Economics Society Technology

The Reconn Reader: 6 September, 2019

Each week, I share some of the most interesting articles I’ve come across in the past seven days. Here is this week’s selection. Inclusion does not mean endorsement. -CA


World & Politics

Whitehall was alert to the dangers. Privately, Rogers warned that it might take a decade to agree the future relationship, and that it would be dangerous to allow the fixed two-year timetable of Article 50 to govern the divorce before clarifying the UK’s “end-state” objectives. But the political pressure on May to demonstrate she was “getting on with the job” was too strong. Rearguard efforts by Rogers and Olly Robbins, then permanent secretary at the Brexit department, to stop May from boxing herself in on the timetable failed; the subsequent leaking of Rogers’s private warning to the BBC set in train his resignation. But that didn’t detract from the force of his point. From this moment, every time the UK asked for something the EU did not want to concede, the EU could sit on its hands. “The clock is ticking,” Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, never tired of reminding us. (Prospect)

Can floods of international money put out the fires in the Brazilian Amazon?

There are, however, many important potential uses for international funding, which could support local actors and institutions that have already shown they know how to work successfully in their own Amazon. Nonetheless, the Bolsonaro administration is equivocal about accepting international funds for these purposes, asserting that it will be the government that decides how any monies are spent. Minister of Environment Ricardo Salles has already proposed using the Amazon Fund to provide handouts to local landowners, so it is not clear that the government’s plans would control the fires and deforestation either, even if international funds do come into Brazil. (London School of Economics)

Is Armed Conflict Possible in Today’s Europe?

But where do we stand now? It certainly doesn’t look as though we will soon be facing a revolution, in the sense of violent systemic change. But liberal democracy, which once seemed to be an immovable element of the European consensus, finds itself under pressure. It doesn’t exist at all in today’s Hungary and it is disappearing in Poland. In Italy, liberal democracy is threatened and right-wing populism in many other countries is proving a difficult challenge to the system. (Der Spiegel)

The Vigilante President

In his three years as president, Duterte has proved to be a consummate power broker and a masterful political tactician. His rambling rants against elites, drug users, and criminals feed on popular frustrations with the country’s broken justice system and feckless ruling class. He has lashed out against “imperial Manila” and the “imperial” United States, articulating festering resentments against national and global elites. Duterte is riding the crest of a political wave, not just in the Philippines but around the world, where his brand of illiberalism is gaining ground. How could a 74-year-old, gun-toting former mayor from the Philippines’ southern frontier have turned out to be so in tune with the global political moment?  (Foreign Affairs)



Business & Economics

Happiness: what professional success looks like

We could all do more to improve career choice and wellbeing at work. Schools and universities, the LSE included, could frame career choices in terms of personal growth rather than by which jobs will pay the most. They could encourage students to find out the answers to questions that are more likely to have an impact upon their day-to-day experiences on the job. How many hours does a typical employee work? Will I interact with other friendly human beings? Will I be expected to use one skill set or will there be an opportunity to use many different skills? How much autonomy is there in the work, and will I receive feedback? How long will my commute be? Is there a gym near the office? Does my office have natural light, windows that open and plants? (London School of Economics)

How Highly Diverse Teams Can Help Untangle Complexity

Achieving the necessary variety with a minimal number of people is the trick. When it comes to the “requisite” word, it’s all about efficiency in your selections. Once you’ve listed specific names of people who collectively cover the desired zones and cross-checked the characteristics that are covered by those people, you’ve got a long list of candidates. Prune that list, remove the duplicates, replace three people who cover a few zones and characteristics with one who covers them all, and now you’ve got your high-variety team. Maybe as few as eight people, perhaps as many as 50 or 60. (Wharton)

How Columbia’s new dean aims to redefine business education

Demand is likely to be down “a little” further or flat, Mr Maglaras admits, and he does not rule out following the lead set by Harvard Business School and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, both of which froze their MBA tuition fees after years of above-inflation increases. “Everything is on the table,” Mr Maglaras says, adding that he does feel cost has become a deterrent to some people applying to business school. (Financial Times)

The #MeToo Backlash

Because the data was collected soon after the #MeToo movement gained momentum, and because much of it focused on expectations, the researchers conducted a follow-up survey (with different people) in early 2019. This revealed a bigger backlash than respondents had anticipated. For instance, 19% of men said they were reluctant to hire attractive women, 21% said they were reluctant to hire women for jobs involving close interpersonal interactions with men (jobs involving travel, say), and 27% said they avoided one-on-one meetings with female colleagues; only one of those numbers was lower in 2019 than the numbers projected the year before. (Harvard Business Review)


Science & Technology

A new frontier in lie detection is now emerging. An increasing number of projects are using AI to combine multiple sources of evidence into a single measure for deception. Machine learning is accelerating deception research by spotting previously unseen patterns in reams of data. Scientists at the University of Maryland, for example, have developed software that they claim can detect deception from courtroom footage with 88% accuracy. (The Guardian)

They rallied around ‘our boys’ as they pushed for a Duchenne cure. Where did that leave girls?

Some studies measure dystrophin production to test whether a therapy is working. Boys with the disease often don’t make any dystrophin, giving researchers an easy baseline with which to judge whether a treatment is effective. Manifesting carriers have such variability in their dystrophin levels that it would be difficult to gauge improvements. The most rigorous clinical trials also include participants who receive placebos — a control group. But the disease affects girls in such differing ways that it would be hard to find matching girls for a control group.  (STAT)

Studying the Superhuman

In a thrilling paper published recently in Nature Communications,researchers set out to study the abilities of people with extra fingers. This condition, known as polydactyly, affects roughly two in every 1,000 newborns. But because extra fingers are not generally expected to be functional—and perhaps also because of the stigma attached to unusual physical features—they are usually removed. Yet this is not always the case: some people with polydactyly decide not to have their additional fingers removed. And by studying a mother and son pair who opted to keep their left and right hands’ sixth finger, the researchers made a series of discoveries about its function. These discoveries speak to a remarkable flexibility on the part of the brain and body and suggest that biological variability should be celebrated rather than scorned. (Scientific American)

“Old age” is made up—and this concept is hurting everyone

Technologists, particularly those who make consumer products, will have a strong influence over how we’ll live tomorrow. By treating older adults not as an ancillary market but as a core constituency, the tech sector can do much of the work required to redefine old age. But tech workplaces also skew infamously young. Asking young designers to merely step into the shoes of older consumers (and we at the MIT AgeLab have literally developed a physiological aging simulation suit for that purpose) is a good start, but it is not enough to give them true insight into the desires of older consumers. Luckily there’s a simpler route: hire older workers. (MIT Tech Review)

Culture & History

The Book of Prince

An exhilarating train journey across the Sahara

Aiba gave us plastic bags and tape to cocoon our backpacks from the dirt and dust that would be swirling around us. Then he drove us to the station and ensured we boarded the wagon that would stop closest to our station. Given the length of the train and the tiny scale of the settlements where it stops, a traveller could end up walking more than a kilometre to reach the station on arrival if they choose their wagon unwisely.  (BBC)

The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad

Even when the formal ties of the Roman empire had broken, informal links connected its various parts. In the absence of the Roman state, there was still the Latin language as the original lingua franca; there was still a network of roads. Christianity in some form was a shared religion. Today the links include trade, travel, family lineage, and collaborative research—links that, like the internet, were forged in an era of functioning national and global institutions but with a better chance to endure. (The Atlantic)

Robert Mugabe’s descent from nationalist hero to tyrant

Asked why people feared him, Mr Mugabe said he thought it was “perhaps because I’m quiet, and also because I believe in what I say.” His life was mostly frugal: rising early to practise yoga; working daily at his desk, in his mustard-yellow chair beside a huge map of the world; nibbling rice and corn meal by hand, the African way. He showed few of the vices—women, booze, feasts—associated with the caricature of an African dictator. But he had the usual vanity. Asked by The Economist, well into his 80s, when he would retire, he laughed that he would rule until he was “a hundred years old”. The tragedy for Zimbabwe was how close he got to keeping his word. (The Economist)


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