Four For Friday (37)

Stanford University announced its new President this week. Marc Tessier-Lavigne is a “pioneering neuroscientist, former Stanford faculty member and outspoken advocate for higher education”. More importantly, in keeping with Stanford’s reputation as a crucible for entrepreneurial creativity, he has been executive vice president for research and chief scientific officer at Genentech, leading work on disease research and drug discovery for cancer, immune disorders, infectious diseases and neurodegenerative diseases.

In a conversation with Ruth Porat, a member of Stanford’s board of trustees, Tessier-Lavigne he talks about how, as a Rhodes Scholar, he chose philosophy and sharpened his critical thinking, and learnt to appreciate the importance of a broad-based education encompassing both liberal arts and the sciences. He talks at length about his research philosophy and interdisciplinarity. “Greatest advances are often made at the interfaces of disciplines,” he says, thus underscoring a crucial aspect of innovation for human betterment.

This week’s links are all about the role of liberal arts in education, research, and scholarship.

India is stereotyped in the west as a country of maths and engineering nerds. Creating a broad base of technocrats was what India needed after it gained independence from British rule. But this has created lopsided development. In a recent essay on the importance — and timeliness — of creating a liberal arts university in India, the founders review the history of higher education in India and ask crucial questions while outlining the form liberal arts education is taking in India under their watchful gaze.

Today, liberal education in India is not just blindly aping the western model. It incorporates the best of content, courses and knowledge that India has to offer and marries it with the best in contemporary pedagogy in terms of experiential learning, use of technology, grass-roots immersion and mentorship. It ensures that the best minds in India are capable of engaging with the toughest challenges we face as a society. This way we ensure that the Indian liberal education aspires to be not just the best in the world but the best for the world. As America worries about its overdependence on liberal education and its rising costs and relevance, India and its Asian neighbours are showing how a rejuvenated model of liberal education is not just an imperative but can be delivered in a high-quality and affordable model at a large scale. As a country we have the opportunity to change the course of higher education not just for India but for the world.

This impassioned essay reproduced in the Washington Post suggests kids need to learn philosophy. The entire essay is worth your time — especially though not only if you have or are in charge of children, in any form. For today’s children are tomorrow’s men and women, and we all have a stake in the matter. An excerpt:

I think most of us realize that society is a necessary compromise, and at least pay lip service to the idea that critical thinking and effective communication are virtues essential for its success. As we get older  many of us tend to be less open to new information, evidence, and arguments — but we can and should instill the requisite virtues in our children via K-12 education.

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” as Frederick Douglass once said in a different context. In that spirit, then, it’s imperative that our kids become philosophers.

As both the founders of Ashoka University in India and Steve Neumann, the author of the essay in WaPo note, liberal arts and philosophy seem to have a poor reputation as something of little “use” to society. To balance that, uh, feeling, here is a utilitarian argument about why digital companies need liberal arts majors. The piece is longer than it needs to be, but it can be skim-read for the main points.

But there will be a limit to how far computers can replace human capabilities, at least in the near long term. What can’t be replaced in any organization imaginable in the future is precisely what seems overlooked today: liberal arts skills, such as creativity, empathy, listening, and vision. These skills, not digital or technological ones, will hold the keys to a company’s future success. And yet companies aren’t hiring for them. This is a problem for today’s digital companies, and it’s only going to get worse.

Vinod Khosla, a leading light in the Silicon Valley, however holds a slightly different opinion. He argues that we need to teach critical thinking and the scientific method first, and humanities later.

To me, the fundamental tools of learning stem (no pun intended) from science, technology, engineering, and math. This updated curriculum should eclipse the archaic view of liberal education still favored by institutions like Harvard and Yale based on a worldview from the 1800s. Critical subject matter should include economics, statistics, mathematics, logic and systems modeling, current (not historical) cultural evolution, psychology, and computer programming. Furthermore, certain humanities disciplines such as literature and history should become optional subjects, in much the same way as physics is today (and, of course, I advocate mandatory physics study).

Finally, English and social studies should be replaced with the scientific process, critical thinking, rhetoric, and analysis of current news—imagine a required course each semester where every student is asked to analyze and debate topics from every issue of a broad publication such as The Economist, Scientific American, orTechnology Review. Such a curriculum would not only provide a platform for understanding in a more relevant context how the physical, political, cultural and technical worlds function, but would also impart instincts for interpreting the world, and prepare students to become active participants in the economy. After all, what is the job of education?

While I don’t fully agree with the “how” of Mr Khosla’s line of thinking, in my own life, I have made choices that have followed a similar path in educating myself as I have written elsewhere.

Studying numerate, “right answer” things followed by studying humanities – Engineering is a good first degree (although I think Physics is better but problem formulation skills acquired in engineering are second to none); but to situate the problem solving in the real world needs an understanding of how resources are allocated and how decisions are made. Studying the “there is no right answer” disciplines helped me become less linear and more able in life in general. It has worked well for my career too (I am now teaching Society & Technology to engineering undergraduates as a choice, and this was a subject I wish we had studied when we were in engineering school).

Four For Friday (36)

Art is seen by many as unrelated to the grind of our quotidian lives. It sometimes is. But at other times, it encapsulates the times we live in, makes snide commentary, catalyses change, ignites conversation. This week’s readings are on Art. Not long essays just contemporary happenings.

When Lego refused the Chinese artist Ai WeiWei’s bulk order late last year, citing it “can not approve the use of Legos for political works”, it caused a storm. Lego has now announced its changed policy and will not ask what users intend to use their products for. instead asking customers to write a public disclaimer if the works are displayed. 

In a statement posted on its website on Tuesday, Lego said it used to ask customers ordering bulk purchases for the “thematic purpose” of their project, as it did not want to “actively support or endorse specific agendas”.

“However, those guidelines could result in misunderstandings or be perceived as inconsistent, and the Lego Group has therefore adjusted the guidelines for sales of Lego bricks in very large quantities,” it said.

As of 1 January the company will instead ask that customers make clear the group does not support or endorse their projects, if exhibited in public.

Public art is woven into the fabric of the urban life in London. From now until the 13th of February 2016, various London art galleries are showing a smorgasbord of art.

CONDO is a huge project that sees our very own Arcadia Missa, Carlos/Ishikawa, Chewday’s, Project Native Informant, Southard Reid, Rodeo, Supplement, and The Sunday Painter provide a series of collaborative exhibitions with galleries from Berlin, New York, Shanghai, Amsterdam, Roma, Glasgow, Sao Paulo, Geneva, and Zurich. Participating artists include Ed Fornieles, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Oscar Murillo, Puppies Puppies, Etel Adnan, A.L. Steiner, Pheobe Collings-James, and many, many more names besides.

This large-scale, ambitious initative turns the programme for London’s hippest galleries into a biennial format, of sorts. Expect an exhibition and you’ll be confronted by a bombastic network of some of the world’s hottest young artists being displayed alongside one another. Where one gallery may turn over their space to an international counterpart, others may divide their gallery into parts, showcasing their own work with their collaborative partner.

This isn’t just a hodgepodge rampage through the works of the art world’s next household names. Rather, it’s a delicately constructed, carefully curated selection of art that isn’t just hot right now – but that is destined to remain hot for a long time to come.

It is predicted that 2016 will see more interest in women artists and non-western art, according to Christie’s, the auctioneer.

From 1 April, London’s Saatchi Gallery is shaking things up, celebrating its 30th anniversary with an exhibition of works by 14 female artists, including Alice Anderson and Soheila Sokhanvari — whose Moje Sabz, a taxidermy horse straddling a ‘jesmonite blob’, is pictured at the top of this page.

Elsewhere, Victoria Miro is presenting works by Chantal Joffe, from 22 January to 24 March while, in America, female Abstract Expressionists including Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler are the stars of Women of Abstract Expressionism, a major show of more than 50 works at the Denver Art Museum that opens in June. From July, Georgia O’Keeffe and her sinister flowers will bloom at Britain’s Tate Modern.

Nigerian art is very much on the radar at the moment — just look at Lagos-based artists Peju Alatise, who works in cloth, or Yusuf Grillo. Galleries such as London’s Jack Bell and October Gallery have taken note, and the success of shows such as Touria El Glaoui’s 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (returning to New York in May, and to London in October), is bringing hot new painters to international attention all the time.

A tribute to womanhood, in the form of photographic portraits by Annie Leibovitz, is currently on show in London.

Can you capture the infinitive varieties of womanhood? That’s what Annie Leibovitz’s new exhibition, “Women: New Portraits”, an extension of a project she began with her late partner Susan Sontag in 1999, attempts to achieve.

“Visualising what women look like, who we are, was a very, very important thing to do,” she explained to Forbes. “Men have been portrayed, we understand in art and photographs very well. We understand how men look, but with women haven’t really developed that. Who are we? With my work, I’m very interested in what women do and who we are.”

The mention of women artists reminded me of something shared by novelist Rabih Alameddine last year. “Wife dabbles in art” is the headline about Frida Kahlo. She has been having a laugh ever since. Publication unknown.

Frida in a headline from another time

Frida in a headline from another time


Investment and Luxury: The Birkin Bag

From fashion magazines to feminist commentariat and regular journalism outfits, many seem to be telling women this January that buying Birkin bags is a better idea that investing in the stock market. A luxury bag selling website’s research comparing S&P 500 performance with that of Birkin bags says the latter stacks up more favourably over a 35 year period.

Birkin Bag in Ostrich (Image copyright: Wikimedia Foundation)

Birkin Bag in Ostrich (Image copyright: Wikimedia Foundation)

Is this good advice?

The short answer is a qualified MayBe. The devil per usual is in the details which these articles are too busy to get into.

The long answer lies in a suggested framework to think about your investment philosophy and goals, your risk propensity, and how they match with Birkin as an “alternative asset class”. All this with the huge qualifier that this is not investment advice.

What is your investment goal? Do you seek growth in capital, or do you seek income? If the latter, Birkin bags are not a great investment for you. Regardless of the legends surrounding them, Birkin bags don’t pay dividend! I make the point with levity if only to ensure the point is understood, but this is the serious first question to ponder.

If you are seeking capital growth, you need to consider carefully the kind of Birkin you buy.

Birkin bags are extensively customised with choice of skins, colour and hardware. This is where deciding what to buy gets tricky. In order to realise that capital growth at some point in time, you (or your heirs) need to be able to sell the bag. Which means there needs to be a buyer for the bag you buy. For a commoner version, such as grey or brown snake skin, there may be many buyers but equally there may not be so much growth in value, more on which later. You will also need to think of the channels through which you can sell the bag for a profit, and unlike stock brokerage accounts, there is no one clear channel for soliciting buyers and completing the sale transaction.

For a less common version, say a white Himalayan Birkin, in platinum or palladium, encrusted in diamonds, you may not have many buyers because it is a serious test of affordability. The channel here, however, may be clearer; antique houses or auction houses could advise you on disposal although they will certainly take their cut, which will come from your capital growth.

When it is argued that Birkin delivers a better investment growth than some stocks, it is important to take into account all the comparators behind that claim. Are you comparing for risk? Are you comparing for the time horizon over which you will hold the stock — and the Birkin? Which other asset classes, other than stocks, are you taking into account (for instance, London residential real estate has been a high growth asset class over the last two decades for sure!)?

Regardless of what a handbag vendor website says, it is difficult to predict which bags will retain value and which may become commoner and more ordinary over time. That uncertainty is no different from stocks. Also Birkin bags will need to remain a scarce resource, their scarcity being the real reason for their “value”, for them to grow in value. That is a pretty big assumption to make for your investment decision. The only consolation being that, unlike stocks, you are at least able to use this “asset class” as arm candy and social signal.

All this is the Birkin equivalent of “fundamental analysis“, if you will.

If you can conduct this analysis rationally — while also keeping in mind that you could always keep your Birkin and pass it on as bequest — then you will arrive at your own conclusion as to whether this is good advice. As antique dealers often point out, such alternative assets often have unpredictable or smaller growth in market value, but they can and do grow in intrinsic value due to the personal stories we imbue them with.

Whichever way we look at it, thirty five years is a long time!

(This is not investment advice. Merely an exhortation to read critically the sensational piece du saison, which is quite likely to mislead less discerning readers.)

Four For Friday — 2016 in predictions

Welcome to 2016!

The curated links today are all about predictions for design, luxury, jewellery, and fashion tech in 2016.

“Simplicity will win.. but don’t oversimplify and sacrifice thrill of discovery” is my favourite from these 10 predictions for design in 2016.

Thanks to the digitization of everything, we now have the most hyperreactive markets in history. However, innovation at this speed comes with an unintended consequence—a never-ending glut of options. From more than a million apps in the Apple Store to your grocery’s milk aisle, every aspect of our lives now requires making a choice. It is becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to make sense of all the noise. In 2016, brands will help people take things off the “thinking list.”

Companies have already enjoyed some success doing so. Aldi built a successful and disruptive business model while offering significantly fewer choices than traditional supermarkets. When Proctor & Gamble cut its Head & Shoulders line from 26 products to 15, the organization saw a 10% increase in sales.

Services that are able to automate low-maintenance decisions will be an especially important step. We’re already starting to see this with Google Now, while Australian startup Pocketbook prompts users of their upcoming payments and bills to avoid missed payments.

“Conscious consumption” and “owning over becoming” are two that caught my eye in luxury and design.

On conscious consumption:

Perhaps all of the above trends could at some level be attributed to the fact that manufacturing has now become so easy, cheap and ubiquitous. There is so much stuff, there’s room now for the weird, the wonderful and the fun. On the other hand, however, there is so much stuff there’s also an urgent need to zoom out and see the bigger picture. Disillusioned with focusing our lifestyles on the attainment of more material goods, more of us are seeking to achieve balance and enhance life with a greater sense of wholeness: making conscious choices, taking greater responsibility for ourselves, our communities and the wider planet. What does that mean for design? Activist brands, more conscious and considered design methodologies, anti-obsolescence and slow design.

On owning over becoming:

The direct result of brands needing to extend their role and remit as entertainers, educators and also enablers. This will take the form of new collectives, still deeper examples of hybridisation and also concepts attuned to borrowing… The premise is ‘owning over becoming’ which the luxury sector will embrace by connecting their audience with increasingly rarefied experiences and access of a highly topical, often intellectual nature.

The predictions for jewellery however seem to be focused on one key theme — personalisation.

Emin, a woman who, like few others, has captured the essence of our age and the idea of expressing your personal history, has put her finger on it. The biggest trend in jewellery today is in fact all about making it your own, be it how you wear it, or indeed sporting a tattoo.

Joanne Ooi, co-founder and creative director of Plukka – the new online fine jewellery e-tailer – came back to me with her predictions for 2016. “Delicate jewellery that is like a second skin and as easy to wear as a tattoo appears to be here to stay, as women, especially younger ones, eschew the look of large cocktail rings and reject the aesthetic of jewellery as an object.”

Fashion tech is an active area of investment, innovation and possibilities. WT Vox predicts many things about fashion tech but this would be an interesting one to watch.

In Q1 of 2016 we will see Jimmy Choo and Moncler investing in tech startups. More important, just like Amazon that is working hard to launch their digital health online store, we will see the appearance of dedicated online stores/sections for fashion technology.

Keep an eye on Asos, and Net-a-Porter. Not a real surprise as both companies are fashion technology ventures at their nuclei.

I enjoy, sometimes, reading predictions for the arbitrary one-year period that starts on January the 1st. I regret though that ex post assessments of such predictions a year down the line are few and far in between. JP Rangaswamy articulates some of my other ishoos with the predictions gig.

Everything is connected. That phenomenon is accelerating. And everything is affected. The effects are far-reaching and themselves seem to be accelerating in speed and intensity.

What should I do about all this? That’s my predicament.

My instinct is to believe that in that connectedness lies the solution. That we’ve spent far too long steeped in the cult of the individual. That we need to understand more about what it means to be connected rather than to try and reverse the process of connection.

The Janusian nature of the predictions linked above contain the essence of creativity — namely, how to balance the connected and tracked nature of our emergent world with our innate need to stand out, be seen, be counted, be individual? This tension is where all that matters and will matter will emerge. That is what I intend to watch over this year.

John Williams Waterhouse (1902) – The Crystal Ball (Image from Wikimedia)

My 2015 in books

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman had my reading interests down pat. This year was bountiful, so much so I have backlog which I carry into 2016. This was also the year I returned — partly — to print books, mainly in order to read more, read faster and retain more. The glare of the screen on the iPad is not conducive to hours of reading, although it is fun to carry several dozen books at once in one’s bag! So some of these books were read on dead tree, others electronically.

Here are the ones that stood out.

The most affecting book I read was Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, And Body In The Healing Of Trauma. Along with his team of researchers, van der Kolk has spent years understanding the nature of trauma and the mark it leaves on people and then how to palliate or reverse the damage. Embedded in the book is also the story of how they made the case, in vain, to have developmental trauma disorder included in the DSM, and how child abuse may be the biggest public health challenge of our times. It is not an easy read but an affecting one.

The most viscerally moving poetry I read came from Warsan Shire in Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth. As a diasporic Indian in England, I find her writing has always struck a chord with me but this year, the year of so many refugees having to leave home forcibly only to arrive at the doors of those erecting walls to keep them out, her writing resonated deeply.

I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I come from is disappearing. I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric was another book of poetry that touched me deeply in a year of unprecedented racial violence and police brutality against black Americans in the USA.

The most recommended and frequently gifted book by me this year was Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity: The True Cost Of Not Having Enough. Whatever your lens – society, policy, economics – this book will challenge your perspective and do so with empathy and evidence.

The most perspective-giving books I read were Elmira Bayrasli’s From The Other Side Of The World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places, and Jonathan Gil Harris’s The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & Other Foreigners Who Became Indian. At first glance, they look not like each other at all. But they are. At their foundation they both are books about unusual things human beings are doing and have always done, and in doing so how they traverse the question of identity. Bayrasli is Turkish-American from Brooklyn, Gil Harris a Newzealander fluent in Hindi, teaching Shakespeare in India, via the UK and the USA. They tackle innovation and identity respectively but they aren’t as disparate themes as may appear to be the case.

The most droll book I read was undoubtedly Bream Gives Me Hiccups: And Other Stories by Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg is known to most as the actor who played a socially challenged young Mark Zuckerberg in the film Social Network. His collection of fictional short stories, are in the voice of a 9 year old boy, whose parents are divorced and who lives with his mother, reminded me of both David Sedaris (as many others note too) and Noah Baumbach.

The best social and cultural commentaries were found in two quite dissimilar books, namely Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast: The lessons we learned from eighties movies (and why we don’t learn them from movies any more), and Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation. Freeman has written a fast-paced analysis of how the 1980s Hollywood tackled tough themes such as abortion rights and class issues, while resolutely writing strong female characters, all of which seems to be on the decline since the 1980s ended.

Related read: Francine Stock in the FT in Why Abortion Is No Longer Out of The Picture traces the history of abortion in cinema, through Alfie, Dirty Dancing, Knocked Up, Cider House Rules and Juno, while nodding to the films Grandma and Obvious Child, released this year:

Lily Tomlin, the 76-year-old lead of the new film Grandma, is attracting seasonal awards-talk like static. It’s a fine performance, drawing on her back catalogue of sharp-tongued, volatile misanthropes, the natural melancholy of her features suddenly illuminated by that huge smile. It also plays on her being a gay woman.

But the film’s real political significance lies not in age or sexuality but reproduction. The engine of Grandma’s plot is the search for funds to terminate her teenage granddaughter’s unplanned pregnancy.

Abortion is still a tricky subject onscreen. Most intimate activity is out there — birth, circumcision, puberty, nudity, masturbation, simulated (and real) sex, young sex, old sex, animal sex, 3D sex, death. Yet the medical or surgical resolution of an unwanted pregnancy (over a million a year in the US, nearly 200,000 a year in England, Wales and Scotland) rarely occurs in films, or at least not to characters close to the central storyline.

Turkle is a long-standing observer of the co-evolution of society and technology, and in this book deals with how we are losing empathy and the art of conversation — eye contact, listening, engaging, responding — with our devices being the centre of our lives.

The most fascinating anthropological commentary I read this year was on clothes and women. Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Sharpton’s Women In Clothes: Why We Wear What We Wear upset many a book critic. It is a series of narratives by women and conversations between women, all talking about clothes, the memories built in them, the symbolism, the shared and sometimes not-shared fears and quirks. It is a good thing reliable book critics are so few and far in between that the vast majority can be dismissed in the pursuit of interesting materials that get published.

I encountered an unusual, innovative format in The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, by JM Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, him an author of fiction and her a psychotherapist. In conversations over email, they explore the nature of truth, fiction, constructed truths, objectivity, the ideal self and many related themes in identity. I read the book through in a flight from London to San Francisco earlier in the year.

The book I re-read this year was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl’s experience of surviving concentration camps in the Holocaust makes for sobering reading, as much as his advice on getting perspective in tough times rings true.

The most relatable book, this year when my siblings and I dealt with a medical emergency with one of our parents, was Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? As the only child of parents, who are holocaust survivors, Chast documents in this alternately funny and poignant book what it is like to watch the slow physical and mental decline of one’s aging parents, to witness our heroes become unreasonable and unpredictable, to accept that our soft-lens dreams of generations living under one roof are just dreams, and to let go before they go.

Finally in my research and professional interest area of decision-making, I read Gerd Gigerenzer’s Risk Savvy and Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving. Gigerenzer’s work in heuristics was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, and in this book, Gigerenzer discusses how we assess risks. It is less dry than I just made it sound! Thaler’s book is quite – perhaps by design – droll and explores the myth of human rationality in decision-making. It is a great read, and at the risk of annoying many fans, much more engaging a read than Daniel Kahneman’s tome last year.

My 2015 backlog — or books-in-process as I call them — being carried over to 2016 includes Niall Fergusin’s Kissinger, Gillian Tett’s The Silo Effect, Anne Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business. I am also half-way through re-reading The Balfour Declaration which will no doubt carry into 2016.

Happy Reading in 2016!

Some of the books 2015