, there was a much greater degree of acceptance,” he said. “The colonial Raj brought in Victorian values and the Indian middle class began to pick up these things. Even now, the most conservative elements come from the middle class. Villagers are much less bothered about this kind of thing.”

8) How to make a big decision [Source: NY Times ]
Charles Darwin’s journal entry technique has been well-known and widely used. Even if some of Darwin’s values seem dated, the journal entry is remarkable for how familiar it otherwise feels. Almost two centuries later, even as everything else in the world has changed, the pros-versus-cons list remains perhaps the only regularly used technique for adjudicating a complex decision. So, why hasn’t the science of making hard choices evolved? It has, but its insights have been underappreciated. Over the past few decades, a growing multidisciplinary field of research — spanning areas as diverse as cognitive science, management theory and literary studies — has given us a set of tools that we can use to make better choices. When you face a complex decision that requires a long period of deliberation, a decision whose consequences might last for years or even decades, you are no longer limited to Darwin’s simple list.

None of these new tools, of course, provide solutions to the decisions you face. They are prompts, hacks, nudges. They’re intended to help you see the current situation from new perspectives, to imagine new possibilities, to weigh your options with more sophistication. There is no foolproof algorithm for life’s difficult choices. But the research shows that you can get better at making them. One important insight that has emerged from this research is the importance of generating alternatives to any course of action you are considering. In the early 1980s, a business school professor named Paul Nutt set out to catalog real-world decisions. In his initial study, published in 1984, he analyzed 78 decisions made by senior managers at a range of public and private organizations in the United States and Canada: insurance companies, government agencies, hospitals, consulting firms. Professor Nutt found that only 15% of the decisions he studied involved a stage where the decision makers actively sought out a new option beyond the initial choices on the table. In a later study, he found that only 29% of organizational decision makers contemplated more than one alternative.

This turns out to be a bad strategy. Over the years, Professor Nutt and other researchers have demonstrated a strong correlation between the number of alternatives deliberated and the ultimate success of the decision itself. In one of his studies, Professor Nutt found that participants who considered only one alternative ultimately judged their decision a failure more than 50% of the time, while decisions that involved contemplating at least two alternatives were felt to be successes two-thirds of the time. The upshot is clear: If you find yourself mapping a “whether or not” question, looking at a simple fork in the road, you’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question that gives you more available paths.

Another technique that psychologist Gary Klein has developed is called “premortem”. As the name suggests, the approach is a twist on the medical procedure of post-mortem analysis. In a post-mortem, the subject is dead, and the coroner’s job is to figure out the cause of death. In a premortem, the sequence is reversed: “Our exercise,” Dr. Klein explains, “is to ask planners to imagine that it is months into the future and that their plan has been carried out. And it has failed. That is all they know; they have to explain why they think it failed.” In Dr. Klein’s experience, the premortem has proved to be a much more effective way to tease out the potential flaws in a decision. A whole range of bad cognitive habits — from groupthink to confirmation bias — tends to blind us to the potential pitfalls of a decision once we have committed to it. It isn’t enough to simply ask yourself, “Are there any flaws here in this plan that I’m missing?” By forcing yourself to imagine scenarios where the decision turned out to be a disastrous one, you can think your way around those blind spots and that false sense of confidence.

The ultimate limitation of the pros and cons list is that we are merely transcribing our existing understanding of the decision at hand and not seeing it with fresh eyes. “One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination,” the economist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling once observed, “is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” And yet hard choices require us to make those kinds of imaginative leaps: to discover new paths and outcomes that had not been visible to us when we first started wrestling with the decision. It is the nature of complex decisions that they are all unique constellations of variables. These new tools simply help us see each constellation more clearly, from fresh angles.

9) How to date someone out of your league [Source: MIT ]
One curious observation about human partnerships is that mates tend to match in terms of age, education, attitudes, and even physical attractiveness. Sociologists and evolutionary biologists have long argued about how this happens, with theories falling into two camps: 1) Matching hypothesis: This is the idea that individuals somehow know how desirable they are and pick a mate at the same level. 2) Competition hypothesis: This assumes that everyone, regardless of desirability, seeks the most desirable partner. The result is that the most desirable people pair off, followed by the next most desirable, and so on. These two hypotheses produce similar results from entirely different types of behaviour. The only way to tease them apart is to study mating behavior in detail. That has always been too difficult to do on the scale necessary.

Now, Elizabeth Bruch and Mark Newman at the University of Michigan, mined the data from a popular online dating site to break the deadlock. Their breakthrough is a new, objective way to measure desirability and to rank individuals accordingly. The work provides a powerful new prism through which to view mating behaviour. The researchers say it shows that competition for mates creates a pronounced hierarchy in desirability, and that both men and women consistently pursue partners more desirable than themselves. It also points to a simple strategy that could improve chances of success for most people.

First, Bruch and Newman’s objective method for measuring desirability: they say the most popular people are clearly those who receive the most interest on dating sites, as quantified by the number of messages they receive. By this measure, the most popular individual in the study is a 30-year-old woman in New York, who received 1,504 messages during the month that Bruch and Newman conducted their study. “[That’s] equivalent to one message every 30 minutes, day and night, for the entire month,” they say. But desirability is not just about the number of messages received but who those messages are from. “If you are contacted by people who are themselves desirable, then you are presumptively more desirable yourself,” say the researchers.

If this kind of approach sounds familiar, that’s because it is based on Google’s famous PageRank algorithm. This has been used to rank everything from web pages to Nobel Prize winners. In this scenario, the PageRank algorithm provides an objective, network-based approach to rank men and women by their desirability. And having done that, it becomes straightforward to test the matching and competition hypotheses by monitoring whether people pursue mates with a similar level of desirability or not. The results make for interesting reading. “We find that both men and women pursue partners who are on average about 25% more desirable than themselves,” says Bruch and Newman. “Messaging potential partners who are more desirable than oneself is not just an occasional act of wishful thinking; it is the norm.”

This approach is not without its pitfalls. The probability of receiving a response drops dramatically as the desirability gap increases. It’s easy to imagine that individuals who contact more desirable partners would do this more often to increase their chances of getting a reply. “In fact they do the opposite: the number of initial contacts an individual makes falls off rapidly with increasing gap and it is the people approaching the least desirable partners who send the largest number of messages,” says Bruch and Newman. So people obviously adopt different strategies for approaching potential mates with high and low desirability. Indeed, the researchers say individuals spend more time crafting longer, more personalised messages for more desirable partners—a quality-over-quantity approach. The team also studied the content of these messages using sentiment analysis. Curiously, they found that women tend to use more positive words in messages to desirable men, while men use fewer positive words. That may be the result of learning by experience. “Men experience slightly lower reply rates when they write more positively worded messages,” say Bruch and Newman. That said, whether these different strategies work is far from clear.

That’s interesting work, but it has less relevance for offline dating. Online dating offers a high volume of potential partners with a low threshold for sending a message, which is rather different from the offline world. Nevertheless, the results provide some important insights. With regards to the matching and competition hypotheses, the evidence suggests that people use both. “They are aware of their own position in the hierarchy and adjust their behaviour accordingly, while at the same time competing modestly for more desirable mates,” say Bruch and Newman. “Our results are consistent with the popular concept of dating ‘leagues,’ as reflected in the idea that someone can be ‘out of your league.’” The findings also suggest an obvious strategy to attract a mate who is ‘out of your league.’ Bruch and Newman say that the chances of receiving a reply from a highly desirable partner are low, but they are not zero. So the best strategy should be to send more messages to highly desirable partners and to be prepared to wait longer for a reply.

10) Jack Ma is hard act to follow in a hyper competitive market [Source: Financial Times ]
Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, is stepping aside at a time when the company has never looked stronger. Having just turned 54, he is the first of his generation to begin distancing himself from the empire he created. The process began when he stepped down as chief executive five years ago and the handover as chairman to his successor will take place a year from now. Behind the scenes, a cadre of managers will follow him. “He is taking the old guard with him,” says a mainland investor and longtime friend of Mr. Ma. “The eighties generation will be in charge.” According to the author, his decision should raise questions about the quality of leadership and succession planning at other leading mainland tech companies. Are they still about one man or have they managed to become more institutionalized? Have they moved beyond their roots or failed to evolve?

The planned withdrawal of Mr. Ma from Alibaba may be a moment for the second generation to change the dynamics of the raw, competitive environment in China. Today relations among the leading mainland tech companies are all about personal loyalty to one or the other of the two giants of the market, Alibaba and Tencent. Meanwhile, the most prominent venture capitalists who invest in them try, not always successfully, to remain carefully neutral. There is a parallel but slightly different debate about corporate governance on the other side of the Pacific. For example, when the board of directors of California-based Uber removed the ride sharing company’s founder Travis Kalanick from his perch as chief executive after a series of damning stories about company culture, the decision set off a debate in China about whether such a thing could happen there.

Yet, the China tech landscape is different in two ways. First, there is less concern about monopolies. Big Tech in the US has piled up regulatory risk as politicians and the public worry about its unfettered power. Alibaba and Tencent, by contrast, are more dominant in their home markets but escape such scrutiny. Second, however much Silicon Valley likes to laud founders, the Chinese degree to which the rivalries are utterly personal is unknown. For an example, consider the relationship between Alibaba’s Mr. Ma and Xing Wang, the founder of Meituan, the food delivery group. Meituan was once in the Ali camp, while Mr. Ma once considered Mr. Wang like a son. But when Mr. Wang merged his company with Dianping in 2015, he moved from the Alibaba camp to the Tencent camp, setting off a game of virtual musical chairs, in which Alibaba dumped most of its Meituan holdings and acquired Ele.me, a food delivery app that had been competing with Meituan.

“The CEOs personify their organizations,” notes Jason Tan, chief investment officer of Jen Capital and the former head of Tiger Global in Asia. “Jack Ma is strategically brilliant. He identifies talents and builds them up.” Mr. Ma noted in a letter to staff and shareholders: “This transition demonstrates that Alibaba has stepped up to the next level of corporate governance from a company that relies on individuals. No company can rely solely on its founders.”

-Prashant Mittal is Strategist, at Ambit Capital. Views expressed are personal