|Published on: 28th April, 2019
This week’s reads focus on Tagore, Darwin’s rules of thinking, millennials’ car ownership, NFL’s lessons for talent identification, how to reduce digital distractions and Big Tech’s invasion of banking.[Marcellus is offering internships to budding Equity Analysts. See: http://marcellus.in/jobs/]
1. Long read: Traveling With Tagore
Author: Ramachandra Guha
Source: Penguin Classics (http://ramachandraguha.in/archives/traveling-with-tagore-penguin-classics.html)
Ram Guha, himself a giant amongst contemporary scholars, makes a case for seeing Rabindranath Tagore as one of the ‘four founders of modern India’ alongside Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar.
Guha begins by correctly noting that Bengalis and in particular the university that Tagore founded, Vishwa Bharati, have tried to appropriate for themselves this intellectual giant. “Ravi Shankar compared Tagore to the German genius Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832); so, before him, had the critic Buddhadeva Bose. Both men, remarked Bose, ‘participate[d] in almost everything’. Certainly, no one since Goethe worked in so many different fields and did original things in so many of them. Tagore was a poet, a novelist, a playwright, a lyricist, a composer, and an artist. He had good days and bad, but at his best he was outstanding in each of these fields.”
So why is Tagore such an important figure in India’s development? Firstly, Tagore was perhaps the first contemporary Indian who “…travelled to other lands out of curiosity, simply to see and speak with humans of a cultural background other than his own.”From these experiences he produced the first synthesis of Eastern and Western thought which we now take as a given in India.
Here is Tagore writing in 1885,“‘I sometimes detect in myself ‘a background where two opposing forces are constantly in action, one beckoning me to peace and cessation of all strife, the other egging me on to battle. It is as though the restless energy and the will to action of the West were perpetually assaulting the citadel of my Indian placidity. Hence this swing of the pendulum between passionate pain and calm detachment, between lyrical abandon and philosophizing, between love of my country and mockery of patriotism, between an itch to enter the lists and a longing to remain wrapt in thought’.
Quoting this precocious passage, the Tagore scholar Swapan Majumdar says that it ‘strikes the keynote in his understanding of the West’. Tagore’s mission to synthesize East and West was part personal, part civilizational. In time it also became political. In the early years of the 20th century, the intelligentsia of Bengal was engulfed by the Swadeshi movement, where protests against British rule were expressed by the burning of foreign cloth and the rejection of all things Western. After an initial enthusiasm for the movement, Tagore turned against it.”
Secondly, very few people realise the scale of Tagore’s intellectual achievement. He was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in any category. In the West’s understanding of Asia, Tagore was a milestone. The story behind Tagore’s journey to Nobel is itself very interesting: “In the summer of 1912, Rabindranath Tagore visited England, a country he had been to twice before. He was carrying some translations of his poems, which were misplaced on the London Underground. Fortunately, they were retrieved from the ‘lost luggage’ department of the Underground. Shortly afterwards, Tagore struck up a friendship with W. B. Yeats, who helped him refine the translations. Published by the India Society under the title Gitanjali, these poems were an immediate sensation, going through ten printings in six months. In November 1913 Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
The Nobel Prizes had been in existence only a decade, but had acquired a considerable prestige. Tagore was the first Asian winner in any category. He was already known in Europe and the United States (which he had visited, after finishing with Yeats and company, in that summer of 1912), but the Nobel award gained for him a massively enhanced status within India, and across Asia. The award was seen as an acknowledgement of the importance of a continent anxious to reclaim its past greatness. Thus, when Tagore arrived for the first time in the Japanese capital of Tokyo in June 1916, some twenty thousand people turned out to receive him at the city’s central railway station.”
Thirdly, even before Mahatma Gandhi has returned to India from South Africa, Tagore had with his own resources (augmented by payments received for lectures given in America often in front of sneering audiences) started creating what became India’s first privately funded university, Visva-Bharati“….which may be translated as ‘India in the World’, or alternatively as ‘The World in India’. Its Memorandum of Association described its objectives as the bringing together of ‘thinkers and scholars of both Eastern and Western countries, free from all antagonisms of race, nationality, creed or caste…’; and the realization ‘in a common fellowship of study [of] the meeting of East and West’.
Tagore raised money for his new university through friends in India, and by subscriptions from abroad. In the summer of 1920 he undertook an extended trip of Europe and North America for the purpose.” The man’s practicality – in realising that India could not move forward through idealism and through harking back to a golden bygone age – is remarkable if you put it in the context of what was happening in India and in Europe in the 1910s and 1920s.
Fourthly, the exchanges between Tagore and Gandhi are a turning point in Indian history not least because Tagore gave Gandhi the prefix of the “Mahatma”. More importantly, the relationship convinced Gandhi to tell the world that anti-Western thought and philosophy is not what he was espousing. Most memorably Gandhi said, ‘I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great Poet. I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any’.
This debate between two of the titanic figures in modern Indian history is worthy of being made into a Netflix movie (ironically, Bollywood won’t have the stomach for it). Guha writes: “Eighty years on, the Tagore-Gandhi debate still makes for compelling reading. The Mahatma insisted that a colonized nation had first to discover itself before discovering the world. The poet answered that there was a thin line between nationalism and xenophobia—besides, hatred of the foreigner could later turn into an hatred of Indians different from oneself (he was particularly sceptical of the claim that non-co-operation had or would dissolve Hindu-Muslim differences). Both men come out well; Tagore slightly better perhaps. He stood his ground, whereas Gandhi shifted his, somewhat. Pressed and challenged by Tagore, he broadened his nationalism to allow in winds from all parts of the world.”
Finally, and most importantly perhaps, whilst Tagore did not live to see India gain Independence (he died in 1941), his vision of India – as a tolerant, heterogenous society which embraces the best ideas from the rest of the world whilst developing on its own terms – is the only credible vision we have had with which to build a nation.“No one could accuse Tagore of not loving his country. This is what lends a special force to his criticisms of nationalism. As he saw it, the staggering hetereogeneity of India was the product of its hospitality, in the past, to cultures and ideas from outside. He wished that this open-ness be retained and even enhanced in the present. Unlike other patriots, Tagore refused to privilege a particular aspect of India—Hindu, North Indian, upper caste, etc.—and make this the essence of the nation, and then demand that other aspects conform or subordinate themselves to it. For Tagore, as the historian Tanika Sarkar has pointed out, India ‘was and must remain a land without a centre’.”
2. Long read: How Darwin Though: The Golden Rule of Thinking
Author: Farnam Street
Source: Farnam Street (https://fs.blog/2016/01/charles-darwin-thinker/)
Charlie Munger had said in 1986 that there is a reason why Charles Darwin achieved extraordinary things without an extraordinary intellect:“Darwin’s result was due in large measure to his working method, which violated all my rules for misery and particularly emphasized a backward twist in that he always gave priority attention to evidence tending to disconfirm whatever cherished and hard-won theory he already had. In contrast, most people early achieve and later intensify a tendency to process new and disconfirming information so that any original conclusion remains intact. They become people of whom Philip Wylie observed: “You couldn’t squeeze a dime between what they already know and what they will never learn.”
The life of Darwin demonstrates how a turtle may outrun a hare, aided by extreme objectivity, which helps the objective person end up like the only player without a blindfold in a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”
So what can we learn from Charles Darwin’s methods? A lot it turns out. To begin with“Darwin was a hoover of information related to a topic he was interested in. After describing some of his specific areas of study while aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, Darwin concludes in his Autobiography:
‘The above various special studies were, however, of no importance compared with the habit of energetic industry and of concentrated attention to whatever I was engaged in, which I then acquired. Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I had seen and was likely to see; and this habit of mind was continued during the five years of the voyage. I feel sure that it was this training which has enabled me to do whatever I have done in science.’
This habit of pure and attentive focus to the task at hand is, of course, echoed in many of our favorite thinkers…Munger himself remarked that “I did not succeed in life by intelligence. I succeeded because I have a long attention span.”
Secondly, Darwin not only read widely, he not only collected data from a wide array of sources, he also took detailed notes and was a careful thinker: “Says David Quammen in his fabulous The Reluctant Mr. Darwin:
‘One of Darwin’s great strengths as a scientist was also, in some ways, a disadvantage: his extraordinary breadth of curiosity. From his study at Down House he ranged widely and greedily, in his constant search for data, across distances (by letter) and scientific fields. He read eclectically and kept notes like a pack rat. Over the years he collected an enormous quantity of interconnected facts. He looked for patterns but was intrigued equally by exceptions to the patterns, and exceptions to the exceptions. He tested his ideas against complicated groups of organisms with complicated stories, such as the barnacles, the orchids, the social insects, the primroses, and the hominids.’
Not only was Darwin thinking broadly, taking in facts at all turns and on many subjects, but he was thinking carefully, This is where Munger’s admiration comes in: Darwin wanted to look at the exceptions. The exceptions to the exceptions. He was on the hunt for truth and not necessarily to confirm some highly-loved idea.”
Even more interestingly, as Darwin continued with his copious note writing, he was able to identify gaps in his own knowledge: “Darwin was a relentless note-taker. Notebook A, Notebook B, Notebook C, Notebook M, Notebook N…all filled with observations from his study of journals and texts, his own scientific work, his travels, and his life. Once he sat down to write, he had an enormous amount of prior written thought to draw on. He could also see gaps in his understanding, which he diligently filled in.”
Thirdly, Darwin learnt early on in life from his mentor, the geologist Charles Lyell, the benefits of becoming an in-depth expert on a specific area. Here is Darwin’s description of Lyell: “I saw more of Lyell than of any other man before and after my marriage. His mind was characterized, as it appeared to me, by clearness, caution, sound judgment and a good deal of originality. When I made any remark to him on Geology, he never rested until he saw the whole case clearly and often made me see it more clearly than I had done before. He would advance all possible objections to my suggestions, and even after these were exhausted would long remain dubious.”
Farnam Street notes that “Studying Lyell and geology enhanced Darwin’s (probably natural) suspicion that careful, detailed, and objective work was required to create scientific breakthroughs. And once Darwin had expertise and grounding in the level of expertise required by Lyell to understand and explain the theory of geology, he had a basis for the rest of his scientific work…Why was the acquisition of expert knowledge in geology so important to the development of Darwin’s overall thinking? Because in learning geology Darwin ground a conceptual lens — a device for bringing into focus and clarifying the problems to which he turned his attention. When his attention shifted to problems beyond geology, the lens remained and Darwin used it in exploring new problems.”
And finally, through painstaking data collection, note taking and careful thought, Darwin made himself an expert in counterintuitive thought:“Counter-intuition was Darwin’s specialty. And the reason he was so good was he had a very simple habit of thought, described in the autobiography and so cherished by Charlie Munger: He paid special attention to collecting facts which did not agree with his prior conceptions. He called this a golden rule.
‘I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.’
So we see that Darwin’s great success, by his own analysis, owed to his ability to see, note, and learn from objections to his cherished thoughts. The Origin of Species has stood up in the face of 157 years of subsequent biological research because Darwin was so careful to make sure the theory was nearly impossible to refute.”
3. Long read: Driving? The Kids Are So Over It
Author: Adrienne Roberts
Source: WSJ (https://www.wsj.com/articles/driving-the-kids-are-so-over-it-11555732810)
Last week, we wrote about the disruptions caused by the millenials’ changing attitude towards real estate ownership – you can read that here. This piece talks about how it is no longer a done thing for kids in America to get a driving license, what that is doing to automobile sales and how the auto makers are reacting to this.“J.D. Power estimates that Gen Zers will purchase about 120,000 fewer new vehicles this year compared with millennials in 2004, when they were the new generation of drivers—or 488,198 vehicles versus 607,329 then…. In 1983, the first year Mr. Sivak began analyzing the ages of drivers based on licensing data, the percentage of 16-year-olds with driver’s licenses was 46%. By 2008, it had fallen to less than a third and in 2014, it hit a low point of 24.5%….Even among those in their early 20s, fewer are getting their licenses. About 80% of 20- to 24-year-olds were licensed drivers in 2017, compared with 92% in 1983….” These are fairly steep drops which don’t augur well for the auto industry from a long-term perspective. What’s driving this change?
“…teenagers are reaching their driving age at a time when most have access to ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft to shuttle them around town. At the same time, social media and video chat let them hang out with friends without actually leaving the house.
When they reach their 20s, more are moving to big cities with mass transit, where owning a car is neither necessary nor practical…
…Generation Zers grew up during the financial crisis and tend to be more budget-conscious, according to researchers who study generational trends. In addition, many face substantial student-loan payments, making them more cautious about big-ticket purchases. Total student-loan debt has soared to $1.5 trillion, surpassing Americans’ credit-card and car-loan bills.
The process for teenagers is also getting more expensive. State budget cuts have meant that many public schools no longer offer free driver’s training and a private course can cost upward of a thousand dollars, say driver’s-ed professionals”
So how are the auto makers reacting. Seems like Detroit has indeed in someways contributed to delaying car ownership by raising new vehicle prices.
“Cost is increasingly a challenge. The average price paid for a new vehicle was $32,544 in 2018, up from $25,490 a decade ago, according to J.D. Power. The average monthly payment on a new-car loan reached $535 a month last year, or more than 10% of the median household income, a level most Americans can’t afford, said Cox Automotive.
….On top of the shortage of small cars, auto makers are also packing more technology into vehicles, contributing to rising prices. The new extras also make cars more expensive to repair, helping to drive up car-insurance costs, another deterrent for many teens and 20-somethings”
Detroit seems to be betting contrary to the Japanese and Koreans.
“…Detroit has jettisoned many of their lower-priced compact and subcompact cars like the Ford Fiesta and Chevy Cruze that have traditionally been starter cars for young buyers. For the auto makers, the strategy makes sense: Sport-utility vehicles or trucks have steadily become more popular over the past decade, and also have much better profit margins.
….Detroit is betting that even if young people wait longer to buy a car, they eventually will when finances improve and they start families. And then, they’ll buy an SUV or truck…
…Japanese auto makers are keeping their lower-priced sedans as a way to attract young people to their brands…To appeal to younger consumers, several auto makers. have recently debuted small, sporty crossovers priced under $25,000.
Hyundai Motor Co. , for example, rolled out a new Kona small utility last year that comes packed with technology—including a seven-inch touch screen—for a starting price of $19,000. The Korean auto maker revealed an even smaller crossover, called the Venue, at the New York Auto Show this month”
4. Short read: How to Identify Talent: Five Lessons from the NFL Draft
Author: Cade Massey
Source: Behavioral Scientist (https://behavioralscientist.org/how-to-identify-talent-five-lessons-from-the-nfl-draft/)
From our (limited) knowledge of American Football we know that the quarterback is the key player (filling the role of a creative midfielder in soccer). This week the Cleveland Browns will choose a quarterback in the annual NFA draft. Whoever they pick will get US$30mn. So it is important that they make the right pick. How will they get it right? “It turns out that best practices in hiring have much in common with what psychologists have preached for decades. a structured decision process is especially valuable. The best teams have philosophies and policies that firmly guide the draft process. There are few organizations capable of doing that consistently, and it’s a real advantage for those who can…There is no silver bullet…there is no test or technology that reliably distinguishes star from bust, despite all our advances and many promises otherwise. How should we do it then? What can we learn from how NFL teams draft?”
Firstly, the recruiter needs to be clear about her goals. “…if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. An easy way to flub a hire from the beginning is to skip asking exactly what it is you’re looking for. People often don’t understand their decision objectives, but the most successful sports teams are clear about their goal and don’t stray from the principles and attributes they’ve established.”
Secondly, keep your judges or interviewers separated from each other. “People are impressionable. When they are exposed to other’s opinions before forming their own, they tend to anchor on the existing view. More generally, the “wisdom of the crowd” depends on the independence of the respective opinions within the crowd.”
Thirdly, break down the evaluation of the candidate into detailed component parts.“NFL teams break players down in minute detail. There are physical qualities: For a quarterback it includes, for example, arm strength, mobility, and release. And then there is their “makeup,” or the intangibles considered critical for success. Ideally even these intangibles are broken into component parts, such as work ethic and selflessness. This decomposition means players are explicitly evaluated on many distinct dimensions….It’s much easier to give one, global evaluation—like or dislike, hire or reject. These overarching evaluations are natural and efficient, but unfortunately, they are often biased….Daniel Kahneman recognized the importance of this step years ago when designing performance evaluations for the Israeli military and has advocated for them since.”
Fourthly, create a mechanical model for pulling all our interviewers views on each candidate’s each skillset into one overall score.“Letting a spreadsheet—or a model—summarize your judgment may seem like an abdication, but we’ve known for decades that simple linear models outperform intuitive judgment. This isn’t because evaluators don’t have expertise but rather because they apply their expertise inconsistently. Hiring decisions shouldn’t depend on the loudest voice in the room or how many strong candidates were seen earlier that day. The best way to ensure this is to aggregate mechanically. It also happens to be a big time-saver, freeing you to focus on the issues humans handle better than machines.”
Fifthly, capture data on the performance of your interviewers so that over time you can tell your model which interviewer is more reliable than others (and hence whose inputs should you attach more weight to). “The trick is to capture those judgments and track them over time to learn how predictive they are. This applies to all judgments. Hiring is best thought of as a forecasting process, and the only way to improve forecasts is to map them against results and refine the process over time. By doing this, teams learn which tests matter most, which questions are more informative, and which scouts are best with each position on the field…At the moment, the defending champions in all three major professional sports—the Eagles, Astros, and Warriors—are unapologetic devotees of “Moneyball” in some form. Moneyball isn’t about a model or a technology but rather a decision-making process. The tenets of that process suggest steps any organization can take to improve their hiring.”
5. Short read: How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks
Author: Jamie Kreiner
Source: AEON (https://aeon.co/ideas/how-to-reduce-digital-distractions-advice-from-medieval-monks)
Most smartphone users can barely read a 1000 word essay without getting distracted or switching the screen a few times. Why blame the smartphone? Turns out that the human mind is inherently susceptible to distractions – digital or otherwise. In this piece, Jamie Kreiner shows how the medieval monks almost 1600yrs ago faced similar problems concentrating and how led by John Cassian, they figured out a range of techniques to focus their mental energies.
“Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentration was their lifelong work! Their tech was obviously different from ours. But their anxiety about distraction was not. They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else. They were frustrated by their desire to stare out of the window, or to constantly check on the time (in their case, with the Sun as their clock), or to think about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God. They even worried about getting distracted in their dreams.
…(John Cassian) complained that the mind ‘seems driven by random incursions’. It ‘wanders around like it were drunk’. It would think about something else while it prayed and sang. It would meander into its future plans or past regrets in the middle of its reading. It couldn’t even stay focused on its own entertainment – let alone the difficult ideas that called for serious concentration…
…Some of these strategies were tough. Renunciation, for instance. Monks and nuns were supposed to give up the things that most people loved – families, properties, businesses, day-to-day drama – not only to erode their sense of individual entitlement but also to ensure that they wouldn’t be preoccupied by that stuff in their professional lives of prayer. When the mind wanders, the monastic theorists observed, it usually veers off into recent events. Cut back your commitments to serious stuff, and you’ll have fewer thoughts competing for your attention…
Restraint had to work on a physiological level, too. There were many theories in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages about the connection between the mind and body. Most Christians agreed that the body was a needy creature whose bottomless appetite for food, sex and comfort held back the mind from what mattered most. That didn’t mean that the body must be rejected, only that it needed tough love. For all monks and nuns, since the very start of monasticism in the 4th century, this meant a moderate diet and no sex. Many of them also added regular manual labour to the regimen. They found it easier to concentrate when their bodies were moving, whether they were baking or farming or weaving.
There were also solutions that might strike people today as strange, which depended on imaginary pictures. Part of monastic education involved learning how to form cartoonish cognitive figures, to help sharpen one’s mnemonic and meditative skills. The mind loves stimuli such as colour, gore, sex, violence, noise and wild gesticulations. The challenge was to accept its delights and preferences, in order to take advantage of them. Authors and artists might do some of the legwork here, by writing vivid narratives or sculpting grotesque figures that embodied the ideas they wanted to communicate. But if a nun wanted to really learn something she’d read or heard, she would do this work herself, by rendering the material as a series of bizarre animations in her mind. The weirder the mnemonic devices the better – strangeness would make them easier to retrieve, and more captivating to think with when she ‘returned’ to look them over.
Say that you wanted to learn the sequence of the zodiac. Thomas Bradwardine (a 14th-century university master, theologian and advisor to Edward III of England) suggests that you imagine a gleaming white ram with golden horns, kicking a bright red bull in the testicles. While the bull bleeds profusely, imagine that there’s a woman in front of it, giving birth to twins, in a gory labour that seems to split her up to her chest. As her twins burst forth, they’re playing with an awful red crab, which is pinching them and making them cry. And so on…”
6. Short read: Big Tech’s Invasion of Banking
Author: Dan Murphy
Source: Milken Institute Review (http://www.milkenreview.org/articles/big-techs-invasion-of-banking?IssueID=32)
Much is being written about disruptions in banking from fintech. Yet this piece suggests that the traditional banks have so far warded off that threat fairly well by innovating themselves using technology what with their deep pockets of capital and regulatory protections. This piece however focuses on the threat from Big Tech – not just on the incumbents but also on the financial system and the economy in general. Clearly, China has set the tone in many ways. Consider these:
“Just 10 years after starting Alipay, Alibaba consolidated all of its financial products and services under the umbrella of Ant Financial. Today, Ant Financial offers almost every financial service that the average customer needs, including deposit accounts, credit and wealth management.
The scale of this success is breathtaking: Ant Financial’s market cap is greater than that of Goldman Sachs, and its Yu’e Bao money market fund is the largest in the world. Even so, its offerings are rivaled by Tencent, whose Tenpay platform has even more active users than Alipay.
After successfully chipping away at the business of banking one product at a time, Ant Financial and Tencent opened China’s first internet banks, MYbank and WeBank, in 2014.”
Whilst Big Tech’s ability to drive financial inclusion particularly in the emerging economies of Asia and Africa are indeed positives, regulators are dabbling with concerns on market abuse (big tech has driven monopolies faster than ever), data privacy and the very disruptive and hence potentially destabilising nature of big tech.
“At this point, the rise of banking with big tech triggered a regulatory response from China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China. Today, the PBoC requires China’s tech giants to link certain internet bank accounts to traditional bank accounts and to keep 100 percent of their “float” in reserve at the central bank itself. This arrangement is designed to safeguard the financial system and also solidifies big tech’s place in its customers’ lives as both the face of traditional banking and as a regulated nonbank.”
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